Motorhead: The Legendary Life of Lemmy
If you don’t know who Lemmy was, you may be living under a rock. Even if you aren’t well-versed in Motorhead’s music catalog, Lemmy is a name that rings out. He’s in that class of legendary rockers that will be talked about forever. On December 24th, 1945, in the Burslem area of Stoke-on-Trent in the United Kingdom, future music fans around the world got an early Christmas gift they didn’t know they wanted.
Born Ian Fraser Kilmister, Lemmy joined The Rockin Vickers as a guitarist in 1965 and toured Europe after the band signed a record deal with CBS. In school, he remembered the guys who brought guitars to school were “surrounded by chicks.” He brought his mother’s guitar to school, and he got the same attention, though he couldn’t play. He learned to play the Beatles’ first album, ‘Please Please Me,’ after seeing them play in a club in Liverpool when he was 16. He admired the Beatles from the very start and took no issue with voicing his opinions about any band:
“Brian Epstein (Beatles manager) cleaned them up for mass consumption, but they were anything but sissies. They were from Liverpool… a hard, sea-farin' town, all these dockers and sailors around all the time who would beat the piss out of you if you so much as winked at them….The Rolling Stones were the mummy's boys..they were all college students from the outskirts of London. The Stones made great records, but they were always shit on stage, whereas the Beatles were the gear."
In the late sixties, Lemmy was a roadie for Jimi Hendrix. He told Rolling Stone: “I was sleeping on [Jimi Hendrix’s roadie] Neville Chester’s floor…he was sharing a flat with Noel Redding, so whenever they needed an extra pair of hands I was right there. I didn’t get the job for any talent or anything. But I did see Jimi play a lot. Twice a night for about three months. I’d seen him play backstage too. He had this old Epiphone guitar — it was a 12-string, strung as a six-string, and he used to stand up on a chair backstage and play it. Why he stood up on the chair, I don’t know.”
It wasn’t until 1971 when he joined the space rock band Hawkwind that he started to play bass guitar. Lemmy joined the band as their guitarist, but after their bass player proved to be unreliable, Lemmy filled that role. He recalled, “Their bass player was pretty much saying 'please steal my gig!' So I stole his gig."
He was fired from Hawkwind during a 1975 North American tour after being arrested at the Canadian border on drug possession charges, though he was never charged. That, coupled with what management deemed to be “erratic behavior,” was the end of that experiment and led to the creation of Bastard, which was later renamed Motorhead after his manager told him a band called Bastard would never get commercial success, so he changed the name to Motorhead - the title of the last song he wrote for Hawkwind.
He considered himself to be more aligned with the hard-partying punks than the metalheads, hence the band’s name: a ‘motorhead' was a slang term for a speed freak.
He played with punk rockers The Damned when they had no official bass player. Lemmy maintained that if it weren’t for their long hair, Motorhead would be classed as a punk band because of their speed, recklessness, and song composition.
Motorhead reached its peak in 1981, charting multiple hits including ‘Ace of Spades,’ which will always be their biggest hit. They also had UK’s #1 live album, ‘No Sleep 'til Hammersmith.’
Over 40 years, they released 23 studio albums, 10 live recordings, 12 compilation albums, and five EPs. Motorhead is ranked number 26 on VH1's 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock and they’ve sold more than 15 million albums worldwide. Despite being a massive cross-genre influence over their 40-year career, Motorhead has yet to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Kirk Hammet, and others, have spoken out about the omission. Kirk told NME in January 2020: “I really think that when things like that happen, it might be a generational thing where maybe some of the older people just don’t get it; they just don’t fucking get it…For those kind of people, Motorhead is a little bit of a bitter pill. And the comprehension of it is kind of..it could be a little better comprehended. And I think that’s the problem..it’s merely a generational thing…As much as I don’t like saying that because I think if it’s good music, it’s gonna transcend generations. But then, at certain times, people are just closed off from it from the get-go, for whatever reason. It’s just one of those things that just happens…They don’t see the range of influence and the impact and the inspiration that certain bands have. They don’t hear it, because maybe they’re part of a different generation and were told that vocals sung like that are bad. But they’re not — they’re fucking just another type of vocal…some of those Motorhead recordings are fucking so beautifully raw.”
Lemmy never shied away from talking about his incredible alcohol consumption and drug use. During his time with Hawkwind, he developed an addiction to amphetamine and LSD. Before joining Hawkwind, he recalled Dik Mik, a former Hawkwind sound technician, showing up at his house in the middle of the night and taking amphetamine with him. They became interested in how long "you could make the human body jump about without stopping.” The experiment went on for months until Mik ran out of money and they returned to the band.
In the documentary ‘Motörhead: Live Fast Die Old,’ he stated that he drank a bottle of Jack Daniel's every day and had done so since he was 30 years old. He also talks about his drug use: “I first got into speed because it was a utilitarian drug and kept you awake when you needed to be awake when otherwise you'd just be flat out on your back. If you drive to Glasgow for nine hours in the back of a sweaty truck you don't really feel like going onstage feeling all bright and breezy…It's the only drug I've found that I can get on with, and I've tried them all, except smack (heroin) and morphine: I've never "fixed" (injected) anything…I used to say that getting married was the only mistake I didn’t make. But the other mistake I didn’t make was to stick needles in myself to get high.”
