Before joining Motörhead in 1984, Burston had been a corporal in the Army, serving in Germany and Northern Ireland with the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment, and had played in the bands Bastard and Warfare. Joining another relatively unknown guitarist, Phil Campbell at a Motörhead audition, both were hired. The new four-piece line-up made its debut recording a backing track for The Young Ones on 14 February 1984.
Burston acquired the nickname Würzel whilst in the Army, being compared to the character Worzel Gummidge due to his scarecrow-style hair and bumpkin-like manner. Motörhead singer Lemmy encouraged Würzel to add an umlaut to the ‘U’ in his name, for heavy metal effect.
Würzel saw a number of changes to the line-up in the band, each involving the drummer, until he left in 1995. Although he played on Sacrifice, he left the band before the tour. He was not replaced and Motörhead reverted to a three-piece. He had made a few guest appearances with the band: at the 2008 Download Festival and at the 2009 Guilfest, as well as a few other appearances on the band’s 2008 UK tour. He played on six studio albums, and one live album.
Few fans of the English heavy metal band Motörhead would recognise the name Michael Burston, but if presented with his stage name, Würzel, the majority would respond with unequivocal enthusiasm. The guitarist came closer than any of the group’s many members to being the face of the band, with the exception of Motörhead’s founder, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister. Much of Burston’s enduring popularity came from his unaffected good nature, his reluctance to avoid playing the role of the rock star and his expert musicianship.
Fans also identified with Burston because of the unlikely manner of his emergence into the public eye. Before joining the band, he worked as a builder and played rock guitar at small club and pub gigs. Although he had developed a dexterous, blues-indebted style that impressed local audiences, his childhood dream of stardom was fading rapidly. “I knew deep down that the only thing I would really be happy doing was playing rock’n’roll,” he recalled, “but I did think, ‘I’m 30 years old – am I going to do anything? How am I going to carry on playing these pubs forever?'”
Burston read, in an interview with Lemmy, that the guitarist Brian Robertson had recently left Motörhead. As he remembered, “I wrote Lemmy a letter and sent a tape, and he phoned me up for an audition. He also said, ‘We’ll probably end up with an unknown guitarist’, and there was no one in the country who was more unknown than I was.”
Born in Cheltenham, Burston served in the army as a corporal before playing in a series of unsuccessful local rock bands. He earned the nickname “Wurzel” as a soldier because of his West Country background and dishevelled appearance, which led his fellow recruits to compare him with the TV character Worzel Gummidge. When Burston joined Motörhead in 1984, Lemmy – who described him as “nearly a basket case” in his 2002 autobiography – encouraged him to add an umlaut, in line with the spelling of the band’s name. Würzel became the madcap court jester and counterfoil to Lemmy’s sterner image.One of his first performances with the band was in an episode of the cult comedy The Young Ones, in which Motörhead performed their signature tune, Ace of Spades.
For the next decade, the British rock press regularly reported on Burston’s antics, including a memorable encounter with the Rolling Stones at the 100 Club in London. “It was downstairs in the basement,” remembered Lemmy. “Würzel ran down there, all excited, and, just as he comes to the bottom, Stones bassist Bill Wyman comes along, and he hits him full-on and lands him flat on his back … Great start to the evening, you know? ‘Hello, Bill, I’ve always been a fan of yours. Oh sorry, have I knocked you out?'”
Despite his comic image, Burston was a serious musician whose composing and performing skills benefited Motörhead greatly. He played on nine studio and live albums between 1984 and his departure in 1995, with the interplay of his guitar and that of his fellow six-stringer Phil Campbell lending the music great versatility and power. Motörhead’s lineup, never a particularly stable entity, changed frequently during Burton’s time in the band. He never really came to terms with living in America, where Motörhead had relocated, and finally left the band after the departure of his good friend, the drummer Phil Taylor.
Burston then performed as a guest on releases by metal bands such as Warhead, and on the 2001 album Artful Splodger by the punk group Splodgenessabounds. He had accumulated a loyal fanbase during his time in Motörhead and many expected him to commence a solo career, but apart from a 1998 album of ambient music, Chill Out Or Die, this failed to materialise.
His friendship with Lemmy remained strong, despite their earlier troubles, and he was often invited to perform guest spots at Motörhead’s shows, including the Guiltfest event in 2009. In recent years, Burston had formed a new band, Leader of Down, but none of their music has been released.
In 1987 Würzel recorded his first solo E.P., “Bess”, that was not so far removed from the Motörhead sound, but also allowed for slightly different ideas. The E.P. included the instrumental title track, two Rock pieces, ‘Midnight in London’ and ‘People Say I’m Crazy’, and an instrumental Jazz Rock-orientated track, ‘E.S.P.’.
In 1998, quasi-inspired by psychedelically-informed experiences in Ghent, Belgium in the early eighties, Würzel played in a Cheltenham band named originally “made in England” then “the Meek” the lead singer Kevin Keane played Brian Eno to Würzel for many hours. Würzel recorded and released an ambient, improvised avant-garde album entitled Chill Out Or Die.
On 9 July 2011, Tim Butcher — longtime bass technician of Motörhead leader Lemmy — reported that Würzel had died. The cause of death was ventricular fibrillation triggered by cardiomyopathy. Before he died, Würzel was working on new material with his new band, Leader of Down, who had previously announced the release of their debut single for early 2010. The following day, Lemmy dedicated Motörhead’s performance at Sonisphere Festival in Knebworth to his memory, as well as dedicating their entire set to him.