Okay, now here’s a bit of fun for you all. A live music review from 15th November 1975. Yes, I know I’ve been a bit sluggish in getting it to publication, but these things take time.
I am just turned 15, sitting with a group of my mates in the Champness Hall in Rochdale Lancashire. I remember as though it were yesterday. It was – and probably still is – a rather austere Methodist church hall, one which I knew well as the meeting/marshalling point for the hated annual test of will power and patience that was the Scouts’ and Girl Guides’ St. George’s Day parade. Tonight, however, it plays host to a very different gathering.
Champness Hall, Drake Street, Rochdale
All around me a sea of sickly denim and patchouli oil is headbanging. There is a band on stage. Despite, (or perhaps because of) the stage clothes, the coloured lights, the expensive looking guitars and seemingly endless stacks of Marshall amps and speaker cabinets, they look incongruous, uncomfortable even, on the high irregular stage, which slap bang in its centre boasts a stairway with banisters. It is the one that allows access from the congregation to reach the pulpit. I bet it’s the oddest venue on this tour. Behind the group an imposing set of organ pipes dominate the back wall ( Note the refusal to stoop as low as using these as an excuse for unsavoury jokes and puns) Lit by reflected colour from the stage lighting, they look like stalactites and stalagmites forming a surreal backdrop to the whole affair.
The lead singer has just addressed his audience and the band launch into the opening riff of the next song. They don’t look uncomfortable any more. Once they start to play, all swagger and poise, menace and noise they make it clear they own the place. The lead singer teases and goads the audience between verses. At the risk of using a cliché, inside the hall it becomes an assault on your senses, and in particular on your hearing … I SAID PARTICULARLY ON YOUR HEARING. The sound is shocking. All the mid range tones are lost in a kind of ‘acoustic soup’, the higher frequencies are sent thrashing around only to be echoed back off the organ pipes, while the bass guitar, bass drum and snare punch your chest so hard it hurts. But it is charged, the atmosphere is electric!
The band, a four piece, is here playing the 21st night of a 39 date European tour to promote their fifth album, which features a cover photograph of the band standing, trying to look as aggressive as possible. In fact, if anything, they look hungover. This is the arresting image, enlarged and reproduced on a life size scale which greets you as you enter the venue. The record company, Vertigo, are keen to push the album in order that it may prompt for the band, who originate from Ireland, the breakthrough they desperately seek. In fact, during the course of 1975, as well as recording the album the group had, by the end of the year of the year undertaken five (five!!) tours. These have included dates in the US (supporting Bachman Turner Overdrive, Bob Seger, ZZ Top and Joe Walsh) Europe (Germany, Holland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway) Eire and the UK. Including the Reading Festival, I make it 131 nights in total. Last night they were in London at Thames Poly (Now probably the University of Deptford or somesuch) Tomorrow, Newark (that’s Notts not New Jersey) and the day after, Swansea. A punishing schedule, not least when the band’s propensity for making touring as … how can I put it? … as enjoyable as possible … is taken into account. However, back to our gig.
As I said, the lead singer has just addressed his audience. Dripping with sweat, in his left ear he wears a large silver hoop that intermittently catches the light, and with a lop-sided grin from said ear to the other he sheepishly looks up from under long lashes, and the curls of black hair that hang rakishly down over his left eye.
“Anybody in here got any Irish in ‘em? …”
I won’t complete the enquiry as it highlights an aspect of the band and in particular its frontman’ s persona that I must admit I’ve always had bit of a problem with. Anyway, tonight the response is drowned out as the black singer, tall and gangly, in leather trousers and a sequined top drops to a squat clamping his black bass guitar (a Rickenbacker as it happens) between his thighs and makes as if to ‘machine-gun’ his audience with it. Meanwhile the guitars break into the staccato opening to ‘The Rocker’. Yes! It’s Thin Lizzy.
