There are two immediately distinctive features that color the myth of Lemmy Kilmister. One is visual. The other is aural. Neither is very attractive.
First, there’s his appearance. The members of Motörhead, the heavy metal trio (and, for a short time, quartet) that Lemmy has fronted for 20 years, have never had any style. Though they do have a look: One part Road Warrior, one part soldier, one part flophouse proprietor, Motörhead is the band that made the Sex Pistols look like preps. No matter how bushy Lemmy allows his handlebar mustache to become, the warts on his face are what attract the eye. For years, Motörhead’s drummer was known as “Philthy Animal,” and band legend has it that whenever Lemmy moves, it doesn’t take long before the neighbors move away and the grass around the house dies.
Second, there’s his voice. To hear Lemmy sing you’d think he was terminally ill. Although it conjures a mythical hell more than a metaphorical one, Lemmy’s file-scraping-stone growl resembles Tom Waits’ in that it sounds as if the act of singing is doing damage to the flesh. Lemmy’s voice, along with the ugly, blunt force of the music, and the band members’ sheer lack of sex appeal, has helped ensure that Motörhead remains a cult phenomenon despite its significant influence on the mainstream, in particular on heavy metal.
While Lemmy prefers the term “hard rock,” his music perpetuates the misogyny and rock-’til-you-drop clichés that are as characteristic of metal as anarchy is of punk. But the band’s position has always been outside popular metal’s domain, representing the genre in its purest form, stripped of all the prevalent contradictions. I’m sure the fact was lost on most of the fans who saw Motörhead open for Ozzy Osbourne on the infamous Blizzard of Oz tour in 1981, but compared to Lemmy, Ozzy sings like a girl.
“Pure” might seem an inappropriate word to describe a band that’s beloved in part for having never really evolved beyond the primordial ooze. But Motörhead, which formed in 1975 after Lemmy either quit or was fired from Hawkwind (the stories vary), has stayed remarkably true to its roots even though its audience has diversified over the years. Lemmy’s a populist at heart, cagey enough to throw bones to the disparate members of his audiencepredominantly speed-freak punks and headbangerswithout totally pandering to them. The first time I saw the band, in the mid-’80s, Lemmy helped quell the quite apparent threat of violence between mohawked moshers and leather-clad metalers by name-dropping the Stooges, MC5, and Deep Purple in a comment about his influences, implicitly, successfully, and I’m sure, deliberately drawing attention to the common ground shared by all.
T he crowd at the 9:30 Club last month isn’t so combustiblethe mosh pit is basically a shoving match between five drunks. But the show feels like a nostalgia trip, regardless of the peculiarly modern tinge of the band’s music, which, even on its latest record, Overnight Sensation, still sounds like the model for ’90s thrash metal that
The few women in attendance do not oblige guitarist Phil Campbell when he introduces “the part of the show where we would like to see some tits.” The pre-concert music playing on the sound system is all circa ’83 or earlier: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, AC/DC (Bon Scott era, natch). A black banner depicting Motörhead’s trademark, a cruel, helmetlike device that looks to be fashioned from the skull of a vampire-goat, hangs high over center stage. Did I mention drummer Mikkey Dee’s gong?
Despite Motörhead’s allegiance to the worn earmarks of a bygone era, the band has managed to achieve among both musicians and critics one of the most elusive commodities for a metal artist: respect. Lemmy’s dogged refusal to portray himself as anything more than a common lout makes him a rare voice of authority in a genre that’s always been about class, or lack thereof, even if it’s rarely addressed in lyrics. On “(We Are) The Road Crew,” from Motörhead’s 1980 release Ace of Spades, Lemmy demonstrates where his sympathies lie by claiming the tired gripes of traveling rockers and applying them to the hired help, whom he celebrates without affectation or irony. Lemmy’s vantage is that of the lowest common denominator. So when he champions the plights of displaced veterans and laborers, as he often does, his concern seems genuine. I’m sure this is what appealed to the guys I saw at the 9:30 gig wearing Skynyrd T-shirts and, for that matter, the writer in the Spin Alternative Record Guide who says Lemmy has “the best lyric-writing skills in rock.”
Motörhead has always sold more T-shirts than recordings, a testament to both the resonance of the band’s image and how off-putting that image can be when translated to sound. But as demonstrated by the recent reissues by Dojo Records of Motörhead’s influential early recordingsmost notably from the prolific ’79-’81 period that produced Overkill, Bomber, Ace of Spades, and the classic live album No Sleep ’til Hammersmiththe music didn’t go unheard.
At a time when mainstream metal was becoming a ridiculous hybrid of ’70s soft-rock and glam, these Motörhead records were as radical as anything punk offered. Exile on Main Street producer Jimmy Miller doesn’t fuss with Overkill or Bomber’s fundamental grit; “Fast” Eddie Clarke’s bludgeoning riffs and Lemmy’s scorched-esophagus rants are proudly vile, and effect nothing less than a thrillingly unmitigated seizure of power. It’s a sound so common now in modern metal that I’m sure fans did double takes when Metallica recently ran through a set of Motörhead covers at Lemmy’s 50th birthday bash. And while sound quality is mostly irrelevant in relation to Motörhead, it’s worth mentioning that the remixes are top notch. The drum assault that opens Overkillnot a solo, mind you, but a statement of aggressionnearly caused one of my stereo speakers to rattle right off the shelf; the volume was set to accommodate a Pavement disc.
Motörhead’s music, like that of the bands it has inspired, conveys an energy that’s generally accepted as the product of male hormones run amokfast, crude, and unwilling to analyze the sexual urges that fuel it. Motörhead doesn’t do much to challenge this notionthe title of the tune “Jailbait” speaks for itself.
But Lemmy isn’t averse to allowing the objects of his desire a chance to get in on the fun. In the past, Lemmy has collaborated with Wendy O. Williams and Lita Ford. And tagged onto the end of the Ace of Spades reissue are the long-lost tracks Motörhead recorded with the all-female band Girlschool. The songsa swift cover of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ hit “Please Don’t Touch” and “Emergency,” an originalare joyous, distorted rockabilly workouts. It’s a style Motörhead uses sparingly, usually when it wants to convey a freedom from the rigid boundaries of a music inspired by feelings of entrapment. It’s also enough to suggest that when Lemmy asks, after Motörhead completes the requisite “Overkill”/”Ace of Spades” encore, if next time we might all bring our “sisters along,” he’s not just hoping to get laid. “Wouldn’t that be more fun?” he asks. CP