INTERVIEW AND PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ
Thin Lizzy started their 2011 tour in early January. Prior to their sold out show London, I had opportunity to sit down with founding member Brian Downey to discuss the new lineup, the future, as well as some past events. Read on!
A Brief History Lesson
Thin Lizzy is definitely one of most the recognizable and valued names in world of rock music. Thin Lizzy were lead by bassist/vocalist Phil Lynott who formed the band alongside with drummer Brian Downey and guitarist Eric Bell in 1969 in Dublin. The threesome released its s/t debut in 1971 and SHADES OF A BLUE ORPHANAGE followed one year later. Their version of a traditional Irish song “Whiskey in the Jar” became a huge hit and it helped band to do tours with such names as Slade back in the day. Bell left the band in 1973 and they tried out a couple of guitarists, including Gary Moore, before it was announced that Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson were a the new guitarist duo for Thin Lizzy. The renewed band next completed the albums NIGHTLIFE and FIGHTING but it wasn’t before 1976 and album JAILBREAK which finally made Thin Lizzy an international success. Songs like “Boys Are Back In Town”, “Jailbreak” and “Cowboy Song” were huge everywhere. The following albums JOHNNY THE FOX, BAD REPUTATION and especially the live album LIVE AND DANGEROUS continued the success story. The latter has often been voted for greatest live album of all time. The classic lineup broke up and Brian Robertson was let go in 1978 and was replaced by old friend, Gary Moore. BLACK ROSE was another strong release from the band but like before, Gary decided not to stay permanently in the band. Snowy White stepped in but in addition Lizzy decided to add also keyboard player in their ranks. Darren Wharton got the job and grown lineup released albums CHINATOWN and RENEGADE in early 80’s. Former Tygers of Pan Tang guitarist John Sykes replaced White in 1982 and although Lizzy’s next release THUNDER AND LIGHTNING was a success, the band decided to call it’s quits in 1984. Only two years later the music world was again shocked when Lynott passed away at the age of thirty six. Although Lynott is gone, people have not forgotten him and his music. There’s been numerous tribute shows and events organized for his memory. In1996 former Lizzy members: Sykes, Gorham, Wharton, Downey and bassist Marco Mendoza decided to reactivate Thin Lizzy as a tribute for Phil’s lifework. The temporary thing became more or less permanent and during the following thirteen years Sykes and Gorham, the other members kept on changing during the years, kept Lizzy’s name and legacy alive all around the world. In 2009 Sykes decided to quit with the band and concentrate on his own career and the band disbanded soon after. Now it’s 2011 and it’s been twenty five years since Phil’s passing. A new Thin Lizzy lineup has formed and it’s now led by Gorham, Downey and Wharton. The new lineup is completed by retuning bassist Marco Mendoza, guitarist Vivian Campbell (Def Leppard), and Ricky Warwick (The Almighty) on vocals and guitar
THE 25’TH ANNIVERSARY OF PHIL’S PASSING
Well first of all. How have things been going with this new line up and tour? You already have a few shows in your belt?
Everything’s been really good. It’s been great to play again with old Lizzy mates Scott and Darren. The whole band sounds really good and people have been amazed to see this line up on stage. It’s been really great.
What made you decide to come back once again as Thin Lizzy and do this tour?
To come back now and play, I was thinking about it for since that time when we did that show with Gary, Scott, Brian Robertson and Eric Bell in Dublin in 2005. And I just felt you know if ever Sykes and that whole thing kind of disintegrates it might be a nice idea to get something for the 25th anniversary for Phil, really. That was really in the back of my mind since the Gary Moore thing. And fortunately I got a call from Scott saying that John is not involved anymore and maybe we should do what we were talking about five years ago. And I said that sounds pretty okay to me, but I mean I had also in the back of my mind to bring Brian Robertson, you know, to have Robbo, Scott, myself, Wharton and Mark Mendoza on bass. Ricky Warwick wasn’t in my mind at the time but when he was suggested I said yeah he sounds great, fantastic. And so that really came from that conversation we had five years ago really backstage when Gary, obviously Gary wasn’t a part of the conversation but it’s when it was involved on the 20th anniversary. And it came from that particular conversation so that’s really how that happened. And now when Scott said it to me I thought it was an opportune time to do it. John had gone and there was no holding Scott back to do it.
