Perfect Sound Forever

Motörhead

by Patrick Lukens
(February 2011)


Chazz: Who'd win in a wrestling match, Lemmy or God?
Chris Moore: Lemmy.
[Rex imitates a game show buzzer]
Chris Moore: ... God?
Rex: Wrong, dickhead, trick question. Lemmy IS God.
-Airheads


Never Say Die

When humans achieve faster than light travel and Vulcans pick up our warp signature, they will initiate contact with our species and ask the question burning deep with their logical minds: What is heavy metal? Earth's ambassador will then hand the Vulcans four albums: Master of Puppets by Metallica; Reign in Blood, by Slayer; Among the Living, by Anthrax; and Rust In Peace, by Megadeth. The Vulcans will now ask why. Why the fast pace? Why the loud volume? Why the attitude? The ambassador then will hand over the entire Motörhead catalog, and the United Federation of Planets will certify Earth as a member.

The last time I went to see Motörhead I saw a grown man cry. I spotted him just as the house lights turned back on, my ears ringing from Motörhead's extended version of "Overkill," and my eyes struggling against the bright light and cigarette smoke. He was thirty or forty years old, stocky, and had that haircut you get when your wife tells you to quit your crappy metal band and get a real job. He stood against the wall with one fist raised high in the air while the other was tightly clenched around a beer. Tears streaming down his face, he nodded over and over again as he repeatedly muttered "yeah." This was a disciple of heavy metal who had finally completed his pilgrimage. He was probably a little drunk and emotional, but nonetheless this man had seen God, or as he is commonly known: Lemmy.

The son of an ex-Royal Air Force chaplain and a librarian, Lemmy--real name Ian Fraser Kilmister--was born on Christmas Eve, 1945 in Stoke-on-Trent, England. After three months, Lemmy's biological father left Lemmy to be raised by his mother and grandmother. Understandably, Lemmy never forgave his father, considering him to "always be an asshole" even in death. Eventually, Lemmy's family moved to Newcastle, and then Madely. When Lemmy was 10, his mother remarried and they moved to a house in Benllech. It was Wales, according to Lemmy, where he picked up his nickname:

I was very bad in school, being the only English kid among about seven hundred Welsh--that was made for fun and profit right? So I've been known as Lemmy since I was around ten."
When he was 14, Lemmy worked at a horse riding school and discovered his "lust and desire for women of all shapes, sizes, ages, colours and creeds." He decided to pick up the guitar, because he saw its capabilities as a "pussy magnet:"
So I dragged the fuckin' thing into class. I couldn't play it, either, but sure enoughI was surrounded by women straight away. It actually worked, instantly! Thatís the only thing that ever worked so immediately in my life. And I never looked back.
Along with the opposite sex, Lemmy was living in a golden age of rock and roll. He was in England during the explosion of artists such as Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, whom Lemmy cites as chief musical inspirations. He even attended an early Beatles show in Liverpool, describing them as one of the most impressive live bands of the era. But above all else Lemmy swore allegiance to Little Richard, saying "He has the best rock & roll [voice] I've ever heard."

It was only a matter of time before Lemmy quit school and left home to dedicate his life to the music he loved. He played guitar in a number of rock bands in England including the Rockin Vicars, who released several records for CBS, and later roadied for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which ultimately inspired the Motörhead narrative "We Are the Roadcrew." Eventually, Lemmy wound up in a group named Hawkwind and began to play bass by default when former bassist Dave Anderson went missing before a gig. Lemmy recalls that he was told to "make some noises in E," and later observes, "It must have gone all right, 'cause I was with them for four years." Hawkwind's acid-fueled barrage of synthesizer space rock materialized on "Silver Machine," the bandís only hit and coincidentally the only song on which Lemmy sang lead. Hawkwind were successful enough to tour the United States, but Lemmy found himself at odds with the rest of the band because of his preference for speed over acid (though he did both). At the Canadian Border, Lemmy was arrested for drug possession and fired from Hawkwind:

