Phil Lynott: how addiction destroyed Ireland’s forgotten rock genius

Neil McCormick
·15-min read
Too big a heart: Phil Lynott
Too big a heart: Phil Lynott

Growing up in Ireland in the Seventies, Phil Lynott was our local rock god. We weren’t exactly spoiled for choice, to be fair. Belfast-born Van Morrison was always out of reach, operating on some ethereal plane of his own. Rory Gallagher was an incredible player, but there was something unimposing about him, like a farmer with an electric guitar.

Later, Bob Geldof hijacked punk rock, and made us feel it was possible for an Irish chancer to take on the world. Then came U2, and the roar of the Celtic Tiger. There’s been a flood of rocking Irishmen and women ever since, but Lynott had something unique, an otherness, an alien mystique, that sets him apart.

Tall, black, elegant, always beautifully dressed, he was almost impossibly cool when, really, it was just not considered cool to be Irish. Yet the Celtic twirls of Thin Lizzy’s breakthrough folk rock song, Whiskey in the Jar, and Lynott’s broad Dublin brogue and twinkling, friendly stage presence identified him as one of the people.

If you were to take a straw poll in Ireland to nominate the greatest homegrown rock star ever, I bet Phil Lynott would come top, even after all this time. He’s got Bono’s vote, anyway. “He was an amazing frontman,” says the U2 singer. “If lyrical, musical ability has to be matched with showmanship, attitude, style – if that’s your version of rock ’n’ roll – there’s no way past Phil Lynott. He’s at the top of the tree.”

It has been 34 years since Lynott died, in January 1986, in sad circumstances: his creativity at low ebb, his health ravaged by heroin, cocaine and alcohol. He was 36 years old.

Revered: Thin Lizzy's Brian Downey (drums), Phillip Lynott (vocals & bass), Eric Bell (guitar)
Revered: Thin Lizzy's Brian Downey (drums), Phillip Lynott (vocals & bass), Eric Bell (guitar)

A new box set, Thin Lizzy – Rock Legends, celebrates the career of Lynott’s much loved and still hugely influential band, across six discs, featuring 99 tracks, demos and live records – the vast majority previously unreleased. Next week comes a cinematic documentary, Phil Lynott: Songs for While I’m Away, which takes a fresh and very loving look at his rise and fall.

It is abundantly clear what high regard his friends, family and peers have for Lynott. Both box set and film are filled with rock stars paying testament. Members of U2, Primal Scream, Guns ‘N Roses, Metallica, Deep Purple, Def Leppard, Rush, The Darkness, Primal Scream, Judas Priest, Motorhead, Styx, Duran Duran and Blue Oyster Cult declare their fandom.

Veteran rocker Huey Lewis, who supported Lizzy in the Seventies and who later produced his final recordings, says: “He was one of a kind, Philip. And he was very Irish. You know, he just gave it away. He had this huge heart. That's what made him so different than most hard rock or metal stars. He wasn't afraid to smile and love.” But he wasn’t just a nice guy. “They were the best hard rock band I have ever seen. Ever.”

Yet for all the reverence in which Thin Lizzy are held by their fellow musicians, Lynott hasn’t quite attained the pop cultural status of other fallen idols. Rock magazines endlessly recycle the myths and iconic images of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, but how often do you see Phil Lynott now? Lynott’s trajectory, from talented outsider to charismatic pop star to self-destructive victim of the rock and roll lifestyle falls into an archetypal pattern, yet he is almost a forgotten star.

Fallen idol: Phil Lynott
Fallen idol: Phil Lynott

Due mainly to bad luck and bad timing, Thin Lizzy never really broke America (something they hold in common with Slade, Queen and Oasis). Without quite achieving the international front ranking that his talent warranted in his Seventies pomp, Lynott’s personal decline took place away from centre stage, when his most glorious days were already behind him.

There was something pathetic about his death in hospital in 1986, of heart failure and pneumonia. His continued indulgence in rock’s vices when the hits had dried up made him seem like a tragic anachronism in the bright and flashy Eighties, a leftover from another era. But if Lynott’s image is tarnished, his musical heritage remains outstanding, and continues to resonate in modern rock.

With his big afro and stylish swagger, the pervading image of Lynott is as a piratical bassist and singer. But he was an outstanding songwriter too, who garnered the admiration of Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Weller. “What makes Thin Lizzy so unique in rock and roll was the balance of toughness and sweetness,” according to Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins. “At the centre of it all you have this giant of a man with an even bigger heart. The songs are cool, almost voyeuristic in their detachment, yet he’s also ready to get into the mix at the drop of a dime.”

“In the early rock and roll years in Ireland, he was part of a movement that brought songwriting and poetry closer together,” says Niall Stokes, editor of Irish music magazine Hot Press magazine. “He saw himself as a wordsmith, read at poetry readings in Dublin and published his lyrics in book form. He was a romantic troubadour with a luminous lyrical feel that went beyond the merely functional into bardic terrain. This was a man who had stories to tell and the language to make them riveting.”

