Motorhead's Lemmy: My Life in 15 Snarls

Hard-living hard-rocker looks back on four decades of umlaut-capped classics

By
Lemmy Kilmister
(Michael Putland/Getty)

For 40 years now, Motörhead have been one of rock & roll's most authentic bands. While ringmaster Lemmy Kilmister's peers have settled down, gotten sober and, by and large, bid adieu to their Dionysian vices, the gravelly voiced singer and bassist — who will turn 70 in December — still drinks, gambles and tortures fans' eardrums with dangerously high decibels in concert.

Although he's written an autobiography and been the subject of a documentary, Kilmister's life story is ingrained in his songs. It begins with "Motörhead," a tune he wrote while still playing with space-rock pioneers Hawkwind about his love of doing speed — a proclivity that got him arrested in Canada and booted from the band. Unflappable, he painted his psychedelic-colored bass amp black, formed a group named after that song and carried along his merry way.

On one typically lightning-paced Motörhead rager after another, Kilmister sings about all the things he loves. He drowns himself in sound on the thunderous "Overkill." He loses everything while gambling on the death-rattling "Ace of Spades." He explores his enthusiasm for war on "Bomber," "March ör Die" and about a thousand songs in between. And he extends his reptilian-inspired sex metaphors as far as possible on "Love Me Like a Reptile," "Snake Bite Love" and even "Killed by Death" ("If you squeeze my lizard, I'll put my snake on you").

When he reflects on his own music and poetry in conversation, though, he's beyond blunt. Why would he write "The Chase Is Better Than the Catch"? "But it is, isn't it?" he tells Rolling Stone in his sandpapery speaking voice. And how does he craft abstract lyrics like those in his anti-TV news screed "On Your Feet or on Your Knees"? "I have a good vocabulary," he deadpans. "I'm English, you know."

By his own account, he's most influenced by straight-up rock & roll — he cites Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly," which he has performed solo, as a prime inspiration — but he's also dabbled in rockabilly in a group with Stray Cats drummer Slim Jim Phantom called the Head Cat and punk while playing with the Damned, Ramones and Wendy O. Williams. And Motörhead's influence on hard rock and metal remains undeniable. Kilmister co-wrote "I Don't Want to Change the World" and "Mama, I'm Coming Home" with Ozzy Osbourne, won a Grammy for covering Metallica's "Whiplash" after they paid tribute to him several times (Lars Ulrich once even declared himself president of the band's fan club) and jammed on Dave Grohl's Probot record.

Now Motörhead are putting out Bad Magic, their 22nd album and fifth in a decade, this week, and it's packed with 12 original songs, including "The Devil," which features a guest shot by Queen guitarist Brian May and a reverent cover of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." The group, which has gone through many lineups since its inception but for the past 20-plus years has been rounded out by guitarist Phil Campbell and drummer Mikkey Dee, is also in the midst of a heavy touring cycle, even as the singer has been fitted with a pacemaker in 2013 and suffered a hematoma last year. "I'm all right, you know," he says. "I'm not dying yet." Truly, he is unstoppable.

Prior to the trio's current tour, Kilmister told Rolling Stone about 15 tunes that have defined the band over the decades, exhibiting the sort of dry wit that made the songs classics and Motörhead great in the first place.

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