- 27 Jan 19
Brian Downey, a founding member of Thin Lizzy, turns 68 today. To celebrate the influential rock drummer’s birthday, we’re revisiting his 1979 interview with Hot Press editor Niall Stokes.
Happier times indeed. The scene is McGonagles, the event The Hot Press Christmas lig where Phil Lynott, Gary Moore and assorted members of the Greedy Bastards have been among the participants.
By this stage the sounds are being pumped out via records and the assorted metal warriors are resting their bones beneath the admiring gaze of the multifarious liggers present and - sorry that's one cliche that's going to want its other half for the moment.
A few words with Gary, not so much on the run as on the nod as the morning slowly struggles towards realisation, nevertheless leave one abiding impression. The final step for Lizzy is to 'crack' America, he says. "When they've done that, they'll have done everything." Words that ring with an ominous futility some nine months subsequently. I didn't pick up on it at the time, but the use of the third person now seems almost too obviously prophetic. Gary Moore, following a series of incidents which became undeniably unsavoury in the extent of their bitterness and vitriol, is no longer a member of the band. But equally ominous in some respects is the fact that Lizzy haven't made that 'final step' - though that it could have been conceived as such by one of the members of the band is in itself perhaps equally disquieting.
You couldn't do better than talk to Brian Downey in the circumstances. The major clash of personalities following the departure of Moore from the fold has inevitably been between the latter and Phil Lynott, the acknowledged prime mover and leader of the band - even if this is a press-created phenomenon to the extent that the first person a reporter wants a comment from is Lynott. Understandably so.
On that level, Downey is in the best position to remain objective. But on another, he's likely to have a little bit more sympathy with Gary's course of action, given the fact that he'd pulled out of Lizzy's previous Stateside stint - though Downey at least hadn't waited 'till the middle of the tour to inform all and sundry.
In fact Brian is bemused. Almost shocked - but not quite. And he steadfastly steers clear of out and out abuse.
"It didn't surprise me in the least," he opens, "which was the ironic thing about it. Nor did it surprise anyone else in the band. It seemed to surprise a lot of people outside the band, like fans and especially journalists. But it hasn't surprised me and it hasn't surprised me the way Gary has reacted since either..."
Moore is renowned as the kind of volatile personality who will not suffer situations he finds problematic gladly. Quite the contrary, in this case at least.
"I know Gary very well," Brian explains, "and anybody who had any illusions when Gary joined the band was crazy. He said himself when he joined that he wouldn't last too long. And Gary's just like that - he never lasts long in a band."
Having set about establishing that much, Downey shifts into a more sympathetic frame of mind. Moore's ultimate objectives were clearly at odds with Lizzy's current business rationaler. And it's not as if that's a totally cut and dried issue.
"If you look at it in his way, primarily he wants to be a player. So he didn't want to go through the whole thing of six months of touring and then coming off the road and rehearsing for three months and then going into the studio to record for three months that's a whole twelve months taken out of your life."
The grind that saps the creative juices of so many bands and leaves them for dead to go on and make platinum albums ad infinitum. The grind the music business comprises - and which only a few survive intact.
"He is a good player, yeah," Brian patiently elaborates, "but he doesn't seem to want to work for any length of time. Besides, he seems to have these false illusions about how good we should've been. I think that's bullshit myself. We were playing fairly well I don't see why Gary should come back and say we're not fit to walk on stage. I can't see his point, saying that the band is musically bad. What I can see, actually, is that Gary was getting frustrated in the band and said a couple of things out of turn that he shouldn't have said."
Apparently Moore had already expressed some degree of dissatisfaction in advance of the final explosion. "We had a few arguments at the end of the last British tour," Downey comments. "Gary seemed to come in fresh when we'd all been on the road for years - he's been on the road for years too but he hadn't been touring like us - and, eh, his attitude was great at the start but suddenly it turned for the worst."
Downey talks without undue resentment about a couple of incidents when, it has been alleged, Gary kicked some of the road crew - episodes, which, according to Brian, were exaggerated out of all proportion by the press. But whatever about their intrinsic seriousness, they were undoubtedly manifestations of a build-up of frustration within and pressure on Moore personally.
"There could have been a bit of pressure on him, 'cos he was in the band and he had his own record out with 'Parisienne Walkways'. But other than that, I can't understand why he actually walked out when he did - right in the middle of an American tour. I lost a lot of respect for Gary when he did it."
"He walked out when he knew the band and the album were moving - and after that it slumped. The record took a nose-dive. But we kept going - there's no way you can just stop when you commit yourself in the States. But I think the record company lost interest in it."
You get an insight into the fact that there can be so little glamour involved in rock 'n' roll from time to time, listening to Brian recount the exact circumstances precipitating Gary's departure. Personal tensions - not necessarily between band members at all were coming to a head about the same day Lizzy were scheduled to do a festival gig in San Francisco, slotted in at 11.30am before whatever fraction of the 60,000-strong audience were either awake or alive at the time . . .
"I was tired after two and a half weeks solid on the road in Europe and Britain and so was Gary - and that was a bad gig.
"He did that gig and then got the plane back to LA to see his 'chick' and we didn't see him next gig, which was in Reno - we had to do that as a three-piece. So we had a meeting - he said he'd do the tour. We had a talk about the whole situation and he was talking about a few personal things and a few musical things, which were more or less solved as far as we knew 'till the end of the tour anyway. Just after that, he was in the studio with Phil, who was putting down the vocals for Gary's own album and we went in and Gary was just ready to split. We were there ready to go to the airport and Gary said, 'Hey, I'm going back to the hotel to get my gear' and that's the last I've seen of Gary Moore. He didn't turn up for that gig and I haven't seen him since. The whole episode was totally strange. Crazy, y'know?"