Like you said, Brian Robertson was originally in your plans to be in the band. What happened?
It didn’t happen because Brian is working on his upcoming solo album and he’s thinking of going out on tour with his own band so he couldn’t commit for this thing. He’s been working that album for a long time and wants to get it finished. He’s now working on that with Swedish musicians in Sweden. They’re quite good. I have heard the album and liked it. Some of the songs are quite good. Originally I was going to play drums on that album but unfortunately it didn’t happen.
How did Vivian Campbell come into the picture?
Vivian Campbell has always been around and we’ve known each other for a long time. He’s originally from Belfast and he’s always been a big fan of Thin Lizzy. Back in the day Sweet Savage, his band at that time, supported Lizzy in many occasions. You know, he now plays with Def Leppard and they’re currently off the road. When we were scheduled to do this tour he was doing nothing in those two months and he then agreed to do it. When things didn’t work out as planned with Brian, Vivian was an obvious choice. He knows all the songs and he’s an excellent player.
How about Ricky Warwick then? How did he end up in the picture?
I think Vivian, Scott and Ricky —they’re all friends, you know they all keep in contact. Scott obviously knows Vivian and Ricky knew Vivian so that’s where the whole connection came in. So you know it was nice, I never met Ricky before this, the first time I met Ricky was you know was here in London about a year ago, maybe a year and two months ago. So that was the first time when I actually met Ricky. I never actually knew him before that. But I heard his band the Almighty and I heard his solo stuff and I was always very impressed.
And he’s Irish as well. That does help, right “laughs”
And he’s Irish as well. So I mean, but the unfortunate thing I never got to see him in the flesh in the live setting you know, but I mean he’s just fantastic. I saw him on TV a few times with the Almighty and I was very impressed so that’s where our connection comes in.
Was Gary Moore ever an option to join in this new line up?
Well Gary is… I played with Gary up to a few years ago when I played in the band for just over three years and Gary has his own scene going, he has his own thing going for himself. I mean he does tours without any problems and he plays places, and he would not do that thing because of that. You know, we have to understand that. He’s been doing his own thing for years. Now the only Gary would do it I think is to do one off gigs, maybe a tribute thing like we did in Dublin and things like that. But I don’t think Gary would be interested in doing what we’re doing now because as I say he’s got his own band, his own scene, and he wasn’t even asked because I knew he wouldn’t agree. So that’s the reason he wasn’t asked.
Thin Lizzy: Live at London 2011
THE LIZZY RE-MASTERS
As well as the new tour, 2011 also sees the re-release of a series of Thin Lizzy classic albums which have been remixed and tweaked at Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott’s studio in Dublin. How that thing came about?
Well, Joe and Scott do know each other well. Actually Joe lives in Dublin, my hometown, he lives not far from where I live and I bump into him regularly so I kind of know him as well. Scott obviously knows Joe through Joe’s living in Dublin and being with Def Leppard so that’s how it first got started. Joe had contact with us through Phonogram Records and through the record company generally and we knew Joe had a fantastic studio in Dublin. It’s a great studio and we got the opportunity from the record company guys to be able to remix it in Joe’s studio rather than coming to England to do it. And Joe was well into it and so was his engineer Roland McCue, who’s a great engineer, he’s a great guy, he’s a wizard on the board. We just knew when we got those guys in that this is going to come easy rather than coming to London, going through the whole rigmarole not know who you’re going to get etc. At least we knew Joe’s studio was good, we knew that already. And it was absolutely natural for us to do it, you know. Scott actually flew over from London a few times, I was living there, Joe was there and Roland was there so I just thought it was the obvious place to do the whole thing and so did everybody else.
You and Scott did the actual remixing together?
Well it was mainly through Scott had more time to do it, he actually over dubbed some guitar on that, I didn’t touch the drum apart from doing some obviously a little bit of remixing on the drums, that’s all. But Scott actually played guitar on some of those remixes you know. The reason being was because over the years Scott often said to me wouldn’t it be great to get that stuff back in the modern setting and sort of do something with those songs, and I said yeah it would be nice but I mean you know let’s do it nice and subtle, we don’t want to go overboard with it. And he said yeah, absolutely, there’s no way we’re going to go overboard. But he wanted to do something that’s going to bring the sound into the 21st century basically. And that’s what happened there.
