Phil Lynott: Thunder & Lighning

Christmas was just around the corner, but Brian Downey felt far from festive when he met up with old school friend and longtime bandmate Phil Lynott in December 1985. "I'd seen him on Irish TV and he just didn't look well," Downey recalls.

Christmas was just around the corner, but Brian Downey felt far from festive when he met up with old school friend and longtime bandmate Phil Lynott in December 1985. "I'd seen him on Irish TV and he just didn't look well," Downey recalls. "When I saw him in the flesh for the first time in two years, he looked absolutely terrible. I was thinking, Is everyone around him blind? Am I the only person to see this?"

A couple of weeks later, Downey was standing at Lynott's graveside, paying last respects. Ireland's first bona fide rock star had collapsed on Christmas Day, dying ten days later from pneumonia and heart failure, following years of drug and alcohol abuse. He was 36.

“I knew Phil was really badly addicted, but he was his own man—the boss,” Downey says. “People around him, including me, found it hard to say, ‘Look Phil, this is what you need to do.’ Everyone thought he was some kind of superman and that he could get through it without any help. But he was only human.”

Talented, charismatic, and effortlessly cool, Thin Lizzy’s iconic frontman ticked all the boxes necessary for rock stardom. In the mid to late ’70s, his band’s tireless work ethic and pioneering hard rock sound struck a chord with fans around the world, leading to international chart success and a covetable reputation as a killer live act. However, a series of unlucky breaks, internal tensions, and personnel shuffles meant that stadium-filling superstardom always remained tantalizingly out of reach. After Lizzy split in 1983, Lynott tried his hand with a new band and as a solo artist. Neither venture proved overly successful, and he became increasingly dependent on the drugs that ultimately proved his downfall.

Wild One

Philip Parris Lynott was born August 20, 1949, in West Bromwich, England to a African-Guyanese father and an Irish mother. (Philomena Lynott has documented her captivating story in the Virgin Books bestseller, My Boy: The Philip Lynott Story.) The young Phil initially lived in Manchester before relocating to his mother’s native Dublin. There, the spotlight first found him as a teen fronting local act the Black Eagles. “I was a fan of the band from when I was about 13,” recalls Thin Lizzy drummer and co-founder Downey, a constant presence throughout the band’s long and turbulent history. “The band was really good, and Phil was very charismatic; he just stood out so much. He sang as though he actually wrote the songs, even though it was stuff like Elvis and the Beatles.” When the Black Eagles’ drummer went off the join the army, Downey auditioned and got the gig. “It was a great time. I was in the band for about 18 months before it split.”

In 1967, local musician Brendan “Brush” Shiels co-opted the young Lynott to front his new band, Skid Row (joined soon after by 16-year-old guitar whiz Gary Moore). Phil recorded just one single with the band before being sacked so that bassist Shiels could take over vocal duties. History shouldn’t judge Shiels too harshly, however; it was he who introduced Lynott to the bass. Says Downey, “Before Phil left Skid Row, Brush gave him some lessons on the bass, which was great, because Brush was maybe the best player in Ireland in those days. Phil practiced every day for hours on end. I used to go ’round to his flat and he’d be on the thing—it was never out of his hands. It was like he had to catch up you know, as though he’d wasted a good few years just singing.”

Cruising In The Lizzy Mobile

Downey and Lynott later hooked up with guitarist Eric Bell and keyboardist Eric Wrixon to form Thin Lizzy. In July 1970, Wrixon left, and the trio was picked up by British label Decca. The band relocated to London and two albums followed in quick succession: the eponymous Thin Lizzy and Shades of a Blue Orphanage, neither of which sold particularly well. Exploring elements of blues, rock, funk, and folk, both albums suffered from a lack of focus, though each contains definite flashes of things to come.

Lady Luck took a shine to the band in late 1972: While rehearsing for their first major-label single, “Black Boys on the Corner,” Lynott and Bell started messing around with a traditional Irish folk song, “Whiskey in the Jar.” Recalls Downey, “I just started playing along. The manager happened to hear us, and he convinced us to record it the same day as ‘Black Boys on the Corner’—which we did, with the intention of putting it on the B side.” However, Decca executives keen to recoup on their investment decreed that “Whiskey” should get top billing. The decision was vindicated when the song rose to No. 6 on the U.K. singles chart, although “Black Boys on the Corner”—a propulsive rock number with an audacious tempo change when the chorus hits—was far more representative of the band’s sound.

