The Rise of Thin Lizzy
Thin Lizzy is arguably the most underrated rock band of all time. Although several of their songs are staples of classic rock radio stations, they are forever overshadowed by Zeppelin, the Stones, and Aerosmith. You can spend days listening to the usual collection of cliché classic rock songs--or you can pillage Thin Lizzy’s extensive sonic vaults. The discoveries inside will astound you. While researching their musical legacy and peering deep into their charismatic leader Phil Lynott’s poetic scrolls, it becomes clear that they were indeed equal if not greater than the more famous rock n’ roll bands of their era. Most rock bands come and go through a revolving door, barely stepping out long enough to make a name for themselves. Some might even have hit before fading back into obscurity. Record and thrift stores are full of albums to be listened to and pondered over by curious teenagers of future generations, bands lost in time wishing for immortality. Thin Lizzy were immortals. Nearly thirty years after their implosion you can turn on your Television and still hear “The Boys Are Back In Town” rumbling out of some commercial advertisement, or rocking some hundred million dollar stadium during a football game. Their remarkable influence is everywhere, especially when you consider the impact they had on fellow musicians. From U2 to Metallica to Nirvana to the Darkness over three generations of rockers have made it clear that they owe a little something to Phil Lynott and his rebel group of musicians. The Thin Lizzy story is a classic tale of excessive rock n’ roll behavior. Overindulgence in girls, alcohol, and drugs provided the backdrop of a surreal tale that began in small Irish clubs in the 1960s and rose to packed stadiums by the late '70s.
Thin Lizzy didn’t just talk the talk; they walked the walk and rocked it even better. At their best they hovered above us mere mortals. Fronted by the classic line-up of bass-playing frontman Phil Lynott, drummer Brian Downey and guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, Thin Lizzy soared to astonishing heights. From 1975 to 1978 Lizzy hit their stride by releasing four classic albums in a row, including their breakthrough LP ‘Jailbreak’, the beautiful concept album ‘Johnny the Fox’, the sonic equivalent of W.B. Yeats meeting Mozart at an Irish pub ‘Bad Reputation’ and the speaker busting 'Live and Dangerous' (recently voted by the BBC as the greatest live album of all time) all brawling their way into the UK Top 20.
In 1979 they reached their peak with their most successful album ‘Black Rose’ no doubt inspired by the return of the legendary Irish guitarist Gary Moore. But Moore quickly left the group, disgusted by the band’s inability to clean up its drug habits. The bad habits remained. Phil Lynott branched out by doing a solo album ‘Solo In Soho’ in 1980 and later on that year produced and wrote another Lizzy classic, ‘Chinatown’ however the critics weren’t fair and a bad stretch of publicity related to a murderous
rampage in England nixed any chance of Lizzy reclaiming its commercial glory.
The inability to hit the charts again and the recognition that they had not made it America began to wear down the band's members, who all felt they were going nowhere. Thin Lizzy wasn’t getting any bigger. By 1983 they had become victims of their own self-destruction. Financially strapped and trapped in drug abuse the mighty Lizzy train was coming to a halt. After releasing their 13th and final studio album ‘Thunder And Lightning’ (a metal album before the genre took off and while everyone else was doing punk) they decided to retire the band in a farewell tour. On September 4, 1983 tears fell as Thin Lizzy played their final set at the Zeppelinfield in Nuremburg, Germany. It’s generally believed that Lynott never actually wanted to end Lizzy, and that he just needed a break. Whether Phil believed this or not is up for debate; what can’t be debated is that after Thin Lizzy split up, he never recovered from it. Throwing salt on the wound, add the break up of Lizzy with the recent divorce and separation from his wife and kids.
Lynott had now lost both of his families and his heroin addiction consumed him. Phil’s last chart appearance came in 1985 when old friend Gary Moore rescued him for the collaborative "Out In The Fields" single which shot as high as #5 in the UK. Jamming with his old friend from Ireland was the last time the majority of the public would ever see Phil Lynott. Lynott’s last single 'Nineteen' produced by chart topping producer Paul Hardcastle (one of the pioneers of electronic music) was released a few weeks before his death. The video and promo appearances he made for the track can be seen on Youtube, and some have even called it his best song. The song was a rocking nod to remaining nineteen in spirit; even up to the very end Lynott could still write songs that could connected despite the generational gaps in the musical landscape.
