Thin Lizzy were, without a doubt, one of the greatest live bands ever. They pioneered the use of twin melodic lead guitars, and vocalist and bassist Phil Lynott brought a new meaning to the term “effortless”. But despite a strong following amongst heavy metal aficionados, Thin Lizzy were always more than merely straight-ahead rockers.
Lizzy’s roots lie in a mid-60s Dublin group named The Black Eagles, where Lynott – then strictly a singer – first hooked up with drummer Brian Downey. Moving on to Skid Row as the vocalist at the close of the decade, Phil took up the bass to ensure his position in the music world. He formed Thin Lizzy with Downey and guitarist Eric Bell in 1970.
Many songs on the early Lizzy albums were soft and melancholic. This was indicative of the fact that when Phil formed the band, he was filling his ears with Acid Rock and folk music. It was the latter influence that gave the band their first break – Whiskey In The Jar was a standard in Dublin trad clubs, and the band’s cool treatment of the song became a hit in 1973.
Moore left a few months later – to realise his long-standing ambition of playing with Jon Hiseman in a revamped edition of Colosseum – and the band took on new guitarists, Los Angeles native Scott Gorham and young Scotsman Brian Robertson. And thus began Thin Lizzy’s most brilliant era.
Phil now had a double act working with him, lashing out harmonising lines with the distinctive sustaining tones of their Gibson Les Paul guitars.
The singer’s personality became more outlandish – he became Valentino with the pencil moustache, gallant with the females, one of the lads. Witness his performance on the classic Live and Dangerous album; “Are there any girls out there with a little bit of Irish in them? Are there any girls out there who would like a little bit more Irish in them?”.
The Jailbreak album (1976) was a mighty summation of their style. Rock music was in a poor way at the time, and punk’s arrival was imminent.
But Thin Lizzy pre-empted much of that energy with their The Boys Are Back In Town LP and the title track – both of them blasting out of the radio throughout that strange, restless year. The band was in all-conquering spirits after this, swiftly following with the albums Johnny The Fox and Bad Reputation.
Lizzy toured relentlessly, building an unassailable reputation as a terrific live band, despite the lead guitar spot becoming a revolving door, with Eric Bell, Gary Moore, Brian Robertson, Snowy White and John Sykes all taking turns to stand next to Scott Gorham. Their energy level never failed to amaze.
In 1978 they released Live and Dangerous – a double album that still rates as a benchmark for stagecraft and possibly the best live album ever released; The sparring guitars, audience sing-a-longs, the between-song blarney from Phil.
The black Irishman in the tight leather trousers was certainly the ultimate showman. Lynott was also an insightful and intelligent songwriter who had an instinctive pop feel. He was a bloody wicked bass player too.
The airbrushed quality of Live and Dangerous caused critical murmurs; manager Chris O’Donnell claimed the recording was “75% live”, with overdubs correcting Phil’s overdriven bass and backing vocals from Gorham and Robertson. Producer Tony Visconti told BBC Radio 1, “We erased everything except the drums . . . even the audience was done again in a very devious way . . . Southbound was recorded at a sound check, and I added a tape loop of an audience.”
Fans were not bothered. The result is magical, and Vertigo’s fears for a full-price double album were unfounded – it shipped 600,000 units in the UK, and NME marvelled, “It’s a near-perfect statement of intent by the best hard rock band in the world.”
The band fractured soon after Live and Dangerous, and the music was never so consistent again. Not even the sparky playing of Gary Moore on 1979’s Black Rose, not the presence of Snowy White in the two years subsequent (resulting in Chinatown and Renegade) could cover the fact that the Thin Lizzy magic was lessening.
Phil was also increasingly interested in new technology, teaming up with Midge Ure and much digital technology for projects such as the Yellow Pearl album. As Thin Lizzy became a harder force and addressed a largely Heavy Metal constituency, so Phil used his solo records to experiment with new sounds and to reveal some of his most touching balladry.
In 1983, Lizzy released Thunder & Lightning, their last studio record, and at the same time, staged a farewell tour across the world (preserved on the Life double album). Many of the old players reunited for this emotional journey through a fantastic career.
Phil died on 4 January 1986, aged 36 – a victim of a lifetime of rock & roll indulgence. Having spent eight days in a coma following a heroin overdose at his home in Richmond, Surrey, on Christmas Day, Phil passed away in Salisbury General Infirmary with his estranged wife, Caroline and father-in-law, TV comedian Leslie Crowther, by his side.
The coroner recorded a verdict of “heart failure and pneumonia following septicaemia”.
The outfit regrouped in the 21 century with Scott Gorham, alongside Lynott-era members Brian Downey and Darren Wharton. Guitarists have included Def Leppard’s Vivian Campbell, Guns n’Roses Richard Fortus and Damon Johnson. Marco Mendoza played bass in Lynott’s place.
For an indication of what Thin Lizzy were like in their prime, witness their performance of Waiting For An Alibi on The Kenny Everett Show or better yet, get a copy of Live and Dangerous.