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Black History Month: Phil Lynott

27 October 2020

For Black History Month we revisit the life of Phil Lynott. Read how a boy from working class Dublin, who encountered hardship and difficulty in his life because of his ethnic heritage, became one of the world's biggest rock stars. 

Phil Lynott

by James Quinn

Philip Parris Lynott (‘Phil’) (1949–86), rock singer and musician, was born 20 August 1949 at Halham hospital, West Bromwich, England, son of Cecil Parris and Philomena Lynott (b. 1930), a trainee nurse, originally from Dublin. His parents had parted before he was born, but stayed loosely in touch with each other for a time afterwards. Philomena resisted pressure to give up her child for adoption and reared him herself in Manchester until he was four years old. He was then brought up by his grandparents Sarah and Frank Lynott of Leighlin Rd, Crumlin, Dublin. His mother stayed in England, but saw her son regularly and they remained very close. Of mixed race, Philip encountered occasional prejudice, but was a lively and pleasant boy and a popular figure in the locality. Educated at Armagh Road CBS and Clogher Road technical college, he had ambitions to study architecture but became an apprentice fitter and turner at Tonge and Taggart's foundry in 1967. He hated it and, with his mother's support, quit after a few weeks. He had always been interested in music, idolising Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix, and from his early teens sang with a local rock group, the Black Eagles. After they broke up in late 1966, he sang with some other bands until recruited in 1968 by Brush Shiels into Skid Row, then one of the most popular and innovative Irish rock bands. Lynott, tall and thin, with his Afro hairstyle and striking good looks, fulfilled the role of a stylish frontman, but other band members were unhappy with the quality of his singing, and in 1969 he was sacked. Convinced that he had no future as a singer, Shiels taught him to play bass guitar, and soon afterwards Lynott formed a band called Orphanage with Brian Downey, an old school friend, as drummer. After meeting Eric Bell, a guitarist from Belfast, they formed Thin Lizzy early in 1970, with Lynott on bass, vocals, and the band's main songwriter. 

After signing a recording contract with Decca and moving to London, they released their first album, Thin Lizzy, in April 1971. Although it was strongly championed by David Jensen of Radio Luxembourg, sales were disappointing, as were those of the follow-up albums, Shades of a blue orphanage (1972), Vagabonds of the western world (1973), and Fighting (1975). In November 1972 they released ‘Whisky in the jar’, a rocked-up version of a traditional Irish ballad, and two months later it reached no. 6 in the UK charts. However, the song was not representative of the band's material and they failed to build on its success; it would be three years before they had another hit. During these years Thin Lizzy often played as a support band, which usually meant performing before indifferent or hostile audiences. Lynott used this experience to hone his abilities as a performer. Initially timid and uncertain on stage, he gradually became a charismatic frontman, capable of charming any crowd. He also grew as a musician and a singer, developing a powerful, soulful voice. Very much the driving force behind the band, he became a canny media operator, assiduously cultivating rock journalists and influential contacts. 

In 1974 Eric Bell left Thin Lizzy, to be replaced by another Belfast guitarist, Gary Moore, who in turn was replaced by the Scot, Brian Robertson, and the Californian, Scott Gorham. The twin guitar sounds of Robertson and Gorham revitalised the band, and in March 1976 they finally made the breakthrough with the release of Jailbreak. Probably their best studio album, it reached no. 12 in the UK charts and no. 18 in the US, and included the hit single ‘The boys are back in town’ (8 in the UK charts and 12 in the US) which became one of the great rock anthems. On the back of its success the band toured America, but this was cut short when Lynott developed hepatitis. Although the band was enormously popular in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Germany, cracking America was Lynott's great aim, and in spring 1977 Thin Lizzy supported Queen in a three-month tour of the US. Lynott learned much from the dynamics of Queen's spectacular stage shows and also developed a liking for their extravagant lifestyle: he insisted that he too should be chauffeured around in limousines and stay only in the very best hotels, regardless of the expense. While on tour he revelled in rock-star excess, enjoying the drink, drugs, and groupies that were abundantly available. Becoming rich and famous was desperately important to Lynott and he unashamedly enjoyed the trappings of the wealthy rock star. Although he occasionally mocked his own image (particularly when at home in Dublin), he carried off the role of the swaggering rocker with some style: Bob Geldof described him as ‘the only true rock star ever to come out of Ireland’ (Putterford, 181). 

In August 1977 Thin Lizzy played one of their most memorable concerts, headlining a rock festival at Dalymount Park, Dublin. They were at their peak, and classic songs such as ‘Rosalie’, ‘Cowboy song’, and ‘Dancing in the moonlight’ were rapturously received by an adoring home crowd. During the lean years of the early '70s, the band had regularly toured Ireland and built up a loyal following – a Thin Lizzy concert was often the first experience of live rock music for many Irish teenagers. The accolades of a local audience meant a great deal to Lynott, who was intensely proud of his Irishness and working-class Dublin background. He was fascinated by Celtic mythology and had a soft-focused romantic view of Irish history on which he drew in songs such as ‘Emerald’ and ‘Roisín Dubh’. These themes were also evident in his two rather uneven books of poetry: Songs for while I'm away (1974) (dedicated to his father) and Philip (1977). 

