It was Eric Bell who came up with the idea of Tin Lizzie, like the comic spelling. It was on a kind of a shortlist, and I remember sitting there going ‘Nah, that doesn’t sound too good…’
In my mind, I am whizzing back in time to the early 1980s. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal is in full swing and I’m in a local gigging band named RPM. We’re at a band practice in a cold concrete changing room attached to a local sports field and we are discussing drummers. It’s basically a debate about whether Neil Peart of Rush or Brian Downey of Thin Lizzy is the best rock drummer in the world. Other sticksmen get honourable mentions, but neither is seriously put forward as a contender.
It’s just been so long since Thin Lizzy’s front man and leading light, Phil Lynott, succumbed at the age of 36 to a mass of toxic complications caused by the fashionable rock’n’roll excesses of his day – not long after that conversation took place in fact. How strange it is, well over three decades later, bare weeks after the rock world mourns the loss of Neil Peart to brain cancer, that I find myself tapping numbers into a phone that I hope will get me through to Dublin, the home of the Thin Lizzy legacy. The call connects, and none other than Brian Downey answers the phone. I intend to tax his memory…
Firstly, it’s known that Thin Lizzy based their name on the ancient motor car known as the Tin Lizzie – or more accurately, from a comic book character named after the car. But I’ve always wanted to know how the name morphed and changed spelling in that way?
“One day,” Downey begins in classic storybook fashion, “we were sitting in the Countdown Club in Dublin when we were starting off, and I think it was Eric Bell who came up with the idea of Tin Lizzie, like the comic spelling. It was on a kind of a shortlist, and I remember sitting there going ‘Nah, that doesn’t sound too good…’ We went through another few names, but for some reason we kept coming back to that one. After five or six different names we came back to Tin Lizzie, and the next day we came back to it as well, then Eric came up with the idea of putting the ‘h’ in; he said ‘Well in Dublin, nobody pronounces the ‘th’ anyway, so it would just be a little bit of a joke.’ I think we did a couple of gigs calling ourselves Thin Lizzie with an ‘ie’. Like myself, he was a Beano aficionado. We used to have comics in the van going to gigs as well, we were big comic guys.” Indeed, spellings of the advertised name ranged in those early days from Thin Lizzie to Tin Lizzy, or any of various combinations before they nailed down the spelling; one newspaper memorably referred to them as Tin Lissy.
Another point of variance is where they played their first gig. Some authorities cite an unnamed ‘school hall in Cloghran’; others insist it was St. Anthony’s Hall in Clontarf. Downey is an advocate of Cloghran, but he acknowledges the confusion. “I think it was Cloghran, it was outside of Dublin as far as I remember. A lot of people do remember that gig in St. Anthony’s Hall though, including our ex-Manager Terry O’Neill, who mentioned to me years ago that it was our first gig, though I always had the idea that we played in Cloghran first. So I’m not really sure, but it’s definitely one of those two gigs!”
Great, so that’s cleared up then. What about the first album? For those who are not familiar, their 1971 self-titled long-playing debut features a photo taken with a fisheye lens at extremely close quarters of the headlight of a rather dilapidated 1950s motor car in an urban street. The car’s headlight has had another wide-angle photo carefully superimposed on top of it, of apparently the same car from a different angle. With the eye of the true obsessive, I long to know what type of car it is, but he can’t say for sure. For those who wish to know, I now have it on good authority that it was a 1957/58 Vauxhall Victor ‘F’ Series. What Downey can tell me though, is that the photo wasn’t taken anywhere in Ireland.
“That photo was just picked out of a Decca photograph archive. We got hold of it maybe a couple of days later; it was sent by post and (Co-Manager) Ted Carroll said, do you want to use it or not? We said OK, but whether we had given permission or not, I think they would have still used it. It’s not a brilliant photograph for the first album by any means, but we had no say in the matter. It could look like any street in Dublin; there’s not much difference, but it was England somewhere, it’s definitely not Ireland, because if you look at the street signs, they have a white background. Street signs here have a kind of green background!”
