Saturday, 13 June 2015

Phil Lynott's 'Old Town'

Among countless tunes about Dublin*, it's hard to beat Phil Lynott's "Old Town". The song has become inseparable from its video, which captures a certain time and place and person.

It's 1982. What will soon become known as the "pop video" is hardly a decade old. It'll be another half a decade before MTV Europe is launched. Even that hybrid thing on RTÉ television, "Fab Vinnie" Hanley's MT-USA show, won't start for another two years.

So Phil Lynott has a new track for his second solo album, and pop videos aren't de rigueur just yet. It's only 1982 FFS, rock 'n' roll has not yet become an inescapable muzak in shops and hospitals and on TV commercials for bloody bank accounts. Rock hasn't quite been sanitised and co-opted, hasn't become an all-pervasive soundtrack to capitalism.

So. No video. Lynott's record company refuses to fund an official promo, the miserable gits. Instead, Phil does something unofficial, something a bit unusual, a bit left-field as the Yanks might say. He agrees to let RTÉ's Gerry Gregg, Dave Heffernan and Ken Murphy shoot him over two days in Dublin, to cobble together something for a very popular kids' show called Anything Goes. (That's where rock 'n' roll had to hang out in these islands in those days - on kids' Saturday morning TV.)

The budget isn't huge, so they all brainstorm for bright ideas that won't cost much. They decide to shoot in the following places (which will appear in this order in the finished film):
  • The Ha’penny Bridge
  • An office near the top of Liberty Hall
  • Ringsend (with Liberty Hall in the background)
  • Grafton Street (it's not pedestrianised yet)
  • The Long Hall pub in South Great George's Street
  • Herbert Park in Ballsbridge
  • Ringsend Pier and Poolbeg Lighthouse on the South Wall
Lynott has co-written the song with Scottish bassist Jimmy Bain. The lyrics aren't outstanding (apart perhaps from the almost biographical "this boy is cracking up" references). It's all fairly routine boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl stuff.

Phillo himself will play the "boy", Fiona McAnna will be the "girl". Her father Tomás McAnna is a famous theatre director and playwright; her brother Ferdia is lead singer in Rocky De Valera and the Gravediggers. After her acting career Fiona will become a psychotherapist and counsellor, specialising in addiction studies. She will marry James Hickey, a leading media and entertainment lawyer who goes on to become the Irish Film Board's chief executive. And all this is yet to come of course.

Back to the lyrics and 1982: Lynott begins to deliver the simple staccato lines and rhymes. His nose sounds blocked up.

She plays it hard
She plays it tough
But that's enough
The love is over

But if the words are minimal, almost mundane, the music is far from it, with a sublime arrangement by Fiachra Trench. It's a clever choice, because Trench is a dab hand at soundtracks and orchestral arrangements. He arranged the strings for the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays", and will go on to do The Pogues’ "Fairytale of New York" and Declan O’Rourke’s "Galileo" and suchlike.

While the vocals gallop along at the start of "Old Town", things slow down at the end of the "cracking up" refrain. The song is in a minor key now, interweaving the vocal's short lines with a descending accompaniment that's reminiscent - to me anyway - of something vaguely classical.

Down Grafton Street

We're about 70 seconds in. The tune switches back to major again as Lynott strolls down Grafton Street in the video. He may be a megastar doing huge tours of massive stadiums, but he's back in his hometown now, he raises a few winks and smiles but he's not mobbed. That's just Phillo there, just Phillo strolling about - see me walking around, the boy about town that you've heard of.

In a few short frames he manages to be both cheeky and shy, sexy and dangerous, a scamp who can turn heads and catch the eye of various young women. As he saunters along he becomes entwined with a shop worker - she has a maroon apron, maybe she works in Bewleys cafe -  and they do an impromptu waltz, all to the accompaniment of a fugue of rippling, cascading piano lines.

