Saturday, August 20, 2005
Remembering Philip Lynott And Thin Lizzy.
Today marks the 56th anniversary of Philip Lynott's birth. The first real Irish "rock star", Philip hit it big with his band Thin Lizzy after their 1976 releases Jailbreak and Johnny the Fox. So, on this anniversary, I feel, as a huge fan, that it is necessary to share my observations, thoughts and a couple of stories.
Philip Lynott's, and by extension, Thin Lizzy's career, can be summed up in eight broad periods:
1. The "Hello Word, Here I Am" period from 1969-1973 when Lizzy emerged on to the music scene as a trio. Belfast guitarist Eric Bell wound his way around songs like The Rocker, Little Girl In Bloom, Little Darlin' and Vagabonds of the Western World. The band's sound varied between folky and highly charged psychedelia.
2. The "Settling On A Direction" period from 1974-1976 when, after Eric Bell left the band, Philip brought in another Belfast-born guitarist, Gary Moore for a short stint before going with the classic duo of Brian Robertson from Glasgow, and Scott Gorham of Los Angeles. The band was trying to find a sound, and the two albums released in 1974, Nightlife, and in 1975, Fighting, showed flashes of potential with songs like Sha-La-La, Suicide and Still In Love With You, but the formula hadn't quite gelled.
3. The "Holy Shit Batman! WE MADE IT!!!" period from 1976-1978 that saw Lizzy break big all over the world. Their first release of 1976, Jailbreak, produced classics like the title track, The Boys Are Back In Town, Emerald, Warriors and Romeo And The Lonely Girl. Bad luck hit and the boys were forced to cancel a U.S. tour due to Philip having been stricken with hepatitis. But, determined to strike while he was hot Philip and the boys made the best of a bad situation by writing the songs for their second release of 1976, Johnny The Fox. The iron was still hot as proven by such songs as Johnny, Rocky, Borderline, Don't Believe A Word, Fools Gold, Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed and Massacre. It was at this point that everyone began to see what a strong storyteller Philip was.
More bad luck struck when Brian Robertson severely cut his hand in a pub altercation and was sidelined. The 1977 album, Bad Reputation, featured just a few solos from the wild Scotsman as most of the work fell to Scott Gorham, who proved more than able to rise to the occasion. Songs like the title track, Soldier Of Fortune, Southbound, Opium Trail, Dancing In The Moonlight and Dear Lord showed the diversity of the band as they went from lilting melodic passages to fiery aggressive ones in a seemingly effortless manner.
1978 saw the band at their peak with the release of their first live album, the classic Live And Dangerous. Back in the fold, Brian Robertson was simply brilliant on songs like Emerald, Don't Believe A Word, Rosalie, Baby Drives Me Crazy and The Rocker. But his finest moment was the first solo on the reworked Still In Love With You. I must own at least two dozen versions of this song, mostly live versions, and it's a tough call, and I know the song was a Gary Moore original, but Robbo gets the nod for his passionate performance. Scott Gorham provided an equally strong solo on the latter part of the song, and provided plenty of punch on songs like Massacre, Southbound and Dancing In The Moonlight. Drummer Brian Downey, who I have shamefully neglected to mention until now, did a fantastic job on the drums, combining power and dexterity. This man is woefully underrated in the pantheon of rock and roll drummers. Through it all, Philip's pulsating bass and gritty vocals carried the message that Lizzy was now officially a monster.
4. The "Now Let's Broaden Our Horizons A Bit" period of 1979 that saw a final parting of the ways with Robbo, and yet another chance for Gary Moore. That year produced the classic Black Rose, A Rock Legend, and was arguably the most ambitious work Philip had yet done. Songs like Do Anything You Want To, Toughest Street In Town. S & M, Waiting For An Alibi, Sarah, Got To Give It Up and Roisin Dubh (Black Rose) A Rock Legend showed a band firing on all cylinders. Newcomer (recomer?) Moore announced his presence with authoritah and gave Scott Gorham and extra kick in the pants as well as they played some ridiculously intricate harmony and back-and-forth pieces on the magnificent title track. Philip and Brian also played on Gary's solo album Back On The Streets. Things could only get better, right?
5. The "The Hardest Part Isn't Getting To The Top, It's Staying There" period from 1980-1982 that saw Gary Moore replaced by Pink Floyd guitarist Snowy White for the releases of the albums Chinatown and Renegade. Now a lot of people seem to think that these albums are crap, but how the hell can songs like We Will Be Strong, Chinatown, Sugar Blues, Genocide, Renegade, Hollywood and Angel Of Death be dismissed in such a cavalier manner? I think part of the reason was that Darren Wharton was brought in as a fulltime keyboard player, and a lot of fans couldn't stomach the concept of this tough-guy band going "soft". Another thing that annoyed people was Snowy's apparent lack of enthusiasm or showmanship. I saw Lizzy in Boston on the Chinatown tour, and Snowy's blues-tinged versions of Still In Love With You and the slow version of Don't Believe A Word were simply masterpieces, whether he stood in a corner with his back to the wall, or whether he was playing while riding a unicycle on a tightrope across a pool of water that contained sharks with fricken laser beams attached to their heads. In other words, it didn't matter! The man could play. Unfortunately for Snowy, perception began to become reality and he left in late 1982.
