BRIAN DOWNEY (THIN LIZZY) BY MG BOULTER

SONGWRITER MG BOULTER INTERVIEWS BRIAN DOWNEY, LIFELONG FRIEND OF PHIL LYNOTT AND DRUMMER IN THE LEGENDARY THIN LIZZY, PLUS NEW PROJECT ALIVE AND DANGEROUS. MG (MATT) WRITES…

I love Thin Lizzy with a passion. Growing up I’d listen to their albums constantly, singing deep cuts as if they were catechisms. The endless rotation of guitarists and the ultimate tragedy of Phil Lynott’s untimely death at age 36 read like a modern day Celtic legend, and were recited as such amongst my friends. Despite finishing their formative career in 1984 Thin Lizzy and Phil Lynott remain as influential now as they were back then… It must have been during a late-night conversation after my concert for The Mouth Magazine in September 2017 that I was bending the ears of my hosts about my love for all things Thin Lizzy. Nearly a year later The Mouth Magazine called up to ask whether I would like to speak with Brian Downey, Lynott’s school friend and Thin Lizzy’s drummer for their entire career. A couple of weeks later and my room reverberates with Brian’s soft Dublin accent on speaker phone, and I regress to a nervous fourteen year old desperate to understand just a sliver of what it was like to have been in one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time. What struck me most about Brian was that he was a working musician not fazed by the rigmarole of the day to day grind of being a gigging drummer. He saw value in every facet of his playing career from his time in pipe bands as a youth to the post-Lizzy projects he gave his all to… “I must confess, this is the first time I’ve interviewed anyone,” I say. Brian replies “Ha! Well good luck to you, Matt”…

 

HOW’S THE WEATHER OVER IN DUBLIN TODAY?
Well, it’s a little bit overcast. It’s pretty mild. Looks like it’s going to rain!

I’M CALLING FROM SOUTHEND… IT’S TOO HOT HERE.
I can well imagine. I remember going down to Brighton when I was living in London and it was always lovely weather there in the summertime.

YEAH, BUT MAYBE A BIT TOO MANY PEOPLE FOR MY LIKING…
I used to go to Newhaven quite a lot. It was a nice little area to go down to and do a little bit of fishing and relax for a few days, less busy than Brighton.

I HEARD YOU WERE A KEEN FISHERMAN… 
Yeah, I do. When I was in England there I used to do a lot of fishing when I had some time out. As you say I would go down to Newhaven and Brighton and haul your scales on the beach and the pier down there. They were great places to go.

I DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT FISHING, BUT IT’S SUCH A RELAXING ACTIVITY. THE TIMES I’VE GONE FISHING IT’S BEEN A MEDITATIVE EXPERIENCE… 
It’s brilliant, it’s really relaxing. But you know it’s one of those things, if you don’t catch anything it’s a nice day out. You get a bit of sun even if you don’t have anything to show for it.

IT’S ABOUT THE CHASE, NOT NECESSARILY THE CATCH!
It’s equally as good waiting for that bite to come. It’s getting the bite that’s the problem!

AT SOUTHEND WE HAVE THE PIER, SO YOU CAN GO RIGHT OUT AND DROP YOUR LINE… 
They used to have a train going to the end of it?

YEAH, THEY STILL DO. IT’S BEEN UNDER MAINTENANCE FOR AGES, BUT THEY’VE JUST BROUGHT IT BACK INTO USE…
There’s a couple of different piers there, one underneath and one above.

