Photo from Perefction of Perplexion
The Early Years
by Jack Gold-Molina
Ian Fraser "Lemmy" Kilmister was born on Christmas Eve, 1945, in Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire, England. His father was ex-Royal Air Force and left when he was three months old. He was raised by his mother and grandmother, with his mother working in the very difficult job of TB nurse to support them, until she went to work as a librarian and then a bartender. When he was 10, she married his step father George Willis, and his family moved to the Isle of Anglesey in north Wales.
He was rebellious as a child, and enjoyed setting off coastline explosions with gelignite that he and his friends had acquired from a building firm that was working on the local drainage. In an instance when he was 15 after he had cut his finger with a switchblade, he was caught skipping school, and the headmaster sentenced him to two strokes of a cane on each hand. When he requested to have all four strokes on the same hand to prevent the cut from reopening, the headmaster refused and proceeded with the beating, causing his hand to bleed. Lemmy took the cane from the headmaster, hit him in the head with it, and was consequently expelled from school.
It was at this age that people started calling him Lemmy, although the legend has it that his nickname later came from constantly asking friends and bandmates to "Lemmy a quid ‘til Friday," a quid soon becoming a fiver, and then a tenner. When his family moved to Conwy, on the Welsh coast, he worked in various jobs and acquired a Hofner guitar, then began playing locally. His first public performance (in the early '60's) was with a group called The Sundowners, who later called themselves The DeeJays. After their debut at a café in Llandudno, when they ended up on the wedding and dance circuit, Lemmy moved on in pursuit of another band.
It was during this time that he began smoking dope and using speed. He left Wales and went to Manchester (circa 1962 perhaps) where he sought out bands, playing guitar with The Rainmakers and The Motown Sect, once backing The Pretty Things in Halifax. In 1965, after three years with The Motown Sect, he pursued an audition with The Rocking Vicars when he learned that they were in need of a guitar player. They were a loud rock and roll band that destroyed their instruments onstage, and he got the job after he turned his volume up then trashed his equipment as well as a piano.
Primarily a beat group that covered standards, they were known for their intense live shows and stage costumes. During the time that Lemmy was with The Rocking Vicars, from 1965-1967, they released three singles: "Stella/Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart," "Dandy/I Don't Need Your Kind," and "It's Alright/Stay By Me," where he was credited as Ian "Lemmy" Willis. Popular around the Blackpool, England area, they toured mainland Europe and were well received in Finland. They were also the first British band to perform behind the Iron Curtain, playing in Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia in the summer of 1965 – all three countries formerly part of Yugoslavia. It was also during this time that he and the band saw a UFO – a round, pink object in the sky – while returning from a gig in 1966.
He left The Rocking Vicars in early 1967 to go to London where he stayed with a friend, Neville Chesters, who was working as a roadie for The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Chesters had also roadied for The Who, and was sharing a flat with Noel Redding, Hendrix's bass player. Hendrix was becoming hugely popular, having just released two singles that went to number one in the UK charts. After about three weeks, a position for a roadie came open and Lemmy took it, working for Hendrix for about a year on television appearances and tours through England.
He experienced first hand the explosion of rock and roll talent in the late 1960s in Britain. Marijuana was largely ignored by the British police, and there weren't any laws against LSD until late 1967, so they were everywhere in London, particularly in the club scene. Throughout that year, Hendrix's entire crew was on acid during their tour.
In 1968, Lemmy started singing and playing guitar for Sam Gopal's band, formerly known as The Sam Gopal Dream. They recorded one full-length album, Escalator, where he is again credited as Ian "Lemmy" Willis. Heavy psychedelia with wailing vocals and guitar and Middle Eastern tabla that undermined and pushed the boundaries of popular music even then, the band did a tour of Germany and a show at London's Speakeasy that earned them a standing ovation. The album, however, failed to do anything, so the band split up soon after its release. Today, the original UK pressing fetches upwards of $800 for a mint vinyl copy. The original German pressing goes for more than $1,300.
Lemmy joined Opal Butterfly in 1969, a band that also included future Hawkwind drummer Simon King, whom he had met at the Chelsea Drug Store where they would hang out and drink. Although the band never went anywhere, they had been around for several years, and he stayed with them until their demise a few months later.
