Motörhead Versus the System

by BEN TERRALL

"Nobody’s crazy like me!" howls Motörhead front man Lemmy Kilmister on one of the scorching tracks from his band’s latest release, The World is Yours. Now 65 years ageless, the bass guitar wrangler and rock and roll bon vivant still can let rip a grizzled heavy metal horror movie vocal like nobody’s business (odd that only the Hellraiser film franchise mined that vein for scare flick soundtrack gold), and the band he founded 35 years ago still delivers with the tensile strength of a great white shark’s bite.

The band’s sustained power is rooted in years of continuous touring. From the early 1980s through the early 90s a four piece two guitar onslaught, Motörhead returned to its power trio roots when guitar strangler Wurzel (not his birth name) left the fold in 1994. Since then, Lemmy, Phil Campbell (on guitar for 26 years), Mikki Dee (pounding drums for 18 years), have tightened the band’s pile driving sound – a precursor of speed metal but also a direct link to 50s and 60s rock and roll — into a vertiable sonic tsunami. Since 1994, they’ve put out an album every two years, with all three bandmates writing the music that propels Lemmy’s lyrics.

Though Lemmy’s profligate shagging, drinking and drugging history is jaw-dropping (see his autobiography White Line Fever for incredible details of his late 60s/early 70s speed and acid binges), unlike Keith Richards, he never touched heroin or needles: Motörhead still performs the venerable chestnut "Stay Clean," which references opiate addiction, not personal hygiene. It’s a twisted but oddly life-affirming tidal wave. They certainly still deliver transcendence live, as I can attest after seeing four consistently great shows on their recently concluded U.S. tour (as I type, the band is reconquering Australia, to be followed by South America and Europe).

Though Lemmy has penned a number of quite powerful ballads in recent years ("God Was Never On Your Side," "One More Fucking Time"), there isn’t much danger of his lyrics ever getting cloying. "Devil in My Head," "Waiting for the Snake," and the misanthropic "Brotherhood of Man" ("We kill for money, wealth and lust. For this we should be damned/ We are disease upon the world. Brotherhood of Man") are unlikely to be cited in vacuous workshops on the power of positive thinking.

Among the standout numbers from 2008’s Motorizer was "One Short Life," in which the mutton-chopped Briton sang what sounds like his personal code: "One thing is for certain, By all we know and love. If you compromise your integrity, you should drown in your own blood." On The World is Yours, the mood is largely one of disgust with greedy mediocrities who never had much integrity in the first place.

After 35 years of raging against conformity and injustice, Motörhead still cuts through bullshit with alacrity. Lemmy explained recently that the new album’s title is strictly sarcastic, as the world is now owned by banks, not rock and roll enthusiasts. In the video for "Get Back in Line," one of the new songs the band has been performing live, the three Motörhead members approach a swank suite where bankers are engorging themselves on food and drink while throwing down cards that read "More Troops to Afghanistan" and "Break the Unions." Enter Lemmy, Phil Campbell and Mikkey Dee, who commence smashing furniture and physically assaulting fatcats. They really look like they’re enjoying what millions of Americans fantasize doing to the "Too Big to Fail" set. You don’t see Justin Timberlake or Lady Gaga attacking Wall Street kleptocrats in their videos, do you? Nor do they sing lyrics like "We live on borrowed time. Hope turned to dust. /Nothing is forgiven we fight for every crust./ The way we are is not the way we used to be my friend./ All things come to he who waits. The waiting never ends."

The 2011 biopic Lemmy: 49% Motherfucker, 51% Son Of A Bitch has a lot to recommend it, but die hard fans are left wondering why every semi-famous rock dude in L.A. with a tattoo had to be given a chance to sing the title subject’s praises. Certainly showing a room full of kids attending the same school a young Lemmy went to in Wales singing "Ace of Spades" was a nice touch, and Captain Sensible of pioneer britpunk outfit The Damned talking about Lemmy’s gigs with that band provides essential punk rock historical context. But why not more interview footage with the film’s protagonist, or the crew and band members Mr. Kilmister has spent more time with in recent decades than any other humans? Or more than a glimpse of his side project Head Cat, a trio with Slim Jim of the Stray Cats and rockabilly guitarist Danny B. Harvey, in which Lemmy indulges his 50s rocker obsession by playing covers of Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins tunes? Not to mention the dearth of songs played in their entirety.

For those perhaps slightly damaged individuals who need a more complete look at the man and his band, the BBC documentary Live Fast, Die Old, which aired in 2005 and can be viewed on youtube, provides a more thorough view. For one thing, the BBC doc gives you a better dose of the great man’s deranged wordplay, and acknowledges his passion for reading — specifically P.G. Wodehouse while the camera was running. As Lemmy notes in White Line Fever, he glories in "lunacy for its own sake," as "that’s the great British legacy to the world, humour like The Goon Show, The Young Ones, and Monty Python. Some people don’t get it, which is too bad for them. You’re supposed to laugh in life. Laughing exercises all the facial muscles and keeps you from getting old."

Long may he cackle.

BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com

 

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