Review: Songs For While I’m Away – The Phil Lynott Documentary

It’s no secret. I love Thin Lizzy. Their music has made an impact on me from Phil Lynott’s poetic lyrics to the twin lead guitar attack. Jim Fitzpatrick’s album artwork is so gorgeous. The band may have been based in England, but Phil Lynott’s heart was always in Ireland and he was always unapologetically Irish. I think that’s why he’s Ireland’s most loved rock star. I love watching a good classic rock documentary and when I saw that there was a Thin Lizzy documentary coming out, I was excited! Now, I can watch it and share my opinions. As with my other recent reviews, I don’t want to just share my thoughts on it, I want to share with you some things I learnt about the band and the main takeaways. If that sounds like something fun… keep on reading! (Warning: spoilers, obviously)


The title of this documentary is named after the Thin Lizzy song “A Song For While I’m Away”, and the documentary shares a name with Phil Lynott’s only poetry book. Yes! Phil Lynott was a published poet! Ireland’s a country well known for literature with authors like James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Brendan Behan, and we can’t forget Ireland’s two rock and roll poets: Phil Lynott and Van Morrison. This being a Thin Lizzy documentary, it’ll open up with some familiar riffs that will make you point at the screen like Leo in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

This documentary isn’t a Behind The Music style one that talks about the rise and fall of a rock star, but rather one that celebrates the musician’s life. In this documentary, you’ll see lots of interviews with people in Phil’s life: bandmates, friends, and family as well as archive media of Phil Lynott and his mother, Philomena. Also, it’s a visually stunning documentary with lots of beautiful archive footage and pictures. Even me with my classic rock obsession, I saw some photos and videos there that I’d never seen before and I like to think I’ve seen everything related to my favourite rock bands.

In summary, it’s a beautifully put together celebration and tribute to Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy. Visually striking and you’ll be singing along too! It’s a must watch if you’re a Thin Lizzy fan. If I had to critique it, I wish that it talked about the Chinatown album and more about Black Rose, what an amazing album – the epic title track that incorporated some traditional Irish songs is my favourite Thin Lizzy song of all (and it’s hard to pick a favourite):

The wordplay in that song is incredible – Lynott at his best. This is why Phil Lynott’s considered a poet:

“My Roisin Dubh is my one and only true love
It was a joy that Joyce brought to me
While William Butler waits
And Oscar, he’s going Wilde

Ah sure, Brendan where have you Behan?
Looking for a girl with green eyes
My dark Rosaleen is my only colleen
That Georgie knows Best

But Van is the man
Starvation once again
Drinking whiskey in the jar-o
Synge’s Playboy of the Western World”

Make “Black Rose” the Irish national anthem!

Top 10 Takeaways:

1. Phil Lynott was one of a kind in many ways

Phil Lynott wasn’t meant to blend in. He was half Irish, half black and when he was a kid, Ireland was not a diverse place. He was the only black kid around. He stood out in every photograph. It never stopped him. He kept going. He used his uniqueness and differences to his advantage even though he faced a lot of bigotry and racist comments. First day of school he got into a fight, but he knew how to defend himself and no one at school messed with him again. Being a mixed race guy, he used other people’s prejudiced attitudes as motivation – be the best rock star out there and be unapologetically himself.

When he got to London he’d see signs that read “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”, he was both black and Irish, an interesting mix, but one that experienced a lot of hate in England, especially at the height of The Troubles. Phil Lynott was not just a tough guy, he was complex. He had a sensitive, kind, sweet side to him: a love of poetry, he was a mama’s boy and would write songs for his mum. He was ambitious, and he never gave up. Not only was his songwriting poetic, it was cinematic, painting pictures. What he had was a very special gift.

Phil Lynott was also a style icon: always well dressed. A former girlfriend, Gale Claydon, said he took a long time to figure out his outfits, had to be just right. The camera loved him. No matter what he wore, he looked fabulous. Whether it was hippie clothes and bell bottoms, a leather jacket, or a suit, he looked on point!

2. He started playing bass by accident

Originally, Phil Lynott was a singer with The Black Eagles and Skid Row (no, not the glam metal band), but he had to get his tonsils removed and with that kind of surgery, you’re not able to sing or even speak for a while so what can you do? That’s right, play an instrument. Brush Shiels showed Phil how to play bass and the rest was history. Bassists aren’t seen as the most glamorous part of the band, but what made Phil Lynott special is that he was a bassist and frontman, sure not the only one or the first to do it because we had Paul McCartney before him.

3. Ireland may not have been a land of opportunity, but there were some music scenes going on.

People don’t really think of Ireland as a very rock and roll or hip country, musically people associate it more with traditional and folk music, but in reality the youth liked to play in showbands and that’s where all the Irish classic rock stars started: Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Phil Lynott, Gary Moore. I often will say that Ireland is the Canada of the UK and people may get mad at me at first, but it makes sense. They speak the same language, Ireland is smaller and has a reputation for being friendlier and more nature-y, just like Canada. Similarly, any Canadians in showbiz knew that they weren’t going to get anywhere if they stayed in Canada. All the Irish musicians who got famous left. The studios are better in the UK, the record labels are all there, there’s more music press there, there’s more venues, more opportunities to network with international rock bands. That’s really the case in any career.

Even though Phil Lynott left Ireland in the early 70s, he never forgot where he came from and would always make it a point to tour his country. Irish people are very loyal to bands who come from their country and they will make it a point to see them when they tour, especially when musicians make it a point to come to their hometown. And Irish tours are not limited to Dublin and maybe Cork and that’s it, they’ll even play in the smaller provincial towns too.

