Lemmy Kilmister: Portrait of a Serial Killer | Revolver

Lemmy Kilmister: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Motörhead’s main man looks back on five decades of metal mayhem
Motorhead Lemmy KIlmister 2017 travis SHINN, Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

Lemmy Kilmister pours himself his sixth bourbon and coke of the afternoon, then solicitously tops off my fifth. "You getting drunk?" he inquires. Um, yeah, I nod woozily. "So am I," he chuckles. "Isn't it wonderful, boys and girls?" He raises his glass in the general direction of the sun, and gruffly proposes a toast. "Rock & roll, man," he says. "Whatever it takes!" 

As Jack Daniels–fueled salutations go, it's hard to think of another one that better sums up the life and career of Motörhead's legendary leader. Because Lemmy doesn't just play rock & roll — he is rock & roll. He witnessed the Beatles in their prime, roadied for Jimi Hendrix and topped the British charts with space-rock terrorists Hawkwind. He's swallowed enough booze to ood the Grand Canyon and ingested enough speed to propel a pigeon to Pluto, and his vast number of sexual conquests would certainly make Kiss' Gene Simmons wag his tongue in approval. And for more than a quarter of a century, he's stood defiantly at the helm of one of the loudest, hardest, most in uential rock bands of all time.

Since their debut gig in 1975, Motörhead have stayed true to their original sonic template — a furious drag race of thundering drums, buzz-saw guitar chords and clattering Rickenbacker bass runs, all prodded incessantly onward by Lemmy's road-scorched howl. "We've always done the same thing, because the original idea was a good one," Lemmy explains.

In 27 years, Motörhead have never released a disco remix, ventured into synth-pop or rap-rock, or recorded a duet with Kylie Minogue. Which is precisely why the band has inspired everyone from Metallica to Hatebreed and continues to be worshipped by punks and metalheads everywhere — they know that, as long as Lemmy walks the earth, Motörhead will be kicking some serious ass. Just ask Dave Grohl. 

"He is the last man standing and no one even comes close," Grohl raves. "That guy is a true rock & roller. Everyone else is just trying."

Hammered, Motörhead's latest album, certainly proves that Lemmy and Co. can still kick the shit out of the competition, and that the band has lost none of its punch or purpose. Lemmy himself seems quite pleased with the album. "The new record is wonderful!" he crows. "You should buy at least 10 copies each, so we can become millionaires and live in houses in the Hollywood Hills, build recording studios in our basements, and never come down." But as we sit soaking up the sunshine (and bourbon) on the balcony of a posh West Hollywood hotel just around the corner from his less-than-palatial apartment, our conversation quickly takes some decidedly nonpromotional turns.

With strong opinions on everything from politics to porn, Lemmy doesn't have much patience with the backslapping marketing rituals of today's music business. He's seen any number of "Next Big Things" come and go and has amassed a veritable treasure trove of great rock & roll stories that span his five decades in the business. Spending an afternoon with Lemmy Kilmister is a little like sitting at the knee of an old pirate: The tales come as quickly as the booze, and all you can do is kick back and go with the flow. 

REVOLVER Did I hear that you're getting the legendary moles on your face removed?
LEMMY KILMISTER Yeah. I'm tired of 'em. They get bigger as you get older, and I've been shaving around them long enough. But they're deep, you know—it's gonna be difficult to get 'em out.

REVOLVER You should donate them to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
KILMISTER Yeah, in a block of Lucite! [Laughs] I could sell 'em on the Internet, like that porn star chick, Houston, who sold pieces of her labia after having them reduced. She once took on 500 guys in an afternoon, and she still looks wonderful. But the one I like is Midori, the black one. I like black chicks.

REVOLVER Have you ever dated a porn star?
KILMISTER Oh yeah, a few. I dated Jasmine St. Clair, and Purple Passions, a black girl. I've dated a few ex–porn stars, dated a lot of strippers. 

REVOLVER The Motörhead image is all about boozing, speeding, fucking. How much of that image is for real?
All of it.