Hawkwind itself was formed in 1969, via an ad in Melody Maker. Alongside guitarists Brock and Mick Slattery, saxophonist Turner, bassist John Harrison, and Dikmik, who was experimenting with electronics, they commenced to extensive open jamming. Calling themselves Group X, they played their first 15-minute show in August 1969, without having worked out any tunes. Armed with a strobe light, the band stunned the audience. They were immediately signed to a management deal, and soon thereafter changed their name to Hawkwind.
He had seen Hawkwind perform, and had wanted to get into that band as a guitar player. His association with them began with Michael Davies, aka Dikmik, who played an experimental instrument derived from an audio generator with an echo unit. Lemmy and Dikmik shared a mutual interest in certain drugs, including speed, once going on a binge together that lasted two weeks.
Hawkwind's lead guitarist, Huw Lloyd-Langton, had left following his soul-stirring, LSD-influenced performances with them at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival. The band wasn't invited to share the stage with the popular music acts that were booked, so they initially set up outside the perimeter until the festival was declared free and they were allowed inside. Of the 500,000 people in attendance, 450,000 did not have tickets, and Hawkwind created a huge impression on the thousands who saw them, including Jimi Hendrix who had been in the audience during an all-night jam. After Isle of Wight, Hawkwind was suddenly in demand, having gained widespread credibility and a grassroots following that resulted in an onset of gig offers. Dedicated to their ideals as a "people's band," they were soon playing almost every night, often at benefit concerts and free shows.
The benefits and free shows began to cause disagreements within the band, however. While saxophonist Nik Turner maintained that, as a band, they had the power to help people and to be acknowledged and respected, and indeed the band would later become a figurehead at free festivals, they were often losing more money than they raised for the causes they were trying to support. Del Dettmar, Hawkwind's former road manager who joined the band playing synth in May 1971 recalled, "At one time we'd do a benefit for anybody. But at a certain point, we realized we wouldn't make any money if we carried on like that."
In August 1971, Lemmy went with Dikmik to a Hawkwind show where they were performing at a benefit concert in Notting Hill, and he was told about Lloyd-Langton's departure. Dave Brock was handling the guitar work and sharing vocal duties, and Dave Anderson was playing bass. When they got to the venue, Anderson's bass was in the band's truck, but due to a financial disagreement, he hadn't shown up for the gig. When it came time to start the show and the band was looking around for a bass player, Dikmik recommended Lemmy, even though he claimed that he had never played bass before. His musicianship wasn't in question, so Turner gave him the basic structure for "You Shouldn't Do That," and told him to make some noises in E.
Dikmik was in favor of Lemmy joining Hawkwind, and for musical reasons, Brock was also. The rest of the band, however, didn't feel the same way given his belligerent and distrustful manner. According to Turner, "Lemmy was a professional musician. I still believed that, for the rest of us, the money was a by-product of the music. Lemmy saw things the complete opposite." As it turned out, besides their shared enthusiasm for the music, the focus on making money was also something that Lemmy and Brock had in common.
After several weeks of substituting for Anderson on and off, Lemmy was asked to join for a six-month probationary period. Just after the October release of their second LP X In Search Of Space, Anderson left the band. As Anderson stated, "They'd found Lemmy ages before. He was tailing along with us, learning the set, although there wasn't much of a set to learn. I think they just wanted him in the band, in whatever role. I was so divorced from them, I was just turning up at gigs." Although Lemmy claimed that he was never officially asked to join, he wound up staying for close to five years.
Immediately upon his joining, Hawkwind embarked on a tour of the UK, and Lemmy was in his element. He brought a new and urgent quality to the music, lifting the band to a new level. He hadn't mastered playing the bass, so he naturally approached it as though he was playing rhythm guitar – by strumming chords. Out of necessity came his trademark sound, one that was at the same time primitive and driving. Recognizing this, he honed it, mastered it, and made it his own.
