There are very few genuine rock icons. The people who have not only found their own niche within the fiercely codified fields of rock and pop music but have actually altered the form, reducing it to its core essence, cutting it to suit the extremities of their personality so that they can wear it like a leather jacket. For punk rock, there’s the Ramones, for funk there’s James Brown, and for hard rock, there was Lemmy, leader of Motörhead, who has died at the age of 70.
No one else could embrace the cliches of the form—the black clothes, the obsession with the uniforms of Nazi Germany, the bottles of Jack Daniels, the wall of Marshall stacks—and create something truly unique. Lemmy was a star bass player in a musical form that venerates guitarists, with a face like a comfortable old shoe in the middle of an LA scene of pretty boys dressing in skin-tight lycra. He was older than his peers, wiser than his own stereotype, and according to many of the tributes being paid to him today, far, far nicer than anyone in his position would bother being.
The true hedonists always remember that the live fast, die young credo may be an excuse to do whatever the hell you like, but you’ve got to allow for the people you may hurt along the way. You can be a brute when it suits, but a gentleman always. Lemmy was a hedonist in that sense, the kind of person far more likely to say no—to authority, to other people’s expectations, to becoming a senseless monster—than to say yes. He tried stuff, and the stuff he liked, he did again.
And one of the things he liked above all was loud, fast rock ‘n’ roll. So as the great man is no longer with us, here are five musical things he did that deserve to be celebrated:
In the midst of a space-rock ensemble, attempting to travel to the outer reaches of human consciousness, traveling via the astral plane and leaving earthly cares behind, there’s a rock ‘n’ roll Caliban playing a boogie tune about riding a motorbike (or rocket ship) into another dimension (or nihilistic oblivion). This fusion of cerebral fantasy and earthy reality became a No.3 hit in the U.K. in 1972.
Having been sacked from Hawkwind following a Canadian drugs bust, Lemmy put together a band to play tough rock quickly at high volume. Being by nature an uncompromising sort, he elected to name this band Bastard. Then, realizing he liked the idea of his records being played on the radio, he changed it to Motörhead, after the song about amphetamines that he had originally written for Hawkwind.
As unthinkable as it may appear now, there was a time when Motörhead regularly appeared on British pop music TV shows like Top of the Pops with their genuine hit singles. The first was a 1978 cover of “Louie Louie” that sounds rather tame by comparison to the full face-in-a-jet-engine force of the follow-up. Even after nearly 40 years, “Overkill” sounds entirely unsuitable for a family audience.
“Ace of Spades”
There are many reasons to celebrate this song. It’s by far the band’s most recognizable tune, one of the hardest rocking songs to ever become a daytime airplay staple on oldies radio. It’s also another neat encapsulation of Lemmy’s carefree philosophy, and as if that weren’t enough, it once featured as a live montage sountrack in “Bambi,” the most highly-regarded epsiode of hugely influential British comedy The Young Ones. Lemmy’s face is suitably pokerish throughout.
“Please Don’t Touch”
A one-off collaboration between Motörhead and Girlschool that resulted in this hit cover of an old hit by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. It’s a song Lemmy will have known well, as he cut his musical teeth during the beat group boom of the very early ’60s in a band called the Rockin’ Vicars. Quite apart from the general rocking-ness of the song, it’s fascinating to hear that torn-paper larynx wrap itself round something as conventional as a melody.
“Killed By Death”
This is probably the most quoted song title of the moment, given the circumstances. A black joke across social media of which Lemmy would surely have approved. It’s also a slightly less pell-mell song, dominated by guitar solos that contains one of the truest self-mythologizing couplets he ever wrote: “I’m a romantic adventure, and I’m a reptile too.”Read More