Grizzly, dangerous, raw — Lemmy Kilmister’s songs, both in and out of Motörhead, embodied the spirit of rock & roll perfectly. From the breakneck, born-to-lose anthem “Ace of Spades” and rumbling paean to loud living “Overkill” to bristly headbangers like “Hellraiser” and his Probot contribution “Shake Your Blood,” he wrote the soundtrack to his life. His influence stretched from hard rock to punk to heavy metal. And though Lemmy died at age 70 of an aggressive form of cancer, as was reported on Monday, he left behind several lifetimes’ worth of some of the most iconic rock songs ever snarled. Here are 20 of the best.
Written on the balcony of the infamous “Riot House” hotel in West Hollywood during a 1974 Hawkwind tour, Lemmy’s speed-freak anthem gave his next band its name, its mission statement and its sonic template. “I can’t get enough/And you know it’s righteous stuff,” sang Lemmy of the amphetamine that got him booted from the more psychedelically minded Hawkwind, but the same sentiments could certainly apply Motörhead’s addictively pounding brand of hard rock. “And yes, I am the only person to fit the word ‘parallelogram’ into a rock & roll number,” Lemmy later reflected about the song. “I’m very proud of that.”
‘No Class’ (1979)
“Shut up! You talk too loud!” intones Lemmy at the top of this tune from 1979’s Overkill, and that’s about as sweet and gentle as Mr. Kilmister gets over the course of the song’s two and a half minutes. And the music matches the vitriolic words: Whereas Motorhead’s early classics were generally defined by their frenetic speed, “No Class” is powered by a swaggering midtempo boogie rhythm and a greasy guitar lick that only serves to amplify the don’t-give-a-fuck-ness of the lyrics. And yeah, it all sounds a bit (maybe a bit too much) like ZZ Top’s “Tush.” But, honestly, were you gonna be the one to tell Lemmy that?
‘Damage Case’ (1979)
Lemmy, a proud lothario, sounded his most lewd on the Overkill highlight “Damage Case,” as he sings some lyrics written by his pal Mick Farren: “I ain’t looking to victimize you/All I want to do is tantalize you.” It’s a swinging, shambolic, dirty rock & roll number, the sort of lascivious catcall Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis would have recorded if they weren’t expected to be somewhat fine, upstanding youth. But more important to Kilmister, “Damage Case” also displayed how he was able to play bass like a lead instrument, as he pulls off a wild, barely controlled turnaround between his typically stabbing attack in the middle of the song, just in time for more tongue-waving like, “I don’t care what you think your game is/ I don’t care even what your name is.” He was never shy.
‘Stay Clean’ (1979)
“Stay Clean” is a declaration of Motörhead’s nobler aspirations. While plenty of the band’s songs are steeped in the band’s admittedly juvenile desire for strong drinks and young girls, this kinetic track off of 1979’s Overkill focuses on the integrity behind the outlaw mindset — the dismissal of fear, the understanding of the world’s injustice, the trust in one’s self over all others. This was back when the band was still reeling from the bad-luck letdown of the Sixties, and it shows. It’s easy, when we allow ourselves to be blinded by all of his backstage debauchery, to forget that Lemmy was a man of principle, but “Stay Clean” is a stern and classic reminder.
‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ (1979)
Opening with arguably the most defiant of Lemmy’s lyrical asides — “This is it!” — “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is the notoriously hard boozer’s indictment of heroin. Yes, this is Lemmy warning kids to stay off smack. The allusions are abundant: In just one verse he sings of “shooting up,” “horse,” “skag” and “tracks” with the wearied experience of one who watched friends get hooked on the needle. But the kickoff song of 1979’s Bomber never nods off — instead, it’s alive with attitude and boasts one of Lemmy’s most urgent vocals. It’s a metal classic that’s both cautionary and caustic.
Motörhead’s first war cry is one of their greatest salvos. “Bomber” sounds like the deadly airplane it celebrates: a megaton blast of gritty distortion, squelching yowls and loose shrapnel riffage. “We shoot to kill, and you know we always will,” Lemmy sings like a threat and a brag at the same time. The group anted up the war imagery on tour by bringing a 30-foot wide lighting rig that resembled a World War II plane with them. “I was reading Len Deighton’s book Bomber at the time I wrote it,” Lemmy told Rolling Stone this year. “It’s about a bombing raid on Germany when the British hit the wrong town, and it’s what goes on the floor in the air from both sides. It’s a really good book.” K.G.
‘Ace of Spades’ (1980)
Lemmy often complained that he’d written better songs, but that his fans refused to ever let him drop “Ace of Spades” from the set list. It’s easy to understand why, since the title track of the band’s 1980 album has it all: a thrashy groove driven by Lemmy’s thundering bass, an indelible four-note riff,and a swaggering lyric that pretty much summed up Lemmy’s personal philosophy (“You know I’m born to lose/And gambling’s for fools/But that’s the way I like it, baby/I don’t want to live forever”). Despite its completely uncompromising nature, “Ace of Spades” spent twelve weeks on the U.K. singles chart, peaking at Number 15; though it never charted Stateside, the band’s performance of the song on a 1984 episode of The Young Ones turned countless American viewers into diehard Motörhead fans.
