DURING the 1970s, Thin Lizzy was the epitome of the flamboyant, hard living rock band. Led by singer/bassist/songwriter Phil Lynott, the band weathered many abrupt changes of fortune and personnel, but still managed to release a remarkable and influential legacy of hit albums and singles.
Much of Thin Lizzy’s mystique was founded on a combination of romantic Celtic imagery and tough, macho cool, both elements personified by the charismatic Lynott. He was, without doubt, one of rock’s most original and distinctive characters with his authoritative stage presence and dark, rock star looks. Having been born illegitimate and a half caste, and brought up in the predominantly Catholic community of Dublin, Ireland, few if any sought to question Lynott’s street credentials.
Phil Lynott and drummer Brian Downey formed Thin Lizzy in Dublin during January, 1970. The two had previously played together in the Black Eagles and Orphanage. Lynott had also spent time as vocalist in Skid Row, another local band that featured hot-shot guitarist Gary Moore. With guitarist Eric Bell on board, Thin Lizzy was ready to go. By December 1970, the band had moved to London and signed a recording contract with Decca Records.
They swiftly became underground favourites with their mix of hard rock, bluesy folk rock and progressive elements, while Lynott began to promote a romantic and larger-than-life image for himself and his work. The albums Thin Lizzy (1971) and Shades of a Blue Orphanage (1972) were intriguing, rather quirky affairs, and it wasn’t until Thin Lizzy issued their first single in 1972, an updated rendition of the traditional Irish folk song ‘Whisky in the Jar’, that they found commercial favour. The single was a surprise hit, reaching #6 in the UK charts in January 1973, but it was so atypical of their repertoire that its success put a great strain on the band. It took them three years and six failed singles before they were able to emerge from the shadow of ‘Whisky in the Jar’.
The year 1973 also saw the release of Vagabonds of the Western World, the last album to feature Eric Bell. It was a far rockier set containing such earthy songs as ‘The Rocker’ and ‘Gonna Creep Up on You’. With Bell’s departure, Lynott’s old mate Gary Moore was drafted in as a temporary replacement, but this period proved to be a time of further frustration. Finally in June 1974, when Lynott and Downey were on the verge of giving up they secured the services of guitarists Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham and a new golden era dawned for Thin Lizzy.
American born Gorham and Scottish born Robertson were both hard rock players with styles rooted in the blues, quickly establishing a musical rapport with their riff driven approach. They made formidable use of harmonised guitar lines to provide a lyrical side to the instrumentation (a technique still widely copied to this day), while each backed up the other’s solos with crunching power chord rhythm work. On stage the duo enhanced the band visually and created the perfect foil to Lynott’s superstud rock star image.
The albums Night Life (1974) and Fighting (1975) paved the way, but the band’s big breakthrough came in 1976 when Jailbreak and the classic single ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ were huge
international hits. Success rapidly snowballed as the singles ‘Don’t Believe a Word’ and ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ cemented their new-found star status. Johnny the Fox (1976), Bad Reputation (1977) and Live and Dangerous (1978) rounded out a run of essential heavy metal albums. By 1979 Thin Lizzy was the most popular attraction in Britain.
It was during this time that Robertson began the most extraordinary hide-and-seek relationship with the band. This strange behaviour was apparently precipitated by a fight at London’s Speakeasy club in January 1977, during which the volatile Scot severed an artery in his hand. Due to his incapacitation, Gary Moore (then with jazz rockers Colosseum II) replaced Robertson for an all important US tour (supporting Queen).
Moore’s exceptional hard rock technique (greatly influenced by the likes of Peter Green, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix) was a welcome asset to the band and the tour was a resounding success. Nevertheless, it was announced that Moore was returning to Colosseum II and that Robertson would not be rejoining the band.
Despite this announcement, Robertson did in fact rejoin Thin Lizzy during the recording of Bad Reputation, staying with them until August 1978 when he finally left to form Wild Horses with bassist Jimmy Bain. Wild Horses recorded two unsuccessful albums and by 1983 Robertson was a member of Motörhead, playing on the much under-rated Another Perfect Day.
After Robertson’s departure, Moore joined Thin Lizzy for a third time. On this occasion he actually stayed long enough to record an album, Black Rose (1979), making a substantial songwriting contribution with the likes of ‘Toughest Street in Town’ and ‘My Sarah’. The album provided the hit ‘Waiting for an Alibi’ but Lizzy’s personnel upheavals persisted. The restless Moore was sacked mid-way through a 1979 US tour when he failed to show up at two gigs. Moore went on to prove his worth as one of rock’s premier guitarists with a succession of hit albums – Victims of the Future (1984), Wild Frontier (1987), Still Got the Blues (1990) – and singles ‘Parisienne Walkways’ (1979) and ‘Out in the Fields’ (1985) both recorded with Lynott (continued below)
It wasn’t until mid-1980 that a permanent replacement for Moore was found in guitarist Snowy White, who debuted on that year’s Chinatown (which yielded the hits ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Killer on the Loose’). White had previously played with Pink Floyd, but despite his undoubted excellence he proved to be a disappointment as he didn’t possess the fire and brimstone approach required from a Thin Lizzy guitarist. He was replaced by John Sykes, a younger player who had come up through the ranks of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal as guitarist with Tygers of Pan Tang.
Despite this infusion of new blood, Lynott decided to split Thin Lizzy at the end of 1983 after the release of Thunder and Lightning. The irony of the situation became clear when the album proved to be one of their finest efforts, with the singles ‘Thunder and Lightning’ and ‘Cold Sweat’ being their fastest and heaviest songs ever. Also their farewell tour of Britain (which culminated in a splendid performance at the 1983 Reading Festival) found them in their strongest form for many years.
Initially Lynott formed Gland Slam, before pursuing a solo career. Scott Gorham began work on a solo album, Brian Downey turned up in a band called Baby Snakes, while John Sykes joined Whitesnake (appearing on the mega-successful album 1987) before forming Blue Murder.
The final bizarre twist in the saga of Thin Lizzy occurred on 4 January 1986 when tragedy struck. Phil Lynott died just as he’d found his feet again with the successful single ‘Nineteen’. His death came as a result of an increasingly indulgent lifestyle, with all the drugs and booze catching up with him. Nevertheless, Lynott had already made his distinctive contribution to the history of heavy metal as leader of Thin Lizzy, one of the finest bands in the great tradition of hard driving rock music.
© 1990 Ian McFarlane
This story first appeared in Hot Metal #13 on March 13, 1990