BRIAN DOWNEY (THIN LIZZY) Talks About New Band And Playing Again In THIN LIZZY

Brian Downey's Alive and Dangerous
Photo: Larry Canavan

As a founding member of Thin Lizzy, drummer Brian Downey played on all their albums from 1971’s debut album to Thunder and Lightning in 1983 and has seen guitarists come and go over the years. He’s back with a new band, Alive and Dangerous and is touring to celebrate the music of Thin Lizzy. Mick Burgess caught up with him ahead of his shows in London later this week to talk about his new band, how they formed as well as a whistle-stop run through the history of Thin Lizzy.

You’ll be playing 2 shows in London later this week. Are you looking forward to coming over here to play again?

I’m really looking forward to coming over to the UK again to play. The UK is the spiritual heart of Thin Lizzy as we lived there for 14 years in 1971 and it’s like coming home again.

It started as a one-off show but demand for tickets was so high that you have added an extra date. It’s always nice to hear someone say “sold out show” but has the reaction taken you by surprise?

It really has. Initially we were only going to do the one date and the reaction was so fantastic that we put an extra date and the tickets are selling really fast for that one too. It’s been really great.

As far as the show goes is this going to be a pure celebration of the music of Thin Lizzy?

This will be a celebration of Thin Lizzy with a Live and Dangerous set as it’s the 40th Anniversary coming up shortly so it’s going to be just Thin Lizzy although we do have new songs in the pipeline. We’ll be playing the album in its entirety plus another couple of numbers as well from different albums.

It’s usually this time when I speak to Scott where I make a pitch for Renegade. Is that one you’ve been rehearsing?

I do like that song. Renegade is certainly one of those songs that we could play in the set. We can play most of the Lizzy songs from the very early days to the last album with John Sykes. Renegade was one of those albums that wasn’t accepted as such when it came out back in the day. I thought it was a good album and over the years it’s taken on a life of its own. It did get slagged in the press at the time but over the years it’s proved its worth. There’s no reason why next year we can’t put Hollywood, Angel of Death and Renegade into the set.

Finding the musician to fill the huge shoes of Phil Lynott must have been quite a challenge. How did you manage that?

That actually came about in 2016 when I was invited to the Vibe For Philo annual celebration of Phil’s music in Dublin. I was invited down by Brian Grace who was playing guitar in a band called The Low Riders who were playing on the night. I was then invited up onstage to play with them. I played four numbers with them and was really impressed with their musicianship. That was the first time I’d heard any band play Lizzy songs the way that they should be played. We had a chat after The Vibe and they agreed to come down to Dublin from Belfast and we had a couple of rehearsals and I realised that these were the guys I wanted to work with. I was trying for a couple of years to find guys to play the Lizzy thing but when I found them I think I was quite lucky. I had no crazy expectations but when I started playing with them for those first four numbers that I realised how tight the band was. It’s great when you have that kind of affinity with the rest of the guys straight away. The rehearsals went so well after that we decided to keep it going and form a band called Alive and Dangerous.

Was it a deliberate step to bring in hungry, previously unknown musicians rather than raiding your phone book for some big-name friends?

The guys are young, Matt is 25, Phil is 26 and Brian is in his 40s so I’m definitely the oldest. They are so up for it and can play the tunes in the right vibe. I’m really impressed with the quality of their musicianship. Matt’s singing is just incredible and very close to Phil’s and he has the attitude as well. Phil, the second guitar player is incredible and has clearly been listening to Scott over the years. He has it down to a T.

When you first got together in the rehearsal room to play. How did it feel when you started to recreate that music that you’ve been such an integral part of since forming the band with Phil in the late ’60s?

It came together very quickly and I had no problems with their playing. Sometimes in a situation like that you have to stop every so often and point out things that maybe they hadn’t heard on the album but that didn’t happen. Everybody seems to have good ears and know the songs back to front. That made it so easy to play with them.

What was the first song that you did together?

I think we just went for something easy to play at first like Whiskey In The Jar. It was a good icebreaker. We just jammed on that and a few others as well.

How many live shows have you done so far?