Philip inadvertently added to the perception that things weren't well in the Lizzy camp by releasing two solo albums during this period, Solo In Soho and The Philip Lynott Album. The songs on these albums were much lighter and more experimental than anything he'd done with Lizzy, and were more of an outlet for his softer side. Songs like Yellow Pearl, Old Town and Ode To A Black Man respectively showcased Philip's awareness of new technology, his sense of nostalgia, and his political leanings.
6. The "Did We Give Up When The Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor?!?" period of late 1982-1983 that saw the last studio release, Thunder and Lightning hit the streets with the help of youngster John Sykes, formerly a guitarist with the Tygers Of Pan Tang. Sykes had played with Philip on a single, Please Don't Leave Me, after which time Philip asked Sykes to join the band. Sykes joined, and the energy level of the band seemed to rise with him as he simply burned his way through his solos on the title track, This Is The One, Holy War, Baby Please Don't Go and Cold Sweat. Scott Gorham kept up his end of the bargain on The Sun Goes Down and Bad Habits. The subsequent tour was announced as a farewell tour that began as a two-month affair that stretched into a year. As a tribute, most of the former Lizzy guitarists like Eric Bell, Robbo and Gary Moore stopped by to stand in on some songs to provide an extra thrill for the fans.
7. The "Goodbye Everybody, I've Got To Go" period of late 1983-1985 that saw the release of the live album Life. The aforementioned appearances by all the former Lizzy guitarists were featured on several songs and gave the album an increased level of significance as a result. There was little doubt that Thin Lizzy had gone out with a bang, but Philip still had the bug. He took a band to Scandinavia that consisted of John Sykes, Brian Downey, Magnum keyboardist Mark Stanway and rhythm guitarist Doish Nagle. Philip liked this band so much that he was making it his next project, which he called Grand Slam. Unfortunately, David Coverdale of Whitesnake made Sykes an offer he couldn't refuse, and Philip's ace guitarist was gone. Downey left after that, to be replaced by Robbie Brennan, and after a bit, Sykes's replacement, Laurence Archer, came on to do a decent job of filling such big shoes.
Unfortunately, nobody seemed interested in Philip's new band, despite the number of great reviews their shows had gotten. Gary Moore then came calling to ask Philip to lend his voice to the song Out In The Fields for Gary's Run For Cover album. The song was a hit, and it helped to raise Philip's profile to the point where he began to record a solo album while working with Moore, Robin George and Huey Lewis. A single, Nineteen, a Grand Slam number, was released featuring George on guitar. Things seemed to be on the upswing as the end of 1985 approached.
8. "The End". After having collapsed at his home on Christmas Day 1985, Philip died on January 4th, 1986 at age 36, leaving the music world shocked, saddened and lost in thoughts of what might have been.
As I said before, I saw Lizzy in 1980 with Snowy, but I also saw them in 1978 at the tender age of 16 in Boston when they shared the bill with Blue Oyster Cult at the old Paradise Theater. Gary Moore had taken over for Robbo for that show and played his ass off. At the time, I didn't realize Lizzy was an Irish act, so it came as a bit of a surprise when this tall black dude began his between-song banter with a thick brogue. I also saw the Scott Gorham/John Sykes Thin Lizzy that came around last year with Deep Purple and Joe Satriani, and I have to say, they sounded damned good! John did a hell of a job on vocals, and I think Philip would have been proud of his performance. Also, back in 2000, on a vacation in Ireland, I was lucky enough to see Brian Downey's band Blues Up Front play at Slattery's on Camden Street in Dublin.
The Lizzy legacy is the absolutely insane amount of guitar talent that played in that band. Let's review: Eric Bell, Gary Moore, Brian Robertson, Scott Gorham, Snowy White and John Sykes. Any ONE of those guys in your band would have been a bloody coup. Philip had all of them. Plus, the notion of two lead guys who could play harmonies was barely a factor in hard rock when Lizzy began the practice. The only other bands I can think of who did this at that time would have been Wishbone Ash and Judas Priest. All the other two guitar bands had one lead guy and another who just played chords. Lizzy helped to change all that, and countless bands have been influenced by them for it.
Philip's personal legacy is one of many faces. He was the swaggering tough guy, the ladies man, the hopeless romantic, warrior poet, the loving son and father. His sense of timing was unreal, as he could sing a verse "outside" the beat better than anyone. He also made himself into a terrific bass player who could even play some lead guitar when the mood suited him. Critics said he had a huge ego, but if I was trying to put up with some of the extreme personalities of men like Gary Moore and Brian Robertson as they behaved at that time, then I think a big ego would have been a necessary part of Philip's arsenal of weapons. Not too many bands can undergo that many personnel changes in such short time periods and still stay on top of the ball. Thin Lizzy did, and it was all due to Philip Lynott's perseverance and dedication to his vision.
I understand that the extremely hard working Roisin Dubh Trust had their efforts finally pay off with the unveiling of the Philip Lynott statue in Dublin yesterday (Thanks to Miss Templeton http://horslipsmusic.blogspot.com/ for providing a link to RTE radio which broadcast the ceremony). It is certainly a long overdue honor for the man who put Ireland firmly on the map in rock and roll.