- 20 Aug 21
To mark what would've been Philip Lynott's 72nd birthday, we're revisiting a classic interview with Brian Downey – in which he reflects on he and Lynott's school days together, Thin Lizzy's formative years, the frontman's tragic decline, and his afterlife as a global rock icon.
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.”
Asked to recall the highlight of Lizzy’s career Downey’s answer is immediate and unequivocal: headlining Dalymount Stadium in Dublin in 1977.
“Nobody played Dalymount before us as far as I remember,” he testifies. “Everybody was so nervous going in that day, The Rats were on as well. It was a real nerve-racking experience because we were big soccer fans as well, and Dalymount was where Bohemians played Shamrock Rovers. I saw Ireland beat England there. This was the ground in Dublin that everybody went to, and to play there as a band... The stage was set in the main stand and I said, ‘Jesus I never thought for the life of me I’d ever be back here playing the drums in the stand that we couldn’t afford to get into when we were at the soccer matches years ago!’ It was a fantastic gig. There was a huge full moon overlooking Dalymount and by the time we got on it seemed to be facing us. Another spotlight in the sky. And the crowd were just unbelievable. Talk about a Dalymount roar.”
Which was, Downey admits, a marked contrast to the band’s performance at Slane four years later.
“A flat feeling, yeah,” he admits. “I’m not saying Snowy (White) wasn’t the right guitar player for the band, but when Snowy came in, I think the band was lacklustre. So many guitar players at this stage were coming through and leaving and rejoining. Snowy was a fantastic player. Reminded me of Peter Green. He had that real nice blues tone, you know? I think it was around the Chinatown period where there was a bit of friction between him and Phil, they weren’t getting on. Phil was starting to stay out late in clubs and coming into the studio a little bit later than he should have been, and I think Snowy wasn’t putting 100% into it because of this. He told me one day. ‘Look, I don’t really know what I’m doing here’. I said, ‘I know what you mean – it’s getting a bit hard to get this shit together’. The studio stuff was starting to suffer because of this club business. It was getting on everybody’s nerves. But there was definitely a personality conflict between Phil and Snowy as well. I take nothing away from Snowy, he was a great player, but it was becoming really complicated. Management were losing interest as well, and Phil was kind of managing the band himself.”
There was, Downey concedes, a brief period of rejuvenation for the Thunder & Lightning album, when young gun John Sykes stepped in as Scott Gorham’’s foil.
“Phil started writing to suit that kind of harder edge, and everybody was like, ‘This is it. Let’s get back on the road with this line-up’. There was a bit of a rejuvenation vibe going on. But this was also when everybody started going, ‘We need this and that to keep going’. Lots of brandy and ports and lots of coke. And our management was giving us these negatives about, ‘You’re not really selling out the venues like you should be’. I had a disagreement with management about that. They said to us, ‘Phil wants to break the band up after this tour’, and I said, ‘Well, yeah, he wants to do some solo stuff and get that off his chest, he’ll be fine’, and they said, ‘No, no, we had a meeting with him only last week and he was saying that maybe this could be the last time he’ll be playing with the band’. But in the studio I didn’t get that impression. It was just another album with a new line-up to me. But when we got on the road everything went a little bit semi-pro, and who cares.”
After Lizzy’s farewell tour in 1983, Lynott went on to form Grand Slam. Downey opted out of the project after a few days’ rehearsal. His last performance with Phil was miming to the solo single ‘19’ on Razzamatazz in 1985.
“We went to Newcastle and Kid Jensen was there presenting the show,” he remembers. “We knew Kid from way back in the Radio Luxembourg days. And he called me aside and said, ‘I went up to Phil’s dressing room and he’s not answering the door. I think he’s asleep in there. The door’s locked’. So I went up and said, ‘Phil, there’s a dress rehearsal, man! You’d better hurry up!’ So he opened the door eventually. He looked like he was asleep, he came out fairly drowsy looking, didn’t look 100%. He was lucid but he looked a bit sweaty, he was perspiring quite a lot. But we went on, did the show and it was fine. We had few drinks after and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll keep you informed’. I was in good form because I expected at some stage over the Christmas period I’d speak to him and might have a chat about reforming the band and all that. I sent him a card and I think he sent me one.
“But I got a call on Christmas night from Philomena to say that Phil had collapsed. He was being taken care of but she was very, very upset. I got a call next day from her saying he went into this coma and hadn’t come out of it and he had been taken to hospital in a place in Bath. Caroline, his wife, brought him in the car. I got a call from (manager) John Salter one morning and I said ‘Will I go over?’ and he said, ‘Don’t for the moment. Hang on. All the family are here’. But it went on and on. That whole week seemed like a month for me. Then I turned on the radio and the news came on and the newscaster said Phil Lynott had died. That’s how I heard it. About an hour, maybe an hour and a half later, I got a call from Terry O’Neill, who’s a friend of ours from way back, and he confirmed it. I just sat down. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t ring anybody. I didn’t have the capability of phoning anybody. I was so shocked. That whole day was obviously a blur. And the whole week. Maybe months. But I never got to see him in the end, before he died.”