Motorhead’s Lemmy: My Life in 15 Snarls
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.
Hawkwind's "Kings of Speed" B-Side (1975) / Motörhead's Motörhead (1977)
I wrote that when I was in Hawkwind. We were in the studio doing the last album that I was on, Warrior on the Edge of Time. We started playing and it caught on and we put it on the B side of "Kings of Speed." The song was about speed and it was an issue to Hawkwind, and that's why I got fired. I never asked them what they thought of Motörhead after that. I didn't care what they thought of it. I don't think of "Motörhead" as a defining song, though. That song's long gone for me now.
“White Line Fever”
That was the first one I wrote for Motörhead. I only did it because we didn't have enough for the album. I was quite impressed with myself. We put it on the B side to "Leaving Here." In those days, you didn't put tracks you wanted on the album on the B side — it had to be special to make people more interested — but we put it on the Motörhead album anyway. It's not about cocaine specifically; it's about boy-girl relationships: a boy jumps in the shit. It's about being wrecked, trashed, fucked up. I've never written music any other way.
Phil [Taylor] came up with the drum riff, the double-time thing, and then we just fell into it with the bass. We've always done a lot of that kind of thing. We played it on Top of the Pops. It was nice to be getting it across to the public, but the thing is, that show was always tacky. I think the audience on the show liked it, but when they're told to boogie, they boogie, so I don't know if it's true they liked it. They've stopped making that show, and I don't miss it much. I know that a lot of metal bands have covered "Overkill," but I don't think a lot about our influence. We're just older [laughs]. It's nice to get a tribute, but it's not the end of the world for me. We're busy writing new stuff.
I'm just saying, "Stay clean and listen to your parents." I wasn't really thinking about anyone in particular when I wrote it. It's not about drugs or alcohol; it's just "stay clean." I was trying to copy Mel Tormé, like "I'm Comin' Home Baby," but the song didn't turn out like that [laughs]. It's been in our set lists ever since I wrote it.
I don't remember much about the period surrounding Overkill. But I do remember that working with Phil and Eddie [Clarke, guitar] was easy back then, and Eddie did a good solo at the end of that one. The producer Jimmy [Miller] recorded him tuning up his guitar, and he said, "I'm ready." I said, "Right, we got it." But he was not mad. Jimmy did a very good job.
I was reading Len Deighton's book Bomber at the time I wrote it. It's about a bombing raid on Germany when the British hit the wrong town, and it's what goes on the floor in the air from both sides. It's a really good book. You should read it. "Bomber" was the first song I wrote about war. We made a big bomber lighting rig for the tour and we've still got it. It's big; it's about 40 feet down, 25 or 30 feet across and it's got lit-up propellers on it. It gets a truck all by itself. We're taking it out on this anniversary tour. Promoters have to pay extra if they want us to bring it.
“Over the Top”
"Bomber" B-side (1979)
It's about going nuts. "Please tell me I'm kind/I'm out of my mind." Just general nuts. What do I know about going nuts? I took acid for eight years. I know about going nuts. We wrote that one in the key of A, which was a little different for us. That song's still in the set. Some songs, you just can't shake; they keep creeping back into your set list.
“Ace of Spades”
Ace of Spades (1980)
It's still very popular. When we do it onstage, everyone loves it. But when we wrote it, we were just doing an album. It's just fucking another song. I thought it was pretty good, but I didn't think it was that good. So I have no special memory of writing it. It's got a "tap-dancing part," you know, Phil [Taylor's] solo. When he called it that, there was a big debate: "Are we going to take it out or leave it in?" And then we left it in. I was surprised when the song took off. It's no better than all the others.
I did a bit of gambling back then, but I don't have any good gambling stories; I have lots of bad ones. I've lost a lot of money. I used to live on the seaside in Wales, and that's all there was: There was a gambling machine in the local caf'. And they had a jukebox at the same time, so I was all set up. I'm not a poker player; I play slot machines. I've been playing them since I was about 18, when you were getting into bars. I don't trust any form of gambling with people involved in it; I like the machines better.
“Stand by Your Man”
Stand by Your Man E.P. (1982)
I didn't write that one, but we did it with Wendy O. Williams. Wendy was a problem child. She was all over the place. It was a bit awkward all around, but we did our best. She was not easy to work with in the studio. We later dedicated "No Class" to her, 'cause she had no class [laughs]. She was very good in bed.
“Marching Off to War”
Another Perfect Day (1983)
After "Bomber," it was one of the first songs I wrote about the Second World War. I wasn't very worried about the Cold War; I was busy being a musician.
This was when Brian [Robertson, formerly of Thin Lizzy] came in on guitar. I remember it took Brian weeks to do a solo. I just wanted to get it over with and get it done. He'd say, "I'm gonna do it again. I'm gonna do it again." This and that, this and that. I liked what he eventually came up with. But he was just a pain in the ass all the time on that album. It was like that all the time, "We're going to do another three guitars, two solos coming in and out." Pretty boring. It's not a tragedy. But when we were done, we'd done really good. Now, I like everything about it.
March ör Die (1992)
When I was writing with Ozzy [for Osbourne's No More Tears album], his manager just sent me a tape and I put it on and it was him going [Ozzy impression] "Aaaeeeaaeeeaah," like that, and then you have to figure out words that will fit. It took 10 minutes, I think. We did "Hellraiser" for a while. The trouble was you slowed it down for me to reach some notes, and then we had it sped up again. So that's why it sounds slow. I don't know if Ozzy liked my version of the song. He never said.
“On Your Feet or on Your Knees”
It's really fast and it's got stops in the rhythm. It's on our first album with our drummer, Mikkey [Dee]. He's all right. He plays faster than me. The lyrics on this song are abstract: "I know what the blind man sees/On your feet or on your knees." You're allowed to do if you're a songwriter. When I'm writing, sometimes I thrash up my own words. I write 'em down and then crack up. I'm pretty good with words.
What do I remember about that album? I remember nobody bought it. It was on this obscure German label who offered us the most money, so we took it. And then we couldn't fucking get arrested. I didn't regret going to that label. I don't regret anything.
Overnight Sensation (1996)
It's an unusual song, with the chords and the rhythm. I like it because it's not something we usually do. And the chorus goes, "Broken, broken, truth must be spoken/Too late to be virgins, too early to be whores." It's a song for anybody.
“In the Black”
I wrote it to get back at my black girlfriend. Ron Jeremy introduced us, and that's cool. We've been on and off for 20 years. We're still trying to keep it going. She doesn't tour with us; I don't allow that. I didn't tell her it was about her when I wrote it. She still doesn't know.
“The Thousand Names of God”
That one just stands out to me because I just like the rhythm. There's no rhythm Mikkey can't play. He's just good. It's nothing I was trying challenge myself with. I can write songs; I've been writing them for 40 years. It's really quite simple with Motörhead. We've done so many records in the last few years. It's gotten easier other the years, ever since we became a three-piece again in '95, but Phil [Campbell and Dee] have been in the band for decades.
“Thunder & Lightning”
Bad Magic (2015)
It's just a bit of rock & roll, really. This album was pretty easy. We got some good riffs at rehearsals. The way the songs come together these days varies a lot. Sometimes I come in with the songs; sometimes they do, and it's just boom, boom, boom. We go in for about a week just to get our riffs together, and then we go into the studio. We were recording for two weeks, which is not bad. I write my lyrics in the studio after we get the rhythm track. Lyric writing is mostly easy now. "Thunder & Lightning" came easy, in, like, 10 minutes.
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