I was doing the wrong drugs, see. If I had been caught with acid, those guys would have all rallied around me. I think if I'd been doing heroin, it would have been better for them. That whole hippie subculture was so fucking two-faced, when you get down to it.
Following this departure, Lemmy returned to England and formed Motörhead in 1975, which he envisioned as a combination of the MC5, Little Richard, and Hawkwind. Lemmy named the band after an ode to speed he had written for Hawkwind entitled "Motörhead," which was a slang term for speed freak. The name fits perfectly, as such classic Motörhead albums as Overkill, Ace of Spades, and the live No Sleep Til Hammersmith--which debuted at number one on the U.K. charts--all featured amphetamine-paced, punk flavored rock and roll intended to obliterate the acid-fueled complacency of the flower generation[--the same subculture that had turned its back on Lemmy at the Canadian border.

Over the last 35 years, Motörhead has recorded and toured constantly in spite of numerous lineup changes and label woes. Theyíve released a staggering 19 studio albums, five live recordings, and six compilations. Lemmy has also often collaborated with other artists: "[if] I have some free time, why not?" He's worked with Ozzy Osbourne, penning the lyrics to "I Don't Want to Change the World," "Mamma I'm Coming Home," "Desire," and "Hellraiser," He was no stranger to the punk scene either, giving future Sex Pistol Sid Vicious bass lessons, performing with the Ramones, and touring and recording with the Damned. "The Chase Is Better Than the Catch" and "Jail Bait" notwithstanding, Lemmy is no male chauvinist; in fact, heís one of the few heavy artists with the balls to champion female artists. He wrote music for Lita Ford, recorded a punk metal version of "Stand by Your Man" with Wendy O. Williams, and played bass on a Nina Hagen album. But his most significant contribution to womenís liberation was bringing the all-female Girlschool on the Overkill tour of 1979. Motörhead and Girlschool went on to release the St. Valentines Day Masscre EP, which featured Motörhead covering Girlschool's "Emergency," Girlschool covering Motörhead's "Bomber," and hybrid of the two groups--deemed Girlhead--singing "Please Don't Touch." Lemmy has even appeared in films such as Eat the Rich and Airheads playing characters that parody himself.

Lemmy's other significant life achievement is an impressive collection of Nazi paraphernalia that gives some people the wrong idea. Lemmy insists that this is merely an intellectual interest, stressing that he is an "atheist and an anarchist" as well as "anti-communism, fascism, [or] any extreme." And given the rate at which Motörhead tours and records, it seems unlikely that he'd have the energy for any ideology or extreme except Motörhead no matter how much speed he took. Every album works and reworks the same basic idea of blindingly fast, wrenchingly visceral rock and roll combined with lyrics about girls, drinking, the road, and the rock and roll lifestyle--all themes that Lemmy has experienced fully, personally, and for a very long time.

Every Motörhead album works and reworks the same basic idea of blindingly fast, visceral roots rock and roll paired with lyrics about life on the road, girls, drinking, etc. All themes that Lemmy has truly experienced that stem completely out of his personal history as a touring musician. This is why Motörhead's sound hasn't changed with its changing lineups. All Motörhead records sound like Motörhead, and as internet critic Mark Prindle has put it on his website, "[although] they contain a duff track or two, you'd be a fool not to own every single one." Even Motörhead's latest effort, 2008ís Motorizer, earned a 7.4 on the indie buzzband discovery factory that is pitchfork.com. Granted, there are some caveats. Another Perfect Day isn't as great as Overkill per se, but itís still lifted by solid efforts like "Dancing on Your Grave" or "I and Got Mine." Motörhead became the elemental building block that bands like Metallica and Slayer based their careers on. Mark Binelli explains that "Motörhead remain to metal what the Ramones (who formed one year earlier) were to punk rock--the most primal expression of their respective genres." Of course, other proto-metal bands floated around in that 1960's-70's primordial stew that begat heavy metal who were incredibly influential, but Motörhead was the de-facto choice for loud, fast, and aggressive music. Before Lars Ulrich was the drummer of Metallica, he was the president of the American Motörhead Fan Club. At sixteen he had the opportunity to meet and party with Motörhead. A photograph documenting this historic encounter--Lars covered in vomit--graces the Motörhead album Orgasmatron.