KILMISTER Yeah, absolutely. What else are you gonna do? Go home and play fucking cribbage? The only reason I'm in this business is for the chicks, anyway. I started playing guitar in 1958 because I saw this kid bring his guitar to school and he was immediately surrounded by all these girls. It was like, "Oh, I see! Gotcha!" My mother had a guitar, see. It was hanging on the fuckin' wall, so I put some strings on it and took it to school. And it worked — I was surrounded by chicks! [Laughs] Two weeks later, I started learning to play, because they expect you to play after a while! The neighbor next door showed me three chords, and that's all I needed. 

Born in 1945 in Stoke-on-Trent, England, the lad then known as Ian Kilmister spent his adolescence in North Wales, grooving to the wild American sounds of Eddie Cochran, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. When he was 16, a girlfriend of his from Liverpool turned him on to a band that was starting to create a bit of a local buzz.

KILMISTER She said, "There's this new band up in Liverpool — you've got to see them." I said, "I'll come up, if you put me up for the night." So really it was lust that drove me to the Beatles. We went up and saw the Beatles at the Cavern, and they were fucking tremendous. They walked on, and it was like one person, indivisible. George used to sing "Too Much Monkey Business" onstage. Paul would do "Besame Mucho" and used to throw sandwiches into the audience. This kid in the audience yelled, "John Lennon's a fuckin' queer!" And John said, "Who said that?" He didn't have his glasses on, so he couldn't see shit. He put 'em on, and the kid said, "I fuckin' did!" John said, "Hang on!" He took his guitar off, went down in there and hit the kid in the nuts about three times before he hit the floor. Bang! Bang! Bang! [Laughs] John was like, "Right. Anybody else?" Then he got back up, and they went right into "Hippy Hippy Shake"!

Lemmy's first professional gig of note was as the rhythm guitarist of the Rockin' Vicars. Based in Manchester, the Vicars never achieved much chart success, but they were known to put on a show that rivaled the Who's penchant for outrageous outfits and sheer onstage mayhem. 

REVOLVER Were the Vicars mods?
KILMISTER No, we were longhairs. We had vicars' collars and black shirts, right? Finnish national costume smocks, which were bright blue with all this felt embroidery, skintight white jeans with a lace-up fly, which was very awkward if you had to piss before the show, and Laplander reindeer skin boots. We looked weird, you know? This was before acid, even, and we looked fuckin' weird. We used to come onstage and do this high-powered set, and then we'd smash all the equipment up. We had fake speaker cabinets, and we used to just smash the guitars through the middle of 'em, and leave them hanging there screaming. Great band, you know? But south of Birmingham, nobody'd ever heard of us. In the north of England, however, we were getting 200 pounds [about $350] a night, which in those days was big money.

Lemmy left the Rockin' Vicars in 1967, when the emergence of psychedelic power trios like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience was rendering rhythm guitarists obsolete. Happily, Lemmy's prior touring experience — as well as his knack for acquiring illicit substances — enabled him to quickly land a gig carrying gear for Jimi Hendrix.

REVOLVER When did you roadie for Jimi Hendrix?
KILMISTER 1967. He had already broken in England.

REVOLVER Did you interact a lot with him?
Yeah, I used to score acid for him. I'd get him 10 hits. He'd take seven and give me three. And you had to take them— you felt like a churl if you didn't! But I'd usually take one, and hide the other two behind my ear for later. Acid in those days was astounding — nowadays it's all speed and artificial psilocybin, isn't it? Acid in those days was pure. We were eating hits of acid like sweets back then. Everybody was fucking tripping — everybody!

After Hendrix headed back to the U.S., Lemmy floated through a couple of now-obscure psychedelic bands, Sam Gopal's Dream and Opal Butterfly finally filling the vacant bass position in Hawkwind in 1971. Lemmy had never actually played bass before, but he quickly adapted to his new instrument. Within a year, Hawkwind hit No. 3 on the British charts with "Silver Machine," a song written and sung by Lemmy. His tenure with the band lasted until 1975, when he was busted at the Canadian border for possession of speed and summarily kicked out of Hawkwind.

KILMISTER Bass was immediately easy for me. I was cheating on it, playing chords and things. I felt like I made a difference to the world of music on bass, whereas I was never gonna make any difference at all on guitar.

