2015 – Lemmy Kilmister was born Ian Fraser Kilmister on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1945 in the Burslem area of Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. When Lemmy was three months old, his father, an ex-Royal Air Force chaplain, separated from his mother. His mother and grandmother moved to Newcastle-under-Lyme, then to Madeley. When Lemmy was 10, his mother married former footballer George Willis, who already had two older children from a previous marriage, Patricia and Tony, with whom Lemmy did not get along.
The family moved to a farm in Benllech on Anglesey, with Lemmy later commenting on his time there, that “funnily enough, being the only English kid among 700 Welsh ones didn’t make for the happiest time, but it was interesting from an anthropological point of view.”
He attended Sir Thomas Jones’ School in Amlwich, where he was nicknamed Lemmy. It was later suggested by some that the name originated from the phrase “lemmy [lend me] a quid till Friday” because of his alleged habit of borrowing money from people to play slot machines, although Lemmy himself claimed that he didn’t know the origin of the name. He soon started to show an interest in rock and roll music, girls and horses.
By the time he left school his family had moved to Conwy, still in northern Wales. There he worked at menial jobs including one in the local Hotpoint electric appliance factory, while also playing guitar for local bands, such as the Sundowners, and spending time at a horse-riding school.
Lemmy saw the Beatles perform at the Cavern Club when he was 16, and then learned to play along on guitar to their first album Please Please Me. He also admired the sarcastic attitude of the group, particularly that of John Lennon.
At the age of 17 he met a holidaying girl called Cathy. He followed her to Stockport, where she eventually had his son Sean, who was put up for adoption. In the 2010 documentary film Lemmy, Lemmy mentions having a son whose mother has only recently “found him” and “hadn’t got the heart to tell him who his father was”, indicating the boy – perhaps Sean – was given up for adoption.
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 the Nice 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. He sang lead on their hit “Silver Machine“. “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. After his departure from Hawkwind he founded Motörhead as lead singer, bassist, songwriter and frontman. 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. 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 practiced 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.
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.
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 legalization 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.”
Aside from his musical skills, Lemmy was well known for his hard living lifestyle and regular consumption of alcohol and amphetamines. Lemmy was also noted for his collection of Nazi memorabilia and use of Nazi symbolism, although he stated that he did not support Nazi ideals.
One of the band’s last performances was a storming set at Glastonbury.
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.”
Lemmy died from cancer on December 28, 2015 at the age of 70.