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The rise and tragic fall of Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott

Phil Lynott performing on stage. (Photograph by Pete Cronin/Redferns). - Credit: Redferns

With a new documentary focusing on the charismatic Thin Lizzy front-man, RICHARD LUCK charts his extraordinary rise and tragic fall.

“What’s it like being black and Irish?”

“It’s a bit like being a pint of Guinness.”

It wasn’t just lines like that that ensured Phil Lynott’s place in the rock pantheon. A string of great songs, trans-Atlantic album success, the tendency to wear his bass like a gunslinger – it was Lynott’s destiny to take a place among the gods of rock.

That said, if you’d have explained how things were going to work out to the mixed-race child growing up in Manchester and Dublin with a white Irish mother and an absent Guyanese father, it’s fair to say the kid might have given you a funny look.

Soon to provide the basis for a new documentary, Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away, the Thin Lizzy front-man’s life story stands up to regular retelling. Born Philip Parris Lynott in West Bromwich in 1949, Phil was named after his parents – Philomena Lynott, an Irish nurse, and Cecil Parris who’d gamely swapped Georgetown for the West Midlands.

The couple’s union was brief and although Cecil did contribute to his son’s upbringing, he wasn’t present in the child’s life. Nor was Philomena, for that matter. After a spell in a home for unmarried mothers in Birmingham and a move to Manchester, Phyllis – as she preferred to be called – took her child back to Dublin to live with her mother and father.

A black kid growing up without parents in a city with little ethnic population to speak of, you could be forgiven for thinking Lynott’s upbringing was horrific. When asked about his schooldays in his later life, Phil was at great pains to explain that he’d experienced relatively little in the way of direct racism. And though he’d admit to often feeling different to his classmates, he was a popular child who forged a close relationship with his grandparents Frank and Sarah.

Speaking of Frank, music came into Phil’s life by way of his grandfather’s soul-heavy record collection. Joining his first band, The Black Eagles in 1965, Lynott was persuaded by his school friend Brian Downey to defect to The Liffey Beats. When that outfit proceeded to go nowhere, he had a brief spell in a band called Kama Sutra before he hooked up with that group’s bassist Brendan ‘Brush’ Shields to form Skid Row in 1968.

But if Shields played bass, what was Lynott’s role in the band to be? Given how closely associated he was to become with the instrument, it’s amazing to find out that Phil couldn’t play bass guitar when Skid Row formed. He couldn’t play anything, for that matter – his contribution to the group consisted of vocals, which he would sometimes distort using an echo box. Fortunately, being 6ft 1in and boasting a killer Afro, Phil made up in stage presence what he lacked in musical virtuosity.

After taking a leave of absence from Skid Row to have his tonsils removed, Lynott suffered the ignominy of being sacked upon his return. By way of compensation, ‘Brush’ Shields not only taught Phil how to play the bass but also sold him his first instrument. With a new string to his bow, Lynott got back in touch with Brian Downey and formed Orphanage, before an encounter with Erics Wixon and Bell, respectively keyboardist and guitarist with Them, brought about the birth of Thin Lizzy.

A few things you need to know about Thin Lizzy:

1.) They took their name from the Dandy comic-strip Tin Lizzy;

2.) They were anything but an overnight success;

3.) They’ve had more line-ups than the Metropolitan Police.

This last point can’t be stressed enough – from sacking Eric Wrixon after the release of their very first single, Thin Lizzy were the rock equivalent of national service; everyone had to do a stint. Those who have done time with the group include guitar god and former Skid Row axe-wielder Gary Moore, Ultravox front-man Midge Ure, former Manfred Dave Flett, Dio’s Vivian Campbell, and gun-for-hire guitarist Snowy White.

With such a high churn rate, it’s perhaps not surprising that it took Thin Lizzy a while to crack it. First hitting the UK top ten in 1972 with their plaintive take on traditional Irish favourite Whiskey in the Jar, it would be a further four years before the group cracked the British album charts.

It didn’t hurt that, besides reaching the top 10 in the UK, 1976’s Jailbreak achieved gold status in the US. Featuring a superb Jim Fitzpatrick comic-book sleeve together with the band’s most celebrated self-penned track The Boys Are Back in Town, Jailbreak perfectly encapsulates the Thin Lizzy sound.

With the twin guitars of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson making for a particularly melodic form of heavy rock, the combination of Lynott’s thick bass and his inimitable vocals – roaring one minute, sneering the next, even growling at times – meant no one else was in danger of being mistaken for Thin Lizzy.

