Motörhead's overwhelmingly loud and fast style of heavy metal was one of the most groundbreaking styles the genre had to offer in the late '70s. Though the group's leader, Lemmy Kilminster, had his roots in the hard-rocking space rock band Hawkwind, Motörhead didn't bother with his old group's progressive tendencies, choosing to amplify the heavy biker rock elements of Hawkwind with the speed of punk rock. Motörhead wasn't punk rock -- they formed before the Sex Pistols and they loved the hell-for-leather imagery of bikers too much to conform with the safety-pinned, ripped T-shirts of punk -- but they were the first metal band to harness that energy and, in the process, they created speed metal and thrash metal. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Motörhead continued performing into the next century. Although the band changed its lineup many, many times -- Lemmy was its only consistent member -- they never changed their raging sound.
The son of a vicar, Lemmy Kilmister (born Ian Fraiser Kilmister; December 24, 1945) first began playing rock & roll in 1964, when he joined two local Blackpool, England, R&B bands, the Rainmakers and the Motown Sect. Over the course of the '60s, he played with a number of bands -- including the Rockin' Vickers, Gopal's Dream, and Opal Butterfly -- as well as briefly working as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix. In 1971, he joined the heavy prog rock band Hawkwind as a bassist. Lemmy was originally slated to stay with the band only six months, yet he stayed with the group for four years. During that time, he wrote and sang several songs with the band, including their signature song, the number three U.K. hit "Silver Machine" (1972).
Lemmy was kicked out of Hawkwind in the spring of 1975, after he spent five days in a Canadian prison for drug possession. Once he returned to England, Kilminster set about forming a new band. Originally, it was to have been called "Bastard," but he soon decided to call the band Motörhead, named after the last song he wrote for Hawkwind. Lemmy drafted in Pink Fairies guitarist Larry Wallis and drummer Lucas Fox to round out the lineup. Motörhead made its debut supporting Greenslade in July. Two months later, the group headed into the studio to make its debut album for United Artists with producer Dave Edmunds. Motörhead and Edmunds clashed over the direction of recording, resulting in the group firing the producer and replacing him with Fritz Fryer. At the end of the year, Fox left the band and Lemmy replaced him with his friend, Philthy Animal (born Philip Taylor), an amateur musician.
Motörhead delivered its debut album to UA early in 1976, but the label rejected the album. Shortly afterward, former Blue Goose and Continuous Performance guitarist "Fast" Eddie Clarke joined the band. Following one rehearsal as a four-piece, Wallis left the band, leaving Motörhead as a trio; this is the lineup that would later be recalled as the group's classic period. However, the band spent most of 1976 struggling, performing without a contract or manager and generating little money. At the end of the year, they cut a single, "White Line Fever"/"Leavin' Here," for Stiff Records which wasn't released until two years later. By the summer of 1977, the group had signed a one-record contract with Chiswick Records, releasing their eponymous debut in June; it peaked at number 43 on the U.K. charts. A year later, the band signed with Bronze Records.
Overkill, Motörhead's first album for Bronze, was released in the spring of 1979. The album peaked at number 24, while its title track became the band's first Top 40 hit. Motörhead continued to gain momentum, as their concerts were selling well and Bomber, the follow-up to Overkill, reached number 12 upon its fall release. The band was doing so well that UA released the rejected album at the end of the year as On Parole. Ace of Spades, released in the fall of 1980, became a number four hit, while the single of the same name reached number 15.
Ace of Spades became Motörhead's first American album, yet the group was making little headway in the U.S., where they only registered as a cult act. Back in England, the situation could hardly have been more different. Motörhead was at the peak of its popularity in 1981, releasing a hit collaboration with the all-female group Girlschool entitled Headgirl and entering the charts at number one with their live album, No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith. Though the group was rising commercially, there was tension within the band, particularly between Clarke and Lemmy. Clarke left the band during the supporting tour for 1982's Iron Fist, reportedly angered by Kilmister's planned collaboration with Wendy O. Williams. Former Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson replaced Clarke.
The new lineup released Another Perfect Day in the summer of 1983. Another Perfect Day was a disappointment, only reaching number 20 in the U.K. Robertson left two months later, being replaced by two guitarists: former Persian Risk member Phillip Campbell and Wurzel (born Michael Burston). Shortly afterward, Taylor left to join Robertson's band Operator, and was replaced by former Saxon drummer Pete Gill. This lineup released a single, "Killed by Death," in September of 1984, but shortly afterward the group left Bronze and the label filed an injunction against the band. As a result, Motörhead was prevented from releasing any recordings -- including a bizarre collaboration between Lemmy and page-three girl Samantha Fox -- for two years.
Motörhead finally returned to action in 1986, first with a track on the charity compilation Hear 'n Aid and later with the Bill Laswell-produced Orgasmatron, which was released on their new label, GWR. Orgasmatron was successful with the band's still-dedicated cult audience in England and America, and received some of the group's best reviews to date. The following year, they released Rock 'N' Roll, which was equally successful. In 1988, the live No Sleep at All appeared, and Lemmy made his acting debut in the comedy Eat the Rich. Two years later, the band signed to WTG and released The Birthday Party. Taylor briefly rejoined the band in 1991, appearing on that year's 1916, before Mikkey Dee, formerly of King Diamond, took over on drums. Dee's first album with the band was 1992's March or Die, which didn't chart in the U.S. yet played to their U.K. cult following. WTG dropped the band after the album's release and the band started their own label, appropriately called Motörhead, which was distributed through ZYX. Their first album for the label was 1994's Bastards.
For the remainder of the '90s, Motörhead concentrated on touring more than recording. Outside of the band, Lemmy appeared in insurance commercials in Britain. He also acted in Hellraiser 3 and had a cameo in the porno movie John Wayne Bobbit Uncut. In 1997, the group moved to the metal-oriented indie label Receiver and released Stone Dead Forever; the live Everything Louder Than Everyone Else followed in 1999, and a year later they returned with We Are Motörhead. Hammered appeared in 2002 and was followed by 2004's Inferno. In 2005 the Sanctuary label reissued some of the band's classic albums (Overkill, Ace of Spades, and Iron Fist) in two-CD deluxe editions. A collection of all-new material, Kiss of Death, arrived in 2006, followed by Motorizer in 2008. In 2010 the band embarked on a 35th anniversary tour in support of their 20th studio album, The Wörld Is Yours, which was released under a new deal with German label UDR. After taking an enforced break in 2012 to allow Lemmy to recover from laryngitis, the band started writing for their next album. Decamping to NRG Studios in North Hollywood to work with producer Cameron Webb, they recorded Aftershock, one of their most aggressive albums in years, which was released in October 2013. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine