Lemmy: ‘Apparently I am still indestructible’
The Motörhead frontman has changed his lifestyle – he has switched from whiskey to vodka – in the battle for health. As the band release their 22nd studio album, Bad Magic, he explains how 50 years of hard rocking have taken their toll
Thursday 13 August 2015 15.38 BST
Lemmy is as much a collection of myths and legends as a man. In the popular imagination, he’s made up of equal parts Jack Daniel’s, amphetamine sulphate, Nazi memorabilia and extreme-velocity noise. The myths and legends cloak him as surely as the black shirt, the black jeans, the custom-made boots, the cowboy hat with its “Death or Glory” insignia and the Iron Cross around his neck.
Some of the legends he has tired of – he’s fed up of being asked about being Jimi Hendrix’s roadie, being sacked from Hawkwind – for what, at heart, appeared to be taking the wrong kind of drug (speed, rather than the hallucinogens the rest of the band preferred) – and about the Nazi memorabilia collection (anyone who has seen the documentary about him will know how extensive it is, seemingly taking up most of his apartment in West Hollywood).
Then there are the myths: the story that circulated school playgrounds in the early 1980s – that he had an orgy with all of the Nolan sisters backstage at Top of the Pops; or the one that he can’t stop taking speed because his body would collapse without it (“I won’t talk about drugs,” he says, gruffly, when I ask about it).
And there are the stories from those who have encountered him: the member of the British rock band with an equal enthusiasm for chemicals who spent an afternoon nose-deep in powders with him at the Rainbow Bar & Grill in LA, playing Tetris – “I love it when I’ve been playing for hours … that’s when the swastikas start appearing,” Lemmy is reputed to have said.
The Lemmy who sits before me this afternoon to promote Motörhead’s 22nd official studio album, Bad Magic, seems stripped of myths, though. In 2013, he underwent an operation to implant a cardioverter-defibrillator into his chest, a device that helps prevent an irregular heartbeat turning into no heartbeat. Then, shortly afterwards, hesuffered a hematoma. Earlier this year, Motörhead were forced to cancel shows after he suffered a gastric illness. Four days before we meet, when Motörhead played at Glastonbury, they followed Ace of Spades with Overkill, butLemmy continued to sing Ace of Spades. “It was a mental block,” he says. “I’ve sung those songs so many times. First time I’ve ever sung Ace of Spades to it, though. We did it the night before and it was fucking terrible, and I swore I’d never do it again. But we did. Obviously.”
While the all-black uniform is present and correct this afternoon, Lemmy has lost a lot of weight, and appears pale and drawn. His hands aren’t wholly steady, and he says that these days he has to walk with a stick because “my legs are fucked”. Nevertheless, he insists: “Apparently I am still indestructible.”
He has changed his lifestyle – he’s down to a pack of fags a week, and has swapped from Jack and Coke to vodka and orange, apparently to help with his diabetes, – though his assistant wonders whether swapping from one 40% spirit topped with sugar to another 40% spirit topped with sugar is really going to help. “I like orange juice better,” he says. “So, Coca-Cola can fuck off.” A full bottle of Absolut is put in front of him for the interview, and a full bottle of Jack Daniels is given to me – which seems a bit optimistic, given Lemmy sets an interview limit of 25 minutes, which he will extend by five minutes if he likes the questions (we get up to 33 minutes).
Lemmy’s approach to music – across his 40 years leading Motörhead, and the 10 years before that spent with Hawkwind, Sam Gopal, and the Rockin’ Vickers – has been simple: it traces its roots back to Little Richard and the first wave of rock’n’roll. That’s the music that fired him up with the desire to transcend his life in north Wales. “Rock’n’roll sounded like music from another planet,” he says. “The first time around, we had people like Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry,Jerry Lee Lewis – all them people. And they were gone within two years. Chuck Berry was in jail [for transporting a minor across a state line for immoral purposes]. Jerry Lee’s career had been destroyed by the British press [for marrying his 13-year-old cousin]. Elvis was in the fucking army.” He then ponders the early 60s and offers his summation: “And then we got Bobby Rydell and all them cunts. It took us a couple of years to get rid of them, then the Beatles showed up. That was all right.”
