To say that the Motörhead frontman marches to a different tune is an understatement. Michael Odell hears from the music legend about his new rockumentary and 35 years in the fast lane.
Motörhead's Lemmy: off his rocker
A dismal winter's night on a north London industrial estate. Vans come and go unloading into strip-lit parking bays. Hunched against the rain, young men in fluorescent vests shift crates and boxes. Everyone stops when a thunderous noise is heard from within one of the units. And then a few minutes later, it just as suddenly fades away.
A tall figure emerges from the building. It is, against every possible expectation, a cowboy. Lemmy Kilmister, the lead singer with the sublime British rock band Motörhead, has popped outside for a cigarette dressed in tight black jeans, mint cowboy boots and a large black Stetson. Just in case there is any confusion as to the role he plays in the band, the hat bears the insignia "Chief".
The 65-year-old rock star has been ensconced in John Henry's rehearsal studios with his band preparing for a UK tour that starts in Aberdeen in two days. Things are not going well. In fact they are so fraught that when I step forward and say: "Hello, Lemmy, I think we are due to do an interview about now", he simply walks back into the building and says to one of his grizzled-looking roadies: "Get the cat a chair".
I am the designated "cat". Lemmy wants to forget about our interview for now and resume rehearsals. He wants me to listen. And so I sit and my eyes swirl in their sockets and the fat on my cheeks ripples as the band reduce rock 'n' roll down to its primal ingredients and then smash all the pieces together at high speed, like particle collision in the Large Hadron Collider. This is what Motörhead are famous for. "Everything louder than everything else" has been their motto for years.
The new tracks I Know How to Die and Devils in My Head are blasted out by the guitarist Phil Taylor and the drummer Mikkey Dee. Lemmy unaccountably reads The Daily Telegraph and nibbles a cheese and tomato sandwich and sips his drink while his bandmates play. Then when instinct tells him that a chorus is about to begin he steps forward to the mic at just the right moment and starts growling in the inimitable Lemmy way.
"I'm not the greatest singer in the world, I know that," he tells me later. "But I know how to get my point across."
Since Motörhead formed in 1975 their music has not changed much. But in an age of X Factor polish and mimsy lightweight pop, Motörhead have lately assumed a new cachet. They won a Grammy for a cover of the Metallica song Whiplash in 2005. They have been championed by the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, who put them on the bill at the band's massive Hyde Park shows in London in 2006. A drinks company recently launched an advertising campaign featuring Lemmy as a totem of uncompromised manliness.
And then there is Lemmy, a feature-length rockumentary of the singer's life that has been winning favourable reviews. The film shows Lemmy living in a modest rent-controlled apartment above the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, where he spends his days eating bad food and admiring his collection of Nazi memorabilia and human skulls.
Of an evening Lemmy makes his way downstairs to the bar to drink Jack Daniel's and play the trivia machine, on which he is the top scorer. Interspersed with this are testimonials from his admirers.
Slash and Matt Sorum from Guns N' Roses say nice things. Alice Cooper, too. But it's the former Nirvana drummer and the Foo Fighters front man Grohl who personifies the belief that Lemmy by not selling too many records, never changing the band's sound and drinking and dressing like a cowboy at the age of 65 has triumphed over everyone else.
"[Expletive] Keith Richards," he says, "and all those other rock 'n' roll gunslingers who survived the Sixties and who are now staying in the best hotels in Paris cavorting with supermodels.
"You know what Lemmy's doing?" he continues. "Lemmy is probably still out there drinking Jack-and-Cokes and writing another record."
Today after the rehearsal has finished (interrupting Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, who are themselves rehearsing for a comeback, albeit with more dainty melodies, in a studio next door) he seems vaguely baffled that his life should merit a film.
"I drink, I meet women and I collect Nazi mementoes. And a few skulls. If that's worthy of a film then so be it. For me it just adds to the band, which is the reason behind everything. I'd like more recognition for my boys. They deserve it. Everyone else can go to hell."
And yet the fact that Lemmy himself has survived so long does now seem a genuine cause for cultural celebration. Lemmy's record company goes further, claiming it is due to "some of the most tense times in recent global history" that they have chosen to release "a hell-raising rebel-rousing rock 'n' roll opus" known as The World Is Yours.
On one of the album's new tracks, Lemmy makes the claim that "rock 'n' roll music is the true religion" and that "rock 'n' roll even gonna set you free, make the lame walk and the blind see".
It is noticeable that he doesn't make any promises for the deaf, but even so it is striking just how unshaking his belief in his band remains.
"It is my religion." he insists. "It has given me everything in my life. Everything."
Oddly enough, the young Ian Kilmister began with a love of pop music. As a teenager he travelled to Liverpool and saw the Beatles perform at the Cavern Club. Though the surviving Beatles might be bemused at this legacy, Lemmy is adamant that the Fab Four showed him the way his life would go.
"They were an extraordinary band and they were extraordinary times. Music meant so much more to people back then. It was still very tough and post-war in this country [the UK]. Young people were being liberated for the first time. We didn't have the internet and DVDs and iPods and 3D movie houses but what we did have was The Beatles, the Stones, The Hollies, The Who, the Small Faces - it goes on. You wouldn't believe how exciting that was to a generation of kids who had never had their own culture before."
His apprenticeship could not have been served in better company. After his first two bands, the Motown Sect and the Rocking Vicars, collapsed he befriended Ron Wood (then of The Birds and now of the Rolling Stones) and after following The Birds around the UK on tour he met Noel Redding, Jimi Hendrix's bass player. Within weeks he was taken on as a "fetcher and lifter" for a year-long UK tour with The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
"A religious experience," he says. "You knew that you'd never see the like of Hendrix again even then. No ego. Not a lot of confidence in some ways. But an awesome talent."