Moreover, not only is it Lizzy, but the definitive Lizzy, which first exploited the distinctive twin guitar harmony playing of Brian Robertson, a seventeen year old whizz kid from Glasgow, and Scott Gorham a Supertramp ‘reject’ from California that they nicked from who? The Allman Brothers? (Referring to Robertson/Gorham, ‘Chalk and cheese’ grinned Lynott slyly when pressed to explain his choice.) The volatile Robertson and terminally laid back Gorham, (he of the ‘Sunsilk’ hair – then, not now of course,) are responsible for two of the finest musical moments which together with about two dozen others from artists as diverse as The Sex Pistols and Charlie Parker map out the course of my teens. In this case the genius-made-sound that is the ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ and ‘Don’t Believe A Word’ featuring Robertson’s searing, vicious solo.
Yes! It was Thin Lizzy, on the ‘Rocktober’ tour 1975, which in the context of their career, was “about a minute before they burst through into the big time – very exciting.”
Robertson: Is this what is meant by ‘Guitar Tab’?
A breakthrough which was to be cemented four months later with the release of the classic ‘Jailbreak’ and in particular, the aforementioned, ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’
Lizzy, that chaotic mass of contradictions that came out of Crumlin, Dublin. Who wrote and recorded many, many great songs – and one or two awful ones.
Lynott in full flow
Lizzy, who seem to, at one time or another have featured every guitar player with an axe and a serviceable amp living in the UK in its line up.
Lizzy, Phil Lynott’s pride and joy, who seemed to follow their own trajectory through the ‘70s and ’80s steering a more mainstream, less po-faced course than many of their contemporaries like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and so on. The result being by accident or design I don’t know, timeless music.
Lizzy, the outfit who could be relied upon, as sure as night follows day, to fuck things up at those critical points where other bands seemed to be able to seize the day and use the momentum to propel them that bit further to ‘superstardom.’ Like the night before embarking on an eagerly – awaited and vitally important US tour. Instead of being tucked up in bed – or packing, Brian Robertson is not only not doing either, he’s at the Speakeasy Club in London, where at some ungodly hour he decides to leap into the midst of a drunken brawl to assist his pal singer, Frankie Miller who is apparently about to get glassed. ‘Robbo’ takes it in (and through) the hand, severing a nerve, an artery and narrowly missing a tendon which would have finished him as a guitar player for ever. But not before first dealing with the assailant:
“I broke his leg”
and his mate:
“I broke his collarbone”
His other mate:
“I nutted him – I would have killed them all if someone hadn’t hit me on the head with a bottle and knocked me unconscious!”
Odds on it was Phil Lynott, or if not, by the following morning Phil I’m sure would have wished it had been.
Exit Robbo, back into the band comes previous Gary Moore … for a while. Then he goes back to Colosseum. ‘Robbo’ returns when his injuries have healed, unofficially. He’s not talking to the band. ‘Robbo’ becomes ‘official’. Then jumps ship for good to be replaced by … Midge Ure, Dave Flett, Snowy White, John Sykes and so on until I lose interest. Oh! Not forgetting Eric Bell of course.
It’s just the kind of band Thin Lizzy were.
Lizzy: Downey, Robertson, Gorham, Lynott. Flawless live
Anyway, enough of that. Tonight is about Lizzy as they were. Flawless on stage. As I said, I remember it as if it were yesterday, although of the songs they actually played, I’ve only got definitive recollections of, apart from ‘The Rocker’ and the ubiquitous ‘Whiskey In The jar’ (originally a ‘B’side piss-take) which they had to be convinced to release as an ‘A’ side and which gave them their first chart success in the UK and their first foothold on the ladder. Apart from these two, the one I remember was ‘Suicide’. I recall being struck by the ferocity of Lynott’s attack on the song. The sheer physicality of his singing. This was only my second live band. (I’d seen Status Quo in May earlier in that year at Belle Vue, Manchester. But the 50p ‘unreserved’ cheap seats we were in were so far back they were in Longsight, so not such a good view. In fact, my Dad had a better view than me – It’s a long story best kept for another day) Otherwise, almost every other band I had seen on TV mimed. Lynott was the first singer I can remember who actually looked like he meant it.
