Thin Lizzy’s Brian Downey is getting ready to perform two eagerly anticipated shows at Nell’s Jazz and Blues in London this weekend along with his new project Alive and Dangerous.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Thin Lizzy’s seminal album Live and Dangerous, an album which is widely regarded as one of the greatest live albums of all time. To mark this incredible landmark Downey along with his new band Alive and Dangerous will be performing this classic live album in full over two shows at Nell’s Jazz and Blues in London on Nov 24th and Nov 25th.
National Rock Review recently caught up with Brian Downey to talk about his new project, life on the road with Thin Lizzy as well as his plans going into the New Year.
NRR: Obviously, we wanted to catch up with you on your new project as I know you’ve got some shows coming up. You’ve got two dates in London at Nells Jazz and Blues on the 24th Nov and the 25th Nov where you are going to be performing the 40th anniversary of Live and Dangerous. I was just wondering how does it make you feel to know that you are carrying on the legacy that yourself and Phil created all of those years ago?
Brian: The idea sprung in maybe 2015, we had the idea myself and Brian Grace who’s playing guitar in the band at the minute. The whole genesis started around then because of the fact that when we got chatting we decided to play the Vibe For Philo that particular year and he invited me down to it. Matt and Phil were there, the bass player and the singer with the band at present, they were playing with a band called the Low Riders. I was invited up to play with them at the 2015 Vibe and you know play four or five numbers.
I was really, really impressed with the guys and the way they were playing, the way they were presenting the songs, the singing was fantastic, generally, the playing was excellent. In fact, it was Brian Grace who suggested that we maybe carry something on into the new year, this was January 2015. The guys Matt and Phil accepted our invitation to come down to Dublin to do some rehearsals and some auditions. They were living near Belfast so they travelled all the way down to Dublin.
We did the audition, we did the rehearsal and they played fantastic at the rehearsal so we had absolutely no problem with the lineup. So the whole thing started back then and carried on into this year.
We did some dates recently in Germany, France and the Netherlands with the intention of obviously trying to get some more dates in the UK and these dates came about through that particular situation. We are only doing two dates at the minute to feel the waters basically and see how things go.
It’s a great feeling to know that after 40 years the Live and Dangerous album is still very, very popular in people’s memory and it’s still a very good seller in our back catalogue. I mean the 40th-anniversary idea only came about later because that wasn’t the initial idea, the initial idea was just to put the band together. The 40th-anniversary idea came about through people telling us that next year is going to be the 40th anniversary of Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous. Initially, I forgot about that, we didn’t know that when we got the band together, that just came later and we decided to use it in the publicity.
But the feeling is great to know that …. you know I mean Phil’s been dead just over 30 years, the album was released 40 years ago and it’s just incredible to know that the band is still pretty popular after all of these years. We haven’t been playing, although there have been lots of reunions alright, the band broke up in 1983, so it’s a long time since the original band played together. So it’s an amazing feeling to know that after all these years as I say that the band is still pretty popular with the fans. It’s incredible, yeah.
NRR: With this new project do you have any plans to actually write any of your own new material or are you just going to strictly focus on the Thin Lizzy part of your career?
Brian: No I mean the idea initially was to get new material recorded, but because we decided to call the band Alive and Dangerous, obviously we had to do the Thin Lizzy Live and Dangerous set. That’s not saying that we can’t record some new material maybe next year.
You never know. I mean the idea was definitely to go into the studio at some stage in the band’s existence to get some new material recorded, but I know we are going to be pretty busy next year. Whether we can do it next year or not is another matter, but I’m sure we will get into the studio maybe at the end of next year or something to do some new stuff. That was the intention all along was eventually we will get into the studio to record some new material definitely.
NRR: Obviously, Live and Dangerous is widely regarded as one of the greatest live albums of all time. The album was recorded over three shows – London in ’76, Philadelphia and Toronto in ’77. I understand that much of the material came from the Hammersmith show. I know that when you were working on that album you poured over about 30 hours of recordings before you finally decided upon which tracks to use. I just wondered what was it about that particular night at Hammersmith that made you want to base the album around that show. What was it about that show that stood out above the rest?
Brian: I think that that particular show, I remember distinctly when we went onstage the reaction was incredibly good and you know that gives you an electric shock down your spine and you know you are in an environment that’s being recorded as well, so that gives you an extra impetus to get on there and play as best as you can, and that’s exactly what happened that particular night. It came together so well, everyone was on top form on their instruments, and the band was just kicking. The audience was really behind us, we put on an incredibly good performance that particular night.
