Note: I came across this piece I wrote back in April for someone’s “Remembered” column, and thought it worth reposting here. – MMD
In the waning days of 1969, a half-Black, half-Irish bass player and his drummer bud started a band, like so many of their generation were doing at the time. They met up with a couple of guitarists – the beginnings of a legion of them – and called themselves Thin Lizzy.
Phil Lynott was the driving creative force behind everything they wrote and recorded, and provided some of the best bass playing heard before or since. His smooth and slightly menacing vocals lent the tunes an authenticity absent from many of the bands of that period, and he always seemed to be sharing a joke with the listener – I was convinced that he could break out laughing at any time during almost any given song.
Lynott and original drummer Brian Downey met said guitarists, the Erics Bell and Wexon, who’d recently been backing up Van Morrison as Them and off they went. The Erics were used presumably used to mercurial, hard-drinking Irishmen, it seems, so they meshed well with Lynott from start. At least at first.
For the next five or six years success was elusive. Virtually nothing they recorded charted in either the UK or the States, and it wasn’t until the release of 1976’s “Jailbreak” that people began to take notice.
By this time they’d nearly perfected the twin guitar approach that was to become their signature, and which would be emulated by many of the metal bands to follow. But for most of the next decade they’d chase the level of success brought on by Jailbreak singles “The Boys Are Back in Town” and its titular track, and would never quite get there again.
I came to Lizzy late in the cycle – around 1984, when the bassist in one of the bands I mixed for in college turned me onto the live “Life” double disk. Although up to that point I’d pretty much confined my musical intake to hard and heavy rock (anything less was dismissed out of hand at the time,) it was my first exposure to the modern dual guitar attack that would so dominate my favorite music for the next few years.
We didn’t really consider them heavy metal at the time though their influence has been felt in some of that genre’s seminal bands, from Metallica to Mastodon. They were just good, hard rock and roll, using interesting and arcane subject matter and funkier arrangements than any of us, to date, had learned to appreciate. Iron Maiden was peaking at that point, and while some of the guys in our band were into the more mainstream metallurgists like Ratt, Poison, Skid Row and the like, none of those bands were for me – I used to joke that they were more like stainless steel compared to the truly heavy metal being mined by bands like Deep Purple, Maiden, and Thin Lizzy. (I didn’t consider Zeppelin as being heavy metal at the time, either – still don’t – but in many ways they were just as heavy, and they occupied a lofty spot in my pantheon, too, even if they weren’t producing anything new at the time. They didn’t really have to, with a canon like theirs in the vaults.)
I’d kid myself that I liked Lizzy because of their more literate and unusual lyrics, the historical Irish references, the outsider-ness of liking the unknown and the unloved, but when it came down to it I liked them for the simple reason that they ROCKED, and they did it harder and better than almost anyone I’d heard up to that time. Even those slow, tasty numbers like “Still in Love With You” and “The Sun Goes Down” have a weight and a lurking but unmanifested menace waiting just out of earshot. I couldn’t get enough, and the louder it got, the better I liked it.
The band and the bassist that first brought them to my ears ended up being the ones I lived, mixed and traveled with for the next several years, and we covered many cornerstone Lizzy pieces like “Angel of Death,” “Thunder and Lightning,” “The Sun Goes Down,” and others, and even if we didn’t play some of the outliers live they’d still make it into the practice sets because they were just so much fun to play, and to hear. I remember “Cowboy Song” as one of those – a romping good bit of fun that was basically a metallic take on a raunchy Country tune, and we liked it so much it often made its way into the live set, as well.
Coming late to the Lizzy game allowed me to miss much of their mediocre period, I think. Starting with the live recordings “Life” and “Live and Dangerous,” which are essentially greatest hits compilations on what some critics have called the best live recordings of the era, was a somewhat biased primer, to be sure, but it intrigued me enough to seek out some of the more esoteric meanderings from the earlier records. Like many who did the same, I found that some of it merited its relative obscurity, but there were definitely gems amongst the rubble, and I found them all.
The band had more guitarists – many more – than Spinal Tap had drummers. Some lasted longer than others, some left and came back, some were better than others. There were bar brawls between and among themselves and other bands, many featuring broken bottles and broken bones, and more than one tour-ending injury. The best and most enduring of this cadre included John Sykes, who would go on to play with Whitesnake and Blue Murder, and Brian Robertson, who would later play with Motorhead and others. My favorite of the lot, Gary Moore (RIP), joined Lizzy after stints with Blues masters B.B. and Albert King, then left Lizzy and came back numerous times. Lynott appeared onMoore’s solo album just before Phil’s death.
I remember that night very vividly; it remains one of the clearest memories from that time in my life.
Our drummer’s room was next to mine in the slightly ramshackle house we lived and practiced in, and around 4 AM one night in January of 1986 he came in and woke me up.
“Whaddaya want? What time is it?”
“Don’t know. But I just heard Phil Lynott died tonight.”
I was instantly and fully awake. We found a bottle, and went into the practice room and spun some Lizzy, waiting for the others to hear and come in. They did, and we played til the sun came up. And then we played some more.
I have yet to find as solid and as heart-pumping a finale to an album as the fourth side of the “Life” album. On it, Lynott brings back some of the band’s former guitarists to play on their signature songs: Brian Robertson for “Emerald;” Gary Moore for “Black Rose;” John Sykes on “Still in Love with You;” and Eric Bell for “The Rocker.” What I liked most, though, was that Lynott called them all out onstage at once, at the beginning of the side, and they all played each song together, the myriad disagreements and pettiness of the previous years forgotten for a moment, lost in the joy of the song.
On another tune from that ironically titled album Lynott sings that he has got to “Give it up. . . ooh, that stuff.” He was never able to do it, and it killed him.
All these years later I still get chills listening to that last side, and I can’t give them up yet, either.