“One of the rock and roll survivors,
Twelve bars flowing through his brain.
He digs Jerry Lee Lewis, Dion and The Belmonts,
And Johnny & The Hurricanes.”
-- The Kinks, “One of the Survivors”
“We shoulda died a long fucking time ago. But we didn’t. We’re still here.”
-- Lemmy Kilmister, stage banter, 1989
On April 11, Motörhead will re-take the stage in Los Angeles, at Club Nokia, the site of their last U.S. show in May 2013. After summer cancelations and at least two postponements of a European run, it looks like this show (as well as appearances at Coachella and a couple of other West Coast gigs) will be taking place.
Rumor has it that Lemmy has severely limited some of his famed boozy excesses, and that he is actually exercising. No word on amphetamines but whatever he’s doing to maintain equilibrium, we can be sure it doesn’t involve any drugs taken by the electronic dance music (“EDM”) crowd. (Pardon me, I forgot that EDM is “saving” the music industry and live music. Actually, the trick of EDM is that the music is so boring that the audience is forced to take very specific drugs to enjoy it – and they are actually taking those drugs. Imagine the Velvet Underground playing to a stadium full of smack addicts. That would have fueled some commerce!)
And speaking of the Velvet Underground, there’s been quite a bit of death since Motörhead last played. Lou Reed gone. Scott Ashton from the Stooges gone. Dave Brockie from GWAR. And two original members of Devo gone. (Yes, this matters.) Of all these dead people, Lemmy certainly should have gone first – with only Lou Reed perhaps slightly more likely to beat Lemmy to the final punch. To be sure, by any standard, Lemmy’s intake of chemicals and good ol' fashioned ethanol put him at the head of the class for early dismissal.
Indeed, Reed and Lemmy have more in common than meets the eye. Both were/are pioneering musicians, often imitated, often misunderstood. Reed pioneered pop music drones that punks misconstrued to mean that it doesn’t take talent to be a musician. Lemmy pioneered volume and speed that metal kids misunderstood to mean that louder and faster is better. Something more subtle was going on, as both these titans explored musical extremes, but both were thoroughly steeped first in rock 'n roll – a deceptively simple form not easily mastered.
Most famously, both men were also honest about substantial drug use, here too inspiring countless imitators, many sadly more vulnerable to excess, though neither intended to lead by example and -- pay attention class -- neither went completely off the rails a la Syd Barrett, Layne Staley or even Wendy O herself.
Reed and Lemmy also continued to release new music consistently for decades past their “primes” (at least as calculated by rock critics). Indeed, Motörhead’s latest (Aftershock) was released six days before Reed’s death. Every Motörhead album for the last twenty years has been good, but, for whatever reason, this record is their best since “Inferno,” now itself ten years old and -- had it been the last record Motörhead made -- a worthy end to an astounding career.
Aftershock has all the elements of a great later-day Motörhead record. Fast songs, rhythmic songs, tight playing, a beautiful lower mid-range din of instruments and vocals competing for space and a Swiftian disappointment in the state of mankind – all played by a heavy three piece with that actually swings and features a bass for a rhythm guitar. I’ll go out on (another) limb and posit that a major distinction on this record is Phil Campbell’s playing and tone. Sometimes Campbell’s playing sounds like he’s just there to keep things contemporary and balance out Lemmy’s supernova-like presence in all things Motörhead. But on Aftershock, Campbell digs deep in the notes and adopts some serious guitar tone and technique, borrowing bits from all the best playing off the last 30 years.
For example, the opening run on “Coup de Gras” sounds like it could have been lifted from Appetite from Destruction – in all the best ways. “Silence When You Speak To Me” lifts the feel and chunk of “Man In the Box.”
The most striking thing on Aftershock are the two slow numbers, “Lost Woman Blues” and “Dust and Glass.” These tunes prove that if Motörhead ever wants to, they can own the blues festival circuit. When Motorhead plays the blues, the band is wound up tighter than Anne Coulter’s sphincter. The sound is heavy and ominous, ready to go off without provocation, which makes sense, for no other blues band has played so loud so fast for so long. On these tunes, Campbell channels Brian Robertson and Gary Moore; playing tunes from Another Perfect Day all these years has rubbed off on him. “Dust and Glass” in particular stands out for its unique structure and tempo. The song is a string of verses with no chorus. Lemmy tosses off his observations, too world-weary to distill the song beyond its final lines – “born in pain / end in grief / remember this / and die.” Another gem is upbeat rocker “Keep Your Powder Dry,” which starts off with a riff that sounds like it could have been ripped from a Krokus record, except that 10 seconds in Lemmy’s bass fires up to propel the song forward on a tightrope of bass mids. If you ever wanted to know what Lemmy’s playing adds to the tune, the point where he cuts in on “Keep Your Power Dry” is your answer.
Summing up these points on Aftershock, it should be noted that these are the observations of someone who has listened to a lot of Motörhead. In addition to these points of interest, the Aftershock listener is treated to the usual high quality Motör-fare: exceptional drumming, choruses and transitions that don’t lag and an overall experience that will help you kick caffeine or whatever.
So if you’re out and about in California this week, try to catch a Motörhead show. Lemmy and Motörhead soldier on, while gallons of ink are spilled by rock critics looking for the secret sauce de jour. Truth is, the answer has been here all along, in the form a man through whom we can draw a direct line from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to the Beatles, through Hendrix to psychedelia to hippie speed burnout, through ZZ Top to the Pink Fairies to punk (and even industrial), heavy metal and thrash metal.
I’ve written so much about Lemmy in the past, I fear I have run out of things to say, until I hear a new Motörhead record and it all comes rushing back for another round of interpretation. He is truly one of our contemporary music treasures, espousing a world view that is integrated, consistent and deceptively simple. For some Motör-morality, just let the songs be your guide: “Born to Lose,” “Live to Win,” “Stay Clean,” “Just ‘Cos You Got The Power (Don’t Mean You Got The Right),” “Don’t Need Religion,” “Don’t Let ‘Em Grind You Down” and, yes, “Dance.” Once you’ve mastered these skills of proper human behavior, there will be only one thing left to do: keep going and don’t stop. Ever.