When we heard it back, I was a bit surprised that we played so well. I know there was talk over the years about there’s some overdubs and there was this that and the other, like vocals overdubbed, but at the end of the day I mean there was no drum overdubs on it. Tony Visconti actually makes that quite clear in his book that he asked me in the studio did I want to do any overdubs and I said no, I was quite satisfied with my drumming performance on the album. So I declined his offer, he didn’t pursue it, but he did ask the other members.
He asked Brian Robertson, he asked Scott Gorham and he asked Phil did he want to do overdubs and he said let’s listen to solo’s and let’s listen to some of my bass parts and my vocal parts and he decided yeah, he could improve bits and pieces of the solos here and there and that’s exactly what happened. So they decided just to overdub some, you know maybe 10 bars of a solo or maybe the whole solo, or Phil used maybe parts of his vocal, not the whole vocal.
When Tony Visconti did an interview maybe 5-10 years ago, I can’t remember now exactly, he said between 75-80% or something like that of the album was overdubbed. It’s pretty weird, I don’t know where he got that figure from, but it’s nowhere near 80% or 70% overdubbed. So I was kind of surprised when I heard that, but we did overdub I can say without fear or favour there was absolutely no overdubs on the drums, none at all, not even a cymbal crash, nothing. So what you are hearing on the drums is what I played on the night.
NRR: Along with Phil, you were pretty much the only constant member throughout the entire history of Thin Lizzy. The line up changed so much and it evolved over time. Obviously, during that time you witnessed all of that multitude of lineup changes. I just wondered what would have been your favourite Lizzy touring lineup during that time.
Brian: You know I’ve got a couple of favourite lineups, but I suppose the obvious answer would the lineup that made us really, really successful which was the Jailbreak lineup with Scott Gorham, Brian Robertson, Phil and myself. That’s the obvious lineup that I would go for.
But my second favourite would be Eric Bell era lineup from the first three Decca albums would have been a very close run, the second place if that was the case.
I know that’s a very obvious answer where the first band, the first incarnation of Thin Lizzy wasn’t as well known as the later band, but I can safely say that the Jailbreak album was our breakthrough album really, in the States and in Europe and everywhere else. Although “Whiskey In The Jar” was a massive hit with the Eric Bell lineup, so I can kind of say that my favourite would be the Jailbreak lineup, run very closely with the Eric Bell lineup from the first Decca albums.
NRR: Speaking of those early times with Decca and you mentioned there about “Whiskey In The Jar”. I know that when that single was released the band weren’t particularly happy with Decca for releasing that track because it didn’t sort of reflect the band’s sound and it was a traditional Irish ballad. Did you ever expect that based on those kinds of initial feelings about the song that it would be as successful as it became?
Brian: Well no we didn’t. The idea was to put it on a B-side because Phil had written a song called “Black Boys On The Corner”, that was the original A-side until we went into Decca records A&R department and Dick Rowe – he was the head guy in Decca and when he heard it he insisted that “Black Boys On The Corner” be put on the B-side and “Whiskey In The Jar” be the A-side. So we had no option, we had to go with that because of the head guy in Decca – Dick Rowe, who turned down The Beatles by the way (laughing), he went for the A-side. So we had no option, we had to agree with it.
We were kind of glad he did in the end because I really don’t think “Black Boys On The Corner” would have been a big hit for us looking back on it after all of these years. I think that the decision was definitely the right decision that Dick Rowe made, so we can’t really look back in anger (laughing).
NRR: Obviously, you knew Phil Lynott better than most, I mean you went to school together and you spent twenty odd years playing together. These days you tend to see bands fall apart very quickly and there’s infighting within the bands and stuff like that. To have had such a long and successful career together you guys must have been very close.
Brian: Oh yeah, we were close, we were old school friends – I think Phil was about 11 when I met him, 12 maybe when I met him first. He came over from England when he was about maybe 7 or 8 years of age to be brought up by his grandmother in Dublin. So I kind of met him when he was maybe 12 years of age, maybe slightly younger. But I really wasn’t a close friend of Phil’s until I joined The Black Eagles.
