Philip Lynott

 

 

PHILIP LYNOTT - VOCALS & BASS 1970 - 83

How do you begin to describe the legend that is Philip Lynott? Well, you could start by saying he was a gifted songwriter, a consummate musician, an accomplished poet, a gregarious rock star and a proud Irishman . . . you could say all these things and they

would be true, but the real man was so much more than the sum of these parts. The legacy that Philip Lynott has left behind him has captured the hearts and minds of many and I’m sure will continue to do so well into the future, but the truth is that to fully appreciate his unique talent you have to look harder at the man that was behind the legend.

 

Philip Parris Lynott was born in West Bromwich, near Birmingham, England on August the 20th 1949, the son of Philomena Lynott, (Phyllis to her friends) a white Irish Catholic mother and Cecil Parris, a black Guyanian father. Philip would have a very close relationship with his mother throughout his life but would barely become acquainted with his father. This unorthodox beginning may be the source of the many contradictions that seemed to run all the way through his tragically short, but eventful life.

As a child in Dublin, Philip grew up with the inevitable bigotry that stemmed from his parentage. Half caste black-Irish children at that time were rare and Philip became used to the jibes and condemnation of his peers. That’s not to say he took it lying down, far from it. His childhood instilled in him two things, a toughness to defend himself and what he believed in and a realisation that he was very different from those around him.

Throughout his career he often portrayed himself in both his song writing and his actions as the tough, streetwise protagonist. He realised he was a loner but took solace in the romantic and rebellious aspects of this, the characters he created in his songs were often hard drinking, streetwise fighting men, but always balanced by their sense of fair play, humour and an almost whimsical belief that love and honour would win through in the end.

Philip sought escape in his childhood heroes: the good-guys of Westerns at his local cinema and the musical icon that was Elvis Presley and later on, Jimi Hendrix. At an early age Philip decided that he wanted emulate his heroes and to become a musician and set about making this dream a reality; a school friendship led to Philip and drummer Brian Downey forming ‘The Black Eagles’. This was a steadfast musical partnership that would last throughout Philips life beginning with the formative gigs they played in Dublin with Philip eagerly honing his stagecraft. After the demise of ‘The Black Eagles’ Philip was recruited by Brush Sheils to sing in his own band, the locally well known Skid Row. It was during this time that two more important parts of Philips life took shape, he decided that to further his musicality he needed to play an instrument and opted for the bass, which Brush began to teach him. Philip was an avid learner and soon began composing his own material. It was also during this time that Philip met the Belfast born Gary Moore. Gary was the guitarist with Skid Row and again a musical partnership was born that would endure until the very end of Philips life. Although not without incident, it’s probably best described that Philip and Gary were like two gunfighters in one town, both wanted the spotlight. This at its best would provide a creative friction that would fuel some of the best work that either have ever done, at its worst it would leave them on non-speaking terms for 3 years.

 

In his infinite wisdom at this time Brush Sheils decided that Skid Row were best suited as a 3 piece and that Philip's services were no longer needed. Philip took this rejection in the best possible way, he formed his own band: Orphanage. Conceived as a pick-up band, members would come and go as they pleased and gigs were played more as jams than structured sets. This set up did little to further Philips desire to have a solid band that he could be proud of and it wasn’t until a chance meeting with Belfast born guitarist Eric Bell that the idea of the 3 piece that would become known as Thin Lizzy was born. Eric was an experienced musician fresh off the show-band circuit, with a burning desire to produce original and innovative music. Soon after, Thin Lizzy was born.

July 1970 saw Lizzy release its first ever single, the Ireland only 'The Farmer', much gigging followed, along with the inevitable move to England. This line-up went on to release 3 albums and saw Philip taste his first commercial success in the form of the 'Whiskey in the Jar' single. Eric Bell left the band due to personal pressures in late ‘73 and Gary Moore came in for his first of three short but fruitful tenures with the band. Philips song writing at this time varied between the openly sensitive (Dublin, Sarah) and the more earthy, hard hitting tunes (The Rocker) that would be typical of Thin Lizzy’s later output.

It was with some trepidation that Philip and Brian Downey looked for replacement guitarists in 1974, little did they know that salvation was just around the corner. When Scott Gorham and Brian 'Robbo' Robertson joined the band that year Philip had found the personnel that would be hailed as their 'classic' period and would lead them all to stardom, critical acclaim, financial success and the recognition that they so richly deserved.

