Motorhead are widely perceived as one the most influential rock and roll bands of all time, with their vocalist and bassist Lemmy an iconic figure who embodied the defiant and fearless attitude of the genre. Motorhead have inspired a multitude of bands, many of which have gone on to enjoy similarly stratospheric levels of success, but it is perhaps their mentality that will be their most enduring legacy.
A glittering career
Lemmy, or Ian Kilmister to go by his birth name, unfortunately passed away aged 70 on December 28, 2015, after a short and sudden outburst of cancer, and his death reverberated around a music world that appreciated how his life and music transcended genres and inspired many. Lemmy was perennially stubborn in his refusal to fear death, and his lust for life was imbued in all his musical output. Although Lemmy has become synonymous with Motorhead, he cut his teeth in the pioneering space rock band Hawkwind. Lemmy’s signature bass playing provided the foundation for the ambitious live double album Space Ritual, which we have found to be one of the essential albums for summer listening. Upon leaving Hawkwind in 1975, Lemmy sought an outlet to express his thoughts in a fast and aggressive manner. And so Motorhead was born. A career lasting 40 years followed, embellished with a string of Top 40 hits and critically acclaimed albums imbued with the band’s trademark mantra of living life on the edge. The best example of this can be found in the form of 1981 live album No Sleep ’til Hammersmith which stormed to number one in the UK album chart and is considered as one of the world’s finest live albums.
Ace of Spades
Lemmy’s lyrical content varied from anti-establishment tirades that shared characteristics with his allies in the punk scene to endorsing living life to the full. The most notable example of the latter category can be found in the ode to casino gaming that has become the band’s most instantly recognisable song: 1980 hit “Ace of Spades”, which made a massive comeback after Lemmy’s death, accruing 1.8 million US streams less than two weeks after he passed away. The song even made it to Betway Casino’s list of songs and artists which have sought to capture the spirit of casino games through music and which also includes the works of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. ABBA, perhaps the musical antithesis of Motorhead, pontificate on ambition in the chart-topping ballad “The Winner Takes It All”, whilst Bruce Springsteen’s heartland rock considers the shifting fortunes of life in “Roll of the Dice”. However, “Ace of Spades” is perhaps the most significant example tying music to gaming, with its vivid imagery and boisterous instrumentation both epitomising the roller coaster of emotions in casinos and the band’s approach to life. NME have ranked “Ace of Spades” at 155 in their top 500 songs of all time, an anthem that may have only reached number 15 in the singles chart after its debut release but has gone on to become a much-loved song that is synonymous with Motorhead.
A Significant Influence
Motorhead have been cited as sparking the innovation of speed metal and thrash metal, although Lemmy was always keen to disassociate his band’s music from the aforementioned youthful genres. Lemmy fervently quashed any suggestions that Motorhead played anything other than rock and roll in this revealing interview with The Independent, yet even he could not deny the influence that his band had on those seeking for an outlet for a rebellious attitude. Take Bruce Springsteen as another example. Nobody really sounds like The Boss, and certainly nobody has been able to replicate the musical ambition of his early career that culminated in 1975 through the seminal Born to Run. Yet swathes of artists cite Springsteen as a defining influence, with an album such as the political and synthy Born in the USA (1984) a reference point for disparate artists from the bombastic pop of Bleachers to the rollicking punk of The Gaslight Anthem. Neither band has sonically aped Bruce, but they dare to capture his spirit. The same applies to Motorhead. Even if musical characteristics of the spawn of the band do not necessarily appease Motorhead, it is the attitude of Lemmy and his cohorts that have provided the inspiration for countless artists.
A Love of Punk
What set Motorhead apart from their contemporaries was their willingness to incorporate elements of punk into their music. Of course, the punk attitude is the classically rebellious and defiant attitude, something that Lemmy would come to embody even as a figure who was not an archetypal punk rocker. Lemmy even played bass on occasion in 1978 for The Damned, an institution of the British punk scene alongside The Sex Pistols and The Clash. But whilst Lemmy perceived the pace and energy in Motorhead’s music to have derived from punk, it was interpreted a different way by bands such as Metallica who would use their adoration of Motorhead’s music as a foundation on which to spearhead the thrash metal movement. This ties back into the subjectivity of music; influences are what you make them. Something that can only be interpreted in one way, however, is the attitude of Lemmy and Motorhead as something unabashedly rock and roll.
Although Lemmy may be gone, his presence can still be felt. Motorhead offered fans an unexpected treat when featuring in 2017’s extensive Record Store Day release list, while the band’s discography is so exuberant and thrilling that every listen feels like the first listen. As for Lemmy’s attitude, his staunch commitment to doing what he loved and his encouragement of living life to the full can provide a source of comfort and inspiration in these often-troubled times.