I THINK SO. THE LOWER ONE IS THE LAUNCH FOR THE LIFEBOAT… BRIAN, CAN YOU GIVE ME A FLAVOUR OF WHAT YOUR NEW PROJECT – ALIVE AND DANGEROUS – IS ABOUT, AND HOW IT CAME ABOUT?
The “why now?” is because since the reunion band (Thin Lizzy) finished in 2011 / 2012, there was kind of a lull for me and I was out of a job and I was itching to play. I then bumped into Brian Grace, our guitar player and, you know, we just had a conversation about what was happening. And we both discovered that we were doing very little. He was doing a lot of session work but nothing live as such. So we decided to go in and do some rehearsals with a friend of ours, who is not in this band Alive and Dangerous. He’s an American guy living here in Dublin. He plays bass and a little bit of acoustic guitar. We just had him in there to fill out a bit of the sound you know. But, at the end of the day, we wanted to do something a bit more Lizzy influenced for want of a better word. We decided to ask Matt Wilson who is a bass player / singer from Belfast and also Phil Edgar, who is a guitar player from Belfast, who Brian knew through the VIBE FOR PHILO (the annual commemoration of all aspects of Phil Lynott’s career) here in Dublin. So they came down from Belfast and we did a couple of rehearsals and they turned out, you know, really spot on. In fact you couldn’t get any better guys, because they were steeped in Lizzy’s back catalogue… I was so impressed with them that I asked them to form the band. Matt was the first to accept and Phil was approached and he thought about it for about five seconds and agreed so he was involved as well. It was absolutely no problem. We had the two guys in the space of one night. So they were the guys we decided to go with.

I THINK IT’S A GREAT NAME – A CHEEKY REFERENCE, BUT WHY NOT?
We didn’t have an actual plan until one of our friends said why don’t you call it ‘Alive and Dangerous’ just to follow up on the fortieth anniversary of the album LIVE AND DANGEROUS. I said, yeah, that sounds like a pretty good name and was relevant. Let’s go with that. And we went with ‘Alive’ instead of ‘Live’ to differentiate between the album, and we added my name to the band name just so everyone knew who we were. We then went into rehearsals and that’s how we got the set for Alive and Dangerous. Our manager decided to get us some dates in Ireland, then we went to the UK and did some dates in London and then we went over to Europe and did some dates in Sweden, Germany, France….

SO YOU’VE BEEN KEEPING BUSY!
Kept us busy, absolutely, yeah. That’s the position we’re in now – in the process of organising another Irish and UK tour as we speak. I think all the dates are in now.

I SEE YOU’RE PLAYING THE UNDERWORLD IN CAMDEN. HAVE YOU PLAYED THERE BEFORE?
No. In September it’ll be my very first time. We actually played at Nell’s Jazz and Blues back in last November and we did some more dates in February this year.

IT’S A LEGENDARY VENUE. I MEAN, YOU’VE PLAYED LONDON HUNDREDS OF TIMES IN YOUR CAREER, SO WHAT VENUES STICK IN YOUR MIND AS GREAT PLACES TO PLAY?
You know, the venue that really sticks in my mind is a bigger venue -the old Hammersmith Odeon. I think it’s the Hammersmith something else now, but it was the Odeon back in the day. We recorded some of the LIVE AND DANGEROUS album there; it was one of our favourite venues. There are other venues that we used to love playing. Obviously the Marquee Club was a big venue for us in the early, early days. It was in Wardour Street.

THE MARQUEE WAS THE PLACE TO PLAY, BACK IN THE DAY…
A small club but it was major to play. It was the place to play. All the big bands played it. We played it in the ’70S as well, a good few times. We played the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm a few times, a few dates there. A great venue as well.

AND THE RAINBOW..?
Oh yeah! That was another brilliant venue. We recorded some stuff in there when LIVE AND DANGEROUS was released and it became a big hit. So we went into the Rainbow and actually did a video in there of the LIVE AND DANGEROUS set and that was released on video in the late ’70s or early ’80s, as far as I remember. That was a fantastic venue up in Finsbury Park.

THE RAINBOW WENT YEARS AGO, I THINK. PROBABLY FLATS NOW?
Yes, it went a while back. I think the building is still there on the corner, as far as I know. I don’t think it’s been demolished. Maybe it has? We played The Winning Post in Twickenham – we supported Status Quo there a few times in the very early days and we headlined there a few times.

A LOT OF THE LONDON VENUES ARE DISAPPEARING NOW. THE COMMERCIALITY OF PROPERTY IN LONDON IS JUST FAR GREATER THAN GIG TICKETS CAN PROFIT, I SUPPOSE… 
There were so many venues to play, back then in London. But, yes, most of those venues have gone.