JOHN SYKES’S THIN LIZZY AND SOME MORE
John Sykes and Scott kind of kept Thin Lizzy alive from ’96 to 2009 and at the beginning you were a part of it as well. Why did you decide to quit the band in 1997?
Well back then again it was like a situation where we wanted to do some kind of a tribute to Phil and it was going to be short term basically. I didn’t intend to go on any longer than to do a tour or maybe two but… so basically I just wanted to do a short term and to do maybe some really good tribute gigs to Phil, you know sort of to celebrate the anniversary. Actually it was the tenth anniversary. So we had a big show at the Point Theatre in Dublin with John Sykes, myself, Scott Gorham, Darren Wharton, Henry Rollins was there all those friends and fans were was there, you know all those guys, we had all our friends there. And again it was suggested to me that maybe we should do some more dates and maybe take in a few places in Europe and Japan and I said yeah , that sounds good, let’s do that and continue the celebration of Phil’s work overseas. And that’s actually what happened, but that was suggested maybe we should continue on and do more and I said I don’t know maybe we shouldn’t, and I just found, when we did the American tour, I thought the organization was a big not quite right. We had some of the venues just weren’t suitable for a band like us. And we kind of, you know I discovered that we really shouldn’t have done an American tour, it was so badly organized and basically after the American tour I said look I’ll just maybe call it quits here and forget about it. I really didn’t intend to do any more tours and basically that’s what happened. But they wanted to carry on, so I mean they did a long number of years and in fact that band lasted longer than the original band that Phil and I myself formed, and so it was like… I can never understand why they continued on for so long. It just seemed to go on and on. I saw them a few times and I wasn’t really that impressed with the setup you know, they seemed to be a bit too heavy metal, it was just like completely different than what… I mean Thin Lizzy was really heavy rock band but they were never really heavy metal.
How do you like the live album THE ONE NIGHT ONLY which they put out in 1999?
You know, I never heard it. I didn’t actually play it, and I never got a free copy and I wasn’t going to buy it so I never heard it. Maybe I should listen to it. What’s it like?
It is ok but nothing special. John’s doing good job with vocals there etc but like you said it’s perhaps too metal when we are talking about Thin Lizzy material here. I remember seeing them a couple of times during the years and they were okay.
Yeah, I saw them in Dublin as well and I just wasn’t too impressed with it and I thought maybe there were too heavy and they should have you know got back into playing the way the band should have been playing years ago without heaviness, you know the heavy metal sound. I just thought it wasn’t appropriate for the songs.
I hesitate to ask, but how do you overall like John Sykes?
Oh yeah, I mean I like John, John was a friend of my when Phil was alive. We had some great times on the road when Phil was around and you know we had a great album which was THUNDER AND LIGHTNING. It was a good album and we were slightly changing direction around that time as well. Phil was writing some heavier songs but I think at the end of the day when the band went on the road and we decided to break up, we were actually playing more of our era albums rather than THUNDER AND LIGHTNING. THUNDER AND LIGHTNING was only one album of many you know, and John was only on one album but you know we didn’t last long when John was around, maybe a year and that was it. He played on one album, we did a tour for a whole year, Farewell Tour, and really that was it. But I got to know him quite well in that year and I he was okay, but never in my wildest dreams would I have thought John you know years later continue the band. I could never understand why that had to happen but that did happen, admittedly, and you know it wasn’t my personal best line up of Thin Lizzy in the world ever.
I kind of understand what you mean, but also some other former band members keep on or used to be play old Lizzy songs on their set as well like Eric Bell did?
I think Eric was doing it because he was the only member that played on that album you know, the early year albums, and he stuck to that. Where John Sykes played all sorts of stuff, he was never really involved with it. Eric Bell just stuck to the stuff he played on and that was okay, I didn’t have any problems with that. Eric, you know I mean those three albums his guitar work is just spectacular. It’s really, really good and nobody else was playing those songs. Eric played on the albums so he was entitled to play that stuff. And I saw him one day actually in with his own band playing and he was pretty good. I was kind of impressed with that, there was nothing wrong with it and he continued for a few years but then he stopped and he wanted to do something completely different you know. He went on and recorded some of his own material. I have no problems with Eric, he was a good friend of mine still is. We still keep in contact.
