Over four decades, Motörhead frontman Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister has registered an immeasurable impact on music history. He remains the living embodiment of the rock and roll lifestyle. Kilmister was born in England and got hooked on rock and roll at a young age. After playing guitar in many bands as a teenager, he moved to London in 1967 and worked as a roadie for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. In 1971, he joined the band Hawkwind and switched to bass guitar, recording several classic albums including Space Ritual and Hall of the Mountain Grill. In 1975, he formed the groundbreaking metal band, Motörhead. They played with speed and volume unheard before in rock and roll. On albums like Bomber from 1979, and 1980's Ace of Spades, they established a model for what became thrash metal. Still, Kilmister has always kept classic first-generation rock and roll at the heart of his sound. In his work with rockabilly band the Head Cat, he has explored his rock and roll roots in fantastic versions of songs by Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Motörhead is still going strong, relasing The World is Yours in 2010 and touring in 2012.
Lemmy is one of the artists who'll take the stage at this year's American Music Masters tribute concert honoring Chuck Berry. On the evening before the show, the Rock Hall spoke with Lemmy about his impressions of rock and roll's poet laureate.
Rock Hall: Do you remember the first time you heard Chuck Berry's music?
Lemmy Kilmister: It was on a jukebox where I lived in North Wales, which is pretty desolate, so we didn't get stuff like London did – there were no TV shows then with rock and roll on them, and there was no way to hear because the radio didn't play it. You had to tune into Radio Luxembourg, which was in Luxembourg, in Europe, so that was very dodgy with the reception. You'd often find that a song would come on and you didn't find out who played it until three weeks later – the fucking tuner would fade out. So, I first heard Berry on the jukebox, in the local cafe that we used to go to – I think it was "Sweet Little Sixteen," I'm not sure. Would've been 13-14.
RH: It must've made quite an impression on a teen living in North Wales, no?
Lemmy: There were only two things to be then: you were either in or out. You were either straight or rock and roll. Some songs just spoke to you and some didn't, and Berry's songs always did. We'd already heard Elvis and Little Richard and, I guess, Johnny Burnette – people like that filtered through. But [Berry] was the first one who really told stories.
RH: Berry had a way with words, a sense of humor, a certain economy of language…
Lemmy: Berry always had humor even though he was going through shit in his life. That was about the same time he went to jail for that bullshit charge involving a minor, which you wouldn't have ever heard about if it were a white man. He always gave you all the details, even in the car songs, which were kind of state of the art – he'd give you all the makes of the cars, the things he was having done to them to make them fine. In just a few words, he'd lay it all out, and that was his great skill. He was the first one.
RH: Between Motörhead and your rockabilly outfit the Head Cat, you've covered a number of Berry tracks, including "Let It Rock." What about that track caught your ear?
Lemmy: It's just a good song. And the words are great about the railroad crew, gambling on the tracks and the train comin'. When that came out originally, it was the b-side, I think, of a song called "Go Go Go," which was like really forgettable. It was good in the very lyrical way, but it wasn't a very inspired tune. And then ["Let It Rock"] was on the b-side. It was hurried out when he was in jail – it came out just when he was being released. Then I went to see him in Manchester, I think it was, (or Birmingham) with the Moody Blues. He came over to Britain and toured as soon he'd been released, and he played it that night, so it was great. It's a great song.
RH: That was yet another Berry gift: great b-sides, including some of his more bluesy cuts, like "Wee Wee Hours" and "Deep Feeling"...
Lemmy: I had that [second] album of his, One Dozen Berrys , and I thought every track on that was a standout, which is incredible, because the albums in those days had a lot of filler on them usually. There were a lot of bad b-sides in those days, and Chuck Berry was certainly no slouch in that direction.
RH: In Lemmy's guide to the galaxy, what does the entry for Chuck Berry read like?
Lemmy: Chuck Berry was a seminal figure in rock and roll, still playing at the age of 86. And a great lyricist and poet. And a great fighter for his rights.
RH: And where would rock and roll be without him?
Lemmy: Nowhere. It took a lot of people to make rock and roll, but he was one of the cornerstones.
RH: Where's rock and roll headed?
Lemmy: I don't understand these people in plaid shirts looking at their shoes. If you're gonna be a fucking rock star, go be one. People don't want to see the guy next door on the stage, they want to see a being from another planet. You want to see somebody you'd never meet in ordinary life, for a start. You want to see a being from somewhere else, who comes to your planet, fucks you up and goes away again. That's the idea with rock and roll. It should be amazing from start to finish and not ordinary.