How Thin Lizzy Blew Their Chance to Break America
Thin Lizzy failed to break America because of a series of incidents that caused their backers to lose confidence in the band, former drummer Brian Downey said.
In a Guardian interview marking the release of new box set Rock Legends, Downey, longtime guitarist Scott Gorham and ex-guitarist Brian Robertson discussed the setbacks that meant leader Phil Lynott’s big ambition remained unfulfilled.
Their big moment came when “The Boys are Back in Town” spent 17 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976, climbing to the No.12 position. But their U.S. tour was cut short when Lynott contracted hepatitis, and a return visit was canceled after Robertson broke his hand in a bar brawl. In 1978, the band switched guitarists from Gary Moore to Midge Ure while in the States.
“All these incidents did not impress our American record company, and our promoters,” Downey said. “They backed off big time. Our career was cut short in a couple of weeks. Gary leaving the band halfway through a tour was the death knell for Thin Lizzy in America, it really was. We were still hugely popular in the U.K. and Europe, but the last semblance of trying to make it in America was blown out of the window.”
Robertson asserted that Gorham had only been hired because of Lynott’s American dream. “Scott – we didn’t really want him in the band,” he said. “But there were reasons for having him. He was American and he had long hair. It was nothing to do with the guitar playing. But Phil was thinking about world domination, about getting to America.”
Gorham himself said Thin Lizzy began to disintegrate when heroin entered the story. “I had dabbled with heroin in California before I came, so England was saving me,” he recalled. “I didn’t know anyone who had it or was doing it, and I was really clean and felt great about life.” That changed when he was in Lynott’s hotel room one day. “[H]e pulls out this package … I see the brown powder, and he says: ‘You know what this is?’ And I went: ‘Yeah.’ ‘Have you ever done it before?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You want to do some now?’ ‘Yeah.’ And that was the start of the whole thing. That was the worst mistake that band ever made.”
But Robertson claimed that heroin had been causing problems a far back as the cut-short U.S. tour of 1976: ‘[T]hey were keeping it low key, but the management knew,” he said, noting that Lynott had caught hepatitis from a dirty needle.
Gorham recalled the sadness surrounding Lizzy’s last show with Lynott in 1983, less than three years before the frontman’s death. “Both Phil and I were hurting from the addiction, and I just wanted to get off the stage,” he said. “I didn’t feel well, I didn’t look good, nothing was right. Everyone that was playing that show was on the side of our stage. There were people crying and applauding and crying again. All I could think was: ‘I’ve got to get off this stage.’ How terrible is that? It was a real shit way to end the whole thing.”