Ok still back to Sykes, when you were putting this new line up together, John’s name was definitely out of question?
Oh you know John apparently resigned from the band. He resigned, yeah, he wasn’t sacked or anything, he just resigned so that was it, had enough. And I think they were going to play with AC/DC and in fact there was at a gig in Ireland and two weeks before that came it was supposed to happen he walked out. So they had to cancel that show and maybe other shows as well, I’m not really sure. I know they had to cancel the one in Ireland supporting AC/DC so that was the end of that.
I think it was about three years ago when I was interviewing both Scott and John separately, two interviews, and they said that they have some new music in the plans. Do you see that it could have been possible to do that?
You know it’s all very well saying that but I mean to release a technical commission from various sources like Philomena and Phil’s wife, all sorts of people and the daughters… really I couldn’t tell you. I personally don’t think that that could happen you know, I just don’t think that could happen. If they had changed the name maybe and did it under another name, no problem then?
When you did that legendary 2005 show in Dublin with Gary and others, John Sykes wasn’t there even he was still playing with Lizzy at that time?
John wasn’t invited and Gary actually decided not to have too many guitar players. John had to be one of them because John was an American, everybody else was living in the UK or in Ireland and I think Gary didn’t want it to get too complicated because too many guitar players. Snowy White wasn’t invited either.
It was really special show and on the next day Phil Lynott’s statue was unveiled in Dublin. How was the whole event overall?
Oh the statue, yeah, yeah that was just amazing to see Eric Bell and Gary on the same stage playing. It was just a fantastic situation. And, I mean that statue was like… I mean Philomena (Phil’s mother) has put so much work into trying to get that statue erected in Dublin. She put lots of time into it and her friends and many others. They really struggled for years just to get that statue erected. That concert was kind for her and I thought it was a fitting tribute to get all the guys of the day into one big day to play a tribute to Phil and the status unveiling the next day was just fantastic. It was really great.
THE BLACK EAGLES
Okay let’s go back in time something like 45 years when you and Phil first played together in a band called the Black Eagles.
Black Eagles, yeah. You know the Black Eagles were a band that were around Dublin when I was growing up and you know I knew Phil from school, I didn’t know him personally, I just knew who he was. He was in the same school as me you and I used to go see the Black Eagles before I joined them, before I even knew Phil I’d go see them play in the local cinema every Saturday night they had a gig in the local hall as well, so it was a very big band for that area. Although they were only kids, Phil was only 15, or 14 or 15 or something, he was kind of young. I was only 13, I would say to him, some nights I would be left out because sometimes I used to come in quite late, maybe 12:00 and it was kind of late for a 13 year old to come in so I was kind of grounded a few times when I came in late. But I tried to get to see them as much as I could and I was always very impressed with the band you know. But then you know I had a band going as well and I said to Phil you know if you have an opening for a support band before you play in the Apollo Cinema or in the St. Paul’s Hall could you put us on. And he says yeah, he says what kind of a band is it, I said similar to the Black Eagles, I play all sorts of stuff and he said well you can only get like 25 minutes to play just to warm up the crowd and I said that’s great, when do we start you know. He said you can start next week you know, so I still hadn’t charged my manager, a guy Joe Smith, and so he had to charge the manager and he came back to me and Phil the next couple of days and he said what’s your name, I said my name is Brian Downey and he says yeah some kids were telling me about you, you’re pretty good on the drums. I said yeah, you know, not too bad. He said well I’ll be able to see next week then, you’re on. So I said that’s great, that’s great. So the band turned up, we played 25 minutes and we got off and he came over and he said yeah that was pretty good, he liked it, but what happened we actually broke a string. We asked one of the Black Eagles guys to give us a loan of a guitar and he stuck to watch us. So he said to me sounds really good. He really liked the band, and he said if you want to come down again you can. So we played five or six supports to the Black Eagles and one day in school he said to me, he says come here he said, you know Brian, he started calling me Brian then, I said great thank you Phil. So he said to me, he says you know our drummer’s going to leave very shortly and he says he’s going to take off and there’s going to be a vacancy in the Black Eagles for drummer shortly. I said well that sounds good, what’s the situation. He says we’re going to have an audition and there’s going to be four or five, maybe six drummers there and if you want to put your name down.
