Obituary: Lemmy, Motorhead frontman

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LemmyImage source, PA

Lemmy, who has died aged 70 after being diagnosed with cancer, was the frontman and only constant member of Motorhead, one of the loudest bands in rock music.

He was also something of a rock legend, his mutton-chop whiskers, facial wart and high microphone position making him one of the most recognisable figures in the business.

He is credited with introducing punk sounds into the heavy metal mix, paving the way for a generation of thrash metal and speed metal followers.

Offstage he gained a reputation for a prodigious intake of drugs and alcohol as well as a sex life as frantic as his music.

Lemmy was born Ian Fraser Kilmister in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, on 24 December 1945.

His father, a former chaplain in the Royal Air Force, separated from his mother when Lemmy was just three months old.

"I don't recall what my first word was," he later told the Seattle Times. "But it was very loud."

Image source, Hulton
Image caption,
Lemmy (r) with Hawkwind

The young Kilmister acquired the nickname Lemmy while at school, although he purported to have no idea where it came from.

It was later suggested that it referred to his constant pleas to "Lemmy a quid until Friday," as he struggled to service a growing addiction to slot machines.

His mother remarried when he was 10 and the family moved to north Wales, where Lemmy completed his schooling and took on a number of jobs including a stint at a local washing machine factory.

Having become enamoured of a girl from Stockport who was holidaying in the area, he followed her back to her hometown and became involved in the local music scene.

Distinct style

He spread his wings with a band called The Rockin' Vickers, who released three singles and rocked the Manchester music scene while dressed in clerical gear.

Lemmy moved to London in search of fame and fortune, where he had a stint as a roadie with Jimi Hendrix and briefly played in progressive rock band Opal Butterfly.

In 1972 he was recruited as bassist for the space-rock band Hawkwind, despite having played only rhythm guitar before.

Image source, Decca
Image caption,
Lemmy (r) rocking with the Vickers

It helped him develop a distinct style of bass playing, which added a great deal to Hawkwind's sound.

He also sang lead vocals on the band's biggest hit, Silver Machine, after a previous effort by the band's usual vocalist was deemed too weak.

"It sounded like Captain Kirk reading Blowing in the Wind," Lemmy later recalled. "They tried everybody singing it except me. Then, as a last shot they said, 'Try Lemmy.' And I did it in one take or two."

Lemmy's tenure with Hawkwind ended abruptly when he was busted for drug possession on a tour of Canada in 1975.

He later claimed that his dismissal was due to 'pharmaceutical differences', his preference for amphetamines being in stark contrast to the rest of Hawkwind's love of more hallucinogenic substances.


Despite the falling-out, Lemmy had fond memories of his time with the band.

"In Hawkwind I became a good bass player," he told Classic Rock magazine in 2012. "It was where I learned I was good at something."

Lemmy decided to form his own band, "so that no-one can fire me again", and adopted the name Bastard, until it was gently pointed out that he would be unlikely to get a gig on Top of the Pops.

Image source, Redferns
Image caption,
The definitive Motorhead line-up. (L to R) Lemmy, Taylor, Clarke

Instead he changed it to Motorhead, US slang for someone who takes speed and also the title of the last song he had penned for Hawkwind.

From early on he was clear about exactly which musical direction the band would take.

"Very basic music - loud, fast, city, raucous, arrogant, paranoid, speed-freak rock n roll. It will be so loud that if we move in next door to you, your lawn will die".

The beginnings of the band were not auspicious. Lemmy claimed they were so badly off they had to steal equipment and they practised in a disused furniture warehouse.


They recorded some tracks for the United Artists label but the company thought they were so bad they refused to release them.

In the first of what would be a series of personnel changes, Lemmy fired drummer Lucas Fox and replaced him with Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor.

He later replaced guitarist Larry Wallis with "Fast" Eddie Clarke, completing what many fans consider to be the definitive Motorhead line up.

Image source, Wireimage
Image caption,
At the Grammys in 2005. Lemmy, Dee & Campbell

By 1977 the band were so disillusioned they agreed to split and put on a farewell show at The Marquee in London.

It became a turning point when a record producer at the gig offered them enough studio time to record a single.

Instead the band laid down 13 tracks that formed their first album, entitled Motorhead, which reached No 43 in the UK charts. It's probably the only rock album with the word "parallelogram" in the lyrics.

Lemmy's guttural vocals appealed to the fans and the punk influences in their blistering music tapped into the fast-changing music scene in the UK. Indeed Motorhead collaborated with punk outfit The Damned on a few occasions.


It marked the start of the band's most successful period, which peaked with the release of their fourth album, Ace of Spades, in 1980.

The thunderous title track became the band's definitive anthem and appearances on Top of the Pops helped it stay in the UK charts for 12 weeks.

During the following three decades the band released no fewer than 17 further albums.

Image source, Mark Marek
Image caption,
The style didn't change over the years

Lemmy stuck with the music formula of fast, driving rock that he'd adopted at the band's inception.

Despite a horde of imitators he also rejected any notion that Motorhead were a metal band, insisting that what they played was pure rock and roll.

Lemmy never made any secret of his drug and alcohol intake, which, while prodigious over the years, never seemed to sap his appetite for recording and playing.

In 2005 he was invited to address the Welsh assembly on the perils of drug-taking, and took the opportunity to call for the legalisation of heroin to remove the drug dealer from society.

In the same year Motorhead picked up a Grammy for their cover of Metallica's Whiplash.

"It's about bloody time," was Lemmy's response. "Nobody deserves it more, although I'm too modest to say it."

One of the band's last performances was a storming set at Glastonbury earlier this year.

But it wasn't all about the music - in 2010, the band dipped their toes into the sporting world after a Lincoln under-10s football team manager who used to know Lemmy got in touch.

Motorhead went on to sponsor the Greenbank under-10s B team, which had the internationally renowned band's name on their shirts along with the band's motif - a skull named Snaggletooth.

The team also ran out to the band's famous Ace of Spades track.

On a 1988 tour of Finland, Lemmy was asked by one journalist why he had kept going for so long.

"We're still here," he replied, "because we should have died a long time ago but we didn't."

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