It might sometimes feel to us greybeards like it’s only yesterday that the boys were back in town and we were all dancing in the moonlight but — however much you roll me over and turn me around — there’s just no getting away from fact that it is now 30 long years since Philip Lynott died.
The life and death of the Thin Lizzy mainman are much on my mind this weekend, since I’ve just begun delving into Cowboy Song , a newly-published biography by Graeme Thompson.
In truth, I’m approaching the book with equal parts anticipation and trepidation, the former because I’m a long-time fan who, through my Hot Press connections, was lucky enough get to know Philip a little bit back in the day, and the latter because, well, none of us needs to be told that this is not a story with a happy ending. Indeed, advance reviews — including an excellent piece by another fan, Joe O’Connor — have made it clear that, even though Cowboy Song has been written with the co-operation of the Lynott Estate, there is nothing sanitised about its painful description of his terminal decline.
But, just for today, I want to remember Philip Lynott in a different, somewhat off-beat way: as a football man whose grá for the game became one of the enduring passions of his life.
Cowboy Song contains a number of references to his interest in the game and, in particular, his fondness for Manchester United, including the interesting revelation that the lyric of ‘Yellow Pearl’ — a song he co-wrote with Midge Ure and which, in a remixed version, became the new theme music for Top Of The Pops in 1981 — was inspired by a combination of two things: seeing the band Yellow Magic Orchestra in Japan and (here’s the kicker), “watching a tepid Manchester United display at Old Trafford”.
Hence, the Stretford End-inspired line: ‘Attack, attack, attack...is what we lack’.
Which only goes to show, I suppose, that there’s nothing new under the sun, eh Louis?
According to Thompson’s version of things, Lynott came to football quite late, with his life-long friend and Lizzy road manager Frank Murray quoted as saying: “He couldn’t kick a ball to save his life. Entirely unco-ordinated. He didn’t grow up following football or anything like that. He only caught the soccer bug when he started following Manchester United around the mid-seventies.”
However, another book on Lynott — the gorgeous, limited edition Still In Love With You by my former gaffer Niall Stokes — suggests that, before he surrendered to the big beat, Lynott had indeed come under the game’s spell as a young lad growing up in Crumlin.
“He was into football,” his uncle Peter remembered. “I think he played in goal in the Mount Argus Road League.”
Not that we should necessarily invest this with too much significance perhaps, since in the very next sentence, Peter reveals that the young Philo “was also interested in becoming one of those Passionate priests.”
But that all stopped when his first band, the Black Eagles, came along and Philip Lynott, you could say, discovered his true vocation.
And, as an evocative illustration of just how far he would end up from a life in the service of the church , I need only point you towards a celebrated Chalkie Davies photograph which appears in both Cowboy Song and Still In Love With You: a fantastic mid-70s shot of Lynott sitting on the stone wall by the little bridge in Stephen’s Green and looking the very epitome of cool in his afro, black leather jacket and drainpipe jeans, just as two elderly priests walk by, one of whom is staring transfixed at Philip as if he has just stepped out of a UFO.
Of course, ‘the look’ was always vital to Lynott, even when it had to be at the expense of football. In Cowboy Song there is mention of the long-running park game which the artist (and Lizzy album illustrator) Jim Fitzpatrick used to run in Dublin, the poet Peter Fallon recalling: “Philip wanted to come but he turned up in his cowboy boots and new jeans and he thought he might get them dirty.”
But, if not a player, he certainly remained a fan — or rather, as he would have it, a “supporter,” the term he also preferred to use when describing the Lizzy faithful — and, at his mother Philomena’s famous Clifton Grange showbiz hotel in Manchester, enjoyed rubbing shoulders with George Best and other United stars throughout the 1970s.
And in 1980, his links with Old Trafford were officially rubberstamped with the purchase of 500 shares — at £1 a share — in Manchester United Football Club Limited.
Two years after that, I found myself interviewing him in Cork after a gig showcasing the latest of several Lizzy line-ups, and it was striking how he went about defining the chemistry in the band.
“I’ll do it like a football team,” he enthused. “(Brian) Downey’s the great goalkeeper. I’m the good centre-half. I’m used to playing with two wingers (a reference to twin guitarists Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham) and there was rivalry. Snowy (White) though is like the midfield player who can go upfront. And the keyboards, again it’s like we’re covering the back ‘cos we use it more like the rhythm section...”
My late Hot Press colleague Bill Graham astutely observed that had Philip Lynott managed to cheat The Reaper and, crucially, beat his addictions, his deep artistic versatility would have made him the Irish musician best placed to accommodate the game-changing impact of hip hop.
And it’s true. For all that you might still find Lizzy albums misleadingly filed under ‘Heavy Metal’, the band’s presiding genius could do it all: from folk and blues to jazz and funk, from the full-frontal sonic charge of ‘The Rocker’ and ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ to the swooning pop perfection of ‘Old Town’ and ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’.
On a more modest but no less poignant note of ‘what if’, I’ve often thought too that his death in 1986 — coming as it did just ahead of the game-changing impact of Jack Charlton — meant that not only did Philip miss out on the personal joy of seeing Irish football’s arrival on the world stage, but it almost certainly robbed the rest of us of a potential footy-rock crossover classic.
I mean, ‘Put ‘Em Under Pressure’, with its spiky mix of Jack-isms and ‘Dearg Doom’ was good, but can you imagine what Philo might have achieved say by retooling ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ as a fit for purpose battle-hymn for the Green Army in Stuttgart, Genoa, and beyond.
Actually, here’s a thought: maybe it’s not too late. In this 30th anniversary year of his passing, wouldn’t it be just lovely to think that some savvy and sensitive muso/producer might be up to retro-fitting any one of Philip Lynott’s many classic songs, to forge anew the defining soundtrack for France 2016.
As the man himself used to roar from the stage: “is there anybody out there?”
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