In terms of style, Motörhead are one of the most unique and instantly recognisable acts of all time. Committed to what they knew and loved, namely “rock and roll”, the three-piece created a brand of music that has been hailed by some as speed metal, by others as hard rock, and many as heavy metal; some even claim they were a punk band.
With reference to the last genre of music outlined above, this is understandable for two key reasons. The first is that Motörhead found their success when punk was in its supremacy and that many of the band’s hallmarks fit in with key defining features of the punk movement. The second is that Lemmy himself stated that he found more in common with punks than the metal scene.
Although the band are claimed by metalheads across the globe, it’s not as simple as that. In 2011 Lemmy said categorically: “We were not heavy metal. We were a rock ‘n’ roll band. Still are. Everyone always describes us as heavy metal even when I tell them otherwise. Why won’t people listen?” He then followed this sentiment up in 2014 when he told Der Spiegel that he wasn’t particularly fond of metal.
Lemmy stated on a few occasions that generally, he felt more kinship with punks than with metalheads. The band’s relationship with goth-punk heroes, The Damned is a well-known one, and he even played bass on a handful of occasions for them. Even more famously, he wrote ‘R.A.M.O.N.E.S.’ from 1916 as a direct tribute to the iconic New York band. The “1 2 3 4” he shouts at the start is a brilliant ode to Ramones.
Aesthetically, the band were very similar to punks as well. If you look at pictures of the leather-clad trio, or their album artworks, on the face of it you’d think they were a punk band.
Lemmy also famously explained how he felt the band share visual similarities with his buddies The Damned rather than the likes of Black Sabbath who they were often compared to. He even went as far as to say that he felt he had nothing in common, aesthetically, with groups such as Judas Priest, which is true.
Of the speed metal movement that the band inspired, he said: “They’ve just got the wrong bit. They think that being fast and loud is the whole thing and it isn’t. The guitar solos are not really difficult for a guitar player, it’s just playing scales. To feel a solo and bend into it & I mean Hendrix is the best guitarist you’ve ever seen in your life. And he learned from people like Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins and people like that inspired Hendrix. To be influenced by something, you’re gonna have to play it the same.”
Then there’s the case of the music. In this sense, it’s easier to perceive why many think them to be punks. Visceral, aggressive and amphetamine-fuelled, there are many instant parallels that can be drawn between their music and punk bands.
Four to the floor rhythms, aggressive lyrics and power chords are all three key hallmarks of punk, but ironically, this was the same for the late-’70s and early ’80s metal. The discussion around the first couple of Iron Maiden records, and if they’re actually punk records instead of metal, brings this into full focus.
Of the power chords he tended to use, Lemmy was asked whether this stemmed from the possibility of once being a rhythm guitarist, to which he replied: “No, I play a lot of notes, but I also play a lot of chords. And I play a lot of open strings. I just don’t play like a bass player. There are complaints about me from time to time. It’s not like having a bass player; it’s like having a deep guitarist.”
It’s clear that Motörhead blurred the lines between punk and heavy metal, and remained highly influential for this reason. They were the first band to really do so. They had a proto-punk energy, similar to Iggy and The Stooges and the MC5, and through their steadfast commitment to “rock and roll”, they fashioned a niche for themselves. Impossible to pigeonhole, this was Motörhead to a tee.
Were Motörhead punk? Yes. We’re Motörhead metal? Yes. They straddled both, whilst also paving their own path. As Lemmy said, they were pure “rock and roll”, regardless of what synonym you choose to use.
Listen to ‘R.A.M.O.N.E.S’ below.