Motörhead frontman and heavy metal legend Lemmy Kilminster has died at his home in Los Angeles after a short illness. The band say on their website that Lemmy, 70, learned that he was suffering from an extremely aggressive cancer on December 26, and died two days later.

The musician had several medical problems in recent years, including a heart condition that required an implanted defibrillator, and on a few occasions had to cancel appearances at short notice. Despite this, as the founder and only remaining original member of Motörhead, he was the heart of the band and a towering figure on the metal scene. Tributes are already rolling in from other musicians, including Ozzy Osbourne who described him as “a warrior and a legend”.

Musical beginnings

Lemmy was born Ian Fraser Kilminster on Christmas Eve 1945, in the central English town of Stoke-on-Trent. His parents separated when he was a baby and he moved to Wales with his mother, who later married a local footballer. Life in the blended family was not happy, and at 17 Lemmy moved back to England where he began playing guitar with bands on the local club circuit. His first break came in 1965 when he joined The Rockin’ Vickers, who had a three-disc contract with CBS and toured Europe successfully.

In 1967 Lemmy moved to London, where he began to work with major bands as a roadie or session musician. That led Hawkwind to bring him in as vocalist and bass guitarist in 1972 – the only problem was that he couldn’t play the bass, but he soon picked it up and developed a distinctive rhythmic style based on his early guitar experience.

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After being arrested on bungled drugs charges by Canadian police Lemmy was axed by Hawkwind in 1975, and decided to strike out on his own. He called the three-man metal combo Bastard, but when told that the name would bar him from British TV changed it to the name of the last song he’d written for Hawkwind – Motörhead. By 1976 membership had settled down to the classic lineup of Lemmy on vocals and bass, guitarist Fast Eddie Clark and drummer Philthy Phil Taylor. It nearly fell apart again in 1977 when Taylor and Clark, disappointed at how things were going, decided to quit. They did agree to a farewell show, which led to an offer of two days in a recording studio – and that was enough to launch their first album and one of the most successful metal groups in history.

A new kind of Metal

Over the forty years of Motörhead’s career members came and went, with Lemmy as the sole constant, but his distinctive gravelly voice and complex bass lines were the heart of the band’s sound. Their fast, gritty and energetic style of metal also found an audience with the growing punk movement, and tracks like their evergreen Ace of Spades have gained classic status well beyond the metal genre.

Never married but with two children, Lemmy as almost as well known for his colorful lifestyle as his Music. One critic, noting that his memoirs lacked details of off-stage exploits, commented that Lemmy was probably too drunk, high or both to remember much of what he’d done. His hobby of collecting Nazi memorabilia and playing a bass emblazoned with a large Iron Cross attracted controversy but he always insisted that he was a libertarian who opposed all repressive ideologies, and the way he lived backed up that claim. He also had little time for organized religion, describing himself as agnostic.

Hardcore but human

Despite his fame Lemmy always had time for fans, and even at the height of the band’s popularity would mingle with the audience after playing clubs. He was a down to earth man, aware of his celebrity status but not warped by it. In later years he also campaigned for the legalization of drugs, saying it was the best way to remove pushers from society.

Lemmy’s death probably marks the end of the line for Motörhead, as it’s hard to imagine the band going on without him. If so it’s been a good run, led by a man who, as his bandmates said today, was

“Born to lose, lived to win.”