Vagabonds of the Western World followed on the heels of the hit single, but it failed to prosper, despite a discernable surge in quality compared with group’s previous long-players. Vagabonds proved to be Bell’s final hurrah with the band. He stormed off the stage during a 1973 New Year’s Eve gig—later citing mental problems— and was never asked back. Not for the last time, Phil’s Skid Row-era buddy, Gary Moore, stepped in to help out. Moore’s tenure was temporary, though, and mid ’74, Lynott and Downey began auditioning guitarists for the group. Among the hopefuls was feisty 18-year-old Scotsman Brian Robertson and laid-back Californian expat Scott Gorham. Together, they would help usher in Thin Lizzy’s acknowledged golden age.

The band wasted no time getting down to work, producing two studio albums within a ten-month period: Nightlife and Fighting. “Robbo” Robertson recalls, “For Nightlife, we didn’t have any time or money; I think the whole thing only took a few weeks and only cost about £7,000 (roughly $11,000), and even then we were over budget,” he laughs. “We really didn’t have the material because we’d just been thrown into the studio after getting the band together. I actually like Nightlife—apart from the production—but I can understand why people would overlook it, as it wasn’t as together as it should have been. On Fighting, the harmony guitars, the riffs, and the heavier stuff were starting to come out a little more. It definitely contained shades of things to come, and I think that that’s often missed.”

While such bands as the Allman Brothers and Wishbone Ash had already utilized the twin-lead/harmony idea, Robertson and Gorham undoubtedly raised the bar several notches, helping to create Lizzy’s signature sound and influencing a whole generation of six-stringers in the process.


The band finally hit pay dirt in 1976 with the seminal album Jailbreak. Characterized by driving riffs, slick arrangements, wailing solos, and Lynott’s narrative-style lyrics, the whole package buzzed with a crucial, chart-friendly vibe. Boasting such celebrated tracks as “T he Boys Are Back in Town,” “Jailbreak,” “Emerald,” and “Cowboy Song,” the album is arguably the band’s crowning achievement. “I think the success of Jailbreak was just down to the band clicking at a certain point,” offers Robertson. “We’d been on the road constantly, and that always tightens things up. So when we took that into the studio, it was a true picture of what the band was all about. Everything just fell into place.”

“The Boys Are Back in Town” coasted up the charts in the U.K. and the U.S. The follow-up single “Jailbreak” did well, too, and a series of high-profile U.S. support dates helped cement the band’s reputation as serious contenders. But just as a summer 1976 U.S. tour got under way, Lynott came down with hepatitis, forcing the tour’s cancellation and hamstringing the band’s Stateside ambitions. Phil laid low for six months, during which he penned most of the material for the band’s next album, Johnny the Fox.

Fight Or Fail

In November ’76, the night before the band was due to depart for yet another U.S. tour, Robertson was involved in a barroom altercation that resulted in a severed nerve and artery in his hand. Yet again, Gary Moore bailed the band out. Six months later, sessions began for Lizzy’s eighth studio album, BadReputation—initially without Robertson, although he later came in to track a few numbers as a “guest.” Bad Reputation was the band’s first collaboration with heavyweight producer Tony Visconti, who imbued the group’s sound with a fresh and propulsive vibe, as exemplified by the classic hit “Dancing in the Moonlight (It’s Caught Me in Its Spotlight).”

Lizzy’s next release was the 1978 double album Live and Dangerous, justly considered one of the all-time live rock releases. There is, however, some disagreement over the live-recording/studio-overdub ratio. Producer Visconti has claimed 75 percent was redone in the studio, though band members have hotly disputed this contention. “Tony’s talking total bollocks!” proclaims Robertson in typical forthright fashion. “For one thing, I played so loud that I couldn’t replace any of my guitar parts because they were all bleeding over the drum and vocal microphones.”

Robertson officially left the band in July ’78, after his working relationship with Lynott finally broke down. “There was a lot of friction between me and Phil, which was great. I shared a flat with the guy, you know. We had a kind of brother-like relationship, and I would vehemently argue musical points with him. In fact, there were certain songs where I even walked out the studio, like ‘Running Back’ [Jailbreak] . . . . Nine times out of ten, though, the friction between us worked. It was a creative friction rather than something destructive.”

