A Deal With the Devil

June 1981. When Motorhead learned that their live album, ‘No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith’, had reached the top of the UK charts, Lemmy and the lads were slogging around the USA opening for Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Oz. It was a huge opportunity for Motorhead, who’d had a number of charting albums and singles at home in England but were virtually unknown in America.

August 8, 1981. The Heavy Metal Holocaust at Port Vale Football Stadium, Stoke on Trent, England. The bill for the year’s biggest UK Metal festival was originally to have been topped by Black Sabbath. Motorhead, still riding high on the success of their number one album, were to co-headline the event. When the Sabs pulled out due to recording commitments (or fear of a red-hot Motorhead, depending on which story you believe), ‘head were slotted at the top and, in an ironic twist, Ozzy Osbourne’s band was added and slotted in just under the headliner. This would be the UK’s first look at the Aldridge/Sarzo version of Ozzy’s new band. Lemmy introduced a nervous Ozzy’s set that night; Ozzy intro’d Motorhead’s, as several bootleg recordings of the event reveal.

Now jump forward a decade to 1991. Ozzy and Lemmy are both signed to Epic/Sony Records, and a deal of sorts is struck between the two old friends. Lemmy is asked to co-write songs for Ozzy’s forthcoming ‘No More Tears’ album. In return, Ozzy agrees to appear on Motorhead’s ‘March or Die’ album. Who got the better of the deal is a matter of opinion.

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What did Ozzy get? Lemmy wrote the lyrics for four of the songs included on the ‘No More Tears’ album. One of these songs, ‘Mama I’m Coming Home’, became Ozzy’s only solo Top 40 single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at number 28. The ‘NMT’ recording of another of Lemmy’s contributions, ‘I Don’t Want to Change the World’, would be nominated for a Grammy for Best Metal/Hard Rock Performance. On the strength of this single and the Grammy hooplah, the record would reach double-platinum certification by September of 1992. Lemmy’s other two offerings, ‘Desire’ and ‘Hellraiser’, were also quality songs, and undoubtedly contributed to the overall success of the record. It’s a strong album overall, though a bit mainstream for my tastes; far stronger than it’s predecessor ‘No Rest For the Wicked’, which took 9 years to reach double-platinum status. Simply put, it’s hard to dispute the impact of Lemmy’s contributions to the success of ‘No More Tears’.

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What did Lemmy get? On 1992’s ‘March Or Die’, Motorhead’s second and, thankfully, final foray into the world of major label bullshit, Ozzy appeared as a guest vocalist on the power ballad ‘I Ain’t No Nice Guy’ (Slash also contributed a guitar solo), which garnered some airplay despite record company apathy. Sony pushed the godawful cover of Ted Nugent’s ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ to radio instead. Ozzy also appeared in the ‘Nice Guy’ video. Motorhead recorded their own version of ‘Hellraiser’ for ‘MoD’ and actually got their version featured in the film ‘Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth’ and it’s soundtrack album.

The brief Lemmy/Ozzy/Epic partnership positioned Motorhead for their biggest successes ever. But it wasn’t to be, as none of it worked in Motorhead’s favor. Truth be told, ‘March or Die’ sucks. The record is a typical over-produced major label mess; two producers, three drummers, a radio-friendly cover version, a power ballad, and guest stars galore (Ozzy actually guests on two songs, Slash also appears on two). And the Hellraiser movie flopped. Despite the record company machinations, MoD failed commercially as well as failing completely as a Motorhead album. Motorhead were never suited to play the kind of game that a major label, and mainstream success, demands.

So: who got the better of the deal? It all depends on what your definition of success is, and what your goals are. Me, I’d call it a draw.

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Deep Purple’s Jon Lord said in an interview in 1996 that his royalties for ‘Smoke on the Water’ add up to ‘a tidy six figures’ annually. And that was almost 25 years after the song was a hit. Similarly, Lemmy’s been quoted as saying that ‘the Ozzy checks’ will pay his rent in LA for the rest of his life. In his autobiography, Lemmy states, ‘I made more money out of writing those four songs than I made out of fifteen years of Motörhead – ludicrous, isn’t it?!’

I hear ‘Mama I’m Coming Home’ on my local rock/metal station regularly, and while it’s no ‘Smoke…’, it is firmly established as a minor classic rock radio staple. For Lemmy, Ozzy’s ‘No More Tears’ was such a success that the failure of Motorhead’s ‘March or Die’ was irrelevant. Lemmy, the ultimate rock and roll survivor, would walk away from his flirtation with major label success, soul intact, and release the excellent ‘Bastards’ on indie label XYZ in 1993. Lemmy Kilmister may be the only musician in history to ever have made his deal with the devil (or she-devil, as we all know who is really calling the shots for the Ozzman) and walked away unscathed.

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