Home Music Music Lists

Motorhead’s Lemmy: 20 Essential Songs

From Hawkwind to Probot, via several decades’ worth of Motörhead madness, here’s the late metal icon at his gruff best

Lemmy; Motorhead; Best Songs

Gary Wolstenholme/Getty

Grizzly, dangerous, raw — Lemmy Kilmister's songs, both in and out of Motörhead, embodied the spirit of rock & roll perfectly. From the breakneck, born-to-lose anthem "Ace of Spades" and rumbling paean to loud living "Overkill" to bristly headbangers like "Hellraiser" and his Probot contribution "Shake Your Blood," he wrote the soundtrack to his life. His influence stretched from hard rock to punk to heavy metal. And though Lemmy died at age 70 of an aggressive form of cancer, as was reported on Monday, he left behind several lifetimes' worth of some of the most iconic rock songs ever snarled. Here are 20 of the best.

Play video

Michael Uhll/Getty

‘Killed by Death’ (1984)

Only Lemmy and Motörhead could come up with a title so inane, it's brilliant. One of four new songs tacked on to the must-own 1984 compilation No Remorse, "Killed by Death" is Lemmy staring down the Reaper — albeit with a smirk. At one point, he threatens to put his "snake on you," before pledging that he "ain't no pretty boy." (And truer words were never spoke.) The song, at over four minutes, an epic by Motörhead's standards, is cocksure swaggering in every sense. And it stands as a prime example of what Lemmy did so well: keep the "hard" in "hard rock."

Play video

Tony Mottram/Getty

‘Orgasmatron’ (1986)

The mid-Eighties were a strange time for Motörhead — they were just a few years out from "Ace of Spades" and the U.K. chart-topper No Sleep 'til Hammersmith, and yet the band's stock had sunk so low by 1986 that they had to set up their own imprint, GWR, just to get this record out. Furthermore, they chose to bring in Bill Laswell, known more for his work in funk, jazz, ambient and myriad other non-metal musical styles, to produce it. The result was, for the most part, a muddy, murky mess. But in the case of "Orgasmatron," that muddiness and murkiness only served to fortify the song's impenetrable, steamroller-esque bass-and-drum attack. Add in a loping, one-note guitar riff and Lemmy's croaking vocal, and you get Motörhead at their most leaden and bizarre. As for the title? Wrote Lemmy in White Line Fever: "I didn't even know at the time that an 'Orgasmatron' was a contraption in some Woody Allen film. I made up the word on my own."

Play video

Lemmy Kilmister performs on stage with Motorhead, Portsmouth, United Kingdom, 1991. (Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

Martyn Goodacre/Getty

‘1916’ (1991)

While tender ballads were never exactly Motörhead's stock in trade, the elegiac title track of their 1991 album still stands as one of the band's finest works. An ardent student of military history, Lemmy based the lyrics of "1916" on the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest confrontations of World War I, in which over a million men were killed or wounded — many of whom, like the song's narrator and protagonist, were still in their teens. Lemmy often proclaimed that he was quite proud of this track, and with good reason; his uncharacteristically vulnerable vocal, set against a sparse orchestral backing, lays out the war's shattering loss of innocence with a brutal frankness. "The day not half over/And 10,000 slain/And now there's nobody remembers our names/And that's how it is for a soldier."

Play video

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of LEMMY and MOTORHEAD; Lemmy (right) (Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns)

Mick Hutson/Getty

‘R.A.M.O.N.E.S.’ (1991)

Both excelling in loud, short bursts of raw power onstage, the Ramones and Motörhead were kindred spirits, and Lemmy paid tribute to the Queens punks on this shout-along from the 1916 album. "New York City, N.Y.C./Pretty mean when it wants to be," Lemmy barks in the first line, establishing a cadence that sounds straight off Rocket to Russia. The Ramones heard the similarity too — they'd later cover their own tribute song on tour. Which is especially meta considering that Lemmy namechecks every member in the lyrics, from Dee Dee to C.J., ending appropriately with a nod to his pal Joey calling him on the phone. Best of all, "R.A.M.O.N.E.S." was the ultimate middle finger to those who figured Lemmy an illiterate dunce — he sure as shit knew how to spell.

