Arguably, it was one such misunderstanding that forced Lemmy to leave Hawkwind in May 1975 after three years of good—though not always loyal—service. He was arrested at the Canadian border with what customs officers assumed to be illegal drugs. They turned out to be freely available medicines, but this didn’t stop the band from kicking the bassist out—they’d been looking for a good excuse to replace him for a while. Back in London, Lemmy held out hope for a fair reinstatement before eventually deciding to start a new band with accomplice and drummer Lucas Fox. Fox states, ‘When he came back from Hawkwind, he was furious. He broke everything in his room and I was sitting on a chair, waiting for him to calm down. He fumed for several weeks and I really rode his ass to form a new band. We were completely in agreement on the direction we should take, and we regularly came back to the names of Link Wray, MC5, Led Zeppelin and even the Beatles. Therefore, I was expecting something very rock oriented, but much more melodic. At first, we didn’t consider a trio, but rather a quartet, with Luther Grosvenor and Larry Wallis on guitars. There should have been sections of double guitars on ‘Thin Lizzy’. We met with Luther, but he preferred to go to Widowmaker. The band would probably have had nothing to do with what it became afterward.’
After chaotic—if not disastrous—beginnings, Motörhead eventually stabilised around the legendary band members, guitarist "Fast" Eddie Clarke and drummer Philthy "Animal" Taylor. However, yet another misunderstanding occurred when their record label, United Artists, rejected what should have been the band’s first album after not feeling convinced of the potential of this unclassifiable trio. This only served to reinforce Lemmy’s aversion to labels: ‘They (United Artists) just allowed us to record an album, but they didn’t want to release it. They only sold it when our two first albums were successful. I’m gonna tell you something: no matter what conditions a contract has, a band and its record company will clash at some point. There’s nothing you can do about it. The managers of record companies don’t go into this line of work to play in a band, and musicians are not meant to stay in an office throughout the day, or in chic salons, sometimes… The former are not meant to cohabit with the latter. Arguments are inevitable. As for me, I try to make the most of it so that it lasts as long as possible. This is what everybody is doing in this world anyway. And if it doesn’t work out anymore, you just leave and go look somewhere else, that’s it!'
Undeterred by fleeting relationships with two other labels, including the independent label Chiswick records (which finally released the band’s first single and album, both of which were self-titled), they later signed to Bronze in 1978, the label Hawkwind also called home. With the release of their album Overkill, things started to get serious. From the moment the world heard Taylor’s wild and relentless drumming, it was clear that a whole section of rock music would never be the same again. Lemmy always refused to associate the band with metal, but there's no denying that Motörhead had a massive impact on most styles within the genre. A few years later, Eddie Clarke readily admitted, ‘I was convinced we were heavier than anyone else on the planet. But Lemmy held on to his rock'n'roll influences from the good old days and therefore from those early years.’
Lemmy maintained that no matter how powerful, fast, dynamic or loud Motörhead's sound might be, it was still nothing less than rock'n'roll: ‘The problem is that we don’t belong to any precise category. We’re not in the heavy metal bracket purely and simply because I keep telling everyone that we’re not playing heavy metal. We’re not grunge… But people tell themselves that since we have long hair, we must belong to the same category as other people with long hair. They are so wonderfully subtle. However, we have more in common with punk than we do with heavy metal. We play more like the Damned than like Judas Priest.’
MOTORHEAD - Live - Rockstage 1980 - Full version.mpgTomnookHD
In March 1979, Overkill reached number 29 in the British album charts, which was no mean feat considering the country was in the midst of a disco and punk explosion. Far from resting on these hard-won laurels, Motörhead followed up with Bomber in October and the monumental Ace of Spades in November 1980. The British public recognised the genius of this release, allowing the album to reach number four in the charts. However, it was on stage that the trio really came into their own, as evidenced by their incredible live album No Sleep 'til Hammersmith, which reached number one upon its release in June 1981.
