Phil Lynott – The Cowboy Rides into the Sunset
First Published 25 October 2020
Phil Lynott, the last days of Thin Lizzy, Grand Slam and beyond.
Words: Paul Monkhouse
Thin Lizzy were the cream of the crop in Rock circles, their particular brand of melodic, but hard as nails, material was full of style, class and a romanticism that grabbed the public.
That interest has recently seen the fires rekindled by a new box set called ‘Thin Lizzy – Rock Legends’ which celebrates the recorded work of the band over seven discs and contains a mouth watering 74 previously unreleased tracks alongside the hits and fan favourites.
Also out imminently is ‘Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away’, a biographical film by Emer Reynolds that charts the life of both the main man and band from start to finish.
Packed with family, friends and bandmates, it is an intimate and compelling portrait that both thrills and entertains whilst paying tribute to the massive impact Lizzy had.
Both are essential for completists and even the casual fan will find a real treasure trove of music and information that may well spark a raging passion. There is a very good reason for that and now is as perfect a time as any to reflect on this legendary outfit.
Since forming officially in 1970, Thin Lizzy worked incredibly hard and went on to play international stages with bands like Status Quo, Slade, Aerosmith and Rush, have a string of hit albums and singles, release one of the greatest concert albums ever in the form of ‘Live and Dangerous’, play a hugely successful American tour with Queen in the Silver Jubilee year of 1977 (aptly and cheekily named the ‘Queen Lizzy Tour’) and had a number of top guitarists in their ranks.
Front and centre of the band was talismanic bass player and lead singer Phil Lynott.
Black, Irish and devilishly good looking, the tall and rakish musician was a striking figure and the coolest man to walk onstage since Jimi Hendrix. He had come up the hard way, being the son of a single mother in Ireland in the 1950’s was seen as a stigma, being black even more so and he was bullied at school but this didn’t last for long as Lynott stood up to the bullies and a rain of fists soon taught them the error of their ways.
His heroes were drawn from the Wild West where a man stands up for himself, defending what is right, and it was these qualities and images that he referenced several times in songs throughout his career, the Dubliner a cowboy at heart.
His drive and star quality soon caught the eyes of others and it was this that took the band to great success in the 70’s, matched with his sparkling songwriting, distinctively seductive vocals and ability to attract brilliant, but mercurial, guitarists to the band.
By the end of the decade though the wheels were slowly coming off, the line-up changes, illnesses and insidious issues with drugs causing major problems for the band’s continued further progress. Into the 80’s their ‘Chinatown’ album was not as well received as the previously hugely popular ‘Black Rose’ release and the follow-up to this, ‘Renegade’ fared even worse.
This view was somewhat unfair as both albums have some excellent tracks but maybe lacked something of the cohesion and sparkle of what the band was able to produce at their height. Live shows though continued to be hugely successful, driving the band on the ever-exhausting treadmill of the album / tour cycle.
Unable to face the ups and downs of the band’s chaotic lifestyle, guitarist Snowy White quit after two years and Lynott focused on his solo work. A replacement for the departed White was found in hot young six stringer John Sykes.
Fresh from North East NWOBHM kingpins Tygers of Pan Tang the guitarist brought much more of a heavier edge to the band, co writing ‘Cold Sweat’. When Sykes arrived on the scene the new album ‘Thunder and Lightning’ had been almost fully written and was ready for him to inject a little extra venom with his fretwork.
The album was welcomed with open arms and caught the zeitgeist of the wave of enthusiasm for Hard Rock and Heavy Metal that had bloomed in the era. Behind the scenes though things with the band were not all rosy, as drugs were taking their toll and long-standing guitarist Scott Gorham said he had truly had enough, needing to hang up his guitar before their lifestyle killed him.
A tour was announced to support the album but declared to be their farewell.
Naturally, this drove demand for tickets through the roof and extra dates were added. It was though to truly be the end of the band, the quintet going their sperate ways six months after the album was released in March of 1983.