In 1971 he attended a concert by the space-rock pioneers Hawkwind in west London and the bass player didn't turn up. Lemmy picked up his instrument and joined the band.
"I joined Hawkwind and started playing the bass all on the same day," Lemmy says. "Just like that. You couldn't really do that today, could you?"
But in 1975 he fell out with fellow members after being arrested for drug possession on tour in Canada, taking his vision of a super-macho rock 'n' roll band with him.
His first act on leaving was to break into the band's storeroom and retrieve his equipment. He then began recruiting personnel for a new band he hoped to call Bastard.
The plan was to create a sound that combined the MC5, Little Richard and Hawkwind. But his manager told him that calling a band Bastard would constrain their scope for television and promotional appearances. Lemmy, who had written a song called Motörhead for Hawkwind, took that name instead. He told the UK music newspaper Sounds: “It’ll be the dirtiest rock ’n’ roll band in the world. If we moved in next door your lawn would die!”
Often credited with inventing heavy metal, Motörhead were initially championed by punk rockers and “greasers” or “long hairs” alike. Lemmy is proud of this, and gets angry when you try to define his band as “metal”.
“I’ve always said it because it’s true: there is only rock ’n’ roll. I don’t want to be known as a metal band or the man who gave birth to metal. I want to be known as the man who played the ultimate rock ’n’ roll. I don’t really get all these subdivisions and I don’t see myself as part of a tribe. That’s just bull. There are only two tribes as far as I am concerned. Them. And us.”
It took Motörhead five years to really establish themselves, and the 1980 breakthrough Ace of Spades remains their best known single. Their live album No Sleep Til Hammersmith, with the face-melting anthem We Are the Road Crew, remains one of the greatest live recordings in rock ever. And even when their sheer intensity made them hard to love for the long term, they were always a band who exerted huge influence. The president of the US Motörhead fan club was one Lars Ulrich, later the drummer with the metal giants Metallica.
These days, though, Lemmy sounds careworn. On the new track Get Back in Line he doesn’t sound so much like a stroppy rock ’n’ roll firebrand but like a grumpy old man. The band might sound fast and furious but Lemmy sounds a note of disdain for the modern world.
“Well the world is a worse place than it was in the 1960s and 1970s,” he says. “We’ve got more things but we are not as happy. I’m just not buying what they’re selling. I can’t think of anything that the internet has brought us. Sure you can have a fake relationship on the internet but I prefer to meet people face to face. I know the Seventies might not be the most popular decade for some but I’d rather be there than here.”
His health must be a concern. In his autobiography, White Line Fever, he recounts a trip to the doctor, who tells him that he cannot donate his blood because it would kill people. It is not “human blood”, the doctor said. Today he has an obvious quiver to his hands and the gravelly chest of a man’s whose pipes need cleaning.
“I drink too much. Why the [expletive] shouldn’t I?” he says. “It comes with the territory. I’ve seen a doctor and they’ve told me that I should stop but what I do is drink milk. I drink milk and that is my insurance against dreaded disintegration of the stomach. I’ve been on the road for the best part of 35 years. It‘s too late to live a healthy lifestyle. Every day I get up and the scenery is different. I need something that I can rely on. And that something is whisky. ”
Motörhead, he says, is the band for people who don’t want to be ground down by society and who don’t want to fit in. Even so, he is enough of a realist to know that Motörhead is also about the Stoke boy who got very lucky.
“Hendrix was a proper genius and you’ll never see the likes of him again,” Lemmy says. “Never. But I never believe the hype about who I am because I know it can kill you. I know I am not a good bass player. I am an even worse guitar player. And I can’t sing. That’s just a fact. I got lucky. I hung around a very long time and I was an overnight success after 25 years of trying. I don’t kid myself. I know how it goes. But I’m not going to give myself a hard time for not being the most technically proficient. [Expletive] that. I know that I am saying things to people through my music that no one else is saying.”
Lemmy opened across Europe in December. It does not have a release date in the UAE but will be available on DVD.
The Lemmy file
BORN December 24, 1945, Bruslem, Stroke-on-Trent, England
BIRTH NAME Ian Fraser Kilmister
WHY THE NICKNAME? He says he doesn’t remember. One story is that it came from the phrase “Lemmy a quid till Friday” because of his habit of borrowing money to play the slot machines.
SCHOOLING Ysgol Syr Thomas Jones School, Amlwch. Wales
FAMILY Never married; two sons
HEROES Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon
LAST BOOK READ Henry the VIII by GWO Woodward
CAN’T STAND Communism, fascism or any political extreme. He says that “government causes more problems than it solves”.
His own man
The Motörhead singer and bass guitarist Lemmy:
• Is known for his mutton chops, a combination of wild sideburns and handlebar moustache.
• Plays the bass idiosyncratically, using double stops and chords rather than single note lines.
• Is the hardest character to unlock in the wildly popular video game Guitar Hero: Metallica.
• Positions his microphone so high that he appears to be looking up at the sky rather than the audience.
• Is a huge fan of The Beatles, ZZ Top and Living Colour, and also admires Janet Jackson: “I wanted to do a version of 0 with her, but Sony wouldn’t let me”.
• Turns the volume and tone knobs to their max before performing. On the amplifiers, he cuts the treble and bass and blasts the midrange to its fullest to get the band’s rugged sound.
• Has a fossil named after him. Kalloprion Kilmisteri is the 428-million-year-old jaw of an extinct, marine polychaete annelid worm found in the Silurian strata of Gotland, Sweden.
• Has an exclusive limited-edition action figure in his image, with only 2,500 produced worldwide.
• Also plays the harmonica and occasionally performs a slower version of his biggest hit, The Ace of Spades, on it.
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