On December 24, 1945, Ian Fraser Kilmister – known far and wide to all as the one and only “Lemmy” – was born. Once he was old enough to be interested in girls, rebellion and rock’n’roll, Lemmy chose to quit wasting time in a soul-crushing factory job in the English midlands and opted for a career on the road.
He first played in the Rocking Vicars and later in Hawkwind, and had made a name for himself on the British Rock scene by the early 70s. After being kicked out of Hawkwind, Lemmy ultimately decided he had to start his own band if he wanted to play music the way he liked it. His aim was: “loud, fast, city, raucous, arrogant, paranoid, speed freak rock’n’roll… it will be so loud that if we move in next door to you, your lawn will die.”
Initially, Lemmy had wanted to call the band “Bastard”, but after his manager reminded him that there’s no chance in hell that he would get his songs played on the radio if the band was called that, they changed the name to “Motörhead”, which was the title of the last song Lemmy had written for Hawkwind and refers to a regular user of amphetamines. The added Umlaut was to make it look mean and unique.
Around the Christmas of 1975, he met Phil Taylor, a very talented drummer, who Lemmy soon dubbed “Philthy Animal” and who replaced the original Lucas Fox. Lemmy was soon introduced to guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke, who was supposed to be a second guitarist, but became the one and only when Larry Wallis quit, and together they formed the classic Motörhead line-up.
No overnight sensation
1976 was full of bad shows, bad reviews and bad record deals, but with punk gaining mainstream traction the next year, it also helped Motörhead to finally release their first, self-titled album. Their label had actually refused to release their first recordings, and they would eventually be released in 1979 as “On Parole”.
There was still a lot of old Hawkwind on the debut album but songs like “Iron Horse / Born To Lose” and the aptly titled “White Line Fever” would start what the fans would refer to as classic Motörhead. The game truly began to change when Phil Taylor added double-time kick drums to his kit. The result was the incredibly fast rhythm of 1979’s album “Overkill”, which cemented that “the only way to feel the noise is when it’s good and loud.”
So began the era where everything the Three Amigos touched turned to gold. The follow-up albums, “Bomber” (the same year) and “Ace of Spades” (a year later), became instant hits, and for nearly the next four decades, no Motörhead show would be complete without their title-tracks. Lemmy’s rough vocals and rumbling Rickenbacker bass, the thundering double-fisted drums, and the hard-edged riffs became their signature sound. Unrelenting fast rock’n’roll numbers were, though, accompanied by blues and mid-tempo grooves. Thematically it was them against the world: the road-crew with a love for drugs and loose women, giving the finger to the police, the church and the government. All this transformed Motörhead from being one of many street-level rock bands, to a truly unique and revolutionary line-up.
The Three Amigos became stars at home, appearing on British TV and on magazine covers.
The “St Valentine’s Day Massacre” EP they did with Girlschool sold more than 200,000 copies in the UK. Their live album “No Sleep til Hammersmith” shot to #1 in the UK charts. In 1981, they opened for Ozzy Osbourne on their first American tour… But then came the problems.
Success led to arrogance, arrogance to disaffection, and disaffection to a clash of egos. Fights on the tour bus over money and the creative future of the band became more frequent. A lot of it was felt in their next album, “Iron Fist”. Although full of gems like the title-track, “I’m The Doctor” and “Grind Ya Down”, the record sounded unfinished and uninspired to many, and despite their success, there were still many critics that saw Motörhead as a “joke” band; a caricature of the whole biker-punk-rock shtick. And when Lemmy announced that he wanted to collaborate with the Plasmatics on a cover of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”, Fast Eddie had had enough.
Accusing Lemmy of destroying the credibility of the band, he walked out. And Motörhead would never really be the same.
A turning point
As a replacement, Phil Taylor brought in former Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian “Robbo” Robertson. In 1983, the new trio brought out “Another Perfect Day”, and it instantly divided both fans and critics. For some it was the most refined, thoughtful and varied album the band would ever put out. For others it lacked the very essence of what made Motörhead so unique, even with “Back At The Funny Farm” having a really similar verse bass-riff to “Ace Of Spades”.
And although Robbo was a gifted guitarist, he’d never conform to the Motörhead image. On stage he wore baggy trousers, had colourful hair and shirts, and even straight up refused to play older favourites like “Ace of Spades” and “Overkill”. Ticket sales for the coming European tour were so bad that they had to pull the plug on it.
That was it for Lemmy. Robbo had to go. And Taylor left in 1984, just after they’d recorded their guest episode of “The Young Ones” – a British comedy series.