Just when everyone thought Motörhead had finally settled down, a major internal crisis called everything into question. Following several clashes between Lemmy and Eddie Clarke, the guitarist quit after their album Iron Fist (April 1982), which he’d produced. He was replaced at short notice by the legendary former Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson in the middle of an American tour. Another Perfect Day (June 1983) was recorded with the expertise of this newcomer. It was a great album that should have put the band in an excellent position to recover from the internal upheaval. However, it received a mixed reception, with some finding its contents too polished despite legions of young bands arriving on the scene with styles as polished as they were intense. Most artists within the emerging thrash metal wave, such as Metallica, were influenced by Motörhead, though the band is far from being everyone’s cup of tea. To make matters worse, cracks began to appear in the trio’s command of the stage, with Robertson seemingly doing everything he could to scupper the shows and make fans hate him. Lemmy put an end to this joke by showing him the door in late 1983.
Motörhead entered a new period of stagnation. Despite a rejuvenated line-up following the arrival of not one but two replacement guitarists, Phil Campbell and Würzel (Michael Burston), the band suffered another blow with the departure of Philthy "Animal" Taylor in May 1984. His replacement, former Saxon member Pete Gill, didn’t make much of an impression, even on the double compilation No Remorse, which featured four tracks with the new line-up including the fantastic ‘Killed by Death’. This tragic series of events continued with a legal battle between Lemmy and his record label, which resulted in a ban on recording anything for almost two years. Even so, Motörhead remained popular, as proven by two momentous concerts held at London's Hammersmith Odeon to celebrate the band’s tenth anniversary. Their reunion in 1986 hailed the release of their seventh album, Orgasmatron, but this still wasn’t enough to restore the band to its former glory, with Bill Laswell’s production dividing opinions.
The new line-up was a unique experience for Lemmy. Throughout his long music career, he’d never felt such harmony within a band. When Motörhead played at the Monsters of Rock festival in Castle Donington in 1986, he marvelled, "I'm with the nicest guys I've ever met. And I'm not just talking about Motörhead, I've been in five bands before this one, and I've never felt like this."
Motörhead - The Birthday Party 1985 (Full Cöncert) ᴴᴰMrVideodisasterz
"We are the world’s most famous band of paupers. We are truly homeless," Würzel quipped at the time, although he never complained about Lemmy. "He’s a very good friend. He never acts like a diva. I didn’t expect him to be so nice. He’s much easier to work with than what you could imagine. His only problem is that he wants to go out and party every night. My body is unable to follow his rhythm. None of us are able to go with him every night.” With Pete Gill out of the picture, Philthy 'Animal' Taylor made his comeback when the film industry began to take an interest in Lemmy and his band. Peter Richardson's Eat The Rich is well worth a watch, especially for its soundtrack.
Rock'n'roll (September 1987) was a reassuring album, as was the new live album, Nö Sleep At All (July 1988). Lemmy chose this particularly inappropriate moment to wage a new war with his record label, GWR. This resulted in the band being out of work until the conclusion of a lengthy trial and an unexpected signing to Epic/Sony. For the first time in its career, Motörhead was defended by a major record label. Or so Lemmy thought. Neither the ambitious 1916 (February 1991), which was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1992, nor the unparalleled March Ör Die (August 1992) were truly supported by the record label. The band also had to grapple with replacing Philthy "Animal" Taylor once again since the drummer’s loss of faith seemed to zap his unique drumming abilities.
The band’s eleventh album in November 1993, Bastards, was solid (the crude title was once considered as a name for the band back in 1975). Mikkey Dee re-injected Motörhead with the exceptional drumming it had become synonymous with, and the band seemed to be on the up. The same goes for the ferocious Sacrifice (July 1995), though Würzel left the band after recording finished. Lemmy had a hard time digesting this betrayal: "I don’t know why Würzel left, you’ll have to ask him. He had his reasons. He left us ‘with a fax’. Here you go. If you have something important to tell me, send me a fax, Hahaha!” Nonetheless, every cloud has a silver lining: Motörhead would reassume its natural trio structure. As Phil Campbell would testify: “When Würzel left, I was the one to suggest to Lem’ and Mikkey: ‘I think we can do it as a trio, we have to try it and, if after a few rehearsals, we really need someone else, I’ll be the first to admit it. I’ll know it more than anyone else.’ But, as soon as the three of us played, something so strong happened that we never had to look for another guitarist since.”
