The Long Hall

THE MANY GHOSTS OF PHILIP LYNOTT

 

 

For decades it was in childrens and youth programmes that many good young television producers and ambitious directors began their careers and where the more difficult, often older ones ended theirs when, deemed too unmanageable for the requirements of the prime-time schedules, were consigned back to work with the glove puppets. In RTÉ – up until recently at least – youth programmes was where time and space were always more readily available than budgets and where, on a daily basis, those who wanted to turn things on their heads were encouraged to do so. And usually for no other reason than because they could. Where, off-Broadway and away from the focus of senior managers, bean counters, agents and the usual spoofers, some of the best, most creative, curious and often just mad television in the history of the state was consistently committed to tape and outputted to the young. On most of whom the content was largely wasted. And I say this from a position of knowledge and experience :- I spent ten years of my working life making children’s television, where every day brought a different opportunity to turn a lens – or a presenter – upside down and back to front.

This approach was nowhere more manifest or obvious than on ‘Anything Goes’, in several senses a long-running Saturday morning series that played live on the RTÉ schedules for six years from October, 1980 and that, over the course of its colourful history, covered a multitude. In gunge, for the most part. But the last thirty minutes of what was a four hour, live weekly show, was where many of us encountered new and exciting music for the first time on television, a compliment to some of the late night, non-mainstream radio we’d maybe stumbled on, putting pictures to the sounds, often with mesmerising effect.

David Heffernan, who presented the ‘Anything Goes’ music segments and determined much of it’s editorial line, has long played a significant role in supporting nascent Irish music, from in front of and behind the camera and also on radio. It was on David’s watch that I witnessed many memorable ‘Anything Goes’ appearances ;- from a live number and raspy interview by a young Billy Bragg to a high-end exchange with Martin Fry of ABC and a drive-by with Loudon Wainwright. And maybe most vividly of all, an unforgettable broadcast of Prefab Sprout’s ‘Don’t Sing’ video in a slot that would also feature regular, imported live concert performances on film from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac.

And woven into that mix – sometimes seamlessly, other times not so much – live performances almost every week from some of the country’s most engaging new acts. The Blades, for instance, appeared as regularly on ‘Anything Goes’ as some of the presenters and, from their base in Ringsend, were within easy reach in the event that a hole in the running order needed filling. Which would have been often on a show of such length and ambition.

Clashing as it frequently did with hurling and football fixtures involving my club, Glen Rovers, ‘Anything Goes’ was probably the single greatest factor in my decision to retire prematurely from an active career on the playing fields. That, I guess, and the fact that, with a hurley in my hand, I posed a genuine health and safety risk to many, myself and my team- mates primarily.

 

 

You’d see and hear almost anything during the tail-end of ‘Anything Goes’, some of it just as bizarre as much of what you’d find frequently around the pitches in The Tank Field or The Old Mon Field, and the RTÉ archives are stocked with more of this material than you’d expect. One of my own favourites from that period is a full-frontal, Bil Keating- directed mime by Cork band Nun Attax – a loosely-defined post-punk outfit with distinctly local Captain Beefheart cravings – who made it past the security gate in Montrose unchallenged and recorded two numbers, ‘White Cortina’ and ‘Reekus Sunfare’, during studio downtime in May, 1981, in what obviously sounded like a great idea at the time it was advanced. Shot in front of a basic set and against a white cyclorama curtain, and with a battered old beater as a dominant stage prop, you’d wonder if the band and the production crew had shared the same cache of hallucinagenics over lunch in the RTÉ canteen before taking their opening positions on the floor of Studio 2 ?

 

 

Under the leadership of the late producer and director Bob Collins [who shouldn’t be confused with the former RTÉ Director General of the same name], ‘Anything Goes’ also blazed a trail in that it infrequently recorded a series of video vignettes for Irish and local artists at a time when the form was still largely unheralded and often outrageously expensive. I’ve written previously about ‘The Bride Wore White’, a beautiful trailer directed by Collins himself for an early Blades track, but arguably the best-known and most fondly-remembered video clip made for the programme is ‘Old Town’, one of the stand-out cuts from ‘The Philip Lynott Album’ and which was first transmitted on ‘Anything Goes’ on Saturday, October 30th, 1982.

