INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS BY CHRIS SHONTING
I thought about trying to make the intro to this interview sound like an impartial journalist wrote it. But fuck that. Lemmy is my hero and I’m not going to try and hide it because that’d be no fun. When I was meeting, photographing, and interviewing Lemmy backstage at a recent New York show, I felt like a young boy sidling up to the kitchen table with my grandfather when the houseful of relatives had finally gone silent and he decided that it was time for me to hear his stories. At first I was nervous because this was the big show, but within the first few words Lemmy had already disarmed me. Then he let it rip and told his tales. As a Motörhead fan, I can think of nothing greater.
Lemmy is by far one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve had the good fortune of coming across. He’s a goddamn gentleman and not too shabby of a scholar either. Like his music, he is also quite savage. Some find him too brutal to handle. But offending those who are weak in constitution is just a byproduct of his total honesty. Lemmy has never changed in order to gain fanfare or subdue his critics. His entire existence speaks boundlessly about what it means to stick to your guns. There are no astronomical highs or abysmal lows in the story of Motörhead. There is simply the trajectory of a band plowing insolently through an endless blizzard of gigs, women, trends, naysayers, ass kissers, and industry swine. Lemmy is THE exemplary road dog for the ages.
Vice: What was it that made you say, “I’m going to be in a band”?
Hands down, women. Seeing them on TV flocking around rock singers. I came up in the 50s, you know, and that was kind of basic at the time. I got my first record in 1958. I was pretty young then, and I saw this English singer, Cliff Richard, who is still going but is very different now from what he was then. He was on TV, surrounded by chicks trying to pull his clothes off. I said, “That’s for me. It doesn’t even look like work.” I found out later that it was, but it does have its advantages over working at the washing-machine factory.
Yeah, I would say so.
So that’s what made me go for it. My mother played Hawaiian guitar, right, but there was really bad action on it, if you know what I mean. Nevertheless I put strings on it and took it to school during the week after exams, when you don’t do anything.
When you’re just sitting around.
Right. And I was immediately surrounded by chicks. It worked like a charm, and I couldn’t even play the fucking thing.
How soon after that did you think, “Maybe I’ve got to learn”?
Oh, about two hours. I find it quite easy to play chords and, you know, that was all I ever did. I never wanted to be a lead guitarist. I didn’t even realize there was such a thing as a bass player till later.
So I was a good rhythm guitarist for a long time, but I was shit at lead. Really mediocre, man.
But you did try doing lead guitar?
Yeah. I played lead for two years in a band called the Rockin’ Vicars. I just cheated, you know. I used to put on a lot of fuzz and move my fingers up and down really quick, and they thought it was a solo. I didn’t want to tell them it wasn’t.
Great bands usually implode after three albums or so, but you’ve kept Motörhead functioning for so long.
Coming up on 35 years now.
What are those other bands doing wrong?
They don’t think the music is important enough to sink their personal differences for the sake of it. I always felt that no personal differences were big enough to break up the band. I mean, people have left the band, but I always carried on. I never considered doing anything else. This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m supposed to be. I’m supposed to be in the fucking dressing room doing interviews. It’s my life.
It’s not a job anymore.
I want to ask you about Hawkwind, who you played bass for before you started Motörhead. How did you get it going with Hawkwind?
I went to see the band play live once before I joined them. Everybody was having this collective epileptic fit—the whole audience, 600 people. I thought, “Fuck it, I’ve got to join these guys.”
What were the pros and cons of being in Hawkwind?
What I liked about it was that it was the first time I played bass, and I found out that I could be a good bass player. So I became a bass player and I
really good at it, you know? That was a great thing for me—kind of an eye-opener—and also there was a lot of freedom within that band to play bass. I did a lot of fill-ins and a lot of smart shit behind Dave, who played lead guitar. You know, I was showing off as usual.
For the chicks.
What’s it for if you can’t show off? It’s rock ’n’ roll, so you might as well.
What were the things that really bugged the shit out of you?
In Hawkwind? Their attitude. I mean, they never told me I was in the band.
Fuck. That was like five years.
Five years. They fired me, and I said, “You can’t fire me, motherfuckers, you never told me I was in the band!”
Who ran that band?
Dave Brock, the lead guitarist. It’s his band, lock, stock, and barrel.
I’ve always thought, from watching interviews, that he seemed like a pretty levelheaded dude.
He was, but at the time we were very successful in Britain—number one and all that. And that gets to different people in different ways. They never really forgave me for being the singer on their only hit single. [
“Silver Machine.” That song was kind of a ringer.
They tried everybody else singing it before me and none of them could do it. I got it in like two or three takes. That really pissed them off. Then
printed my picture alone on the front page. “Hawkwind Goes to Number One” with my picture next to it.
Oh, that will make you some friends in the band.