Those who witnessed the tour though were treated to something very special and the band certainly showed what they were capable of. I was one of those and my story follows, along with that of Pat McManus from support band Mama’s Boys and Mark Stanway, the former Magnum keyboard player who formed Lynott’s post Lizzy band, Grand Slam, with him.
Thin Lizzy – A teenager gets struck by ‘Thunder and Lightning’ on stage.
There are some dates you never forget in life. One of mine is the 26th of February 1983. That was the day I met Phil Lynott.
Since first getting into Hard Rock in the late 1970’s my obsession with music had ramped up considerably and I now voraciously lapped up any and every band that featured in the pages of Sounds weekly music paper and the newly published Kerrang! Magazine.
The announcement of a new Thin Lizzy album, ‘Thunder and Lightning’ caused a massive ripple of excitement amongst my friends and I, especially as lead single ‘Cold Sweat’ was such a rampaging rocker.
The addition of ex Tygers of Pan Tang guitarist John Sykes had beefed up their sound considerably and his leaving the Whitley Bay NWOBHM stalwarts to audition for Ozzy Osbourne, not getting that gig and instead finding his home in Lizzy was nothing but a good thing in our eyes.
Purists may have moaned that the time that the band had ‘gone all Heavy Metal’ but to us this new, more visceral, sound was welcomed with open arms.
Having missed their ‘Renegades’ tour, tickets for the ‘Thunder and Lightning’ shows on this jaunt at both Portsmouth (my old stamping ground) and Ipswich were snapped up, the dates ringed in the diary. This became more bittersweet following the announcement that this was to be the band’s farewell tour, the anticipation turned up to a fever pitch.
Making our way down to Portsmouth Guildhall mid afternoon on that fateful late February day, my friend Graeme and I managed to catch Scott Gorham and John Sykes as they turned up and made their way through the backstage door.
Graeme saw a group of workers from a local bringing in some extra staging, duly offered our help and somehow, they agreed, the two of us finding ourselves on and behind the stage.
This was a quite mind-blowing experience for the both of us, constantly on edge and fearing we were going to get kicked out until a kindly member of the crew explained to the tour manager we were stage hands, despite our denim jackets being covered in patches and badges.
We took the opportunity to watch the soundcheck and later saw support band Mama’s Boys tear the place up from the wings. I was instantly hooked on their Celtic infused take on Hard Rock, especially one track called ‘Runaway Dreams’ which featured lead guitarist Pat McManus playing a fiddle.
Chatting to them after they came off stage, they were incredibly friendly and enthusiastic, the three being very near our ages, especially drummer Tommy.
Also, of a similar age to us was Thin Lizzy keys player Darren Wharton, having joined the band aged eighteen three years earlier. He proved to be equally as amiable, fishing a shining mirrored Lizzy badge out of his pocket, handing it to me with the words ”for your collection” and having the air of great confidence, his writing with the band producing some very fine tracks indeed.
A quite shy and reserved Brian Downey stopped by too, saying little but gently smiling, the drummer later beating seven shades of stuffing from his kit later on, a master of groove.
The lights dimmed as they had hundreds of times before and a huge roar went up from the gathered souls in the hall, packed shoulder to shoulder, the euphoria tangible in the air as smoke bombs exploded as the band drove into the title track of the new album. Again, watching from the side of the stage, this was the most exciting and intense experience in my seventeen years.
Seeing the band play and their absolute mastery was confirmation of exactly why their phenomenal ‘Live And Dangerous’ was so named. There was certainly a wild and untamed edge to what they did, perfectly controlled but always on the edge of tipping into chaos, the feral aspect of a Rock ‘N’ Roll band in their natural element and kings of all they surveyed.
We left our privileged position and went down into the audience to properly feel that sense of community, a living, breathing celebration of the power of the music.
Whilst Gorham and Sykes were superb and flash guitarists, it was always Lynott who captured most of the attention.
Bass held high, he was the consummate frontman, his voice and playing perfect and the command he had over the audience was absolute. Absolutely effortless, he was THE coolest rock star on the scene, only matched by the black clad master of mayhem Mr. Lemmy Kilminster, who, by the way, I was fortunate enough to meet as he held court propping up the bar at the Marquee Club with Noddy Holder a couple of years later.
