Sunday 18 March 2018

Thirty years on: in memory of a master - Phil Lynott

Giant of song: Phil Lynott, who died 30 years ago on Monday.
Giant of song: Phil Lynott, who died 30 years ago on Monday.
John Meagher

John Meagher

I was 10 when Phil Lynott died, 30 years ago on Monday. I remember it distinctly because my aunt Sally passed away around the same time and is buried just a few metres away in St Fintan's Cemetery, Sutton, on the northside of Dublin.

As a child I couldn't conceive of how young 36 truly was but now, of course, it's easy to see that this giant of song departed way too soon.

It's intriguing to think of the sort of music he might have left behind had he lived - and fought off the drugs and alcohol demons that effectively killed him. Hot Press's well regarded writer, the late Bill Graham, noted at the time that he was one of the Irish musicians most likely to successfully explore the embryonic genre of rap.

It wouldn't have been such a leap of the imagination because Phil Lynott embraced so many genres in his career - rock, blues, folk, country, trad, jazz, pop - you name it. He was a musician who wasn't content to simply repeat himself, but constantly wanted to try new things whether they were a success or not.

Lynott's glory days were the 1970s - when he and Thin Lizzy were at the peak of their powers - but in the very prolific period between 1980 and 1983 he really threw caution to the wind and his songs embraced everything from heavy rock to synth-pop. In those four years, there were three Lizzy albums - Chinatown, Renegade and Thunder And Lightning - and two solo albums, Solo In Soho and The Philip Lynott Album.

And it was on those solo efforts that Lynott allowed himself to be especially experimental. Solo In Soho in 1980 may have featured several Lizzy members but it also had contributions from a pre-fame Huey Lewis - who would borrow 'Tattoo (Giving It All Up For Love)' for his own solo album - and from Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler, who played guitar on the Elvis Presley homage 'King's Call'.

Midge Ure - who was a temporary Lizzy member at the time, having stood in for a departed Gary Moore on tour - co-wrote the synth-led 'Yellow Pearl' with Lynott, a song that pointedly alluded to Yellow Peril, the name given to the irrational fear many whites had of other ethnicities at the start of the 20th century.

A far more commercial version of 'Yellow Pearl' would also appear on The Philip Lynott Album two years later. By the time of that album's release, the song was already very well known thanks to its use as the theme song for Top Of The Pops, a position it held until 1986 when replaced by Paul Hardcastle's 'The Wizard'.

His second solo album boasted one of the emblematic songs of Lynott's career, 'Old Town', a tune whose jaunty arrangement belied the key line: "This boy is cracking up." It's now thought of as a Dublin classic thanks to the wonderfully evocative video shot by the late Bob Collins, but the spoken worded intro about "the old Covent Garden" suggests its inspiration lay across the Irish Sea.

There's greater ambiguity about the 'town' that inspired one of Thin Lizzy's best loved anthems, and while 'The Boys Are Back In Town' might be considered to be an alternative Irish anthem, it's actually thought to be about Manchester and its so-called Quality Street gang. Lynott lived there briefly as a boy when his mother, Philomena, ran the Clifton Grange Hotel (the title of a song on Lizzy's debut album).

But Dublin does feature in the Phil Lynott songbook, especially on the aforementioned Lizzy debut from 1971 with 'The Friendly Ranger Of Clontarf Castle' kicking off proceedings and the sweet, delicate ballad 'Dublin' appearing on CD versions of the album. As with the video for 'Old Town' which features aspects of the metropolis that are long gone, such as the gasometer that loomed over the Liffey, 'Dublin' also makes reference to a vanishing city: Derby Square, an alley near Christ Church Cathedral, was sacrificed to progress in the early 1990s.

Lynott recorded little in the three years up to his death. With latter Lizzy and solo material attracting lukewarm reviews at best, he might have questioned his own ability. With punk and then post-punk in the ascendency following Lizzy's finest album, 1976's Jailbreak, he may have felt acutely aware that he was perceived as a dinosaur by some. On 'Cathleen' in 1982, he was musing, "If the song that I write is no good/ Won't you listen to it, please anyway?"

'Cathleen' was written for his youngest daughter. His other daughter is the subject of the delightful 'Sarah' - the loveliest song written by a new father about his infant child since David Bowie's 'Kooks' a decade before.

Since his death, Lynott's legacy has grown and the true impact of his work can be felt on musicians as diverse as Motorhead, The Cardigans and Jape. Great credit should go to his friend, the redoubtable Smiley Bolger, who has been ensuring that Dublin hosts a night in tribute to the great man every year since 1987.

This year's Vibe For Philo, which will be held in Vicar Street on Monday, will be particularly special considering the landmark anniversary it's commemorating. Among the guests playing will be Eric Bell, who was a member of Thin Lizzy for their first three albums (and reportedly came up with the band name), and Brian Downey who played with both Lizzy and on Lynott's solo albums.

Others performing on the night will be The Hoodoos, the local band whose frontman Johnny 'The Fox' Conlon is celebrated for his Lynott-like vocal delivery and Dutch tribute act Parris (named after the singer's middle name, which was also his father's surname) plus Irish singer-songwriter Fiach Moriarty and The Low Riders, the latter of which are no strangers to this annual knees-up.

I've attended the Vibe on a number of occasions and have always been struck by the very high esteem in which the singer is held. It will be a night to remember - and to celebrate.

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