REVOLVER Your whole style of playing is like rhythm guitar on bass.
KILMISTER Yeah! I think I play very good bass. I atter myself with that. Because there's nobody else like me, and nobody else can apparently do it.

REVOLVER Who are your favorite bassists?
KILMISTER I love John Entwistle of the Who. Best bass player I ever saw, Entwistle! McCartney's the second, though. He keeps giving into the wimp in him, but he's a great bass player.

REVOLVER Hawkwind was a big acid band, wasn't it?
KILMISTER Sure, yeah, always. I mean, that was its chief premise — space rock, inner space. We were fucking terrifying, just a terrifying band. We used to lock the doors so that people couldn't get out! [Laughs] Pitch-black, right, and five strobe lights facing the audience. We'd use the slow strobe — that's the one that gives you convulsions. We used to give people epileptic fits on a regular basis! And we had this thing that went out of human hearing both ways: If you go up out of human hearing, your balance goes, and you fall on the oor and vomit, and if you go below human hearing, your sphincter loosens and you shit yourself. [Laughs] We used to throw acid on the audience with bottle droppers. They were insane days.

REVOLVER If you hadn't been booted out, would you have stayed with Hawkwind?
Oh yeah, I never would have left them. It was too much fun! But it wasn't much fun talking to the rest of them. There's a one-upmanship with drugs, you know? "Oh, we're doing acid, so we can't do speed." [Keyboardist] Del Dettmar got me into the band because he was the only speed freak, and he wanted a buddy to stay up all night with him and get weird. So we did that for a couple of years, and then he left the band, so I was the last one. Last man standing — or, more like it, last man running on the spot. And it was just a matter of time, you know.

REVOLVER You immediately formed Motörhead after Hawkwind?
KILMISTER I got fired in May, and I had Motörhead on the road by August. Got out there quick, because I figured the fans were fickle and might forget me.

Lemmy originally decided to name his new band Bastard, before his manager convinced him that the name wouldn't fly on the British TV show Top of the Pops. Not that Motörhead's commercial chances looked especially bright in 1975 — after seeing one of their early gigs, rock scribe Nick Kent dubbed them "the best worst band in the world." "It took us two years to ght our way out from under that one," Lemmy says, laughing. "But then again, Nick Kent became a junkie, and I didn't!"

The original lineup, with Pink Fairies guitarist Larry Wallis and drummer Lucas Fox, lasted less than a year. But with Wallis' and Fox's respective replacements, "Fast" Eddie Clarke and Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor, onboard, the band quickly began to gather momentum. Released in 1977, Motörhead's self-titled first album only made it to No. 43 on the British charts, but each subsequent release vaulted higher. By 1980, Ace of Spades was firmly lodged in the U.K. Top Five, while the following year's No Sleep 'til Hammersmith (still considered by many to be the greatest live album of all time) made it all the way to No. 1.

REVOLVER What's the story behind Motörhead's mascot Snaggletooth?
KILMISTER This artist, Joe Pategno, met our manager in a bar somewhere, and our manager hired him to do our logo. I told him I wanted something between a rusty, decaying robot, and a knight-errant with armor. And he came back with the face with the horns on the head, with the chains between them. It looked really soppy, you know. So I said, "Why don't we put the horns in the mouth?" And we've never changed it, although he's done a lot of good variations on it for different album covers.

REVOLVER Did he also come up with the font for the lettering?
KILMISTER No. I said, "Do it in gothic, and put an umlaut in there — make it look mean!" I got that from [Seventies progressive rock band] Blue Öyster Cult. [Laughs]

REVOLVER Motörhead originally had a pretty sizeable contingent of punks in their audience. Were there a lot of fights between the punks and the metalheads?
KILMISTER Well, they didn't fight at our shows — they were all there for the same band. If you listen to Motörhead and punk it sounds the same, anyway. It doesn't sound like heavy metal to me. We've got a lot more in common with the Damned than with fuckin' Judas Priest! I never believed in all that ethnic barrier, anyway. Fuck it — it's rock & roll! There's two kinds of music — music you like and music you don't like.