To see photos or watch footage of Phil only scratched the surface but watching him in the flesh was an almost religious experience.
From ‘Thunder And Lightning’ through to the encore of ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ the band were on fire and for atmosphere and sheer visceral thrill this topped anything I had experienced in the relatively scant three years I’d been going to gigs.
Looking back now though, it still remains emblazed as a mighty memory of just how exciting those early gig experiences were and a high benchmark in a forty-year catalogue of concert going.
Maybe somewhat naively, we were unaware about the grip that drugs had on certain members of the band at that time and certainly didn’t notice anything backstage but, not having access to Lizzy’s dressing room, we probably weren’t going to see anything we shouldn’t.
We were two people who weren’t really meant to be there, despite our helping loading in for the show, pushing our luck even further just wasn’t the top of our priorities although I do wish we’d got a plectrum, drumstick or setlist as further solid mementos of that night.
Getting autographs from all the band on our unused tickets and a badge was an awful lot more than most could claim, let alone our prime viewing position.
It was a little time after the final note rang out that Phil sauntered from the dressing room to where we were standing, looking every inch the Rock god that he had been onstage.
Handsome, unfeasibly charismatic and smiling with a warmth that would have caused global warming way before the term became fashionable, he spotted us near Mama’s Boys dressing room and made a beeline for us. After being surrounded by liggers and hangers-on for most of the evening it appeared that he truly welcomed the sight of two kids who were obviously true and proper fans and had somehow, either through luck or turning the wrong way out of the toilets, found themselves backstage.
We chatted, starry eyed, for a few minutes, as he showed a genuine interest in us and what we thought of the show.
I wish now I could remember more or what we talked about or had some small camera to preserve the moment for perpetuity but the memory remains feint but happy.
Wishing us safe journeys home, he walked off and into Mama’s Boys room, leaving us both somewhat overwhelmed and euphoric at the experience. The journey back across on the ferry from Portsmouth to Gosport was filled with tales of the night and we chatted into the early hours of the Sunday morning, my departing on a coach to head back to Norfolk that evening.
I caught Lizzy again at Ipswich and again, they were on fire, my love for them and Mama’s Boys growing, seeing both bands at Reading Festival that year. In fact, Lizzy’s headlining slot on Sunday 28th August was their last U.K. show, playing their final gig together at the Monsters of Rock Festival in Nuremberg a few days later on the 4th of September.
Reading was an occasion that left me feeling a little flat, the end of a great weekend but also the end of a band I’d come to somewhat late to, but loved passionately none the less. It all seemed so anti-climactic and almost needless, especially given that they had produced an outstanding album, were getting some of their best reviews and most enthusiastic receptions in years.
Somewhat selfishly I didn’t want the band to finish, all the while remaining oblivious to what was happening behind the scenes as the band members were burning out. It is said that part way through the tour Phil didn’t want things to end either, just as they were riding the crest of a fresh wave and seeing just how much they meant to people.
They still had a lot to give but the dye had been cast and the band needed to break up for their health and to save the fans feeling that this ‘farewell’ tour was just a cash cow con to ensure sales. Lizzy were too classy for that.
Phil went on to form the excellent Grand Slam, a band who promised much but never got the breaks and were another great live act.
I saw them at the Kerrang! Weekender in Great Yarmouth on the 12th of October ’84 and the magic was there still, backed by some excellent songs. The set, featuring ‘Parisienne Walkways’, ‘Cold Sweat’, ‘Yellow Pearl’ and some new material became available on CD recently titled ‘Phil Lynott & Grand Slam – The Live Document’ and it is well worth investigating.
The band fizzled out and were a missed opportunity for record labels to add a classy Hard Rock act to their roster, but that’s life sometimes.
I did get to see Phil play one more time when he came onstage for the final encore at Motorhead’s 10th Anniversary ‘Birthday Party’ show at Hammersmith Odeon on the 26th of June 1985.
The two coolest men in rock together on one stage, bass guitars held tightly and looking utterly at home in front of a packed and adoring crowd. THAT was rock ‘n’ roll.
I joined thousands of others to be shocked and saddened by the news of Phil’s passing the following January, a legend gone forever at the cruelly young age of thirty-six.
A scant few years later my friend Mark won one of Phil’s basses in a Radio One competition and I was able to hold and look at it once more.
He eventually sold it but if you want to see it you can go to the Hard Rock Café in London where it hangs in a glass case on a wall, it’s mirrored scratch plate occasionally catching the light just as it did on stage.
Phil may be gone, but he’ll NEVER be forgotten.
Pat McManus and Mama’s Boys – Life with Lynott
Pat McManus played guitar and fiddle for Irish hard rock trio Mama’s Boys; the band chosen to open for Lizzy on the ‘Thunder & Lightning’ tour.
Having suffered a very rough ride from fans when supporting Hawkwind previously on the space rockers 1981 UK tour, this trek around the country was a dream in comparison. True, the band had been out on the road with Wishbone Ash in ’82 and that had lifted their profile and saw them starting to gain proper respect but the reception they got opening for Phil Lynott’s crew was to lift them up to another league in the hearts and eyes of the British public.
Busy playing ever since, most recently the guitarist formed the Pat McManus Band just over a decade ago and the trio are a constant presence, playing shows and appearing at festivals all over Europe, including some arena shows with German giants the Scorpions.
Here Pat shares a few memories of his time spent with Phil and how much the Lizzy frontman meant to them all.
“Sometime in the late 70’s I found myself hitching a ride to Dalymount in Dublin to see Thin Lizzy, it was my first real Rock festival. Little did I know that a few short years later I would be supporting Thin Lizzy on their farewell tour with my band Mama’s Boys.
“A few years later I had the privilege of watching Lizzy from the wings at Slane, but it wasn’t until 1982 at the Lisdoonvarna Festival that I finally met Philip properly in person. He had watched Mama’s Boys performance and liked what he heard, inviting us to join Lizzy on the aforementioned Farewell Tour.
“Through that tour we got to know Phil pretty well as he seemed to like our company…and took a shine to my brother John’s legwarmers!
“During that period, he also invited us to join him in the studio. I remember him looking over at us in a particular ‘Phil’ way through his hair, making sure we were paying him full attention. Phil liked to be in charge.
“Phil to me was always very generous of spirit with his time and the way he’d support up and coming young bands…and he seemed to delight in their company. His generosity extended to him coming along to support us at our own shows.
“A story I remember is when he said he’d come along for a jam with us when we were playing London’s Marquee Club but he didn’t show. A few nights later we were playing in Nottingham and unannounced Phil walked in along with Mark Stanway and John Sykes.
“They had driven all the way up from London so Phil could keep his word to us.
“Later that evening they joined us on stage for a mighty jam.
“Phil was a very integral part of my whole rock and roll journey. For that and his friendship, I will always be grateful.”
The latest on Pat and more information the PMB can be found at: www.patmcmanus.co.uk
Mark Stanway – Hell bent on havoc with Phil Lynott and Grand Slam
A friendship with John Sykes and downtime from Magnum led renowned and highly respected keys player Mark Stanway to cross paths with Phil Lynott and eventually form post Lizzy outfit Grand Slam with him.
Now heading Kingdom of Madness, Mark talks about life and times with Lynott in his autobiography ‘Close To The Mark’ and it is a tale of high jinks, scrapes and near misses, along with some brilliantly performed hard rock.
Spring 1983 and Magnum were not working much, their Jet Records contract tying them up and severely restricting their movements.
Whilst this was all being untangled Mark needed to work “I had a mortgage to pay and a family to support.”
In March he went down to Lombard Studios where old friend John Sykes was mixing the latest Lizzy album ‘Thunder & Lightning’ with Phil Lynott, the three of them going “back to Phil’s house in Richmond or a drink or two etc.”
He ended up staying the night and the following day “Phil asked me if I would play keyboards on his solo tour of Sweden, scheduled for July and August. I, of course, immediately accepted the offer and looked forward to this new opportunity.”
