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Tuesday 22 January 2019

The last night of Irish punk? Remembering this end-of-an-era gig 40 years ago

Damian Corless remembers a unique end-of-an-era gig that took place 40 years ago this month, featuring a heady mix of Sex Pistols and Thin Lizzy

Makings of a supergroup: Thin Lizzy's Brian Robertson, Phil Lynott and Scott Gorham in 1978. Lynott and Gorham both performed as part of The Greedy Bastards
Makings of a supergroup: Thin Lizzy's Brian Robertson, Phil Lynott and Scott Gorham in 1978. Lynott and Gorham both performed as part of The Greedy Bastards

Forty years ago, on the winter solstice of 1978, a singular star-crossed alignment took place on the northside of Dublin. That Christmas, for one night only, an audience was treated to the spectacle of rock'n'roll's past, present and future come together in the one place and time. As the headlining coalition of Thin Lizzy and Sex Pistols gleefully tore through a ramshackle catalogue of classics, they had no inkling that their anaemic support band (a fledgling U2) would one day tower over them all. The headliners called themselves The Greedy Bastards, but for Top of the Pops and genteel consumption they were The Greedies.

Remarkably, rock'n'roll past that night was represented by Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. A mere 18 months earlier the Pistols had been the most 'now' thing on the planet, the enfants terribles at the epicentre of a punk explosion that would reset music, fashion and mindsets. By the Christmas of 1978, Cook and Jones were dazed bystanders at their own career car-crash. Their talisman Johnny Rotten had walked out in the middle of an American show, while just a week before this Dublin visit their bassist Sid Vicious had been thrown into New York's notorious Riker's Island prison on charges of murdering his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in a stupified knife attack.

Rock'n'roll present that night took the form of Thin Lizzy. Blighted by in-fighting and substance issues, Phil Lynott's outfit had come through a spell almost as chaotic as that of the Pistols to hit a daunting creative and commercial peak in 1978. It was the heyday of the deeply dubious double-live album, but by common consent Lizzy's Live and Dangerous was the greatest of that genre and it was still riding high in the charts.

On a visit home earlier that year, the ever quotable Lynott reflected: "When I'm in Ireland I say I'm from Dublin. When I'm in Dublin I say I'm from Crumlin. When I'm in Crumlin I say I'm from Lakeland Road, and when I'm on Lakeland Road I say I'm a Lynott."

The venue for The Greedies show was The Stardust in Artane, on the opposite side of the Liffey to Phil's teenage stomping ground. In time to come, that name would signify only deepest loss and sorrow, but at Christmas 1978 the venue heaved with joy unconfined as the unlikely supergroup ripped through their rifftastic (and pretty awful) festive hit 'We Wish You a Merry Jingle'. The focus of local pride was the drummer with the support band who made up the final piece of that special alignment and the piece that was to be rock'n'roll's future. Not that anyone would have gleaned it from their performance that night.

Sound problems

Larry Mullen grew up a stone's throw from The Stardust, and it was his noticeboard post at nearby Mount Temple school that famously brought about U2. The four youngsters set up that night on the back of their worst gig ever, a week or so earlier, where just nine people had showed up to see them flesh out their threadbare set of original material with numbers by The Ramones, Peter Frampton and The Bay City Rollers. Hampered by sound problems, U2's curtain raiser for The Greedies was short and flat, but it brought them into the presence of greatness and they soaked it all up.

According to the adverts, The Greedies' line-up that night should have been swelled by Bob Geldof and sundry Boomtown Rats who had just topped off a spectacular year by scoring their first UK No1 with 'Rat Trap'.

They didn't show, but no-one particularly cared. With or without the Rats, the shindig was a positive sign that Ireland had begun a process or rehabilitation into the world of international showbiz.

Even in the best of times, this island had long been on the periphery of the European circuit for every class of touring act, from pop and classical musicians to theatre troupes. It spoke volumes that through the 1960s and 1970s the country's most prestigious pop venue was a boxing stadium. The outbreak of the Troubles made touring acts all the more determined to give Ireland a wide berth, while The Miami Showband massacre of 1975 had scared off anyone still in two minds. By the late 1970s Ireland had fallen off the touring map, only to be thrown a lifeline from an unlikely source.

A widespread hostility to punk and new wave acts in Britain meant that finding places to play wasn't always easy, and enterprising Irish impresarios starved of business piled in to fill the gap. Ireland was back on the map, with Dublin and Belfast centres of a vibrant new scene where that band from Thursday's Top of the Pops might be playing down your street tonight.

Many of those buying tickets for The Greedies would have recently seen Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelly, who died last week, belting out their latest hit 'Ever Fallen In Love' on Dublin's Mary Street. Jona Lewie, soon to pen the Christmas classic 'Stop the Cavalry', had played a Halloween fancy dress ball at the Artane venue just weeks earlier.

Surveying his audience, Lewie told them: "You all look fantastic! I even see someone's come as a priest."

"I am a f***ing priest," came the reply.

With Christmas over, Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy went straight into the studio to record Black Rose, their follow up to Live And Dangerous. It would be their last hurrah - 1978 had been their annus mirabilis and they would never see another like it again.

For the Sex Pistols - so recently the great hope of rock music - the first weeks of 1979 would bring the death by overdose of Sid Vicious a day after he was freed on bail for murder, and the start of a long and bitter legal battle with their scheming svengali Malcolm McLaren.

As for Ireland and pop, the break was healed, the bridges rebuilt and the good times were set to roll for decades to come, with the juggernaut that was peak-Seventies ABBA among the first to roll in.

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