Lemmy is at his most enthusiastic talking about the records and bands that enthused him a long, long time ago. The Birds, Ronnie Wood’s mid-60s freakbeat band, whose arrangement of the Motown standard Leaving Here was a staple of Motörhead sets for many years; or Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, whom he travelled round the country to see. He’s withering about groups who were great and who he believes betrayed their talent. “The Who are fucked. I don’t know why they still bother without John and Keith, you know? They should have broken up in 1978.” Or Free, “who unfortunately became Bad Religion. Was it Bad Religion? No, Bad Company. That was a terrible thing.” One of Bad Company’s singles opened with the line: “Here come the jesters, one, two, three / It’s all part of my fantasy,” and you can imagine Lemmy listening to it and demanding: “Jesters? What kind of fucking fantasy is that?”
Though Motörhead are routinely hailed as the inventors of thrash metal, not least by thrash metal bands, Lemmy has always insisted they are a rock’n’roll group, and there’s more to them than metal – they just happened to become aligned with metal at a point in the late 70s when it was becoming commercially successful, and they were swept along with it. But, for their first few years, they were more a monstrously overdriven version of the 60s bands Lemmy loved, covering John Mayall’s I’m Your Witchdoctor, Johnny Burnette’s Train Kept a Rollin’ and the Velvet Underground’s I’m Waiting for My Man, as well as Louie Louie and Leaving Here. With metal band Girlschool, they had a hit with a version of Johnny Kidd’s old British rock’n’roll hit Please Don’t Touch. Also, they emerged not from the hard-rock world, but from the west London underground squat scene that bequeathed the world Hawkwind, the Deviants and the Pink Fairies (whose Larry Wallis was in the first Motörhead lineup).
“I was half and half going in,” Lemmy says of the split between being part underground and part hard rock, “and then I became this monster. I was really at home with that squat scene, because I didn’t have to pay rent. We was living in squats in Battersea when we started with Motörhead. And we lived with the Hell’s Angels in this flat. They were always around.”
Motörhead were formed – he wanted to establish a British equivalent of MC5 – after Lemmy’s expulsion from Hawkwind in 1975. He’d been arrested in Canada for possession of cocaine, which turned out to be speed, meaning he wouldn’t face a custodial sentence. But the band chucked him out, anyway, after five years during which he’d sung on their only hit single, Silver Machine. He was furious and bitter at the time, but their decision was what enabled him to become the Lemmy the world knows and loves. He still took his revenge, though: “I came home from America and fucked all their old ladies. Except for [Hawkwind frontman Dave] Brock’s. I couldn’t get his. I had a good time with all them chicks – they were really eager.”
The “chicks” have been one of the great boons of being a rock star. “You get all these birds fastening themselves upon you. And you get a lot of drinks and a lot of presents. So, it’s pretty good. You get everything for free – I’ve got money now and I never have to spend it.” And, for Lemmy, it has never been all about the music, but it has never been all about the rest of it, either. “I didn’t really want to be in the lifestyle without the music. And I didn’t want to be in the music without the lifestyle,” he says.
Rock’n’roll’s changed now, he says. It’s not as much fun as it was in the days when everything seemed a bit homemade and bands would come out of nowhere for 15 minutes of infamy. The days when he would spend his evening hopping between Dingwalls and the Music Machine in Camden Town, watching bands, catching up with friends – and drinking, taking speed and playing the fruit machines – were glorious times. Nowadays, in LA, he has even cut down on his visits to the Rainbow – he goes twice a week, and he doesn’t miss it when he’s not there.
And, through it all, Motörhead rumble on, a reminder of rock’n’roll’s primal scream, of the noise that a guitar, a bass and a drum kit can make when all their owners want to do is holler “Awop-bopaloobop-alopbamboom”. Death, he says, is the only thing that can stop them. “As long as I can walk the few yards from the back to the front of the stage without a stick,” he says, then laughs wheezily. “Or even if I do have to use a stick.”