The end came for Phil on January 4, 1986, after the Lizzy leader died from rock n’ roll excess, resulting in blood poisoning and non-responsive organs. The 36-year-old left behind two daughters, a secret love child, a broken up band, a mother who adored him and a legion of fans shocked, saddened and heartbroken.
But as the years passed a magical thing happened. Instead of fading into obscurity, Lizzy’s legend grew. New generations of fans lured in by the cool album covers, then smashed over the head with beautiful harmonic guitar soliloquies and intricate, deep, soulful poetry became new Lizzy fans. This trend continues today and rightfully so. In 2010 Universal records began remastering Lizzy’s classic albums with Brian Downey and Scott Gorham overlooking the process.
One of rock’s biggest mysteries is why Thin Lizzy were never able to cross over in America? Maybe in the 21st century and twenty-five years after the death of their legendary front man, they might finally get the chance. America fascinated Phil; he wrote songs about American themes better than many American songwriters. But Ireland was a big part of his soul as well. Ireland has the most poets per square inch than anywhere in the world and Phil Lynott is one of its greats. When you think of the great Irish scribes such as Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Byron, so too will you begin thinking of adding Phil Lynott to that list. Every bit as Irish and every bit as talented Lynott evolved into one of the greatest poets of his time. But fame comes at a price and for the little black boy on the Grafton street corner there would be many years of hardships and poverty before finally cashing in with a little Irish luck.
World War Two was in full bloom when Ireland decided to claim neutrality and not get involved. However if you were a young American soldier in the 1940’s there was a good chance that you might find yourself roaming the northern emerald isles with a military issued copy of ‘a pocket guide to Northern Ireland’ tucked away in your camouflaged overalls. Over the first few pages we learn that Ireland is a splintered land and that Hitler could be lurking just around the corner. It was probably your typical misty Irish morning when a young G.I. read:
“YOU are going away from home on an important mission – to meet Hitler and beat him on his own ground. For the time being you will be the guest of Northen Ireland. The purpose of this guide is to get you acquainted with the Irish, their country and their ways. You will start out with good prospects. The Irish like Americans. Virtually every Irishman has' friends or relatives in the United States; he is predisposed in your favor and anxious to hear what you have to say. This, however, puts you under a definite obligation: you will be expected to live up to the Irishman's high opinion of Americans. That's a real responsibility. The people of Northern Ireland are not only friends, but also Allies. They are fighting by the side of England, the United States, the rest of the United Nations. Thousands of Irishmen are hefting steel in the hot spots of the war, doing their share and more. It is common decency to treat your friends well; it is a military necessity to treat your allies well. Every American thinks he knows something about Ireland. But which Ireland? There are two Irelands. The shamrock, St. Patrick's Day, the wearing of the green — these belong to Southern Ireland, now called Eire (Air-a). Eire is neutral in the war. Northern Ireland treasures its governmental union with England above all things.”
It becomes immediately apparent that the Ireland most are familiar with lies in the leprechauned south, while the northern tip of the land of Eire remains an occupied territory. Flags flown by a little stake in the ground courtesy of the English crown. As the G.I. finished the manual he must of thought it ironic that Ireland was worried about German invaders when English invaders had already claimed a good stretch of Irish land.
After the Second World War Ireland’s economic outlook was dim and the questionable pre and post war policies left the island nation in utter ruin. 1950s Irish society was very close-knit with over 90 per cent of the population being Catholic. A very high proportion of the young population emigrated after WW 2, mostly to mainland England to find work. Southern Ireland being punished for refusing to enter the war was left in decay. These new immigrants joined the previous wave of Irish wanderers. Some 200,000 men from Southern Ireland volunteered during WW2 just to be able to live in England, where they could find a job if they were lucky enough to survive the war. With Ireland missing out on the post-war boom and tired of poverty and religious dogmas, scores of Irish youth began making the trip across the cold seas to England and seventeen year old Philomena Lynott was one of them. Born in a section of Dublin known as the Liberties in 1930, Philomena Lynott was ten years old when the first bombings of neutral Ireland began. As panic spread it would be an anxious four months before the Luftwaffe dropped bombs on the city of Dublin shortly after New Year’s Day in 1941.
Philomena and her family would ultimately survive the raids as German bombs destroyed churches, synagogues and family homes. Four months later more German bombs were unleashed on Dublin, destroying homes in Ballybough, Summerhill Park, the Dog Pond pumping works, and damaging the President’s home at Phoenix Park. The worst calamities were at North Strand between Seville Place and Newcomen Bridge where a German bombing spree wrecked the community, claiming the lives of 28 people, injuring over 100, and leaving over 400 people homeless.
After the smoke cleared from the war, jobs were few and far between for Philomena and her two elder sisters and elder brother. They decided to join RAF in England (a junior military service) and study nursing. Philomena joined her sisters in Leeds but was called back to Dublin to help her mother who was having a baby late in life at 51 years of age. After Philomena’s mother gave birth to a son named Peter, she was allowed to return to England.
This time, working in the dreary town of Birmingham, she met an older man all too eager to woo the young virgin from Dublin. Cecil Parris was from Georgetown, British Guiana on the northern coast of South America. In 1947 he decided to move to New York, but fate intervened and he never reached his destination. Unknown to him, the ship he hopped was bound for Britain and disembarked at Liverpool. A year later he met Philomena at a dancehall in Birmingham. From a 2010 article in the daily mail Philomena explains:
“I never fell in love with him. It was a “happening”. You’ve got to remember that I was 17 or 18 and I didn’t smoke or drink but we used to go to these dances. Philip’s father came all across the dance floor and he asked for a dance and I couldn’t refuse him.”
As the only man of color in the building it must have taken a lot of swag for the older Cecil Parris to approach the glowing Irish princess. About the possibility of shooting him down Philomena recalls, “I’ll tell you why: it wasn’t in my heart. He had walked the whole length of the floor and everybody looked at him. Remember, they didn’t want black to be mixing with white. It was fate – something said to me to get up and dance. And when I danced, the floor got full of people. He was a good dancer. When the dance was over, I walked back to where all the women stood and they all backed off – I was a “nigger lover”.”
As a shunned Philomena made her way outside her friends began to hound her for dancing with a black man. Cecil protected her from any more harassment and afterwards their brief courtship began. After taking her virginity Cecil bailed for London, leaving Philomena alone and pregnant. Philomena accepted her situation and went to work in the foundry at the Austin Motor Company, hiding her pregnancy with an old-fashioned corset. Because she wasn’t married, having a baby out of wedlock in those days could get you tagged as a tramp, the lowest place on the totem poll of life for a girl barely 18. Because of her shame Philomena kept her pregnancy a secret to her family and on a rainy morning was rushed alone from work to the hospital:
“I was taken from the foundry in an ambulance to the hospital and I was 36 hours in labour…I just lay there and I suffered in silence. Because nobody knew. None of my family knew that I was having a baby. I couldn’t tell them, the shame was unmerciful.”
Weighing nearly ten pounds, Philip Parris Lynott came into the world on August 20, 1949. Because she was poor and unmarried Philomena had been forced to move into the Selly Oak Home. Once there, nuns tried to persuade her to give Phillip up for adoption, feeding her a steady diet of guilt for having a black illegitimate baby. Philomena remembers the cruelty she suffered saying, “It was awful what they did to me in that place. They put me out to work in the shed because I was the lowest of the lowest – because I had a black baby. Even today, I live with a bad back because it was freezing working in the shed – it was a stone floor.”
Eventually she met a friend in a similar situation who persuaded her to go to Liverpool. Her living conditions barely improved and soon Philomena had another child out of wedlock. Cecil was long gone and Philomena was being buried under the extreme poverty she found herself in. On making the heart wrenching decision to give her daughter up for adoption, “That was heavy. Because when I had the little girl, I was in digs, in slums, which was horrible. There was a welfare nun who used to visit and she said to me, “You’re going home to Ireland at Christmas. Would you like me to look after Jeannette for you?” When I came back, she brought Jeannette back to me and she was dressed up and she was full of toys. She said, “Guess where I took her? I took her to a schoolteacher and his wife”. They were trying to adopt a little girl. Philomena, why don’t you let your little girl have a break? Because you’re going to have to spend the rest of your life living in the slums. This child will have a wonderful life.”