We did a 12 date Irish tour a couple of months ago and 14 shows or so in Germany and a couple of shows in France and Holland as well so it’s right at the start of the band’s existence.

Do you hope Scott may pop down and come to see you while you’re in London?

I hope so as it’d be great to see him again but I don’t think he’s in the country. If Scott or Brian Robertson turned up that’d be great. I’m really looking forward to seeing everybody. You never know, we might have a jam together if they came down. That’d be fun.

What is the long-term plan for Alive and Dangerous. Is it something you’d like to grow or is more of a casual thing for you to do as and when you feel like it?

It’s not going to be a casual thing, it’s definitely a long-term project. We have some dates coming up in 2018 and a UK tour in the pipeline and some more European dates. You never know, we might even get over to the Far East. We’re also playing a cruise next April so we have plenty lined up already for next year.

Going right back to the band that you started. How did you and Phil first meet?

Thin Lizzy started back in 1971 and before that I was in a band with Phil called The Black Eagles from 1965-67. We parted company for a while and Phil went to the original Skid Row with Gary Moore and I went into a band called Sugar Shack and we had a bit of success here in Ireland with a song called Morning Dew that got into the charts. We did part company for a couple of years but Phil left Skid Row in 1968 or ’69 and he contacted me and I met him in a pub in the centre of Dublin and he was telling me he wanted to start a new band with me and a guy called Eric Bell who he’d seen once or twice. Eric had seen me and Phil play in a band called Orphanage and he was impressed and he accepted Phil’s offer to join the band that became Thin Lizzy.

Did the success of Whiskey In The Jar take you by surprise?

Yes, it did because initially it was going to be the B-side of a song Phil had written called Black Boys In The Corner. When Dick Rowe of Decca Records heard it, he was the guy that passed on The Beatles by the way; he decided that it wasn’t commercial enough and he suggested to our management that we make Whiskey In The Jar the A-side, although we had no option as he wouldn’t release it otherwise. Luckily, we did as I don’t think Black Boys would have been a hit for us. He may have turned down The Beatles but he didn’t turn down us which was good for us and because of him we had a big hit on our hands. Whiskey In The Jar was just something we used to play at soundcheck to mess around with to get the sound right. It was nothing really serious. Phil and Eric used to go out as a Folk duo and play it together before we became popular to make some money.

Why did Eric decide to leave after Vagabonds of the Western World?

Eric didn’t really want to play with the band anymore after walking off stage in Belfast. He was sick of the whole thing and wanted to leave. I heard him say that he wasn’t happy about going onto TV and miming to Whiskey In The Jar. He just didn’t fancy that so that was one of the reasons.

Just before Eric left though you, Eric and Phil along recorded the Funky Junction album of Deep Purple covers. Why did you decide to do that?

That was only done to get the band by in London. We were seriously starving at that stage. We were big Deep Purple fans and In Rock was always on the turntable. We needed some money and a friend of Phil’s, a studio engineer, suggested to Phil to do a Deep Purple tribute album and we could call ourselves anything we wanted. There was a Funky Junction photograph of the band knocking around and we thought that was the perfect name.

Did it feel natural for you to play Ian Paice’s parts?

It was fairly easy to play Ian’s parts as I knew the songs so well. There was no problem playing the tunes but it was harder getting the right feel. It was a great experience to get in and play those songs with different musicians including Benny White on vocals, Dave Lennox on keyboards and Phil, Eric and myself so it was a nice experience to go into the studio and record these songs. We didn’t think it was going to be a popular album and it actually became quite a popular album over the years. People didn’t realise at first it was Thin Lizzy then when someone mentioned it, it became seriously popular amongst the Thin Lizzy fans ranks.

Didn’t you and Phil almost form a band with Blackmore at one point?

It was actually Phil, Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Paice. It was going to be called Babyface and they had a couple of rehearsals, but nothing really came of it. It just never materialised into anything.

After Eric left you decided to carry on. Who’s idea was it to revamp the sound with two guitarists?

