Not many metalheads ever get famous enough to be referred to only by a nickname. In fact, The Hawk can only think of 2 – Ozzy and Lemmy. Ozzy may be the showman, and the more successful. But Lemmy has a sense of authenticity that not many other stars can match.
How much do we know about Lemmy? There are millions of anecdotes about him. So in this blog post, we’ll try and pull a few together, and get a better sense of him. So, who was Lemmy? Dig right in here.
Ian Kilmister came from humble surroundings. Born in 1945, a few months after the end of the war, he first clapped eyes on the world in Burslem, a run down town near Stole-on-Trent in England. Had the family stayed out, prospects for Lemmy as a young man would have been coal mine or pottery factory.
But then, Lemmy’s dad, a Church of England vicar and padre in the Royal Air Force ran out on the family when he was still a baby (not a very Christian action, but whatever) and him mother decided to move to rural North Wales – an area which had even less to offer. Other than a new type of outsider status that is – an English kid in a Welsh school, he suffered from intense bullying.
It all combined to make him introverted (no, really), and anti-authoritarian. School headmasters, politicians, religious leaders – all authority figures who’ve been on the sharp end of Lemmy’s tongue over the years. In the case of the headmaster, it wasn’t only the tongue either. Lemmy got kicked out of school for whacking the guy on the head with his own cane, and that was that for education.
He got a couple of low paying jobs, one at a local stables and the other at a Hotpoint factory building washing machines. It was at about this time that the ‘Lemmy’ moniker first came into being – the story is usually that it was a play on ‘Lend me a fiver’, with a young Lemmy always on the lookout for a small loan to cover the bar bill. Lemmy himself denies that, but he was skint for long stretches as a young man, and so the story has stuck.
Ready to Rock
Anyway, those early jobs didn’t suit – he loved horses, but Lemmy was never going to settle down into a normal life. It would only be a matter of time before music and adventure came into his life.
He’d been into music big time for a long time – as a passion itself, and as a way to get in with the chicks. His mother had an old Hawaiian guitar lying around, and he taught himself to play it. No heavy metal in those days of course, so a young Lemmy enjoyed an eclectic mix of rock n roll – Little Richard, Ricky Nelson, Tommy Steele.
Hitting the Road
So, young Lemmy is 17, out of school, no real ties – it was time to jump ship. He hitchhiked to Manchester with a friend and took the first baby steps to being a rock star, beginning with a gig playing guitar for a moderately successful local cabaret act called The Rocking Vicars. And drugs. Lemmy wanted the full lifestyle package, and took to the psychedelics pretty soon
Motorhead they were not. But never mind – it was so far so good. The next 2 years sped by in a haze, but a happy one. The problem was that the Rocking Vicars didn’t really aspire to anything much other than playing rock n roll covers in cabaret shows. And Lemmy very much did. He decided to bail out, and in 1967 moved again, this time to London.
To begin with, there was no band, but the next best thing. He got a job as a roadie with Jimi Hendrix, with 2 main responsibilities – humping gear about and scoring acid.
There were some wild psychedelic times, but not for long. When Hendrix left for the US, it was time for another rethink. Opportunity soon knocked though. Dealing dope in a London market, he ran into Dik Mik (a.k.a. Michael Davies) for the first time. Dik Mik was the audio generator player (don’t ask) for Hawkwind, who needed a bass player. Lemmy didn’t play bass, but wasn’t going to let a minor detail like that get in the way. Besides, he no doubt reasoned, most Hawkwind fans weren’t going to bother about a small thing like musical competence, being too off their faces on psychedelic substances of one kind or other most of the time.
This analysis was correct, and Lemmy proved to be a big hit in the band. And he had a even bigger break a few months later when Hawkwind’s manager Doug Smith asked him to do the vocals for ‘Silver Machine’, which hit #3 in the UK charts – an astonishing mainstream breakout for what had been up to that point a niche outfit for drugheads.
Green Eyed Monsters
But it opened doors – before long, Hawkwind were themselves touring North America, selling out some very respectable sized venues. So ‘Silver Machine’ was the golden ticket. But it was also a poisoned pill. Everyone else in the band had wanted to do the vocals, so when Lemmy was chosen, the rage and jealousy behind the scenes was brutal. Things simmered along for a bit – they still had the shared love of getting hammered to keep them going after all.
But then in 1975 Lemmy got busted for drugs possession on the Canadian border en-route to a gig in Toronto, and got fired by Hawkwind as a result. As many people have pointed out over the years, there’s quite some irony in getting kicked out of Hawkwind for drugs. And not even hard drugs at that. The cops thought the substance might be cocaine, but it turned out to be only amphetamine sulphate, and resulted in only a small fine.