He (and the band) had some bottle. Remember it was the mid ‘70s. Racist jokes were still, sad to say, considered ‘acceptable’, even in mainstream culture. Meanwhile Northern Ireland festered as Republican and Loyalist atrocities followed a dismal pattern, which became almost as sickeningly ‘acceptable’ Against this backdrop as a patriotic black Irishman taking his music to a British audience, Lynott was all but putting his head into the Lion’s mouth.
After the gig I remember on the way out being given a Thin Lizzy sticker by one of the road crew which I proudly stuck on my school bag and hauled around Bishop Henshaw RC Memorial School off Oldham Road, Rochdale for a couple of years. I loved them! They were my band – in the same way that The Ruts were to become a few years later (Another story for yet another day ) In fact, I’ve heard that around the time of the first incarnation of the Ruts came about, Malcolm Owen was hanging about with Lynott. Ruts drummer Ruffy who back then played bass borrowed Lynott’s black Rickenbacker for some of the early rehearsals. Which if true, shoots dead in the water the tale I was told after the Rochdale gig, the source being someone’s elder brother, who, as he hung around after the gig to meet the band, apparently saw a roadie drop the (same) Rickenbacker on the stairs and break the neck. Which is why from about this time onwards you see Phil playing the black Precision with the mirror scratchplate. Interesting Lizzy pub quiz fact or total bollocks? I’ll leave it to you to decide.
I was really genuinely delighted for them, that ‘Jailbreak’- which came not long after the ‘Rocktober’ tour was the success it became. They deserved it. Even if not everyone agreed. I recall seeing around this time, the lyricist/ songwriter/composer Sammy Cahn (‘Three Coins In The Fountain’) interviewed by Michael Parkinson. He was asked in typically lugubrious fashion about the craft of songwriting today. Cahn replied, saying how he thought standards had fallen.
“For example … “ and he told Parkinson all about a song he had overheard in which the singer just shouted the words ‘The Boys are back in town’ over and over again. I remember thinking No! … you have chosen the wrong song there Mister. In fact he couldn’t have picked a worse example. ‘The Boys’ is a terrific, vivid evocation of a mythical space and time inhabited by ‘the boys’: all testosterone and bravado, equally mythical, who can be found on ‘Friday night, dressed to kill, down at Dino’s Bar and Grill …’ A wonderful construct. I don’t believe it ever existed: not in the form it appears in the song. ‘No. 77 Sunset Strip’ was the name of a US detective series from the 60’s starring Efrem Zimbalist Junior. Lynott wanted to see what was actually at No. 77. So while in L A on Lizzy’s first tour of the States, he went to take a look. It turned out to be a ‘supper club’, the former haunt of showbiz legend Dean Martin. It was a brilliant combination of the idea of the ‘gang’ with its meeting place, whose name was a derivation of Martin’s own. And although I have never been there – I couldn’t have – I can imagine exactly what it was like. Great songwriting. And there was plenty of it over the years, even towards the end, ‘Sarah’ and ‘Old Town’ for instance, I think are quality gear. Okay, a bit sentimental maybe, but nothing wrong with that in small doses.
Having said that however, I’m not sure I fully subscribe to the ‘Lynott as poet’ view. He barely got away with it on ‘Jailbreak’:
‘Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak, somewhere in this town …’
Hmmmm. Well unless the Bizzies are really dumb, you would think they’d keep their eye on the Jail!