So Black Eagles was already so big name that they needed to do an actual audition back then?
They wanted something like that you know, I put my name down for the audition and said come down, the date was set, I think it was like a Wednesday night I had to turn up and I turned up with just a snare drum, they said you don’t need to bring your drums down because the drummer is willing to lend you the drums. So bring your snare drum along. So my dad drove me down to the house which wasn’t that far, 25 minutes away, and I took my snare drum and my hi hat’s down and that was easy. There were other drummers there and you and I had to wait my turn. I heard them playing, they didn’t sound great, didn’t sound bad either, so I said you know I might have a chance here, the drummers don’t sound that good. And I knew Phil was thinking that way as well, kind of knew Phil. But I was really nervous, I really was nervous. Black Eagles was a huge group there where I lived and I was kind of nervous going in there for the audition. The first thing he asked me was do you know a song called “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks? And I was a big, big fan of the Kinks and I knew the song really well. And so that was the first song I played and I got it, I got the song exactly right. And you know we played a couple of other Rolling Stones tunes and I knew them as well, one of them was “Satisfaction”, which I think not Satisfaction, something like that and you know that went okay, that I got as well. So I basically was told by Phil, you know of all the guys that were here you were the best, but we have to make a decision shortly, maybe you can hang around for a few minutes. And I said yeah, there’s no rush you know. So I went back downstairs to the room downstairs and they must have had a bit of a meeting you know. So about 15 minutes later they all came down and Phil says “come here”, he says the other guys went home. I said allright “laughs”.
Do you have recordings left from those days?
Well you know in those days nobody really had a recorder in those, it was almost impossible to have a recorder.
So you don’t have anything left?
No nothing from that day, from that period, because recordings were like so bulky and heavy, I mean no batteries, you need a maze for them, people didn’t even think about it. There’s a few photographs but no recordings unfortunately. But that’s exactly what happened.
THE FUTURE OF LIZZY AND BLAST FROM THE PAST
Ok now, back to the future… What kind of plans do you have with this band? I think it’s doing great and all the shows are almost sold out. So what’s going to happen with Thin Lizzy after this European tour?
Well you know Vivian has to obviously go back to Def Leppard because they’re touring in the summer but there is like one other gig, maybe a couple festival dates we can do in between him playing, before he goes back on the road with Def Leppard, and also in between the tours with Def Leppard he might be able to do some more dates. Other than that I’m not 100% sure exactly what’s going to happen and there’s nothing planned really as such apart from just these European dates we’re doing. Obviously we’re doing that, and there could be some dates in America. But other than that when Vivian goes back to Def Leppard and he’s committed to playing with them.
Are all the shows going to include this current lineup?
Well it could happen like that, yeah, it could happen like that. I wouldn’t be 100% sure that that’s it but if he’s available, when Def Leppard comes off the road in six months time and he wants to do some more dates with us, we could reform then. But at the present time I’m really not 100% sure exactly because when he goes on the road with Def Leppard well you know we don’t do anything basically. We just have to wait and see how things will go on?
Okay, the very last question… another interesting person in Thin Lizzy’s history is Jimmy Bain and he came in my mind through Vivian who played with him in Dio.
Jimmy Bain, I mean Jimmy was a guy hanging around with Phil you know from the days of you know when Phil used to live in Richmond and you know Jimmy in fact was one of these guys that was always tearing up and almost like ended it, you know then he formed the band with Brian after Brian left, a band called Wild Horses and, but I didn’t really know Jimmy that well at that stage. He was always the guy who hung around in the background, he was always a guy maybe torn up in the back stage area and you’d know him from there. And I just discovered that Jimmy over the period of time I knew him, you know was a guy that was fond of heroin. There are a few incidences where I wasn’t pleased about Jimmy hanging around the band because of that, but he was always there and he was kind of a friend of Phil’s because of the heroine connection.
Ok. It seems that our time is up now. Thanks for doing this interview Brian.
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