Metallica’s Lars Ulrich on Lemmy: ‘His Spirit Will Always Live in Us’
Few bands have cited Motörhead and Lemmy Kilmister as an inspiration quite as loudly as Metallica. Whether that meant dressing like Kilmister to perform as “The Lemmys” at his 50th birthday bash, recording a medley of Motörhead songs or simply welcoming the gravel-voiced bassist onstage to play any number of his songs, they always waved Lemmy’s flag high. Lars Ulrich — long fabled to be the president of the U.S. chapter of the Motörhead Fan Club (“Let’s call that an unofficial title,” he says, laughing) — was first struck by the power of the group’s music when he heard them as a teenager. Here, he looks back on the influence Lemmy Kilmister had not just on Metallica but also on him personally.
When I heard Lemmy had died, I was home at the tail end of a family Christmas celebration. I was speaking to a friend of mine yesterday who knows Motörhead’s manager very well and he told me that things were not well and maybe I should consider going down to L.A. to see him and pay my respects. The cancer was very aggressive, and it was end stage and there probably wasn’t a lot of time left. That was at 1 p.m. and then I guess I heard the news around 6 p.m. That was crazy.
Lemmy is probably one of the absolute primary reasons that I wanted to be in a band. It’s that simple. I got introduced to Motörhead’s music in 1979, when Overkill came out. I was in a record store and the double bass intro to “Overkill” started, and I never heard anything like that in my life. The subsequent ride that this music took me on was to a place I had never been. It was really exciting and really invigorating. It felt fresh and different.
I became pretty obsessed with them for the better part of the next few years after that. The first time I saw them was in the spring of 1981, when they were supporting Ozzy, who was kind of breaking as a solo artist, and Motörhead was opening. So this was obviously an incredible bill, but for me to get a chance to finally experience Motörhead … So me and my friend Richard Burch — whose name is immortalized on the back of Kill ‘Em All for saying “Bang the head that doesn’t bang” — him and I followed Motörhead around California: San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and they also played one of their own shows at the Country Club in L.A.
Getting a chance to see them that often was an amazing thing, but more so, we actually got really close to them. We got a chance to meet them and hang out with them. And that’s because of Lemmy and his graciousness. He was so open and approachable, so the antithesis of a rock star; he wasn’t full of shit or unapproachable, hiding behind masks or whatever. None of that existed. He had this presence and this aura of all the great rock stars of the Sixties and Seventies, but at the same time, he was this incredible down-to-earth, easygoing, easily approachable guy. So me and my friend Rich were just hanging out and we ended up in the back of the bus drinking beer, hanging out, listening to tall tales and wild tour stories and being a part of all the shenanigans that followed a rock & roll tour around at that time. It left a deep impact on me, because rock stars up until that time seemed to come from someplace else. They were larger than life; you weren’t on the same level as them. You weren’t worthy. You couldn’t even picture yourself even engaging with Robert Plant or Paul Stanley, Elton John or Rod Stewart.
Lemmy was this guy that made all of that possible. It was the first time I really experienced that. Me and Rich were driving behind Motörhead’s tour bus, following them up and down Interstate 5 for the better part of a week. They’d pull into a truck stop, and we would pull into a truck stop. Should we go up and say hi to them? Should we keep clear? It was all funny and weird, but over the course of this week, we got to know Lemmy and realize that we didn’t have to try and act super cool and hide our fanboy nerdism. He opened up the door and let us in, and that was just a mindfuck because it wasn’t how the rules were at that time.
“Every single person in music in England knew who Lemmy was there, and still, this fucking snot-nosed, acne-infested fucking 16-year-old kid from Denmark via California found his way into the Motörhead compound. It was a total mindfuck.”
A couple of months later, I got sick of being in California and went back to Europe where all the music and all the metal and all the stuff that I was into was happening, and I ended up in England and spent a little bit of time with [New Wave of British Heavy Metal band] Diamond Head. The biggest show in England in the summer of 1981 was the Heavy Metal Holocaust at a place called Port Vale Football Stadium. It was a stadium for 40,000 people and Motörhead was headlining, they had just put out their No Sleep ’til Hammersmith album, which had entered the British charts straight at Number One. They were the biggest thing in England that summer.
So me and one of the guys in Diamond Head went to Port Vale to try and see the show, but it was sold out. Long story short, I told someone working there that we were friends with Lemmy; we knew some of the road crew. Within 10 minutes, me and my friend were backstage in the Motörhead compound at this stadium gig. I’m telling you, you’ve got to understand the mindfuck. They were the biggest band in England that summer. Every single person in music in England knew who Lemmy was there, and still, this fucking snot-nosed, acne-infested fucking 16-year-old kid from Denmark via California found his way into the Motörhead compound. It was a total mindfuck.
I stayed in England and Europe for another month or two, and I went back to Denmark. I made some money to fly back to California. My flight was leaving out of Heathrow, so I had two nights in London. So when I got there, I checked in with my friend who had gotten to know Motörhead’s management. To put this into perspective, I’m 16 years old and I don’t know my head from my ass. I’m in London, flying to San Francisco, out of Heathrow. I had one day and basically he said, “Motörhead are rehearsing so if you want to catch up with them, go down there and see if you can find any of them.” It was a loose tip.
So I got down to this rehearsal studio, and within another half an hour, I’m sitting in their rehearsal room and it’s Lemmy, Phil Taylor, their drummer who just passed a month ago, and [guitarist] Eddie Clark. It was the three of them in a room the size of, like, jail cells put together — a hotel room — and it was just them and me, and they’re writing songs for their next album. I’m just sitting there watching them write. I remember they were talking about this new song called “Iron Fist” that they were working on, which became the title track from the next album. This is the biggest band in England, and I’m just sitting there with them in the fucking rehearsal room writing songs for their next record, just put that in fucking perspective.
The point I’m trying to make is there was this openness and embrace, not only of this fucking lost 16-year-old who was just so high on what they were doing, but this openness to let people into their inner circle and it motivated me. When I went back to California later that week, I had met this kid, James Hetfield, about six months before, and we spent 24 hours together. I could tell he was a super cool guy, but nothing much came out of that interaction. But later in the week after I got back, I called him up and said, “We’ve got to form a band together. I just hung out with Motörhead. I got a chance to meet these guys in Diamond Head. I’m feeling it, this otherworldly calling.”
So when I say that Lemmy is the primary reason that I’m in a band to this day, and that Metallica exists because of him, it’s not some cheap exaggeration. It really was. They took me in, they let me be a part of what they were doing, and it inspired James and I to form this band based on that kind of attitude and that kind of aesthetic of engaging with your fans and being open and transparent and letting people in and sharing the experience. We were all just a bunch of lost fucking kids who wanted to belong to something that was bigger than ourselves.
That was what Motörhead represented: You were a part of a gang. If you were a Motörhead fan, you were called a Motörheadbanger — the Motörheadbangers was the name of their fan club — and we all had a common connection where we felt like we all belonged. We felt like we were belonging to something that was greater than ourselves. But there was no separation between band and fans. There was no separation between anybody; we were all just in it together. It was so fucking inspiring. That unity made me just want to be in a band and be part of that collective and do my own version of that experience. Deep ingrained in us is that aesthetic that comes directly from Lemmy and from how he took me under and let me into his inner sanctum for that summer in 1981. I’ll forever be indebted to him and forever grateful.
Even after I first met him, we stayed friends. I was the first one in the building and the last one out of the building every time Motörhead came within traveling distance over the next few years. I would find them at their hotel and I would end up in Lemmy’s hotel room. I would hang out with them. There’s an infamous picture on the inner sleeve of the record Orgasmatron where I’m basically sitting with barf all over myself. I was so excited to see Lemmy a few years later that we were drinking from the same vodka bottle, and obviously I wasn’t quite as experienced in that as the people that were in that room, so pretty soon I was wearing most of that vodka that I was drinking. I passed out in his hotel room and he took that picture and forever immortalized me on Orgasmatron, which was obviously a badge of honor [laughs]. It didn’t matter what the circumstances were, I was on the inner sleeve of one of the Motörhead records in full force.
Metallica had just started breaking at that time. Lemmy was like a godfather, a parental figure. He was someone you felt completely safe with. You were never judged. You were never intellectualized. You were never questioned. You were always just welcomed in to whatever level that they were capable of. It was like you were instantly just welcomed into the inner sanctum. It made you feel alive and it made you feel important. It made you feel like you were a part of something that was so much bigger than you, and it was such a safe and invigorating place for kids like myself, because it gave us a purpose.
At Lemmy’s 50th birthday, we came out and played. We were basically the house band; we played six Motörhead songs all dressed as Lemmy. Playing his songs had always been something that’s been a pretty effortless thing for us. We do it proudly.
He just wrote so many great songs. Off the top of my head, “Motörhead” was just such a calling card back in the day to rock & roll: The immortal line, “I should be tired, but all I am is wired/ Ain’t felt this good for an hour.” That was, like, the quote, the most rock & roll thing I had ever heard in my life. That’s probably right up at the very top. “Overkill” is the reason I wanted to play double bass; that song was a big part in shaping Metallica’s sound. “(We Are) the Road Crew” is probably the one that has some of the best lyrics ever, describing road life. The song “Bomber” is one of the most energetic hard-rock songs ever. Then there’s “Capricorn,” which I can relate to, since my birthday is two days later than Lemmy’s, so I’m a Capricorn too. Then you have the little gems, like the B-side “Over the Top,” which was the B-side of I think the “Bomber” single. It was still a live staple of theirs, years later. The list just goes on forever.
“I told him it was his obligation to live forever, because he was the reason we could all get together and celebrate hard rock.”
I was down at the 70th party two weeks ago, and I got a chance to sit with him for about 10 minutes, just him and me. I told him that his obligation to the rock & roll community was to live forever because his birthday party was like a hard-rock class reunion. Everybody was there because Lemmy’s one of the few people we can all agree on who is just the coolest guy ever. We would all show up. I told him it was his obligation to live forever, because he was the reason we could all get together and celebrate hard rock and celebrate Motörhead and see familiar faces because we’re all so scattered now. Obviously I could tell that he was in deteriorating health but we had a close bond, one that didn’t necessarily need to be reaffirmed or articulated. The less we said the more we knew the connection was there.
Whenever Metallica played L.A., he would always come and watch us, and whenever Motörhead was up here, we’d always go and see them play. We probably crossed paths 50 to 100 times in the last 20 years, and he came and played with us onstage multiple times. It was a bond that deep and it goes back to the crazy summer of 1981. I will always appreciate and forever cherish all the great times we had together, but especially those early days. We were so vulnerable, so moldable because a significant part of who we’ve become, both in the band and as people, is directly due to not just him but all the rest of the people who were inspired and drank from the same bottles and shared the same stories and same space. His spirit will always live in us.