photo by Darcy Begrand

The Inimitable Lemmy Kilmister

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.