Play video

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of LEMMY and MOTORHEAD; Lemmy sat at the bar in a hotel (Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns)

Mick Hutson/Getty

‘No Voices in the Sky’ (1991)

Lemmy got political with this standout from the stellar 1916. He lambasted the rich and greedy, skewered cowardly politicians and, most cuttingly, eviscerated T.V. preachers and the money-for-salvation gospel they peddled. In the end, there were "no voices in the sky" coming to save you, as he snarled in the chorus, only the sad reality that we can't take anything with us when we die. While other Motörhead songs were better-known, "No Voices" and its video would land the ultimate tribute: being critiqued by Beavis and Butt-Head on MTV. "He looks like that dude down the street who's always working on his car," Butt-Head says of Lemmy. "That guy's cool." And it's impossible to disagree.

Play video

(GERMANY OUT) Motoerhead, Hardrock Band, GB: Saenger und Bassist Ian Lemmy Kilmister - Auftritt in der Columbiahalle, Berlin (Photo by Engelke/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

ullstein bild/Getty

‘Hellraiser’ (1992)

In the early Nineties, Ozzy Osbourne turned to his old buddy Kilmister — who'd brought Motörhead out on the Ozzman's first solo tour — for a little help writing tunes on what would become his quadruple-platinum No More Tears LP. In addition to the Grammy-winning "I Don't Want to Change the World," Kilmister helped write "Hellraiser," a thumping declaration of rock & roll fury that took the singer all of 10 minutes to pen. In Ozzy's hands, it's a soaring anthem (and an album highlight) but for Motörhead, who stuck it on their 1992 record March ör Die and in a Pinhead movie, it was a gritty, gremlin-like bar-rocker (in other words, the perfect Motörhead song). "I don't know if Ozzy liked my version of the song," Kilmister told Rolling Stone this year. "He never said."

Play video

‘Born to Raise Hell’ (1993)

"Who would win in a wrestling match, Lemmy or God?" Most non-heshers' base knowledge of Motörhead stems from this moment in 1994's Airheads, a movie in which Lemmy himself stars as a former editor of his school newspaper. But all direct references aside, the reckless attitude behind Airheads and its power-slop trio the Lone Rangers is just an expression of all things Motörhead. "Born to Raise Hell," which soundtracks the film's opening credits, reminds us that even after hair metal died while Axl Rose played with dolphins and grunge lurched forward like an angsty Frankenstein, Lemmy ruled. A herald of the laid-back biker metal of the band's latter years, "Born to Raise Hell" is a Motörhead classic lacking any pretense. Its message is simple: We're bad kids who get up to no good, and we have a shit-ton of fun while doing so.

Play video

Lemmy March 01, 2003

Lex van Rossen/MAI/Getty

‘Shake Your Blood’ (2004)

Dave Grohl realized the ultimate metalhead's dream with Probot, the 2004 album on which he teamed with some of his favorite practitioners of the genre for a series of no-nonsense ragers that doubled as tributes to those artists' unmistakable sonic signatures. With "Shake Your Blood," Grohl essentially distilled 30 years of Motörhead goodness into three and a half glorious minutes, inviting Lemmy to do the same. The frontman was happy to comply, injecting this uptempo ode to the rock & roll lifestyle with his patented sneering, leering attitude ("Looking for relief in your miserable life/You need some rock & roll, and you better get it right"). Like many of Lemmy's finest songs, the track leaves you wondering how a singer with such limited range could pull off such a hooky, melodically compelling performance — one of many trade secrets he took with him to the grave.

Play video

‘Bad Boy’ (2011)

Lemmy may have bared his teeth with Motörhead, but he bared his heart and soul with his rockabilly side project the Head Cat. Teaming with the Stray Cats' Slim Jim Phantom and the Rockats' Danny B. Harvey for a pair of albums, Lemmy indulged his love of Fifties rock, rockabilly and country. Working mainly in covers, with some choice originals thrown in on 2011's Walk the Walk … Talk the Talk, the Head Cat honored influences like Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and, in this cover of Larry Williams' "Bad Boy," the Beatles. There's real joy in Lemmy delivery here, as he reaches for high notes that are just out of reach and bops along to the beat. Lemmy was a bad boy, sure, but with this performance, he was just happy being a child of rock & roll.

Show Comments