After a show in Glasgow in January 1972, drummer Terry Ollis left and was replaced by Lemmy's former bandmate in Opal Butterfly, Simon King. Ollis, an accomplished player who had appeared on Hawkwind's first two albums, had initially joined the band in 1969, even before it was called Hawkwind. Ollis would later help form Turner's band called Space Ritual, delivering a masterful performance on the 2007 CD release Otherworld.
What Simon King brought to Hawkwind as a drummer was a driving, straight ahead feel that was influenced by jazz and early rock and roll. This was an approach that worked well with the playing of Lemmy and Brock, the band would redefine its sound. The next four albums with this rhythm section would be the most commercially successful in the band's long history.
King's first performance with the band was at the Greasy Truckers Party benefit with Man, Brinsley Schwarz, Magic Michael, and Lady June on February 13, 1972 at the Roundhouse in London. Lemmy and Dikmik had been up for three days prior on a speed binge, then had taken Mandrax to calm things down. After becoming bored, they then decided to take acid, then more Mandrax, and finally more speed because they had mellowed out and had to get to the gig. When they arrived, everyone in the dressing room was smoking dope and doing LSD. The time came to start the show, Lemmy and Dikmik were helped on stage by the roadies, and Hawkwind proceeded to play a blinder.
The show was recorded for a live compilation release, The Greasy Truckers Party, and it produced the band's most successful single, "Silver Machine." Penned and originally sung by Robert Calvert, it was written about his silver bicycle and meant as a send up of space travel and NASA's plans for developing the moon's surface. During the production and editing process, it was decided that, while the live backing track was solid, Calvert's vocals weren't adequate, despite his raging renditions of other tunes in the set. The record company had decided that they needed to be replaced, and it was done without Calvert's knowledge. After several attempts by other band members, Lemmy nailed it in one or two takes. His voice was high, it had a gruff, powerful quality to it, and overall he sounded confident. Released in June 1972 exclusively as a seven-inch single, it soared to number two on the British charts.
Not long afterward, Calvert was inducted into the band as a full-time member, as they started work on his idea for a grand scale rock opera entitled Space Ritual. Angry that his vocals on "Silver Machine" had been replaced without his having been consulted, Calvert confronted Lemmy, who perceived it as an attempt to have him removed from the band. As "Silver Machine" brought them new found popularity, it was Lemmy, the new guy, who would represent the band on the cover of New Music Express. He was becoming widely perceived as Hawkwind's frontman, and he was concerned about jealousy from his bandmates. Those concerns aside, the band invested the cash generated from the success of "Silver Machine" into Calvert's work, The Space Ritual, and went into Rockfield Studios to record their next album.
Doremi Fasol Latido, Hawkwind's third album, was released in November 1972. The first to feature Lemmy, it peaked in the UK charts at number 14. It expands on the themes introduced on their previous album, X In Search Of Space, by conceptual artist Barney Bubbles, lyricist Calvert, and science fiction author Michael Moorcock, ultimately culminating in The Space Ritual. The title, Doremi Fasol Latido, refers to the assignment of syllables to steps of the diatonic scale, and alludes to the music of the spheres – a theory that was introduced to the band by Turner and Calvert, based on the work of William Wilde Zeitler.
According to Bubbles, "The basic principle for the starship and the space ritual is based on the Pythagorean concept of sound. Briefly, this conceived the universe to be an immense monochord, with its single string stretched between absolute spirit and, at its lowest end, absolute matter. Along this string were positioned the planets of our solar system. Each of these spheres as it rushed through space was believed to sound a certain tone caused by its continuous displacement of the ether. These intervals and harmonies are called 'The Sound Of The Spheres,' the interval between Earth and the fixed stars being the most perfect harmonic interval."
The lyrics for "Space Is Deep," the second tune on this album, were taken from Moorcock's poem "The Black Corridor." It begins with Lemmy and Brock playing acoustic guitar, Brock playing 12-string, and swirling layers of synths and electronics. Following the lyrics, "Beyond the realms of ancient light/Is this the reason, deep in our minds," the electronics cascade and Brock's electric guitar builds to a climax with Lemmy's bass. Turner soloing on flute against the synths, the rhythm kicks in and drives hard, Turner switching to alto saxophone with wah wah effects. The music then fades to acoustic guitar and swirling electronics, into the psychedelic depths of space, and the tune draws to a close. A classic of British psychedelia, Doremi Fasol Latido is a stunning album, and one of the cornerstones of space rock.