Lynott’s debut solo album two years previously, ‘Solo In Soho’, found the Thin Lizzy frontman in considered and expansive form, clearly delivered from what had become an overly familiar routine determined by his band’s considerable cut-through. And it’s follow-up is more wide-ranging again in its ambition even if it’s a far weaker and more distracted listen that, certainly over the closing tracks, just sounds as if it’s running on empty. ‘The Philip Lynott Album’ dabbles deeper and further with digital technology and basic sampling at the expense of Lynott’s more commonplace rock tropes, and with mixed results. ‘Yellow Pearl’, for instance, co-written with Midge Ure, was originally one of the stand-outs on ‘Solo In Soho’ but, re-arranged, re-recorded and re-booted, features again on the follow-up, eventually becoming the explosive, pop-loaded theme music to Top Of The Pops. But elsewhere, and certainly from half-way onwards, much of ‘The Philip Lynott Album’ is just raw fumbling and riffing, scantily clad sketches in search of body and form.

Written by Lynott and Jimmy Bain, the bass-player with Rainbow who’d become part of Thin Lizzy’s wider orbit, ‘Old Town’ is easily the centre-piece on ‘The Philip Lynott Album’, a lyrically simple, up-beat pop song about a relationship that’s come to an end. And, as such, it sits snugly within a cluster of songs that are intensely personal, several of them hung on themes of broken connection, emotional uncertainty and intimacy.  ‘Cathleen’, a soft ballad about Lynott’s second daughter, segues into ‘Growing Up’, an unsettling but sadly beautiful song about an inappropriate relationship between a child and an adult while ‘Together’, another song about a broken relationship, clumsily captures all of the album’s primary lyrical motifs within its half-baked chorus.

‘Old Town’ actually begins with a spoken introduction ;- ‘The Old Covent Garden, I  remember it well’, even if that line has been long lost to all but Lynott completists and anoraks. And musically, the song marks a real line in the sand, the graduation, in one respect from Philo [The hard Rocker] to Philip [The softer-edged Pop Star] ;- the recognisable guitar licks and familiar solos have been largely decommissioned and it’s primary hooks come from elsewhere. So while ‘Old Town’ is quickly and efficiently out of the traps [‘The girl’s a fool, she broke the rule, she hurt him hard’], it gathers real momentum with a frenetic piano solo just over a minute in by Darren Wharton, a young, Manchester-born player who’d recently been added to the Thin Lizzy line-up. But the ultimate pay-off derives from an unlikely source :- a mighty solo performed on piccolo trumpet by John Wilbraham who, at the time, was a principal player in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Conceived by Lynott as a tribute to The Beatles, he had originally hoped that David Mason, who performed the trumpet solo on ’Penny Lane’, would reprise the feat on ‘Old Town’. But when Mason was unable to commit to the recording, the Louth-born arranger and composer, Fiachra Trench, cast his net elsewhere.

Although much of ‘The Philip Lynott Album’ is under-laid with layers of keyboard and sampled sounds – and is very much in keeping with many of the cadences of the period – several of the tracks are also scored with subtle orchestrations, arranged by Trench and recorded independently at the fabled Advision Studios in Fitzgrovia in central London. The core of the album, produced by Lynott and Kit Woolven, another long-time Thin Lizzy wingman, was recorded in multiple locations in London, Nassau and Dublin and it certainly feels like a record searching for consistency ;- often it just meanders. Indeed Fiachra Trench told Alan Byrne during the research phase for his excellent 2012 book, ‘Philip Lynott :- Renegade of Thin Lizzy’, that the main man may not even have attended some of the heavy-duty sessions where the string were laid down.

 

 

It was Lynott himself who suggested an ‘Anything Goes’ video for ‘Old Town’, making a personal phone call into the production office with word of a new, fresh song about which he was feeling very confident. He’d enjoyed a good working relationship with David Heffernan and had made several previous live appearances on the show, culminating in a 1982 RTÉ documentary, ‘Renegade :- The Philip Lynott Story’, filmed and transmitted at a period when the band was reversing awkwardly into a critical siding. The album of the same name had stiffed badly and the tour that accompanied it was a largely chaotic one, even by Thin Lizzy’s standards. But if the ‘Renegade’ project had one positive aspect, it was that RTÉ had finally gotten in under Lynott’s bonnet ;- the documentary features, among terrific live concert footage and a couple of moderately revealing interviews with the singer, a series of curious contributions from Brush Shiels and an insight into the extent of Lynott’s status and fame.