It wouldn’t be long before Philomena would have to give up Phillip as well. Her bundle of brown joy, now four years old, was sent to live with his grandmother, Sarah Lynott, in the south Dublin suburb of Crumlin while his mother stayed in Manchester. At first his grandmother had to make excuses to the neighbors for him, claiming he was the son of one her daughter’s friends and that his mother had died. Eventually this lie wore off and everyone had to accept the facts. Phil grew up with an adoring grandmother and a growing sense that he was unique. The young Phil Lynott’s first memories were of Dublin, and eventually all of Phil’s influences and future poetic musings would serve as a direct result from growing up in Crumlin with his grandmother Sara.
The impact she had on him would be evident later in his life when he named his first-born daughter after her. Despite being a black child without a father, growing up in Dublin with a positive family influence served him well. Philomena’s brothers and sisters were all very good to Phil and he never suffered from lack of love. Even his uncle Peter who was just a few years older than him, had a big impact on Phil’s life. Peter was the first one in the family to play the guitar, and spend his money on records. A young Phil would sit and listen to his uncle with dreams of his own musical ambitions.
Soon he got a guitar and began to roam around Dublin seeking out musicians and poets. He didn’t have to go far. Turned out that one of his friends from school happened to be a pretty good drummer. Phil had known Brian Downey for years before the idea of them ever jamming together materialized. Now the two fourteen year olds suddenly had a purpose in life. From this moment on they would be locked at the hip. Brian’s drumming accompanied by Phil’s guitar playing and Elvis inspired crooning were what the young lads of Dublin were doing in the early 60’s.
Their first band together was named the Black Eagles. They played the chart songs of the day, and became locally popular in part because of Phil’s exotic appeal. He stuck out like a sore thumb in white Dublin. But the racial prejudice he faced while he was younger had worn off. Now he was the cool black Irish kid. The Black Eagles eventually became popular enough to travel the country, opening up for some of biggest showbands in Ireland. Lynott wowed audiences with his crooning abilities and was decades ahead of Michael Jackson when it came to controlling a crowd by wearing a glove on one hand. But the Black Eagles had broken up by the time Phil turned eighteen. Parting ways with Brian, Phil fronted the experimental jam band Kama Sutra for a few months before being asked by bassist Brush Shiels to join his band Skid Row. Shiels wasn’t looking for a singer, he was more interested in a showman, admitting, “I didn't particularly want someone who could sing well. I just wanted someone who looked good. Philip was about the best-looking boy around, and I knew that with him fronting the band we'd get lots of attention from the girls.”
In 1969, Skid Row released their first single “New Faces, Old Places” on an independent record label, marking Lynott's first appearance on vinyl. In 2006 a stash of early Skid Row demos was discovered in a craggy basement in Dublin. These rare demos showcasing different crooning styles would be the first time we get to hear Phil growing into what he would eventually become. These recordings are also important because it’s the earliest recorded strumming from Ireland’s greatest guitarist and bluesman Gary Moore.
A frequent contributor in the Thin Lizzy story, Moore was only 16 when he ditched his home in Belfast to work the blossoming rock scene in Dublin. Moore was a self-taught virtuoso and like many others he was turned on to rock and roll first through hearing Elvis Presley, and then via The Beatles. But it wasn’t until seeing Jimi Hendrix and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in his hometown when he was opened up to the rich world of the blues. After seeing Hendrix shred, Moore convinced his father to buy him a Fender Telecaster. His father did the world a favor and bought the guitar on credit, taking him over two years to pay it off. Gary would eventually pay him back and in time become Ireland’s guitar god. But for the sixteen year old Belfastian transplant his and Phil Lynott’s first real rock band experience started in Skid Row. And we have Brush Shiels to thank for that. While in the band Moore connected instantly with Phil Lynott and the two became quick friends as the band built up a decent buzz following Brush Shiel’s lead.