YOU MENTIONED BRIAN GRACE AS A MAINLY SESSION MAN… I’M INTERESTED TO KNOW WHETHER YOU YOURSELF PREFER STUDIO WORK OR LIVE WORK?
Session work in Dublin has really dried up. I never really got any work here when I came back from the UK to settle here and buy a house and all that. I was never really into that scene because it was so small here but when I came back here in the early eighties, I think maybe ’83, the scene was quite dead to be honest. Not much happening. Brian is a slightly different generation to me, but when he started playing he was doing all sorts of session work. He’s busy and works very quick in the studio – but he does play live gigs now. That’s opened up a little bit now in Ireland. Maybe I didn’t struggle enough to do it when I came back. Maybe I rested on my laurels and didn’t do much after all those years playing in the UK. I did eventually form a band and do the pubs and clubs and any gigs you could get back then… In the early ’80s the scene was really a struggle here, you know… There’s better venues now and the scene has improved.

I HEARD ON THE RADIO YESTERDAY THAT THE IRISH GOVERNMENT ARE DOUBLING THE ARTS FUNDING FOR THE COUNTRY…
I think they brought the payments down a lot. A few years ago the exemption limit was €200,000 and they brought that right down to €50,000. I think they had to reduce it because groups like U2 were really benefiting from that scheme – and they didn’t really need the money. It was designed for average working musicians. I think someone in the UK should go for it too.

I HOPE SO… WE NEED IT…
The scheme here really took off after one of the Prime Ministers introduced it. He was really into the Arts. His name was Charlie Haughey – I don’t know whether you’ve ever heard of him? He was really good for music…

I WAS WATCHING THE PROMOTIONAL VIDEO FOR THE ALIVE AND DANGEROUS PROJECT AND DURING THAT YOU MENTION THE POSSIBILITY OF DOING SOME ORIGINAL MUSIC… IS THAT STILL ON THE CARDS?
Well, yes, it is. I was just talking to one of the guys in the band about it the other day and we’re going to do some rehearsals tomorrow and then in the next few weeks get into a pre-production studio and lay down some tracks that we have. We have a bunch of tracks we could lay down but we need to go down and do some pre-production work before we go down into the studio to do it for real. We do have some original songs. We want to do it with a decent producer and we have a shortlist that we’re interested in and hopefully they will be available. But we are in the process of rehearsing.

HAVE YOU BEEN WRITING MUCH, YOURSELF?
Not since the original band with Phil Lynott, Scott Gorham and Robbo. I haven’t really been doing much writing since then. I’ve not really had the opportunity in the bands that I’ve been in – except Gary Moore’s band of course. I was in his band for a couple of years before he died. I was writing with him a bit. Not as much as with Phil and Scott, but it was interesting to rejoin Gary and, you know, go out and play with him. It was total enjoyment. Gary was a great friend of mine and a great guy to play with as well. He was a mine of ideas, a guy who came up with great ideas. That was very much a talent that he had – like Phil Lynott, I suppose. Gary would be very impromptu in a rehearsal situation. He left a lot up to your imagination. But if you weren’t cutting it he would come in and give you a bit of advice and give you an indication of what he wanted. I hope this band will have the same idea. Lots of suggestions coming in, that’s what I want from the band.

… AND THAT’S THE FUN OF IT – COLLABORATING TOGETHER. YOU ALSO MENTION IN THAT VIDEO THE IMPORTANCE OF ‘FEEL’ IN A BAND. SO I WONDERED HOW PLAYING WITH A NEW BAND COMPARES TO PLAYING WITH A BAND LIKE THIN LIZZY, AND PHIL LYNOTT, WHO YOU’D KNOWN SINCE YOU WERE AT SCHOOL…
As I said earlier, it’s a fantastic experience when you walk into a rehearsal with these new guys. When I walked in there and set up the drums, there was absolutely no problem. It was really bizarre because you expected after seven or eight bars to stop because there was a mistake, but they were so conversant with the songs. They seemed to know them naturally as if they were weaned on this stuff since they were young. There were absolutely no stops and it was just great. It happened for five or six songs on a trot. Not just the LIVE AND DANGEROUS album, but all the other albums too. They seemed to know them all, which is an absolute bonus when you’re in an early day rehearsal situation. I was really taken aback. After about the first ten numbers someone said, “Hang on, you know, I’m not completely sure how this song goes”… I think it was BAD REPUTATION or something… Then we had to stop and slow down and go through the original arrangements.