Lemmy told Loudersound in 2004: “When I was growing up, drugs were all the go, everybody was doing them, so I did them, smoking dope and acid. But there was a great innocence attached to it. No one had died yet. Heroin hadn’t showed up and downers hadn’t come in. The deals were a lot better then too. Then came the birth of the rabid dealer with the gun in his pocket. And that’s what changed it, the money you could make...I used to say that getting married was the only mistake I didn’t make. But the other mistake I didn’t make was to stick needles in myself to get high...If you’re sticking needles in yourself, then that’s very bad news. Even with my famous rep, not once. Never ever.”
He explained that the love of his life, a woman named Sue, had died from a heroin overdose and that cemented his hatred of the drug.
He told Revolver magazine about his time working as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix: “Jimi taught me how to find drugs in the most unlikely places because that was part of my job for him. That's how I learned to function on five hits of acid. But I also learned about theatrics and performing.”
In 1969, his nurse girlfriend got him some amphetamine sulfate from her work. She brought home a jar of atropine sulfate. He did a teaspoon full, which he said was "200 times the overdose.” In his memoir, ‘White Line Fever,’ he remembers talking to a TV held under his arm, then passing out and waking up in the hospital. The doctor told him: "If we got you in another hour you would have been dead.” He was hallucinating for two weeks after treatment and remembers "sitting, reading a book, and I'd turn to page 42 – but there was no book."
He and a friend were in a car splitting up speed and downers - 100 pills and they were approached by police. They choked the pills into their mouths, and the cops didn’t find anything. When he fell asleep that night, his heart rate and breathing slowed. "It looked like I had stopped breathing although I hadn't," he said in White Line Fever. "I was lying there with both eyes open, having kind of a hard time speaking."
He told Inked magazine: "One cool thing happened in the Seventies when a chick just climbed up [onstage] and blew me…I was singing — well, I couldn't stop, could I?"
In 1980, he attempted to have a full blood transfusion as Keith Richards had done. He said: “(The doctor) told me I didn’t have human blood in my system anymore. Apparently, I had become so toxic, mostly from all the speed and alcohol, that fresh blood would have killed me.”
FRIENDS FOR LIFE
There are endless stories detailing the incredibly hard-partying life of the Motorhead frontman, here are just a few of them:
Ozzy Osbourne says he had to cancel shows in the early ’80s because he went on a week-long cocaine binge with Lemmy: “We had a few days off so I went round to Sharon’s father’s house, and Lemmy came with us. Eventually it was time to go back on tour, but I’d been doing coke all fucking week. I come out into the yard and Lemmy comes out and his face is fucking whiter than a ghost. He looks at me and he goes, ‘Fuck me, man, I hope I don’t look as bad as you.’ If Lemmy Kilmister says that to you, you must be fucking bad. I just went, ‘Cancel the gigs.’”
Foo Fighters lead singer and guitarist Dave Grohl discussing working with Lemmy on Grohl’s side project Probot: “We recorded [Lemmy's] track in Los Angeles in maybe two takes about a year and a half ago. Until then I'd never met what I'd call a real rock 'n' roll hero before. Fuck Elvis and Keith Richards, Lemmy's the king of rock 'n' roll—he told me he never considered Motörhead a metal band, he was quite adamant. Lemmy's a living, breathing, drinking, and snorting fucking legend. No one else comes close.”
Anthrax bassist Frank Bello on touring with Lemmy: “One day, I was onstage during their soundcheck and at the end, Lemmy looks over at me, he says, ‘C'mere.’ I went over to him and he took his bass off and put it on me and said, 'Go for it.' I didn’t know it at the time, but he had turned the volume up, way up – I didn't realize how loud he played onstage. When I played the first note, the force of power and air literally threw me back almost on my ass! Lemmy started laughing – he had set me up. And I loved every second of it.”
Life of Agony bassist Alan Robert: “On Ozzfest ’98, it was always great seeing Lemmy first thing in the morning. Our bus parked up next to Motörhead’s every day, and usually, we’d find Lemmy laying out sunbathing in front of the buses, wearing nothing but a green speedo and boots. Always super friendly and down to earth. He was a total class act.”
Beefcake The Mighty, bassist for GWAR: “Lemmy is my hero, my John Wayne. I had the good fortune of meeting him several times, and even though I was geeking out inside each time like a fanboy, I never got a photo with him. One of my biggest regrets in life, that. The first time I met him, a bunch of us were hanging around the back door of the Bronco Bowl in Dallas waiting to meet him. He came out with a full bottle of Jack Daniels tucked under his arm, and signed stuff and chatted with us all. He noticed a button on my drummer’s jacket that said, ‘Come near me and I’ll kill you,’ and he said, ‘I need that!’ Harden, my drummer, said he’d trade for a pick. Lemmy checked his pockets, but didn’t have a pick, so he gave us the bottle of Jack!.. But my best Lemmy story is the time my friend Tom Rainone brought him to a GWAR show in LA. Backstage after the show was a mob scene with label people and the typical LA hangers-on. Lemmy was understandably feeling claustrophobic and was ready to bail, so I suggested we go down to the bus and have a drink. Lemmy, Tom, and I sat in the back lounge, shooting the shit and drinking Newcastles. Lemmy said how much fun he had at my show. At my show! Absolutely still one of the greatest moments in my life!”
Ozzy Osbourne talked about the final conversation with his friend: “His exact words were, ‘I could have lived a lot longer and taken care of myself, but I lived my life the way I want to live and I ain’t got no regrets.’ Fair enough!”
On 8 December 2015, days after his 70th birthday, Ian Fraser Kilmister died in his Los Angeles apartment from prostate cancer, cardiac arrhythmia, and congestive heart failure.
Lemmy spoke out against racism; he was against religion, government, and established authority. In 2011, he said he was agnostic: "I can find out when I die. I can wait. I'm not in a hurry."