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29 Years Ago: Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott Dies

Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

Thin Lizzy‘s hard-living frontman and bassist Phil Lynott escaped the grips of crushing childhood poverty in Dublin, but ultimately couldn’t out run his own demons. He died at 36 from heart failure and pneumonia on Jan. 4, 1986, having been admitted to Salibury Hospital in Wiltshire, England on Christmas Day after “a drink and drug binge” at his home.

Thin Lizzy found initial fame in the U.K. with a raucous early-’70s version of the traditional Irish folk song ‘Whisky in the Jar.’ (Metallica subsequently did its own take, directly inspired by Thin Lizzy, as part of 1998’s ‘Garage Inc.’) A few years later, Lynott and Company broke in America with their romping No. 12 hit ‘The Boys Are Back in Town.’ Lizzy, however, would never chart any higher than No. 77 in the U.S. again (with 1976’s ‘Cowboy Song’), and Lynott increasingly turned to alcohol – or worse. “I suppose he thought drugs would help him out of the low spots,” Thin Lizzy’s Scott Gorham said at the time of Lynott’s death.

Prior to Lizzy, Lynott — who was born to a Brazilian father and an Irish mother in 1949 — had been in a series of regional bands including Skid Row and Orphanage. Lizzy began in 1970 with Eric Bell on guitar and Brian Downey on drums. Guitarists Brian Robertson and Gorham arrived a couple of years later, and the classic-era lineup produced ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ — which was said to have been a tribute to a loose-knit group of Manchester ne’er-do-wells called the Quality Street Gang, who frequented a bar run by Lynott’s mom. (He later spotlighted one of them in another Lizzy track, ‘Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed.’)

When Thin Lizzy split in 1984, Lynott had already released two light-selling solo efforts, 1980’s ‘Solo in Soho’ and 1982’s ‘The Philip Lynott Album.’ His solo composition ‘Yellow Pearl’ was used as the theme song for the weekly British television show ‘Top Of The Pops’ from 1981-86, and he also collaborated with Lizzy’s Gary Moore on 1979’s ‘Parisienne Walkways’ and 1985’s ‘Out In The Fields.’ But Lynott seemed to be slowly slipping into obscurity as that fateful Christmas Day approached in ’85.

Lynott’s two young daughters, Sara and Cathleen, were at his home when he collapsed. His estranged wife rushed over to help, and ultimately took Lynott to the hospital where he died. Some 300 mourners attended a memorial service held on Jan. 9, 1986. He was buried in Dublin, where he had been raised by his grandmother.

Thin Lizzy attempted to continue without Lynott, before ultimately retiring in 2012. Several members of the group, including Gorham, are carrying on as the Black Star Riders.

Meet the Members of Rock’s Tragic ’27 Club’

See the Yearbook Photos of Phil Lynott and Other Rock Stars

Next: Top 10 Thin Lizzy Songs

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