As the mutton-chopped brains behind Motörhead, Lemmy has always rocked — and lived — by the credo "Everything louder than everything else." "Once, at soundcheck," he says, "this guy rang up from four miles away and said he couldn't hear his TV." Do tell...
"Fuck Elvis and Keith Richards," Dave Grohl has said. "Lemmy's the king of rock'n'roll." And on this sunny L.A. February afternoon, the king is holding court. From his black cowboy hat and Civil War–reenactor duds to his sunken eyes, corpselike pallor, and questionable oral hygiene, Lemmy suggests the last of a dying breed. As the singer-bassist of Motörhead — one of the few bands worshipped by both punks and metalheads — he is a true legend, who, besides appearing in the new Guitar Hero Metallica, has recently seen four of his band's classic albums (Ace of Spades, Bomber, Iron Fist, and Overkill) get the deluxe reissue treatment.
A glass of Jack Daniel's fused to his fingers, in person the man born Ian Michael Kilmister in 1945 comes off as a consummately polite, older English gentleman. He generously answers nearly any question, no matter how outrageous, but when the conversation dives too far into an uncomfortable zone, he's quick to set one straight with a withering gaze. "Man, do you think can we stop talking about drugs?" he spits in his trademark guttural rasp. "I don't want to talk myself into being arrested. It's a very real risk, you know." Indeed, Lemmy hardly seems to be mellowing with age. "I'm only interested in my band — never cared about anybody else," he growls. "Still don't. Everybody else can go fuck off!"
What drew you to rock'n'roll?
When I saw Buddy Holly play in 1958, I was there looking for girls. At that age, you want to get laid. I saw this English rock singer, Billy Fury, and he was surrounded by all these chicks rubbing his crotch. I thought, "That's the fucking job for me!" I took a guitar to school and was immediately surrounded by women. I couldn't play it, but with all due respect, you do have to learn a couple of chords eventually. Not too many, though — that can ruin you.
What were your earliest music milestones?
I saw the Beatles play the Cavern in Liverpool when I was 16. They had attitude: Onstage, they were like a four-headed monster.
Who inspired you to actually join a band?
I remember playing Conway Twitty's record "It's Only Make Believe" over and over, wondering, "How do they get that sound?" Elvis inspired my sideburns, but Little Richard inspired me for vocals. He had the purest, most joyous rock'n'roll voice. And he liked a little booty, didn't he? He certainly wasn't into girls — he was the king and queen of rock'n'roll. There was great music then, and it all seems to have gone to shit now. I know it sounds like I'm an old, miserable, crotchety bastard — and believe me, I am — but it's true. It's much more fun to be full of hope than pessimism, any day of the week.
You were present at so many key musical moments, you're like the Forrest Gump of rock. You were even Jimi Hendrix's roadie.
In 1967, I was 21, and the only guy I knew in London was Neville Chester, a roadie who worked with the Who. I rang him up and said, "Can I crash on your floor?" He was sharing a flat with [Hendrix bassist] Noel Redding. So when Hendrix needed an extra guy, I was right there. To see Hendrix play was magic — the things he did with a guitar have not been equaled to this day: He played rhythm and lead at the same time, under his leg, behind his neck, behind his back, left and right, upside down — fucking amazing. God bless Eddie Van Halen, he's nowhere near. Hendrix did it all, and when he died, it stopped.
Were you and Hendrix friends?
Not really, but I'd score acid for him. I'd get ten tabs, and he'd take seven and give me three, which I thought was very reasonable. He was great, a perfect old-school gentleman: If a girl came in the room, he'd shoot to his feet. If you wanted to see some athletic fucking, Jimi was the boy for it. I'd never seen anything like it: There were always lines of chicks going nuts outside his dressing room. It was like, "Take a number and wait."
You yourself became a rock star in the early '70s when you joined Hawkwind.
I was living with these three girls. One of them picked up [Hawkwind keyboardist] Dik Mik one night and brought him back to the flat. We got talking and realized we had a mutual interest in seeing how long amphetamines could make the human body jump about without stopping. He brought me into the band as his pill-popping buddy. They said, "Who plays bass?" And Dik Mik went, "He does." I'd never picked one up in my life. Hawkwind was a complete blitz: We had projectors shooting images all over the place, fireworks going off, nude dancers — we were fucking fierce. We'd dose the audience with acid, lock the doors so they couldn't leave, then send them into epileptic fits with subsonic frequencies and strobes. Those were the days. I would never have left if they hadn't fired me.
Why did they do that?