How that came about, I was actually a big fan of The Black Eagles, I used to go and see them play around Dublin. So I went up to Phil one day in school and I said ‘I saw you play at the Apollo Cinema, I really enjoyed your gig and the band was fantastic’ and he turned around and said ‘that’s great, thanks a lot’. He said ‘I kind of know you play in a band as well’, and I was really surprised when he said that.
He invited my band, the band I was playing with down to play with The Black Eagles at their local gig in Dublin. They played in a place called Mount Argus here in Dublin and we played five or six various different shows with them and after that he said to me one day he said ‘look if you want a job in The Black Eagles you better go and answer the audition that’s gonna be in the paper very shortly because our drummer is leaving to go into the army’. So I said ‘well you know obviously I’m going to apply for that’, and he said ‘do that and I’ll see you at the audition’ and I did.
I went down to the audition and there were other drummers there at the time and I was pretty lucky to get the audition and I joined the band maybe two weeks later.
So we became very close over that period of time and then he went on to join Skid Row, I went into a band called The Sugarshack and we kind of parted company. Then we got back together again about two or three years later to form a band called The Orphanage which didn’t last too long, maybe 8 or 9 months and that morphed into Thin Lizzy then and we got even closer ever then.
The friendship blossomed basically and that sort of led on to getting different members like getting Scott and Robbo into the band. We were still very close over all of the years we played together.
I think the recipe for that is not to be too judgemental in a band or be inclined to pick arguments and that’s the way we try to keep it and not too many rows I think is the recipe for our success (laughing). So we tried to keep it on a very even keel, not to let it get it out of hand too much on the friendship basis, so we just kept it nice and low key.
NRR: Back in 1974 following the tour of Germany, you brought in two guitarists in John Cann and Andy Gee. You decided to quit the band around that time and then you quickly reconsidered and rejoined the fold. What was it that drove you to that point and what caused your change of heart to come back again?
Brian: Well you know the tour of Germany that we had to do, we were contracted to do it. This was before John and Andy came into the band. So we knew we had to do a tour of Germany because when Eric Bell left we got Gary Moore to cover for the Irish tour, but Gary couldn’t stay in the band too long.
So for the German tour, we had to get some new guitar player, but Phil had the idea to get two guitar players in just to cover the tour. My impression at that time was when the two guys came in it was on a semi-permanent basis, we didn’t invite them in to join permanently as far I remember now, I could be wrong, but as far as I can remember they were kind of temporary or maybe they didn’t know it was a temporary arrangement but our management did.
I think when we did the German tour, which some of the actual gigs were pretty poor, to say the least, it was really basic clubs that we were playing in and quite small as well. I remember that sticking in my mind you know to play a tour that was kind of under par, to say the least, wasn’t my idea of a successful tour.
At the end of that particular period, I think it was on the boat when everybody looked pretty glum, we all realised that the tour was pretty poor. We didn’t have many rehearsals before the tour started so nobody was really expecting much and that’s how it transpired, it wasn’t a very successful tour playing wise anyway. That was discussed on the boat going back to the UK from Germany.
It just transpired, I knew Phil was pretty unhappy about the whole situation, I was. John and Andy weren’t really in on the loop to be quite honest because we were still trying to figure out were these the right two guys to play in the band. The fact we discovered very shortly after the tour was that they weren’t the right guys to do the tour.
I made it pretty plain to the management when I got back to the UK that I wasn’t happy with the situation, I think Phil would have carried on with the two guys. Not saying the two guys were bad musicians by any means, they were really good players, but we just didn’t have the time to rehearse to get the band tight before we did the German tour. I’m not criticising John Cann or Andy Gee by any means, but it just so happened that we just didn’t have the time, the tour was pretty poor, the gigs weren’t great, money wasn’t good, the hotels were abysmal. So it was kind of one of those situations where you realise hang on we could do better than this.
I made it plain on the boat to Phil that we could do better and he kind of agreed with me, without really saying yes I agree. When I said it to the management back in London we decided to kind of have a think on it for a few months, and that’s exactly what happened. I did say that you know I think we should take a long break, in fact, I could have even said forget about it, I’m not interested, I could have even said that if the situation carried on the way it was I wasn’t interested.
But I mean, a couple of weeks later, maybe a month later Chris Morrison did come up with a plan and did have an idea when he met me that time to put the band back together with two completely new guitar players, which happened to be Scott and Brian Robertson.