At home in Crumlin, Gary Moore and Phil would spend hours together listening to uncle Peter’s growing record collection. Fueled by Marijuana the duo was absorbing the sonic information being sent out through the record players speakers. Uncle Peter even admitted that a good chunk of his collection went missing every time his nephew Phil or Gary showed up. A fact he’s cool with considering how legendary both Phil and Gary eventually became. But for Phil the ‘Skid Row’ party was short lived, ending when he left for England to have his tonsils removed. When Phil returned Shiels informed him that his services were no longer needed. Shiels decided that the group was going to move into a three-piece Cream type power trio and there would be no room for him.
Phil was disappointed at hearing the news but it turned out that Shiels wasn’t a total dick about the process. He recognized Phil’s talent and agreed to teach him how to play the bass and even encouraged him to start his own band. Perhaps the biggest disappointment for Phil was realizing that he wasn’t going to be jamming with Gary Moore anymore. However the young nineteen-year-old Lynott wasn’t deterred. He was at Shiel’s house everyday learning the bass and writing new songs and poetry. With fresh inspiration he joined Brian Downey’s blues group ‘Sugar Shack,’ but the band quickly broke up leaving Downey and Lynott once again out of work. Making the best of a bad situation they finally took the plunge and decided to create their own band together.
They founded the precursor to Lizzy, ‘Orphanage,’ with bassist Pat Quigly and guitarist Joe Stauton in early 1969. Finally Phil had the freedom to perform his own original material and his bass playing became so good he eventually took over that position as well. Their cover of "Morning Dew" became a minor hit in Ireland and both Phil and Brian had improved to the point where some of the early Orphanage compositions later evolved into Thin Lizzy songs. But Orphange and it’s various members were too busy indulging in the popular hippie practices of the time, smoking weed and tripping on LSD to be considered any real threat to the rock gods throne. However, they did manage to pull it together during a ruckus of a jam one night in a smoky bar in Dublin, and watching through the haze was the man who would soon plug in his guitar and help electrify Thin Lizzy into creation.
Gary Moore wasn’t the only guitar shredding virtuoso from Belfast looking to break into the emerging rock scene in Dublin. Born in Eastern Belfast, Eric Bell spent years jamming through a progression of bands while working odd jobs like jarring pickles and lighting streetlamps. By 1967 he had paid enough dues to gig briefly with Belfast's ‘Them’ alongside the legendary Van Morrison. After leaving Them Eric eventually ended up doing showband tunes in ‘The Dream’ and despite having a hit with "I Will see you there" decided to ditch the ballrooms for an attempt at forming a power trio. All he needed was a good drummer and a bassist. Bell spent months scouring the pubs in the Dublin rock circuit looking for possible candidates to join him on his rock n’ roll fantasy. But it turned out that a chance encounter amplified by the magical powers of LSD would provide the answers he was looking for.
Maybe it wasn’t a chance encounter after all. Bell and his friend the keyboardist Eric Wrixon had heard good things about a local band called Orphange and decided to give them a listen. Wrixon and Bell were both formerly in the group Them together and both came over from Belfast seeking work in Dublin. As a result they both grew bored of the showroom scene and wanted desperately to rock. Sitting in the Bailey pub the duo looked over an advertisement announcing that Orphanage would be playing at Romano’s in a few hours. At this point Phil Lynott’s Orphanage was more of an experimental jam band, and you never knew how many members would actually be in the group on any given night. Regardless of that Brian Downey’s drumming and Phil’s folkish Celtic poetry was the buzz of Dublin.
Sensing the potential good vibes of the night Eric Wrixon pulled out a couple tabs of acid. Being that this was his first trip Eric Bell reluctantly placed the acid onto his tongue, assured by Wrixon that the night would be a blast. As the two lads from Belfast stepped onto the wet Dublin streets, they slowly began their walk towards destiny. Once inside the club the effects of the acid began to hammer Eric Bell’s senses. Then the universe plugged him in when he watched Orphanage take the stage. Phil’s singing and instantly recognizable stage presence hit Bell extremely hard. He thought to himself or mumbled out loud “Who is that?” he didn’t need acid to know that Phil Lynott was the coolest dude he had ever seen. But when the sonic pounding of Brian Downey’s drums kicked in he really knew something magical was happening. After the set was over Bell knocked on Orphanage’s dressing room door and was invited in by Phil and Brian. At first Bell just walked around the room, laughing while trying to explain that this was his first trip. Eventually the laughter stopped and he asked Phil and Brian if they wanted to start a group together with him and keyboardist Eric Wrixon. Phil was excited about this sudden newfound opportunity and had already heard good things about Bell’s playing from Gary Moore. Feeling that Orphanage had gone on as far as it could, he convinced Brian that forming another band would give them some new creative energy and inspiration. When Phil busted out some funky bass riffs Eric Bell realized that he had gotten what he wanted, and after that chance encounter none of the lads would ever be the same.
