It’s 3pm on a bitterly cold winter’s day in Manchester’s Granada Studios, and Joel O’Keeffe is standing behind 12 double Marshall stacks, applying lashings of baby oil to his bare chest.
We’re here to see Airbourne record the video to new single, It’s All For Rock N’ Roll, their tribute to their hero Lemmy. Bizarrely, the sight of the oiled-up Aussie (a process to give the illusion of sweat in these sub-zero temperatures, we’re assured) isn’t the most unexpected sight of our day. That comes when we look up and see Motörhead’s iconic Bomber stage-prop-cumlighting- rig suspended high in the air. From flying above the band during shows, to peering menacingly down on Lemmy on the cover of No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith, it’s a piece of true music history, and Joel is mega-excited about taking the old girl for one final flight.
“We’ve been touring, so we’ve maybe had four hours’ sleep in the last four days, and then we walked in here today and the most inspiring thing is hanging off the roof looking at ya,” Joel beams. “That’s pretty fuckin’ gutsy.”
As we sit down with the frontman between takes, it becomes apparent that the Bomber symbolises something special for him – the spirit of rock itself.
“There’s no fake glamour about it,” he says. “It’s just all metal and lights and it has a bit of danger about it. It’s a rock’n’roller. No bullshit.”
Lemmy was also without doubt a no-bullshit rock’n’roller, and the metal legend clearly saw the same in Joel. That much was proven when he agreed to work with the then-unknown Airbourne a decade ago.
“Lemmy did the video for Runnin’ Wild,” Joel says of his first meeting with the man who was like a mentor for the band. “He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t even want to be paid. He said, ‘Give us two bottles of Jack and two packets of salt and vinegar crisps.’ He just asked that we had the limo pick him up at the Rainbow, and drop him back there when we were finished.
“On the day he arrived, we had never met him before. We could hear music coming out of the limo, and the window rolled down, and out came his hand with the cigarette dropping ash on the ground. He said, ‘Hey boys, I’m Lemmy, come inside, let’s listen to some ZZ Top and have a few drinks.’ We sat drinking Jack and Coke in the limo while Lemmy air guitared.”
Fast-forward to the recording sessions for Airbourne’s latest album, Breakin’ Outta Hell, and the band decided to pay their respects. It’s All For Rock N’ Roll is a fullblooded hymn celebrating the life force of their idol. ’Full speed ahead/Like a bullet train/ No sleep ’till death/His ghost still haunts the stage’, run the lyrics.
“We wanted to write a song in memory of Lemmy, because he helped us so much and because he was the greatest,” Joel says admiringly. “This was the last song that we recorded for the album. I stayed up until 5am writing the lyrics and we recorded it the next day. The title fits, because Lemmy is rock’n’roll.”
And so today, you can’t help but feel there is a degree of the passing of the torch going on, as the Lemmy-approved Aussies tip their hat to the fallen god. It’s a thought that’s rammed home as we watch Joel work the stage beneath that hunking great lump of steel. You see, even with the Bomber’s looming presence overhead, Lemmy remained the biggest spectacle, and the same is true of Joel. Although today he has toned his theatrics down ever so slightly; there’s none of the rig-climbing that has helped make Airbourne one of rock’s most jaw-dropping live acts.
“Mate, the Bomber is hallowed ground,” Joel laughs. “There was an idea to do the guitar solo in the Bomber. It was possible, but we’ve got too much respect. We’ve got Lemmy’s mic stand up there on stage today as well as a mark of respect, but I don’t walk near it because there’s an energy around it. You just don’t go there. It feels like it’s alive.”
Joel may be acting reverentially, but after a few takes he looks every inch the stagecommanding rock’n’roll icon. As he drops to his knees with guitar aimed skyward during his solo, the Bomber tilts down to meet him nose-to-headstock. That’s right – he’s leading the Bomber around the stage like a demented, baby-oil-smothered air traffic controller.
“When I do the solo, I’m looking up to it and I’m looking to the heavens,” he says. “It’s pretty emotional. When you’re up there and the Bomber’s looking at you, it doesn’t feel like a video anymore, it feels like another world.”
At 7pm, Hammer steps out into the bracing Manchester night, but Airbourne are still hard at it, launching into the day’s 19th take. It’s been a long day of rockin’, but that’s what they do. And that’s exactly why today is such a fitting tribute. Airbourne live the life that Lemmy loved so much. They’re on the road for 11 months of the year and spend the other four weeks itching to get back out there. Joel and Airbourne perfectly encapsulate that lifestyle – the very essence of Lemmy. So much so, that Joel ensures there’s a Jack and Coke waiting for each band and crew member to knock back the second the video shoot is wrapped up.
Joel is the road warrior who lives and breathes the rockstar lifestyle – and It’s All For Rock N’ Roll proves he’s also a man who 100% got Lemmy.
“This song is a tribute to Lemmy, but it was never going to be a ballad,” he smiles. “That’s not what Motörhead was about and it’s not what we’re about. The line ‘No sleep ’til death’ is a nod to No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith, but also it’s true – Lemmy didn’t sleep until he died. This song is a celebration of that. We want to take that on and just keep on touring. That is the rock’n’roll way that Lemmy loved, and that is what we love.”
BREAKIN’ OUTTA HELL IS OUT NOW VIA SPINEFARM. TO SEE THE VIDEO FOR IT’S ALL FOR ROCK N’ ROLL, GO TO VEVO.COM