“He lived life in that proverbial fast lane.” - Redferns
“He lived life in that proverbial fast lane.” - Redferns

Lynott wrote songs that helped give Irish teenagers their own identity, and that resonated around the world. There was the riotous celebration of belonging to a gang, The Boys Are Back In Town, the macho swagger of Jailbreak, the sinuous delight of Dancing In The Moonlight, the bravura conceit of Don’t Believe A Word, the elegiac longing of Old Town and the tender heartbreak of Still In Love With You.

 Influenced by a huge range of music, from folk to funk, soul to glam, Lynott brought pop skills to the hard rock arena, where instrumental virtuosity and sheer power reigns supreme. Thin Lizzy’s 1978 double album Live And Dangerous is often cited as the greatest live album ever made, widely recognised at the time to set a new height for live recordings. Even if, as it later transpired, much of it had been assembled in the studio. Producer Tony Visconti has claimed that 75 per cent of the album was overdubbed, with only Brian Downey’s drums remaining completely untouched.

The band themselves dispute this, and Chris O’Donnell, their former manager, insists it is 75 per cent live, with overdubs “to clean the sound up.” The film reveals, however, that Visconti created an audience tape loop by combining Lizzy’s crowd with the crowd from a David Bowie live recording in Philadelphia (for the 1974 album David Live), so that he could bring up intense cheering at any point. I am not sure how much any of that matters, because when you put it on and dim the lights, listeners are treated to a phenomenal show, from beginning to end. “Of all the people I worked with, Phil was the most genuine rocker,” according to Visconti. “He lived life in that proverbial fast lane.”

"With his big afro and stylish swagger, the pervading image of Lynott is as a piratical bassist and singer" - Archive Photos
"With his big afro and stylish swagger, the pervading image of Lynott is as a piratical bassist and singer" - Archive Photos

Whenever you hear twin guitar leads flying fluidly together over a melodic, hard rock rhythm track, you can’t help but be reminded of Thin Lizzy’s signature sound. Heavy metal superstars Metallica have long sited Lizzy as a prime influence, and often cover Whiskey In The Jar. “I would say, in metal, the number one influence is Black Sabbath,” according to Metallica’s James Hetfield. “But for the more musical bands it would be Thin Lizzy. The songwriting, the lyrics, the dual guitar and the unbelievably cool drumming, it’s so unique, it’s just magic.” Hetfield identifies a depth to Lynott’s writing that is often overlooked. “The struggles that he wrote about, with drugs, drink, ethnicity, all of those things, they almost speak louder now that he’s passed.”

Guns ‘N Roses guitarist Slash suggests that Lynott’s mixed race background shaped his musical complexity. “The same thing with Jimi Hendrix, as hard rock as he could play, a lot of his songs went into different places … a certain kind of soul.” Guns ‘N Roses were such big Thin Lizzy fans, singer Axl Rose bears the tattoo of a black rose based on a Lizzy album cover. “Being half-black and a musician, when I was hip to Thin Lizzy it was encouraging to know that this really cool and very unique artist was mixed (race), cos it made me feel not so alone,” says Slash.

The Ireland Lynott was raised in during the Fifties and Sixties was very different to the cosmopolitan European country it has become. I recall being in Chicago in the Eighties with Irish DJ Dave Fanning, when a black American insisted “you don’t have any black people in Ireland, do you?”. Our national pride affronted, we looked at each other and shot back, “Yes we do – Phil Lynott!”

Thin Lizzy at a Christmas party in 1980 - Hulton Archive
Thin Lizzy at a Christmas party in 1980 - Hulton Archive

In fact, Lynott was born in West Bromwich, England. His Irish mother, Philomena, was only 17, and had moved to England to seek work. She had a short relationship with Cecil Parris, a barber from Guyana. “I got into trouble,” the late Philomena is heard saying in the film. “I got battered and beaten because I was the mother of the black baby.” When her son was aged seven, Philomena felt he would be better off in Dublin living with his grandparents. He grew up in a family of nine in a two bedroom house with an outside bathroom in the suburb of Crumlin.

“He was the only black guy in the whole place,” according to Brian Downey, Lynott’s school mate and later drummer with Thin Lizzy. According to Lizzy’s American guitarist Scott Gorham, “I think at that point Phil was the only black guy in the whole country, but I never heard him complain about it. It was never an outward issue. It was like it didn’t exist. I think he’d already made up his mind, ‘I’m different, and I’m just going to deal with it. And that’s what he did.’”

But if those issues didn’t come out in his personal interactions, the sense of being an outsider was key to the music. The B-side of their Lizzy’s first hit single, Whiskey In The Jar, was called Black Boys on the Corner. Lynott sings, “I’m a little black boy and I don’t know my place…” “He was just trying to tell us who he was,” according to U2 bassist Adam Clayton, who was a just schoolboy when he met and befriended Lynott. “He was a very intelligent, cultured man, in spite of all the razmataz. He knew the power of the words.”

