Michael 'Würzel' Burston: Guitarist who contributed some of Motörhead's finest rocking moments
Friday 15 July 2011
Led by the ultimate rock'n'roll reprobate, the gruff-voiced bassist Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister, Motörhead have been playing faster, heavier and louder than most of their heavy metal competitors for over 35 years now. Known to all the group's fans by his suitably umlaut-accented nickname, the guitarist "Würzel" – né Michael Burston – was a semi-professional musician whose take-no-prisoners approach to the instrument lived up to Kilmister's high expectations when he auditioned to fill the vacancy created by the departure of Brian Robertson, once of Thin Lizzy, in November 1983.
Würzel and his fellow guitarist Phil Campbell so impressed the Motörhead frontman as he put them through their paces in early 1984 that they made the two shortlists of seven, and then three players, until they remained the only two in contention. According to Kilmister, both had "the necessary GU-GANNGG! The killer instinct/rabbit punch thinking."
Unable to choose, the bassist hired both, transforming Motörhead from a mighty, uncompromising power trio into an even more fearsome four-piece. Würzel co-wrote and recorded several tracks for the band's No Remorse compilation, which reached No 14 in autumn 1984, and made sterling contributions to the studio albums Orgasmatron (1986), Rock'n'Roll (1987), 1916 (1991), March ör Die (1991), Bastards (1993) and Sacrifice (1995), as well as the live set No Sleep At All (1988).
Würzel made his debut performing "Ace Of Spades", the title track of his favourite Motörhead album, in "Bambi", one of the best remembered episodes – probably due to the fact that it lampooned the quiz show University Challenge – of the alternative sitcom The Young Ones in the spring of 1984. He was a mainstay of the line-ups featuring Kilmister, the group's founder, Campbell and a succession of drummers including Pete Gill, the returning Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor, and the current incumbent Mikkey Dee. Significantly, when Würzel left in 1995, he was not replaced and Motörhead continued as the Kilmister-Campbell-Dee triumvirate. They dedicated their appearance at the Sonisphere festival last weekend to him.
Born in Cheltenham in 1949, Burston joined the army in his late teens and served in Germany and Ireland with the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment, rising to the rank of corporal. Unsurprisingly, given his West Country burr and unkempt hair, as well as his propensity for tomfoolery, he was nicknamed "Wurzel", not after the comedy band The Wurzels, but rather after Worzel Gummidge, the scarecrow character created by the author Barbara Euphan Todd and portrayed by Jon Pertwee on television in the late 1970s.
After leaving the army he worked as a builder and played guitar in various blues-rock groups, though, as he neared his mid-30s he despaired of breaking out of the pub circuit. "I knew deep down that the only thing I would really be happy doing was playing rock'n'roll," he said.
When he read a Kilmister interview about the hunt for a new Motörhead guitarist and his wish to hire an unknown, rather than a "name" player like the departing Robertson, he sent the bassist a tape and a handwritten letter and was duly asked to London for a try-out. "There was no one in the country who was more unknown than I was," surmised the guitarist, who passed the audition and was persuaded to add a "more metal" umlaut to his nickname by his new boss.
Over the next 11 years, he created some of the band's crunchier riffs and co-wrote many cuts, including the memorable singles "Killed By Death", "Deaf Forever", "Eat The Rich" – for the Peter Richardson film of the same name (1987) – and "The One To Sing The Blues" as well as "R.A.M.O.N.E.S.", arguably the best track on 1916 and a tribute to the American group whom Motörhead considered kindred spirits. "I'm not sure why we sound like we do," Würzel said in 1991. "Maybe it's because I hate my guitar and play it accordingly. But there's always something to be said for banging a chord that hits you in the back of the head."
However, the guitarist's lackadaisical attitude during the recording of Sacrifice at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood proved the last straw. Kilmister remarked in the album's liner notes that "it was becoming clearer every day that Würzel was on his way out of the band. He wouldn't extend himself at all, and usually just sat there while we were writing songs, with his guitar across his knee. When we stopped playing, he stopped playing and when we started again, he would too." By the time Sacrifice came out in July 1995, the guitarist had indeed departed.
Würzel had issued a rock solo album, Bess, in 1987 but his next release,the appropriately-named Chill OutOr Die (The Ambient Album) in 1998, proved something of a departure.In 2001 he guested on the album Artful Splodger, by the punk group Splodgenessabounds. Having buried the hatchet with Kilmister, he made occasional live cameos with Motörhead in 2008 and 2009 but the new band he formed, Leader of Down, had yet to issue any material. He had been suffering from cardiomyopathy, and died of a heart attack.
"He was wonderful," Dee said."He wrote lots of great Motörhead riffs. I remember missing that when he was not in the band anymore.I missed the simple, classic Motörhead riffs. We never wrote those afterthat. They ended with him. He was more rock'n'roll than all of us put together. He was wonderful, he was really funny. There was a lot of rock'n'roll in the old man."
Michael Burston ("Würzel"), guitarist, singer and songwriter: born Cheltenham 23 October 1949; died 9 July 2011.
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