A new TV documentary on Phil Lynott looks at the late rocker’s video for one of his classic solo tunes, writes Richard Fitzpatrick
THERE are several memorable scenes in the video for Phil Lynott’s single Old Town, which is the focus of a documentary on RTÉ television over the Christmas holidays. At the time the video was made in 1982, RTÉ’s production company began filming with the scene of Lynott singing on the Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin.
The crew assembled early in the morning. They were ready to begin filming at 8am, but there was no sign of Lynott. They waited. Eventually he showed up nursing himself with the contents of a bottle wrapped inside a brown paper bag to keep himself warm. The cameras started to roll. There’s a scene where Lynott has to put his elbow through railings on the bridge, but he misses his cue. He’s groggy, but he’s such a pro he shimmies and latches onto it the second time. The stumble, the missed cue, is pretty much unnoticeable. The game came effortlessly to him, even if he was under the weather.
The video has some of the most iconic scenes from the history of Irish pop music, taking in Dublin’s most famous landmarks. They include Lynott playing a flugelhorn trumpet in Herbert Park, and sitting at the bar counter in The Long Valley pub on South Great George’s Street.
The video concludes on the Great South Wall in Ringsend. The quintessential Lynott scene, however, is probably the one of him parading along Grafton St. He owns the street, flirting uncontrollably with any beautiful woman he passes on the thoroughfare.
Dearg Films assemble Lynott’s notable friends for their recollections of the times, among them Brush Shiels from Lynott’s first band, Skid Row; Thin Lizzy band member, Eric Bell; Jim Lockhart from Horslips; and Aonghus McAnally, a presenter on Anything Goes, an RTÉ children’s TV programme. Lynott’s mother, Philomena, is also interviewed.
The archival footage used — chiefly mined from RTÉ’s archives — will jog a few memories for those who followed Thin Lizzy through the 1970s, and Lynott’s solo career in the early 1980s.
“It’s pot luck sometimes,” says director Brian Reddin. “For example, you might find something in the RTÉ archives like ‘Phil Lynott arrives in Cork after being arraigned on a drugs charge’. I’d get the tapes to look at it and find out it’s just a car with doors opening and driving by and you can’t see anybody in it. You wouldn’t know who is in it. It’s useless.
“But they had great appearances of him on The Late Late Show. They had this show also, called Space Station Videos. It was nuts. I’d never heard of it before. Phil Lynott did it. It was this ridiculous set on RTÉ that resembled a UFO and each week a guest on the show would sit inside the UFO and take off. Phil Lynott was in there and he looked like he was tripping inside in this spaceship.
“Then he goes off into space. It was shot against a green screen, really bad special effects. He was spinning around in this space ship on his own and he picks his top music videos of the year. So while he’s up there in space looking back down on earth, he says, ‘Oh, I remember the years back on earth when they used to play my favourite song…’ and they’d cut to the video. It was a bizarre concept.”
The video for ‘Old Town’ was made in the middle of the six-year lifespan of Anything Goes. It’s remarkable to think the programme made such effective pop videos (in the middle of cutting to Mary FitzGerald’s ‘Make and Do’ section where she’d rustle up, say, a birdhouse out of a shoebox).
It was one of the hosts Dave Heffernan, a friend of Lynott’s, who helped get the music video made, as Lynott’s record company didn’t believe in the song. It was a golden age for music videos, and only a couple of years before the popular show MT- USA hit Irish screens in 1984.
“It was hard to get to see music videos at the time,” says Reddin, who, incidentally, was a presenter on RTÉ’s Scratch Saturday (which succeeded Anything Goes) and later hosted The Last Picture Show. “I remember going around to friends’ houses on a Saturday. We’d never seen pop videos before. This was the pre-internet age, pre-YouTube. If you were an artist you had to get a music video. You had to get it out there. You had to get it on Top of the Pops. On Irish television, there was nowhere to show it. Apart from Anything Goes where else were you going to show it until MT USA came along? The Late Late Show weren’t showing pop videos. They were very popular. To get one made and get it out there could make or break a record.”
The documentary squeezes a lot into its half-hour slot, including some moving testimony from Lynott’s mother about her life and her son’s upbringing. She had him in England, having been put into a home for unmarried mothers. The treatment she received in the “workhouse” was barbaric. She was beaten, spat on and called “nigger lover”. Eventually she sent him back to Dublin when he was eight years old to be raised in Crumlin.
Shiels remembers meeting first meeting Lynott in 1967. He was told there was “a spade” in Crumlin he needed to hook up with.
Reddin says, however, that Lynott didn’t seem to encounter much racism during his upbringing in Dublin in the 1960s. Thin Lizzy took off in 1969. A couple of things struck Reddin about the band and Lynott’s music career while making the documentary.
For instance, he was amazed at the amount of different musicians that passed through Thin Lizzy. “I knew there was a lot of different members in the band and they had all sorts of rows and fallings out, but the sheer number of people who passed through the Thin Lizzy machine was huge.”
Now that Reddin has passed the age that Lynott died the sadness of it takes on a new significance. “I knew Phil died young but I never thought about how young he was — he was only 36.
“When you start doing the maths — he was only 19 when Thin Lizzy were formed. When he first appeared on Top of the Pops with ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ he was only about 22. By 1976 when they were taking over the world — they were doing ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ — he was only 26.
“How much he packed into his life in such a short time was quite amazing.”
Phil Lynott – Scéalta Ón Old Town will be screened on RTÉ One, 7.30pm, Sunday, December 30