Note: This was originally posted at The New Paine, so it would be fairly accurate to assume that the readers of that blog are not too familiar with the “guerrilla history” of rock ‘n’ roll. I’m sure the readers of THIS blog have more than a cursory knowledge of the topic.
One of the dorkiest and most annoying things that right wingers try to do is rationalize how it’s possible to hold conservative views and still be a rock ‘n’ roller. They write stupid articles like this National Review piece about progressive rock, this list of the top 50 conservative rock songs or this article about Republican Grateful Dead fans. What a dumb way to tell people who don’t give a shit that you’re “one of them.” It’s even dumber when some Republican brags about how he’s a Rage Against the Machine fan; who cares? Rage Against the Machine sucks ding dongs.
I’m assuming the majority of the readers of this blog are not super knowledgeable about the secret, guerrilla history of rock ‘n’ roll. When asked who the king of rock ‘n’ roll is, most people will probably say Elvis, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones and, while those are all great performers/bands, they really don’t hold a candle to the one and only Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister, the unstoppable, long haired, bearded, side burn sporting, leather and bullet belt wearing, Rickenbacker slingin’, mole faced, hoarse voiced singer/bassist for Motorhead. Like the Ramones and AC/DC, Motorhead were known for their consistently pleasing, hooky and LOUD brand of rock ‘n’ roll. Some call it metal, some call it rock, some call it punk, but to Lemmy this meant NOTHING.
The history of rock ‘n’ roll can parallel the history of the world – after society was born, it broke apart into various factions, some warring, some united, and driven by copious amounts of revolutions, counter-revolutions and counter-counter-revolutions. Punk against prog, metal against punk, hardcore against new wave, grunge against glam metal, rock against disco and so on and so forth…
Lemmy was the grand ambassador. In the late 1970s, when punk rock came to dominate the underground London rock clubs and give the middle finger to the older generation of aging hippies cum prog musicians who packed arenas with drugged out, long haired nerds and played endless songs utilizing mountains of expensive musical equipment, there was Lemmy who paid allegiance to no scene. One day he would pal around with big time, multi-platinum selling theatrical art rockers Queen and big time metal act Black Sabbath and the next day he’d hang out with Joey Ramone or attempt to teach the bass to Sid Vicious, who never got it down, but joined the Sex Pistols anyway.
As the years and trends passed, Lemmy became friends with virtually anyone who wasn’t a dick; a google search would produce a bunch of photos of Lemmy hanging with, well, anyone! Motorhead superseded all of the trends – punk rock, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, thrash metal, death metal, black metal, glam metal, grunge, garage rock and continued to release album after album after album of brilliant satisfying rock ‘n’ roll until his passing a few days ago on December 28th at the age of 70. Lemmy’s death came as a shock only because, in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, Lemmy seemed virtually unkillable. Other musicians toned down their partying, started families and bought expensive pieces of real-estate to make sure they would have a nice pot of gold once they finally hung up the guitar. Or, as the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, ZZ Top and Aerosmith have done, would pat themselves on the back for how long they’ve been going at it, yet only release an album or tour once every decade. What DO these guys do in their spare time? Oh, yeah, tend to their real-estate careers or play golf.
Not Lemmy; he lived, ate, drank and breathed rock ‘n’ roll from his teen years to his death.
Born on Christmas of 1945 in Stoke-on-Trent and raised in North Whales, Lemmy was abandoned by his preacher father after only three months, which might help explain his blatant disdain towards the Christian religion and his developing atheistic viewpoint.
At age 14, he saw some rock ‘n’ roll people on TV and all of the girls screaming at their feet and decided that was the career for him; as Lemmy once quipped, that, for some reason or another, any time a guy a picks up a guitar, he’ll have women swarming around him. Done deal. A few years later, Lemmy was slingin’ axe for local groups the Motown Sect (“I hate that soul shit”) and the Rockin’ Vickers, the latter who recorded a solid cover of “Dandy” by the Kinks.