Rehearsals began in July with the first date planned for the 22nd, the set a mix of solo material and Thin Lizzy songs, with Sykes on guitar and Brian Downey on drums.
“The band sounded great and Phil was very happy with the line-up and the way the band were sounding.”
The tour was a resounding success, the crowds ecstatic, “Phil was a huge star in Sweden.”
All the adoration for the frontman spilled out into the reception that the whole band received, everyone enjoying the experience on and off the stage, “this really was a serious taste of being a rock star.”
As both Thin Lizzy and Magnum were playing at Reading Festival that year, the three met up and chatted about how the tour that had finished a fortnight earlier had gone.
Magnum played on the Saturday with Lizzy topping the bill the following night. “Once again I stayed at Phil’s after Magnum’s show and ended up staying on and off for a year or so. It was decided after the final Lizzy show that the same band that played the Swedish tour should stay together and become a permanent new group.”
After several different suggestions including Hell Bent on Havoc, Catastrophe and Reactor Factor were put forward and then rejected, Grand Slam was chosen to be the name of this outfit.
Completed by guitarist Doish Nagle, the foundations for the new band were being formed as the Lynott, Stanway and Sykes writing partnership went into full swing, a new set of top-notch material shaping up nicely. This came to a sudden stop when, with a heavy heart, Sykes gave the news that he had been offered a significantly large amount of money to join Whitesnake and had agreed to fly to the States to join David Coverdale and Company.
Phil “was devastated and was initially was going to give up on the whole idea of Grand Slam,” but fortunately Mark convinced him to give another friend, the twenty-one-year-old former Stampede guitarist Laurence Archer a try.
The match was perfect and Grand Slam were most definitely back up and on track.
Once again, there was a line-up change as Downey also left the band to be replaced by sticksman Robbie Brennan, but they were soon whipped into shape, Lynott earning the nickname ‘Sergeant Rock’ due to his constant practice regime.
What also helped the band was the fact that the singer’s Richmond home had a large garage at the rear that was converted into an eight track recording studios for demoing new songs, honing them before taking them to record companies.
There were down sides though, “Phil’s house was a magnet for many visitors; some good, some bad and some indifferent, but many musicians would visit and we’d end up jamming.”
Amongst the roll call of people who turned up were old friends Brian Robertson, Gary Moore, Motorhead’s Phil Taylor, Junior Giscombe, Gary Holton from the Heavy Metal Kids and members of Ultravox.
Whilst the line up could be stellar, depending on the mix of people, the results could be less than sparkling, Mark commenting, “Most the jams ended up as a mostly drunken drug induced noise.”
Away from these bad influences though, work was coming on apace, the band shaping up as a terrifically potent live act and playing regularly up and down the country. One night after a three-gig run at the legendary Marquee Club in Wardour Street, a slight mishap caused Mark to be arrested and almost caught with an illegal substance in his pocket.
It was a close call, as the keys player could have been in serious trouble if this had been found, but he managed to create a diversion by producing from his pocket a huge wad of cash that wife Mo had earned as a backing singer for Culture Club that week, necessitating it to be counted, swallowing said substance before it could be discovered.
He then came back out to a surprise, “there, sitting in reception was Phil Lynott, bless him, as he refused to leave without me”, the warm and caring side of ‘Sergeant Rock’ showing as he never left a man behind.
Everyone then went back to the Richmond house to celebrate into the small hours of the night with yet more drink, relieved that a spell in prison had been averted.
Other stories of alcohol and drug fuelled escapades surround the band, but these were not the only distractions as Phil was quite the ladies’ man too. Amongst his real and potential dalliances were a member of the Royal Family and a well-known singer, Mark having to drop the former off at the back entrance to Buckingham Palace on a fairly regular basis as Lynott didn’t drive.
At heart though, the former Thin Lizzy frontman was a real family man, regularly staying with Mark and family at his home in the Midlands, enjoying cooked Sunday lunches and drinks out. “People in my hometown could hardly believe it, but actually soon got used to me walking into my local pub with Phil and just have a quiet drink with friends.”
