Heavy metal icon and Motörhead frontman Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister died from cancer on Monday (Dec. 28), the band’s management has confirmed. He was 70. Since founding Motörhead in 1975, Kilmister was the band’s sole constant member, known for his powerful bass playing, gravelly vocals, his massive mutton chops and seemingly indestructible constitution, which somehow weathered more than 50 years of hard living, hard touring, cigarettes, alcohol and amphetamines.
The band’s longtime manager Todd Singerman praised Kilmister for mustering the energy to finish the Motörhead’s recent European tour, saying his passing has caught them all by surprise. He said that neither Kilmister nor anyone on his team knew the rock star had cancer until just a few days ago.
Kilmister’s health issues caused Motörhead to cancel or cut short several shows on the band’s fall U.S. tour, citing “altitude issues” at the time. Kilmister was a diabetic and in 2013 suffered a hematoma.
Kilmister was famously gruff, quick with his fists and did not suffer fools gladly, but for every story of his badassedness, there were others of him taking the time to sign autographs, make sure his opening acts got decent time for their sets, giving money to a down-on-his-luck friend or thoughtful interviews to young rock writers (including this one, several times, many years ago).
“There is no easy way to say this…our mighty, noble friend Lemmy passed away today after a short battle with an extremely aggressive cancer,” Motörhead said in a statement posted to Facebook. “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 its way down the street, with his family.”
The post continued, “We cannot begin to express our shock and sadness, there aren’t words…. We will say more in the coming days, but for now, please…play Motörhead loud, play Hawkwind loud, play Lemmy’s music LOUD.” (Read the full statement below.)
Kilmister was born Dec. 24, 1945, in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England. He was bitten by the rock and roll bug at an early age, took up the guitar and later saw the Beatles play at the legendary Cavern Club in Liverpool. He moved to London in the early 1960s and performed with several bands — the Rainmakers, the Motown Sect, Rockin’ Vicars and, during the psychedelic era, tabla player Sam Gopal — and worked as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix in 1968. Asked what those gigs were like, Lemmy recalled with a laugh, “Confusing, because we were tripping off our faces on LSD all the time! But it was amazing, seeing Hendrix play every night.”
He switched to bass to join the psych-rock outfit Hawkwind in 1972, and was with the band during its most fertile era. His first work for Hawkwind was to record the vocals for “Silver Machine,” which went on to become a hit single in the U.K. and the group’s defining song. He enjoyed a three-year run with the group but was ejected in 1975 after being busted on tour for possession of cocaine (which turned out to be amphetamines). He later said that he’d been kicked out of the LSD-centric band not for using drugs, but the wrong kinds of drugs. (Kilmister’s pre-Motörhead career is expertly detailed in this 2014 article in TheRunout.)
After being ejected from Hawkwind, according to legend, Kilmister burst through the door of his flat and yelled to a friend, “I’m gonna form my own band and call it Bastard!” He later toned that down to Motorhead — ironically, the title of the last song he wrote for Hawkwind — slang for an amphetamine freak, and intended to recreate the vibe of the MC5, a band he’d worshiped. After a halting start with original guitarist Larry Wallis and drummer Lucas Fox, the lineup gelled with guitarist “Fast Eddie” Clarke and drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor and issued its first single on Chiswick Records in 1977: a re-recorded version of “Motorhead” backed with the bruising “City Kids.” Both tracks featured the band’s signature power riffs, thundering drums, overdriven bass and Lemmy’s inimitable sandpaper voice. Arriving at the same time as punk, the group was one of the very few to be accepted in both punk and metal circles — its members wearing leather jackets and battered jeans like punks but growing their hair long like metalheads.
