That time all of Metallica dressed up as Lemmy to play his 50th birthday gig

December 14, 1995 was a night like any other on the Sunset Strip. Thousands of cars inched along the cracked tarmac, while a parade of junkies, hookers and down-on-their-luck musicians hurled abuse at each other over the noise of screeching horns.

At the Whisky A Go Go, the club that had been ground zero for the glam metal scene a decade before, a queue snaked out the door and down the street, just like it had on most nights for the past 20 years. But tonight, something was different. Even though the doors hadn’t opened yet, the queue was way longer, and the atmosphere even more electric than usual.

Motörhead were marking Lemmy’s birthday with a special show at this sweatiest of sweatboxes. His actual birthday may not have been until 10 days later, on Christmas Eve, but the fact that he had defied all medical and pharmaceutical odds to make it to his half-century was worth celebrating with the mother of all parties.

But the crowd’s excitement wasn’t just down to the headliners. Word had leaked out that tonight’s support band were none other than Metallica, who planned to cover a set of Motörhead songs under the name The Lemmys.

“They planned it as a surprise,” the real Lemmy later explained. “They interrupted their new album [Load] to fly down and do it. They are the only ones who have really given us back for what they say we gave them.”

Metallica’s relationship with Motörhead stretched back to their very early days. Drummer Lars Ulrich, a recently transplanted Danish tennis prodigy who had given up a career on the court to live out his heavy metal dreams, had decided to appoint himself cheerleader-in-chief for the British band.

“In 1981, I ended up running some of the Motörhead appreciation stuff and also following them around on tour,” Ulrich told Metallica’s official magazine, So What!. “A few years later, when they were in LA, I went down to the hotel room to see Lemmy. I started drinking and ended up passed out in his room, having thrown up over myself. He took a picture of that and put it on one of the Motörhead records.”

Ulrich wasn’t the only long-standing Motörhead fan in Metallica. Jason Newsted was Metallica’s bassist at the time of Lemmy’s birthday. Newsted had come across Motörhead’s albums in the bins of a record store in his native Michigan. He’d been playing and singing (We Are) The Road Crew and Love Me Like A Reptile since forming his first bands in the early 80s.

“The first time I’d met Lemmy was at a Motörhead show in Berkeley, California in about 1987, when I’d only been in Metallica a couple of months,” recalls Newsted today. “At the end of the night, James [Hetfield, Metallica guitarist/vocalist] said, ‘Let’s go meet him.’ Lemmy is the only guy that gets to call James Hetfield ‘Jimmy’ – anyone else gets punched in the face. [Lemmy voice] ‘Jimmy! How ya doing!’ So I walk up to him and go, ‘I’m Jason, I play bass with Metallica now.’ And he goes, ‘I know who you are, ya cunt!’ I lifted off the ground with joy.”

When it came to rehearsing for their support slot, the members of Metallica tapped into their inner fanboys. “We were all really fucking excited,” says Newsted. “I busted out my Rickenbacker for rehearsals, playing those songs I had played so many times before. It was deep.”

On the day of the show, Metallica turned up early at the Whisky (a venue they hadn’t played since supporting Motörhead’s old touring buddies Saxon in 1982). When they finished their soundcheck, they found the birthday boy already in party mood.

“It was maybe 4.30 or five in the afternoon, we saw Lemmy and he had a full freakin’ 20-ounce stein of Jack and Coke,” says Newsted. “He was already kicking it back, and they weren’t going on until 10.30! I was always amazed at his capacity. He could down a couple of steins like that, then go up and rock that show like it was nobody’s business.”

By the time the doors opened, everyone there knew that Metallica were the opening act. What they didn’t know was that the band would take to the stage in matching black shirts, mirrored shades, long black wigs and scribbled-on Ace Of Spades tattoos.

Lars recalled: “After some initial hesitation, I also wore the wig and shades. Try playing Motörhead songs when you have a three-foot black wig on and can’t see shit! And as we walk towards the Whisky stage, the fuckin’ look on people’s faces… Classic! I start Overkill, immediately swallow half the wig, but who gives a fuck and off we go!” 

The band rattled through a brief set of six songs hand-picked from Motörhead’s great late-70s and early-80s albums: Overkill, Damage Case, Stone Dead Forever, Too Late, Too Late, The Chase Is Better Than The Catch and (We Are) The Road Crew, plus a reprise of Overkill. Listen to bootlegs of the show and Metallica – sorry, The Lemmys – stay faithful to the tracks. Which is more than can be said of the felt-tipped Ace Of Spades tattoo that James Hetfield had scrawled on his arm – the wrong arm, as it turned out.

Not everything went to plan onstage. For (We Are) The Road Crew, Newsted stepped up to the microphone, while Lemmy himself strode onstage to play bass. “I sang (We Are) The Road Crew in my old bands ever since Ace Of Spades came out,” says Newsted. “So I thought, ‘I’ve been doing it long enough, I got it memorised.’ Then Lemmy comes over right before the first verse, and he’s right in my face. He’s rubbing his warts on my fucking face! And while he’s rubbing that shit on my skin, he says, ‘Alright, don’t forget the words, mate. Don’t fuck it up.’ So, of course, I’m distracted and I miss the first line. I didn’t have a chance – but he knew that.”

The headliners had a tough act to follow, though in fairness they had one of the greatest back catalogues in rock to fall back on. The birthday boy himself was on great form, as the likes of Iggy Pop, Ice-T and porn star Ron Jeremy toasted the great man’s health, while Ugly Kid Joe’s Whitfield Crane was wheeled out to sing on Born To Raise Hell. But for many in the crowd, the night was all about The Lemmys. For the members of Metallica, the hangovers the next morning took some shifting – as did the ringing in their ears.

“We went pretty hard that night,” says Newsted. “That was a pretty crazy night all round. You gotta remember that we took most of our gear into a place that was 600-feet square. Even for a Motörhead show, it was loud!” 

Originally pubished in Classic Rock Presents: Motörhead

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Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.