Seven years after documenting the gritty L.A. punk scene in The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris turned her documentarian eye to the city’s then-dominant glam metal boom with The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. While some bands rocketed to national stardom out of L.A.’s sleazy Sunset Strip, others — many caught sloppily on camera in the documentary — languished in obscurity despite convictions they were destined for superstardom. The L.A. glam metal scene was economically and creatively fertile for some, but an authenticity black hole for many more who were eager to get famous no matter what.
Enter Lemmy Kilmister. The British metal icon, who made Los Angeles (the iconic Rainbow Bar & Grill in particular) his home, offers the most memorable, essential interview in the entire seminal 1988 documentary. In between interviews with fame-hungry newcomers eager to become millionaires like Aerosmith or Poison, the Motörhead frontman offers an uncompromising — but hardly cynical — dose of reality about rock n’ roll over the course of her film.
Following Kilmister’s passing at age 70 after a brief battle with cancer, Billboard chatted with Spheeris (the director of The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy and Wayne’s World, btw) over email about interviewing Kilmister, who she calls “more blunt and honest than anyone I’ve ever talked to in my life.”
In the first two Decline documentaries, you spoke to a lot of rock legends. How was Lemmy different?
Lemmy was totally “what you see is what you get.” He laughed when we asked if he wanted make-up. You never had to wonder, “Is he telling the truth?” He brought the term “no BS” to new heights.
Was he readily on board with the project?
Of course he was, or he wouldn’t have done it. I don’t think Lemmy would ever do anything he didn’t want to do. Interestingly, when Anna (my daughter/producer) and I went on tour screening The Decline movies recently, so many people pointed out that Lemmy was ironically the ‘voice of reason’ in Decline II. Maybe that’s just because everyone else was so ‘out there.’
As an interview, was he harder or easier to talk to than the “average” rock star/celebrity?
There were uncomfortable moments because he liked to challenge me, to push things to the limit. Lemmy was the epitome of confidence and if I didn’t keep my confidence, I knew he would go in for the kill. Loved that. Kept me on my toes.
Why did you (or he) decide to do his interview set against the L.A. skyline? Ozzy Osbourne’s Decline II interview was in his house, Alice Cooper’s was on stage — why do his above the city?
I repeat locations in The Decline Trilogy. Brendan Mullan was the ‘voice of reason’ in the first Decline, which I had shot in the same location as Lemmy. The choice of location was sometimes a result of schedule convenience. Alice was in rehearsal, so we shot on the stage. Ozzy was actually cooking eggs in the executive producer’s kitchen. (Movie magic??)
One of the best parts of the film is Lemmy saying he doesn’t mind younger bands ripping him off because he ripped others off.
I don’t think it usually occurs to people that Lemmy was off the charts intelligent. Smart enough to know that it would be stupid to be jealous and that interpreting the rip-offs as a compliment was so much the higher road to travel. He was evolved and brilliant in many ways. Not only was his music unique — but in my humble opinion, there’s no other band remotely similar to Motörhead. His ‘look’ or ‘style’ was totally unique and original for decades, never went ‘out of style.’ Kind of a rock n’ roll military, Tex-Mex, freaky combo. Genius, sexy and timeless.
He seemed more candid than a lot of the other interviews.
He had no filters, just so direct and honest, always had a nasty rock n’ roll edge, even if it might offend. In a way, that was his charm.
Did you find him more blunt or honest than other rockers you’ve talked to?
I found him more blunt and honest than ANYONE I’ve ever talked to in my life ….or interviewed. This dude did not mess around!
Was there anything that didn’t make it to the final film, a conversation or interaction, that you remember in particular?
Anna re-constructed the entire interview I did with Lemmy. It’s on the Decline II DVD extras, beginning to end. I have a great photo of Lemmy playfully “strangling me” after his Decline interview.
Why do you think Motörhead’s legend keeps growing over the years while a lot of those other metal bands now seem quaint and comparatively dated?
Because he was indeed a one-of-a-kind brilliant artist that invented an entirely unique music hybrid. There is no other Motörhead and there will never be another Lemmy.
One little thing I’d like to mention is I think Lemmy liked having his picture taken. Anna and I got so many postings from friends who had all taken a pic with Lemmy. He enjoyed the attention and being recognized for his work, and was always gracious and accommodating when a fan made a request. Bless his gnarly soul!