Stuck for a B-side, they ended up, at the insistence of their management, recording a traditional Irish folk song named ‘Whisky In The Jar’.
That first album, which was a melange of quite glorious poetry laid over some remarkably complex and imaginative early prog arrangements, sadly sank like a stone at the time, as did their second outing, Shades Of A Blue Orphanage, despite all the airplay they were getting from DJ Kid Jensen on radio Caroline. Then there was one of those freak occurrences that occur from time to time in popular music, in which a band that is struggling to make headway in their chosen genre has a massive hit with a leftfield novelty song. Lynott had written a piece of urban grime named ‘Ballad Of A Black Man’, which played on the blaxploitation genre popular at the time and was booked in to be their next single. Stuck for a B-side, they ended up, at the insistence of their management, recording a traditional Irish folk song named ‘Whisky In The Jar’. And yes, before people start writing in telling me that in Ireland, as in the US, ‘whiskey’ is spelled with an extra ‘e’, pull out your old copy of the single and check – it was officially, and probably wrongly, spelled in the Scottish fashion. ‘Whisky’ became a massive hit and got the boys on to Top Of The Pops for the first time. If you’ve ever wondered what that “Musha ring dumma do dumma da” bit is all about, with its “whack for ma daddy-o,” the answer is that no-one really knows, as Brian explains:
“Whoever wrote it originally stuck a Gaelic phrase in there, but over the years, the Gaelic was lost and the English was substituted. I mean the song is pretty ancient; ‘Highwayman songs’ they used to be called. And it was mispronounced over all those years, so it comes out as ‘musha ring dumma do dumma da’, then it’s actually ‘whack fol, (with an L), de-daddy-o.’”
It must have pained the lyrical poet Lynott to have to sing gobbledegook, and the whole band tried to distance themselves from it to some extent, as it was really not representational of the image they were trying to build. Nevertheless, its success put them in their record label Decca’s good books, and they got right behind the third album, a prog masterpiece named Vagabonds Of The Western World, with a stupendous, fantasy sci-fi sleeve designed by fellow Dubliner Jim Fitzpatrick.
Kid Jensen actually got to guest on this one, as the narrator on a piece of psychedelic prog named ‘The Hero And The Madman’, which is mostly spoken word. Lynott’s voice can briefly be heard uttering a few lines as ‘The Madman’, but there are voices all over this; other characters, crowd scenes, the lot. Downey says it was all Lynott. “That’d be Phil’s voice, either sped up or slowed down; (Producer) Nick Tauber suggested we could kind of disguise the voices. As far as I know, Kid Jensen was the only other person who had a speaking role; I think Phil did all the other voices.”
There are bongos and congas and all kinds of stuff on that track; Downey played everything except the congas, which were supplied by a Nigerian music conductor named Kofi Ayivor. In fact there often seems to be some varied and imaginative percussion going on in those early days, claves, timbales; sometimes there are kettle drums, (or timpanis) involved, but it’s not always easy to hear where, as Downey does like a deep tom.
“I used to tune the toms to my own ear; I didn’t have any special way of tuning the drums, but sometimes I used timpanis at the suggestion of other members of the band. But we had to hire them in, and at that stage we didn’t really have much cash. You come up with these things on the spur of the moment, you’d have to hire them in and it may take a couple of days or even a week sometimes. But I used to tune the toms as low as I could. I liked that deep tom sound that was going on back in the seventies and early eighties; it was just a matter of personal taste.”
One time he definitely used timpanis though, was on Do Anything You Want To, from Black Rose. “That one is definitely timpanis! Actually if you look at the video for that, the whole band is using timpanis! Gary Moore, Phil, Scott and I are all playing them, but on the record it’s just me. In fact we used to wheel out the timpanis on stage, so all the members could play them live. The guys would put their guitars round their backs, pick up the timpani sticks and start playing in the middle of the song! That was a big feature when Gary was in the band.”
