Motörhead guitarist Phil Campbell looks back, 5 years since iconic frontman’s passing
By Gary Graff
December 21, 2020
It will be five years on Dec. 28 since Lemmy Kilmister, of Hawkwind and more importantly Motörhead fame, passed away in Los Angeles, just four days after his 70th birthday. It was the end of an era and an icon. Few defined rock ‘n’ roll spirit as well as the bassist and frontman, a towering figure both beloved and influential in the worlds of heavy metal and punk rock. Wielding his Rickenbacker and an overdriven Marshall amp, he was a case study in doing more with less and leading with attitude above all else. Lemmy and Motörhead are fondly remembered, including a box set commemorating the 40th anniversary of the landmark Ace of Spades album earlier this fall, and we thought it appropriate to get some thoughts and memories from Phil “Wizzo” Campbell, Motörhead guitarist from 1984-2015 and the longest-tenured member of the band other than Lemmy…
FBPO: It’s been five years since Lemmy’s passing. What perspective do you have on that now?
Campbell: It just feels like a long time, but it’s gone by pretty quick, I think. I think about him every day. I miss him every day, just think about different stuff every day — nearly always the fun times. Believe me there was lots of that. We had a good run of it. Lem basically went out doing what he loved. He didn’t want to stop touring. He kind of played up ’til he possible could.
FBPO: What was your last contact with him?
Campbell: When we said bye-bye at the end of the Berlin show in Germany (Dec. 11, 2015), the European tour thing. We had a great last gig in Berlin, which was a city Lemmy loved. It was a couple weeks after that he got really sick, and then me and Mikkey (Dee, Motörhead drummer) were gonna go over to visit. We heard he was really sick. Before we had time to organize any flights, he passed away.
FBPO: From your vantage point, what made Lemmy the icon he was?
Campbell: He thought he was a cowboy. He just lived by his own set of rules, really. He didn’t’ like being told what to do — like a lot of people. He had quite simple tastes. He had his collections of militaria and things like that, and flags. He just wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll, which he did very loudly, and very well.
FBPO: What distinguished him as a bass player?
Campbell: Nobody plays bass like that. You’re playing chords and he’s whacking it with a plectrum and it’s loud as shit and the treble’s turned up, and the bass control — there’s hardly any bottom end of the bass. He played it like a guitar; He strummed it like a guitar because he was a guitar player originally, a rhythm guitar player. It was just a unique technique, and totally in the pocket. That’s what used to keep us on time every night.
FBPO: He seemed to stay strong as a player all the way until the end.
Campbell: It was offstage, really, where we were seeing…He was getting a bit slower, and he was looking a bit older. He was getting thinner and stuff, but on stage he was fine. I want him to be remembered as a strong, healthy character. He was playing fine. He was great. He was always on the money when he played since day one. That never changed.
FBPO: The Ace of Spades album’s 40th anniversary has been celebrated this year. You weren’t in the band when Ace of Spades was released, of course. What was your impression of it from the outside?
Campbell: It was Ace of Spades, I think, that brought everyone to attention. That was a great song to start with. It was so tight, and then you listen to the rest of the album and hear a bunch of the really cool, tight songs. They’ve all got a twist compared to what else was going on at that time. It was a great, cohesive album — and the iconic album cover as well. There was no way it was not gonna get noticed, regardless of how high it charted. You HAD to sort of sit up and take notice with that record.
FBPO: What was it that distinguished Motörhead from what else was going on in metal and hard rock back then?
Campbell: It was kind of…erratic, for want of a better word. Nobody drummed quite like Phil Taylor; he had his own way of playing the drums. There’s no way he could’ve conjured any other style, it was just built into him. And you’ve got Lem’s unique bass sound as well, and that voice. And Eddie (Clarke)’s chords and riffing over the top, the bluesy lead breaks…were just so cool. It still sounds cool to this day, I think. It still sounds fresh.
FBPO: You had big shoes to step into back in 1984, and Ace of Spades was already iconic by then. Was it daunting at all?
Campbell: When I first joined them we did a bunch of songs off it. They’re all great, fun songs to play. I think with Eddie and I, we’re both not heavy metal players for a start; Eddie’s got his blues roots, and so have I. We both liked playing loud. He has a different style to his riffs, and his leads. Right up ’til the very end I still had difficulty trying to play a lot of the leads like Eddie, to get the right feel for ’em. The “Ace of Spades” solo, maybe, I got somewhat close at the end — I was trying to duplicate Eddie’s for the last year or so, after playing my own solo on it for ages.
FBPO: Do you have favorite songs from Ace of Spades?
Campbell: Oh, all of them. (laughs) “The Hammer” I always liked. That was one of the first ones we learned. “Jailbait” was another early one we learned as well, that we used to play live. We were playing “The Chase is Better Than the Catch” right up ’til the end, and “Love Me Like a Reptile.” That was always a good groove to play live. They were the ones that stick in my mindset.
FBPO: Were you and Mikkey involved in the Ace box set?
Campbell: Yeah, we checked it out for approval. I didn’t realize it was 40 years this year, but we know all the plans usually. There’ll be some more exciting stuff coming out at different times. We’re trying to make it everything good value for the money and make it interesting and stuff.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.
Ace of Spades (40th anniversary edition) is available here: