Motorhead: The First Three Years

Shortly after his firing from UK space rock pioneers Hawkwind, Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister adopted the biker motto ‘Born to Lose, Live to Win’ and made it his new band’s mission statement. As luck (both good and bad) would have it, he would spend the next few years living both sides of that creedo, earning the right to make it his own every day while struggling to get his new band, Motorhead, off the ground.

Motorhead was doomed from day one. But Motorhead was also destined for greatness. Lemmy knew both of these statements to be true even at the very beginning. Motorhead survived more drama and disaster in their first few years of existence than most bands suffer in decades, all through the sheer force of one man’s will. Lemmy’s bold self-belief, dogged perserverance, and abject refusal to give up and go home kept Motorhead alive during the nearly complete clusterfuck of their first three years.

Of course, being 49% motherfucker and 51% son of a bitch didn’t hurt either.

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Born To Lose: In May of 1975, Lemmy is arrested at the Canadian border for possession of amphetamine sulfate. Management bails him out and puts him on a flight to Toronto. At 4am after the Toronto show, he is fired from the band he once performed with on Top of the Pops, singing lead on their Top Ten (#3) single ‘Silver Machine’ in 1972.

Live To Win: Within two weeks of returning to England, Lemmy steals his equipment back from Hawkwind’s rehearsal space, repaints his psychedelic amps black, and forms a band he calls Bastard. He retains his Hawkwind-era manager, who persuades him to change the name. He re-christens his new band Motorhead, naming it after the last song he wrote for his previous band.

BTL: In July, Motorhead’s live debut takes place at the Roundhouse, a high-profile UK venue. Lemmy himself states the band were “bloody awful”. After a 10-show trek across Britain in August, the band opens for Blue Oyster Cult at the Hammersmith Odeon in October. In December, based on the Hammersmith performance, Motorhead wins “Best Worst Band in the World” in the reader’s poll featured in the year-end issue of the respected UK music paper Sounds.

LTW: Motorhead manages to secure a record deal with Hawkwind’s label United Artists. Dave Edmunds, one of Lemmy’s heroes, is set to produce. The band prep their originals and a few covers and enter the studio In December.

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BTL: After recording only four songs, Edmunds abandons the project. Drummer Lucas Fox, trying to keep up with Lemmy’s speed habit, is a disaster in the studio. His drum tracks are not workable and his behavior is erratic, even dangerous; he is fired before the record is complete.

LTW: 21 year old drummer Phillip Taylor is drafted in as Fox’s replacement. Taylor overdubs all of Fox’s drum tracks (except one) and the album is completed with producer Fritz Freyer.

BTL: United Artists shelve the album, deeming it ‘unfit for release’. Motorhead, still under contract with UA, cannot record for another label. In the Spring of 1976, immediately after Lemmy drafts Eddie Clarke in to the band as rhythm guitarist; Larry Wallis quits.

LTW: Motorhead hire a new manager, who arranges another recording. In July, Kilmister/Clarke/Taylor record a single for Stiff Records, ‘White Line Fever’/’Leaving Here’.

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BTL: Motorhead are still under contract with United Artists, who block the release of the Stiff single. Motorhead have now recorded music for 2 labels and neither label has released anything. They limp through the rest of 1976 with one-off gigs, living in squats and starving. Just a few months into 1977, Phil and Eddie decide to call it a day.

LTW: A farewell performance is booked at the Marquee in London in April ’77. Lemmy convinces Ted Carroll of Chiswick Records to record the show in a last-ditch attempt to get anything with the Motorhead name on it released.

BTL: The mobile studio promised by Carroll never materializes at the Marquee gig; the farewell show is not recorded.

LTW: Carroll shows up backstage after the show and by way of apology, offers the band 2 days of studio time to record a single. The band instead record basics for 11 songs, and their single deal with Chiswick becomes an album deal. Carroll gave the band the cash to complete the unfinished tracks, with which Motorhead records 2 additional songs, for a total of 13. The album, called ‘Motorhead’, released in August of 1977, peaked at #43 in the UK.

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BTL: About a week into the headlining tour to promote their ‘debut’ album, Phil Taylor breaks his wrist in a fight and the rest of the tour is cancelled. The band is unable to do any live work until a November gig at the Marquee. Motorhead’s manager cuts ties with Chiswick, citing lack of support, and the band, in turn, fires him. Phil and Eddie throw together another band, The Muggers, and once again consider leaving Motorhead.

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LTW: Motorhead hire manager Doug Smith, who secures the band a deal with Bronze Records for a single. In August 1978, ‘Louie Louie’/’Tear Ya Down’ was released, and hit #68 on the UK Singles chart. The success of the single resulted in Morohead’s first appearance on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops program. It was Lemmy’s 2nd appearance on the show, his first having been to promote Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’.

So: After three years of struggle, Lemmy had come full circle. He had dragged himself and his new band through a minefield of bad deals, bad breaks and plain old bad luck. Lemmy never wavered. Each and every time he was kicked, he kicked back; every setback was met with a grim determination and a raised middle finger. Lemmy made his own good luck by constantly pushing against any and all obstructions, ignoring his detractors and doing plenty of good old fashioned hustling.

