How Motörhead Became Legends
Martin Popoff and Lemmy Kilmister. Photos c/o Martin Popoff.
Metal

How Motörhead Became Legends

We sit down with Martin Popoff, author of 'Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers: The Rise of Motörhead,' to talk about the band's rise to infamy.
June 13, 2017, 12:00pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey.

There was no act to Motörhead. They were the ultimate bad luck bad boys of rock 'n' roll, fans of hard drinking and heavy riffs. They wore leather, studs and, bullet belts because that was what they wore—they're the ones who made it cool. Every rock band to ever think of itself as a rock band owes something to Motörhead. On albums like Overkill, they fused punk and metal to create thrash, a sound that has been replicated endlessly. And they lived the life to match it.

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At the core of all of this was the late, legendary Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister, a brilliant lyricist who famously didn't care much for rehearsing. He would just show up and and do his thing, relying on the other band members to come up with the music. His magnum opus, the song that perfectly captures what Motörhead's all about, is the seminal "Ace of Spades," a blistering rocker with such proclamations as "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."

During the recording of the proposed St Valentines Massacre EP, drummer Phil Taylor, his girlfriend Motorcycle Irene, and two roadies were arrested and charged with possession. When the police conducted drug sweeps in London, they'd found cannabis residue, methaqualone, and cocaine at houses the band was associated with. At the time it was dubbed "The Great Motörhead Bust," setting the tone for the band's growing infamy.

In a new book, Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers: The Rise of Motörhead, Martin Popoff, one of heavy metal's most widely recognized journalists, celebrates the classic-era Motörhead lineup of Lemmy, Phil "Animal" Taylor, and guitarist Fast Eddie Clarke. He remembers there being a "kind of a jokey element to the band, like you didn't know if they were completely serious." The book covers the 1977-1982 years when the legend of Motörhead was created.

"That lineup is the one that was groundbreaking," Popoff says. "But it ended when "Fast Eddie was stuck in a boiler room, a couple of lines on an amp and a bottle. That was basically his going away present." I chatted with Popoff to find out what Lemmy Kilmister was really like, the effects drugs and alcohol had on the band's career, and how the deaths of Taylor and Lemmy impacted his book.

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Noisey: When did you first get into Motörhead? How did you discover them? And what did you think of their music?
Martin Popoff: I first got into them on the debut album. It looked totally heavy. I was kind of thinking, 'this is OK.' It was so low-fi and dirty sounding, but by the time Overkill came out I remember jumping up and almost hitting my head on a low beam in this old record store. I still maintain that's one of the heaviest albums of all of the 70s. It's one of the very first albums to have no ballads at all. I joined the Motörhead fan club almost immediately. Probably the first person in Canada to ever do that. I would have been 16 at the time and none of this stuff is coming out domestically. It's all imports.

I'm 46, and I remember going into the record stores when I was a teenager and what a thrill it was to find something new and exclusive like you were saying. How's that different for kids today?
It was a very different scene. Obviously now you can get information on anything at your fingertips, but back then there was always that little bit of tension because you were risking your allowance money or your teenage job money on these records, quite often not having a clue how it was all going to turn out. There were quite big powerful magazines and we would learn our stuff from that or you would literally learn stuff by walking into the store, picking it up, and hoping when you got home these five long hairs on the back were actually heavy. You would pull out albums and you look at the lyrics. Read the liner notes to see everybody's name and to see if you could figure out where anybody was from. It was just a beautiful time to be consuming music.

Motörhead was known for actually being the caricatures that they portrayed, unlike many bands nowadays. How did this realness affect who they were?
It was not an act with those guys. They loved this music. It's almost like they loved Motörhead music, and if you looked at old interviews and even some of Lemmy's last interviews it's like, "we are a force onto ourselves, we don't particularly look at whole bunch of other bands." You might look at Girlschool and Tank and Warfare and maybe to some extent Venom as being sort of a subset of Motörhead, but it's a very small subset, and it's very different. No one sounded like Motörhead.

