Motorhead's Lemmy: My Life in 15 Snarls - Rolling Stone
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Motorhead’s Lemmy: My Life in 15 Snarls

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

Lemmy Kilmister

Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, portrait, 1982. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

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.

Motorhead's "Hellraiser"

Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, portrait, 1982. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)


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.

Motorhead's "On Your Feet or On Your Knees"

Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, portrait, 1982. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

“On Your Feet or on Your Knees”

Bastards (1993)

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.

Motorhead's "Broken"

Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, portrait, 1982. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)


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.

Motorhead's "In the Black"

Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, portrait, 1982. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

“In the Black”

Inferno (2004)

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.

Motorhead's "The Thousand Names of God"

Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, portrait, 1982. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

“The Thousand Names of God”

Motörizer (2008)

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.

Motorhead's "Thunder & Lightning"

Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, portrait, 1982. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

“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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