Amidst the shock and grief of Johnny Lyons' premature passing, we pause to give thanks to a truly unique character for the countless laughs and many golden memories he gave us. Shine on, sir...
Who is next? It is the kind of question that creeps up on you like an unwelcome intruder. So far this year, we have lost Tony Fenton and George Byrne, both cut down in their prime. This fortnight, the news came through of the sudden death of the incomparable Johnny Lyons.
Like George, Johnny was one of those guys that we could safely say we gave a ‘start’ to in Hot Press. As is often the way with these things, Johnny arrived along at just the right moment. Sean D. Naylor – who started writing for us as a fresh faced kid just out of school – had been the man at the helm of our metal coverage through a goodly chunk of the 1980s. But Sean had disappeared to America on a scholarship of some kind. There, he eventually began working for Army Times, and ended up as a war reporter, embedded with the US army in Afghanistan and other points east. And thereby hangs a tale I’m sure. But the net effect back at HP central was that there was a vacancy to be filled in the metal department.
Johnny Lyons arrived just in time to fill it. He was enormously impressive in his enthusiasm. He also had the knowledge – and the lingo. In short, he was potentially the answer to our metallic prayers. But you never really know, until you see the colour of someone’s unedited, unadulterated prose. And so, with a degree of trepidation, we gave him his first album to review. The tract he delivered was enough to convince us: anything heavy and of a shiny hue, we could feed to him, and Johnny wouldn’t let us down. We had a new Mr. Metal.
I remember, from those early days, Johnny’s huge presence and his big voice – whether in person or coming down the phone, he spoke as if it were important that Eamon Deaf-al-ear-a himself could make out every word, and then some. There was a running gag that maybe listening to all of that loud music had made Johnny deaf – and he had to shout to hear himself. But the truth is that we knew that it was just the irresistible force of his personality announcing itself.
He loved the music and really enjoyed writing about it. And his enthusiasm was infectious. In the normal course of things an album by Pantera or Sepultura might have been the last item on my musical agenda, but when I read a review by Johnny, the thought wormed its way into my brain: maybe this really is something I should listen to. Because if I don’t, I might just be missing out on gleaning the essential secrets of the universe. Heavy metal is that kind of music: some people live or die by it and Johnny was one of them.
He featured in every issue of Hot Press, more or less, over a sustained period. I had a quick glance through the bound volume of issues from 1993 and he was there in every copy bar one – when he was away on holidays. Not everything he wrote about was strictly metal. There was a compilation album of Glam Rock hits. And he reviewed an album by Santana.
That bunch of 1993 reviews included an assessment of the Deep Purple Mark II re-union album, The Battle Rages On. Johnny had the ability to make a mere album release seem more important than the imminent outbreak of World War III – or alternatively to convince the reader that the release of the album might actually cause otherwise civilised nations to collapse into unspeakable aggression and brutality against their neighbours, to the extent that I sometimes wonder might it have been the local taste for Heavy Metal that was the real cause of the conflict in the Balkans...
At the time, we used two dice to give marks to an album, so that the highest possible score was 12 (the lowest was 1, which is technically impossible when you roll two dice). Six out of twelve was okay. Seven was getting there. Eight was looking serious. Nine and we were starting to rock. Ten was heading towards a masterpiece. Eleven was almost too good to be true. And twelve out of twelve meant that the record, in effect, was entirely fucking flawless. Well, the Purple, with Ian Gillan back out front doing his screaming dervish thing and showcasing titles like ‘Lick It Up’, ‘Time To Kill’, ‘Nasty Piece of Work’ and ‘One Man’s Meat’ merited twelve. Johnny said so. And we honoured that by giving the record the lead album slot and throwing the two dice down in the appropriate way: two sixes. Bingo!
It helped his standing as a rock writer, of course, that Johnny strode around looking like some Nordic metal star. He had the long hair. He had the tight trousers. He had the leather coat. And he had the taste for Jack Daniels, a drink that has an almost sacramental status within certain hardcore hard rock circles.
Meanwhile – here is the truly crazy bit – Johnny had started to cultivate another life entirely.
He began working in the sports department of the Sunday Tribune. Among his duties was the fantastically onerous task of gathering the Basketball results from various clubs throughout the land in time for the deadline, the imminence of which was signalled by the feeling that a dragon was breathing fire on his ass from the moment he picked up the phone every Saturday evening and spoke the immortal words: “Johnny Lyons here.”
He did the gig. He got the results. And, legend has it, he developed a relationship with the lovely people all over the country who ran the basketball clubs, to the extent that it became a set-piece that others in the sports department almost looked forward to hearing.
It was here one evening that Elaine Geraghty, the CEO of 98FM, first heard that booming voice, coming to her at high decibels, from the far distance of a different room entirely. Ross O’Carroll Kelly writer Paul Howard, who worked in the Tribune at the time, tells the story that Elaine, in all innocence, asked: who is that on the radio? “That’s not a radio,” she was told, “that’s Johnny Lyons.”
“Well, with a voice like that, he should be on the radio,” Elaine said. Within a week he was. And the rest is history.
There was a time when everyone seemed to assume that the worlds of music and sport were mutually exclusive. And so the idea that the Hot Press metal correspondent might also have a grá for cricket or basketball or even football might have been dismissed out of hand by anyone except the true initiates who kept the candles burning at both ends in our HQ in Trinity Street. But we knew.