On the eve of his 50th birthday, Lemmy felt obliged to set the record straight: he was no tyrant or diva. Motörhead was a band, a real one. "Many people think that ‘Lemmy is Motörhead'. But, if that were the case, I’d have called the band ‘Lemmy’ or ‘Lemmy and Motörhead’. If only you knew what we had to go through to still be here today. People think that we switch musicians all the time. But in twenty years, there’s only been eight different musicians beside me in the band. It’s not that bad.” However, there were no complaints from Lemmy when Metallica surprised him on his 50th birthday by appearing on stage at Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles, calling themselves ‘the Lemmys’ in tribute to him.
It probably wasn't their intention, but the four members of Metallica put their finger on one of the few subjects that made Lemmy uncomfortable. Over the years, his legendary, unchanging look had become the symbol of the band—even more so than the famous Snaggletooth head used on most of their album covers. Although nobody can say precisely when it happened, it's no longer Motörhead that fans rush to listen to or flock to see on stage: it’s ‘Lemmy and Motörhead’.
The Lemmys (Motorhead tribute band) live at the Whisky a go go for Lemmy's 50th b-day party 1995WHISKY A GO GO
Nobody would have thought it possible, especially not those directly involved, but Overnight Sensation (October 1996) saw Motörhead establish almost twenty years of stability and consistency. Upon the release of their twentieth album, The Wörld Is Yours (December 2010), Phil Campbell couldn’t help but be amazed by this. "You should never try to plan everything ahead. The band has always lived on a day to day basis, without any strategy. When you get organised in a specific way, it always ends up falling apart. Even I couldn’t have imagined that the band would hold for so long. Nobody could have imagined. We didn’t have any plan for the future, not even the one to split (laughs). We still get so much pleasure playing and living together.”
Each new Motörhead release consistently proved that the band was far from being outdated. Without ever foregoing their signature style, the three musicians and their loyal producer over the last few years, Cameron Webb, know how to keep moving forward. Far from being nostalgic, Lemmy always stayed up to date with what was happening in the world of music, following a principle he's clarified many times. "I still listen to a lot of bands, both old and new. You should never lose sight of your roots or cut yourself off from the times; otherwise, you become nothing more than a cabaret band repeating the same act over and over." Even on the last four or five albums, Motörhead has granted itself many liberties that many wouldn’t have thought possible, preventing the band from becoming the unwavering megalith that many expected. Campbell humorously concludes, "It took us a while, but we finally realised that as soon as Lemmy's voice rings out, it's Motörhead. There’ll be no mistaking it for any other band, no matter what we play."
Though he remained loyal to Motörhead, Lemmy has nevertheless indulged in more than one escapade in recent years: some, like his work with Probot alongside fan and friend Dave Grohl, are similar to the Lemmy we knew; others, like his rockabilly, golden age pop interlude with The Head Cat alongside Slim Jim & Danny, come as a real surprise. In the company of Slim Jim Phantom, the former drummer of the Stray Cats, and guitarist Danny B. Harvey (Levi Dexter, The Lonesome Spurs, The Rockats...), Lemmy discretely recorded two albums and a live album. Some might see this side project as a ‘guilty pleasure’. After all, these albums clearly show that Lemmy had musical ideas and inspirations that he simply couldn’t reveal through Motörhead, even when it came to musical styles that had been close to his heart since childhood. Meanwhile, others will see it as further proof that Lemmy always found a way to do what he wanted, no matter what… No mean feat in an era when even the most uncompromising artists are forced to bow to the pressures of the music industry.
NB: quotes, interviews by Jean-Pierre Sabouret, Hard-Rock Magazine, Hard N' Heavy, Guitarist, book We Are (All) Motörhead - Éditions Camion Blanc.
Lemmy © Jean-Pierre Sabouret