Lemmy Kilmister: Motörhead frontman who embodied the rock'n'roll lifestyle

Lemmy was a magnetic presence, the one rock star everyone wanted to engage in conversation backstage


The Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, with his bottle of Jack Daniels – recently replaced by a bottle of vodka on doctor’s orders – and God knows how many cigarettes and tabs of speed a day, might have embodied the rock’n’roll lifestyle for millions, and the back-to-basics purpose of his influential, lean and mean group who originated speed metal and thrash metal, remained irresistible, steadfast and undeniable throughout its four decades.

In the many interviews he gave, Lemmy always insisted that when they started in 1975, three years ahead of the British New Wave of Heavy Metal, Motörhead “were a rock’n’roll band. Still are. Everyone always describes us as heavy metal, even when I tell them otherwise. Why won’t people listen?” 

The Big Four thrash metal groups, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax, certainly listened, and went on to sell many more than the 15m Motörhead albums that first introduced the genre and spawned myriad variations in South America, continental Europe and beyond. Lemmy remained philosophical about Motörhead’s place in rock’s great scheme of things, even when reflecting on their mainstream success in the UK at the end of the 1970s and into the ’80s with the band’s eponymous 1977 debut and the subsequent studio albums Overkill (1979), Bomber (1979) and Ace Of Spades (1980), as well as the No 1 live set No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith (1981). 

Kindred spirits of the Ramones and the Damned, two punk groups they paid homage to and collaborated with, Motörhead impacted on the consciousness of the general British public when they swaggered on to the set of Top Of The Pops to perform the garage rock classic “Louie Louie” (1978), as well as the title tracks from “Overkill”, “Bomber” and “Ace Of Spades” – “It’s not a song, it’s the ultimate monster,” he said of their signature song – and “Please Don’t Touch”, the Johnny Kidd & the Pirates cover that became the lead track from the St Valentine Day’s Massacre EP Motörhead recorded with all-girl band Girlschool, a pairing billed as Headgirl (1981). 

These appearances brought to the fore Lemmy’s unique performance stance: he positioned his microphone too high and tilted his head backwards while singing in his trademark gravelly voice, and strummed the bass like a rhythm guitar. He had perfected this since joining the space-art rock ensemble Hawkwind in time to revoice their sole major hit, the epochal “Silver Machine”, penned by their leader, the guitarist Dave Brock, and their ancillary lyricist/author Bob Calvert, in 1972. “Calvert’s vocal sounded like Captain Kirk reading ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,” Lemmy remembered. “They tried everybody singing it, except me. Then I did it in one take or two.” 

Born Ian Fraser Kilmister in Burslem, now part of Stoke-on-Trent, in 1945, he was the only son of an ex-Army chaplain who deserted the family within a few months and left his mother, to whom Lemmy remained close, and an eventual stepfather, to raise him in a succession of Staffordshire and North Wales towns. His “Lemmy” nickname might have come from his habit of borrowing money – “Lemme have a quid” – to play slot machines, a passion of his throughout his life, though he later denied that was where its origins lay.

However, “Lemmy” stuck as he took up various menial jobs and learned the guitar before becoming a member of the Rainmakers and the Motown Sect in Stockport, and the Rockin’ Vickers, a Blackpool British beat group specializing in covers of material by the Who and the Kinks. He moved on to the psychedelic band Sam Gopal and, for a while, roadied for Jimi Hendrix. “I’ve never come across a better guitarist than Jimi. Within a couple of years, I’d seen all the tricks but I wasn’t good enough,” he admitted. “That’s why I gave up the guitar and picked up the bass.”

Following a brief stint with Opal Butterfly alongside his friend, the drummer Simon King, they both joined Hawkwind, who were fast becoming the UK’s underground band par excellence. Their game of musical chairs briefly paused to reveal a line-up showcasing Brock, Calvert, King, the saxophonist Nik Turner, synth players Dik Mik and Del Dettmar, dancer Stacia, and Lemmy.

