Motörhead Lives On
An archival concert album from Berlin, Germany is a reminder of who rock’s greatest power trio will always be
I know this sounds like heresy, or maybe the start of some kind of Rock ‘n’ Roll Losers Anonymous meeting, but hear me out.
I’ve seen Motörhead dozens of times and the last time I saw them was at a Boston club, the House of Blues, in 2011. And I walked out about 2/3 of the way through the gig. And when Lemmy died around Christmas four years later, I went, “Fuck me, I’ll never see ‘em again. Why didn’t I stay for the off-the-tracks train ride?”
But, yes, before the inevitable rev-up to “Killed by Death,” “Ace of Spades” and the encore of “Overkill,” I was at the exit and out onto Lansdowne Street facing Fenway Park. A little shell-shocked and probably a bit abashed. Look, I was torn. Loved the band and the blitzing rolling-thunder assault on the senses, aggro rock ‘n’ roll you could feel in your solar plexus. But the punishment on my eardrums just became too much (finally) to take. It wasn’t like I didn’t expect it. I’d weathered this pummeling maelstrom before with a mixture of cheer and fear, but this time, the pain and potential ear damage began to overwhelm the pleasure and I wasn’t there as a working critic; I was there as a fan.
My introduction to the band via the song “White Line Fever” on the 1977 Stiff Records sampler, A Bunch of Stiffs. (Also the title of Lemmy’s 2002 memoir.) I surmised even back in my quasi-naïve youth that that white line fever had to do with both lines in the pavement and lines on a mirror.
AUDIO: Motörhead “White Line Fever”
Lemmy may have been pro-speed and pro-coke, but he was virulently anti-heroin, writing a powerful and persuasive piece in Rip magazine in the ‘90s. “Your life becomes a search for heroin; the only way you can get up is if you have some,” he told me. “Otherwise, you lie in bed shivering and cramped up. Doesn’t sound like much fun to me.”
Over the years, I knocked back whiskey a few times with Lemmy – born Ian Kilmister – backstage. Did phone interviews. Played pinball with him at Dingwalls in London back in 1985 upon a chance meeting. It was Lemmy’s local and we were both there to see Larry Wallis. Lemmy bummed change off me to play pinball – “Got 10 pence?” – which, yes, brought me to the roots of his nickname: “Lend me a fiver?” he’d ask others as a young man. Pretty sure he had a lot of givers.
I quickly learned that no one should estimate the man’s smarts just because he fronted, played bass and wrote music for a band some might find crude and blunt.
Once, in talking with him, I raised the cliché of the public image, an old jape that they were essentially gorillas in leather jackets. “Other people describe us as that,” responded Lemmy. “We’re not gorillas. I think we’re . . . let’s see . . . monitor lizards in leather jackets? . . . English poets in leather jackets? … Knights in shining armor.” And, also “the old contemptibles.” Said with pride.
The Motörhead credo was “Everything louder than everything else,” and that served as the title of its seventh live album. Now there’s a new (by new I mean recorded in 2012) one released April 23 called Louder Than Noise … Live in Berlin.
The “Everything louder …” line was Spinal Tap funny (Like “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” and amps to 11.) Not unknowingly. Lemmy told me that too many people, especially Americans, didn’t get his dry sense of humor. “Without humor, you’re dead,” he said. “I see these thrash-metal bands now that have got no sense of humor at all and that’s fatal. They’re all so terribly intense, beavering away at it, they just don’t know that they’re funny. I always knew I was funny.”
The German umlaut, by the way, meant nothing, really, pronunciation-wise – just part of the look and logo, a la Blue Öyster Cult. Lemmy was a collector of Nazi memorabilia but about as far from a Nazi as I can imagine. I have to assume it was all about owning the enemy’s stuff.)
The band did win a “Metal Performance” Grammy in 2005 for “Whiplash” and had three other Grammy metal noms. But I figure Lemmy and most every fan considers a Grammy to be something that falls far short of the Holy Grail. (I mean Jethro Tull won a Metal Grammy!) Lemmy did not consider Motörhead a heavy metal band. Most every Motörhead concert I can recall began with these words from Lemmy: “We are Motorhead and we play rock ‘n’ roll.” So simple, so succinct, so … obvious? There was, of course, the 1987 Motorhead album called Rock ‘n’ Roll. Plain as day, right?
I think this is what Lemmy was trying to say to fans of metal, to fans of punk, to critics like me who divined that Motörhead had adroitly bridged the two genres: This was, pure and simple, his version of rock ‘n’ roll, a tradition he picked up from Little Richard, Chuck Berry and the Beatles.
When he sang in concert, Lemmy had the mic high up on the stand, so he would seem to be straining, singing upwards into it. The sight made me thing of a hanged man, all stretched out.
He was much more than the anchor of a power trio; he played what might be called lead bass or a position he termed “a deep guitarist.”
“I was a guitar player first, so I’m used to playing chords,” Lemmy told a bass specializing magazine, in what was likely his final interview. He played a Rickenbacker through a modified stack of Marshalls.
Lemmy wrote songs about sex (a good thing), speed ‘n’ booze (same), war (bad), rich assholes (obviously odious) and death (inevitable, so-what?). Consider how it plays out in Motorhead’s best-known song “Ace of Spades,” living the high life while facing the inevitable: “You know I’m born to lose and gambling’s for fools/But that’s the way I like it baby/I don’t wanna live forever.”