There had been a biker element in the band's audience, dating back to its early years. Lemmy had initially been a fervent supporter of the Hell's Angels, but was not actually a biker himself and did not own a motorcycle. The Hell's Angels in Britain used to attend Hawkwind's shows, and there was more than one instance when an audience member was beaten severely by bikers simply because he bumped into one of them while dancing. The band was absolutely against hiring them as security, and sometimes gigs became battlegrounds for rival biker gangs. This was despite attempts on the parts of Turner, Brock, or Calvert to keep the peace from their vantage point onstage.
Ian Abrahams, author of Hawkwind: Sonic Assassins, wrote about Lemmy's legacy to Hawkwind in his recent tribute A Farewell To Lemmy, "It was in bridging the gap between their hippie roots and their biker following; no surprise that once punk had burst across the music scene that he'd be adopted by that scene. He was a talisman for Hawkwind in that period, when he'd been such a major part of defining their sound even though that time was quite brief in the context of all the years the band have continued onward."
When asked to elaborate about what Lemmy's role was in Hawkind with regards to their biker following, he stated, "When you consider the musical muscularity that Lemmy brought to Hawkwind that wasn't there in quite the same form before, and the imagery that he surrounded himself with, then that is the starting point for seeing why he's considered to be the bridge between the Ladbroke Grove hippie roots of the band, which embedded them in that counterculture scene, and the wider appeal that "Silver Machine" brought the band, particularly making them accessible to the biker fraternity in the way that their heavy rock sound is really defined by the way Lemmy and Dave Brock melded together. Dave and Lemmy essentially created the space-rock that we associate as having come from Hawkwind, and that sound made them appeal to the bikers as well as the psychedelic hippies. While the music is almost everything, you have to also look at image, and the image that Lemmy projected, visually and as a speed freak, gave him and therefore the band something that the bikers could identify with."
In early November 1972, Hawkwind embarked on the tour to support Doremi Fasol Latido, a full scale cosmic production that they called The Space Ritual. The art and stage concept was designed by Bubbles, and his vision was expanded upon through lighting, special effects, costumes, choreography, and mixed media. Two of the books that were used for reference were Timothy Leary's The Psychedelic Experience Manual, and The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley.
Describing The Space Ritual in an interview with Melody Maker, Calvert stated, "The basic idea is that a team of starfarers are in a coma, a state of suspended animation, and the opera is a presentation of the dreams that they are having in deep space. It's a mythological approach to what's happening today. It's not predicting what's going to happen. It's the mythology of the space age, in the way that rocket ships and interplanetary travel are a parallel with the heroic voyages of man in earlier times. Perhaps there is a bit of hypnosis in it too, with the electronic sound and the flashing lights."
Brock elaborated in the same interview, "You know that each note has its own colour, and it's just a matter of finding the right combinations. The opera is intended to reach the audience on a very deep level, and we'll be using techniques that haven't been used in this way before."
In accordance with the theory behind Zeitler's Pythagorean Music Of The Spheres, Bubbles positioned each member of the band onstage in astrological alignment. At one performance, he believed that if the band generated the right energy at the right volume, it would act as a space ship, powered by the audience, and the stage itself would take off into space. In addition to the seven musicians in the band, there was also the lighting team of Liquid Len and the Lensmen, consisting of five lighting technicians; three dancers – Stacia, Miss Renee, and mime artist Tony Carrera; and a costume designer.
Hawkwind was at the height of their creative powers. The album that resulted from the live recordings of this tour was Space Ritual Alive. Released in May 1973 as a double-LP, Bubbles designed the elaborate fold out cover, featuring dancer Stacia rising through flames in the depths of space, and printed inner sleeves with psychedelic patterns. A "multi-faceted, bona fide masterpiece of heavy-duty space rock," it was their highest charting album ever, reaching number nine in the UK charts in June. "That was the Hawkwind album," said Lemmy in an interview. "The artwork was so cool too. Barney Bubbles was fucking brilliant."
