“Play me the melodies I want to know”

On Lynott, Lizzy, Lemmy, and Life.


30 years ago this week, Phil Lynott tragically passed away at the age of 36. I was seventeen at the time of Lynott’s passing and a huge Thin Lizzy fan (who had spent an inordinate amount of his time learning to play guitar largely by rewinding and replaying Lizzy riffs/solos ad infinitum until the songs were not only burned into my synapses but imprinted in the calluses on my fingertips).

Ireland had its fair share of problems to deal with when I was a teenager in the eighties. Deep sectarianism and violence. Hunger strikes and H-blocks. Chronic unemployment and mass emigration. Chris de Burgh and that wretched Lady In Red. But we could all be proud of Lynott and Lizzy for breaking the mould for Irish music.  The band I played in, like so many other fledgling/amateur Irish rock bands of the time, covered many Lizzy classics: Don’t Believe A Word, Cowboy Song, Boys Are Back In Town, Still In Love With You, Emerald. And, oh yes, Whiskey In The Jar as well. That one was something of an albatross around Lynott’s neck in terms of moving Lizzy’s music forward. His irritation at the start of this video ,when introducing a song from the most recent Lizzy album at the time, couldn’t be clearer: “No, it’s not Whiskey In The f**king Jar.” (And the less said about that atrocious Metallica cover version of Whiskey…, the better. Jaysus wept…)

I remember the shock and sadness of hearing that Lynott had died, and yet feeling rather taken aback that the passing of someone whom I had never known could affect me quite that much. But there’s something about Lynott’s music which connects deeply with so many; 30 years after his death his lyrics and melodies continue to resonate across the generations. I always smile when an undergraduate walks into a lecture theatre wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with that larger-than-life Lizzy logo. (*checks Monsters Of Grok website*. Goddamn, there’s no Lizzy shirt available. Some type of petition must surely be in order…)

Philip Parris Lynott was — like the inimitable Ian Fraser Kilmister, who has also now sadly gone to the great gig in the sky — the quintessential hard-living rock star. Always canny and perceptive when it came to establishing his, and his band’s, image, Lynott of course did his utmost to live up to his iconic status as the rocker. But there was a great deal more depth to Lynott than that; it’s a shame that it’s the machismo and the lifestyle for which he’s too often remembered (at least among those with at best a passing acquaintance with Lynott’s/Lizzy’s music). This quote, from a Creem article from 1976 republished in The Guardian in 2012, regarding the publication of his book of poetry, Songs For While I’m Away, is rather telling:

“I’m incredibly proud of that,” [Lynott] says. “I’m more proud of that than, say, I was when the record got into the charts. A budding poet, ehh???”

Even in their more metal moments, Lynott’s lyrics often avoided the usual cliches: he was a storyteller and in his finest lyrics paid a great deal of attention to connecting with the listener. It’s difficult to find a more metal song title than “Angel Of Death” — Slayer went on to use it for the opening track of their genre-defining “Reign In Blood” album — but even on this track (from their Renegade album), Lynott doesn’t lazily string together the usual boilerplate from the metal lexicon and instead sets up a series of what are perhaps best described as emotive scenes…

I was standing by the bedside
The night that my father died
He was crying out in pain
To his God, he said, “Have mercy, mercy”

The Irish have always had a way with a story, apparently, and Lynott regularly borrowed from Irish myth and legend for his lyrics and poetry. Róisín Dubh is the greatest example. I love David Marchese’s breakdown of the various legends intertwined in Róisín Dubh , published in Rolling Stone on St. Patrick’s Day (when else) a couple of years back. (…and the title of the blog post you’re reading is also taken from Róisín Dubh).

When this story-telling aspect is coupled with Lynott’s keen ear for cadence and tone, and his strong sense of melody and harmony, it’s not so surprising that his, and Lizzy’s, music connects with so many.  (And, yes, before any Lizzy aficiandos mention it, I am also well aware that there are rather less thoughtful approaches to lyric writing in the Lynott oeuvre; “Are you ready to rock?” is hardly going to win any awards for poetry. But that’s the great thing about Lizzy’s work — it spans a range of different styles and they were never afraid to experiment).

The photo above is of my daughter, Niamh, sitting at the base of the statue of Phil Lynott which is just off Grafton Street in Dublin. (Fittingly, the statue is right outside Bruxelles pub – a favourite haunt of metal fans, at least during my time in Dublin (1985 to 1993)). The photo was taken during a visit to Dublin in the summer of 2010 when Niamh was 7. Niamh, her sister Saoirse (who’s now 10), and her brother Fiachra (who reliably informs me that he’s 7 in eighteen days’ time…) have grown up in a house filled with Lynott’s and Lizzy’s music. I sang them to sleep when they were babies with Sarah. (Niamh to this day refers to Lynott as “Sarah’s dad”). Saoirse’s favourite song for a while when she was younger was the “one about the broken-down boy”: this one. And they too often had to listen to me caterwauling over one of my favourite-ever songs, The Sun Goes Down.