That’s a good question. I remember having a conversation with Phil and he was saying we should get two guitarists. I think the experience of Eric Bell walking off the stage in Belfast hadn’t impressed Phil. He was apprehensive of taking on one guitarist and thought if we had two then if one left it wouldn’t be such a problem. That was one excuse that he gave me. We were also listening to a lot of Allman Brothers Band and Wishbone Ash around that time and they all had dual guitar players and I think that was in the backs of our minds too, to get someone in so we could do guitar harmonies and broaden our sound.

Did that happen by accident or did you want a band utilising close guitar harmonies?

It was something that we’d stumbled across in the studio. We were trying to find our feet with new members in the band so they were up against it. When they were in the studio they had to find some kind of formula to make the whole thing work. When it happened in the studio it was obvious to me that it was a new sound. We had a certain sound with Eric Bell and Gary Moore but Scott and Brian Robertson certainly came up with their own sound. It just developed from there and it became really popular for us.

Those 5 albums from Nightlife to Bad Reputation really defined you as a band and are still revered today. Did you feel when you were creating that music that it was something so unique that would stand the test of time?

They were great albums and each album was a progression from the previous ones as we got more experience in the studio. There was a big progression from those early Decca records to those we did with Scott and Brian. You could hear the progression clearly there. By the time we recorded Jailbreak, we were firing on all cylinders. That became a massive hit for us and put us on the map.

You made it in the UK and Europe but America was always something that eluded you. Fate played its part with Phil’s illness prior to a Queen tour and again before you toured with Rainbow. Do you ever wonder what might have been if you’d had that stroke of luck with America?

We had a lot of bad luck with Phil’s illness and Brian slashed his hand so we didn’t get that break in America that I think we should have had. America now are more familiar with Thin Lizzy than back in the day. We did have some bad luck. Gary Moore left half way through an American tour and Midge Ure had to come in and finish the tour off. He was actually listening to the set on Concord while flying over to join us. He had an old cassette recorder listening to the songs while playing his guitar. When he got there people realised Midge wasn’t Gary Moore and it was a bit of a shock to the promoters to say the least and that really did have an impact on the band for future tours and there was a reluctance to book the band by promoters. Midge has said that we should have put him on a 747 instead of Concord as he’d have had more time to rehearse. He did brilliantly on that tour and I can’t fault him at all.

Live and Dangerous is considered as one of the all time great live albums. Do you feel that the live recording caught the essence of Lizzy in a way that couldn’t be harnessed in the studio?

I absolutely do feel that. The reviews we were getting at the time were saying that Thin Lizzy sounds better on stage than on record. The band was on the crest of a wave around that period. We were considered one of the best live bands in the UK at that time. There were very few very few bands that could match us on stage. Recording a live album was such a natural thing for us to do and people have compared it to The Who Live At Leeds and Peter Frampton’s live album. The band was seriously on a roll back then so I’m pleased we captured that time on Live and Dangerous.

Obviously with Live albums you need to capture the spirit of the show but also ensure the sound quality is good enough to release. Tony Visconti, the producer, said that the only totally live parts were your drums and the rest was added in the studio. How would you counter that?

My drums parts were entirely live. Tony was a bit off the mark when he said that 70% was overdubbed, that’s completely untrue. It was more like 20% were overdubs and the rest was totally live. There are no overdubs whatsoever on the drums. He did ask me and I said that I was happy with the drum sound and my performance. He asked Brian Robertson about his parts and he said there were one or two parts that could be cleaned up which he did. Scott and Phil were the same. Phil overdubbed one or two vocal parts and some bass but it wasn’t much. The only overdubs done were just to tidy things up but nothing major so I’ve no idea why Tony said that. Most bands did the same just to make the album presentable to the public by getting rid of all of the glitches. I think the proof of the pudding is an album called Still Dangerous that is a live album that came out a while ago and that was a continuation of Live and Dangerous and there’s absolutely no overdubs on that one and if you compare both of them they are very, very similar. That’s a really good live album too.

The follow up studio album Bad Reputation was fraught with problems and you ended up making it mostly as a three piece. It still turned out pretty well. Did that adversity make you Scott and Phil pull closer together?

