Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister Is Still Wild

Motörhead, as the story goes, came to be as the result of a drug bust. Before that, there were the Beatles.

As those lovable mop tops were invading America in 1964, Ian Kilmister, known as Lemmy since grade school, was 19 years old, and he did what a lot of British teens were doing at the time: He joined a band.

“They were the first band to write their own songs in Britain,” Kilmister explains. “Up to then, everyone was doing American covers.”

He would spend the remainder of the decade as an itinerant, playing in various U.K. groups from North Wales to Manchester.

In 1967, Kilmister was in London and got work as a roadie for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, a job, he says, that was born of homelessness. “The only person I knew there was a roadie for the Who. He was working for Hendrix at the time, and he let me sleep on his floor.”

By the '70s, Kilmister had landed a steady gig with space-rockers Hawkwind. But he got busted for possession and had to serve five days in a Canadian jail, costing Hawkwind some North American dates. When they sacked Kilmister over it, his response was to start a band of his own. Bastard, he called it at first, then changed the name to Motörhead. The year was 1975.

Right out of the box, Motörhead came on fast and hard, like greasy biker thugs. Their music was a head kick of heavy-metal bombast and adrenalin, and they projected an aura of menace. They were ungodly loud, too, having been measured at 126 dB, or louder than a jet at take-off.

“It will be so dirty that if we move in next door to you,” Kilmister liked to say of Motörhead's sound in those early days, “your lawn will die.”

But it wasn't selling. Fans were spiking their hair and putting safety pins through their noses. It was punk, not metal, that was gaining an audience. Motörhead soldiered on through the next years with no label and little money. They pilfered gear to stay afloat. It took a few more years for Motörhead to catch hold, but that was okay by Kilmister. “I think you should be in music for the beauty of it and the love of it,” he says, “not planning it as a viable fuckin' business proposition.”

Yet Motörhead did become a viable business in time, and rock critics labored to paint them as a hybrid of punk and metal. In truth, the music was a muscular version of American '50s and '60s rock—the music Kilmister grew up with. “I remember when there wasn't any rock & roll,” he says. “I remember when Elvis' first record came out.”

He laughs, and then talks about another influence from back in the day, Little Richard. “And Pat Boone doin' versions of all [Little Richard's] songs. It was pathetic.” Kilmister sings a verse from “Tutti Frutti” in what has to be a Boone parody. “Fuckin' awful. It's as white as you can get,” he says. “And those white buck shoes. People listened to Pat Boone then, but who remembers him now?” Obviously, Kilmister does. “I wish I could erase that space in my memory and use it for something else.”

Motörhead, meanwhile, cultivated a reputation about as far from Pat Boone pablum as could be imagined. Kilmister became a sex hound of legendary dimension, claiming to have a lifetime score of better than 1,000 women. In 2006, Maxim placed him on its list of the Top 10 Living Legends of Sex, right behind Jack Nicholson and ahead of Magic Johnson. In retrospect, one wonders what Kilmister might have learned from Jimi Hendrix. “Ah, no,” he says with a laugh. “We weren't that close.”

Motörhead are currently touring behind The World Is Yours, their 20th studio release. The new record follows the template they established in the mid-'70s, a sound that has not changed perceptibly in the band's lifetime despite the fact musicians have come and gone around Kilmister, who, at age 65, is the only original member. But with Judas Priest, a band of the same vintage, announcing their retirement tour this year, how much longer can Motörhead hold out?

“As long as I can stand up,” says Kilmister, “and walk across a stage, you know?”

This story appeared in print as “The Ace Is Still Wild.”

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