Lemmy: 10 of the bestIn tribute to Motörhead’s leader, here is his musical life, told through 10 songs
Wednesday 22 April 2015 10.27 BST
First things first: no one is claiming this is one of the 10 best songs ever recorded by Lemmy. The only thing that’s certain about this pick is that each song could be replaced by a dozen others. So why’s It’s Alright here? Because Lemmy wasn’t just about Motörhead. Or even just Motörhead and Hawkwind. Lemmy was a product of the the 1950s and the 60s, of rock’n’roll and the British beat boom. Starting a top 10 with the release of the first Motörhead album just wouldn’t be truthful, because he’d been making music for 15 years or so before then. Lemmy’s first recordings were made with the Rockin’ Vickers (originally billed as Rev Black and the Rockin’ Vickers), who were Blackpool’s premier mid-60s exponents of playing R&B while dressed as vicars. (It was, admittedly, a small field.) No one would know who they were now if it not for the fact that Lemmy, then still called Ian Willis, was their lead guitarist, largely because their slim recorded legacy isn’t really up to that much. The standout is this version of a Pete Townshend song – which either prefigured or was adapted from the Who’s The Kids Are Alright – where we get the first glimpses of Lemmy’s unhinged approach to making his instrument a conduit of noise: the scrunches of guitar at the beginning are reminiscent of the Creation, while Lemmy’s solo sounds as if 999 monkeys had been handed guitars and locked in a room until one of them came up with something approaching free jazz.
After the Rockin’ Vickers, Lemmy relocated to London, served as a roadie for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, fronted the psych-prog band Sam Gopal, then in 1972 joined Hawkwind as bassist and occasional vocalist. Within months he was fronting their No 3 single Silver Machine, the one Hawkwind song everybody knows. That it’s his voice on it is a matter of chance: the song was recorded live, but the vocal by its writer, Robert Calvert, was considered unusable and a replacement was overdubbed. Enter Lemmy. He said Calvert’s track was “fucking hopeless, but he never realised it. That’s how mad he was. It sounded like Captain Kirk reading Blowing in the Wind. They tried everybody singing it except me. Then, as a last shot, Douglas [Smith, the producer] said, ‘Try Lemmy.’ And I did it in one take or two.” For all that Hawkwind were a space-rock band (though Silver Machine was about a bicycle), Lemmy fit right in: their incessant, droning thrust was a direct descendant of his beloved rock’n’roll, but with added drug-addled nastiness. Hawkwind might have wanted to be space cowboys, but they sounded more like evil bikers, which is exactly what Lemmy wanted to be.
The brutality of Hawkwind in full flight is best captured on their live albums. Space Ritual is the one that always gets cited, but for the sake of variation we’ll opt instead for this 1974 recording, released on the album The 1999 Party – Live at the Chicago Auditorium. The song has become inescapable in recent years after featuring in a Ford advert, but this hasn’t dulled its impact. That riff, repeating on and on, while synths squiggle, positions the band as the malevolent cousins to Neu! or Harmonia. This is the Hawkwind that remains a touchstone, makers of a psychedelia that reflected not hippy idealism, but paranoia and confusion – and if it’s not a Lemmy song, have no doubt that without his fearsome bottom end it wouldn’t have half the attack it does.
Lemmy occasionally wrote for Hawkwind, and some of those songs, like this one and Lost Johnny, cropped up on Motörhead’s early recordings. This was the most notable of his Hawkwind songs, and his last for the group, before being thrown out following his arrest for possession of drugs by the Canadian authorities in 1975. The Canadians thought he was carrying cocaine; it turned out to be speed, for which he could not at the time be charged under Canadian law. And how apt:Motorhead is his defining anthem – and there have been others – in praise of amphetamines: “Fourth day, five day marathon / We’re moving like a parallelogram.” Motörhead’s version would be faster, wilder, louder, of course, but there’s a mathematical perfection to this one, with Lemmy’s circular bassline marching it along unyielding rails.
Motörhead’s early years were nothing if not a struggle. First they had to change their name from Bastard. Then they recorded an album for United Artists, only for the label to deem it unreleasable (until they became successful, at which point it was rushed out as On Parole). They were set to split, and planned to record a live album at their farewell show, only for Ted Carroll of Chiswick Records to fail to turn up with the recording equipment. In compensation, Carroll offered them a couple of days’ recording time, in which time they completed their debut album – complete with the famous emblem on the sleeve – and found themselves in some semblance of demand. Motörhead became known as the band both punks and metalheads could unite behind, with their punishing adherence to speed, both musically and pharmaceutically. Overkill, the title track of their second album, should be regarded as one of the most important tracks in metal history, and arguably rock history – alongside Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath – as a song that prefigured and invented a style. Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor’s double-kick drum pattern, so unusual at the time that it’s brought to the fore repeatedly throughout the track, was the single musical element most important in the evolution of thrash metal – it’s what allowed thrash to adopt its heart-attack pace. Almost 40 years on, Overkill still sounds like being punched viciously and repeatedly. In a good way, of course.
