The classic lineup recall the story of their mighty band
Today, Lemmy is the veteran of half a century in rock’n’roll, whatever damage it has done him borne in a sanguine manner, this not being a person to succumb easily to regrets. “I’m still alive, so I think so far you can say I’m invulnerable,” he says down the line from his apartment, recognisably himself. “I’m doing what I can. We have to slow down because I get tired. But what the fuck do you expect? I’m 69, man.”
Hippy friendliness. Stern intransigence. A strangely courtly use of language (he will occasionally begin a sentence like a lecturer: “Consider…”). He’s got a balancing remark to make even about people he doesn’t particularly like. It’s small wonder that when people think not just of Motörhead, but of heavy rock itself, they think of Lemmy – someone you can say has stamped his character on an entire genre of music. For some, it’s a whole way of living. “It is a lifestyle,” he says, “but I’ve come to not espouse it, really, as a lot of my friends die every year, y’know? [Lemmy has Type 2 diabetes and a pacemaker]. I don’t want to advise anyone to do anything, apart from try and stay alive. That’s my advice – don’t die.”
Phil Campbell, Motörhead’s lead guitarist for the last 30 years has been able to witness at first hand Lemmy’s particular brand of endurance, and how it contributes to the band’s character. “He’s still a mother-fucker,” says Campbell. “But we know each other better. He’s very intelligent, very humorous, very well-read. He’s not a violent man, but he won’t take shit off anyone. When he was pissed off with a promoter, I’ve seen him come off stage and pull a metal door off its hinges. You wouldn’t want to mess with him. He’s good to be around, a good laugh.
“When I joined, he told me one thing,” adds Campbell. “‘Don’t wear shorts on stage.’”
Though the sole original member, Lemmy is himself politely dismissive of the idea that he is the only significant part of Motörhead. “It’s not just me, of course not,” he says, “but I’m the only constant. I had an idea all those years ago that I wanted to do and I’ve been doing it ever since and it’s worked out really well for me. I’ve been really lucky, you know? My ambition was to become the MC5 but we couldn’t get the people, so we became the MC3.”
First hand, he learned the importance of presentation. Hawkwind shafted him personally, but Lemmy is still loyal to the band’s bigger picture. “Hawkwind did stuff no-one else had done,” he remembers. “Consider: we had 18 projectors on gantries, out in the audience, flashing all this shit onto a screen above us. Then we had a synthesiser player who was reading the ‘How To’ manual while he was playing on stage. Everything in the band was going through the synthesiser. Which I suppose you could say was groundbreaking.”
When Motörhead spent money on a stage show, the results could be spectacular (the “Bomber” lighting rig, shaped like a German Heinkel III), but they could also (the self-explanatory ‘Iron Fist’, the ‘Orgasmatrain’, to accompany the Orgasmatron album) go terribly wrong.
“None of it ever fucking worked except the bomber,” says Lemmy. “We had this huge Orgasmatrain thing and after we built it, we realised we couldn’t get it into most of the venues – isn’t that wonderful? The iron fist was even worse – it ended up making a very rude gesture to the crowd. We had to rely on our Motörheadness to get us through.”
The key ingredient of Motörheadness being? “We shall not be moved. We shall not be swayed from our purpose. Am I surprised it’s lasted 40 years? Fucking hell man, I thought we’d be lucky if it lasted five. But it’s funny, time gets away from you. Someone says, it’s thirty-something years and you just say, ‘You’re joking.’ Because you’re just working, doing what you do. It must be much the same for people who get the gold watch. Like, ‘Already?’”
Lemmy has no pretence about rock’n’roll as anything other than rock’n’roll. Still, he approaches his role in Motörhead with evangelical purpose. When curious newcomers come to the band, he knows what they want.
“They want Motörhead. They’re after fierce music, they’re after no compromise,” he says. “In every kid’s life there’s about three or four years when you’re at liberty and after that you have to get a job because you’re getting married or you have to support your parents or whatever it is.
“I was lucky, I didn’t get married so I didn’t have to have that responsibility. Therefore I’m very irresponsible, I love being on stage and I love being in the studio. I’ve been very lucky and I have to translate that into that kid’s life for three or four years, you know? That period when they think they can rule the world, when they think they’re invulnerable. That’s a great thing to give people.”
“Motörhead is a way of life for the fans,” Larry Wallis confirms. “With Lemmy, it’s not so much what he does, as what he is.”
Still, does Lemmy ever feel he might have given too much of himself to the mission, that he’s missed out on a more settled life? “I don’t know, I didn’t notice it, and I’m not complaining,” he says, the slight wheeze in his voice lending added gravity to his aphorism. “Rock’n’roll’s had a good time out of me – and I’ve had a very good time out of rock’n’roll.”
Though philosophically the same, some aspects of Motörhead are gradually changing with the times. Historically, the band’s music has been written in exactly the same way: riffing in the rehearsal room, organisation of the material, then hasty writing of lyrics. “We have our own system,” says Lemmy, “which takes some getting used to.”
This time around, says Phil Campbell, there’s been a preparatory conference call, and an important tweak to the procedure. Rather than more pre-production, this time the band will be shooting for less. Forgoing writing and recording, the band are going straight into the studio to record what they come up with directly, in the white heat of creativity. Lemmy’s strategy for a good Motörhead album, meanwhile, is the same as it ever was. “You’ve got to have three killer tracks going in and going out – they’re the best tracks on the album.” He chuckles: “You’ve got to smack ’em in the mouth and then give yourself time to get away.”
Close observers of the group, like Eddie Clarke, remain cordial with present-day Motörhead – he joined the band to play “Ace Of Spades” at a UK show last year, for example. Still, he laments the band’s move towards a more “graunchy, heavy metal” sound, that contrasts unfavourably with the older material. “At that show they started with six old tunes and it sounded fucking good, the crowd were on board,” says Clarke. “Then they did some of the other stuff and it dipped. We had a bounce and a swing that worked well. All the tunes since sound one-dimensional.
“Motörhead needs a bit of flair,” he continues. “Motörhead is about the chemistry. We spent years making it work. We weren’t appreciated as musicians, but I saw us on Top Of The Pops the other week and it was fucking brilliant. The tunes hold up. I thought I looked like a fucking earwig at the time, but we looked great. We were brilliant but we never knew it.”
Lemmy, meanwhile, like a machine of war, keeps rolling ever onwards, powered by a uniquely rock’n’roll energy. “It’s my fuck youness,” he says. “Ever since they gave us six months to live when we did our first show, I was determined they wouldn’t be right. Every year is a bonus, ’cos I’m still here and they’re all gone. Fuck you, y’know?”
Uncut: the past, present and future of great music.