Lemmy was devastated about the split for a time, and thought the whole bust was just an excuse to get rid of him – had someone tipped off the authorities? But it turned out to be a good thing for him, and for fans of classic heavy metal, because Lemmy now had to form his own band if we wanted to continue with the rock n roll lifestyle.
And that band was Bastard. At least it was for a time in Lemmy’s imagination. But Doug Smith, having agreed to manage the new project, wasn’t having any of it, so in the end, Motorhead was chosen, the name of one of the last songs that Lemmy had written and recorded with Hawkwind.
Times were hard to begin with. An early review in NME magazine labelled Motorhead ‘the worst band in the world,’ – quite an accolade. There was no money, and so living in squats was the order of the day. The first album cam out and bombed – this was in 1977, the height of punk in the UK, which Motorhead plainly were not. Here’s one of the best tracks from the first album, ‘Iron Horse.’
Bu they kept at it, soon bringing out the seminal albums that would make them classic heavy metal legends – ‘Bomber’ and ‘Overkill’ in 1979, ‘Ace of Spades’ in 1980 and ‘No Sleep til Hammersmith’ in 1981.
Some more details about the bands tribulations with line up changes and record companies have already been covered on here, and this is a blog about Lemmy, so we won’t re-cover the same ground.
Suffice to say, that it was all done according to Lemmy’s normal way of working, which is to say there was no plan at all. They did what felt right, and success came. And when it did, Lemmy didn’t change. He was also a generous guy, happy to use his success to give other bands a leg up.
In 1982, Twisted Sister were supporting Motorhead at a gig at Wrexham’s football ground in North Wales – not necessarily a hospitable place for guys done up in make-up and drag. Lemmy offered to grease the wheels, going on stage to introduce them as ‘My friends Twisted Sister’, and the crowd went wild for them. Nice touch.
Of course, working without a plan can also come with its downsides. The wacky musical collaborations, with anyone from The Nolan Sisters to Wendy O Williams divided the rest of the band – line up changes followed and more new albums that never quite captured the same heights.
Eventually, Lemmy decided to pack his bags and move to Los Angeles, feeling like he’d outstayed his welcome in the UK. He got an apartment a stone’s throw from the Rainbow Grill, hangout of the rock stars. He lived alone and packed the place with his collection of Nazi war memorabilia (because the bad guys are always the coolest.) His most treasured piece? A Luftwaffe sword with a Damascus steel blade.
“I bought it for $6,000. I find it fascinating and colourful, and beautiful if you want. It’s beautiful for the wrong reasons, but it’s still beautiful. Also, it’s a very good investment. It goes up every year by about 40%.”Lemmy
Then, at about the same time, Lemmy and Motorhead became cool again. People like Axl Rose from Guns N Roses, and Metallica’s James Hetfield went round with Motorhead t-shirts on, and said how much they loved the band. It didn’t shift too many extra records, but it certainly added to the Lemmy legend – the ultimate cool / authentic guy in rock.
Ship Comes In
Actually, Lemmy didn’t need the money by that time. He’d collaborated on some songs with Ozzy Osbourne on albums that did make bucket-loads of sales and was set for life. For example, he wrote the lyrics for ‘Mama I’m coming Home’, which was and remains one of Ozzy’s most successful singles.
And just quietly, Lemmy had always had a flare for sensitive lyrics – see also Motorhead’s own ‘1916’ as another example.
22 and Out
And he kept at it even when he no longer needed to – ‘Bad Magic’ was released in 2015 just a few months before Lemmy’s death, and was Motorhead’s 22nd and final studio album, along with many live records.
In some ways, with hindsight, it seems miraculous that Lemmy made it to his 70th birthday after all those years of partying, booze, cigarettes and drugs (though he claims he stopped the psychedelics completely in the 70s, going only with the booze and fags from then on). There were rumours that he was on his way out when he was in his mid-50s, with stories of serious health problems, but he cheated the reaper for years to come.
That line in ‘Ace of Spades’:
That’s the way I like it baby
I don’t wanna live forever
Well he was never likely to, but he did ok. He once told an interviewer that
‘Actually, I’d like to die the year before forever. To avoid the rush.’Lemmy
So mission not quite accomplished on that score, but it’s been a genuine rock n roll innings. At which point, it seems appropriate to play out with ‘Killed By Death’, which pretty much sums him up. Lemmy busts through the wall of a house on a motorbike to pick up a girl. He gets shot by riot police outside a bar, and given the electric chair. Then busts out of the grave, also via motorbike.
Could look cheesy for some people, but for Lemmy, it’s perfect. Enjoy.
Legendary Lemmy. Share your own favourite Lemmy anecdotes and quotes in the below. And song choices of course.