It could have been Dead Men Tell No Tales or Stone Dead Forever, but it seems perverse somehow to ignore the brilliant title track of the third Motörhead album. “Fast” Eddie Clarke was the perfect complement to Taylor’s drumming and Lemmy’s rumble; his guitar playing was clearly rooted in rock’n’roll, even as Motörhead took the music to places Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis had never dreamed of. That central guitar part on Bomber – much as I’d like to, I can’t think of any other way to describe it than a “lick” – is flawless in every way: take away everything from the song bar that, repeat ad infinitum, and you’d have a pretty much perfect Hawkwind song, albeit faster than usual. But what Lemmy could also do was write an indelible chorus: “Because we shoot to kill / And you know we always will / It’s a bomber.”
This is where the Rockin’ Vickers become relevant. A big part of the Motörhead’s early repertoire was the work of Lemmy’s early heroes – John Mayall’s I’m Your Witchdoctor and Johnny Burnette’s Train Kept a Rollin’featured in sets; their first hit was a cover of Louie Louie; the band’s joint single with Girlschool was led by a cover of Johnny Kidd’s Please Don’t Touch – and Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Motown standard Leaving Here was a highlight of the brilliant The Golden Years live EP, a No 8 hit in 1980. Motörhead’s arrangement was a straight lift from that employed in the mid-60s by the Birds, the London freakbeat band that featured a young Ronnie Wood. It’s an untouchably good song, in virtually all its versions, and while Lemmy did’t bring quite the sweetness of voice of, say, the Isley Brothers, it’s still an utterly compelling performance.
We couldn’t really leave out Ace of Spades, the song that seems to define Lemmy’s personal credo, as well as having one of the best intros ever, as well as having one of the best guitar riffs ever, as well having the best bridge ever: “You know I’m born to lose / And gambling’s for fools / But that’s the way I like it, baby / I don’t want to live forever / And don’t forget the joker.” It’s only a slight disappointment to realise that gambling for Lemmy means endless goes on the fruit machines rather than all-night, high-stakes poker games. If you wouldn’t exactly call Motörhead subtle, there’s more to them than just velocity and noise; witness Phil Taylor’s jazzy rim shots off the back of the second chorus. By this time, Motörhead were a very big deal indeed. The group that couldn’t get their first album released were now regulars on Top of the Pops, selling out big tours, and their next album, the live set No Sleep ’til Hammersmith gave them their first No 1 album. But that was the highpoint for a while. Their next album, Iron Fist in 1982, was flawed, and was their last with Eddie Clarke. His replacement, the former Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson, was temperamentally and musically unsuited to the band. The one album they made with him, Another Perfect Day, despite having its moments, just doesn’t sound like a Motörhead record. With successive albums delivering a few highlights and a load of songs that were nothing much to write home about, it seemed Motörhead existed mainly as a name for Lemmy and cohorts to tour under, rather than a group with something vital to offer.
The title track of Motörhead’s 1991 album, one for which the dread phrase “return to form” may justifiably be used, was that most unexpected of things: a ballad, with no guitars, lots of keyboards and a string section, in which Lemmy – a keen collector of Nazi memorabilia, an uncomfortable habit that he wasn’t remotely apologetic for – bemoans the futility of war. You might be tempted to exhume the old Johnson quote: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” But that would be unfair: 1916 is a genuinely terrific song, which wouldn’t disgrace Eric Bogle, that great musical chronicler of the first world war: “I heard my friend cry / And he sank to his knees, coughing blood / As he screamed for his mother / And I fell by his side / And that’s how we died / Clinging like kids to each other,” Lemmy sings, in a voice taken down a peg or two from the usual hoarse screech.
Lemmy’s 1990s renaissance continued with a series of albums – Bastards, Sacrifice and Overnight Sensation – that suggested a band renewed. The title track of the latter opens like Hawkwind’s original of Motorhead, and drives on remorselessly. By this time, after a mere 20 years, the group had learned how to employ dynamics, and Overight Sensation keeps modifying its textures: acoustic guitars come in and disappear, Lemmy harmonises with himself, all adornments to a basic, uncomplicated riff. And Lemmy sounds engaged, bemoaning the state of rock’n’roll and adapting Bob Dylan’s lyrical maxim to his own ends: “To live outside the law, my dear/ You gotta give a damn.”