Lemmy grew up in the 50s. His favorite music was original rock and roll. It was pretty bizarre. Even Fast Eddie was into the blues and stuff, and Phil was kind of an enigma. He listened to jazz and punk and all sorts of stuff. I think the main thing to gather from these guys is that they were almost a band in a little bit of isolation in that what they were making did not reflect their personal tastes at all. It was like they were building this church of Motörhead, and they lived that life, and they played this music. And because it seemed to be unrelated to their record collections they came up with this music that nobody has ever really sounded like or duplicated since.

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How did Lemmy, the ultimate rock-n-roll outlaw, write about social injustice?
Well, I'd say that it's a pretty good bet that readers and listeners wouldn't go wrong treating Lemmy's many lyrics about war and the general idea of battle as metaphor for struggling through life and to represent his very cynical worldview. Around that, there are the cautions against drugs, and even many lyrics about integrity, some of which were specifically couched in the idea of rock 'n' roll integrity, but I think the more interesting reading or gleaning is that Lemmy used to the horrors of war to represent real life.

How did Lemmy justify his drug use and how did he see it in comparison to those using heroin?
I think Lemmy would justify it in saying this is what works for me, I'm not like normal people, and like a mad scientist, he carefully worked out what he could tolerate. And he also drew a very thick black line between what he considered good drugs and bad drugs, with heroin, particularly, falling and the bad category. And so he dedicated a few lyrics to that, and he would talk about it in interviews, about how he'd lost many friends to heroin. But just thinking about this, I think drugs played into his rock 'n' roll outlaw persona, and I really emphasize the word outlaw. In other words, he knew it wasn't right, but it was right for him, a sort of damned soul. But yes, I think he figured out what drugs he could do and still remain relatively productive, and when he saw that productivity, he basically accepted that what he was doing was OK.

What effect do you think drugs and alcohol had on Motörhead's music and their career?
They seemed to be more or less drunk all the time. They did a lot of speed. They smoked pot. The effect on their career, well, obviously, right at the beginning speed had a big factor because of the recording of that first album. They were supposed to go in and just do a single, but they just kind of stayed up all night and cranked out an entire album. Went to the label and said, 'hey, we were supposed to do a single, but we did an album for you.' It always gave them that image of being a great party band. They were always in the pubs. They were meeting the fans, so they were basically the people's band. And, sure, there was definitely a lot of carousing going on with those guys.

What was the dynamic between Lemmy, Phil, and Fast Eddie? Why do you think this is the classic lineup for the band?
Lemmy is just Lemmy. He's just sort of like this guy walking through life, he's kind of a rock star, but he knows he's an underground rock star. He's a legend who lives by his own rules, but those rules created a band where somebody was going to have to take care of things. It was Eddie of the three of them that did it. If anything had to do with the business end of it, it was like you better talk to Eddie about it because these guys couldn't care less. I loved all the eras of Motörhead and think a lot of their best writing, albums, and productions were on the later albums. I agree with Lemmy when it comes to that.

I remember him telling me, listening to that old stuff, "it sounds a bit ropey if you ask me." And there is an element to that, but the early stuff is rawer and simpler. There's kind of like a tightness to the Mickey D and Phil lineup that is admirable, but the lineup the book covers is obviously is the classic lineup. Only one version of the band gets to be the groundbreaking band, the record-breaking band, and that's that first version.

You started writing the book before the recent deaths of Phil Taylor and Lemmy. How did that affect the witting of the manuscript?
I more or less finished the book when they were still alive. I knew Phil was not in great shape, but Lemmy was in perfect shape. They were touring around all over the place, but then obviously he got cancer and went downhill pretty fast. It just kind of cast a pall over the whole thing. I was a little scared that people would think that I'm jumping on the Motörhead bandwagon and capitalizing on the death of these two guys when in fact the book was pretty much finished and all three of them were still alive.

Motörhead never really got that popular in the states, yet everyone knows who Lemmy is. Why do you think that was the case?
They really never did get popular in America, but what they did do is they just kept grinding away, grinding away all through those different lineups through the 80s, 90s to the 2000s. They just played constantly and they just bigger and bigger and bigger. It was really based on this almost cartoon character that Lemmy had built for himself. They became a legendary band almost the same way The Ramones did, in that they never really sold a lot of records. They never had that one big hit record, but they just kept cranking them out. Everybody knows who Motörhead is, and that's because of the legend of Lemmy.

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