It was an impressive record lyrically, too, even if the title track’s opening line – “Tonight there’s going to be a jailbreak/ Somewhere in this town” – suggests otherwise. Featuring songs about drug addiction (Warriors) and Irish mythology (Emerald), Jailbreak also showcased Cowboy Song, one of the group’s finest recordings, the subject matter of which cemented the front-man’s image as a performer who was one part Jimi Hendix, one part The Man With No Name.

That rare person who could make leather trousers seem like a sensible clothing option, Phil Lynott barely put a foot wrong between Jailbreak and the end of the decade. The following year saw the band headline the Reading Festival and unleash Bad Reputation, their first long player to crack the top five. Featuring the hit single Dancing in the Moonlight, the record was exemplified by its title track which showcased Lynott’s bass at its fattest, baddest and dirtiest. The singer’s swagger was also very much in evidence on 1978’s Live And Dangerous, an in-concert LP that sold 500,000 copies in Britain alone.

The following year, Thin Lizzy released what many believe to be their greatest record, Black Rose: A Rock Legend. Its chart success bolstered by a brace of top 20 singles – Do Anything You Want To and Waiting for an Alibi – the album exposed the contradictions of the group’s singer/songwriter; a ladykiller who doted on his young daughter (the subject of the song Sarah); a 21st century rock star whose passions for Irish myth and folk music were to the fore on the beguiling Roisin Dubh. Lynott’s ability to be many different things simultaneously reached its peak in 1980 when he married Sarah’s mother, Caroline Crowther, daughter of British telly favourite Leslie. The same year the couple welcomed their second child, Cathleen. Everything seemed to be coming together for Lynott. In reality, everything was rapidly falling apart.

Drugs had been a part of Phil Lynott’s life for almost as long as music. It was as the 1970s turned into the 1980s that his problems with heroin really began to take hold. Not that it made him any the less prolific – on the contrary, Lynott released two solo albums in the early 1980s (the second of which featured Yellow Pearl, soon to become famous as the theme from Top Of The Pops). Lizzy, meanwhile, pumped out three LPs during the period, each less impressive and less imaginative than the one before. With his addiction compromising his talent, if not his output, so it also laid waste to his marriage.

And yet still he maintained his image as the embodiment of rock. When Richard Branson boasted that Virgin Airlines would give ordinary Joes the opportunity to rub shoulders with rock royalty, it was Lynott he called on to appear in the television ad. As late as 1984, he had a new side project, Grand Slam, on the go. Then in 1985 came his last hurrah, Out in the Fields, a successful collaboration with Gary Moore lent significance by the fact that, with sectarian violence was on the rise, here was evidence that Catholics and Protestants could make extraordinary music together.

Just as Out in the Fields suggested Lynott might be turning a corner, heroin decided otherwise. When Phil was charged with drug offences later in the year, he was spared jail time, the judge concluding that “As long as he is only using these drugs himself and not giving them to others, he is only destroying himself”. However, life on the outside simply gave him more time to service his addiction. On Christmas Day 1985, Phyllis found her son unconscious at his West London home. Unaware of his drug issues, she called Caroline who, being all too aware of her estranged husband’s problems, drove up from the Crowther family home in the south west and took him to a treatment centre in Wiltshire. From there, the still stricken star was transferred to Salisbury Infirmary where he was diagnosed with septicaemia and pneumonia. Regaining consciousness just long enough to speak to his mother and sing a few bars of My Way, Phil Lynott died on January 4, 1986. He was 36.

It is hard to believe that a larger-than-life character such as Phil Lynott could experience such an ignominious death. Through a combination of adoring fans and a breathtaking back catalogue, Lynott’s afterlife has verged on the remarkable. Besides The Boys Are Back In Town cropping up in everything from Navy Seals to The Simpsons, Bad Reputation never sounded more dangerous than when it appeared in the renegade skateboarding documentary Dogtown And Z-Boys. It also doesn’t hurt that Phil’s songs have been covered by the likes of Iron Maiden, Anthrax, Megadeth, Smashing Pumpkins, even the Happy Mondays; each effort helping to introduce new audiences to his music without ever threatening to outstrip the original.

Now with a new documentary about his life and legend in the offing – directed by Irish filmmaker Emer Reynolds, no release date has yet been given – it’s perhaps worth remembering that the other Phyl Lynott is every bit as extraordinary as her son. Now 88, Phyllis is still fighting to protect her boy’s work and reputation. She is particularly vocal whenever the US Republican Party dares to use The Boys Are Back In Town at conventions or in adverts; the single mother of a mixed-race child failing to see what she, Phil and the GOP could possibly have in common. Like her boy after her, Phyllis Lynott overcame overwhelming odds.

– This article was originally published in May 2019.

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