Portsmouth's role in Irish rockers' time at the top remembered in new book - Thin Lizzy - A People's History

The famed twin-guitar attack, the charismatic frontman Phil Lynott – in their heyday Thin Lizzy were a renowned live spectacle.

Saturday, 7th May 2022, 4:55 am

Over the course of their initial run from 1969 to 1983 they won legions of fans.

Now a new book tells the story of Irish rock legends in the words of those fans, including details of several visits to Portsmouth. Thin Lizzy – A People’s History brings together more than 400 previously untold eyewitness accounts of the band in action, from their Dublin roots to their break up in 1983.

Music historian Richard Houghton has compiled the book and says: ‘Thin Lizzy are remembered for hits such as Whiskey in the Jar, The Boys are Back in Town, Dancing in the Moonlight and Waiting for an Alibi.

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Thin Lizzy in action in 1983. Picture by Andy Small

‘But they are also remembered for exhilarating live performances – the twin guitars, the explosive drumming, the dry ice, the police sirens and the flash bombs, all orchestrated by iconic frontman Phil Lynott.’

Lizzy’s reputation as a live act was built upon years of gigging around Ireland and the UK from 1970, including frequent stop offs at Portsmouth Guildhall.

Richard adds: ‘The early incarnation of Thin Lizzy had a hit with Whiskey in the Jar, but they exploded into the public consciousness after recruiting two new guitarists, a line-up which spawned their famous twin-guitar sound and the feelgood hit of 1976, The Boys are Back in Town.’

Thin Lizzy first played the Guildhall in March 1976, promoting their Jailbreak album.

Phil Lynott in action in 1980. Picture by Simon Matthews

A 16-year-old Phil Cartwright was there: ‘I hadn’t really heard of them as I was a big Status Quo fan, but when I saw Phil Lynott and the rest of the band I was blown away. Graham Parker and the Rumour were the support. They left the stage and it was into the bar for a couple of beers – which every 16-year-old did back in the Seventies! When the lights went down and the flashing blue lights and sirens echoed around the hall, the air of expectation was great. Then the opening chord of Jailbreak rang out and – wow! – you just knew you were in for a great night.

‘Rushing down the front as was the normal practice, I was about 10ft away from Phil and, my god, what a personality that man was. With his black leather trousers and a blue shirt, he was using his trademark Fender Precision with the mirror scratchplate, picking out all the good-looking girls with the mirrored light reflection – and he could certainly pick ‘em! The man could whip the crowd into a frenzy. By the time they got to ‘The Rocker’, which was the last song, he was dripping with sweat and done in. I think we were as knackered just watching them. I’ve seen a lot of bands since, but Lizzy will always have a special place in my heart.’

Claire Jackson saw Lizzy 18 months later, when they were back at the Guildhall in November 1977 after their hit single, Dancing in the Moonlight (It’s Caught Me in its Spotlight): ‘I followed a local covers band in Portsmouth who played many Thin Lizzy tracks. The Boys are Back in Town was their signature tune and, as a 15-year old, I was hooked onto live music and transitioned from my teenybop taste of David Essex to Thin Lizzy. I bought all their albums and first saw them live at Portsmouth Guildhall with my bestie, Suzie. I met the band afterwards – I had a bit of a crush on guitarist Brian Robertson.’

Steve Page was also at the 1977 show: ‘I was lucky enough to get tickets for Portsmouth Guildhall and went with my younger brother and my then girlfriend. I had the cut off denim with all the badges, jeans and lace up DM boots – you get the picture. There were no seats and the unappreciated support band – Radiators From Space – got pelted with beer. The atmosphere began to build to show time but, this being my first time at a live rock concert, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Portsmouth Guildhall

‘The lights went down and all hell broke loose, with everyone charging for the front. The lights came up and we were four or five back from the stage as Lizzy exploded into Soldier of Fortune, with the dry ice clearing to reveal Phil just 20ft away from me. From that moment, I was hooked. The power and the charisma of this black Irishman mesmerised the whole audience. How could it get any better?’