This was heavy, working man’s rock ‘n’ roll with no idiotic, quasi-Satanic posing. Motörhead was all about anti-authoritarianism – “Eat the Rich,” indeed – about melody plus crunch, all topped by Lemmy’s gruff bark, as if (figuratively) he was gargling whiskey and glass.
A slight diversion here, speaking of war. Lemmy wrote and sang one of the most poignant anti-war songs ever in “1916” It was done along with cello and marching drums and no, not ever part of a Motörhead set. Lemmy said he was inspired by what the Beatles had done with “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yesterday.” It’s killer. (Another true confession: It may be my favorite Motörhead song.)
VIDEO: Motörhead “1916”
Motörhead swung as it bludgeoned. Crude as it may have seemed to the untrained (or squashed) ear, there was a certain finesse, even dignity – and of course humor – about what the band did. They weren’t Spinal Tap, but I’m certain they got the jokes. They wrote “Killed by Death” and, lo and behold, on December 28, 2015 Lemmy was indeed killed by death, as will be us all. (Cancer, to be specific.) “I Know How to Die” kicks off the new live album. Lemmy says hello in German and in English, “How you doing? All right? We are Motörhead.”
Motörhead fans have redundant taste and I say that not as a bad thing at all. So do AC/DC fans. So do Ramones fans. All those bands endorsed the philosophy of the title of an ‘80s Kinks album: Give the People What They Want.
Hard rock and metal being mostly a young man’s game, I once asked Lemmy if he ever see stepping back from the stage. You know, retiring. I suspected I knew the answer to this and Lemmy was appropriately incredulous: “You just don’t consider giving up. I mean, what else am I gonna do? A fucking talk show?! If I quit Motörhead, I’d have to do something, right? So, I might as well keep on with the one that’s known.”
(Actually, a Lemmy-helmed talk show woulda been fun.)
Lemmy and I were talking in 1995 and I told him I’d just seen the movie “Outbreak,” you know, the runaway hit about a virus run amok. Jimbo, the young, chimp-snatching shady trader, is one of the film’s early villains. How did they costume him? Why they put him in a black Motorhead T-shirt, which, even though partially covered, can be glimpsed by the discerning eye.
“A Motorhead shirt?!” exclaimed Lemmy. “Excellent. Can’t get any better publicity than that. It’s, like, before we were a disease; now we’re a virus! People just have to breathe us in.”
They weren’t a cartoon or a cliché. They may have inspired countless speed metal bands and they sure played fast, but that’s not exactly where they came from. “I’m respected, which is nice,” Lemmy told me. “But I’m a fucking idiot, the way I do things.”
Which brings me back (finally!) to the latest (last?) live release, Louder Than Noise …Live in Berlin. The promo pitch for the album touts it as a “robust re-blast of the live Motörhead experience” and I can’t quibble with that. But, yes, one of the joys of Motörhead on your CD player, turntable or streaming service is your ability to control the volume. I like it loud and am listening to it through ear buds as I write, but I am eschewing the pain.
Do you need another Motörhead live album? No, you do not. These are not unique renditions of songs in the catalog.
Do you want one? Please, sir, may I have another. Too much is not enough.
The latest product comes in a variety of formats and CD/LP/DVD combinations, a package which, of course, was mandated by law to have “loud” in its title. The accompanying footage was done by veteran metal director/producer Herwig Meyszner, This is its first single, released April 6:
VIDEO: Motörhead “Rock It” (Live in Berlin)
As you know, Motörhead had a few different lineups over the course of its run and the hardcore will forever argue which is the best. Me, I’ve always liked the old Creem line about Motörhead being Lemmy and two or three other guys who aren’t Lemmy. I know mega-fans argue the precise merits and faults of the lineup variations and constantly; I’m not one of them. Those are hairs I just can’t split. For the record, on this outing, it’s Lemmy on bass-played-like-a-guitar, guitarist Phil Campbell (in the band 29 years, Lemmy says) and drummer Mikkey Dee (“the best drummer in the world” – Lemmy again.)
Louder Than Noise …, done with longtime producer Cameron Webb is, like ‘em all, a sprint from start to finish with brief pauses – or kinda clunky edits (this isn’t seamless) – between songs. I shut my eyes and I’m figuratively in the middle of a sweaty throng of – yes – mostly men, raising their fists and shouting the Hook ‘em Horns devil’s salute, moshing and banging heads.
This time, I stayed and listened (at 85 dB?) to The Final Three: “Killed by Death,” “Ace of Spades” and “Overkill.” I love Lemmy’s intro to “Ace of Spades,” calling it the night’s last song, but dryly noting if you make some noise, “we come back.” Him knowing that every single fan in the hall knew the equation. His parting shot before “Overkill,” in case anyone forgot: “We are fucking Motörhead and we play rock and roll.”
As a fan, I felt exactly like what Lemmy told me somewhere in the ‘90s, about him still being in the biz: “It’s a great thing for keeping you young, this business. Suddenly, you look around and think, `This is weird. I’m sure I’m only 21. Something’s wrong here. Go back and check the figures.’
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