But after I said that, after I agreed to come back that’s when we really did start to hold auditions in the Country Club in West Hampstead, they were really pretty serious. We did keep our ears open for the guitar players that were coming through the auditions and it just so happened thats when Brian Robertson turned up.
I actually knew Brian Robertson I had met him before in Glasgow maybe a year beforehand and I recognised him immediately. So he was an easy choice because I knew how he played and I said it to Phil, I said ‘this guy is a fantastic really great player ‘(laughing) even before he played any notes in the audition. So I was well aware of Brian Robertson’s playing and Phil did agree with me, he said ‘yeah, he’s the guy’. He was the first guy.
Maybe a week or two later Scott Gorham came in and he was definitely different than any of the other guys who were coming in for the audition (laughing). He had hair that was unbelievably long at the time, he really stood out as you walked by the stage and I just kept saying, wow look at this guy, he just looked so unique at the time. He happened to be American, when we heard that, his accent you know is just incredible to know that this guy with the amazing long hair is an American as well. So that was all in his favour I suppose.
NRR: So going on to those two guitarists, obviously like you said in the initial days there was mixed success but once you kind of reached that lineup and with the introduction of the sort of twin lead guitar sound that was a complete game changer for Thin Lizzy. When the band were experimenting with that distinctive sound did you know immediately that you were onto something?
Brian: Well we didn’t because the idea of getting two guitar players in was a throwback to when Eric Bell left the band and left the band onstage as a two-piece band in a gig in Belfast (laughing) on New Years night back in 1973/4 I believe.
Phil had the idea in his mind and he did say it to me that he doesn’t want to be stuck on stage playing as a two piece if somebody decided to leave the band. So he decided to get two guitar players just in case (laughing). That was really the reason behind having two players in the band, but he did say that in jest I’m sure. But really in the back of his mind, I’m sure he believed it as well, but it was in jest when he said it in an interview. But he did say it to me after the interview, he said look I did say that in jest but I really believe, it’s why I’m saying that if a guitar player does leave at least we have somebody to stand in his boots you know, we are not going to be stuck without a guitar player onstage.
Again, the initial idea – we did hear Wishbone Ash, we heard The Allman Brothers band with two guitar players, that was in the back of our mind as well. It wasn’t an original idea to have two guitar players, it was done before with various bands but when we decided to use two guitar players Phil certainly had the idea of harmonies and dual guitar battles and all that in mind, he certainly did, he definitely had that in mind and that’s how it transpired.
The guys came on board, they literally invented a new sound on double guitar/twin guitar as far as I can see and it definitely developed from there. It got better and better over the years on subsequent albums. I think we can safely say we had a hand in inventing that dual guitar sort of sound that became pretty popular in later bands yeah.
NRR: Towards the end of the band, the last show happened in the UK at the Reading Festival in 1983. Then from there, you went on to the Monsters of Rock in Nuremberg same year before you all went your separate ways. How were you feeling about the band personally at that point in time?
Brian: Well you know I think everybody was kind of saying, because don’t forget when the initial final tour started it was supposed to be like two months long, it actually went on for over a year. So by the end of that particular year, I think everybody was ready to just hang up their boots for a while, hang up their guitars and drumsticks and all of the rest of it.
I think at that stage, don’t forget as well things were starting to get a bit weird within the band regarding certain substances being abused and all of the rest of it. There were definitely problems – drug problems, alcohol problems going through the band. I think people were getting sick of the sight of each other to be quite honest, I think we had enough of each other.
But then again you know we were also in financial straights at the time, our management pointed out that some of the gigs weren’t selling out, lots of gigs weren’t selling out, in fact, albums weren’t selling as well as they should be. So it was put to us by our management to maybe take some time off the road to think about it with the intention of maybe reforming in a year or twos time.
But because of the fact that Phil as well was getting pretty bad, Scott Gorham was pretty addicted as well. So you had two guys, major guys in the band that were kind of really struggling with their addictions, that was a big problem within the band near the end. Hair-raising situations on the road getting through customs and all of the rest of it. So it was getting pretty hair-raising, to say the least.
All those were playing on my mind, especially on maybe the rest of the guys in the band and the management especially. So we knew the pitfalls, we knew what we were going through, there’s no doubt about that. There were very few sober personalities within the band at that particular time. I think everybody had their own problems after maybe 13 years on the road.
