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In memory of Lemmy

Almost seven months ago, Ian “Lemmy” Kimister, one of the most important figures of popular music, died leaving a terrible void in the hearts of millions around the world. This post is a small tribute to Lemmy’s awesome life and contribution to music. I draw on Lemmy’s autobiography (White line fever, 2002, co-written by Janiss Garza) and the documentary Lemmy: 49% motherfucker, 51% son of a bitch, to refer to some of the most important musical stations in his life.

Little Richard, a musical innovator and Lemmy's major influence.

Little Richard, a musical innovator and Lemmy’s major influence.

Lemmy’s music, in many ways, stands in sharp contrast to heavy metal, due to the former being deeply rooted in blues and rock ‘n’ roll and devoid of classical music influences that define heavy metal. What made Lemmy’s style distinct was his disposition to engage with and re-interpret new trends in popular music through his rock ‘n’ roll lenses. Behind a song like “Orgasmatron“, on first appearance a brutal heavy metal song, hides a classic surf-rock rhythm and chord progression, only slowed down, distorted, and accompanied by a a heavy growl.

Lemmy’s life had been soaked in Rock ‘n’ roll. He lived and breathed it in its first incarnation, that is, African-American musicians’ interpretation of blues and gospel music in the late 1940s-early 1950s. Some of the musicians that influenced Lemmy in this early period of his life include Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but also their white contemporaries, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. In his auto-biography he identifies Billy Haley‘s “Razzle dazzle” as the first Rock ‘n’ roll song he ever heard, although he considered Bill Halley’s music as inferior to that of his contemporaries.

Johnny Kid and the Pirates

Johnny Kid and the Pirates

Lemmy also lived first-hand the appropriation of this music by the first British musicians in the 1960s. He lived in a period during which hundreds of bands made by young English men and women started their careers by covering African-American rock ‘n’ roll, slowly embodying its logic. This period was followed by all these bands eventually spitting out their own interpretations of this musical tradition. The Yardbirds, a band which served as the breeding ground for some of UK’s most famous musicians (i.e. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck) was one of his favourite bands. Lemmy is known to have claimed that The Beatles were and will always be the best band in the world, and he got to see them perform in the beginning of their career. Another one of the bands that Lemmy admired was Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, and one of their songs, “Please don’t touch“, was covered by Motörhead and Girlschool in their St. Valentine’s day massacre E.P.

It was within this context that Lemmy took his first steps as a musician. He played in some bands around London (e.g. P.P. Arnold’s band) and eventually in The Rockin Vickers, a rock ‘n’ roll cover band, which was quite successful for a while in the English north. Sam Gopal was one of the first bands in which Lemmy had a leading role. He sung and played guitar on their album Escalator, released in 1969. According to his autobiography Lemmy wrote almost all the songs on Escalator. What he misses to mention is that the music he wrote for one of the most beautiful songs on this album, “The sky is burning“, re-appeared in Motörhead’s album Snake bite love (1998). The song to which I am referring is the sorrowful dirge “Dead and gone“.

Lemmy on the far right sitting next to Hawkwind’s leader, Dave Brock.

His next major station was the psychedelic rock band Hawkwind, which he joined as a bassist and backing vocalist. Hawkwind played furious psychedelic rock, full of improvisations and chaotic arrangements. Lemmy’s new role as a bassist was a fortuitous one, as his recruitment coincided with Hawkwind’s bassist not showing up for a gig in London. Due to his previous experience with the guitar, Lemmy was predisposed to play the bass in a slightly unorthodox way. During his time with Hawkwind, Lemmy got the chance to live a lifestyle of abundant sex, drugs and rock’n’roll as a world-touring musician. He recorded three studio and one live album with them, before he got ousted due to what looks like personal differences with some other band members. The last song he wrote for them was titled “Motorhead“.

His ousting from Hawkwind left Lemmy disappointed, but full of experiences and confidence that he would use to pursue his own musical vision. Motörhead was created in 1975. By that time, and probably due to years of abuse (alcohol, drugs, smoking) his voice had already lost its youthful quality and had transformed into the raspy growl that would change popular music forever. According to his auto-biography, Motörhead (US slang for speedfreak) was fashioned after Little Richard, Hawkwind and MC5.

Motörhead ended up being the last major musical station in Lemmy life. During the first couple of years, the band was on life support, and just before its demise things started picking up for them. What is now considered as the classic Motörhead line-up consisted off Lemmy, Phil Taylor (drums), and Eddie Clarke (guitar), and the first album they recorded together was a masterpiece titled Overkil (1979). The title song is arguably the most devastatingly heavy song that had ever been recorded by that time, and there is no doubt that it opened the floodgates for what we now call extreme metal. Interestingly, the title tracks of the next three albums [i.e. Bomber (1979), Ace of spades (1980), Iron fist (1982)] were also the heaviest cuts in their respective albums. “Ace of spades” is considered an all-time classic, while several extreme metal bands have either covered “Iron fist” (Sodom in their “Persecution mania” album, 1987) or paid tribute to it (Entombed‘s “Serpent saints“, off the homonymous album (2007), alludes to “Iron fist” both musically and lyrically).

motorhead_another_perfect_dayThe next couple of albums (i.e. Another perfect day, 1983, and Orgasmatron, 1986), which are two of my all time favourite albums, included several line-up changes, resulting in a revamped sound. The next big change in the band’s sound came with the phenomenal 1916 (1991) album, which includes a more straighforward heavy metal aesthetic, on songs like “No voices in the sky” and “Nightmare/the dreamtime”, a metal ballad (“Love me forever“), and a stripped-down sorrowful dirge about dying in the battlefield (“1916”), alongside more typical Motörhead masterpieces (e.g. “Shut you down“, “Make my day”). Since then these elements became incorporated in Motörhead’s musical pallet, and with the stable line-up of Lemmy, Phil Campbell, and Mikkey Dee, they offered enjoyment, inspiration, and a cultural constant for many albums.

Motörhead has earned the title of the ultimate and most honest heavy rock band of all times, and Lemmy himself is being recognised as the ultimate heavy rock icon. By 1981 Motörhead were praised as gods. Lemmy has reiterated over the years that he always lived life to the fullest, and that whenever the time would come for him to leave this mortal coil he would go with no regrets and with being grateful for what life gave him. In 1980 he sung “that’s the way I like it baby, I don’t wanna live forever” (“Ace of spades”, Ace of spades, 1980). Lemmy’s life was enviable, and as he tells us in 1986, ‘I swear I can’t complain, if I die tonight’ (“Built for speed”, Orgasmatron, 1986). It feels unreal to know that Lemmy is gone. Listening to his songs will from now on break my heart, but as Lemmy said, “Everyone dies to break somebody’s heart”.

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