Music

The Inimitable Lemmy Kilmister

photo by Darcy Begrand

Lemmy lived an extraordinary life, but best of all he made some of the greatest music in rock 'n' roll history.

In May 1975 Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, then the 30 year-old bassist for space rockers Hawkwind, was arrested for drug possession in Windsor, Ontario. Five days later when he was released from jail, he learned Paul Rudolph had swiftly replaced him in the band. Over the previous four years Kilmister profoundly influenced Hawkwind with his use of chords on his heavily overdriven Rickenbacker bass, his background as a guitarist transforming the traditional supporting role of a rock ‘n’ roll bassist to a beastly, imposing presence alongside the lead guitars. His presence on such crucial albums as Doremi Fasol Latido, Hall of the Mountain Grill, Warrior on the Edge of Time, and the double live Space Ritual helped propel Hawkwind to the forefront of British heavy rock, with the songs “Silver Machine”, “Lost Johnny”, and “Motorhead” becoming three of his early calling cards.

Not long after, Kilmister formed a new band, which was named after the last song he contributed to Hawkwind, only with an umlaut added for visual effect. According to one famous article, he announced his new band would “be the dirtiest rock and roll band in the world. If we moved in next door your lawn would die.” Motörhead was born, and rock ‘n’ roll would never be the same again.

With guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke and drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor Motörhead formed a fearsome trio, and the difference between the Lemmy heard with Hawkwind and the Lemmy heard with his new band is astounding to this day. The version of “Motorhead” from the 1977 self-titled album is faster, louder, uglier, meaner, with Kilmister’s distinct bass dueling with Clarke’s lead guitar, juggling both rhythm section basslines and rhythm guitar riffs in a way that had never been done before. And that voice, roared by stretching his throat towards a high-placed microphone, was astonishingly atonal. Crooning? Operatic singing? Screw that.

It wasn’t until 1979’s Overkill that Kilmister and Motörhead found their identity, and that album, along with 1980’s Ace of Spades, remain the band’s two undisputed classics. “Overkill” was the most relentlessly fast hard rock track since Deep Purple’s “Fireball”, “Ace of Spades” boasted a clever metaphor for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and “The Chase is Better Than the Catch” exuded pure menace unlike any rock track at the time. Meanwhile, 1981’s No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith remains one of the most viscerally intense live albums ever recorded.

Looking back, one of the most extraordinary things about Motörhead during this period was how they earned respect from disparate, and sometimes warring music scenes. Motörhead came out during the peak of punk rock in the UK, and the band drew many from the punk scene who were attracted to the raucous, barely-controlled chaos if the band’s sound. Meanwhile, the nascent New Wave of British Heavy Metal was coming into bloom at the same time, and when that scene exploded in 1979-‘80, the release of Overkill and Ace of Spades was perfectly timed. In fact to this day Motörhead are often mistakenly labeled a product of the NWOBHM scene. Sure, they played louder and nastier than any young heavy metal band, but from day one they marched to the beat of their own maniacal, Philthy drummer. Lemmy always insisted he was a rock 'n' roll musician, plain and simple.

It was Lemmy’s presence, though, that attracted punks, headbangers, and rock ‘n’ rollers most to Motörhead. The man had charisma, and his unique look – mutton chops, jeans, iron cross, those warts – set him apart from anyone else in popular culture. So undeniably cool was he that by the mid-‘80s he was a celebrity in the UK, better known for his cameos than for his music. After Clarke left the band in 1982 the band struggled to remain relevant and Lemmy started to diversify more. He recorded a cover of “Stand By Your Man” with Plasmatics singer Wendy O. Williams”. He appeared on Top of the Pops as a Telecaster-wielding teddy boy with his good friend Kirsty MacColl. Motörhead made an unforgettable appearance on the classic The Young Ones sitcom, and released to sensational compilation No Remorse, which included new songs by a revamped lineup. Lemmy acted in the 1987 comedy Eat the Rich, and recorded a song for the film, which turned out to be a hell of a lot more memorable than the movie.

However, two changes to Motörhead breathed new life not only into the band, but Lemmy himself. Welsh guitarist Phil Campbell turned out to the best foil Kilmister could ever ask for, and would serve dutifully by his side for 31 years. Meanwhile Swedish drummer Mikkey Dee would solidify the band in 1992, and over the course of 20 years the new trio would crank out some marvelous work, including 1995’s Sacrifice, 2004’s Inferno, and a pair of brilliant albums that would prove the band’s final work, 2013’s Aftershock and 2015’s Bad Magic.

Ever since seeing the Beatles play at the Cavern club in the early ‘60s, working as a roadie for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, transforming Hawkwind into a heavy rock powerhouse, and forming the great Motörhead, Kilmister lived his life without compromise. Speed and LSD early on, then for decades a bottle of Jack Daniels daily. Poker machines. Nazi memorabilia. Scads of women. It’s a marvel he lived to his 70th birthday on Christmas Eve 2015, but over the last couple years it became clear his lifestyle had caught up with him: fitted with a pacemaker, cancelled performances, a change of diet, more health scares, and of course the inevitable death rumours. Still to his credit, he continued to stubbornly do what he did best: make great music.

On the evening of Monday, 28 December, Motörhead announced on their Facebook page, “our mighty, noble friend Lemmy passed away today after a short battle with an extremely aggressive cancer. He had learnt of the disease on December 26th, and was at home, sitting in front of his favorite video game from the Rainbow which had recently made it’s way down the street, with his family.”

In the last decade Kilmister had taken to adding a cute little joke during performances of “Ace of Spades”: “You know I’m born to lose, and gambling’s for fools, but that’s the way I like it, baby, I don't wanna live forever…but apparently I am".

The man was born to lose, but my, did he ever win in his lifetime.

He was Ian Kilmister. He played rock ‘n’ roll.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Television

'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.

Music

Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.

Reviews

Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.

Music

Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.

Books

Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.

Music

British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.

Music

Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".

Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.