Got To Give It Up

Yet again, Gary Moore entered the picture, this time staying long enough to record an album, Black Rose: A Rock Legend. The album hit No. 2 on the U.K. album charts and yielded the hit singles “Waiting for an Alibi,” “Do Anything You Want To,” and “Sarah.” Following Black Rose, however, the band began to lose direction. Moore split midway through the tour and was later replaced with ex-Pink Floyd sideman Snowy White. Chinatown (1980) did relatively well in the U.K. but failed to excite the U.S. market, while the group’s next offering, Renegade, met with a generally tepid reception. Around this time, Lynott also released two solo albums, Solo in Soho and The Philip Lynott Album. (The sessions for these solo albums had overlapped with the Lizzy album recordings, to the extent that group members were at times unsure which song was destined for where.) Following Renegade, Thin Lizzy’s star seemed to be on the wane, a problem exacerbated by Lynott and Gorham’s spiraling drug problems. Seeing the writing on the wall, White quit the band.

Ex-Tygers Of Pan Tang guitarist John Sykes was drafted to replace White, and his presence seemed to spark the band back into life, as evidenced by Lizzy’s final—and heaviest—release, 1983’s Thunder and Lightning. Sykes’ contemporary playing style did much to update the band’s sound, pulling it out of the ’70s and into the modern rock age. However, just as it seemed the group had turned a corner—creatively, at least—it was unexpectedly announced that the next tour would be the last. Says Downey, “The band was no longer financially viable and was taking a nosedive, even though we’d gotten good reviews for Thunder and Lightning. It wasn’t a hugely successful album sales-wise, and the management was starting to think, This isn’t happening.”

After the tour, band members simply went their separate ways. Gorham sought help for his addiction problems, but Lynott sunk deeper into dependency. By 1985, Lynott’s marriage was on the rocks and his new act, Grand Slam, was struggling. The group played some gigs and recorded several demos but was unable to land a contract. “Grand Slam couldn’t get a deal f or love or money,” explains Downey. “Nobody would touch Phil at that stage. His reputation seemed to precede him. I moved back to Dublin, so we kind of lost contact. Then, in December 1985, I got a call from Phil’s management asking me to mime to a song called ‘Nineteen’ for the TV show Razzmatazz. I thought, Okay, at least it’s not Grand Slam. At that stage, I realized Phil needed help badly. I said to a couple of people, ‘What’s happening with Phil—can’t you see how bad he is?’ In those days, going into rehab wasn’t an issue, not like nowadays when everyone seems to go into the Priory or whatever. I didn’t even say it to Phil, you know, ‘Phil, you should clean up your act,’ because it wasn’t something I was capable of saying to him. I maybe thought someone else would say something to him. But nobody ever did, unfortunately.”

Dancing In The Moonlight

Despite splitting almost 30 years ago, Lizzy’s substantial and hugely influential recorded legacy lives on. The group’s back catalog is currently being remixed and re-mastered— most recently Nightlife and Fighting—allowing fans, old and new, to revel in cleaner, updated versions of the familiar and not-so familiar. Moreover, a touring version of the band featuring three original members has been keeping the Thin Lizzy flame alive.

Today, fans journey to Ireland from around the world to visit Lynott’s grave or attend “ Vibe for Philo,” an annual bash commemorating the band. Many also swing by the life-size statue of the legendary Lizzy frontman that stands proudly in Dublin’s city centre. Cast bronze P-Bass in hand, and looking as stylish as ever, the boy is most definitely back in town.

Lynott’s Kit

Though Phil Lynott is most often associated with two particular Fender Precision Basses (stock models with rosewood and maple necks), he played a wide variety of other axes throughout his career. In the early days, he favored Rickenbackers, plucking both 4000 and 4001 models. He also played a D an Armstrong lucite bass, in addition to Ibanez Roadstars and Blazers. Later, he used a Roland G-88 Synth Bass with the electronics removed (see cover). He often—but not exclusively—used flatwounds (endorsing Rotosound Flatwound Jazz Bass Strings at one point), and famously decked his axes out with custommade M ighty Mite mirrored scratchplates. He employed various amps, including Acoustic, Marshall, Hi-Watt, Dynacord, and Ampeg. On tracks such as “Waiting for an Alibi” and “Dancing in the Moonlight” he plugged into a phaser or fl anger effect pedal.