“But I just don’t play like a bass player, it’s like having a deep guitarist,” he stressed about his redefining of the role of the rock instrument via musicians who followed, Jean-Jacques Burnel of the Stranglers, Peter Hook of Joy Division/New Order fame, and, more recently, Mike Kerr of Royal Blood. Lemmy made sterling contributions to the Hawkwind Top 20 studio albums Doremi Fasol Latido (1972), Hall Of The Mountain Grill (1974) and Warrior On The Edge Of Time (1975), as well as The Space Ritual Alive In Liverpool And London (1973) in-concert package, but he fell foul of his bandmates during an on-off-bust for possessing speed while trying to cross the Canadian border and was subsequently sacked in 1975. 

By then, he had composed the highly memorable, effective, self-explanatory “Motörhead” as the B-side to “Kings Of Speed”, the last Hawkwind single he appeared on, and resurrected the title for his new group when his original choice, Bastard, was considered unlikely to get too many mentions on the radio. “I wanted to be the MC5, throw in elements of Little Richard and Hawkwind, speedfreak rock’n’roll. So loud that if we moved in next door to you, your lawn would die ... And that’s more or less how it turned out. Motörhead were a blues band, really, played at 1,000  miles an hour. I’ve just always been in a hurry for everything. I’m a very impatient man.” Lemmy drafted in the Pink Fairies guitarist Larry Wallis and the drummer Lucas Fox into the original Motörhead, before replacing them with “Fast” Eddie Clarke and Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor (Independent obituary, 13 November) respectively, for the most successful period of their 40-year career.

Despite a dozen more personnel changes, they continued to give their British near-contemporaries Iron Maiden and Def Leppard a run for their money with Iron Fist (1982), Another Perfect Day (1983), Orgasmatron (1986), 1916 (1991), March Or Die (1992) and enjoyed a further resurgence with Bad Magic, a UK Top 10 album in September.

Lemmy was a magnetic presence, the one rock star everyone wanted to engage in conversation backstage at festivals or at events like the Classic Rock awards. It didn’t escape him that when his genre-defining, pioneering group eventually won the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 2005, it was for their cover of Metallica’s “Whiplash”. Something of a history buff, he was an avid reader and attributed the collections of Confederate and Third Reich uniforms and memorabilia that filled up every nook and cranny in his West Los Angeles two-bedroom apartment, a stone’s throw from the Rainbow Bar And Grill, to his obsession with the “bad guys who dressed the best: Napoleon, the Nazis. It doesn’t mean I’m a fascist or a skinhead. I just like the clobber.” He sported a long black coat with the slogan “Make a Difference. Go Fuck Yourself” on the back for one of his last photo sessions. 

He dedicated White Line Fever, his 2002 autobiography, to Susan Bennett, a British girlfriend who was the love of his life and died of a heroin overdose in the late 1960s. “It’s a rotten drug,” he said. “I have lost so many friends to smack. Motörhead is about alcohol and speed. Not cocaine. But Speed. Amphetamines enable you to stay up and work through the night, whether you want to or not. That’s my only drug of choice.” 

Aware of his own mortality, he participated in Lemmy, the 2010 documentary directed by Gregg Oliver and Wes Orshoski, in which he was reunited with one of his two sons from two brief relationships during the late ’60s. After 22 studio albums with Motörhead – whose most recent line-up comprised the guitarist Phil Campbell and the drummer Mikkey Dee, alongside him and lasted two decades – Lemmy was readying a much-awaited solo collection. “I duet with Dave Vanian of The Damned on a version of ‘Neat Neat Neat’,” he told the French magazine Rock & Folk four months ago. “All to be released after my death, I’m sure. I don’t believe for a minute that I am immortal.” He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer a few days before he died.

Ian Fraser Kilmister (Lemmy), singer, songwriter and bass guitarist: born Burslem, Staffordshire 24 December 1945; two sons; died Los Angeles 28 December 2015.