Saturday 16 December 2017

Taking the riff with the smooth

He was one of our finest rockers who made it cool to be Irish -- but Gary Moore was a bluesman at heart, writes Damian Corless

Northern Irish musician Gary Moore. Photo: Reuters
Northern Irish musician Gary Moore. Photo: Reuters

Damian Corless

I saw Gary Moore only once, but he made a burning impression. It was the turn of the 1980s. It was in the National Stadium. The place was a dingy kip, but it was the nation's premier rock venue. In the aftermath of punk, a guitar virtuoso like Gary Moore was officially a persona non grata. But he was in his pomp and he lit up the dowdy hall with a show of gladiatorial prowess.

The late Gary Moore, who died this week, aged 58, while on holiday in Spain, was many things. Amongst them he may have been Ireland's finest ever guitarist. He was a bluesman. He was a rocker. He could be a total smoothie. His global hit 'Parisienne Walkways' featured one of those immortal riffs that seem to have been plucked straight out of the eternal ether.

He was a maverick, feted by his many admirers as a misunderstood genius. As an in-and-out member of Thin Lizzy he contributed to some of the finest pieces of music to bear the Irish brand at a time when such symbols really meant something.

He was also a product of a 1950s Ireland that was partitioned in a peculiar way. In the South the trend was to slavishly copy the hit sounds coming over the airwaves from Britain and the USA. For some strange reason (don't ask me) the mood in the north of the island was to get down and dirty with The Blues.

Leading the way was Van Morrison and Them, who scored the most glorious of all garage hits with 'Gloria', followed by Donegal-born Rory Gallagher and, not long after, Gary Moore from Belfast.

There's a legend, apparently a true one, that after Jimi Hendrix came off stage at the Woodstock festival he was asked what it was like to be the greatest guitar player in the world. "Don't ask me," he answered. "Ask Rory Gallagher."

While Gallagher's light has shone brighter since his premature demise in 1995, that of Gary Moore has dimmed, but posterity will rectify that. The fact is that Gary Moore -- in and out and wayward and difficult and sometimes violent -- was a vital part of the lone band that brought Ireland into the modern world. Which was no mean feat.

Let's put this in context.

Most of the best things in my young life seemed to come from England -- the comics we read, the pop stars we mimicked, the sweets and cereals we crunched, Match Of The Day, Blue Peter, Top Of The Pops.

Perhaps most important of all was Top Of The Pops, but Irish acts were almost never seen on that programme.

And then came Thin Lizzy with 'Whiskey In The Jar'. It was proper rock music and it sounded Irish. And then came the most powerfully chiming anthem of the 1970s, 'The Boys Are Back In Town', and it was official -- Ireland wasn't completely naff. Which was an immense relief to an entire generation of Irish teens.

Strangely, and he would certainly never have wanted credit for it, Gary Moore was responsible for one of the most bizarre success stories of Irish rock in the early 1980s. They tried their best to look like him. They tried their best to sound like him. They were called Mama's Boys and they made a major splash in the States

Mama's Boys didn't ponce about with fancy-dan stuff like innovation and subtlety. No heavy metal cliche was left unplundered as the McManus brothers from Fermanagh did it strictly by the book. They had regulation Gary Moore big hair, big shades, big scowls, big motorbikes, dry ice, biker jackets, Flying-V guitars, more big motorbikes, bone-crunching riffs, excruciating solos and still more dry ice. And it worked.

It was Gary Moore's misfortune to become, perhaps, miscast as a heavy metal mutha in a period when heavy metal muthaing was the rage but he was so much more.

Although we should be under no misunderstanding. This was a man no stranger to bar brawls who habitually downed a bottle of brandy before going on stage.

By his own account he wasn't difficult, just particular.

He once explained: "I think that I set such high standards for myself that sometimes I expect other people to live up to these standards, and it's not fair because they're not setting the same goals for themselves. When people aren't doing their job or when I feel they're not working as hard as they should be, then I get pissed off and start yelling at them.

"Yet I don't think I'm a particularly hard person to work with. The difficulties people have with me are purely musical things, never personality things. But, you know that's just the way it goes. I like to get things right!"

While he lived the lifestyle, Gary Moore was never a rocker in the truest sense. At heart he was a bluesman, and devoted the last two decades of his career to the music he loved, collaborating with Albert King, Albert Collins and his friend George Harrison.

Ireland's second greatest guitarist, or third? (After Rory Gallagher or The Edge? You choose.) The perfectionist in him would have never stood for that.

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