Phil Skills

ONE OF PHIL LYNOTT’S MOST famous lines is the intro to “Dancing in the Moonlight (It’s Caught Me in Its Spotlight),” from Bad Reputation, approximated in Ex. 1. In keeping with many Thin Lizzy numbers, it’s built around a shuffle feel, which automatically imbues the song with a sense of drive. Here, Lynott employs a phaser or flanger effect to give the bass an added dimension of warmth. Note how he also sketches out the chord structure with strong root notes on the downbeat of each bar. Though Phil plays the last eighth-note of bar 3 (A) on the 5th fret of the E string, you may find it easier to employ the open A string instead.

Example 2 shows the opening riff from the anthemic “The Boys Are Back in Town” (Jailbreak). Characterized by strong syncopations and no-nonsense power chords, the song is a robust rocker in the finest Lizzy tradition. Add in Phil’s deftly delivered vocal lines, some stirring twin-lead guitar breaks, an unforgettable sing-along chorus and— voilà!—a seminal rock classic. On beat four of bar 2, Phil skips down the A string from a 9thfret F# to a 2nd-fret B, which can be a little tricky to nail cleanly. Fear not, however, as you can also play the whole four-bar phrase below the 5th fret by fretting E and F# on the D string and the C# on the A string.

“Jailbreak” (Ex. 3) is a straight-ahead riffdriven monster. The punchy, hypnotic verses contrast neatly with the rich vocal harmonies and sustained chords of the choruses, while Lynott’s trademark vocal delivery adds the icing to the cake. Apropos Phil’s vocal phrasing: His ability to knock out trickily phrased lyrics and oddball phrase lengths while keeping it straight on bass was a rare skill. Check out the consummate wordsmithery on “Do Anything You Want to Do” from Black Rose, or the scintillating cross-rhythmic revelry of “This Is The One” from Thunder and Lightning.

In “Suicide” (Ex. 4, from Fighting), Lynott unleashes a rare flourish in bar 8, spilling from a 10th-fret C on the D string to a low 5th-fret A via an unorthodox combination of notes (in relation to the A minor tonality). To smoothly navigate the run, use your index finger to fret both the last eighth-note triplet (E) of beat two, and the first triplet (D#) of three.

Near the end of “Freedom Song” (Ex. 5, Fighting), dig how Lynott breaks away from his main riff to work in conjunction with the guitars, producing some highly decorative three-part counterpoint over the implied Amajor foundation.

Even though Phil generally kept things simple, he nevertheless knew his way around the neck: Check out his jazzy walking chops near the end of “Mama Nature Said” or the subtle, high-position work on “A Song for While I’m Away” (both on Vagabonds of the Western World). At the start of “Randolph’s Tango” (Ex. 6, Vagabonds), he paints long melodic lines while checking in with enough chord tones to keep things harmonically clear. Note also Phil’s confident postponing of the root of the B major chord until bar 2, and the way he balances his phrases by playing an initial bar that includes a quarter-note and an eighth-rest, followed by a subsequent bar of flowing eighths.

Selected Discography

With Thin Lizzy (on Decca) Thin Lizzy (1971); Shades of a Blue Orphanage (1972); Vagabonds of the Western World (1973) (on Mercury) Nightlife (1974); Fighting (1975); Jailbreak (1976); Johnny the Fox (1976); Bad Reputation (1977); (on Warner Bros.) Live and Dangerous (1978); Black Rose: A Rock Legend (1979); Chinatown (1980); Renegade (1981); Thunder and Lightning (1983); Life (1983); Boys Are Back in Town: Live in Australia (Nippon Crown, 1999); One Night Only (CMC International, 2000); Live at the BBC (Mercury, 2011). Solo albumsSolo in Soho (Warner Bros., 1980); The Philip Lynott Album (Warner Bros., 1982); Live in Sweden 1983 (Zoom Club, 2001). With Grand Slam Live 1984 (Zoom Club, 2003). With Gary Moore Back on the Streets (Grand Slamm, 1978); Run for Cover (EMI, 1985).

Still In Love With You

At press time, Universal Music was planning to release a “super deluxe” box set—provisionally titled Still in Love With You—built around a haul of recently discovered, and previously unheard, Phil Lynott/Thin Lizzy tapes. The release tentatively comprises five CDs of rarities, demos, alternate takes, and unheard mixes spanning the band’s entire career; an unreleased live show; original mixes of the band’s biggest hits; and a DVD featuring previously unreleased live tracks and TV performances. Reproductions of Phil Lynott’s lyric book, tour programs, and art prints may also be included. Universal has earmarked August as a likely release date, but this and the box set’s contents may change as plans evolve.