Then there is the frankly unforgivable rhyming couplet in ‘Parisienne Walkways’ written and sung by Lynott, recorded by Gary Moore; His attempt to out – Santana Santana. In what is supposed to be a portrait of ‘Paris in ‘49’ Phil sings (I don’t know how he had the brass-neck …)
‘Looking back at the photographs, those summer days spent outside corner caffs’
I think I would have even preferred:
‘Looking back at the photographés, those summer days spent outside corner cafés’
And as for ‘Killer On The Loose’. Well, I am going to simply gloss over it and charitably put it down to the smack and coke having addled his brain so much, he didn’t know what he was scribbling. (So how does that explain ‘Sarah’ and ‘Old Town’?) Ahhhh … Anyway …
I would still like to thank him though (and Downey, Robertson and Gorham) for a great night back in November ’75 and for making at their very best, earthy, raw, yet at the same time elegant even sublime music which continues to raise the hairs on the back of my neck today (and annoy my kids) – so it can’t be bad.
It is twenty five years since Phil Lynott died a miserable death, a long way from the assured frontman I saw captivate his audience as skilfully as you like. Far be it from me to cause controversies or open old wounds, but there is one thing that I think ought to be mentioned before we leave the ghosts of November 1975 in peace.
‘Why are you wearing that T shirt?’
It is November 2009, during the last time I had to have a spell in hospital. The voice belonged the bloke in the bed opposite me, who I won’t name. He was leaning on his elbow, looking like death warmed up, nodding his head in the general direction of the distinctive Lizzy logo on my tatty black Thin Lizzy T shirt.
‘Is it because you like the band or the shirt?’
After I’d got over the mild effrontery I felt at having been thought of as so shallow that I would wear such a garment simply because of its aesthetic attributes. I replied:
‘Well, I loved the band, and I like the shirt’
As I said this I glanced down at his chest, hoping I might find a gift of a Wings, Emerson, Lake and Palmer or (the comedic potential!) a ‘Phantom of the Opera’ T shirt. No such luck. Only the thick black hoops of a ‘Pirate – style’ shirt. (Favourite band, I later found out? The Pirates!) From such unlikely beginings high up on Charing Cross Hospital’s eleventh floor Neuro ward we developed quite a rapport.
‘I only ask because I worked for Phil Lynott for the last couple of years of his life. I was his Personal Assistant. It’s amazing, he and the band are more popular now than ever. Often I see people wearing shirts, carrrying bags or whatever with Lizzy designs on them, yet they could have never seen them. They’re too young.’
I was keen to learn more, but unfortunately my comrade in arms was really not in a good way, and was having to spend large portions of his day hooked up to a drip, and unable to move, nauseous into the bargain. So as inquisitve as I was I eased off on the solid wall of questions I had targetted at him and let him have a break.
One thing he did say though – and bear in mind Lynott’s death was probably not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’
‘He needn’t have died. If I’d have had my way he’d be alive today’
‘Well … You know what it’s like with addicts …’ I offered. Not, of course knowing the first thing about what it is like with addicts at all. ‘You would never have been able to get him clean, there were too many people surrounding him who were supplying … and if he didn’t even listen to his mates … You’d have had no chance …’
‘No, I don’t mean that. I mean at the house that Christmas. They didn’t want any fuss; anyone to know, so they took him to that bloody drug clinic place near Salisbury. They didn’t know how to treat him, not properly, not in his condition. I wanted him taken to the nearest A and E.’ (Probably Kingston, a few minutes drive away as opposed to the middle of Wiltshire, where he was eventually whisked.)
Do I believe him? Yes. Other than that, I’m saying nothing, except that as many others before him and no doubt many still to come, Phil Lynott was a victim of his own belief in his ability to control drugs. I wish Phil, like Iggy Pop, had made it through and survived. I think he would, as Iggy is, be ‘quietly massive’ and thoroughly enjoy basking in the glow of warmth and affection that still exists for him from those who knew him, loved his music, plus those – and there are many, for whom he paved the way.
And if he chose to earn a few potatoes selling car insurance? Then so what.
And how about that? A whole article on Phil Lynott which doesn’t use the phrase ‘Wild Man of Rock’ … Till now… Doh!
© Andy Daly 2011