It never struck me as even remotely odd that Johnny Lyons was graduating to the sports department at 98FM. After all, the great Bill Graham used to make detailed notes on the English inter-county cricket scores in the very writing pad in which he also scrawled his paeans of praise to the music of John Coltrane, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Bob Seger, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Kraftwerk, Chic, Grace Jones and April South. Music and sport. Sport and music. The boys were obsessed with one or the other – or in a lot of cases with both. And so it was with Johnny.
I don’t remember Johnny officially hanging up his blue suede shoes. It felt to me more like he got too busy doing the other things that he had to do and, with time at a premium, he gradually let grading the latest heavy metal missives slip. Stephen Doyle, of the sports department in 98FM, recalls asking Johnny why he had left the gig with Hot Press. Johnny told him that he had given a bad review to Nirvana. A short time later they were huge. He felt that he had lost his mojo: grunge had passed him by and he knew it. Maybe it was time to fade away after all. And so he did.
I don’t believe for a minute that Johnny had lost his mojo. He remained hugely enthusiastic about music. But the role he took on with 98FM was an increasingly demanding one and he pursued it with the same kind of determination – and dedication – as he had his role as Hot Press’ Metal Correspondent.
With Johnny, there was never a dull moment. Like all individuals of good taste, he was a huge fan of Dutch football, believing passionately in the Total Football that was pioneered by the great Ajax team of the late 1960s and early 1970s under Rinus Michels; that was personified in the incomparable skills and vision of Johan Cruyff; and that was adapted by Holland for the World Cup campaign of 1974, when they reached the final only to be beaten 2-1 by West Germany.
Indeed, so committed was Johnny to the Dutch model that he supported them with perhaps even greater passion than he brought to following the fortunes of the Republic of Ireland. It was against this backdrop that he turned up, in an orange jersey no less, at a press conference being given by the then Irish manager Mick McCarthy, during the build-up to the crucial Ireland .v. Holland clash in September 2001. Ever pugnacious, Mick McCarthy refused to answer questions from Johnny until he took the Dutch jersey off...
Football may have taken primacy in his life, but Johnny never wavered from his belief in the ultimate power of metal. The Sunday Independent football correspondent, Dion Fanning, recalls rooming with Johnny in Skopje, when Ireland were playing Macedonia in the Euro 2012 qualifiers. Dion opened his eyes in the morning to find Johnny already bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. “Ah, you’re finally awake,” Johnny bellowed. “Come on. Get up. I want to go shopping for some Macedonian Heavy Metal.”
In Seoul, in South Korea, for the 2002 World Cup, he insisted on taking Eamon Carr to a unique Heavy Metal club. Among the compelling reasons given for the unmissable nature of the facility was that it also contained a brothel and a Buddhist shrine. Well, in fairness, that does sound like a once in a lifetime opportunity. Which most people might prefer to avoid, of course – but, I’m just saying...
It is characteristic of Johnny that he refused to be cowed. A lot of people might well be intrigued by the implied madness of a metal club in Korea, that offered sex services as part of some demented package. But equally they might prefer to keep their curiosity to themselves. Not Johnny. It was all out there, upfront and high octane. If there was madness afoot, in all probability he was behind it. And if he wasn’t, well, he was certainly up for taking part.
He had turned his Sunday morning programme Now That’s What I Call Sport into something that little bit special. A lot of the big names liked Johnny: it would have been hard not to. And they agreed to participate because of the personality and enthusiasm he brought to the sports beat.
Kevin Kilbane, Aiden McGeady, Shane Lowry, Bernard Dunne, Robbie Keane, Cathal Pendred – I could go on forever. They were all there. I always loved hearing him on air, listening to that unique voice booming out over the airwaves, making me feel proud to have played just a small part, along the way, in getting Johnny to where he was.
And he was always hugely generous in the credit that he gave Hot Press for his rise to broadcasting eminence. I’d meet him in the street – that is, I’d hear him first, shouting as he did from fully 30 metres away: NIALL STOKES: MY MAN! – and we’d exchange notes on where things were at and the changes that were taking place in his world and mine. But every time, he said thanks again for having taken him on board as part of the Hot Press team. It had got him going. It had given him confidence. “That meant so much to me,” he said and I knew he meant it.
And his saying so meant a huge amount to me.
There was a generosity of spirit about Johnny that was remarkable. He had the gift of making the other person feel good about themselves. And he did that for me every time we spoke. I never doubted his sincerity even one iota. It was just the way he was. In truth, it’s a pity that there aren’t a lot more people like him, spreading the love to such wonderful effect. Because that is what Johnny did.
It is desperately sad now to look back through his Twitter feed. Most of what is there is the kind of workaday stuff that most journalists do to promote their work. And then there is the odd one where Johnny actually says something important. On April 2nd, 2015, it was this. “George Byrne RIP, my good friend,” he tweeted. “Too soon, my friend, too soon. So good to me as a cub in Hot Press. I’ll never forget you.”
The irony now is that this line might have been written about Johnny himself. He, in his turn, was good to all of the cubs coming through in 98FM. And like George he has been taken from us far, far too soon.
That great spirit, however, will live on. That voice. The humour. The zest for life. The openness. The decency. The generosity. The madness. The whole package that was Johnny Lyons. The man who was dubbed the Human Riff by Liam Mackey will be remembered always and everywhere with great and lasting affection.
Ni fheicimíd a leithéad arís. Seldom a truer word was spoken.
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