I know Brian Robertson was pretty young when he came into the band and that certainly took its toll on him, he was maybe too young. I know Scott had a substance problem even before he joined the band and then he stopped and then he got into this band he was clean and then after maybe four, five, six years he got strung out again. So I mean there was definitely problems at the end of the band, you know it was a bit of a relief to be quite honest when the whole thing came to an end back in 1983.
NRR: Since then there have been numerous different reunions including probably the most recent one back in 2013, you were back on the road with Scott Gorham. I know at the end of that you were offered the chance to join Black Star Riders is that right?
Brian: Yeah I was yeah. I was but what actually happened then was when the band were playing as Thin Lizzy our management, now this is completely different management, this is brand new management nothing to do with the early Thin Lizzy management. One of the managers suggested would it be feasible to record a new Thin Lizzy album?
When I heard it I kind of went no it’s not really feasible, because it would be sacrilege to record a new album I thought personally under the Thin Lizzy name. But everybody went with it and I was kind of surprised. I went with it myself for a while because, in fact, I didn’t want to throw a spanner in the works so to speak. I didn’t want to be upsetting any plans because I thought maybe it was just a pipe dream, maybe it was just going through the motions of recording a new album and it might come out or it might not, it was no big deal.
When Phil Lynott’s estate heard about it they completely rejected the idea of recording a new album, which was fine by me, I had no objection to that. But because when the guys heard it, the guys that eventually became Black Star Riders they were pretty upset about the situation to be quite honest.
It was put to me that we should change the name immediately from Thin Lizzy to a brand new name. Now it wasn’t Black Star Riders, I didn’t know the name I wasn’t around when they decided to call themselves Black Star Riders, but just before that the guys wanted to change the name from Thin Lizzy … I think I was maybe the only one that objected to it, I told them so, I didn’t particularly want to change the name to another name just to record an album or to stay with the Thin Lizzy name and just keep playing as Thin Lizzy on the road.
Don’t forget the band was playing really well, all of the venues were sold out, proper venues you know with 3-4,000 seats and I was quite satisfied with that. But I was the only one that seemed to be satisfied with that because everybody else wanted to completely change the name from Thin Lizzy to a brand new name and record some new brand new songs.
So when that was put to me I decided no, I didn’t particularly want to do that, I didn’t want to start an absolute brand new band with all that entails, staying on the road for months on end doing tours you know in and out of the studio doing two albums maybe an album a year. I don’t really know what transpired, but I just wasn’t prepared for that and I told everybody that. I just decided to step aside and let somebody take my place and that’s exactly what happened. But I was initially asked to join, you are right.
NRR: We are fast approaching the end of this year, 2018 is just around the corner. I just wondered what are your plans going into next year, what’s on the cards?
Brian: Smiley Bolger has asked us to do some numbers at the 2018 Vibe For Philo, so we are gonna do 5 or 6 numbers at the gig on the 3rd January. But next year we are definitely thinking about doing more tours. I mean the promoters in Germany and Holland and France certainly want us back to play in the venues again.
I know UK promoters are coming down to the second show in London at Nells Jazz and Blues with the intention hopefully of booking the band in the New Year for a UK tour as well, so that’s all on the cards for next year.
There’s a cruise next April that we are going to do, that’s been confirmed only last week or the week before last. That’s like a five/six-day cruise up the Mediterranean, I could be wrong there it might not be the Mediterranean that hasn’t been finalised yet, but the cruise is definitely going to happen.
So next year is definitely gonna be a major year for us playing wise and touring wise and hopefully maybe recording at the end of the year as well as you were saying earlier. So it’s all there to be done and we intend to certainly get out there and play and do it yeah.
Brian Downey’s new project Alive and Dangerous with be performing the classic Thin Lizzy album Live and Dangerous in full on Fri 24th Nov (sold out) and Sat 25th Nov at Nell’s Jazz and Blues in London.
Brian Downey’s ALIVE AND DANGEROUS
Nells Jazz & Blues Club
Friday 24th November 2017
24 Hour Box Office: 0871 2200260
BOOK TICKETS ONLINE
Venue Box Office: 0207 792 1200
Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
3 North End Crescent, London, W14 87G
Nells Jazz & Blues Club
Saturday 25th November 2017
24 Hour Box Office: 0871 2200260
BOOK TICKETS ONLINE
Venue Box Office: 0207 792 1200
Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
3 North End Crescent, London, W14 87G
Photo: Larry Canavan