In between the initial period with Eric Bell and the Gary Moore days though, would come the time that most fans think of as the ‘classic era’, with the dual guitar attack of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson. Eric Bell had crashed out of the band in unfortunate circumstances – despite having a hit with Whisky and all the lush packaging of their magnum opus, Vagabonds too had sunk without trace. Cracks in the trio started to appear, coming to a head at a New Year’s Eve gig in Belfast at the end of 1973, when Eric completely melted down in alcohol-fuelled frustration, threw his guitar in the air, kicked over his amps and stumbled off to sleep in a dark corner. Lynott and Downey finished the gig as a duo and Bell was out; a couple of temps were engaged for the sake of touring, then Lynott and Downey went shopping for a permanent replacement.
“I had met Brian Robertson a year, maybe a year and a half before that, at a gig in Glasgow with his girlfriend,” says Downey, “and he had his guitar with him. He ended up in my hotel room, I can’t remember how, but he was there with his girlfriend, playing me back the first two Lizzy albums! And I was really, really impressed with him, it was incredible playing; he was quite young, much younger than me, and I thought this guy’s great, but that was it – he played, said goodbye, said I’ll see you the next time you play in Glasgow, and that was it; never thought I’d bump in to him again.”
As it happened though, Lizzy had a Scottish guitar tech named Charlie MacLennan on their books, and Charlie knew the youthful prodigy Brian Robertson, who hailed from the outskirts of Glasgow. Lizzy had already been auditioning for weeks and Robbo was planning to come down to London to try out for a different band; it was Charlie who put him on to Lizzy’s predicament. “I didn’t know Charlie was a friend of Brian Robertson’s back then,” says Downey. “Brian was actually coming down from Glasgow to audition as a drummer for a band; I think he got the gig as a drummer, and then the day after that he took Charlie’s advice and came to Thin Lizzy’s audition. I recognised him immediately when he turned up, and we had a conversation for about 15 minutes. Then Phil obviously found out that I kind of knew him; that broke the ice nicely. And then when he started playing, everyone went what? Wow, this guy can play as well. He was picked on the spot, after about a half hour playing.”
That was that then as far as Downey was concerned, but for some reason they just kept on auditioning. “I said to Phil, look man, it’s over a month now since we started these auditions, I’m getting sick of it you know.” Eventually Lynott confessed his intention to get hold of a spare guitarist in case another one blew up on stage. His new scheme was to try out with a twin guitar attack in the Wishbone Ash fashion, and maybe 4 or 5 days later, Scott Gorham turned up.
Gorham was to go on to be a cornerstone of the band for the rest of its existence, and even afterwards, when Lizzy’s remains morphed into Black Star Riders, but Robbo and Phil unfortunately rubbed each other up the wrong way. There is a popular story that they had a massive bust-up over the song Don’t Believe A Word, which was originally written as a ballad, but ended up on the album Johnny The Fox as a short and succinct hard rocker. The usual story goes that Robertson called the original arrangement ‘shite’ and refused to have anything to do with it, and there was a huge row – Lynott stormed out to calm down and Robbo and Downey worked up the rocking arrangement that was eventually incorporated on to the album. Downey gives the story a much calmer spin though.
“We left it and came back to it a few times, but it wasn’t really happening; we had enough slow songs, we didn’t need another one. I think it was Brian Robertson who said, if that’s the case, why don’t we just bring the tempo up? Make it a blues shuffle. So that’s what we did. But when Gary Moore came into the band, we went back to the slow version. I personally thought both versions were good; I thought we could have used either on the album. But it was perhaps just a little too slow and we didn’t need another slow song; maybe that’s the reason we rocked it up a little bit.”