YOU’VE HAD SUCH A LONG CAREER AS A DRUMMER, BRIAN. HOW DO YOU KEEP AN INTEREST AND EXCITEMENT IN IT?
I’ve been playing since I was kind of young – maybe seven or eight years of age. I took the drums up seriously because my Father was a drummer in a pipe band here. He’d bring his side drum – it’s called a snare drum in rock circles. It was an about ten-and-a-half by fourteen inch drum strapped to your leg as you march. It was always in the house. Even from an early age the side drum was always knocking around in its case – and I always took the opportunity, from seven or eight, to opening that case when he wasn’t there. Obviously when he’d gone to work! I just kept playing that drum. My Mum didn’t seem to mind. My Dad obviously knew I was very interested from a very early age. It continued through the lessons he gave me. He took me through the mama-dada roll and paradiddles and all the other rudiments that come with the drums. So, yeah, I learnt the twenty seven drum rudiments at a very early age… And then Dad enrolled me in a pipe band, which was maybe one of the best pipe bands round here, when I was nine years of age or maybe ten. That was a completely different situation where I started learning to read some drum music, read the dots. That was taught to me by a guy called John Murrick – that stood me pretty good over the years as well. It was handy to jot a few things down if you weren’t completely happy with your memory. So that could come in handy when you were in the studio. And the rudiments were fine-tuned by John Murrick in the pipe band. Then I was enrolled onto the main band who used to just march on St Patrick Day parades, Easter Day parades. We used to do it for a few years… But after a few years I discovered The Beatles and the Rolling Stones on the radio and then my cousin used to buy all those records in the early sixties, I really lost interest in pipe drumming and went full time to rock n roll drumming.

… AND YOU’VE NEVER GONE BACK TO THE PIPE MUSIC?
Ha! No! Never gone back, no! But I’m kind of grateful for going into the pipe bands because it really opened my eyes to some fantastic drummers. It really opened my eyes to the technicality of playing drums. These guys were all incredible technicians when it came to the snare drum playing, and when I left I didn’t really regret my decision because my outlook was changing. The Beatles came along and really changed everything overnight, or what seemed like overnight, for me. They came from Liverpool and that was all filtering through to Ireland. We were getting all this information in the papers and the music press that was coming from the UK, so I was well aware of the scene back then. It led to people buying drums in the cartload and I’m sure it was the same in the UK and I was one of those guys. I convinced my Dad to buy me a small drum kit… Y’know – a bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, maybe a sixteen inch cymbal. No tom toms as such, I got those later. It was all rock drum kits from then on… But I still appreciate what happens in those situations though I really didn’t want to go marching anymore and play all those Irish Ceilidh songs. I basically just wanted to play rock and roll. That’s all I wanted to do… And I was kind of lucky. I knew there were lots of great musicians around where I lived. Phil Lynott was one of those guys. He wasn’t living on the same street, but he was maybe only ten or fifteen minutes walk away, and there were also lots of musicians on my street. And all these guys were the same as me – massively influenced by The Beatles and the Rolling Stones… Everybody wanted to play like that.

SO EVERYONE HAD THE SAME REFERENCE POINT… 
I was in a band with Phil Lynott when I was thirteen. Phil was a couple of years older and was playing in a band called The Black Eagles. I was going up to see these guys, even though they were slightly older than me, trying to smuggle myself in without being noticed because I was quite young and I really wasn’t supposed to be there (but maybe I looked older than I was). I used to sit there and watch Phil Lynott and The Black Eagles and I was absolutely mesmerised by these guys. They were slightly older than me and I was really influenced by them. Then Phil said to me one day when we were supporting the Black Eagles, “Look, our drummer is leaving very shortly and there’s going to be a vacancy in The Black Eagles. We’re going to put an ad in the paper – and I suggest you answer the advert”. And he says “It’s going to be in the Evening Herald”. So I got the Evening Herald, saw the ad and answered straight away. There was a box number so I went into town here, went to the paper’s head office, posted my reply in the box number and I got a reply from the manager saying the auditions were going to be on a Saturday. So I went down, set up my drum kit. Phil was there so I said “hi” because I kind of knew Phil from school. I didn’t know the other guys, I only knew Phil. And we went into the audition and one of the songs was YOU REALLY GOT ME by the Kinks. I knew this song back-to-front because I had the record at home, I knew it really well – and that was the one that pinched the gig for me.