Yeah. That really upset them. It was a funny bunch of people anyway. We were all cataclysmically stoned all the time. We were not even on a tour bus then, we were in the back of a van with two mattresses and blankets. That’s how we used to travel at festival time.
And it was still a festival when we were going home in the fucking van. In fact, Dell’s festival blanket wasn’t washed for two years. The fucking thing could fucking stand up on its own if you leaned it against the wall.
One band you played in before Hawkwind that I actually still listen to a lot is Sam Gopal.
Oh yeah. You listen to that?
I have it on my iPod. I think someone emailed it to me because you can’t get it.
You can now, apparently. It’s been put out again by somebody.
What was the deal with that? I think it’s some of the sickest music I’ve ever heard.
Well, I wrote all them songs in one night.
Fuck. You sang it too, right?
Yeah. That was in 1968. It was very rushed, obviously. But the speed was very good in those days. I sat up all night and wrote all the fucking songs. Eleven of them, I think.
When was the last time you listened to it?
It’s great. You guys even had girls doing backup vocals.
Yeah. Sue and Sunny were famous backing-group chicks at the time in London. They were on everybody’s record. Like Dusty Springfield, they did all her records. They were really well known.
Oh, you know, that song on there “Season of the Witch,” I didn’t write that one.
But the rest, in one night? Not too shabby.
Not too shabby.
What’s your writing process like?
I get the title first and write around that. It’s like a word exercise. You get on the theme and then you explore every possible avenue. So I’ll get a title like “Overkill” and then figure out stuff to do after that.
I don’t even know how many fucking songs you’ve written.
Who influenced you when you started out?
Everything I hear influences me. I can’t tell you all my influences as a musician. I mean, all the early rock singers like Little Richard, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, are important. All them guys. And all the Liverpool bands too. I was very lucky, man. I got to hear a lot of good shit. I saw the Beatles at the Cavern Club.
I remember reading about that in your book.
And Hendrix. I was working for him as a roadie just because I happened to be sleeping on his bassist Noel Redding’s floor at the time, and they needed an extra guy. I got to watch that motherfucker twice a night for about six months.
So if you had to say what the greatest act you ever saw was…
Hendrix and the Beatles. No doubt. Those two… you will never see anything like them again, because they were at the peak of their game and they came in and fucking wiped everybody out. Even the Stones. The Stones were secondhand next to the Beatles. It was only when the Beatles were gone that they could start calling themselves the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world, which they never were. They were always pretty ropy on stage. Without all that production they do now they would still be pretty ropy, because Keith is pretty ropy, isn’t he?
He is a great rhythm guitarist, but he isn’t a leader.
He is not the liveliest character I’ve seen.
He was livelier earlier on, but Brian Jones was the leader of the band for years. It was his band. He hired Jagger and Keith too, but they paced him out.
I wanted to ask you what your ideas are regarding success and failure. You are totally unchanged.
Why change if you’re on a winner? [
Yeah. But when Motörhead dropped that first album it seems like the media were like, “What the fuck?”
We couldn’t get released in America for about three years after we were a big hit in Britain. Then we were on fucking Legacy and Eclipse and then we got on Sony, which was actually worse. Then we got lucky. We got with… what was that label called? They got eaten by Sanctuary anyway.
Was it that German label?
No, we’re on SPV, the German label, now. But they just filed for bankruptcy.
It’s a common trend.
I know. Record companies are going under, and they don’t even understand how it happened to them. They are so fucking stupid.
Can you give the industry a grade, like an F to an A+, in terms of the way people have handled Motörhead?
Oh, it’s an F. It’s the same with any other band that’s a bit different. The industry has always been fucking surprised by the next breakout band. Like when the Liverpool bands went up—the Mersey Sound was a big craze right, and there was a small scene about Manchester, and then there was London with the Stones, and then it came over here with San Francisco, and then they did again with Seattle and Nirvana. After they have one hit with one band, they always run up to that city and sign everyone with a guitar around their neck. Half of them should have never even got a contract.
They were just kids with guitars who didn’t know what the fuck they were doing.
They just happened to be from Seattle or from Liverpool. A lot of them industry people—even Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager—didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. He signed about four bands that never had a hit, and then they got cast by the wayside.
But if all the labels embraced you and knew what to do, would Motörhead be Motörhead?
Because you guys are like underdogs and legends all in one.
Yeah. We made sort of a career out of it. We had no choice, actually, because we weren’t ever going to be the overdog. We’re kind of too brutal to be universally popular. I never thought we were going to be that. Being up toward the top of the second echelon is fine with me.
What it must have been like to be in the Beatles or the Stones, man. I cannot imagine. It must have been fucking torture. George Harrison said it was the worst time of his life and the best time of his life.
I’m sure there’s a serious amount of 50/50 there.