He recorded two more albums with the band after that, 1974's Hall of the Mountain Grill and its follow-up Warrior on the Edge of Time released in 1975. These albums marked the exit of Dikmik and Calvert with violinist and synth player Simon House replacing them, and on Warrior on the Edge of Time, also adding the spoken word of Moorcock and second drummer Alan Powell. "If you think through the albums," Abrahams recalled, "Doremi consolidates the idea of the band but adds the fuller space-rock dimension with Lemmy…. Lemmy is consolidated on Hall of the Mountain Grill with the greater musicality of Simon House adding a greater finesse."
It was during the US/Canadian tour in May 1975 that Lemmy was released from Hawkwind. Warrior on the Edge of Time had just reached number 13 in the UK charts, and he had been in disagreement with the rest of the band about the lineup. They were getting fed up with his attitude and the antics related to his drug use, including disappearing at a service station earlier in the tour, at which time the band left without him, leaving him stranded. Hitchhiking overnight to Detroit while high on acid, he arrived at the hotel the following morning, in time to play that evening's show.
While passing through the Canadian border on their way to perform in Toronto, customs officers found Lemmy to be in possession of a white powder that they mistakenly identified as cocaine. After he was arrested and detained, the band made the collective decision that he had to be replaced. He was released on bail after it was determined that what he had been in possession of was not cocaine, but was in fact speed – a lesser offense. He made it to Toronto in time to play the show on May 18, but it would be his last with Hawkwind.
From his early years as a musician, carrying through his long illustrious career with Motorhead after leaving Hawkwind in 1975, Lemmy's raw vocal style and his hard work to master his unique approach to playing the bass and to define his sound had a dominant, lasting influence on rock and roll. Alan Davey, who was Hawkwind's longest standing bass player and the only person authorized – and instructed – by Lemmy to use his musical approach and to quote him in his playing, stated in a 2014 interview, "I got a bass after hearing the bass solo on a Hawkwind album called Doremi Fasol Latido on the song ‘Time We Left' in 1972. That's what inspired me to get a bass guitar in the first place. Those chords growling away got my attention big time and I just had to make that sound. I first met Lemmy in 1985 and he asked how I started playing like that. He was quite touched by the answer. He then gave me a few tips on how to get the sound right for that style. For me, Lemmy made Hawkwind's sound, you know, that classic raw edged ‘70's sound. Lots of people can strum bass chords but it's not just about that. There's a lot more going on with Lemmy's playing – subtle, rhythmic, almost percussive playing that you don't learn from a book or hear even."
A common theme in magazines and blogs has been about how anyone could possibly live the excessive lifestyle that Lemmy did. On the back cover of his autobiography there is a line that states, "Medically speaking, Lemmy should be dead." There is even an article disputing that it was highly unlikely that the "aggressive form of cancer" that he was ultimately diagnosed with is what he died from, when he left this world on December 26, 2015.
It can be said that what Lemmy personified in his music, his writing, and as a true musician's musician is that rock and roll isn't only about the good times, it is also about getting through the hard times. It is about understanding what really matters in life, and not backing down when you know what is right. He cared greatly about his fans, many of whom became his friends. Perhaps that was the real secret to his survival.
Special thanks to Nik Turner, Ian Abrahams, Alan Davey, and Steve Bemand for their insights.
Sources: The Spirit Of Hawkwind: 1969-1976, by Nik Turner and Dave Thompson; Motorhead: Live To Win, by Alan Burridge; The Saga of Hawkwind, by Carol Clerk; Hawkwind: Sonic Assassins, by Ian Abrahams; White Line Fever: The Autobiography, by Lemmy Kilmister and Janiss Garza; "Steve Bemand: No Good No Evil," Interview by Jack Gold-Molina, Perfect Sound Forever; "Alan Davey: Proto-Punk and Psychedelic Warrior," Interview by Jack Gold-Molina, Perfect Sound Forever; "Nik Turner: Bringing The Music To The People," Interview by Jack Gold-Molina, All About Jazz; "A Farewell To Lemmy," by Ian Abrahams, Space Rock Reviews, 29 December 2015; "Watch This Space," Melody Maker, 28 October 1972.
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