I LIKE THAT – IT WAS THE KINKS THAT GOT YOU THE GIG!
It was a great feeling. A great achievement to get into The Black Eagles. It was my first real experience of playing with Phil, it was an incredible experience. I was in that band for about two years before they broke up and Phil went into a band called Skid Row. I went into a band called The Sugar Shack, and after that finished we both met up after a few years. That’s when we decided to form Thin Lizzy.

… AND THE REST IS HISTORY! WAS PHIL AS CHARISMATIC A BAND LEADER AS YOU WOULD EXPECT, IN THOSE EARLY DAYS? I HEARD HE HAD CONFIDENCE ISSUES WITH HIS PLAYING, AT TIMES… 
You know, Matt, he was. When I saw him in The Black Eagles I just couldn’t keep my eyes off him, y’know? His stage presence was so massive – so incredibly massive – that he just seemed to own that stage. I got to know the rest of the band, but none of them had that charisma as Phil had, and they would all admit that, even back then. And you know, back in those days there weren’t that many black guys around Dublin. In Ireland there were very few black people around and that was a massive bonus because people would recognise Phil immediately in The Black Eagles. Now we have lots of different nationalities here but back then there were very few black people living here at all.

IT MUST HAVE BEEN HARD FOR HIM AS WELL…
It was hard… He really had to defend himself back then. I remember a few guys back in school used to give him a hard time and call him ‘Golliwog’ and all the rest of it. Those were the expressions used back then, and Phil had to kind of take it. Until one day he snapped with this boy who was in the school and he called him out on it. They had a fight and Phil won hands down, so the guy never did it again. It shows you, you had to learn. He came over from the UK when he was about five. His Mum sent him over to Ireland to be raised by his Grandmother. His Mum had to stay in the UK to work. She really couldn’t raise him in the UK, and he had to learn to defend himself very quickly.

YOU CAN’T IMAGINE THAT IN THIS DAY AND AGE, CAN YOU?
No you can’t. This black guy with a British accent. He looked completely different. His colour caused him more problems than the British accent hands down… When I met him he was twelve, maybe thirteen, and he’d lost his English accent. he had a really heavy Dublin accent.

I LIKE THAT – HE CULTIVATED AN IRISH ACCENT… 
But then I suppose that happens when you’re younger. I think that happened to Phil, whether it was true design I’m not really sure! Whether he started putting it on and then it stuck… But he had a very strong Irish accent. More so than me! No one questioned Phil on that though.

… BECAUSE HE WAS A BIG CHAP – ABOUT SIX FOOT ONE, OR TWO?
Yeah, he was a big guy – and especially in those days with the platforms on he was even taller! When we went on that tour with Slade we saw how Slade used to wear these big platform boots on stage and run around. So after that tour we all went out and bought these platforms that Noddy and Dave Hill and all the rest had on… And that was an extra couple of inches for Phil. It definitely improved my height, you know. I’m a small guy, tiny guy compared to Phil… It put an extra couple of inches on my height as well!

SO YOU HAD TO BE CAREFUL IN BAND FIGHTS AS PHIL WOULD JUST CONSUME YOU…
Oh yeah, Phil would just eat you up. You know he would. He became very proficient with his hands. He used to be a boxer in the national stadium when he was at school. So he was a trained boxer in the ring. He knew how to handle himself, give him his due…

 

ALIVE AND DANGEROUS tour the UK in September and October. Dates and tickets here
MG BOULTER releases BLOOD MOON as a Hudson Records EP in August. More info here 

Brian Downey live shots by Laurence Harvey
Alive And Dangerous portrait by Larry Canavan