Ian Fraser Kilmister, widely known as Motorhead vocalist and bassist Lemmy, died of cancer Monday in Los Angeles. He was 70.
The band confirmed his death on its official Facebook page, saying, “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. 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. 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.”
A rock and roll hellraiser par excellence, the British musician was a member of Hawkwind in the early 1970s before founding Motorhead. The band’s biggest hit was “Ace of Spades” in 1980.
Radio personality Eddie Trunk first tweeted the news.
Always cutting a distinctive figure with his giant mutton-chops, large facial moles and low-slung Rickenbacker bass, Kilmister was born Ian Fraser Kilmister in Staffordshire, England. A rock and roll lifer from the moment he saw the Beatles at Liverpool’s Cavern Club as a teenager, Kilmister played in a variety of British bands during the 1960s, briefly served as a roadie for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and played bass in space rock outfit Hawkwind from 1972 to ’75 (when he was fired after being arrested for drug possession at the U.S.-Canada border). But it’s as the founder and lone constant member of Motorhead that most of his legend relies.
The rare group to be revered by metalheads and punks in equal measure, Motorhead’s compulsion to push rock music to its fastest, loudest and most primal form left a profound influence on thrash and speed metal, though Kilmister himself always insisted that the band should be described purely as rock and roll. Famously laying out his ambitions for the group to become “the dirtiest rock and roll band in the world; if we moved in next door, your lawn would die,” Kilmister sang with a guttural yet surprisingly melodic growl, and played bass in the style of a rhythm guitarist, heavy on distortion and power chords.
Abetted by drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor and guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke, Kilmister and Co. released Motorhead’s self-titled debut to minor British chart success in 1977, though 1979 follow-ups “Overkill” and “Bomber,” both released on the Bronze Records label, each climbed higher. In 1980, fourth album “Ace of Spades” reached No. 4 on the UK album chart, with its title track quickly becoming the group’s signature song. It was also the first Motorhead album to be released in North America, where the band begin to develop a cult following after supporting Ozzy Osbourne on tour. The group’s live album “No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith” topped the British charts the following year.
Clarke left the group in 1982, Taylor quit in 1984, and the group was reorganized as a quartet. Around that time, the band became embroiled in a legal scuffle with Bronze Records, eventually forming its own imprint, GWR Records, on which it released “Orgasmatron” in 1986.
Undergoing various lineup changes over the years, the band toured and recorded tirelessly up until the present day, releasing 22nd studio album “Bad Magic” in August of 2015, and performing at the 2014 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Thanks to a number of multiplatinum-selling superfans — most notably Metallica and the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl — the band’s catalog gradually became part of the rock canon, and Kilmister became a rock cult figurehead.
An outspoken raconteur and Los Angeles resident for the last few decades of his life, Kilmister was known for his sexual prolificacy (he claimed to have slept with more than 1,000 women), love of video poker, and large collection of Nazi memorabilia. (Kilmister always denied any personal or political affinities with Nazism, once quipping to Spin magazine, “It’s always the bad guys who have the best uniforms.”) He had said that he drank a bottle of Jack Daniel’s every day for many years, though he professed to have finally slowed down recently.
He memorably appeared as himself in the 1994 Brendan Fraser-Adam Sandler comedy “Airheads,” in which he claimed to have been editor of his high school newspaper, as well as filming cameos in films and TV shows such as “Eat the Rich,” “The Drew Carey Show,” “Hardware” and “The Decline of Western Civilization, Pt. 2.” Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski’s feature-length documentary on Kilmister, “Lemmy,” premiered at SXSW in 2010.
Motorhead won its first and only Grammy in 2005 for best metal performance — ironically, for a cover of Metallica’s heavily Motorhead-indebted “Whiplash.” Kilmister also wrote the Ramones song “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” and contributed lyrics to Ozzy Osbourne’s hit 1991 power ballad “Mama, I’m Coming Home.” Kilmister often wryly noted that he made more money in royalties from the latter song than he had made in the preceding 15 years with Motorhead.