There’s no doubt that sparks flew between the Glaswegian and the Dubliner though, and Lynott was the band leader without question – so when Robbo got into a pub fight in the early hours when he should have been home getting his beauty sleep on the eve of a big US tour, there were ructions. Robertson was out with their old mucker Frankie Miller; Robertson claims that he was only there for a meal, but Miller got plastered and started aggravating the band on stage. It quickly escalated to a full-on rumble, Miller was about to be bottled in the face, and Robbo piled in to save him, suffering a lacerated hand in the process. He couldn’t play, the tour had to be cancelled at extremely late notice, Lizzy arguably lost their best chance of breaking the American market, Lynott was fuming and Robbo was given his marching orders.
The news that Gary Moore would be rejoining as a full member was mouth-watering…
The band managed to pull back a bit of credibility by supporting Queen on their US tour a matter of weeks later, with Gary Moore deputising for Robbo on what would become known as the Queen Lizzy tour. With two of the biggest bands from the British Isles making it almost a double-bill, the tour was hugely popular, but Moore was a stop-gap, and for their next album, Bad Reputation, they were a three-piece with Scott Gorham doing all the guitar overdubs himself. Famously though, Gorham reportedly refused point blank to finish the album without at least some input from Robbo, who flew to Canada to lay down a couple of solos. I mention to Downey that Scott must have been mad keen to keep the firm together.
“I think we all were!” says Downey. “The only person who wasn’t happy was Phil. It got to the stage where Phil realised he couldn’t function in that situation any longer, and he made it plain to everybody else that if we were going to get this album done, it was going to be as a three-piece. We were going to Canada to do it, and if we really wanted Brian Robertson, he could come out and play some overdubs. I hoped that after a couple of weeks he would come back into the band, but Phil had obviously made his mind up, and there had to be a change. I think Brian at that stage realised that his job was on the line anyway; it was a mixture of him leaving and being forced out. They made up after he left – when Brian formed Wild Horses, Phil went down a few times and got up and jammed with them maybe a year or so later, but it was too late by then.”
Mixed feelings aplenty then – the announcement that Robbo was leaving was greeted with utter dismay in the fan community, although conversely the news that Gary Moore would be rejoining as a full member was mouth-watering. Everyone knew the guy was a rock guitar genius and he had been associated with Lizzy on and off since the very earliest days; they shared the same DNA. He stayed for just one album, considered by many to be the peak of Thin Lizzy’s output, the stunning Black Rose: A Rock Legend. Moore fitted like a glove, and also got behind some of the stuff Robertson hadn’t – the band added the slow version of Don’t Believe A Word to their live set, and between them Moore and Lynott resurrected an old project that had met resistance before, a medley of traditional songs that would eventually become the album’s title track. Starting off with a bit of nostalgia about Irish legends, then adding a section from US anthem Shenendoah and Scottish folk song Wild Mountain Thyme, it incorporates an extract from Irish favourite Danny Boy before launching into a mad, bad and dangerously rapid section. I ask Downey what that tune is.
“That tune’s called The Mason’s Apron. That whole section is Gary. It was only when we went on tour some months later that we rehearsed the song with Scott playing the answering guitar. We didn’t really have a problem with it, but there were fluff-ups at gigs because it was difficult to play!”
Phil Lynott of course was the main focus and recognisable face of Thin Lizzy, but Brian Downey was there from day one, and even before that, because they had played together in bands The Black Eagles and Orphanage before Thin Lizzy even formed. From the moment Scott Gorham joined at the inception of the ‘classic’ lineup, he too has been a stalwart. The other guitar spot, on the other hand, has been a revolving door. After Eric Bell, the temps, Robertson and then Moore, no one else quite seemed to fit the bill, good as they were. Former Pink Floyd and Peter Green wingman Snowy White seemed a bit too laid back and bluesy; John Sykes from Tygers Of Pan Tang was a bit too metal, various temps came and went in between and after that the band split up. I ask Downey whether Lynott wrote particular songs with certain guitarists in mind?