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All of this led up to their watershed moment: the release of their seminal ‘Overkill’ album. Lemmy (and Motorhead) ultimately won. Of course, all of the rejected material that was recorded during this time period was eventually released by labels eager to cash in on the Motorhead’s chart success a few years later. Hawkwind has even re-released ‘Silver Machine’ 3 times, and each time it has charted again. Lemmy of course never saw a dime from any of this thievery, but the vindication is priceless. As if the ongoing success of Motorhead, some 40 years on now, weren’t vindication enough.

The lesson in all this? As the slogan on the back side of the picture sleeve for the ‘Louie Louie’ single reads, “NIL ILLEGITIMUM CARBORUNDUM”.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Electric Funeral

September 15, 1974; Moody Coliseum, Dallas, Texas. Uriah Heep is touring the US promoting their 7th album, Wonderworld. About midway through the set, during the epic ‘July Morning’, Bassist Gary Thain suddenly vaults 3 feet off into the air, collapses to the floor unconscious, lying face-first. Uriah Heep’s 1974 US tour is suddenly over.

“All I remember is going to the amplifier to adjust the equalisers, the next thing that happened was I blacked out.”

Thain is rushed to a local hospital, where he is treated for symptoms of electrical shock, including severe burns to both his hands. Thain’s bass rig was poorly grounded, jolting the native New Zealander with enough electricity to end his career. Thain would never fully recover from his injuries, and was fired from Uriah Heep about 4 months later. He was now free to fully indulge his drug addiction, and it killed him.

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Gary Thain died of an respiratory failure due to an overdose of heroin in December of that same year, at that magic rock n’ roll age of 27. He was a fantastic player; next time you hear Heep’s “Easy Livin'” be sure to pay extra attention to the hypnotic, fluid bass parts, which nimbly drive the song forward… Or the bluesy throb that cralws around underneath “Stealin'”, from the ‘Sweet Freedom’ album; yeah, that’s him too.

While it was Gary Thain’s drug use that ended his life, I’d argue that his bass rig was an accessory before the fact.

The name Keith Relf probably isn’t too familiar to with the average rock fan, although his band the Yardbirds were hit makers in the mid 60’s and are often credited as being one of the forerunners of Heavy Metal. If you’re familiar with Yardbirds classics like “Shapes of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down”, then you’ve heard Relf’s vocals; he also wrote those songs, and many aothers. Not long after guitarist Jimmy Page (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) re-built the Yardbirds as the New Yardbirds, which quickly morphed into Led Zeppelin, Relf found himself in a folk-rock band with his sister Jane called Renaissance.

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On May 14, 1976, Relf was demoing material in his basement recording studio for a reworked version of his group Renaissance. He picked up a guitar that was not grounded properly, and he was electrocuted. His son found him on the floor and brought him to the hospital, where he died soon after. He was 33.

Damn, electricity!

The late, great Jimmy Dewar wouldn’t have been available to join Robin Trower’s band if electrocution hadn’t intervened. Dewar was in a band called Stone the Crows, with singer Maggie Bell and her husband, Les Harvey (brother of Alex Harvey of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band). Stone the Crows were one of those bands that were 6 degrees from stardom; besides the Trower connection, the band was managed by Peter Grant, Les Harvey’s brother Alex would make waves in the UK with his own band, and Maggie Bell would later sing on Rod Stewart’s ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ lp.

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On 3 May, 1972, as the Stone the Crows soundchecked before a set at Swansea’s Top Rank Ballroom, guitarist Les Harvey touched his lips to a badly grounded (or ‘earthed’ as they say in the UK) mic. The 27 year old (seriously?!) guitarist was killed instantly on stage with his wife standing right beside him.

Instantly. This electricity thing doesn’t fuck around.

There is only one musician that I know of who mainlined the lightning and survived unscathed, and that’s Ace Frehley, of Kiss. During the Lakeland, FL stop of their ‘Rock and Roll Over’ tour in ’76, The Space Ace was starting his walk down from the riser where the band had played it’s opener ‘Detroit Rock City,’ and touched a handrail on the light-up stairs. Something in that electric death-trap of a stage set wasn’t grounded right, and he was immediately zapped with a gazillion volts of the good stuff. His body clentched and convulsed, and for a few several seconds he couldn’t let go of the rail. He eventually broke loose and fell backwards off the rear of the platform to the stage below.

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Who knows how many volts the Spacemen took at that moment? A Kiss show in the late 70’s looked like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. But Ace Frehley simply shook it off. After a mere 10 minutes backstage, and with no feeling in his left hand, he re-took the stage and played the rest of the set. Ace later wrote a song about the incident, called “Shock Me”, laughing in the face of near-death and taunting electricity to go ahead and try it again.

There is only one explanation: Clearly space travelers from the planet Jendell process electricity through their alien bodies differently than we humans do. I believe that Ace actually absorbed the electricity. According to the Wikipedia entry for ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’:

“Frehley has the ability to shoot lasers and to teleport by making a ‘hitchhiking’ gesture with his thumb.”

But seriously, who really knows how this stuff works, anyway? Amps, volts, watts, ohms… After writing this piece, as a musician who’s played almost 200 gigs, I feel lucky to be alive. I had no idea that a lethal jolt of crackling electric death was always lurking within the wires, waiting for the opportunity to strike. It’s almost enough to make a guy go accoustic.

Almost.