In the public eye, Lemmy Kilmister was a hard rocking rebel, a hellraiser who lived life to the hilt, playing his overdriven bass like a rhythm guitar, blasting critically amped rock and roll from the world’s stages and enjoying the company of beautiful women, imbibing alcohol, cigarettes and anything else that came his way.
But there’s a moment in Olliver and Orshoski’s wonderful 2010 bio pic Lemmy that crystalises the true essence of the great Motörhead legend. Sitting in his incredibly cluttered living room, laden with gold records, WW2 artefacts and rock memorabilia worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, Olliver asks him, ‘What’s the most valuable thing in this room?’ Without hesitation, Lemmy answers ‘My son!’ A completely natural and honest answer that showed the true nature of one of rock music’s most mythical figures.
Ian Fraser ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister was born on Christmas Eve, 1945 in Stoke-on-Trent. Enamoured with rock n roll, he saw The Beatles at the Cavern Club in 1962 and joined Blackpool band Rockin’ Vicars as their guitarist in 1965, who released a few singles and toured Britain and mainland Europe until disbanding in 1967. Then known as Ian Willis, he moved to London and lived with Noel Redding, leading to a gig as a roadie with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and recorded an album with Sam Gopal. After a brief stint with yet another band, he adopted his father’s surname Kilmister and joined Hawkwind as bassist and vocalist in 1972.
With no previous experience on bass, Lemmy developed his unique style, playing the instrument as if it was a rhythm guitar. This dynamic propelled the band to commercial success with the single ‘SIlver Machine’ peaking at #3 on the UK chart. He had already developed a formidable reputation for drug use, mainly LSD which he had taken during his time with Hendrix. In Canada while on tour supporting Warrior at the Edge of Time, he was arrested with amphetamines and jailed, leading to Lemmy being fired from the band. Never down for long, he returned to London and immediately formed Motörhead with Larry Wallis and Lucas Fox. At first called Bastard, his manager baulked at the name so Lemmy chose Motörhead after the last song he had written for Hawkwind.
Motörhead’s musical inspiration came from the MC5 and the band developed a style that was raw, fast and exceedingly loud, a trait they never lost. While admitting an affinity with punk, the sheer animal brutality of Motörhead’s music led to them being associated with the heavy metal scene for most of their career, in spite of Lemmy’s lifelong definition of the band simply as ‘rock n’ roll’. The group’s early years were rocky. Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor replaced Fox almost immediately and ‘Fast’ Eddie Clark soon replaced Wallis. Their first album was at first left unreleased and the band almost broke up until a cover of ‘Louie Louie’ became a minor hit. A deal with Bronze Records in 1978 became their lifeline and the band’s classic line-up went on to record four more albums with the label until line-up issues led to Bronze dropping them. Always in control of his own destiny, Lemmy kept Motörhead together and the band continued to issue album after album of consistent quality. With the departure of Michael ‘Wurzel’ Burston in 1995, Motörhead reverted to the power trio format of their early days and in that format – Lemmy, as always, out front, Phil Campbell on guitar and Mikkey Dee behind the kit – the band released a further ten studio albums, the most recent, Bad Magic, in August 2015. Throughout their career, Lemmy ensured that the band’s original aesthetic was maintained. While the music was almost always brash, loud and high velocity, it was also far from one-dimensional. Lemmy’s lyrics explored socio-political themes, worldly and sometimes world-weary storytelling, humanity and humour.
He appeared in films and made dozens of guest appearances with other artists. In interviews he was renowned for his intelligence, compassion and philosophical views on world issues. He fiercely opposed the prohibition of drugs, espousing the legalisation of heroin – a drug he hated after it claimed the life of an early girlfriend – as the only way to combat it. While he was forced to cut down on his own hard drug use in the 1990s due to his health, he continued to drink and smoke mercilessly. His other love was gambling and he also enjoyed video games. When he became too weak to visit the Rainbow Bar and Grill in the last few days of his life, the bar sent his favourite video game to him. In the official statement released by management, he was playing it, surrounded by his family, when he died on December 28, 2015. He was 70 years old.
The roar is silenced. The Snaggletooth will look down on the crowd no more. But the legacy and influence of one of the greatest rockers that has ever lived will continue as long as rock and roll.
RIP Lemmy – Rock Forever.