“I don’t wanna live forever” – Lemmy, 1945-2015

The word “iconic” is used with tedious regularity these days, but with his unmistakable facial hair (and facial warts), uncomfortably positioned microphone and gruff no-nonsense demeanour, Lemmy can justifiably be called an icon of rock music.

Born Ian Fraser Kilmister in 1945, Lemmy’s first taste of musical fame came when he joined the Rockin’ Vickers at the age of 19. He released three singles with the band, including songs written by Pete Townshend and Ray Davies, but chart success eluded them and the group split in 1967. After a period as roadie for the Jimi Hendrix Experience and a brief stint in psychedelic rock band Opal Butterfly, Lemmy joined celebrated space rockers Hawkwind in 1972, where he developed his distinctive bass guitar style and sang lead vocals on the band’s biggest hit Silver Machine. The single reached number 3 in 1972 and returned to the chart on two further occasions, in 1978 and 1983.

Lemmy’s tenure with Hawkwind came to an end in 1975 when he was arrested in Canada on a charge of possessing cocaine; when it turned out that the drugs he was carrying were actually amphetamines, the charges could not be brought and he was released without conviction. The band still fired him though, because Lemmy’s love of Speed did not sit comfortably with the rest of the band’s preference for narcotics. Vowing to form his own band so that he couldn’t get fired again, Kilmister’s next band was initially called Bastard before reason prevailed and the outfit was rechristened Motörhead after the last song Lemmy had written for Hawkwind. The umlaut over the second O was an essential part of the band’s name, although it didn’t change the pronunciation – “I only put it in there to look mean,” Lemmy would later admit. After a slow start – the band’s eponymous début album wasn’t recorded until after their intended farewell gig in 1977 – Motörhead finally cracked the charts in 1979 with the singles and albums Overkill and Bomber.

Despite Lemmy’s insistence that Motörhead played “pure rock ‘n’ roll”, their Speed-fuelled, punk-influenced brand of rock put them at the forefront of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) movement. With the most stable of the band’s many line-ups, the classic power trio of Lemmy, guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke and drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor, Motörhead cemented their success with their 1980 album Ace of Spades and topped the chart with the following year’s live set No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith. Although it remains their best known song, Ace of Spades wasn’t the band’s biggest hit – it only reached number 15, short of the number 8 position the Golden Years EP reached earlier in 1980, while a live version of Motorhead reached number 6 in 1981. Motörhead’s biggest success in the singles chart came in collaboration with female metallers Girlschool. Each band covered a song by the other, while the two bands joined forces for a version of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ Please Don’t Touch; the resulting St Valentine’s Day Massacre EP reached number 5.

The enduring success of Ace of Spades can be partially attributed to the band’s performance of the song in the BBC’s landmark comedy show The Young Ones, an appearance which sparked a number of collaborations with the Comic Strip performers; Lemmy made a cameo appearance in More Bad News and starred in the outfit’s feature film Eat the Rich, for which Motörhead also provided the soundtrack. Ace of Spades returned to the chart in 1993 after it was used in a TV commercial for, of all things, Pot Noodle. The reissue reached number 23, helped (or possibly hindered) by a dance remix of the song, which Lemmy likened to “painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”

1982’s Iron Fist was the last album to feature the Lemmy / Clarke / Taylor line-up, Clarke’s departure setting in motion a revolving door through which band members would join, leave and rejoin over the next three decades. With Lemmy as the only constant, Motörhead recorded another seventeen albums between 1983 and 2015, the last of which, Bad Magic, became the band’s first top ten album since Iron Fist when it reached number 10 in September 2015. By this time, however, there was much concern about the state of Lemmy’s health. A legendarily hard drinker, he had famously switched from Jack Daniels & Coke to vodka & orange because it was “healthier”, but during a US tour in September 2015 the band had to cut two shows short and cancel several others altogether as Lemmy experienced breathing problems, attributed at the time to altitude sickness. Despite having given the appearance of being immortal for some decades, Lemmy was diagnosed with cancer on Boxing Day and died two days later, just four days after his 70th birthday and little more than six weeks after the passing of “Philthy Animal” Taylor. Rock & Roll has lost one of its last true legends.

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