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Philo And Me
Phil Lynott’s brother in all but name, Brian Downey talks about their school days together, Thin Lizzy’s formative years, the singer’s tragic decline and his afterlife as global rock icon.
Peter Murphy, 08 Mar 2011
Even as a gangly teenager, Phil Lynott was not the kind of individual who was easily ignored in 1960s Dublin. Longtime Thin Lizzy drummer Brian Downey remembers clearly the first time he saw Lynott in the schoolyard of St Agnes’s CBS in Crumlin.
“He was the only black guy in the whole place,” he recalls. “I was in the schoolyard playing with a few friends and I thought, ‘Wow, look at that. There’s a black guy here’. He was fairly tall even then. Everybody just stopped and looked. He stuck out like a sore thumb. And then he’d come around to the classes with the black baby box that the Christian Brothers used to give to collect money for the missionaries. He was designated this thing all the time. He’d come in with this black baby box and he’d look at you and say, ‘Have you got your penny?’ And he’d come back the next day and if you didn’t have your penny, you’d feel bad, you know?
“A couple of years later I started playing in a band and I went down to check out the Black Eagles in the Apollo. Phil was just unbelievable, I couldn’t take my eyes off the guy. He had this black glove and he was dressed completely in black, singing the Stones and early Beatles stuff, Elvis. And the band were great. I thought, ‘I’d love to play with these guys,’ not thinking for a minute that I’d ever get the opportunity. Then maybe a couple of weeks later I met him in school and he said, ‘Our drummer is leaving very shortly and there’s gonna be an audition and maybe you should go’.”
Downey got the job, but the Black Eagles soon split. When Phil’s two-year tenure with Skid Row came to an end, he and Downey formed Thin Lizzy, signed to Decca and scored a UK hit with ‘Whiskey In The Jar’. Following Eric Bell’s departure, the band reconfigured as a twin-guitar quartet.
“It was killer,” he remembers. “Brian Robertson came down and he had a Les Paul and he plugged in and after five minutes of playing we knew this was the guy we wanted. He was only 17 but he had all the records from the Decca period. He knew all Eric’s stuff from the first two albums. We went through a couple of songs from that era and we did a couple of blues jams and he was great. We ended up talking and he knew more fucking stuff about Thin Lizzy than I did. So we went maybe another week looking for another guitar player, and suddenly out of the blue this guy walked in with the longest hair I think I’d ever seen, much longer than mine. He didn’t look English, he didn’t look European. When he started speaking we realised he was American. So he took the guitar out and it was a copy of a Les Paul and I said, ‘Wow. Even though he’s American he doesn’t have the proper guitar’. But he plugged into another amp and started playing and the stuff that came out of that amp was just unbelievable. Completely different style to Robbo, more of a West Coast American rock guitar style. It was a brilliant contrast.”