Dominic Selwood

Lemmy was a national treasure - a unique collision of swing and amphetamines

Lemmy was a national treasure - a unique collision of swing and amphetamines
Text settings

Letters to Poseidon

by Cees Nooteboom (translated by Laura Watkinson)

MacLehose Press, pp. 250, £

Lemmy is what happens when a small slice of 1960s counterculture just keeps on going, oblivious to the changing world.

He was a national treasure: a Methuselah of the British music scene, and one of its more thoughtful members. His driving forces remained a unique collision of baby boomer passions: jitterbug, skiffle, swing, rock’n’roll, and a lot of amphetamines.

He was playing chirpy Mersey Beat numbers in a suit, a tie, and a smile with the Rocking Vicars when most televisions were still black and white. When the world changed, so did he. In the late 1960s he roadied for Jimi Hendrix, and later even had the patience to show Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols how to play the bass. As the titans of the age (many his friends) fell one by one to excess, he thundered on, perennially popular. In 2015, he was still belting them out at Glastonbury. (When Kanye West said that the Pyramid Stage that weekend was hosting the greatest living rock star on the planet, we all knew who he was really talking about.)

Contrary to expectations, Lemmy was no fool. Interviewers who expected four letter words and two-fingered banalities got a man much more interested in exploring history, love, war, and humanity. He read voraciously, observed acutely and wittily, and was a natural raconteur.

On stage, he played the music of his heroes — Little Richard, Eddie Cochrane, and the Beatles — all spiced up with a dash of his own special rocket sauce. Although heavy metal is as English as warm beer and the C of E, he never accepted the label. Ever the contrarian, he regularly started gigs with an affirmation that it would be a rock’n’roll show. The fact is, he was pure heavy metal, and one of its founders. He stripped away the doom riffs of Black Sabbath and the jazzy pyrotechnics of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple to lay bare the rock’n’roll skeleton, He then sped it up, turned the rhythm section into an artillery battery, and dialled everything with a volume knob up to 11.

In just four years, he had set out his musical manifesto with the albums Overkill, Bomber, Ace of Spades, and the spine-tingling live recording, No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith. At the heart of the menu were pounding jitterbugs (try 'Dance' or 'Bomber'). Alongside them came bluesy numbers such as 'Capricorn' or 'Metropolis', as well as fist-pumping anthems like 'Ace of Spades' and 'Overkill'.

Although the Motörhead mantra is that nothing ever changed. It did. The classic line-up fractured in the early 1980s, although the present band is the longest running: from 1992 to 2015.

The other thing that changed is the music. Over 22 studio albums, the band remained instantly recognisable. But as they adapted to the darker, heavier sounds of emerging metal genres, the songs lost their zip and sunshine, trading in the swing licks for a more modern machinegun barrage.

But it barely matters. Motörhead were a band to experience live, and I did: many times. They knew what fans came for, and they delivered it night after night for just shy of 40 years. If you wanted to see Lemmy on stage in the swirling smoke, microphone at 45 degrees (he liked looking at the ceiling: the audience made him nervous), then you always got what you came for: chuckles and self-effacing banter from the man himself, a catalogue of songs from the old days, 'Ace of Spades' played at a thousand miles an hour, and the 40-foot tube lighting rig shaped like a Heinkel He-111 bomber swooping low over the stage as its engines roared to signal it was all over.

It is now. Lemmy went out with his (famous white cowboy) boots wedged firmly on. RIP.