Two further albums (Nightlife and Fighting) and 1976 saw the band at a watershed moment in their career, it was make or break time. The band was 6 years old and with 5 albums behind them they had only scraped the surface of success with 'Whiskey in the Jar'. They desperately needed a break, and with the release of 'The Boys Are Back in Town' single and the 'Jailbreak album that’s exactly what they got. In the best tradition of all 'rags to riches' stories the band were shot from obscurity to be hailed as all conquering heroes almost overnight. While this event belied the many years hard work, determination and commitment that they had put behind the Lizzy name, they definitely revelled in their time, and quickly became as notorious for their hard-partying offstage demeanour as the electric, storming performances that encapsulated their stage show. This time saw Philip perfect the 'Johnny Cool' stage persona that fit so perfectly with the times. He was a happy man both on and off stage and things seemed as if they couldn’t get any better.

 

With the first in a series bad luck incidents the band were forced to curtail their US tour due to Philip catching Hepatitis, yet he used this enforced lay off productively to write their follow up: 'Johnny the Fox'. Quickly becoming another success the band followed this with extensive touring and intensive partying.

1977 saw Gary Moore temporarily replace Brian Robertson after an incident on a night out had left him with a damaged hand and unable to play. Somewhat tellingly, Robbo did not immediately rejoin the band as they recorded the 'Bad Reputation' album, and only participated in the final stages of its production. The truth was that Philip had become tired of Robbo's excesses and unreliability and the writing was on the wall. The following year saw the release of what is commonly regarded as their finest hour and one of the greatest live albums ever released, the Live and Dangerous double album and the eventual departure of Brian Robertson.

 

Lizzy had reached their zenith, with Live and Dangerous they had effectively described themselves in the best way they possibly could: an explosive live band with the musicianship and song writing ability to back up their showmanship. Philip’s song writing had evolved into something that could be eloquent, beautiful and romantic (Still in Love with You, Romeo and The Lonely Girl) and an emotive and heartfelt call to arms (Warriors, Massacre, Soldier of Fortune).

 

They had effectively survived the purging of the music scene that punk had brought about (due in no small part to Philip's astute involvement in the punk-ish side project that was The Greedies and his offstage affability with journalists), but were about to face the same challenge that most successful bands face at some point in their career, how to top a very successful album, in retrospect, no one felt the pressure of this challenge more than Philip. They set about this task in 1979 with Gary Moore yet again taking the vacant guitar post and produced the excellent, yet openly more commercial 'Black Rose' album. Hit singles and sell out tours followed, and Lizzy and Philip remained kings of the late seventies music scene.

 

It was at this point that most people who were close to him at the time acknowledge that Philip began to feel the pressures of success for the first time. As a musician in the 1970's Philip was more than aware of all the excesses available to a man in his position but as the decade drew to a close whatever excesses had preceded were replaced by a more dangerous acquaintance with hard drugs like heroin.

None of us will ever know what exactly led to this ultimately fatal decision, but it is likely a combination of events: a 'natural' up scaling of previous substances, escape from the pressures of what he described as everybody’s need for him to be his onstage, larger than life stage presence 24 hours a day and the realisation that it was just possible Thin Lizzy weren’t going to get any bigger.

Philip had met and married the girl of his dreams (Caroline Crowther, daughter of TV game show host Leslie) and had two beautiful daughters that were the centre of his world. Yet in his actions he remained a contradiction. On the one hand he wanted nothing more than to be the loving father and husband, at home with his family, on the other he loved to be on tour with his band and friends, revelling in all the excesses and limelight that this provided. Inevitably this situation led to disaster and by the early 80’s he was separated from his wife and children, an outcome that many acknowledge broke his heart.

 

Gary Moore has since gone on record to say that Philip had a darker side to him that leaned towards a reluctance to acknowledge the need to grow any older and a distance that separated him from his friends, family and colleagues, the further he went down his chosen road. It is certain that in the later stages of his life that he felt increasingly alone in the burden of retaining his success and standing.