‘(We Are) the Road Crew’ (1980)
A hardened road warrior from even before he’d joined Hawkwind — thanks to late-Sixties stints roadie-ing for Jimi Hendrix (who’d often “tip” him with hits of LSD) and U.K. prog rockers the Nice — Lemmy felt an immense sense of empathy and connection with the guys who hauled the gear for Motörhead, often preferring to ride at the front of the tour bus with them rather than pass the time in the seclusion of the back lounge. He claimed to have penned this booming shout-out to them (first heard on 1980’s Ace of Spades) in only 10 minutes, but lyrics like “Another blasted customs post/Another bloody foreign coast/Another set of scars to boast” were clearly born of many years on tour.
‘Love Me Like a Reptile’ (1980)
No band is more like a rattlesnake than Motörhead: spring-loaded, camouflaged, loud if you try to fuck with it, deadly if you do. “Love Me Like a Reptile,” off the unbeatable Ace of Spades, is biker lust put in its most basic terms. While the toothless rock of the Seventies slithered around its fans and squeezed the life out of them, Lemmy and Co. slapped a generation of rabid speedfreaks upside the head and threw them into the pit. Both playful and edgy, this banger is a perfect combination of the band’s tail-chasing modus operandi and their more vicious inclinations. This song is the soundtrack to the moment when the party gets out of hand, a paean to narrowed eyes and flicked tongues.
‘Stand by Your Man’ (1982)
For a guy who wrote songs with titles like “Love Me Like a Reptile,” Lemmy was one of the few rockers who seemed to not only acknowledge that women could play hard, but that they could do it with just as much down-and-dirty verve as the men. Or, as Lemmy put it in his autobiography, White Line Fever, “I really enjoy making records with birds.” And that he did — first on the 1981 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre EP, recorded with British metal band Girlschool, and then with Plasmatics frontwoman Wendy O. Williams, she of the blond Mohawk and black-duct-taped boobs. To be sure, Wendy and Lemmy’s duet on this Tammy Wynette classic is occasionally tuneless and always over the top, and the sessions themselves had their own turmoil — according to some reports, they led directly to the departure of guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke from Motörhead — but there’s a certain raw beauty in all the ragged, raspy-voiced ugliness.
‘Iron Fist’ (1982)
From its galloping, fuzzy bass intro to its catchy “you know me” chorus, “Iron Fist” is pure adrenaline. The lyrics are some of band’s most oblique — e.g., “Moon eclipse and you know why/Ghost rider in the sky/Beast of evil, devil’s hound/Tooth and claw, they pull you down” — but as with many great Motörhead songs, the track’s power lies in Lemmy’s conviction. When he sang words like “You know me, the snakebite’s kiss,” he meant it, whatever the hell they meant.
‘Killed by Death’ (1984)
Only Lemmy and Motörhead could come up with a title so inane, it’s brilliant. One of four new songs tacked on to the must-own 1984 compilation No Remorse, “Killed by Death” is Lemmy staring down the Reaper — albeit with a smirk. At one point, he threatens to put his “snake on you,” before pledging that he “ain’t no pretty boy.” (And truer words were never spoke.) The song, at over four minutes, an epic by Motörhead’s standards, is cocksure swaggering in every sense. And it stands as a prime example of what Lemmy did so well: keep the “hard” in “hard rock.”
The mid-Eighties were a strange time for Motörhead — they were just a few years out from “Ace of Spades” and the U.K. chart-topper No Sleep ’til Hammersmith, and yet the band’s stock had sunk so low by 1986 that they had to set up their own imprint, GWR, just to get this record out. Furthermore, they chose to bring in Bill Laswell, known more for his work in funk, jazz, ambient and myriad other non-metal musical styles, to produce it. The result was, for the most part, a muddy, murky mess. But in the case of “Orgasmatron,” that muddiness and murkiness only served to fortify the song’s impenetrable, steamroller-esque bass-and-drum attack. Add in a loping, one-note guitar riff and Lemmy’s croaking vocal, and you get Motörhead at their most leaden and bizarre. As for the title? Wrote Lemmy in White Line Fever: “I didn’t even know at the time that an ‘Orgasmatron’ was a contraption in some Woody Allen film. I made up the word on my own.”
