There’s an old joke in Motörhead circles concerning Lemmy Kilmister, founder and driving force of the band, that eventually made its way into the rather idiotic, adolescent comedy film Airheads . It goes like this: “In a fight between God and Lemmy, who would win?” The answer? “Trick question. Lemmy is God.”
The gag offers some hint of the rabid devotion this underrated, underappreciated and dismally unfashionable band inspires in its hard-core fans, a motley assortment of bikers, freaks, metal kids and anyone with a single vein of outlawry zigzagging across his heart. Formed in 1975, the loud, fast and rude Motörhead has managed to negotiate the customary music-industry obstacle course of outrageous drug consumption, internecine squabbling, legal entanglements with record labels, personnel changes and routine critical dismissal in its half-daft mission to deliver the most soul-shaking, rafter-rattling sound in the business.
Now, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, the band has released its latest frenetic dispatch from the cultural front, We Are Motörhead (CMC International), which, from its introductory-like title to the dying echoes of its final track, displays all the freshness and exuberance of a debut album.
But fans need not fear. Once again, as on 30 previous albums, this is pure undiluted Motörhead: simple, aggressive, straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll of the three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust school–a relatively rare commodity in today’s heavily poseur-populated music scene.
After reading Mr. Kilmister’s disclaimer on the liner notes, “As you get older you get slower. I do apologize!,” the novice listener may not quite be prepared for what follows: 40-odd minutes of aural amphetamines, including an impressive cover of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” The only respite, however slight, arrives about midway through the album. It is a modestly down-tempo “ballad” about an ugly breakup entitled, appropriately enough, “One More Fucking Time.”
As ever with Mr. Kilmister, a brash, witty, knowledgeable and highly opinionated man known simply as Lemmy by his fans, the songwriting is sharply edged; the physically engaging music a direct challenge to sensual slumber (“We shoot you full of noise,” declares the title track) and the lyrics an urgent appeal to the mind to rouse itself and take a good look at the facts.
The world depicted in Motörhead’s work is, by and large, a place of soured relationships, blighted lives and a morally debased social system lubricated daily by a steady stream of rancid lies. For Mr. Kilmister, the political has always been intensely personal, and he seems to imply consistently that in a bewildering time of insidious consumer conformity and the evolution of what can only be labeled “corporate democracy,” the one truly radical and subversive act lies in discovering just exactly who you are and then conducting your life honestly upon that truth.
And don’t be conned into playing authority’s game. As Mr. Kilmister sings on the track “(Wearing Your) Heart on Your Sleeve,” “Politics suck, you’ll be shit out of luck / If you ever mess with the methods they use.”
The core of Mr. Kilmister’s credo can be found bluntly stated in that song, and the message is as clear as the title. “Hey, what the hell / Get out of your shell,” Mr. Kilmister urges those who are listening. Wear your heart on your sleeve. Stand or fall on your own resources. Get back to your honor and pride. And, most important, “Use what you find in yourself to succeed”–a needlepoint wall sampler for the ages from the friendly folks at Motörhead.
Of course, such a quasi-Emersonian doctrine has never been easy to follow in any era, and most of the rest of the album is devoted to depicting the reasons for that. Mr. Kilmister sees too many unkind people “grown up too soon / Too many wolves looking up at the moon.”
In the endless struggle to find one’s self, the most pressing foes are apathy and confusion, a point reiterated on song after song: “We’re all on our knees looking for reasons to do what we do” (“[Wearing Your] Heart on Your Sleeve”); “Can’t see where it all went wrong / You don’t know what’s going on … Don’t feel good about yourself / Don’t know if you’re someone else” (“Out to Lunch”); “You can’t keep your secret self / Safe inside upon the shelf” (“Wake the Dead”); and “It’s just the way we are / All your instincts let you down” (“One More Fucking Time”).
Then, after nine blistering tracks of symptoms and diagnoses, Mr. Kilmister proposes a remedy of sorts in the final, anthemic “We Are Motörhead”: “We bring the firestorm to brighten up your life,” he bellows in his distinctive raspy voice. “We mend all broken hearts / We cure all pain.”
An overstatement? Perhaps. But then, at the age of 54, Mr. Kilmister’s anarchic spirit and outsize talent remain gloriously undimmed. He is a man who still retains that youthful belief in the power of unvarnished rock ‘n’ roll to, as he once cracked in an interview, “make the lame to walk and the blind to see.” Music may not be able to change the great big, cold, recalcitrant world, but just maybe it can change you, and hence the world around you. Believe that this can be so and it will be so.
Asked once why he thought Motörhead wasn’t better known or more commercially successful than it is, Mr. Kilmister replied, “Because we’re loud and raw, and we play music the way life really is, not how it’s supposed to be. We’re the Hard Copy of rock bands.”
So, if you’re interested in getting the news from an alternative source, along with a good deal of sheer pleasure, check out this excellent album and also any of Motörhead’s earlier recordings such as Ace of Spades or 1916 or the highly regarded live No Sleep Til Hammersmith.
For this band is, as it declares in one of the final lines of We Are Motörhead , “the flame at night, the fire in the trash.” Keep burning, Lemmy. We need the heat.
Stephen Wright is the author of Going Native . He is working on his next novel.