Obituary: Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister, rock musician
Ian Fraser Kilmister was one of those rock stars for whom the name they were born into just wasn’t iconic enough. To an audience ranging far wider than fans of the heavy metal genre which he pioneered and played right up until his sudden death at the age of 70, he was simply Lemmy – a force of nature as primal, powerful and unreconstructed as the music which owes him much of its sound and spirit.
He lived the life and career of many less committed musicians and party animals bundled into one, yet if he’s recognised and remembered for one thing alone, it will be for the guttural bark which peppered the iconic machine-gun attack of his most celebrated band Motörhead’s signature hit Ace of Spades.
The song’s devil-may-care plea for laughter in the face of mortality might sound sadly ironic were it sung by anyone else, but Lemmy was a force of nature, and not one who obviously built up a hard-living reputation through lack of control or cynical image-manipulation. Alongside only Keith Richards and even more than his good friend Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy lived it unrepentantly large and maintained a momentum of work to go with that of his play.
“You know I’m born to lose / and gambling’s for fools,” he bellowed on Ace of Spades, “but that’s the way I like it baby/ I don’t wanna live forever.”
The nature of his death is tragic, but perhaps he may have allowed a wry smile at leaving the world as quickly as he lived in it. He celebrated his 70th birthday on Christmas Eve, was diagnosed with cancer on Boxing Day and died of the disease two days later.
Although the world knew him for who he was and one song in particular, however, his list of achievements beyond these details was hugely impressive.
At the age of 16 he saw the Beatles perform in Liverpool’s Cavern Club and was inspired to make his own career on the stage; a few years later in London he shared a flat with the bass player for the Jimi Hendrix Experience Noel Redding, and “roadied” for the band on tour.
In 1972, he joined London-based space-rock group Hawkwind, whose sound rested somewhere between sci-fi prog whimsy and the heaviness of Lemmy’s later and most well-known band. Recruited as a bassist even though he had no real prior experience with the instrument (he proved to be a natural), Lemmy also wrote for and sang on many tracks during their most successful period in the first half of the 1970s. Hawkwind’s own signature hit, Silver Machine, a UK top three in 1972, was a product of Lemmy’s voice and pen; the last song he wrote for them in 1975 was named Motorhead, before he departed to form the group of the same name.
Excised from Hawkwind for attempting to enter Canada in possession of drugs – apparently the police misidentified speed as cocaine, so he was technically innocent of carrying the latter as charged – Lemmy teamed up with guitarist Larry Wallis and drummer Lucas Fox as a band called Bastard. Quickly advised of the unsuitability of that name to any kind of commercial success, he settled on the title of the last song he’d written (although Motörhead did release a record called Bastards in 1993). The supporting duo were soon replaced by the most familiar line-up of “Fast” Eddie Clarke and Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor, the latter of whom died less than two months before Lemmy.
Motörhead were a phenomenon, helping to lay the template out for what would become heavy metal in the 1980s, playing as ferociously fast as they did thunderously hard. The missing link between Osbourne’s doomy, strident Black Sabbath and the fast, dynamic, globe-straddlingly successful sonic assault of Metallica, they enjoyed their greatest flurry of success around the year 1980, most notably 1981’s definitive live album No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith, their only UK number one record.
Its accompanying version of Motorhead was their only top ten single chart hit, placing significantly higher than Ace of Spades the previous year, while other tracks like Overkill, Bomber and Iron Fist remained live favourites for decades. Testament to Lemmy’s enduring hard work, Motörhead released 22 studio albums in 40 years, and the most recent, August’s Bad Magic , was their first UK top ten since Iron Fist in 1982.
Books can be and have been filled on the subject of Lemmy’s extra-curricular activities: booze, drugs, strip bars, Nazi memorabilia and casual sex, and on his interest in politics, with echoes of his anti-authoritarian, anti-religious worldview finding their way into his lyrics.
“If you didn’t do anything that wasn’t good for you it would be a very dull life,” the famously eloquent and amusing interviewee once told the Independent. “What are you gonna do? Everything that is pleasant in life is dangerous.
Born on Christmas Eve 1945 in Stoke-on-Trent, Ian Fraser Kilmister was the son of a Royal Air Force chaplain who left the family when Lemmy was three, and he was raised in the Midlands and rural Wales by his mother and stepfather, a footballer. It was at school in Amlwch that he was nicknamed Lemmy, apparently on account of his tendency to ask friends to “len’ me some money” to play slot machines.
He also played with the groups the Rainmakers, the Motown Sect, the Rockin’ Vickers, Opal Butterfly and punk icons the Damned, and wrote songs for the Ramones and Ozzy Osbourne. He won a Grammy with Motörhead in 2005 and released an autobiography in 2002 and a documentary profile film in 2010.
“You are one of the primary reasons this band exists. We’re forever grateful for all of your inspiration,” said Metallica after his death, echoing the thoughts of a generation of rock and metal stars.
“If you’re going to be a f***ing rock star, go be one,” said Lemmy once of his own appeal. “People don’t want to see the guy next door on stage; they want to see a being from another planet.”
Lemmy never married, and is survived by his son, Paul.