I got busted for drugs in Canada in 1975, but it was more that I was messing with the "wrong" drugs. Everybody was doing acid; I was just doing speed with it, too. Even in the drug culture, there was this snobbery: "Oh, you're taking that awful speed?" Well, fuck off, then. I can't be bothered with people's class awareness.
We didn't get to go to the real Grammys. Us and the Mexican jazz bands had to get our stuff the previous afternoon.
You told Sounds in 1975 that Motörhead would be "the dirtiest rock'n'roll band in the world. If you moved in next door, your lawn would die."
I stole that quote from Dr. Hook. In truth, if you lived next door to us in those days, you probably would've never stopped to see if your lawn was dead — you would've just moved out because of the fucking racket. Basically, I wanted to be the MC5, playing fast, loud rock'n'roll. We were never a metal band. Judas Priest and Black Sabbath were metal, but we were never like them.
Indeed, you may be the only rocker to use the word parallelogram in a song [on the band's namesake anthem, "Motörhead"].
I've always been very wordy; I've got a great vocabulary. In England, they teach you words. Over here, they don't seem to do that — or people don't want to learn them.
When Motörhead first appeared, you were as embraced by punks as by metalheads.
Like the punks, we just swept all that tedious '70s Rick Wakeman, artsy-fartsy, yellow bell-bottoms, caftans-and-sandals shit aside. If you hadn't seen what we looked like, you would have thought we were a punk band. I remember going down to the [London club] Roxy one night just to see what the punk thing was all about. I was standing at the bar, and this bush behind me said, "I used to sell acid at [Hawkwind's] all-night shows in King's Cross." And I turned around and it was Johnny Rotten. I remembered him: He used to have long hair, with pockets full of drugs. It's funny, though — I never liked the Clash. They sounded like old music, dressed up as punk. The Ramones were geniuses, though. Joey especially had a nose for rock'n'roll, and we were friends, although we weren't close when he died. I hate to see people on the way out; I prefer to remember him as he was.
I haven't asked you yet about Motörhead's biggest hit, "Ace of Spades" —
Good. That makes a change. All people seem to know is "Ace of Spades." It's backfired at me ever since 'cause the ace of spades is a bad-luck sign — so naturally I've always felt an affinity with it. Damn the dark card! For two years I've sung "eight of spades," and nobody noticed. Not even the rest of the band.
What was it that cemented the reputation of Motörhead's legendary lineup that produced "Ace" and classics like Overkill and Bomber?
What people really liked was our attitude — our fuck-you-ness — and our breakneck speed: Any lineup of Motörhead could play anything. You can witness it on the covers we've done: We even got a Grammy for one [Metallica's "Whiplash"]. Of course, they poisoned it for us by giving us one for somebody else's song. We didn't get to go to the real Grammys 'cause we're distasteful: Us and the Mexican jazz bands all had to line up and get our stuff the previous afternoon.
Metallica has always cited Motörhead as a major influence.
They came down on my 50th birthday to the Whisky and played 45 minutes of old Motörhead songs! I always thought Metallica were good from day one. But when I first met Lars Ulrich, he was a horrible mouthy brat, same as he is now. He was head of Motörhead's West Coast fan club; what he didn't tell us was that he and Cliff [Burton, Metallica's original bassist] were the only members! Lars is a true friend. I'd hide him even if he were charged for murder. And Jimmy [James Hetfield] is frickin' funny as shit. I wish he wouldn't take everything so seriously, though. It seems to be messing with his head.
Who's your most surprising fan?
Jude Law. He came to a show we did in England at the Royal Festival Hall. He showed up backstage while I was still covered in sweat and told me he loved it. He was really nice. I was surprised — you don't think of actors liking music.
So, you're officially an icon: There's a movie being made about your life, and your likeness has been transformed into a doll.
It's supposed to be an action figure, although when they told me they weren't going to put a dick on it, I responded, "So it's not going to get much action, is it?" As for the movie, it's a documentary, which they're still shooting. I actually got to ride in a German tank destroyer the other day for it. You wouldn't believe how small it is inside them fuckers.
With Snaggletooth, you're responsible for creating probably the most famous logo in hard rock, next to the Misfits' skull.
Yeah, but we're still good — the Misfits aren't. The artist, Joe Petagno, asked me what I wanted. I said, "Something between a rusty, rotten, falling-apart robot and a knight of the realm." They made for T-shirts that everybody liked. Even if they've never heard the band, they'd wear the T-shirt.
Why is humor important to Motörhead?
Because it's funny.
Still, some people miss the humor in your songs, despite titles like "Killed by Death."