Playing a unique blend of powerful melodic hard rock, Lizzy were now one of the world's leading rock bands, and Lynott numbered Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan among his admirers. In October 1977 the album Bad reputation reached no. 4 in the UK charts, but received mixed reviews from an increasingly censorious music press. Punk rock was changing attitudes, and established bands like Lizzy were derided for their musical predictability and macho posturing. Such criticism stung Lynott and led to a brawl with a Melody Maker journalist at the 1977 Reading festival. Anxious not to be left behind, he began to associate with punk bands such as the Boomtown Rats, the Sex Pistols and the Damned, and formed an impromptu group, the Greedy Bastards, with some punk musicians. Generous with time and advice for younger musicians, he also acted as a mentor for up-and-coming Irish bands such as the Radiators from Space and U2. 

Thin Lizzy's ability to deliver a dynamic live performance was captured perfectly with the release of the Live and dangerous double album in June 1978. Recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in November 1976, it had everything: power, melody, energy, excitement, and humour, all marshalled around Lynott's magnetic stage presence. Live and dangerous set a standard that the band never again matched and after its release they went into a creative decline. They continued to tour regularly, but success in America eluded them. Lynott could still write fine songs such as ‘Waiting for an alibi’ (1979), but albums such as Black rose (1979), Chinatown(1980), and Renegade (1981) were patchy and band members came and went. Feeling that his songwriting had become stale and formulaic, Lynott attempted to break out of the hard rock straitjacket and pursued a solo career parallel to his work with Lizzy. In April 1980 he released Solo in Soho, an uneven collection of love-struck ballads and experimental ideas, including ‘Yellow Pearl’, which became the ‘Top of the pops’ theme tune. Another solo effort, The Philip Lynott album (1982) was even less successful, with only ‘Old town’ rising above the general mediocrity. Lynott also engaged in various collaborations with musicians such as Mark Knopfler and Midge Ure, but as his output became more diffuse his career lost direction, confusing and alienating many Lizzy fans. 

Softly spoken, witty, and charming, Lynott was wonderful company, and was held in deep affection by his friends. He was, however, a complex man with a mercurial temperament, and could fly into fierce rages. For all his bravado, he never overcame an innate shyness and vulnerability; racist remarks, for example, could hurt him deeply. Drugs offered some release from his insecurities and by the early 1980s he was regularly using cocaine and heroin; on 20 August 1981 he was fined £200 at Kingston crown court for possession of cocaine. As drugs eroded his creative energy, he became increasingly irritable and irrational, venting his frustrations at other band members, and by 1983 things had reached breaking point. Thin Lizzy decided to split after a farewell tour of Europe, and played their last concert in Nuremberg on 4 September 1983. Lynott tried to revive his career in 1984 by forming a new band, Grand Slam, but the venture soon collapsed. 

Lynott's personal life was also troubled. On 14 February 1980 he married Caroline, daughter of the English comedian and television presenter Leslie Crowther. They had two daughters, Sarah and Cathleen, both of whom inspired tender love songs by their father. Although he was a devoted father, marriage made little difference to Lynott's indulgence in sex and drugs and in May 1984 he and his wife separated. Without his family and the band around which his life had revolved, he became desperately unhappy and fell into a downward spiral of depression, heavy drinking, and drug abuse. Friends who tried to help him were told that he had it all ‘sussed’; some thought he believed he was indestructible, others that he was so in thrall to the notion of the fast-blazing rock star that he wanted to go out like Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix. Despite his addiction, Lynott still had an ability to maintain his poise in public, and in 1985 became a spokesman for an anti-heroin campaign in London, but the fact that Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, both close friends, never even considered him for the Live Aid concert at Wembley in July 1985 was a measure of his decline. On Christmas day 1985 Lynott collapsed from a drug overdose at his London home in Richmond. He died 4 January 1986 at Salisbury General Infirmary, and was buried at St Fintan's cemetery, Sutton, Co. Dublin (not far from his Dublin home at Glen Corr, Howth). 

Lynott has been commemorated by numerous events, notably the annual ‘Vibe for Philo’ concert organised by his friend Smiley Bolger. In 1994 Lynott's mother and friends set up the Roisín Dubh trust to celebrate his life and music. Largely owing to their efforts, a life-sized bronze statue by Paul Daly was erected in Harry St., off Grafton St., Dublin, in August 2005. 

Hot Press, 2 Sept. 1977, 30 May 1981, 5 Mar. 1982, 30 Jan. 1986, 21 Feb. 1991, 27 July 1994; Philomena Lynott, My boy (1985) (photos); Ir. Times, 6 Jan. 1986, 13 Aug. 2005; Mark Putterford, Phil Lynott: the rocker(1994) (photos and discography); Stuart Bailie, The ballad of the thin man: the authorised biography of Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy (1996) (photos); Shay Healy, The rocker: Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott (TV documentary, 1996);

Image: "Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy)" by Leo Reynolds is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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