The music world lost one of its true great baddasses when Ian Frasier Kilmister, known to scores of fans by his eponymous nickname Lemmy of Motörhead, passed away suddenly from cancer on December 28th. The shockwave felt with from announcement of his death at age 70 on social media, and then confirmation by the band was heartbreaking for many who followed his career of nearly five decades. Although he has struggled with health issues the last few years, Motörhead was last seen on tour in Europe three weeks earlier, supporting their recent new album Bad Magic (UDR). One of the most enduring sounds in rock music, the obscenely loud volume of the bands’ live backline, unmatched by any band in any genre, will never be heard again.
Born in Stoke-On-Trent UK and raised in North Wales, Lemmy came from working class roots took to music early. Like many he was captivated by rise of The Beatles, whom he would go on to have an association with as acquaintances in his young adult years, according to his own story in the documentary Lemmy: 49% Motherfucker, 51% Son Of A Bitch. He learned to play guitar along to the skiffle inspired rhythms of the day on the first Beatles singles. He was also a huge fan of Motown and southern Blues artists as a youth, music that made a huge impact on him. He saw The Beatles play one of their early gigs at The Cavern Club in London, and had several moderately successful bands such as The Rocking Vickers and Sam Gopal. Lemmy famously roadied for The Jimi Hendrix Experience, having been bassist Noel Redding’s roommate for a time during their Are You Experienced era.
Lemmy joined psychedelic rock band Hawkwind in 1971 helping propel the success of that band, penning and performing on their best known track ‘Silver Machine’. He had never played bass before joining Hawkwind, but owing to that bands experimental ways he quickly adopted classic R&B guitar style to bass, playing much the way a rhythm guitarist would with chord progressions, double stops, and solo breaks. He eventually moved to his Rickenbacker bass andfull Marshall stack as elements to his signature style.
Following his dismissal from Hawkwind stemming from his drug related arrest in Toronto, Lemmy rebounded to form Motörhead in 1975. While the band wasn’t an overnight success, they clearly hit upon the right time, resonating in sound, style and attitude with fans of punk, and early heavy metal fans. Following their classic, but at the time less popular albums such as Bomber, Overkill and especially Ace of Spades (all from the Bronze label), the band came to prominence following their live album No Sleep Til Hammersmith. That album and subsequent success coupled with tireless touring galvanized their fans, startled even the band themselves. More great releases such as Iron Fist, Another Perfect Day, Orgasmatron, Rock N Roll, and 1916 cemented their status as a worldwide success even more. Their last few albums, including 2015’s Bad Magic were still very solid efforts. As my colleague Steve Tovey stated in his review of Bad Magic: “There are only two types of Motörhead albums; good ones and great ones…”. Aside from the ubiquitous ‘Ace of Spades’, the band had countless classic tracks such as ‘Killed By Death’, ‘Overkill’, ‘Iron Fist’, ‘We Are The Road Crew’, ‘Damage Case’, ‘Orgasmatron’, ‘Born To Raise Hell’, ‘Eat The Rich’, ‘The Game’ and many more. He also collaborated on music and lyrics with his friend Ozzy Osborne (No More Tears, Ozzmosis), performed with The Damned, produced Girlschool, recorded with fellow luminaries like Metallica, Doro, The Ramones, Slash, Dave Grohl, Danko Jones, and Ice T, and was quoted and sampled by The Beastie Boys. He had his own rockabilly project The Head Cat with members of The Stray Cats, and many more guest appearances recordings, duets and projects. With the exception of Black Sabbath, Metallica, Slayer, and Iron Maiden; Motörhead might be the most covered band in all of heavy metal and heavy rock music.
Motörhead’s importance to modern rock music can not be understated. While Lemmy himself staunchly disliked being associated with metal music and was only ambivalent towards punk (he loved The Ramones and Sex Pistols while openly deriding The Clash), Motörhead is one of the few bands universally loved across all of those genres and many more. The bridged the gap between London, Oi punk, American hardcore punk, New Wave of British heavy metal, and later thrash. The bands approachability led to their crossover appeal in early TV appearances such as The Young Ones or the movies The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years and Airheads. Lemmy will be seen in the silent film/live music experienceGutterdämmerung next year.
Motörhead’s live sets could stand with the greatest bands of all time, and many fans remarked about feeling physically ill from the levels of volume barraging ones body following a show. Lemmy was apparently keenly aware of his health issues, but only canceling or abbreviating shows rarely when he absolutely could not perform. His personal dedication to the fans is only a small part of the whole when remembering the man. The band was an iconic tireless touring act right up until the very end.
The endearing part about Lemmy is despite the larger than life image many have of him, he was as much a regular guy, as he was a star. He was smart and hilariously funny. He was so not pretentious and was always happy to poke fun at himself. He was a legend, but he didn’t act like it made him any better than the fans. While his notorious hard partying lifestyle (almost until the end) is the stuff of lore, let’s not forget the down to earth, simple person behind it all. The reason people loved Lemmy so much is beyond the no bullshit style of his music and the quotable, the take no shit persona he exuded. He seemed much more real than most rockstars come across. He’d rather drink a beer with you at the bar than be adored on a pedestal. Lemmy wrote the book, not just on wearing a cool hat and being a rock star, but on being a professional and authentic artist in world where we see too many bad fakes. He lived his life on his own terms, doing what he loved as long as he could. Turn all the volume knobs all the way up, and raise a glass of whiskey for Lemmy, the last true rocker.