The lads met at Eric's flat where they listened to demo's, and felt each other out. Word quickly spread around Dublin that an Eric Bell and Phil Lynott super group was forming. The news became official after Eric named the band after a Dandy's comic strip character ‘Tin Lizzie’. With a little joking by Phil the name became Thin Lizzy, knowing that the Irish couldn’t pronounce the ‘H’ anyways gave the band their first mischievous doing.
With a band name and a new identity all they needed was a place to jam. Phil thought it was a great idea for the band to live together. If they were going to be an electric outfit then they would need to be together as much as possible, Jamming, drinking, smoking, and chasing chicks. What more would you want to do as hard rocking dudes barely twenty years old? The band living in a communal setting together is a rock n’ roll practice that has been emulated for decades. When Guns n’ Roses first started they all lived and jammed in a tiny storage space in Los Angeles. No bathroom, no shower, no luxuries but records and rock n’ roll. Take a good look at Axl Rose’s shirt during his iconic performance at the Ritz in 1988. Yep, it’s a Thin Lizzy tee.
So enamored by Lizzy was Axl he even had the cover from the album ‘Black Rose’ tattooed on his body. He claimed that Phil Lynott was like his father growing up and his biggest regret in life is not getting a chance to meet him before he died.
But for Phil and his newly formed outfit, it would be many decades before they had a chance to influence America’s greatest rock band. Phil Lynott was a stylish dude; he loved clothes and had a natural born swagger about him. An instant charmer, he could warm anyone with his overflowing charisma. The boys found that out quickly when they met him at a cafe dressed up in a fancy suit and tie. Phil flashed his devilish smile and jangled keys in the air. He had gotten them a place to jam and live together. Phil had somehow managed to rent the upstairs half of an apartment building in the upscale north Dublin neighborhood of Clontarf.
On Castle Avenue and ascal an ohaissleain Thin Lizzy got its start. However, the jam pad became a crash pad and the constant flow of traffic and noise had irritated the neighbors to a point of them passing around a petition to have the boys evicted. They remained long enough to rehearse and make their first official live performance at St. Anthony's Hall in early January 1970. Four months later, the small label Parlaphone expressed an interest in signing up the four-piece. The optimistic crew made their way to Baggott Street, and entered Trend’s Studio. In exchange for free studio time the band recorded studio owner’s John D`Ardis song, "I need you" which wound up on the B-side to Lynott´s A-side composition "The Farmer"
Released on July 31st 1970, Thin Lizzy´s very first single sank into oblivion, and legend claims that half of the 500 misspelled copies pressed were melted down and recycled. It’s interesting to note that Phil’s lyrics for "The Farmer" weren’t even about Ireland or it’s myths, it was in fact a song about the American Wild West…
Sure do appreciate y'all coming/ Especially you Skinny Lizzy/ Me and my cousin Frank/ He's the one that robbed the bank/ Bought some whiskey all can drink/ And it's in the barn/ You see Ma, she's passed away and there's not much I can say/ 'Cept I'd like you all to pray 'Cause I don't know what we're gonna do, Lord help me! Won't y'all come again Won't y'all come? Your faces keep us warm/ Won't y'all come? Pappa sits alone and all he does is moan and moan, moan and moan/ So I put on my pin-striped suit/ I wouldn't fill my pockets with loot/ I went looking for the Reverend Luke way up north in Tennessee/ Won't y'all come again/ Won't y'all come? Your faces keep us warm/ Won't y'all come? Ma passed away/ Not much I can say/ Like you all to pray/ I don't know what we're gonna do, Lord help me…
The record flopped, and to their surprise, Parlaphone dropped them. By this time they had kicked out keyboardist Eric Wrixon and were evolving into a fullblown power trio. Gigging wherever and whenever they could, the band was able to land a manager named Brian Tuite. Tuite arranged a gig for them backing up a popular Irish crooner that Frank Rodgers from Decca Records in the U.K. was coming over to see. The plan worked as Rodgers, impressed by Lizzy’s playing, decided on the spot to sign the boys if they agreed to relocate to London. Thin Lizzy eagerly crossed the Irish Sea and once in London went to Decca's studios to record their debut album. Things were finally looking up for Phil and his band.