In retrospect, there's an inevitable tendency to question the other person's motives. "I think his involvement in Lizzy could have been a front to make himself big and famous . . . to use it as a vehicle to achieve that. I think that could be the reason why he joined the band in the first place."
To crack America?
And the success of 'Parisienne Walkways' meant Gary Moore was his own star. He needed Thin Lizzy less than ever.
Brian Downey's commitment to Lizzy is obviously far more certain than when I last spoke to him. That was just prior to the crisis that saw him pull out of the band prior to an American tour - a less crunching blow than Moore's mid-stream turnabout but a damaging one nonetheless when they were preparing to promote their brilliant Live 'n' Dangerous set in the home of the double-live.
At the time, the prospect of re-treading a two-year-old programme, on top of a complex of other problems, seemed too much for Downey to handle. "My attitude has changed - for the better, I think," Brian reflects. "I've come to accept the need to do that. We used to have arguments and rows about that - but you suddenly realise that people want to listen to a lot of these numbers. I was a bit biased 'cos I felt that a musician should be a musician for himself. Now I think that's totally wrong - you have to go out there and entertain, for entertainment's sake.
"Plus the fact that you have to keep money in your pocket," he laughs. "I've seen how easily the band could split up and how insecure it could become overnight."
So how secure is the whole Lizzy operation now, in the wake of Gary Moore's exit?
"Once you've got the three members who've been in the band for a long time, and who are going to be in the future, then you have the band. No matter if you have Gary Moore or Eric Bell, you have a close-knit situation which is hard to break up."
The immediate response has been to add Midge Ure, formerly of Slik and the Rich Kids, to the line-up on keyboards and guitar, as well as Dave Flett, formerly of Manfred Mann on guitar. "It's a kind of a temporary arrangement - there's nothing definite with this band anyway!" Brian summarises.
How much further this line-up will be taken depends on how the band's current tour of Japan goes.
In describing his own trauma, Brian switches quite consciously, into hippie-speak: "I was in a very strange space then," he grins slightly ruefully. "I didn't know where the fucking hell the band was going - the direction seemed to be completely lost. It was very strange with the Live 'n' Dangerous set - we'd recorded it two years earlier and we then had to go and promote an album which was two years old."
"It was released about a month before we went out - but keeping the momentum going and playing the tracks as they were on the album was impossible. Keeping the tempo the same just wasn't on - there's a natural tendency to get faster. Some of the songs - like 'Jailbreak', the tempo had almost doubled. And people want that."
"But that's all behind us now," he shrugs, suddenly.
So what was he up to himself during the period the band were in the States and he wasn't?
"You wouldn't believe what I did," he laughs. "I was in Ireland actually but I stayed away from Dublin, so not many people realised I was there. I was in a village in Cork, just being the ancient hippie, grooving in my own cottage, not meeting many people. Just getting records and listening to them - I had a lot of the old blues collection with me. I listened to lots of stuff. I did some fishing. I wouldn't do it again, but I had a good time doing it."
To what extent was he searching for a musical identity, or trying to sort out a direction for himself?
"I wasn't really. When I look back - I was really knackered and I might have been reacting a bit too much to what was going on around me at the time - but I wasn't getting any indication where the band was going from the management. That - and there was a couple of personal problems, not with me but with people very close to me, so I decided to opt out. Permanently, as I thought at the time . . ."
There's no mistaking the more pragmatic character of Brian's current attitude. Way back then, I remember him railing against drum solos in general and especially him signalling his own general boredom with 'Sha-La-La', Lizzy's drum showcase. Now he sees it as "part of the entertainment".
Apart entirely from the upheavals and personnel changes, there are serious question marks hovering over Lizzy's future musical direction. Brian Downey argues that Black Rose is a good album by any standards, though there are a couple of weak tracks. I feel that it's a disappointing achievement, though good by most standards - the problem being that Thin Lizzy reached a plateau, an all-time high with Live 'n' Dangerous. That defined the band's previous output, providing also a yardstick against which all future Lizzy albums would necessarily be measured. Beside it, Black Rose sounds weak. There are simply too many loose ends and dodgy ideas for it to be rated a great album.
Besides, I don't think the band will ever again be able to match the Gorham-Robertson twin-guitar attack so perfect did they complement one another: there is no way that Gary Moore's playing suits Lizzy as Robertson's did. In that context the introduction of keyboards is interesting, in that it'll add a completely new dimension. Are they working on anything special?
"I'm as much in the dark as you, y'know? See, we don't contrive music - we play what we feel and if people don't like it, that's bad for us. But we can only play to the limit of our ability - we're not super-musicians or anything like that. Other people ask us that 'why don t you progress more - why don t you develop the Lizzy sound?'. But a lot of fans want us to keep that. You can progress so much - but we don't want to off the fucking rails and do something totally different."
In fact from now on the byword will be to make haste slowly. Brian points out that they've rushed into a couple of situations both in relation to personnel and recording which they might have been better to take time over. They don't want a repeat.
Musically, my own reading is that it'll come back to Phil Lynott and his songs - the way it's always been, no matter who's been trying to steal his thunder. And though there have been signs of Lynott's writing faltering, I wouldn't be unduly worried, given that fact.
Let's hope the happier times are ahead, at this juncture.
Watch Thin Lizzy perform live in Dublin in 1975 below (Downey's drum solo starts at 3:11):
- Film & TV
- 01 Jun 23