 

 

Opening with shots of him leaving his mother’s corporation house in Crumlin, the film ends with him far removed from Dublin 12, emotionally and in every other respect, as he shows Heffernan around his home studio in Kew, outside of London and reveals, among other things, that he was already a share-holder in his favourite football club, Manchester United. But ‘Renegade’ is also important in that it was made, unlike much of the  underwhelming material on him over the last thirty years, while Lynott was still alive, and with his participation and full involvement.

Record company marketing support for Lynott’s second solo album was always likely to be a problem ;- by broadening the scope of his ambition, he’d started to slowly pull away from aspects of his long-standing fan-base. And while Lynott’s writing had never been more adventurous and his many collaborations never more critically fruitful, there was a real sense afoot that, commercially, he was treading water and that his audiences, in the worst traditions, had started to become more selective. And of course the real backdrop was the uncertainty around the future of Thin Lizzy ;- the more that Lynott mixed in other circles and with other influences, the greater that uncertainty became.

Which is how and why the ‘Old Town’ clip happened, more or less. Given that Lynott’s record company had no plans to issue the song as a single and that the album wasn’t a marketing priority for them, RTÉ stepped in – or was willingly stepped in – as a surrogate promotional arm. And so within weeks of an advance copy of the song landing into the ‘Anything Goes’ office on cassette during the late summer of 1982, researcher Frank Murphy, working with David Heffernan and director Gerry Gregg, set up a two-day  shooting schedule at interior and exterior locations around Dublin city centre. And the game was on.

Gregg was a young history graduate who’d been recruited into RTÉ as part of a fresh band of new television producers during the late 1970s and, born and raised in Ringsend, immediately saw an opportunity to capture Lynott distinctively on film, at play in and around some of the old town’s landmarks. The shoot was afforded a two-day production ‘recce’, where the core crew, also featuring art director Brigid Timmons, scouted locations all over the middle of Dublin in advance of production. The material was captured on 16mm film by an RTÉ staff cameraman, Ken Murphy and a three-and-a-half minute clip was later edited over a two week period by J. Patrick Duffner in a small studio off of Baggot Street ;- the completed cut was first shown on ‘Anything Goes’ on Saturday, October 30th, 1982.

Frank Murphy felt that the proposed shooting script required a second central character and it was his idea to cast Fiona McKenna, then a young actress at The Abbey Theatre, as Lynott’s female foil. A daughter of Tomás MacAnna, a former Artistic Director at Ireland’s National Theatre, her brother, Ferdia MacAnna, had previously fronted his own energetic young band, Rocky de Valera And The Gravediggers. Both Murphy and Gregg were agreed that the shoot required an actress when it may well have been easier and quicker to cast a model [‘she broke his heart and that is rough’] and McKenna appears throughout in colourful contemporary garb, opening the video by breaking away from Lynott’s grasp on The Halfpenny Bridge, the fabled footbridge that spans The River Liffey from Aston Quay to Bachelor’s Walk.

In strong pastels, big hair and high-waisted pantaloons, she is styled in the likeness of Krystle Carrington, then one of the female leads in the popular American television drama series, ‘Dynasty’. In one scene, she swivels towards camera to pick up a ringing telephone call [‘she plays it hard, she plays it tough’] in an office at the top of Liberty Hall, looking back down the River Liffey. And Duffner and Gregg also include another short but gorgeous shot of her corpsing directly to camera during that office scene where the actress perhaps senses, within touching distance of The Abbey Theatre, just how frankly bizarre her day’s work had just become.

 

 

Lynott, meanwhile, is in regulation, skin-tight black jeans, Chelsea boots, crisp white shirt and skinny-tie throughout, his preferred look during this part of his career. And although staying back home with his wife and daughters in Howth during the filming, he wasn’t in the best of form during the two days and yet looks as fetching and stunning as he peacocks through Grafton Street as he did at any point in his career.

This scene, featuring many unsuspecting young men and women out and about on one of Dublin’s main shopping streets, captures Lynott back home among his own ;- barely one minute into the film and he’s already taking the adulation and the odd askew glance from his public. Tellingly, every single face featured during this sequence is a white one, bar Lynott’s. In his tailored black jacket and jeans, he is caught on film yet again as both a definitive and yet very distinctive Dubliner.

‘Much of the credit for ‘Old Town’ – and for the music on ‘Anything Goes’ generally, should go to Bob Collins’, Gerry Gregg now recalls, ‘because he gave the team the licence and the freedom to be as cinematic as they wanted to be’. But this was often easier said than done ;- from the off Lynott was late onto set and was only delivered to the various locations because of the intercessions of his long-time side-kick and driver, Gus Curtis. And while it was originally hoped, in the years long before drone technology, to use aerial photography to capture the breadth of Lynott’s Bloom-style gallivants through Dublin city, the budget just wouldn’t allow it. Instead the video closes with Lynott wandering out alone along The Bull Wall in Ringsend, ‘wondering where exactly he’s off to and where he’ll end up’, according to Gerry Gregg.

Ken Murphy wouldn’t have been known for his interest in or knowledge of contemporary music. Tee-total, he was an old school film cameraman who took a studied cinematic approach to everything he ever shot and had just finished a long stint as director of photography on the respected RTÉ drama series, ‘Strumpet City’. And that kind of sensibility is obvious throughout the ‘Old Town’ clip ;- every single shot is composed with a cinematographer’s keen eye, beautifully framed, lit and perfectly exposed. Away from RTÉ, Ken Murphy collected model trains and raced toy aeroplanes and he fetched up for the ‘Old Town’ shoot with scant knowledge of, and little interest in, Lynott or his background. David Heffernan suggests, half-jokingly, that Lynott’s presence on set ‘may just have devalued what Ken saw as just a lovely short drama’.

 

 

All of ‘Old Town’’s scenes are located in the middle of Dublin, opening on The Halfpenny Bridge and venturing out as far as the bandstand in Herbert Park in Ballsbridge, down into the docks and onto Ringsend Pier where, at one point, Lynott symbolically crosses the city back onto the Northside by boat. One of the most memorable scenes finds him alone, propping up the beautiful Victorian bar in The Long Hall on George’s Street where, shot from behind the taps and with a double brandy at his elbow, Lynott confesses wistfully how he’s been ‘spending my money in the old town’. The Long Hall is a listed bar whose history is bound up in the long traditions of whiskey distillation in Dublin city and, latterly, it’s become a preferred stop-off for Bruce Springsteen during his increasingly more frequent visits to Dublin. And yet, maybe surprisingly and also maybe to its credit, there’s still no overt recognition inside The Long Hall that Philip Lynott ever set foot there.

Gerry Gregg directed two different hand-held sequences in Herbert Park and acknowledges that, in 1982, these sort of long passages shot off of the tripod using such heavy equipment would have taken a toll on any camera operator. But Ken Murphy carried them off with his usual élan.And Gregg credits Patrick Duffner with the idea to intercut the two takes – where Lynott mimes the trumpet part – even if, as Fiachra Trench again pointed out to Alan Byrne, he uses a flugelhorn trumpet in the video and not a piccolo trumpet on which John Wilbraham originally committed the solo to tape.

Duffner went on to enjoy a long and bountiful career as a film editor and is a much decorated and highly-respected character within the Irish and international industries. He subsequently cut several major Irish feature films, ‘The Field’, ‘My Left Foot’ and ‘Michael Collins’ among them. His partner in the cutting room on the ‘Old Town’ job, Gerry Gregg, also went on to enjoy many high-profile accolades at home and abroad and remains one of the best known and consistently thought-provoking independent producers in the country. He left RTÉ in 1989 and, from within and outside of the national broadcaster, has a string of formidable credits to his name. In 1998, he won an Emmy for his investigative documentary, ‘Witness To Murder’, produced as part of the Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ series in which reporter John Sweeney revealed the appalling story of the massacre of 112 Kosovar Albanian men and boys by Serb forces during the Kosovo war.

I’ve worked closely with Gerry over the last number of years and, in 2015, he completed the multi-award winning documentary ‘Close To Evil’ for my commissioning slate in RTÉ, a film in which Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental makes an unsuccessful attempt to meet with a Nazi jailor who had worked at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp during his imprisonment there as a young boy. Gerry and Tomi have recently completed a feature documentary sequel to ‘Close To Evil’ and this will have a formal cinematic release later this year.

David Heffernan is still involved in the television and radio industry and works mostly these days as a freelance producer. With his twin brother, Gerald, he devised and produced the finest live music television series ever seen in this country, ‘The Session’ which, first shot and recorded in RTÉ in 1987, set a new bar for the form. And with his company, ‘Frontier Films’, he also produced and directed several episodes in the MTV ‘Classic Albums’ series, notably documentaries on the making of ‘Rumours’ by Fleetwood Mac and ‘Songs In The Key of Life’ by Stevie Wonder.

Ken Murphy retired from RTÉ ten years ago after a long career during which he served time in every division in Montrose, from Young People’s to Drama, Sport to Current Affairs. During his many years in Montrose, he would have worked closely with Bob Collins, the producer and director who died in Dublin in 2000 after a year-long illness, at the age of 54. Collins left RTÉ in the mid 1980s and went on work extensively in Britain, directing ‘Top Of The Pops’ for the BBC and ‘Network 7’, the ground-breaking youth series for Channel 4. Among his many music-based productions are RTÉ documentaries on The Boomtown Rats in America and the last ever Thin Lizzy live show in Dublin ;- he was also involved with Frontier Films and was a central player in the production of ‘The Session’.

John Wilbraham died in April, 1996 at the age of 53. He was one of the most acclaimed classical musicians of his generation and played on a host of recordings over the course of his career. In this respect, he shares space on one fondly-remembered free-lance job with Darren Wharton, who was still in his teens and playing in a covers band when Lynott first recruited him into the ranks of Thin Lizzy. He was barely 21 years old when he contributed the enduring piano solo to ‘Old Town’ and collaborated regularly with Lynott during the later stages of his career. And he’s still at it, performing and writing with his own band, Dare.

 

 

Aspects of Philip Lynott’s complicated story have been well worn and ‘Old Town’ is but a footnote in what was ultimately a scarcely believable and far-ranging life, albeit one that was far too short. He died at the age of 36 in January, 1986. By the time that ‘Old Town’ and ‘The Philip Lynott Album’ formally saw the light of day, he was already exploring several other avenues and styles and it came as no surprise when, in 1983, he consigned Thin Lizzy to the freezer. Over the final furlongs of his life he fronted another hard-edged rock outfit called Grand Slam while also writing with the London-born R and B artist, Junior Giscombe and making cameos with Irish bands as diverse as the flaky electro-pop duo, Auto Da Fe and the Howth-based traditional-folk outfit, Clann Éadair, with whom he sang and produced their magical 1984 single, ‘A Tribute To Sandy Denny’.

 

 

Lynott’s associations with David Heffernan and Bob Collins particularly, and with RTÉ more broadly, means that his career and his music have been well documented by the national broadcaster, on television for the most part. And the archives are generously stocked in this regard, even if much of the content, the music apart, is mixed at best. A definitive career retrospective and sturdy appraisal of Phil Lynott – as with Rory Gallagher – has yet, to my mind, to be made.

In the meantime, that void has been filled by two fine but very different books issued over the last five years, Alan Byrne’s ‘Philip Lynott : The Renegade of Thin Lizzy’ [2012] and last year’s ‘Cowboy Song :- The Authorised Biography of Phil Lynott’ by Graeme Thomson. Byrne’s book is an unashamedly partisan but excellently compiled fan’s-eye view of Lynott’s work outside of Thin Lizzy while Thomson’s is as exhaustive a biography as it is an uncomfortable read and which cuts past much of the soft-focus schmaltz and the crudely-formed stereotyping long associated with its central character. As with Thomson’s 2004 book, ‘Complicated Shadows :- The Life And Music of Elvis Costello’, ‘Cowboy Song’ presents – in no little detail – a fascinating but deeply flawed subject who, often from paragraph to paragraph, swings from genius to objectionable.

And which sets it apart, like much of Philip Lynott’s recorded work, as fiercely compelling.

 

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