That's from [British comedian] Spike Milligan: "How'd you die?" "Oh, you know, killed by death." It's an English thing.
You moved to Los Angeles in 1990. Why?
I loved America right away. It's the land of unlimited whoopee! Girls here were more, frankly, into it. At one show, I met a girl in a very small, white leather cowgirl outfit. She said, "I've been waiting for you to come through town for two years. You're coming home with me tonight." I left with her immediately. Chicks always like a guy with a bad rap. It never fails.
You have a pretty big reputation as a cocksman. It's been said you've had up to 2,000 sexual conquests in your career.
Those numbers are exaggerated: I've actually claimed 1,000. It might be up to 2,000 by now. Between sex and drugs and rock'n'roll, I might put rock'n'roll first, but sex would be a very close second — rock'n'roll is only a means to get more sex. But I don't chase as much these days. When you're younger, you'll sell your soul to the devil for some pussy, but you get over that. You don't have to be special to get my interest now.
What is the weirdest place you've had sex?
On top of a photo booth in Chester Station in Northwest England. It was the only place we could find to be alone. Nobody saw us, because people never look up.
Why do you collect Nazi memorabilia?
I think it's historically important that you remember that shit, because otherwise it'll get done to you again. I don't get any thanks when I tell Americans to put 9/11 into perspective: We did that to Berlin every night for three years during World War II, and 19,000 British were killed before lunchtime on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Napoleon, the Confederates, Hitler — it's always the bad guys who have the best uniforms. The black hat beats the shit out of the white hat anytime: The Lone Ranger looked like a twat to me, with his little mask. I also collect Kinder Egg toys and skulls. I've got a dog and a pig skull and a couple of human ones. I've seen museums with less shit in them than I've got in my home.
You live in the same two-room apartment you rented when you first moved here. Why not buy a house in the Hollywood Hills?
I can't afford it. We didn't sell many albums. I wrote the words to "Mama, I'm Coming Home" for Ozzy, and I made more from that song than I had from Motörhead at that point. I'm not going to die broke, but I'm not rich. I pay taxes here, but I'm not a citizen — they won't give me citizenship. I got busted for two sleeping pills on New Year's Eve in 1971, so obviously I'm a threat to the kids in America, you know.
In your autobiography, White Line Fever, you call This Is Spinal Tap very accurate. How so?
I've seen it where the cheese doesn't fit the bread — you know, round rolls and square cheese. Even on the last tour we did with Judas Priest, we did some old-school pranks. Testament were the opening band at the last gig, so during their set, [Motörhead drummer] Mikkey Dee came onstage dressed as a mule wearing a sombrero and mustache. Then [Motörhead guitarist] Phil Campbell came out on a horse wearing a purple wig and an orange dress, and I followed behind dressed as an Arab.
So, you're making a solo album. Why?
'Cause it's fun, and I can't be in Motörhead by myself. I've got tracks with the Damned, Reverend Horton Heat, Dave Grohl, Joan Jett...I also have a band called the Head Cat with [Stray Cats drummer] Slim Jim Phantom and Danny B. Harvey, who used to be in the Rockats. We play all the old music that inspired us, a lot of Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly.
At 63, you're quite fit. How is it that rock stars always manage to fit into skinny jeans?
Well, these have stretch in them. Even if I put weight on, I'm still fitting these. Actually, I don't think I'm particularly skinny at the moment.
You could've done the whole plastic surgery thing. Why haven't you ever gotten your moles removed?
[Points to his face] What can you make out of this? What are you going to do? I think I look all right for my age, anyway.
Finally, what is the one thing about Lemmy that people do not know?
That I'm a two-foot midget woman wearing a mechanical outfit.
Some of his classics...
Lemmy's most significant pre-Motörhead outfit, caught live in all their decadent psychedelic glory, kaleidoscopically trafficked in Floydian space-rock self-indulgence, and anchored by his ominous krautrock bass chug.
Motörhead’s second album kick-started the band's classic trilogy of releases. Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller transformed the band's bloozy, boozy blasting-cap energy into long-standing anthems like "Stay Clean," "No Class," and the blistering title track.
Ace of Spades
A masterpiece. The relentless double-time bass kick of the title track helped spawn the "forbidden beat" of hardcore, while the raspy vocals and meat-cleaving riffology of "The Hammer" permanently mutated the DNA of thrash-metal innovators like Metallica.
No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith
The loudest, rudest, possibly greatest concert recording in rock. Nothing sounded as intense as the definitively pulverizing stage versions of classics like “(We Are) The Road Crew.” Even the Beastie Boys paid tribute with “No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn.”