It did, because we had to pull closer together to get the album written and recorded to continue as a band. We realised that Brian was gone. He agreed to come and play some solos on the album and I thought when he came over there’d be a change of heart but there wasn’t the case, especially from Phil. He stuck to his guns and said that they weren’t getting on and there was no reconciliation. It was a swan song for Brian and he wasn’t asked back.

Gary Moore was a bit part but very important part of Thin Lizzy over the years being around at the very start and stepping in a couple of times over the years and recording Black Rose. Do you ever wonder how things might have worked out for him if he’d had a decent run in the band?

I do think that if Gary had stayed in the band we’d have been more popular particularly in America. He had given the impression that he was happy with the band and happy with the music. He was having difficulties with Phil. There were tensions there but they were old friends from back in the Skid Row days. I think Gary was one of those guys that didn’t accept Phil as the leader of the band and they clashed over that and I think that’s why Gary walked during the American tour.

Why did you go for Midge Ure to fill for the tour. You must have had a queue of guitarists you could have called on?

We didn’t have a selection of guitars players to choose from. We needed someone in within a couple of days. We had to cancel four or five shows to accommodate the fact that Gary had walked so we had to get someone in quickly. Midge was a friend of ours who knew the songs, so it was easier for us to bring him in. That’s why we called Midge and no one else. He did a great job for us but he ended up going back to Utravox. I actually don’t know if he was asked to stay on but he was great when he was with us.

Snowy White came in for Chinatown and Renegade. He was more of a Bluesy, laid back player. Do you think in hindsight that Snowy was the wrong choice?

No, I think Snowy as a musician was the right choice for the band. He was a really good guitar player and still is. When I first heard Snowy I was convinced that he was the right man for the band. Some fans thought that Snowy just didn’t have the image for the band which is a completely different matter to playing music. It was just one of those things where he didn’t seem to fit the bands image. His musicianship was second to none.

Why didn’t Dave Flett, who’d filled in on a few shows, get the job?

That’s another situation where I couldn’t really put my finger on why he wasn’t asked to join the band permanently but he wasn’t. I think it was actually Dave who made the decision not to stay as he had something else on but I could be completely wrong here so I think he wasn’t asked because he’d just said he didn’t want full membership of the band.

By the final album John Sykes had replaced Snowy and brought a more contemporary Metal sound to the band. Was that a direction you felt was suited to Lizzy?

We wanted to bring Lizzy up to date and to compete with the NWOBHM that was popular around that time. Phil wanted to bring John Sykes in to take the band in a different direction. He was writing heavier tunes towards the end of the bands existence. Chris Tsangarides had suggested John who was playing in the Tygers of Pan Tang at that point. John was invited down to the studio and John and Phil got on quite well and they decided to have a jam. I came down the next day to jam with them and thought John was incredibly good.

Do you feel if you’d taken a year off instead of splitting in 1983 that you would have continued?

That’s exactly what I thought. The management said that we were going through a bit of a problem financially and that’s one of the reasons we had to break up. There was absolutely no question that we’d have got back together within a few years if Phil’s health hadn’t gone.

How do you feel when you see Scott playing with the Black Star Riders now?

I can see the spirit of Thin Lizzy’s music come through in theirs. I played in the Thin Lizzy reunion with Scott, Ricky Warwick, Damon Johnson, Marco Mendoza and Darren Wharton. That was a really pleasurable experience and we had some great tours and some great gigs. When it came to the crunch when we started to record some new material, Phil’s estate heard about it and they weren’t pleased and made it plain that they weren’t pleased so we decided not to record new material. Management suggested a name change from Thin Lizzy. I thought about it and thought it wasn’t really for me as it’d be a new band and all the touring that’d entail and I wasn’t prepared for it at that stage so I decided to opt out. I decided to stand aside and let a new drummer take over and that became Black Star Riders.

Would you be up for playing some one off shows together with Thin Lizzy again?

I’m sure there will be Thin Lizzy shows in the future, there’s no question about it. I’d love to do some shows with Thin Lizzy again at some point. At this stage I think Scott wants to concentrate on Black Star Riders and I’ve got Alive and Dangerous so we’re both in a good place at the moment but I’d certainly be more than happy to play with Thin Lizzy again for a few shows.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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