The group’s threadbare early days were vividly portrayed by longtime friend and rock journalist Mick Farren in his 1977 book The Rock and Roll Circus — the chapter was called “The Poverty Trail” — but then a funny thing happened: Motörhead became successful. The group’s business stabilized with manager Doug Smith (who split with them years later amid accusations of financial malfeasance) and Bronze Records, and its cover of “Louie Louie,” a surprise hit single, ushered in the band’s classic 1979-81 era. Over that period, Overkill, Bomber, Ace of Spades and the live favorite No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith — which not only reached No. 1 in the U.K. but provided the inspiration for the title of the Beastie Boys‘ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” — came in rapid succession, coinciding with the rise of what was referred to as “The New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, etc.), turning Motörhead into bona fide pop stars without compromising an iota of their brutally uncompromising sound.
But the reign was short-lived. Iron Fist from 1982 was an uneven album and Clarke left the band shortly afterward. He was replaced by ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson, who, if anything, was too virtuoso for the band’s devoutly basic format. He didn’t last long, and Motörhead were written off by many. But after a long series of auditions, Robertson was replaced by two relatively unknown guitarists: Würzel (aka Michael Burston) and Phil Campbell. No sooner were they onboard than Taylor left, to be replaced by ex-Saxon drummer Pete Gill. This lineup solidified over months of touring and went into the studio with a surprising producer: New York avant bassist Bill Laswell, who’d worked extensively with artists like Laurie Anderson and his own group Material, but also worked with Public Image Ltd. The resulting album, Orgasmatron, brought an enhanced depth to the band’s sound and ranks as one of their best efforts.
The group’s resurgence coincided with the rise of thrash metal and it’s hard to think of a more prototypical band for that sound than Motörhead. Its influence was loudly trumpeted by thrash bands from Metallica — who played a special tribute set in L.A. as “The Lemmys” for Kilmister’s birthday in 1995, with all of the bandmembers dressed like him — on down. As it had a decade earlier, the band caught a rising tide of metal’s popularity and soon were again top-drawing headliners. Taylor rejoined the fold in 1987 and the group enjoyed a second golden age, signing for the first time with a major label — WTG/ Epic Records — for its 1991 album, 1916.
Yet again, the Motörhead’s salad days were short-lived. The band recorded its following LP, March or Die, in Los Angeles during the L.A. riots and Taylor was ejected, this time for good, during the sessions. Ex-King Diamond drummer Mikkey Dee came on board and, apart from Würzel’s departure in 1995, the band’s lineup was to remain stable, through thick and thin, to the present day. Over the past 20 years, Motörhead enjoyed a sort of Ramones-like living-legend status — indeed, 1916 features a tribute to the four-chord kings of Queens called “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” — touring hard and releasing a succession of familiar if similar albums, with Lemmy propping up the bar at the Rainbow on the Sunset Strip when he wasn’t on tour. His long career and devil-may-care attitude are documented in the 2010 film Lemmy, produced and directed by Greg Oliver and former Billboard staffer Wes Orshoski.
Lemmy was aware of his legendary status without making a big deal out of it. “It’s really weird,” he told this writer. “Guys like Geddy Lee from Rush, who used to open for me but have gone on to be much bigger, still come up to me like [shyly], ‘Hi Lemmy!,’ It’s so strange — it’s not that he thinks I’m better than him or anything, but he remembers he used to be my support band.”
Lemmy’s decades of hard living — he was rarely seen without a whiskey and/or a cigarette — began to catch up with him in recent years: he half-seriously said he’d switched from whiskey to vodka for health reasons. Würzel passed away in 2011 and Taylor died of liver failure just last month. Indeed, mortality pops up frequently in the lyrics of Bad Magic, the band’s 23th and most recent studio album, which was released in June. Yet in “Thunder and Lightning,” this larger-than-life figure — who, perhaps more than anyone, embodied the rock-and-roll ethos in all its awesomeness and excess, who somehow managed to live fast and die young at 70 — leaves a perfect epitaph for himself:
“Life on the road is not easy, my friend /
You can’t remember, you can’t pretend /
All of your dreams can really come true /
All of your nightmares are waiting there too /
I always wanted the dangerous life /
I always wanted the outlaw delight …
I always wanted the screams in the night /
I always wanted the noise and the lights /
Standing onstage, the thrill never fades.”
Additional reporting by Colin Stutz