One of my new year’s resolutions was to try to carve out some time for music. (Killing my Twitter account has helped somewhat with this.) I also got a bass guitar as a Christmas present from my wife and kids so, with the help of the wonder that is Aerodrums, can now put down rhythm tracks. I’ve been meaning to record a cover of The Sun Goes Down for what feels like decades, and with the thirtieth anniversary of Lynott’s passing this week now seemed an appropriate time to get round to doing it. Here it is:

It’s a fairly faithful cover apart from the intro and outro where I’ve taken the simple, but effective seven-note keyboard riff that Darren Wharton* plays at intervals during the song and put it on piano. (I’ve also excised some of the more “widdly” keyboard flourishes which never did anything for me and, I feel, detract from the song). The vocal lines are a mixture of the phrasing Lynott uses on the studio version of the track and that on the last album Lizzy released, “Live/Life”. For the reasons discussed below, I aimed to reproduce the guitar solo note for note.

There are so many things I love about The Sun Goes Down but if I were to choose one word to encompass them all it’d be restraint. Lynott’s vocal line is rather understated for much of the song. Brian Downey, who is an amazing drummer, sticks to the same exceptionally simple drum beat throughout — he plays for the song, not to show off his drumming skills. Gorham’s guitar solo oozes with emotion because he doesn’t try to pack in four octave harmonic minor runs complemented by sweep-picked arpeggios, as if guitar playing were some type of olympic sport.

What I particularly love about the guitar solo is the way Gorham wrings the bejaysus out of the A note (technically, it’s a G bent up a tone to an A) for a full ten seconds (starting at about the 3:58 mark in the video above). In some live versions of the track (like this), John Sykes, the other guitarist in Lizzy at the time, also does a solo. While technically Sykes is a more accomplished guitarist in terms of speed and “chops”, his solo is much poorer (at least to my ears) than Gorham’s masterclass in ‘economy’ and feel. Gorham says more with one note (and the spaces between the notes) than Sykes manages throughout his solo. (Interestingly, Sykes doesn’t solo on the track on the studio version).

Now, restraint is not a word normally associated with Lizzy. The Sun Goes Down isn’t, however, the only example of wonderfully understated playing — Lizzy’s back-catalogue is full of great moments like this. But they of course complemented those moments with hugely exciting bombast and over-the-top hard rock/metal.

And on the subject of going over the top, restraint is hardly the watchword for Lynott’s kindred soul, Lemmy. I was shocked to hear of Lemmy’s death last month because, in common with the majority of Motörhead fans, I honestly thought that Mr Kilmister was immortal**. As the tweet below none-too-subtly points out, Lemmy’s body had endured so much that we all thought there was nothing that would stop him; come the apocalypse all that would be left would be Mr. Ian Fraser Kilmister and the cockroaches:

There are close links between Lizzy and Lemmy/Motörhead, as laid out in Lemmy’s autobiography, White Line Fever. For one thing, Phil “Philthy” Taylor (1954-2015) was a huge Lizzy fan. This is fascinating because Taylor’s pummelling and relentless double bass drum pattern on Motörhead’s “Overkill” is often credited with kick-starting thrash metal. There’s good evidence for this — Dave Lombardo (Slayer) and Lars Ulrich (Metallica) have often credited Taylor’s key, and undoubtedly thoroughly deserved, influence. But a good five years before the release of “Overkill”, Brian Downey was propelling Lizzy’s Sha La La with a very similar approach to double bass drum overkill…

*There’s an interesting Cox connection here. Darren Wharton went on to form Dare. And one of the keyboard players in Dare was a certain (pre-D:ream) Brian Cox. (The other was Wharton himself). This means that Prof. Cox is one step removed from Lynott on the Lizzy musical heritage tree. I have a soft spot for AOR/hair metal and every now and again this classic Dare track comes up on shuffle on my iPod…

** There’s currently a petition doing the rounds to immortalise Lemmy by naming, fittingly, one of the heavier elements at the top end of the Periodic Table as “Lemmium”. Some of the less enlightened members of the chemistry community/IUPAC have suggested that Lemmy lacks the academic credentials to be immortalised in this way. I, for one, have signed the petition. Anyone who can get the word “parallelogram” into a heavy metal song has demonstrated impeccable academic credentials in my view…