While tender ballads were never exactly Motörhead’s stock in trade, the elegiac title track of their 1991 album still stands as one of the band’s finest works. An ardent student of military history, Lemmy based the lyrics of “1916” on the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest confrontations of World War I, in which over a million men were killed or wounded — many of whom, like the song’s narrator and protagonist, were still in their teens. Lemmy often proclaimed that he was quite proud of this track, and with good reason; his uncharacteristically vulnerable vocal, set against a sparse orchestral backing, lays out the war’s shattering loss of innocence with a brutal frankness. “The day not half over/And 10,000 slain/And now there’s nobody remembers our names/And that’s how it is for a soldier.”
Both excelling in loud, short bursts of raw power onstage, the Ramones and Motörhead were kindred spirits, and Lemmy paid tribute to the Queens punks on this shout-along from the 1916 album. “New York City, N.Y.C./Pretty mean when it wants to be,” Lemmy barks in the first line, establishing a cadence that sounds straight off Rocket to Russia. The Ramones heard the similarity too — they’d later cover their own tribute song on tour. Which is especially meta considering that Lemmy namechecks every member in the lyrics, from Dee Dee to C.J., ending appropriately with a nod to his pal Joey calling him on the phone. Best of all, “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” was the ultimate middle finger to those who figured Lemmy an illiterate dunce — he sure as shit knew how to spell.
‘No Voices in the Sky’ (1991)
Lemmy got political with this standout from the stellar 1916. He lambasted the rich and greedy, skewered cowardly politicians and, most cuttingly, eviscerated T.V. preachers and the money-for-salvation gospel they peddled. In the end, there were “no voices in the sky” coming to save you, as he snarled in the chorus, only the sad reality that we can’t take anything with us when we die. While other Motörhead songs were better-known, “No Voices” and its video would land the ultimate tribute: being critiqued by Beavis and Butt-Head on MTV. “He looks like that dude down the street who’s always working on his car,” Butt-Head says of Lemmy. “That guy’s cool.” And it’s impossible to disagree.
In the early Nineties, Ozzy Osbourne turned to his old buddy Kilmister — who’d brought Motörhead out on the Ozzman’s first solo tour — for a little help writing tunes on what would become his quadruple-platinum No More Tears LP. In addition to the Grammy-winning “I Don’t Want to Change the World,” Kilmister helped write “Hellraiser,” a thumping declaration of rock & roll fury that took the singer all of 10 minutes to pen. In Ozzy’s hands, it’s a soaring anthem (and an album highlight) but for Motörhead, who stuck it on their 1992 record March ör Die and in a Pinhead movie, it was a gritty, gremlin-like bar-rocker (in other words, the perfect Motörhead song). “I don’t know if Ozzy liked my version of the song,” Kilmister told Rolling Stone this year. “He never said.”
‘Born to Raise Hell’ (1993)
“Who would win in a wrestling match, Lemmy or God?” Most non-heshers’ base knowledge of Motörhead stems from this moment in 1994’s Airheads, a movie in which Lemmy himself stars as a former editor of his school newspaper. But all direct references aside, the reckless attitude behind Airheads and its power-slop trio the Lone Rangers is just an expression of all things Motörhead. “Born to Raise Hell,” which soundtracks the film’s opening credits, reminds us that even after hair metal died while Axl Rose played with dolphins and grunge lurched forward like an angsty Frankenstein, Lemmy ruled. A herald of the laid-back biker metal of the band’s latter years, “Born to Raise Hell” is a Motörhead classic lacking any pretense. Its message is simple: We’re bad kids who get up to no good, and we have a shit-ton of fun while doing so.
‘Shake Your Blood’ (2004)
Dave Grohl realized the ultimate metalhead’s dream with Probot, the 2004 album on which he teamed with some of his favorite practitioners of the genre for a series of no-nonsense ragers that doubled as tributes to those artists’ unmistakable sonic signatures. With “Shake Your Blood,” Grohl essentially distilled 30 years of Motörhead goodness into three and a half glorious minutes, inviting Lemmy to do the same. The frontman was happy to comply, injecting this uptempo ode to the rock & roll lifestyle with his patented sneering, leering attitude (“Looking for relief in your miserable life/You need some rock & roll, and you better get it right”). Like many of Lemmy’s finest songs, the track leaves you wondering how a singer with such limited range could pull off such a hooky, melodically compelling performance — one of many trade secrets he took with him to the grave.
‘Bad Boy’ (2011)
Lemmy may have bared his teeth with Motörhead, but he bared his heart and soul with his rockabilly side project the Head Cat. Teaming with the Stray Cats’ Slim Jim Phantom and the Rockats’ Danny B. Harvey for a pair of albums, Lemmy indulged his love of Fifties rock, rockabilly and country. Working mainly in covers, with some choice originals thrown in on 2011’s Walk the Walk … Talk the Talk, the Head Cat honored influences like Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and, in this cover of Larry Williams’ “Bad Boy,” the Beatles. There’s real joy in Lemmy delivery here, as he reaches for high notes that are just out of reach and bops along to the beat. Lemmy was a bad boy, sure, but with this performance, he was just happy being a child of rock & roll.