But, what’s really fascinating is that Lemmy witnessed the Beatles at the Cavern club in 1962. Anyone who thinks of John Lennon as a long haired, peacenik married to Yoko Ono and singing the 1970s version of “we are the world” called “Imagine” probably isn’t aware that, in the early 60s, Lennon was a cussing, fighting, fried chicken chomping, teddy boy, who wouldn’t hesitate to drop his guitar, walk off the stage and kick the crap out of some heckler. The big misconception is that the Beatles were the “nice” band the Stones were the brooding, bluesy tough guys. The Stones were upper middle class blokes who traded blues and early rock ‘n’ roll 45s and posed like 60 year old blues men – essentially they were the “wiggas” of their time. Some might even call what they did “cultural appropriation.”
Anyhow, by 1967, the rock world changed; hair got longer, drugs got trippier and psychedelia was the name of the game. The class of ’67 includes the Doors, Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Joplin. Lemmy was a small player, but a charming fellow on the London underground scene, roadie-ing for and dealing acid to Jimi Hendrix, who Lemmy still thinks is THE best guitarist of all time (maybe he’s right?). In 1968 Lemmy played guitar, sang and wrote all of the songs for Sam Gopal, a tabla percussionist from Malaysia, on his extremely druggy, hippie-delic album Escalator before joining the mediocre Opal Butterfly.
His big break, however, came in 1971 when, at age 25, he joined the space rock band Hawkwind; I consider them to be the musical equivalent of Dr. Who before Dr. Who became popular in North America. In other words, Hawkwind is an institution in its own right, a cult phenomenon that began in 1969 and is going to this day, releasing albums and creating a science fiction world through their music, lyrics, art work and expansive stage show.
Lemmy replaced his guitar with a bass, to which he applied his aggressive playing style and helped give Hawkwind a major kick in the ass, helping to create the driving “space rock” sound. According to Lemmy, Hawkwind was NOT about peace and love, but about attacking you with lights, lasers, unfathomably loud sounds and a big breasted, nude dancer named Stacia.
Unfortunately Lemmy’s tenure in Hawkwind lasted less than four years. After singing lead on the group’s only hit “Silver Machine” and playing on four albums – Doremi Fasol Latido, Space Ritual, Hall of the Mountain Grill and Warrior on the Edge of Time – he was unceremoniously dismissed from the band. Accounts differ as to what actually happened, but two things remain clear; Hawkwind were like a nation in that they had so many members that a civil war of differing interest was inevitable and that, with Lemmy’s departure, Hawkwind would never be the same again.
Lemmy once humorously said that he had been fired from so many bands, he started one of his own to prevent that from happening again. In 1975, at age 29, that’s exactly what he did. Starting in the bohemian Ladbroke Grove district of London – an area where naive hippie types drop acid, rage against “the man” and worship Socialist and Anarchist losers – Lemmy formed Bastard. According to manager Doug Smith, a band with a name like that was never going to get anywhere; of course these days people wouldn’t bat an eye lash with the existence of bands like Anal Cunt and Nunslaughter, but 1975 was a different time! So Lemmy changed it to the slightly less offensive Motorhead, named after the final song he wrote for Hawkwind and based on his love for amphetamines.
I’m not going to go into the extensive history of Motorhead since that would be tedious and has been covered elsewhere. I’m here to discuss what their music means to me and why I believe Lemmy is the true king of rock ‘n’ roll. After a few missteps, Motorhead was flying. Over the course of its 40 year existence (which is officially over according to current drummer Mikkey Dee), the group released 23 studio albums, numerous live albums, compilations, singles and EPs. Like AC/DC, Slayer and the Ramones, many accuse Motorhead of making the same album over and over again. This assessment is both lazy and false. The group stuck with the heavy blues rock format, but kicked up the speed to unfathomably fast tempos, their albums were consistent in sound and tone, the album covers all look the same and Lemmy stuck to mostly the same themes in all of their songs, but mindless repetition it was not.
It’s just that the band’s sole intention was to make good rock ‘n’ roll at three to four minutes a clip (with the very occasional epic making it to six or seven minute length) and nothing more; they never made a double concept album with an elaborate story about a boy’s journey to be a hero in some fantasy land, they never made an acoustic album, they never did an all covers album of old jazz favorites and they never went through phases to prove to people that they vigorously changed in chameleon like fashion to adapt to trends that would be outdated six months later (ahem, David Bowie). They were just a good time rock ‘n’ roll band who believed in the CRAFT of writing good – nay GREAT – songs that delivered instant pleasure and immediate gratification.
Lemmy’s outlook on life was painfully simple; as Viv Shrimpton said in This Is Spinal Tap, “have a good time all the time.” Lemmy also claimed that Motorhead are not a political band, but then slightly contradicted this statement when he said, “if I see things as fucked, I’m gonna tell you they’re fucked.” What did Lemmy see as “fucked”? War, religion (well, Christianity specifically), politicians and businessmen (basically anyone who wore a suit and sat in an office for a living) and would occasionally attack some of society’s other demons, such as media corruption (“Talking Head”), censorship (“Brave New World”) and child molestation (“Don’t Let Daddy Kiss Me”).
What did Lemmy see as “not fucked”? Sex (sometimes with underage girls), rock ‘n’ roll, gambling, touring in the U.S.A. and telling various versions of “the man” to shove it. Oh, and did I mention sex? The only time in the group’s career where they caused controversy was in 1991 when some feminist harpies complained that the song “I’m So Bad (Baby, I Don’t Care)” is sexist. This surprised Lemmy more than anyone else, who wondered why they didn’t pick up on other, more blatant songs such as “Jailbait.”
But sexist Lemmy was not; how could he be when he gave full support and backing, not mention collaborating with contemporary, all-female metal band Girlschool? Lemmy wasn’t racist either, nor was he homophobic. In fact, in one case, he tricked drummer Mikkey Dee, a good looking glam rocker into hanging out at a gay bar. Don’t let the hairspray and makeup fool you; Dee was PISSED! But that’s how you build tolerance, by submerging someone in another world.
And yes, I can forgive Lemmy for advocating for the election of Barack Obama in 2012 under the hilarious pretense that Romney would make abortion illegal just like that. I can understand the concern; when your sperm is floating around in 1,000+ women, abortions probably would save you from going bankrupt.
Above all, Motorhead were a fan’s band. You either were part of the cult or you weren’t. Motorhead never released an album that sold as much as Back in Black, Appetite for Destruction, Metallica’s self-titled black album or Nevermind. Their most popular album is still their 1980 masterpiece Ace of Spades and, if I’m not mistaken, it hasn’t even gone platinum! Indeed there are hundreds of thousands of little bands crawling in the underground that are infinitely less popular than Motorhead, but, what makes Motorhead unique is that they have remained just under the radar, possibly the world’s most popular underdogs and the band that everyone’s favorite bands listened to. Metallica site Motorhead as a primary influence, name dropped them in just about every interview, performed at Lemmy’s 50th birthday party and even covered several of their songs. Did this make Motorhead any more popular? It truly makes me wonder about the taste of the average music fan. Ironically Motorhead’s one Grammy award came from a cover of the Metallica song “Whiplash.”
In a way, it’s kinda cool; I feel like I’m part of a secret group within a group. It didn’t matter what sub-sect of the underground you were a part of because Motorhead appealed to all of them. A Motorhead audience could consist of long haired metal heads, spiky haired punk rockers, pompadour sporting rockabilly dudes, just anybody who enjoys good rock ‘n’ roll.
And, after a long day of work, isn’t that what everyone needs? In a world where we’re bombarded with threats of terrorism, politicians who want to take away one right after another, high unemployment rates and a media that distorts stories and plays up special interests to drive a narrative, isn’t that what anyone wants? To sit back with a beer and crank up some loud, ear damaging rock ‘n’ roll music?