A Film Review by Peter Gavin
The Irish Film Festival, online again 2021, runs from 3-12 September. Tickets available now.
Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away, Directed by Emer Reynolds for Long Play Music Films, 2020
Internationally acknowledged Irish rock stars were rare, in the years before U2 and the Boomtown Rats, but Phil Lynott, a black Irish singer, musician, and songwriter was one. His most commercially successful group was Thin Lizzy, of which he was a founding member, the principal songwriter, lead vocalist and bass player.
The title of this documentary is named after the Thin Lizzy song, A Song For While I’m Away, and the documentary shares a title with Phil Lynott’s poetry book. Yes, Phil was a published poet! His two books of published poetry were brought together in a single volume, titled Songs For While I’m Away after his death. Ireland is well-known for literature with authors like Oscar Wilde, W B Yeats, James Joyce, Brendan Behan and Samuel Beckett, but we should not forget Ireland’s two rock’n’roll poets: Phil Lynott and Van Morrison.
Phil was born in August 1949 in the West Midlands of England and lived with his mother there till age seven. He grew up in Crumlin, Dublin with his grandparents, though he remained close to his mother Philomena throughout his life. He was half Irish, half black and, when he was a kid, Ireland was not a diverse place. He was the only kid of colour around. He stood out in every photograph. It never stopped him. He used his uniqueness and differences to his advantage even though he faced bigotry and racist comments. The first day of school he got into a fight, but being a big boy he knew how to defend himself, and, after a few early fights, no one at school messed with him again. Apparently, he never experienced bigotry in the rock’n’roll community. Major pioneers such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, and Phil’s personal hero Jimi Hendrix, who were all consummate performers, no doubt smoothed the way.
One thing you admire about Phil Lynott is his versatility. He could sing in so many styles from pop to metal. Everyone can find at least one Thin Lizzy song they love. He was amazed at the international success of his rock classic The Boys are Back in Town, recorded in 1976. That was the first song to feature in the international top 10 songs for the band and was followed by a string of hits.
Thin Lizzy wasn’t meant to end when they recorded their last album in 1983, the heavy metal Thunder and Lightning. After their last show in Nuremberg Germany in September that year, there was no goodbye party, no fanfare. They intended to take a six-month-to-a-year break but Phil Lynott and Scott Gorham (one of the ‘twin lead guitarists’) were both struggling with drug addictions. Phil was also dealing with the breakdown of his marriage. He tried to make it as a solo artist and had some success, as Yellow Pearl was the Top of the Pops in the early 80s, and he assembled and fronted a band called Grand Slam in 1984. But he didn’t have another The Boys are Back in Town moment. He wanted to get Thin Lizzy back together, but his health wasn’t good enough.
The film is two hours long and features interviews with U2`s Adam Clayton, former bandmates, performers such as Huey Lewis and Susie Quatro (and others not so well known internationally), Philip`s cousins Monica and Peter, former girlfriend Gale Claydon, his daughters Sarah and Cathleen and his wife Caroline. It is worth mentioning that Huey Lewis claims Thin Lizzy was ‘the best hard rock that I have ever seen in my life bar none’.
We learn that the band`s name arose from Phil`s love of comics and a character called Thin Lizzie, a female robot in a comic.
Australian fans will love the footage of them jamming on the steps of the iconic Sydney Opera House in late October 1978 for a soundcheck before a crowd of many thousands, where they were to perform later that day to a crowd that was reputedly over 100,000.
Aside from a few stylistic flourishes, the director Emer Reynolds sticks to the tried and tested language of the rock doc and elects to let the music do the talking, using 31 songs from Phil and Lizzy’s back catalogue.
The documentary is an engrossing portrait of the Thin Lizzy hero, a shy, softly spoken, mixed-race working-class boy from humble beginnings making it all the way to the top of the world stage, who died tragically in hospital aged 36 in January 1986, three years after his glory days had flickered out.
Peter is Chair of the Cultural Heritage Committee of the Celtic Club