Gary Moore's less than amicable departure in '79 led to the recruitment of Snowy White, a primarily blues based guitarist, who had previously played with Pink Floyd and Peter Green. Seen in retrospect as not an obvious choice for such an ebullient act as Lizzy, Philip hoped that Snowy would bring further musical credibility to the band and add a light and shade that he had suspected had been missing. While White's musical prowess and ability were not in question, he was ill at ease with the bands image and found it hard to disguise his lack of interest in their harder edged material. A greater contrast to the aggressive mature of Gary Moore and Robbo's playing could not imagined and Snowy did little to ease the pressure of the role of frontman that Philip had on his shoulders, preferring to remain enigmatic onstage whereas a band like Lizzy demanded more action.

This line up produced two albums (Chinatown and Renegade) both of which contained their high points (the title tracks in particular) and by mid '82 Snowy had departed the band. Both albums, although successful had done nothing to further the stature of the band and by the time Snowy left just 4 short years after the creative peak of Live and Dangerous things began to look less than happy. Philip was worried that the band shouldn’t ever descend into a parody of their former glory and in '83 it was decided that with the recruitment of guitarist John Sykes that the 'Thunder and Lightning' album should be their swansong.

In contrast with the perceived stagnation of Lizzy at this point, Philip had released two excellent solo albums during this time: 'Solo in Soho' in '80 and 'The Philip Lynott Album' in '82. Both showcased an artist with a diverse ability in song writing and a more sensitive and experimental side that was obviously confined within the guitar driven, rock format of Thin Lizzy. Yet within these songs, some of the most personal and telling that he would ever write are tragic signposts to his future. The melancholy and haunting, yet somehow starkly beautiful sentiments of songs like Fatalistic Attitude, Somebody Else’s Dream and Solo in Soho showed a man at a crossroads, doubting his faith in the future and wondering what it was all about.

 

Ironically, the farewell album and tour of '83 was hailed as one of Thin Lizzy’s greatest moments, harking back to the glory days of '76-'78 and Lizzy bowed out in late '83 after sell out shows and the excellent 'Life' double live album. Philip Lynott's band was described by many as being his life and at the beginning of 1984 he found himself without that band and many of the friends that had surrounded him in that enterprise. Undeterred and unbowed, he set about creating a new band to take him forward. He hoped that this was a chance for a new beginning and that what he perceived as being the negative aspects of Lizzy, such as having to play much of the Live and Dangerous set every night, could be set aside.

Grand Slam, Philip's new band, featuring former Magnum keyboard player Mark Stanway and a relative host of unknown musicians set about creating a host of new material and a live following in early '84. Again, the bad luck was prevalent and Philip found that they were unfairly compared against Lizzy. 'Slam had no intention of trying to copy Lizzy, instead going for a more current '80's sound the band toured throughout '84, yet as that year drew to a close Philip realised that the band were not going to secure a record deal and folded them. This was a crying shame as the band played some great performances and encapsulated some great material in their set, much of which would see the light of day long after their demise.

 

1985 began as a year of promise; with Philip recording what would become the smash hit single ‘Out in the Fields’ with Gary Moore. The two had long since buried their differences and had created a Lizzy-esque slice of rock/pop that perfectly fitted the period. This renewed vigour and success led to Philip securing a solo recording deal with Polydor and begin recording what would have been his third solo album. The first single from this, ‘Nineteen’ showed an artist with a renewed hope and aggression, eager to recapture his former position. As 1985 drew to a close things looked better for Philip Lynott than they had for some time and no one expected what was to follow.

During the Christmas holiday Philip collapsed at his home in Richmond, London and was put to bed with suspected flu. It was at this time that Philomena, his ever loving mother discovered the shocking truth that Philip had been an intravenous heroin user for many years and was seriously ill.

 

Philip was taken to Salisbury Infirmary, where doctors did their best to save him. In the following days he bravely fought for his life but by the 4th of January 1986 Philip Lynott was dead at the age of 36. The official cause of death was recorded as multiple internal abscesses causing blood poisoning leading to kidney, liver and heart failure.

The shockwave of Philip Lynott’s death is still being felt today, on that sad day the world lost one of its greatest songwriters and musicians, but it also lost one of its greatest characters. Philip Lynott, in his short but incomparable life, had encapsulated the dreams of many, he had gone from nothing to everything and had retained his values, sense of humour and down to earth attitude, he was the man in the street that proved we can all attain our dreams. He remains one of the best-loved singer / songwriters of the 20th century, and has left behind an incomparable legacy of music and words that will enthral and remind us of his unique presence into the distant future.

 

David Hirst