Next up he's alone. He's holding up the bar in the Long Hall. The music has slowed down and returned to a minor key; there's a hint of a traditional brass band about it. They have to film the smoky scene on the second day of the shoot, first thing in the morning before the pub opens for the regular punters (in real life Lynott has been out all night, in pubs and clubs and the Pink Elephant, and he has a right hangover that morning of the shoot).

Then another sudden switch, both musically and visually, and he's all mimes and smiles as a trumpet does a solo on the soundtrack, "Penny Lane" style, mock Baroque, like something out of Bach's Brandenburg. And there's Phil himself, blowing an actual trumpet in Herbert Park (no, it's not Stephen's Green), on the bandstand, and in the closing shot he's walking alone towards the Poolbeg Lighthouse as the camera retreats in the opposite direction.

And that's it. The combined effect of music and visuals is both sad and uplifting, simple, unpretentious, alluring, charming. It's pure Phillo. Or as Lynott's former press officer Charlie Morgan once put it:
"He had this amazing aura, like a modern-day pirate, a lovable swashbuckling character. He lived the rock'n'roll dream, had a much gentler side and wrote great lyrics."
Compare that video with other pop promos shot in Dublin up to then, of which there weren't that many.

The classic example is the Top of the Pops video for Rod Stewart's "Sailing" in 1975. Unlike Lynott's video there's no miming here: it's a quasi-documentary, using footage shot by the BBC's "Nationwide" show around Dublin's docklands and northside city centre.

The "Sailing" video also manages to capture a slice of local history, but Rod still looks like the well groomed star who has just jetted into town to pose, preen and prat about with his then girlfriend Britt Ekland. Rock royalty doing a walkabout among the plebs, and mobbed in Moore Street by the autograph hunters and paparazzi.

Oh. The paps. Did I forget to mention? The British media had been specially flown in to Dublin because Stewart had just become a tax exile that April. (Nowadays filthy rich rock stars don't have to become exiles - they simply hire financial advisers to set up their bands as corporations in tax havens such as the Netherlands and the British Virgin Islands. It's called finding loopholes, or "doing a U2", or in Rod's case an "Atlantic Crossing".)

It's all worlds away from the Phil Lynott video, though at least Rod's Dublin film also has a few real people in it. (Unlike this Top of the Pops version, Rod's boring official video for the single is just him in a white sailor's uniform on a yacht in New York harbour, with the video processed into a palette that is more bleached out than his hair.)

Quite simply, nothing from around that time comes anywhere near Lynott's "Old Town" video in capturing the combination of time and place and person.

Or take a few more local productions such as  U2's "Gloria" (1981), shot on a barge in the Grand Canal Basin near Windmill Lane. What can you say?

Ponderous. Posy. Has a much larger budget. Has underwater shots, helicopter shots and crane shots. And crowds of extras. And the embarassing "drama" bit during the guitar solo, as Bono gets down with The Kids and leads them through an obligatory Teenage Wasteland and he wrenches off a sheet of corrugated fencing from, er, a derelict site that's probably now an office block of an international bank. It's not exactly Brecht.

Or The Blades' "The Bride Wore White" (1982). Shot around the same time as Lynott's video - again for the Anything Goes show but this time with Bob Collins as director - it goes for a more bleak, black-and-white, social realism look, mixing crane shots of the band on a balcony with documentary-style street-level scenes. The video has its moments - any wrenching of fencing looks like the real thing, with real kids and real slums - yet it gives little away about the four lads behind the song compared with the "Old Town" video.

So that's Phil Lynott back in his old town back in 1982. Less than four years later he will die in intensive care, just 36 years of age.

Although "Old Town" has been covered many times since, by everyone from the Corrs to the Walls and (most recently) Mongoose, nothing can quite match the effortless feel that Lynott gives to the song and to that unforgettable little video.

(* Examples range from Pete St John's slightly maudlin "(Dublin in) the Rare Ould Times" to the Dubliners' and Pogues' versions of "Dirty Old Town". Ewan McColl's ballad was actually written about Salford in Lancashire).