Yeah, sure. Everything they did was under the microscope. One British daily paper had a Beatles page in it that was about whatever they did the day before. A mass-circulation paper—the
, it was—which was the biggest-selling paper in Britain at the time.
Do you think anyone could really stand that for a long time?
Stand being that big? No. You have to either give up or change. And the Beatles certainly did that.
I always liked how they were cast as goodie-goodies while the Stones were cast as Satanic tough guys.
The Beatles were from Liverpool. It’s a hard town. The Stones weren’t the hard men. They just dressed up. The Beatles were the hard men. Fucking Liverpool, man. The Stones are from the suburbs of London. Ringo was from the fucking Dingle, which is the worst area, next to Glasgow, that I’ve ever seen in my life. What they did in both those places—they couldn’t reform it, so they just knocked it down. They moved everybody out and razed it and built new housing projects. No way to make it civilized, you know what I mean? It was fucking lawless. The police wouldn’t go in there.
Your song “Stone Deaf in the USA” is a tribute to partying in America.
And you moved to LA.
Yeah. But not when I wrote that song.
So the song isn’t about that? That was just from touring?
Yeah. We did the Ozzy Osbourne tour—the first
Blizzard of Ozz
tour. Audiences were like this [
makes a disgusted face
Like, “What the fuck?”
All the way through the set. Most of them didn’t understand anything about it, but a few did and that’s our core fan base. Most of them were just there for the event of something, and they were appalled. But they were appalled by Ozzy too. Never mind us. What they did when Kiss joined the tour after we finished, I don’t know.
Jesus Christ, Kiss took over from you guys opening for Ozzy? That’s a schizophrenic tour.
Yeah. Kiss and Ozzy.
You are the most low-maintenance band, and then they needed their fucking makeup artist.
I know. Remember when they took the makeup off?
Yeah. That was awkward for everybody.
Very awkward. Because you found out, “Jesus, they’re ugly.”
They are not pretty men.
Except for Paul Stanley. He was still cute. But the other three?
It’s like waking up next to a chick after you were blackout drunk and you’re like, “Oh shit.”
] Fucking hell, hiding in the bathroom till she leaves.
I like to play asleep.
It’s like the fox-trap syndrome. You’d rather gnaw your arm off than wake her up.
We’ve all had that situation.
I remember one of our crew once, Paulie, there were these two chicks we took on all our German shows. We used to call them the “Monsters of Rock,” right? One of them had one tooth. A terrible mess, but they were really big fans, you know? So this guy Paulie pulled one of them one night, and they were sharing a room with our sound guy, Dave Chamberlain. He woke and he could tell he was next to someone, but he had no idea who it was. Then he looks over at Dave, and Dave is in bed like this [
Lemmy makes more disgusted faces
]. And he went [
another disgusted face
]. And Dave went [
shakes his head
]. Then Paulie went to the bathroom and waited till she left.
That’s a pretty relatable story for most people.
Most fans have been through that one.
Shit. I’ve dealt with that all over the Lower East Side. Really sounds like a good idea at first.
Yeah. Especially late night, drunk.
That’s when all the fucking golden chicks start popping out.
That’s when everybody becomes good looking, or at least manageable. But sometimes, it’s like there’s the last chicken in the shop and you don’t seem to be able to help yourself. It’s like having an out-of-body experience. You see yourself chatting up this dragon, and you know you’re doing it but you still do it.
It’s like the devil and the angel on the shoulder.
And the angel always loses.
The angel doesn’t have a tolerance for alcohol.
And the devil is always shaped like a dick.
Pointing at her.
“Do it, do it.” Like a fucking dog.
OK, this next one is kind of a cliché question.
I’ll give you a cliché answer.
All right. Good. Line me up with a solid for this one. Where are the best women you’ve found from touring all over the world?
The best women are the ones who want to fuck you, and the worst are the ones who don’t.
So that pretty much transcends all geographic boundaries.
It does, because there are only two kinds of women in the world—women who you want to fuck and succeed, and women who you don’t want to. It’s easy, really. It doesn’t matter where they’re from. I don’t mind the accent. There’s always sign language, even if you can’t speak the same language.
There is. Especially in a barroom.
Yeah. Though it gets kind of confusing if you’re really cataclysmically drunk. They often get the wrong idea. Many a guy has woken up married with tattoos on the chest.
I got a couple of friends like that. But listen, we have to also say that you’ve been very supportive of a lot of female musicians.
I like women in rock ’n’ roll. I was brought up by two women—my mother and my grandmother. My father left when I was three months old. She didn’t marry again till I was like ten or something, so I understand women a lot better than a lot of guys do from going out hunting with Dad. Mostly I like women more than guys. If you talk to guys, especially in America, it’s always macho bullshit you talk about, like how much you hate politics and you’re going to be in the militia and shoot something. There’s a lot of that about, and it’s a shame because this country is paradise. People here are shooting themselves in the foot and they don’t even know it.