Ace of Spades typifies the Motörhead aesthetic. The title track is 2:47 of Lemmy's vision of pure rock and roll bliss. With his head confidently cocked back into a downward-angled microphone, Lemmy strangles melodies from his smoke-and-whiskey stained vocal cords. He plays bass in a style more akin to guitar, using heavy distortion and playing power chords instead of single note lines. This transforms what is traditionally a backing instrument into a raging woolly mammoth at the forefront of Motörhead's onslaught. Miraculously, the runaway freight train drumming of Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor and the snarling guitar work of "Fast" Eddie Clark manage to find a place in the mix to complement Lemmy's enormous presence. The band play frantically, as if escaping Little Richard's meth factory with the cops hot on their trail, while Lemmy rifles every poker metaphor he knows in rapid succession. Just before the solo Lemmy triumphantly proclaims the Motörhead manifesto: "You know I'm born to lose / and gambling's for fools / But that's the way I like it baby, / I don't wanna live forever."

"Ace of Spades" expresses the spirit of fun and rebellion that are central to Motörhead and to Lemmy's idea of rock and roll:

If you're in a rock 'n' roll band, you're not supposed to be obeying orders and observing the law. Rock 'n' roll is supposed to be fucking outrageous--go for it and see what happens
Motörhead were the only band that could release songs like "Killed by Death," or "Love Me Like a Reptile" without batting an eye because they were so seriously committed to the realm of the not-so-serious. Just as Little Richard and others used rock music to shatter racial barriers and shake up the the serious conservatism of the 1950's, Motörhead sought to shake up the rock music that by the 1970s had turned bland and detached itself from the tangible. Motörhead, after all, was formed as a return to Lemmy's rock and roll roots. In fact, Lemmy doesn't even consider Motörhead a metal band. We were a blues band, really. Although we played it at a thousand miles an hour, it was recognizable as blues Ė at least to us it was; probably it wasn't to anybody else." Whatís truly extraordinary, however, is that Lemmy has never once caved into the pressures of outsiders telling him what to do. He has never doubted his vision, or at the very least has for three decades kept up a facade of confidence that metal music fans find irresistible. In the words of Mark Binelli:
Lemmy chose a path early on, and unlike almost all of us, he has doggedly persevered, refusing to veer from it in any way. Some might see this choice as a form of brave iconoclasm; others, as the sad arrested development of a sixty something alcoholic who more or less lives in a bar Even today, Lemmy still drinks whiskey-and-Cokes, still smokes cigarettes, and still enjoys the company of women. He lives in a modest apartment down the street from L.A.ís legendary Rainbow Bar. On top of all that, Motörhead still put on the greatest show of any band out there today. I've seen Motörhead twice now in the past two years and I was baffled to learn that Lemmy is 64 years old. Motörhead is by far the loudest band I have ever seen, and Lemmy has the stage presence and energy of someone half his age, and shows no signs of taking a sabbatical. It's hard to believe that somebody older than my dad can unleash the relentless assault of "Ace of Spades" time and time again. A Motörhead show is Mecca for metalheads. The spectacle of their performances as well as the unbelievable consistency of their records reflects Lemmy's undying allegiance to this aesthetic. This is the stuff that makes grown men cry at Motörhead concerts, and causes Dave Grohl say things like "Fuck Elvis and Keith Richards, Lemmy's the king of rock 'n' roll. . . . Lemmy's a living, breathing, drinking and snorting fucking legend. No-one else comes close." When asked why he hasn't retired, Lemmy simply replies "Because I couldn't let all our critics be right. [laughs] They don't deserve it. I love what I do, you know what I mean?" I hope Lemmy is still playing concerts when he is a hundred years old, that way he'll still be doing what he loves, and still proving his point.


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