“I don’t think so, because he had a specific way of writing, and his main objective was to get the arrangement right from day one. Once the arrangement was there, he had a better idea of who might be suitable to play the solos. But then we didn’t have much choice in the matter – if someone left, we’d have to phone guys up and try to get them in as quickly as possible. Whoever was in the band would have to play the arrangement that Phil had in mind; you weren’t given a choice!”
It must have been troublesome to keep changing band members, but Downey accepts it with a shrug. “I know a lot of people these days are praising Thin Lizzy’s guitar players, but back in the day some of them were criticised, especially Snowy White and John Sykes. Snowy was a great guitar player; I don’t know why all the criticism came up. It was just because the image was weird; he wasn’t your regular guitar gunslinger kind of guy. He was laid back, he didn’t move too much like all the other guys did, but what he played was just superb! No problems with his playing whatsoever, a fantastic guitar player. And I liked him as a guy; I got on quite well with Snowy, and he got on well with everybody – well, maybe apart from Phil!
“We were playing a gig in Dublin one time, and we were staying in the Gresham hotel. Snowy got up to get breakfast at 8 or 9 o’clock one morning and went downstairs as Phil was coming up. Snowy says, Oh, did you have breakfast Phil? And Phil says Breakfast? No, I’m just coming in from the Pink Elephant nightclub. I think that kind of opened Snowy’s eyes a bit that Phil was staying out half the nights on the piss.
“Snowy was great, there’s no doubt. And John Sykes; he really kind of saved the band at the end of the day when he came in. We played a farewell tour and I think we had a month, maybe two months pencilled in, but that whole tour went on for over a year in the end.”
The tour marked the end of the band, but not of its members. Amongst other projects, Lynott cobbled together a band named Grand Slam and recruited Downey to play the drums. It wasn’t all it could have been though, as Downey explains:
“I decided not to go ahead with it in the end because I found the band was so shambolic and unrehearsed, I kind of got cold feet. We were on the verge of an Irish tour and we just didn’t have the set together at all. Phil was turning up six, seven hours late, which was crazy, there were only a few days to go and I said look, we have to cancel this tour. Compared to Thin Lizzy, this is an absolute shambles. They got Robbie Brennan in the end and it went ahead, and they kind of jammed the whole tour. It wasn’t memorable, and I don’t know why Phil went ahead with it.”
It wasn’t a glorious moment for the Irish vagabond unfortunately, but Phil was massively involved in various musical projects right down to the end, recording solo material, collaborating with widely-varied artists and mentoring smaller acts. Some may not realise that the massive duet Out In The Fields he did with Gary Moore, released in May 1985 a couple of years after Lizzy folded, was the highest-charting single he was ever involved with, reaching no. 5 in the UK – a swan song indeed, as he collapsed on Christmas day that year, suffering from septicaemia and heart failure brought on by ongoing, heavy drug use. Phil died in Salisbury infirmary on January 4th 1986 at the age of 36.
It didn’t seem realistic to continue as a recording band without Lizzy’s famous face; nevertheless members of the band could not help but keep the music and Lynott’s lyrics alive. Thin Lizzy has reformed with various lineups over many years playing existing material, first with John Sykes at the mic and later with Irishman Ricky Warwick, and still puts in sporadic appearances to this day. When they inevitably started writing original music again, it was recorded under the band name Black Star Riders out of respect for Lynott’s legacy, but their debut single Bound For Glory couldn’t have sounded more Lizzy if it was Lizzy. They have evolved their own style over the intervening four albums, but Scott Gorham is the only remaining member from the Lizzy days.
Brian Downey, effectively semi-retired, still plays on the occasions when Thin Lizzy get back together, and has also formed his own band named Brian Downey’s Alive & Dangerous, which gigs a set of Lizzy material drawn predominantly – but not exclusively – from their classic Live And Dangerous album. An all-Irish 4-piece and more than a tribute band, it’s a rocking nostalgia-fest with the real Brian Downey on the drums. It’s also a storming show if you get a chance to see it. As for the ‘best rock drummer in the world’ question – it’s still up for debate…
Many thanks to Larry Canavan for supplying the photos