In swinging London Phil had a ball spending money on clothes he found in thrift stores. An instant fashionista, he fit right into the London scene. For Phil, London presented more than a chance to record his debut album, it was also a chance to walk in the footsteps of his hero Jimi Hendrix. For many white kids in the U.K. and Ireland Jimi Hendrix was the first black man they had ever seen. When Jimi appeared on English television for the first time it sent shockwaves throughout England proper. Suddenly guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck who were deemed the new electric gods became obsolete overnight. Here were all these white boys in England practicing off of old chess records from Chicago blues acts and thinking they were good until a real life bluesman from America appeared out of nowhere and blew everyone out of the water. For Phil it was a sign from above, a cosmic confirmation that a black man could rock and be accepted and respected by everyone. Jimi Hendrix provided the source of inspiration Phil needed, and his natural born talent provided the rest. Now here he was 21 years of age, and following in his hero’s path by recording his first album in the drizzly city of London.
Recorded over a stretch of six days the bands self-titled debut ‘Thin Lizzy’ was released to little fanfare in the spring of 1971. Given a break by popular Radio One DJ John Peel, they gained a decent amount of airplay and buzz began to build based on their crunching live sets seen throughout clubs in London like Baise's, and Ronnie Scott's. Thin Lizzy toured up and down the country but the album flopped. Mostly a mix of Phil’s Celtic inspired poetry and uneven jam sessions the album is an interesting listen at the group’s first recording attempt.
Eric Bell was no doubt the leader of the band at this point. He was older, more confident and performing at a higher level than his bandmates. He even wrote one of the albums best songs, "Ray Gun" a spacey blues jam that Phil sings beautifully on. Eric’s riffs and Brian’s drumming do stand out, but Phil’s singing is still a little shy and enclosed within. However his songwriting was really beginning to mature.
In the song "Honesty is no excuse" Phil laments about a lost love, Phil’s singing is complemented nicely by Brian’s mellow drumming and Bell adds a superb guitar solo…
Up till now I used to pass my time/ Drinking beer so slowly, sometimes wine/ No God, air, water or sunshine And honesty was my only excuse/ I took your love and I used it/ Up till now my youthful stage/ A useless rage, a torn out page, a worn out gauge/ A dirty shade, a big charade, a has been made And honesty was my only excuse/ I took your love and I used it/ I never, I never, I never/ Up till now my love life/ Few sweet kisses, a little missus, a fork and knife/ A happy home, a hand to hold, a land to roam/ And honesty was my only excuse/ I used to take life in my own hands and I abused it/ Up till now I used to tap dance/ Take a girl by the hand saying/ I need your, I need your romance/ Oh I had me many chances And honesty was my only excuse/ I used to take your love and I'd abused it Up till now the path of life was fair enough/ Enough was fair, all was right/ And now I know, I see the light And honesty was my only excuse
The album contains many songwriting gems including "Eire" (about an ancient Viking invasion in Ireland) "Remembering" (lost love) "Look what the wind blew in" (about spending a lifetime working in the factory) "Dublin" (Phil was homesick) "Saga of the ageing orphan" (about growing up without a father) but perhaps the best song and the most hopeful of all the songs they recorded was "Things ain’t working out down on the farm" With this song they nailed the harmonies that would become their signature trademark in years to come. All the parts came together on this song about a guy who is down on his luck…
There goes Moses carrying his bible book/ Never has a problem, just has a cup/ It's good clean alcohol and it fills you up And here I go laughing like a fool, yeah/ Things ain't working out down at the farm/ Got no bag or baggage or love to keep me warm/ And I ain't been in trouble since the day I was born/ Things ain't working out down at the farm
I used to spend my sunny days supping aways/ Along came Gogarty and he put me away
