Dissecting Lemmy’s Pre-Motörhead Days
Posted on August 28, 2014
August 28, 2014
by John Gentile
These days, it seems that everyone’s talking about what you can and can’t say about suicide, or about sexism in the punk rock scene, or about what guy said something dumb about cops. But listen, we need to push all of this aside and talk about what is important, relevant and contemporary in the punk rock scene: We need to talk about Lemmy Kilmister.
Lemmy, that mustachioed rock master. That warted road warrior. That boozing bass blaster. Everybody loves Lemmy. Everybody loves Motörhead. Why? It’s because they rock. They might have written the same song over and over for the last 38 years, releasing it 12 times per album. But so what? That song rules. Motörhead rules, man.
But what a lot of people don’t realize that despite being almost 40 years old, Motörhead is actually not the first act of Lemmy’s storied career! Before Motörhead, he was in half a dozen bands, a few of which are as important, or perhaps even more important, to rock music than Motörhead (and as we all know, it’s pretty hard to be more important than Motörhead.)
So, let’s take a brief look at some of Lemmy’s amazing pre-Motörhead sound recordings.
The Rockin’ Vicars
Lemmy began his musical career around 1960, influenced, like many English groups, by the American R&B scene. He spent about five years playing in bands including the Rainmakers and the Motown Sect. But, records seem to indicate that the first band with which Lemmy recorded was the Rockin’ Vicars.
Lemmy (still as Ian Willis) joined the already active band in 1965. Having been gigging since 1963, the band, much like many contemporaries, established themselves via a combination of raucous live shows and gimmickry. While the band blasted through covers of standard R&B tunes, they would wear Priest robes or traditional Sami clothing. (Sami are a distinct cultural and racial group of Northern Europe who have style and traditions dating to pre-Christian Europe).
At this point, Lemmy was still playing guitar. With the band, he cut two singles, but perhaps as many as 12 songs. Included in their repertoire were tunes reminiscent of the mid-English R&B scene as it transitioned to more psychedelic sounds. As was the marketing strategy of the day, the band, like almost all of their contemporaries, would take modern pop compositions and re-record them, including two Kinks tunes (“Little Rosy” and “Dandy”) and one Who tune, “It’s Alright.” “Dandy” exemplifies the band’s approach at the time.
Interestingly, the band also made the (perhaps) unusual choice of playing a version of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” “Zing!” dates back to 1934 and became a sensation after being covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. Is the Rockin’ Vicars version a (pre)punk corruption of the song? It’s possible that their storming version of the song was a way to flip the bird at the pop crooners, but, looking at the rest of their covers, it’s more likely that the record label thought that the song was a hit once, so it could be a hit once again. Regardless, it’s a fascinating take: a pop ballad converted to a hard rocking number.
After leaving the Vicars, in 1968 Lemmy migrated over to Sam Gopal who were previously playing as Sam Gopal’s Dream before breaking up. Sam Gopal’s Dream were something of rising stars, or at least staples, of the early British psychedelic scene having played alongside Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. They even played a live session with Jimi Hendrix once.
With Lemmy, Sam Gopal released their first and only album of their original run, Escalator (Gopal briefly rebooted the band in the 1990s.) On it, Lemmy provides vocals and handles guitar duties. (Gopal himself handles the exacting requirements of playing the tabla.) Lemmy has dismissed 1969’s Escalator to some extent, claiming he wrote nearly all of it himself the night before the recording session.
In contrast to the Vicars, Sam Gopal was right in line with the far out experimentalism of the psychedelic scene. The songs felt spontaneous, and as with many of their ilk, somewhat meandering. Sam Gopal also featured something of a more haunting vision compared to Lemmy’s earlier works, namely in tracks like “The Dark Lord.”
Another theme cropped up here that would continue in Lemmy’s work through the current day: booze and drugs. “Grass” has obvious implications and finds him flirting with mindtrip lyrics ala the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
But Sam Gopal soon broke up. Lemmy moved on to the band Opal Butterfly, which already had a few recordings, but he left without having recorded any tracks with them. After changing his last name from Willis, his stepfather’s last name, to Kilmister, his genetic father’s last name, Lemmy joined the band that is unquestionably the most famous of his pre-Motörhead gigs: Hawkwind.
By the time Lemmy joined Hawkwind in 1972, the band had released two albums. The first, Hawkwind, was released to relative apathy, while the second, X in Search of Space, found the band gaining momentum and becoming more experimental.
When Lemmy joined the fold, he switched to bass and the group began what is generally described as their classic period, (though, perhaps, X in Search of Space is part of that list). Lemmy’s first act in the band was to re-cut the vocals for “Silver Machine,” a track that already had the backing tracks laid down.
If you had summarize the 44 year career of Hawkwind into one song, “Silver Machine” would do the trick. The band swing along with a hard rocking, blues influenced riff as sci-fi effects splash about in the background. Then, Lemmy’s unique vocals soar down into the mix, singing about flying through space, mixing psychedelic themes with adolescent comic book fantasies.
Certainly, Lemmy wasn’t the only driving force in the band, and only loaned occasional vocals, but his powerful bass is clear on almost all classic-era Hawkwind tracks. Even when the band got really far out, like on “Hassan I Sahba,” where there are whacked out violins, doubled vocals, and God knows what else, Lemmy’s playing serves as its undeniable backbone.
Still, while Lemmy’s tenure in the band was their most fruitful period, he was kicked out in 1975 after being arrested at the American/Canadian border for having cocaine on his person—the grand irony being that he didn’t have coke on him, but speed. Though it’s stated that his drug use was the cause for his dismissal, Lemmy, who still seems bitter about the ordeal, states that his drug use was not any more excessive than anyone else in the band. That is, in his words, he wasn’t kicked out for doing drugs, but “doing the wrong kind of drugs.”
As is true Kilmister style, Lemmy’s departure would directly inform his next step. The last track that Lemmy wrote and recorded for Hawkwind was a song about the both the thrill and dangers of being a speed addict, namely, the track, “Motorhead.”
“Motorhead” would again be recorded in the band Motörhead for their first, self-titled album. Unlike the trippiness of the earlier version, all evidence of the hippy world is washed away here. Instead of flower power, 1977’s “Motorhead” is meaner, faster, and seemingly influenced by punk rock.
By now, Motörhead are not only legends, but have been legends for decades. While many of their songs kind of sound the same, when you really focus, you can still hear that original R&B soul, that trippy psychedelic spirit, and the sheer power of space rock. That is to say, there’s more hiding in those bass lines than three chords and whiskey-soaked sweat.