Ultimately it was the other side of Phil Lynott, the wild and headstrong drug and drink fueled maverick, that the record companies seemingly thought about when his name was mentioned and Grand Slam’s material was presented.
They knew ‘The Rocker’ and certainly weren’t looking for trouble.
It was a time of huge frustration, the band being so good but the vision that others saw of them being so clouded, albeit it for reasons at times.
Grand Slam folded at the end of 1984, a hugely promising career stalled before it really started and Mark headed back to Magnum after they’d untangled all their issues with the old record company.
The songs were still there though and the Lynott/Archer track ‘Dedication’ was rerecorded with Brian Downey on drums and Scott Gorham on guitar and put out as a Thin Lizzy song on a greatest hits compilation, removing Archer from the credits, although this was subsequently settled out of court.
Another track, ‘Military Man’, turned up as a tasty duet between Lynott and Gary Moore on the latter’s ‘Run For Cover’ album, the two old friends and sparring partners also appearing together on the chart hit ‘Out In The Fields’.
Thirty-two years after the band split, Mark reached out to Laurence Archer, seeing if he would be interested reforming Grand Slam with ex-Magnum drummer Mickey Barker, bass legend Neil Murray and vocalist Stefan Berggren completing the line-up.
Playing two shows only, this line up was short lived but in 2018 Mark and Laurence went into the studio with a new members and recorded what was to be the ‘Hit the Ground’ album, released in 2019 on Marshall Records.
Mixing Grand Slam songs written by the original trio, with ones written by Archer and the latest musicians the album captured the grace and style of the band perfectly.
Although Mark was no longer a member of the band, having recorded the keys for the album, it’s certainly something he is proud of and Grand Slam stand as a superb rock band still, Laurence Archer at the helm, the both of them preserving some of the great heritage that they created with Lynott three decades earlier.
To Mark go the last words, as he considers his time spent during those precious and creative times with the bass playing frontman.
“I really miss Phil, rest his soul, and am so proud to have been such close friends with him and indeed to have worked with him performing the likes of ‘Parisienne Walkways’, ‘Whisky in the Jar’ and ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ etc., along with the many Grand Slam songs I co-wrote with him.
Phil Lynott: a true talent, a genuinely funny man and the epitome of a Rock Star.”
Catch up with Mark and Kingdom of Madness at www.kingdomofmadness.co.uk
Grand Slam can be found at www.grandslamrocks.com
The End of the Trail
With things not really working out with Grand Slam, Lynott took some time out to reconsider his options.
Two weeks after his appearance onstage with Motorhead in late June ’85 he was seen backstage at Live Aid, seemingly glad to be there but under the surface was a deep hurt and he flew home to Dublin that evening.
Upon landing he gave a radio interview stating how dearly he wanted Bob Geldof to ask him to reform Lizzy for the giant global event, a platform that would have put him back on the world stage and in front of the eyes of millions as he and the band went out and showed once more just how good they were.
Whilst bands were held in reserve just in case someone had to drop out last minute, including Marillion whose lead singer Fish was actually part of the mass of performers at the Wembley finale, Thin Lizzy were never considered, having broken up three years earlier and not thought to be high profile enough at that time to appear.
Had they played, this may have saved Lynott’s life from his slow spiral further down into a drug fueled existence, but such a thing will never be known.
What is fact though, was that he had approached Brian Downey to reform the band to start up again in March 1986, to which the drummer agreed.
Sadly, this wasn’t to be as on the 4th of January 1986 Phil passed away, the victim of multiple organ failure caused mainly by his years of drug use and abuse.
It was a heartbreaking end for one of the greatest figures in Rock.
The Cowboy rode into his final sunset but his legend will always live on.
Thanks to both Pat McManus and Mark Stanway for the use of their personal photos that were used as part of this feature.
Details on the ‘Phil Lynott : Songs For While I’m Away’ movie can be found at www.phillynottfilm.com and the ‘Thin Lizzy – Rock Legends’ album box set can be purchased at any number of online stores.
Also, well worth seeking out is Mark Putterford’s book ‘The Rocker’, an excellent and comprehensive study of Lynott’s life and the highs and lows of Thin Lizzy.