As evidenced by the outpouring of love and grief from all quarters, pioneering heavy metal/punk rock band Motörhead founder Lemmy Kilmister, who died Monday at 70, managed to duplicate the rare feat achieved by Ozzy Osbourne and Joey Ramone and few others in transcending a radical pop music genre into near-mainstream icon stature.
None other than the Recording Academy’s president/CEO Neil Portnow noted Kilmister’s “raw, powerful vocals, paired with his innovative bass playing and songwriting skills, [which] made him one of the most prominent figures in rock ‘n’ roll,” as he said in a statement. “His magnetic stage presence and willingness to break barriers propelled the metal genre to new heights, influencing countless fellow musicians in the process. We have lost a truly dynamic member of the music community.”
Fellow bass luminary Will Lee, after learning of Kilmister’s death following Monday night’s performance of his Fab Faux Beatles band at City Winery, said, “I’m sad that we’ve lost a genuine artist whose only intention was to rock this world.” Lee’s music associate Billy F Gibbons, who like Kilmister fronts one of rock’s great trio’s in ZZ Top, said, “Just heard that we’ve lost Lemmy, a friend who upheld the rock ‘n’ roll standard of the first order. The term ‘iconic’ would certainly apply to Lemmy. His single-mindedness and dedication have long been a source of constant intrigue and we’re confident Lemmy’s enduring legacy will stand tall. Considering the ruckus he made during the life he led suggests we leave it with ‘Rock on, Lem.’”
Motörhead initially signed with United Artists in England, but the label was unhappy with what the band recorded for it, and blocked the release of a single, “Leaving Here,” later recorded for historic new wave label Stiff Records. Richard Balls, who authored Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll: The Life of Ian Dury—about the great Stiff artist—and the recent Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story, says, “Lemmy was a force of nature, a man who oozed rock ‘n’ roll out of every pore and who came swaggering out of one of the most explosive periods in music. Like other charismatic figures of the time, such as Ian Dury and [Thin Lizzy bassist/frontman] Phil Lynott, he understood the importance of being magnficent on stage and giving the audience the whole nine yards. Offstage he was a hell-raiser with a reputation as someone not to mess with, but he was also humorous, well-read and polite. His like will not be seen again.”
On his Facebook page, legendary rock photographer Chalkie Davies remembered seeing Kilmister when he was “friendly, angry, upset, asleep, playing, passionate, speedy, drunk, happy, and many times when he was hungover. But only once did I ever see him really gutted by sadness. We were all lined up to file past Phil Lynott’s coffin and he had a tear in his eye as he stopped for a moment and silently saluted his mate for the final time. Philip passed away 30 years ago this month, yesterday, Lemmy went to the Great Gig In The Sky. Two incredible bass players, two truly great rock ‘n rollers, and two dear friends of mine.”
Via email Davies, who documented the new wave era in England, recalled meeting Kilmister as roadie for Hawkwind, England’s influential “space rock” band.
“It was back in the days of the lovely [Hawkwind dancer] Stacia, who always seemed to end up dancing naked on the stage,” said Davies. “Lemmy then moved up to the rank of Bass Player before forming Motörhead. I saw some of their earliest gigs when they were a four-piece and was far from impressed, but then I saw the slimmed-down lineup at the Marquee Club, which included a guest appearance by [journalist/artist] Mick Farren, who then instructed me to write a review for the NME [New Musical Express] from April 9, 1977.”
In Davies’ review, he noted that a year or so earlier, “if you’d asked me what was the worst band I’d ever seen I reckon I’d have put Motörhead near the top of the list. After all, the headbanging noise they used to make could have killed an elephant at a hundred paces.”
At Motörhead’s April 9 Marquee gig, however, “a total transformation had occurred,” wrote Davies, invoking contemporary Brit bands Status Quo, Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep.
“Sure, they still play the brash, loud, bang-your-head-against-the-wall music, but this new three-piece version plays it with style. At last it looks like Lemmy has found his niche (how about a record company giving him a few quid to see if he can cut it on vinyl as well, cos it would suit the Quo, Sabs, Heep fans down to the ground?) and the sweat drenched Marquee audience loved every minute of it.”
He concluded: “It was great, too, to see Farren strutting the stage again on a couple of numbers. This band needs your support–do something about it.”
Davies now recalls that the next time he photographed the band, “they had moved up the ladder quite a bit.”
“I often used well-known locations in my photos, and so I decided to take Motörhead to the Royal Aircraft Museum in Hendon,” he wrote. “It seemed quite fitting, putting Lemmy, [fellow band members] Eddie Clarke and Philthy Phil underneath a Stuka bomber. I’m not sure the people at the museum were too happy, but, as always, we grabbed the pictures in a matter of minutes and exited the building as quickly as possible.”
“I would never have guessed they would still be going nearly four decades later, and still sound exactly the same as when they started,” Davies’ email concluded.
To borrow, appropriately, from Kilmister’s succinct slogan, they were “born to lose, lived to win.”
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