The exit of both Eddie Clarke and Phil Taylor was really the end of the classic Motörhead. But there was still the one and only Lemmy, and he was determined to rebuild the band one way or the other. The band was now a four-man lineup. When Lemmy could not decide between his new guitarists Phil Campbell and Michael “Würzel” Burston, he decided to take them both on. The two really could not be further apart. While Campbell was definitely the better guitar player, Würzel had more stage presence.
With Pete Gill of Saxon on the drums, they tried to reinvent Motörhead’s bad magic. And indeed, the first new singles “Killed by Death” and “Snaggletooth” from “No Remorse” proved to the fans that the band was far from dead. “Snaggletooth” was the anthem to the band’s iconic logo – the Warpig, the Bastard, the face Lemmy said you see in the mirror when you’re on drugs. “Speed don’t kill and I’m the proof, just call me snaggletooth.” And there were a lot of drugs and alcohol consumed throughout Motörhead’s career.
The 1986 album “Orgasmatron”, however, did not cause all too many sparks. It was an attempt to find the ultimate formula that would appeal to both hardcore fans and casual listeners. But what came out was a wild mix of different elements, from funk to jazz, to punk and metal. Not bad but different, yet the lousy commercial reception would ensure that Motörhead would never strive that far away from their playbook again.
Of course, there is always someone who claims that all Motörhead songs sound the same, with only slight derivations here and there. But the band incorporated many different styles and tempos on pretty much all albums. Let’s use “1916” or “March Or Die” as examples, as well as “Bad Religion”, “Hellraiser” and “I Ain’t No Nice Guy”.
Of course, the song “1916” from the 1991 album “1916” is an especially powerful ballad about the slaughter that was the Battle of the Somme. It’s certainly one of the best anti-war songs you’ll ever hear.
The new Motörhead
That album marked the return of Philthy Animal Taylor and seemed to signal a return to the past, yet these times proved to be ultimately over when Taylor was fired in 1992. The new Motörhead would find its drummer in Mikkey Dee, formerly of Dokken and King Diamond, and a worthy successor he was. Mikkey Dee is a monster on the drums and carried the band to a new level, and once Wurzel left, the Kilmister-Campbell-Dee line-up would form the second triumvirate all the way to the end.
While other rock and metal bands stumbled over themselves in the 90s, many bending their knee to grunge, nu-metal and other variations, Motörhead remained the same. The only major change was the scenery. Lemmy broke with his old homeland and the band focused on conquering the American market.
Money had always been tight within the band, and Lemmy once said that just by writing the lyrics for Ozzy’s mega hit “Mama I’m coming home”, he had made more than in all his time in Motörhead so far.
With “We are Motörhead” in 1999, the band demonstrated that they were well aware of what their fans wanted, by balancing speed driven songs with down-tempo numbers, from the thundering “See Me Burning” to the punk cover of “God Save The Queen”, to the heartfelt “One More Fucking Time”. Then, with a steady stream of new releases and a constantly updated touring schedule, Motörhead enjoyed a renaissance. 2004’s “Inferno” and its follow up “Kiss Of Death” in 2006, for example, are bangers.
Illness takes its toll
Musically it seemed like nothing could stop the Lemmy-Campbell-Dee lineup at this point. However, Lemmy’s declining health became worrisome. In the year 2000 he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and hospitalised with exhaustion. He was advised to overhaul his lifestyle of drugs and drinking, but a habit of 60 cigarettes, a bottle of Jack Daniels and three grams of speed a day were hard to give up, even if Lemmy had wanted to. Instead, he preferred to make sure that he enjoyed life to the fullest, right up until he was killed by death. And indeed, the band kept going strong, releasing the acclaimed “The Wörld Is Yours” in 2011, “Aftershock” in 2013 and “Bad Magic” in 2015. But after 40 years of thunder and lightning, the run was nearing its end. Lemmy’s once powerful voice became weak and frail, and so did the man, as illness took its toll.
Shows and tours had to be postponed and rescheduled, and December 11, 2015, in Berlin was to be their final show.
On December 28, 2015, just four days after his 70th birthday, Lemmy Kilmister passed away. Not that long earlier, he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. And with the one and only Lemmy gone, the story of Motörhead comes to an end. Mikkey Dee and Phil Campbell would go on to do their own projects.
After 40 years of sheer badassery, it was time to say goodbye.
Our cover of Motörhead’s ‘1916‘, which is featured on our “Stories From The Western Front” EP, is our tribute to Lemmy and a nod to those who fought and fell during the Battle of the Somme. Take a look at the lyrics Lemmy wrote here.
If you prefer a visual interpretation of this story, watch our Sabaton History episode, “1916 – The History of Motörhead”: