Music critic, author and former ‘Derry Journal’ reporter, HARRY DOHERTY has teamed up with Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham to write a new, definitive biography of the band, ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’. The making of the book is a story in itself . . . and former Melody Maker journo and rock authority Harry is just the man to tell it!
Thin Lizzy have always been one of my favourite bands, from Whiskey in the Jar and their unique album Vagabonds of the Western World, right up until next month, when the band finally call it a day with a final tour of Ireland and the UK.
I’ve been lucky enough in my life to have interviewed the four great rock bands from Ireland – Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy, Horslips and U2. Horslips it was who were responsible for influencing me to go across the water and join Melody Maker, the music business and a life of touring, interviewing and hanging out with many, many great bands. And it was on the Derry Journal that I first met them, though the hallowed columns of “the pop page”!
But it was Thin Lizzy that I was really attracted to, from the day I saw Phil Lynott swaggering down the main street in Salthill, Galway, like a gunslinger back in 1971 when I was holidaying there with my old friend Liam McLaughlin. Lynott looked every inch the rock star, though he was far from achieving that status.
Moving on, I met Lynott personally in Dublin when flown over to see the band play the National Stadium. It was the start of what is called the golden era of Thin Lizzy, when Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson joined the band after the departure of original guitarist Eric Bell, and quickly after that, Gary Moore. Lynott was the master of ceremonies in Lizzy – the singer, the writer, the bass player. I asked him backstage what he would like to be remembered for. Always one for a good line, he quipped: “Well, if it all goes wrong, I’m only the bass player!”
Moving on a few years, after many interviews and tours with the band, which had by then turned imminent disaster into worldwide success with the album Jailbreak and the classic single, The Boys Are Back in Town, Phil asked me if I would be interested in writing a book on the history of the band. I snapped at it and went off to Toronto for a month where the band were recording their album Bad Reputation, with its big hit single, Dancing In The Moonlight (featuring me on handclaps and fingerclicks – I was credited on the album as Harry the Handclap. I was hopelessly out of time!).
That was 35 years ago, and only this month, the book that I started writing then has finally emerged. The story behind the book is typical Thin Lizzy history, a whole story in itself. Let me tell you about it.
All was going well with research for the book, but after the band recorded Black Rose in Paris, where Phil and Scott’s drug habits really took hold, I was interviewing Phil and said: “Now, Phil, we must talk about the drugs.” I was gobsmacked when he replied in all seriousness: “Harry, I don’t take drugs anyway!” This, in spite of an album that featured the track Got to Give It Up. Purported about alcohol abuse, it went much further underneath the surface, featuring the verse:
Tell my sister I’m sinking slow,
Now and again I powder my nose,
In the end I lost my bottle
It smashed in a casbah
I told Phil that I wasn’t going to write that, and I wasn’t going to let him say it. He was becoming famous for his drug intake and steely constitution. But as a man with acute asthma, he couldn’t escape the wheezing cough that cocaine and heroin addiction brought with them. Scott Gorham and Phil Lynott went on their crazy narcotics journey together, finding it harder and harder to function live without a fix before gigs. In fact, in the book Scott reveals that they actually had drugs couriered out to their hotels in Europe as they didn’t trust the quality of the local gear.
So we carried on doing interviews, and I observed a band sinking into the pit, though they were still able to make hit records and albums, but there was no doubt that the quality of the music was suffering too. Gary Moore had marched out primarily because he couldn’t take the constant partying by Scott and Phil, and after two albums, his replacement Snowy White went too after being tired of waiting for the two to arrive at the studio after a drug-fuelled night out.
Scott could finally take no more, and could see that it had become so serious that he decided to leave the band, and get clean and healthy, which he couldn’t do being a member of Thin Lizzy. The band split up, leaving Phil at a loss. Instead of seeing the reality of the situation, he continued playing with a series of sub-standard bands and upped his drug intake. This resulted in a fall at his London home after a drink and drug binge, after which he was taken to hospital on Christmas Day with a serious kidney and liver infection. On January 4, 1986, Phil died as a result of those many years of drug abuse.
After he died, I raised the subject of the book again and told everyone involved that I needed the full story, and that if any one person took exception to the text, then we would not publish the book. After all, Phil had only asked me to write it. I was fulfilling that promise I made. My family – ex-wife Heather and toddler kids Kiera and Alexander – decamped to Marble Hill House, Dunfanaghey, where I could write the book in peace. I remember Heather devouring each chapter as it was finished.
Back in London, manuscript complete, I let the serious players have a copy to read – Scott, Phil’s girlfriend, Gail, who told me that Phil’s mother, Philomena, wanted to see a copy. No problem. But having been written so close to Phil’s death, the book had a dark nature about it. Scott’s wife, Christine, was very upset by the story. Then I got a call in the middle of the night from Philomena Lynott. Or rather Heather did – I was in the spare room trying to put Alex to sleep. The conversation went something like this.
Philomena: Why did Harry write this book?
Heather: Because Phil asked him to.
Philomena: Philip was a good boy.
Heather: Harry is with a good boy now, with his baby son Alex.
That exchange changed the whole tone of the conversation, and they talked for another 15 minutes. I later learned that Philomena had found Phil’s “black book” of contacts, many of them drug dealers. She had been calling them in the middle of the night, her reasoning being they would still be up if they were dealers. If they were, she reported them to the police.
So, once more, the book was abandoned. Some years later, Scott and I talk about publishing the book that we wanted and would settle for nothing else. This would be highly illustrative, along with the real story told by the people who lived through it, not by cut and paste authors with a penchant for rewriting history.
We thought we had found our dream publisher when Sean Body, the founder of specialist music book publishing house, Helter Skelter, expressed an interest. Not only would he produce the high-quality book we wanted, but would also manage the project himself. Great! We had contracts ready to sign. Then Sean went into hospital to be treated for leukaemia, and never came out. Aged 42 – this lovely man died.
I phoned Scott to give him the news. He liked Sean too and was shocked, then there was a pause before he said: “Aw man, the curse of Thin Lizzy strikes again!” We both had to laugh at that.
Four years later, Scott and I were still talking occasionally about the book, but not finding a publisher who would produce that special work. Until David Barraclough, commissioning editor at Omnibus Press, asked me in for a meeting. I explained the outline and exactly what we wanted. The icing on the cake was that Scott was totally involved, and rock stars don’t usually do that. Contracts were signed, nobody died, and now Thin Lizzy: The Boys Are Back in Town, is out. What a crazy path to the bookshelves.