REVOLVER What is the enduring appeal of Motörhead?
KILMISTER I don't know. Because it doesn't always appeal to me!

REVOLVER I've heard that you're sick of playing "Ace of Spades" in concert.
KILMISTER I don't mind it, actually. I'm lucky — we got linked to a song that I don't mind. Although there's always some guy who's like, "You're my main man, Lemmy! I love Motörhead!" Yeah? What records have you got? "Ace of Spades, man!" So that's the last one you've got? "Hell yeah! That's a great record!"

REVOLVER But it is a great record!
KILMISTER Well yeah, but it's not that great! No record is that great, where you can just forget the rest of the band's career.

If Lemmy sounds a trifle sensitive on the subject, consider the fact that Motörhead never again made the U.K. Top 10 after 1982, when Clarke left in a huff over having to work with Wendy O. Williams of shock punkers the Plasmatics. But like a true rock warrior, Lemmy has soldiered on with a variety of new recruits. Former Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson joined up for a few tours and 1983's underrated Another Perfect Day, but his habit of wearing silk shorts onstage failed to endear him to diehard Motörhead fans, and the British music press once again turned its collective back on the band. Taylor left shortly after Robertson was given the boot, leaving Lemmy to build a new Motörhead from scratch.The new lineup of Phil Campbell, guitarist Michael "Wurzel" Burston and Saxon drummer Pete Gill sprang into action with the mighty 1984 single "Killed by Death," following it up in 1986 with Orgasmatron, a fearsome record which put most of their hard-rocking contemporaries to abject shame. In 1991, the band (with Taylor once again in the lineup) further rejuvenated themselves with 1916. The album's title track, a string-laden elegy to those who died at the Battle of the Somme during World War I, remains one of Motörhead's most moving and surprising songs. The rest of the 1990s were rough for Motörhead: Two of their labels, WTG and ZYX, collapsed under them in rapid succession, and Wurzel left in 1995. But through it all, Motörhead stuck to their guns, maintaining a recording and touring schedule that would have attened any nu-metal band you'd care to name. As the title track from 2000's We Are Motörhead declares, "We are Motörhead, born to kick your ass." Now, in 2002, the band is gearing up for yet another world tour in support of Hammered. There's probably never been a better time to be a Motörhead fan. The fact that Lemmy is still doing this at age 56, without the aid of a personal trainer or even a remotely healthy lifestyle, makes him nothing less than a scientific marvel.

REVOLVER You and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones have the most legendary constitutions in rock.
KILMISTER I always thought Keith poisoned a lot of people by publicizing what he was doing, you know. Because heroin is not a drug to recommend, I don't give a fuck if you're the best junkie in the world. He can afford an unending supply of it, right? And if he needs to get his blood done or whatever — he can afford that, too. The average guy on the street is buying off a bad dealer who could give a shit. Heroin's a filthy fucking drug, you know.

REVOLVER But you guys have always been very much associated with speed.
Yeah, but I never said it was a good idea for you. I said that I liked it. I've seen people go nuts behind it, but I've also seen people take it and not die. If it's between heroin and speed, I'd say, "Take speed!" But actually I'd say, if you don't need either of them, don't do either of them. I don't recommend any drugs, man. But when you're doing 53 shows back to back, 'round about show 36 you don't want to do it no more. [Laughs] And that's not an excuse for me being a speed freak. It's, like, a utilitarian thing — you can't do that shit on cocaine, or you'd go nuts. And heroin is not really conducive to performing. So if you have to get your legs up onstage when you really don't want to, speed's the thing!

REVOLVER Is it hard to get it up for yet another tour?
KILMISTER I like my band, I like my job, and I like what I'm doing. I like being on the road. I like being with the crew, the whole idiot circus rolling down the road — I'm still in love with it, you know. And that's why I'm doing it, really. I'm not doing it for hit records, because I know that's not going to happen again. It would be nice to have one, but I'm not holding my breath! [Laughs] I love being in rock & roll. It's a good fucking job, and I do it really well. I know it inside out, and I know it upside down. I know rock & roll. And I still have a few years left where I will surprise you, outrage your girlfriend — and possibly fuck her on the bus after the show, if you're not careful!