Thursday, October 22, 2020


Well, it's five years since I, grudgingly it reads, gave this band any pentime, but, you know, time has been kind to their memory, a new boxset retrospective, released round about now, raking up a fond nostalgia I am finding infectious. Hindsight further adds to the scallywag, loveable rogue image they allowed to be cultivated around them. For rogues they almost certainly were, or fiends even, certainly in the drug sense. But that is not what I have come to gaze upon, more the realisation that, amidst all the chaos and chutzpah, there band had a fair few rather good guitar slingers. Which, for a band that history famously places largely around the bassist, one Philip Lynott, makes for an interesting tale.

Like most, I first heard of 'em back in the very dim and distant, with a song that is still more likely to appear in compilations of folk music than of rousing rock anthems. But great it is, the guitar part, courtesy Eric Bell, arguably opening the door to any number of celtic rockers, from Big Country to Runrig. Lynott's drawled vocal just the right counterpoint for the crossover smash it became. Possibly the first time trad.arr. looked so good. But Eric Bell was not long for the band, abruptly walking off stage, mid-set, in 1973, "exhaustion" cited as his reason, with nary a regret ever offered, even as the fame of the band eclipsed his own part therein. In truth, his exhaustion was the sort that came in bottles and wraps, as described here, but his later legacy never built on the promise of his work with Lizzy over their first few recordings.

This left Lynott, along with drummer Brian Downie with a predicament, how to replace a guitarist who, in one song, had transformed the image of the band and their place in the market. Answer: if one guitarist let's you down, get two! This response, very much in keeping of the devil may care vagabond hero, as in the (Bell included) song, The Rocker, became their declared image. The two guitarists were Scott Gorham, allegedly hired because of his nationality, American, and his extravagant mane, and Glaswegian street fighter and musical polymath, Brian Robertson. Robertson was very much the lead foil, at least from the basis of his track record and experience, being hired because he could play. And play he could, responsible for defining the twin guitar sound, allegedly telling Gorham what to play, how and when. An accomplished writer too, he contributed to some of the material from this iteration of the band, actually their glory days, if Lynott still wrote the bulk, and most of the hits. However, he was another guitarist with a thirst, having to skip an important US tour on account of a hand injury, sustained in a drunken brawl, defending the honour of fellow Scots toper, Frankie Miller. His place, temporarily at least, was taken by Gary Moore, who clearly made a mark, if dispensed at the end of the tour. The next album was recorded as a three piece, but needing the dual guitar attack, Robertson was taken back, if on probation. But it couldn't and didn't last, as frictions flared, initiated at one point by Robertson's refusal to overdub new guitar parts on live album, Live and Dangerous. Which, at that time they were.

Gary Moore now bounced back in, his shared Irishness perhaps a better foil for Lynott, and, amongst a flurry of further hit singles, came the above, an epic, the title track of 'Roisin Dubh', back in the hinterland of rock and roll with traditional Irish folk. A direction I would have liked them to pursue further, but the swaggering lifestyle choices of powders and poteen probably put paid to that. In 1979, in classic Lizzy style, Moore left the band, mid-tour as ever. Astonishingly he was subbed by, of all people, Midge Ure, the soon to be Ultravox-er, but he had been one of a crew of musicians involved in Lynott's other side-project, the Greedy Bastards, wherein he allied with a number of punk and new-wave musicians to distance himself from being a dinosaur like other rockers of the earlier '70s.

In truth this was heralding the end. Other guitarists came and went, Dave Flett for one, once of Manfred Mann's Earthband, propping up the ship of Lynott, Gorham and the omni-present Downie. Ure hovered around the fringes for some time, sometimes on guitar, sometimes as a keyboard player, but he too didn't last long after the last great Lizzy guitarist was recruited. This was Snowy White, with a track record encompassing both Pink Floyd and Peter Green. A more sober minded individual, his gravitas gave the band a final lift. But he too left, in 1982, frustrated by the ever more confused borderlines between Lynott solo and Lynott Lizzy. Not party to the prodigious opiate enthusiasms of much of the rest of the band left him also somewhat apart. 

I confess I thought that was about it, only discovering whilst researching (ha!) this piece that there was then a further and final guitarist, John Sykes, ex of the NWOBHM stalwarts, Tygers of Pan Tang, very much dragging the ambience in a metallic direction. Thereafter, with both he and Downie having by now had time off for bad behaviour, Gorham had had enough, setting the scene for a farewell tour, as famous for the struggles to score heroin as to keep the band upright. A september festival gig at Monsters of Rock, surely an apt title, in 1983 and it was all over.

Lynott, the focus and frontman, died in 1986 of drug-induced multiple organ failure. Gary Moore died of an alcohol related heart attack in 2011. Eric Bell and Brian Robertson still play and record music sporadically. John Sykes "revived" the band name in 1996, persuading Downie and Gorham to join him, but this didn't last. Scott Gorham held the baton for a while, until Downie also jumped, whereupon Gorham re-branded as Black Star Riders, "out of respect to Phil Lynott". They gig on, with a sound exactly of classic Lizzy. Brian Downie has his own band, 'Alive and Dangerous'. Snowy White has had both his own band and ongoing working links with ex-Pink Floyd man, Roger Waters. Midge Ure has an ongoing solo career. Dave Flett, most ironically, is an addictions counsellor in Florida.

One band, five guitarists, six if you include Ure, seven even with Flett. Makes the boxset seem a whole lot more interesting?

Deep pockets?

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