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Music

How Phil Lynott defied expectation and became a rock hero

Thin Lizzy hero, Phil Lynott was that most curious of characters: he was the archetypal Dubliner, yet one who spent much of his life in England, regaling listeners to the treasures that lay beyond the Irish sea. 

He was a fastidious bass player, a fiery singer, a committed stage performer, and an emblem of a changing Ireland, embracing the diversity that was changing the island from predominantly white and Catholic into something grander and more inclusive. Rooted in American rock music, Lynott recognised a kindred spirit in Jimi Hendrix, feeling that this “Black fella” opened the pathway for other artists of colour to follow in his steps. 

What Lynott offered in return was a chance for Irish musicians to work outside of the sphere of folk, giving them the chance to burst the confines of genre to create something steamier, distancing his country from the fleeces and pastoral portraits that was long associated with the country’s make-up. 

Lynott channeled that innate sense of being a loner, tapping into a market place where the single and solitary could join hands as one loud voice. As the world lost interest in rock music, Lynott shifted into more European flavoured pop with ‘Old Town’, a shimmering ballad written about the streets of Dublin. 

Filmed on the middle of the Ha’penny Bridge, Lynott cast himself as the archetypal stranger, lost in his hometown, distancing himself from the ridges that had formed his childhood. Lynott presented the role, and all of its trappings, with such authority that people wanted to remember him as part of the foundations of Ireland’s greatest and grandest city. He is commemorated with a statue on Harry Street, situated on a corner where people can find comfort on their search for identity. 

Lynott inspired a sense of Irishness that soaked its way into the everyday vernacular, defying expectations by dismissing the common stereotype of Hibernal lore and legend. Thin Lizzy’s first monster hit was a version of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’, discarding the slower, more cerebral beats for a thunderous guitar riff that clings to the main melody with a series of blistering beats. Growing up around singers, Lynott recognised the importance of history, as well as the value of carrying the flame to a new generation. 

For the remainder of his career, Lynott issued an almost colossal convoy of rock numbers, likening the Celtic titans to the electricity from the concert halls that served as his place of work. He wove a number of identities for himself: As the Irishman distracting British audiences from the barbaric actions of an underground terrorist movement; as the smouldering style icon who wooed women with his intuition and inspired innuendo; and the archetypal rock frontman, riffs as jagged as razors, and songs surfeited with a yearning for a tomorrow that was greater than the world we currently live in. 

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Each gesture was rooted in some form of recollection, but for Lynott, the nostalgia was never the purpose of his modus operandi, but rather cloaked himself on his life’s journey. By revisiting the streets of his working-class region, he could remember the personas, pain and pleasures that went to great lengths to make this community such a happy one. What Lynott added to this community wasn’t just swagger, but diversity, opening his neighbours eyes to the exoticism that lay beyond this brick-laden part of town. He spent the rest of his life celebrating his roots, convinced that he could understand the workings of all cities by celebrating the heart of his. 

Lynott was the definitive rockstar: roguish, rebellious, and prone to outbursts of laughter during interviews. He was pencilled to portray Jimi Hendrix in a feature, and had his heart set on another project that was set to start filming. Anyone with Lynott’s accent and features could act as a symbol of Dublin, but the songwriting bassist was determined to bring the city headfirst into the millennium, a century he did not live long enough to enjoy. 

‘Old Town’ remains his most impactful, and arguably his finest, ballad. His lyrics of romantic disappointment takes listeners to their particular edge of their personal quest, offering them another perspective to lead them through the turbulent dangers in front of them. Embellished by a gorgeous piano piece, the tune centres on the journey in question, culminating in a singular odyssey that encompasses a sense of healing that’s comparable to the quest Leopold Bloom set out for himself. 

And for all the posturings, poses and pulverising riffs that come with rock glory, Lynott never forgot where he came from. He held a philosophy that was immediate, sensible and deeply relatable to people from every corner of the pivoting globe. “When I’m in Ireland, I say I’m from Dublin,” he told Hot Press. “When I’m in Dublin, I say I’m from Crumlin. When I’m in Crumlin, I say I’m from Leighlin Road, and when I’m in Leighlin Road, I say I’m a Lynott. So, it’s that type of attitude.”