Ian Fraser ”Lemmy” Kilmister, legendary frontman of Motörhead, has died. He had been battling a number of health issues, including hematoma and an irregular heartbeat, in recent years, but an “aggressive cancer” is being named as the cause of death. He was 70.
His death has been confirmed by his longtime friend, radio/TV host Eddie Trunk, as well as by Ozzy Osbourne, who wrote on Twitter:
Lemmy, who played in Hawkwind before founding Motörhead, was the lead vocalist and bassist for the group as well as its principal songwriter. He was also the only constant member of the band since its formation in 1975. Motörhead marked the passing of its leader on Facebook, saying:
The news of Lemmy’s death is saddening, but it’s neither sudden nor surprising. Over the past two years, the notoriously hard-living icon had canceled numerous Motörhead shows and been the subject of Internet rumors falsely announcing his death. Earlier this month he complained publicly and with characteristic bluntness about this spate of morbid speculation, commenting in an interview, “I’m sick of the fucking ‘Are you going to die?’ line of questioning. It’s getting really old, that question. I’m all right.”
Born on Christmas Eve of 1945 in Stoke-On-Trent, England, Lemmy worked factory jobs and picked up the guitar as a Beatles-loving teen in the early ’60s. He eventually joined various bands such as The Sundowners, The Rainmakers, The Motown Sect, Sam Gopal, Opal Butterfly, and The Rockin’ Vickers, where his penchant for brawny, propulsive playing was already evident.
After a stint as Jimi Hendrix’s roadie in the late ’60s, Lemmy joined Hawkwind. The London-based space-rock band needed a bassist, and although Lemmy played guitar, he switched instruments and quickly became central to the group’s sound, lending a powerful pulse to Hawkwind’s aggressive, celestial drone. He also took up occasional microphone duties; his inhumanly gravelly lead vocals helped make a hit of the group’s 1972 single “Silver Machine.” The song epitomizes Hawkwind: the dregs of hippie mysticism and counterculture idealism strained through cheap drugs, ritual abandon, and the onrush of harsh, fearsome futurism.
Lemmy was kicked out of Hawkwind after a drug arrest while on tour in 1975. In interviews over the years, he’s given many variations on the following quote, which seems to sum up the rift: “They were into acid, and I was into speed.” Unceremoniously ousted, he didn’t stay quiet for long. Taking the name from the last Hawkwind song he wrote (not to mention a slang term for a speed addict), Motörhead came together soon after, with Lemmy aided by guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke and drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor (the latter died last month). Where Hawkwind played extended jams about outer space, Motörhead wrote pile-driving songs about the earthliest of concerns: “war, death, sex, and drugs,” as he stated in an interview earlier this year with The A.V. Club.
But Motörhead did more than simply create some of the most vicious anthems ever recorded. From 1980’s searing “Ace Of Spades,” the group’s most recognizable song, to slash-and-burn classics like “Stay Clean” and “Overkill,” Lemmy’s mix of misanthropic snarl, bluesy bleakness, galloping velocity, and lockjaw savagery influenced multitudes. Motörhead sound and image helped kick off sundry forms of extreme rock in the early ’80s, including the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, thrash, and the punk subgenre D-beat.
Punk, in fact, was a particular love of Lemmy’s; he briefly played bass in The Damned and wrote the Motörhead song “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” in honor of one of his favorite bands. (Joey Ramone’s response: “It was the ultimate honor—like John Lennon writing a song for you.”) Accordingly, Motörhead’s music straddled punk and metal in a way that didn’t necessarily seek to fuse the two sounds as much as find their common root—if not become their missing link. The band’s 1984 appearance on The Young Ones, mimed though it may be, captures Motörhead at its crossover peak: rawer then the rawest punk, meaner than the meanest metal.
For a band that made overstatement its stock and trade, Motörhead’s impact cannot be overstated. The list of world-class musicians that have collaborated with him include Ozzy Osbourne, Dave Grohl, Slash, and—on Bad Magic, the band’s 22nd and final studio album—Brian May; a list of musicians who cite him as an inspiration would be staggering.
Much has been made of Lemmy’s hedonistic lifestyle, of his collection of Nazi paraphernalia, of his cartoonish cameos in movies, of his moles. These things don’t matter. What matters is his music: an elemental, primordial, pulverizing symphony of battle-scarred riffs and hard-bitten tales that cast Lemmy himself as rock’s quintessential loner—an outsider who may perform in a band before thousands of adoring fans, but who plays his cards as guardedly and cruelly as the ice-veined narrator of “Ace Of Spades”: “But that’s the way I like it, baby / I don’t want to live forever.”
One of the most definitive and indelible images of Lemmy is in The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. In the film, he’s interviewed while standing monolithically above Los Angeles’ superficial glam-rock fray, dispensing leathery wisdom like some gruff, weathered demigod. And that’s how most of us will remember him: as a monolith.