Down at the station was kept for strays/ And I went laughing, geez he like busting me, he liked busting me/ He caught me unawares and he made me strip naked/ Oh I was scared, oh I was scared, I was shaking/ And he said It's you and me/ And me and you/ And me and me/ And you and you/ And me and me/ And I just kept laughing like a fool, yeah
Things ain't working out down at the farm
Despite the album's commercial disappointment, Decca kept them under contract. Decca were unsure about financing a second album and so the compromise of an EP was reached. Thin Lizzy released an EP entitled ‘New Day’ on Phillip’s 22nd birthday in August 1971. Basically a reworking of four of their best songs it warmed over Decca who then green-lighted production of Thin Lizzy’s second album at Lane Lea Studios in Wembley. ‘Shades Of A Blue Orphanage’ was released in March 1972. Phil, Eric and Brian were all disappointed with the results. Feeling they weren’t given enough time to come up with better compositions or mix the album. Despite their lack of faith there are some great tracks on the album. The seven minute Bedouin inspired jam "The rise and dear demise of the funky nomadic tribes" single handily makes up for the jaggedness of the entire album. It’s a blistering example of great free form jazz tinged drumming and sharp bluesy guitar stabs. Phil’s lyrics aren’t bad either…
But it was the single "Buffalo Gal" that gave them their best shot at having a hit. It didn’t chart very high, but somehow managed to remain popular underground due in part to Phil’s excellent story driven lyrics and odd chorus arrangement. Oddly enough it was another song inspired by scenes from classic Americana imagery. This time about a young Southern belle on the range…
At a meeting at Decca's offices the trio were told that an American guy had offered Decca money for Thin Lizzy to record an album of Deep Purple hits. Decca agreed as Thin Lizzy’s second album was flopping out of the gates for a second time in a row. The funky black kid and his power trio from Ireland weren’t bringing in a lot of money, so they decided to record under the name of Funky Junction. Lizzy’s ‘A Tribute To Deep Purple’ was released in January 1973 to little acclaim and soon the boys were back on the road touring Europe.
Thin Lizzy’s managers Ted Carroll and Chris Morrison were able to convince Chas Chandler to let Thin Lizzy open up in support of the highly popular acts Slade and Suzi Quatro. This tour was a defining moment for Thin Lizzy. Philip was hoping to impress Chas; after all Chandler was the man who discovered his hero Jimi Hendrix. Chas Chandler knew what it took to make a rockstar, and his current band Slade were the biggest act touring on the current rock circuit. When Thin Lizzy hit the stage they must have been a little shocked at the size of the crowd. They didn’t pay it any mind and drove into their set as they normally did. But something was wrong, they weren’t getting the right kind of response from the crowd.
They suddenly realized that this was the big time, and they weren’t ready for it. With chants of “We want Slade” drowning out their set, Lizzy and the boys played out their remaining tunes and sloshed backstage with their heads hanging. To make matters worse Phil got a scolding from Chas Chandler, who told him in unflattering words that if that’s what their set was going to be like every night then they might as well just pack it up and head home. Phil was close to crying, his dreams just crushed by someone he admired. But he didn’t let it get to him. More determined than ever he began experimenting with poses and throwing ‘shapes’ while playing in front of the large crowds that Slade had provided them. Eric Bell and Brian Downey began to notice the gradual change from shy Phil to rocker Phil over the course of the tour. Phil was starting to become the rocker and Phil and Brian were starting to become excellent musicians.
However, they were all broke, and as they sat in the offices of Decca records they were reminded of the fact. Told in no uncertain terms that if they didn’t come up with a hit single, their days at Decca were over. Thin Lizzy retreated back to their practice space in an old London pub. Depressed and feeling defeated they began to mess around, searching and hoping for some inspiration. Facing their third strike, the boys from Dublin were in desperate need of a little Irish luck.
Buy the Book the Emerald Rebels to learn more about the Rise and Fall of Thin Lizzy
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