There are about half a dozen bands I have seen more times than I can remember. One of those is Motorhead. I remember them appearing in the late 1970s at a time when a lot of heavy rock had disappeared up its own backside with long tracks and concept albums. Motorhead stripped it all back to a guitar, drums and a distinctive driving bass, a raw sound with an energy and urgency that outpunked the punk bands. In doing so they set the scene for the 1980s when bands got louder and faster until it was impossible to tell what was punk and what was heavy metal any more.
The first time I saw them I was fifteen. It was a school night so getting to the gig involved complex preparations. No-one wants to go and see Motorhead in school uniform so we had to take stuff to change into and stash our school clothes overnight. There was then a tedious bus journey and what seemed like hours hanging around in the cold before getting into the venue. Although we were among the younger members of the audience we managed to get and hold a position at the front. It was incredible. The noise was like nothing I had heard before. The band, all in black as usual, looked like the baddies from a cowboy film. I wouldn’t have used the term stage presence back then but they had it in spades. Though my ears were ringing for days afterwards I knew I had to see them again and nine months or so later, this time during a school summer holiday, I did my second Motorhead gig. There were many more, the last probably being in the late 80s or early 90s. For me it was never quite the same after Eddie Clarke left but they were still unique among rock bands even then.
It was with sadness, then, that I heard that Lemmy, the man who created Motorhead, died on Monday, four days after his seventieth birthday and two days after having been told he had an aggressive form of cancer. The first time I saw the band, Lemmy would have been in his early thirties, less than half the age he was when he died. Yet, in may ways, he looked very similar. His face was already old by his thirties. As he wrote in Capricorn, “When I was young I was already old.”
Talking of Lemmy’s face brings to mind one of the occasions when I met the man in the flesh. He used to be a regular at a downstairs after-hours bar in Soho. I was in there one night when Lemmy was playing on the fruit machines, as, apparently, he did quite often. An argument started among some of the people I was with about whether or not that bloke playing the bandits really was Lemmy. Eventually one of my friends decided to settle the dispute by going up and asking him. “Excuse me,” he said to the bewhiskered rocker, “Would you mind telling these idiots who you are?” To which, the great man replied, “With a face like this I couldn’t be anyone else.”
That was part of Lemmy’s appeal. He barely changed his appearance from the 1970s onwards. If you were to ask a group of people to describe the archetypal rocker the result would look very much like Lemmy. The long hair, the leathers, the black clothes and the massive collection of custom-made boots all harked back to the classic period of youth rebellion from the 1950s to the 1980s. He has been described as one of the last true rock stars and with good reason because rock stars don’t look like that any more. Come to think of it, neither does anyone else. Even the Hells Angels have shorter hair and trimmer beards these days and they stopped wearing Nazi regalia in the 1980s.* Lemmy didn’t though. He carried on wearing it to the bitter end, even after being threatened with arrest in Germany a few years ago. His defence was simply that, throughout history, the bad guys always had the best clobber.
The same could be said for Motorhead’s music. Like Lemmy’s face, there really was no mistaking it for anything else. Their tracks had a distinctive sound and you could identify a new song as theirs even if you were hearing it for the first time.
Lemmy grew up during a time when rock n roll and the youth culture that went with it set out to shock. It doesn’t do that any more. It hasn’t really done so for the last two decades. Rock stars don’t do outrageous these days and even when they do it’s usually a pale imitation of what has gone before. The iconic leather biker jacket has been recycled as a mass fashion item in the last couple of years, now with women’s side fastening which they never had back in the day, and you can buy t-shirts with a Motorhead logo from Topshop. New and distinctive sounds are rare too. There is no 2010s equivalent of the ‘what the hell was that’ moment you had when first hearing Lemmy’s bass, Johnny Rotten’s voice or the Prodigy’s strange noises. In that sense, Lemmy really was one of the last rockers. A larger-than-life representation of when rock n roll meant lots of noise, drinking to excess, an outrageous appearance and, if not always violence, at least a constant air of menace and the sense that things might kick off at any moment.
Of all the great songs Lemmy wrote, Capricorn was my favourite. It was the one I used to shout for at gigs. There is something appropriate about Lemmy having been born at the darkest time of the year. The last verse goes:
I always knew, the only way,
Is never live, beyond today,
They proved me right,
They proved me wrong,
But they could never last this long,
My life, my heart, black night, dark star, Capricorn.
In the end, though, nobody is fast enough to out-run the Grim Reaper. Lemmy’s lifestyle caught up with him and the Cancer got the Capricorn.
He was indeed a true rock star and one of the last of a breed. I would say Rest In Peace Lemmy but somehow that doesn’t sound right. If there really is an afterlife, I hope his will be as raucous as the one he lived.
* It may sound odd these days but wearing swastikas, death’s heads and iron crosses was once a symbol of youth rebellion. They were part of rock n roll iconography from the 1950s to the 1980s. One theory is that many early bikers were former soldiers who had brought Nazi regalia home as war trophies and who then started wearing it while riding their bikes. From a 2010s perspective, it looks odd that such symbols seem to cause more offence now than they did so soon after the second world war, when there were a lot more people around who had experienced what the Nazis did. When asked about it at the time, most rockers insisted that there was no political meaning behind the Nazi badges and that they just wore them to annoy people. There is probably a sociology PhD in there somewhere. The Hells Angels stopped wearing Nazi symbols when the club’s first charters were awarded to motorcycle clubs in Germany. Out of respect for their new German members the entire membership worldwide renounced the use of Nazi regalia in the 1980s.