Claire Jackson and her friend Suzie saw Lizzy again when the band returned to the Guildhall in April 1979; ‘We went backstage to meet the band, where we spent a good hour or so chatting, being moved on by the staff. We were asked to go on to a club and we accepted and ran out the back door. We were quickly ushered into the back of a car, to find Phil Lynott in the passenger seat and his tour manager, Gus, driving. I told them how the club they were planning to go to was a bit “office girl”, so it was decided to go back to their hotel. They were staying at the Centre Hotel in Southsea, in Room 003 – I remember Phil made a joke that it was a bit like James Bond. We spent that night partying with Phil, Scott, Gus and members of The Vipers, their support band.’

Thin Lizzy decided to break up in 1983, frustrated at their failure to ‘break’ America.

They embarked on a farewell UK tour to say goodbye to their grieving fans. Karen Woods was among them: ‘I was often able to get to the front of gigs as I’m so small. I could duck under people’s armpits and elbows and wangle my way to the front and get pinned to the stage for the rest of the gig. When I saw Thin Lizzy at the Portsmouth Guildhall in 1983 I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Phil Lynott because my boyfriend at that time was a music writer and he was interviewing Phil for an article.

Thin Lizzy, c.1980-82 from left: Brian Downey, Snowy White, Phil Lynott, Scott Gorham

‘Phil came across as such a gentleman, so respectful and generous. He posed for a photo with me afterwards. He towered over me and stooped down to my level and gave me a respectful hug around the shoulders and smiled for the photo. Oh, I wish I still had that photo!

‘The gig that night was phenomenal. There was something about Thin Lizzy that brought the rawness of heavy rock with the slick professionalism of an experienced and passionate bunch of artists, totally committed to their craft and entertaining their fans.’

Andy Grays, chief executive of The Guildhall Trust, which runs the venue, says the band figured strongly when when the trust was gathering recollections of gigs for its own ongoing heritage project: ‘Through our reminiscences project, they were one of the bands people came forward with stories about.

‘We’re still putting that archive together for the Discovering the Guildhall Project which we’re hoping to have go online later this year.’

And Andy reveals he just missed out on seeing the band’s last ever gig in the UK.

‘Their last UK gig was at The Reading Festival 1983 – which I went to, but I went to the wrong night! They were headlining the Sunday, and I went on Saturday to see Black Sabbath.’

Music historian Richard Houghton, the author Thin Lizzy: A People's History

But he did rectify things a year later when he saw Lynott’s new band Grand Slam at a nightclub in Leicester, where he was a student, and got to meet the star.

‘I think I’d realised I’d missed something by not seeing them at Reading.

‘He’d played to 70,000 people in 1983, and here he was a year later playing in front of maybe 2-300 people.’

Armed with the confidence of youth, Andy went and knocked on a door at the side of the stage at the end of the gig.

‘There he is sitting inside with the band and his manager. We were invited in, these two hairy 19-year-olds.

‘We didn’t have any pieces of paper for him to sign, so we both produced these one pound notes and we offered them up to Phil. He signed them and then started to draw these moustaches on the Queen’s face –which horrified his manager. He gave them back, we stood around and chatted for about 10 minutes and then we left.

‘It was the first time I’d met anyone of that sort of fame.

‘I had that note for years and put it in various wallets – over time, about 20 years, the ink completely faded.’

EVEN nearly 40 years after they split, Thin Lizzy retain a strong hold on their fans’ affections.

Richard Houghton says: ‘Lots of fans remember Thin Lizzy as the best live band they ever saw.

‘Shining through the book is Lizzy’s bond with their audiences, as they remained grounded and determined to stay connected to their fanbase, even at the height of their fame.

‘The shows they played in Portsmouth typify that.’

Did you see Thin Lizzy? Richard would love to hear from you at [email protected].

Thin Lizzy – A People’s History is published by Spenwood Books on July 8, 2022 and available to order now via bookshops or direct from spenwoodbooks.com.

Phil Lynott on stage in 1983. Picture by Andy Small