4. He found inspiration everywhere

His lyrical inspirations came from everywhere: Mythology, comic books, literature, life, the people around him, his surroundings. He was proud of where he came from and he wanted to share a bit of his culture with the world. One thing I admire so much about Phil Lynott is his versatility. He could sing in so many styles from pop to metal. Everyone can find at least one Thin Lizzy song they love.

5. Moving to England was starting at square one.

Irish people have this expression called having “notions”. This term can be used towards someone who either has big dreams or expensive taste. Going overseas on holiday rather than to a holiday camp? Notions. Bought a designer bag instead of one from Penneys (Primark, for the British and European readers)? Notions. Moving to England for bigger and better opportunities? Notions.

Irish people have a large diaspora and a lot of expats. It’s no secret, Irish pubs everywhere and big St Paddy’s Day celebrations. Many Irish people have gone to England and got successful there. Irish people who stay home think that going to England means you’re going to be rolling in the dough. Well not exactly. It wasn’t for Thin Lizzy at first. You see, in Ireland they were big fish in a small pond, but in England there were a lot more opportunities, but the tradeoff was more competition. Thin Lizzy went back to the bottom of the heap and had to work their way up.

6. Phil Lynott didn’t have stage presence straight away

You watch any videos of Thin Lizzy and you see a confident frontman who captured everyone’s attention. That’s the highlight reel. The reality was that he was a late bloomer and it took time for him to find himself. Thin Lizzy opened for Slade when they toured the UK. It was pretty disheartening. The crowd wanted to see Slade, the flashy glam rockers. Noddy Holder has a powerful voice and a stage presence to match. Phil Lynott had a good voice, but at this point, no stage presence. Phil Lynott was given an ultimatum: get it together or Thin Lizzy are booted. Phil Lynott being a smart guy and taking in his surroundings, like a sponge, to get inspiration, he looked at Noddy Holder and noticed his mirrored hat that reflected the light and that’s when he developed this trick, called the “budgie mirror trick”. He bought a little hanging mirror for a birdcage and he attached it to his bass guitar and let it reflect the light and pointed his bass at the audience, making eye contact with the cute girls in the audience. That’s the Phil Lynott we know and love!

7. Thin Lizzy’s hits were accidents

When classic rock stations play Thin Lizzy, it’s usually “Whiskey in the Jar” and “The Boys Are Back in Town”. Those songs may have made the band a lot of money, but they weren’t their favourites or ones they expected to become successful. As for the first one, they were just warming up playing some traditional Irish folk songs and their manager, Ted Carroll, liked the way that sounded and said it could be their first hit. The band were sceptical because they didn’t want to be pigeonholed, they left Ireland for a reason and didn’t want to be a gimmick band. The manager’s instincts were right and that was a big hit and got them on Top of the Pops and playing on TV shows all over Europe.

Once again, “The Boys Are Back In Town” was a song that the band thought was one of their weaker ones. When they were touring in the US, they were told it was a big hit and they were surprised. Originally it was called “G.I. Joe is back in town” and when Phil Lynott was working on the lyrics, he was thinking of calling it “the lads are back in town” or “the kids are back in town”.

8. And so was the twin lead guitar sound

Thin Lizzy may not have invented twin lead guitar harmonies, but that sound is associated a lot with them and it wasn’t planned. While in the studio, the echo effect was left on while Brian Robertson was recording a guitar part and they liked that layered sound and it became their trademark and you can hear it from that point on. They loved it so much that it was all over their songs:

Here’s an hour of their guitar solos. Class!

9. Phil Lynott loved America

As someone originally from America, I am always bemused when people say they love America, but now that I’ve spent so much time away, I get it. People want what they don’t have. Phil Lynott was so fascinated with cowboys (hence “Cowboy Song”) and American movies and loved the different landscapes and the sunshine. Ireland is very homogenous landscape wise, as it’s a small enough island. In California alone, you have more variety in landscapes than many countries.

Every band’s goal is to make it in America and Phil Lynott was no different, but they didn’t quite get the same level of fame in America that they achieved in Europe because of bad luck. The first tour, Phil Lynott got hepatitis. On another tour, Gary Moore quit. In the late 70s, disco was the cool thing and rock and roll wasn’t dominant. By the 80s, the music world had moved on to new sounds.

10. 1983 wasn’t supposed to be the end of Thin Lizzy

Thin Lizzy weren’t meant to end when they recorded that last album, the heavy metal Thunder and Lightning. After their last show in Germany, there was no goodbye party, no fanfare. Phil Lynott and Scott Gorham were both struggling with drug addictions. Phil Lynott was also dealing with the breakdown of his marriage. He tried to make it as a solo artist and had some success, as “Yellow Pearl” was the Top of the Pops theme in the early 80s. But he didn’t have another “The Boys Are Back in Town” moment. He wanted to get Thin Lizzy back together, but his health wasn’t good enough.

What the documentary didn’t touch upon is that Thin Lizzy potentially could have played Live Aid. Phil Lynott was saddened when he was omitted from Live Aid, considering that he was friends with Bob Geldof and Midge Ure. It could have been a comeback for the band.

Now it’s your turn! Share your thoughts on Thin Lizzy in the comments section below!

Shoutout to Patrick and Jeffrey from Maryland for supporting the blog!

Loved this blog post and want to support? If you cannot afford to donate to The Diversity of Classic Rock, there are many free ways to support the blog: Follow me on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram, click the follow button on my website, leave a nice comment, send your music or classic rock related books for review, or donate your art and writing talents to the blog.

You can also download the Brave Browser and earn tokens that you can donate to your favourite creators (including me!), donate to charity, or you can keep them for yourself and redeem them for cash. The choice is yours! Thank you!