Lemmy: Birth of a Metal Icon

Today would have been Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister's seventy-third birthday. I consider Lemmy to be the most Conanic/Howardian rocker in the history of the genre. In fact, Lemmy in his prime (with a shave) could give some other suggested "Conans" (such as Jack Palance) a run for their money, looks-wise. Kilmister's craggy visage just epitomizes the look of a certain type found from Kent to Galway. A look Robert E. Howard would have approved of.


Lemmy was born on Christmas Eve, 1945, in the English Midlands. His father left Lemmy's mother just three months later. Lemmy's mother eventually married one George Willis, who moved the family to a farm on the druid's isle of Anglesey in Wales. An intelligent, book-loving boy, strong-willed Kilmister grew to hate the authoritarian side of school, very much like a young Robert E. Howard four decades earlier.

Loving the outdoors, Kilmister actually did a bit of farming as a young teen and was also a tutor at a riding school. Lemmy always claimed that working for the riding school was a great angle for getting on with women. He retained his love for women—and for horse-riding—until his dying day.


Rock n' roll was a rising musical tide in the UK at that time. Lemmy had found his calling. He would follow the Way of the Axe for the rest of his days. Paralleling Howard—and Conan—Lemmy became a professional in his field early. He joined the Rockin' Vickers at age nineteen, recording with the band and touring the UK and Europe for the next two years. Kilmister left the Vickers in 1967 and made the move from Manchester to London. Soon after he arrived, Lemmy became a roadie for Jimi Hendrix through sheer brawn... and being a roommate of Noel Redding.

In 1968, Lemmy joined the heavy psychedelic rock band, Sam Gopal. Recording under the moniker “Ian Willis”—his given name plus the surname of his stepfather—Lemmy was the vocalist, guitarist and primary songwriter on Sam Gopal's LP, Escalator. The signature Lemmy vocal style and lyrics were already in evidence. Check out the entire album here, especially the tracks “The Dark Lord” and “The Sky Is Burning.”

Eventually, Lemmy joined the space-rock band, Hawkwind. He switched to playing bass to join the band and he soon became a fan favorite. It was there that Lemmy met Michael Moorcock, who was a peripheral member of the band then and for years to come. Moorcock made Lemmy a character—along with other members of Hawkwind at the time—in his planned scifi rock apocalypse novel,The Time of the Hawklords. The entire history of The Time of the Hawklords is a convoluted and somewhat sordid tale. Read all about it here.

Lemmy was arrested for drug possession in Canada in 1975. Hawkwind threw their most popular band member under the tour bus and rolled on to semi-obscurity—Lemmy got his revenge, by the way. Much like Conan in several tales, Kilmister found himself (improbably still alive) at the age of thirty without a gig. He retaliated by forming Motorhead.

Motorhead took diverse elements of rock, stripped them down, speeded them up, added a lot of testosterone—and Lemmy's brutal, incisive lyrics—and made something new, much as Howard did with fantasy. Within four years, Motorhead was the biggest thing in British rock. However, decadence was already setting in. The other two band members were getting distracted (chemically and otherwise) and wanted to go in a softer, more “artistic” direction. Lemmy was having none of it.


Kilmister let them go, then he proceeded to tour relentlessly as the leader of Motorhead, year after year. His motto was "No Remorse" and he continued to garner ever-growing respect from his fellow rock musicians—everyone from Tony Iommi and Brian May to James Hetfield and Dave Grohl. Women rockers like Joan Jett, Doro Pesch and Lita Ford especially loved Kilmister. In 1984, Moorcock dedicated Elric at the End of Time to Lemmy.


As the Eighties drew to a close, Lemmy and Motorhead still had a quarter century of rockin' ahead of them. I'll examine that period—as well as Lemmy's enduring legacy—in “Lemmy: Death of a Legend.”