Thin Lizzy at the Yokohama wharf, Kanagawa, September 1980 - Hulton Archive
Thin Lizzy at the Yokohama wharf, Kanagawa, September 1980 - Hulton Archive

Equally germane to Lynott’s unique musical development was Ireland’s cultural isolation. There was no national pop radio station until 1979, international bands rarely visited and showbands playing top forty and country covers held a stranglehold had on the national network of ballroom venues. In a deeply religious, conservative country, it was difficult to be in a rock band. Groups were barred for having long hair.

Thin Lizzy were forged in adversity, and driven by the huge creative ambition of their leader. “Phil was a forceful personality,” recalls Gorham. “He was a real driver of people. He’s probably the only guy I ever worked with where I never actually saw him get tired. You’d be out on the road for six months and your ass would be draggin’. It never seemed to get to him. He was always up for the next show. The energy on that guy was just amazing.”

Playing in bands since the mid-Sixties, Lynott had his first hit in with Thin Lizzy in 1973, and didn’t break through internationally until 1976. But he was a legend in his own country. In 1980, married to comedian Leslie Crowther’s daughter, Caroline, Lynott moved into a big house in the fishing village of Howth, where I grew up. He was the rock star in our midst, the object of much awed speculation. Yet he was approachable if you were bold enough, and local bands (including U2) could call on him for advice, which he was always generous with.

But success brought other things than the mansion on the hill. In 1978, I saw him play in a Dublin ballroom with The Greedy Bastards, a band made up of members of Thin Lizzy and The Sex Pistols. U2 were the support act, and the atmosphere around the band was positively dangerous. Bono later recalled that “one of the Greedy Bastards came off stage, walked straight through the door (of the dressing room), threw up and then walked straight back on stage. Phil was at the end of Thin Lizzy and about to slide down the hill into the abyss. It was a strange moment. We really didn’t know how dark it could get for guys in a rock band.”

As Lynott fell into drug dependency, his confidence in his own talent seemed to evaporate. You can hear his desperation on Got To Give It Up, from Black Rose in 1979, an album made in the grip of addiction. Gorham has acknowledged that it was the record on which Class A drug use had got  out of control. But it is nevertheless a killer album, that also contains one of Lynott’s sweetest and most sentimental songs, Sarah, written for his firstborn daughter. He would go on to write songs for her sister, Cathleen, and his mother, Philomena. “The onstage Philip was the Philip he had in his mind,” according to Midge Ure, who played with Thin Lizzy on two tours after guitarist Gary Moore suddenly quit. “There was this constant pulling, toing and froing, between the sensitive poet and the rock star.”

Thin Lizzy went into decline as Lynott’s addiction deepened, and effectively broke up in 1983. A solo career was only sporadically successful. His marriage collapsed. I remember seeing him in a Dublin night club around this time, and I was shocked by his appearance, bloated, bedraggled, and he smelled bad, like someone who had been sleeping for days in the same clothes. “Once you become successful no one wants the gravy train to stop,” reflects former manager, Chris O’Donnell. “The demands are incredible. It’s all about the album, the tour, the merchandise, promoters, venues and road crew. And awful lot of people become dependent on the success of the band. Hindsight is a great thing. Phil could have taken five years off and he could be touring right now. The energy and drive that got him to the top was the cause of his demise. All he knew was that if he kept driving himself, he’d get somewhere.”

Thin Lizzy Rock Legends Ultimate Box Set
Thin Lizzy Rock Legends Ultimate Box Set

Three years later he was dead, another rock and roll casualty. Yet had he pulled through that period, I have little doubt that a second wind would have carried Lynott and Lizzy to even further heights, because they rank up there with Queen and AC/DC as the greatest and most entertaining hard rock bands ever, with songs of power and emotion. If he could have just held on, Thin Lizzy would be global stadium superstars today.

“When you talk about what made Lizzy so special and important, then it all starts with Phil Lynott,” says John Alcock, who produced the albums Jailbreak and Johnny The Fox (both 1976). “He was black, Irish and a poet. Now, any one of those traits would have made him unusual in rock circles, but all three together … that made him stand out. Phil would carry around books crammed full of lyrics and stories he was working on. I’ve often been asked what he might have been doing had he not died. I think he’d have been like Leonard Cohen, constantly writing poetry. Some he’d have put to music, while others he would have published in books. He was Thin Lizzy for me.”

“My memories of Phil and the band are that they were incredibly hard working,” says O’Donnell. “It’s a cliché but when you’re struggling in the early days, that’s the fun part. People say ‘what a sad demise’. I spent over ten years working with Phil, and I’m not going to spend too much time talking about the three years where things went downhill. It wasn’t all about leather trousers and swagger. This guy wrote great songs with beautiful lyrics. The rest is what happens when you drink from the poisoned chalice.”

Thin Lizzy – Rock Legends is out now (Friday 23) via UMC. Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away will be in select cinemas from Friday October 30