Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Late Great Lemmy

Lemmy, the legendary leader and bassist of Motörhead, who also played with Hawkwind and other bands, died yesterday, December 28 2015, at the age of 70. On December 26 2015 he had been diagnosed with an extremely aggressive cancer.

Lemmy was born Ian Fraser Kilmister in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire on Christmas Eve, 1945. He was only three months old when his parents separated. He, his mother, and grandmother then moved to Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire and then Madeley, Staffordshire. Lemmy was ten years old when his mother married former footballer George Willis, who had played for the clubs Wolverhampton Wanderers, Brighton & Hove Albion, Plymouth Argyle, Exeter City, and Taunton Town. The family moved to Benllech,  Isle of Anglesey, Gwynedd. He attended Sir Thomas Jones' School in Amlwch on the Isle of Anglesey, where he earned the nickname "Lemmy". While there he developed an interest in rock 'n' roll. The family moved yet again to Conwy, Clwyd in Wales.

At age 17 he followed a girlfriend to Stockport in Greater Manchester. It was there that he joined such bands as The Rainmakers and The Motown Sect. It was in 1965 that he joined The Rockin' Vickers, playing guitar in the band. The Rockin' Vickers released the singles "Stella", "Dandy", and "It's Alright" while Lemmy was with the band. They were also reportedly the first British bands to perform in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Lemmy left The Rockin' Vickers in 1967 and moved to London. In 1968 he joined the band  Sam Gopal. With Sam Gopal he recorded the album Escalator, on which he was billed as Ian Willis. In 1969 he joined the band Opal Butterfly. He only recorded one single with the band, "Groupie Girl", before Opal Butterfly broke up.

It was in August 1971 that Lemmy joined Hawkwind. Even though he had spent his career up to that time as a rhythm guitarist, he became the band's bassist. Because of his experience with rhythm guitar, Lemmy would develop a distinct style as a bassist. Rather than playing single notes as most bassists, he instead utilised chords and double stops. Lemmy's bass was then one of the factors that contributed to the unique sound of Hawkwind.

Arguably Lemmy was with Hawkwind at the height of their success. He contributed songs to their albums Doremi Fasol Latido (1972), Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974), and Warrior on the Edge of Time (1975). In addition to playing bass he also occasionally sang lead vocals. In fact, he sang lead vocals on Hawkwind's highest charting single, "Silver Machine".

It was in 1975 that Lemmy was arrested at the border between Canada and the United States for possession of a powder. Authorities thought the powder was cocaine, but it was actually amphetamine. After five days in jail in Windsor, Ontario, Lemmy was released as he had been charged with cocaine possession rather than possession of an amphetamine. Regardless, the arrest led to his dismissal from Hawkwind.

Afterwards Lemmy formed a new band with guitarist Larry Wallis (formerly of The Pink Fairies) and drummer Lucas Fox called Bastard. When Lemmy was informed that the name Bastard would never get the band on Top of the Pops, he renamed it Motörhead. Lemmy's wanted Motörhead's music to be fast and loud, to be "fast and vicious just like the MC5." Lucas Fox soon proved unreliable as a drummer and was replaced by  Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor.  "Fast" Eddie Clarke was hired as an additional guitarist. It was not long afterwards that Larry Wallis rejoined a reformed Pink Fairies. The classic  Motörhead line-up was then in place.

Motörhead's head self-titled, first album was released in 1977. It peaked at no. 43 on the UK album chart. Motörhead saw even more success with their next album, Overkill, released in 1979. It peaked at no. 24. Motörhead were at the height of their success with the albums Bomber (1979), Ace of Spades (1980), and Iron Fist (1982). Their 1981 live album, No Sleep 'til Hammersmith, went to no. 1 on the UK album chart and became their most successful album over all.

The line-up would change following Iron Fist, with Fast Eddie Clarke leaving the band. Phil Taylor left the band following the album Another Perfect Day (1983). Regardless, Motörhead would continue to be successful with their albums ranking in the top 25 into the early Nineties. Through it all Lemmy remained the band's lead vocalist, bassist, and leader.

The album March ör Die, from 1992, signalled an end to Motörhead's chart success for a time. The band's next four albums did not chart, and for the rest of the Nineties their highest charting album was We Are Motörhead, which peaked at 91. Fortunately the Naughts would be a kinder decade to Motörhead. Inferno from 2004 went to no. 95. Their next two albums, Kiss of Death (2006) and Motörizer (2008) performed even better. This year would see Motörhead return to their earlier success. Bad Magic peaked at no. 10 on the UK single chart. This is perhaps fitting, given it is the band's final album.

Motörhead's final live performance (and hence Lemmy's as well) was on December 11 2015 in Berlin.

In addition to his work with Motörhead, Lemmy also collaborated with Ozzy Osbourne.  On Ozzy Osbourne's album No More Tears. he contributed to the songs "I Don't Want to Change the World",  "Mama, I'm Coming Home",  "Desire", and "Hellraiser". He also played with fellow former Hawkwind member Robert Calvert, including on Mr. Calvert's 1974 concept album satire Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters. He played and recorded with the rockabilly band The Head Cat as well. In 2005 he worked on an unreleased solo album Lemmy and Friends.

Over the years Lemmy made several appearance in various films, including Hardware (1990) and Airheads (1994). He appeared in several Troma Entertainment films, including Tromeo and Juliet (1996). In 2010 the documentary Lemmy, about the legendary rock star, was released.

Lemmy was the archetypal rock star. He was well known for his love of Jack Daniels and having had sex with reportedly thousands of women. He wore leather and had enormous mutton chop whiskers. He was known to be charming in person, gifted with a self-deprecating sense of humour. Regardless, he was one of the greatest bassists in the history of rock 'n' roll, as well as a true innovator. His bass style was singular. He played chords rather than single notes and, more often than not, he played very fast. And while Motörhead was often referred to as "heavy metal", the band's inspiration drew upon such rock 'n roll classics as Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley, while at the same time drawing upon MC5. Before The Ramones or The Sex Pistols, Motörhead were playing hard, fast, loud, and very straight forward rock music. There were absolutely no frills in Motörhead's songs, although there was often a good deal of humour.

Ultimately Lemmy and Motörhead would prove to be very influential. Just as MC5 had been an influence on Motörhead, so too would Motörhead be an influence on punk rock. And while Lemmy eschewed the label "heavy metal" (he preferred to think of Motörhead as plain old rock and  roll), Motörhead would be pivotal in the development of the subgenres of thrash metal and speed metal. 

The term "legend" is often bandied about, but in the case of Lemmy it is perhaps the best description. He never set out to be a pioneer or innovator. He never set out to do anything but play straight forward, fast, and vicious rock and roll. In doing so he changed rock music forever. Lemmy was never one to take himself too seriously, and he was one who never took his fans for granted. It should be no wonder that he will be missed.

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