Gary Moore: the bebop guitarist

An appreciation of the Thin Lizzy guitarist who died last week.

Belfast-born guitarist and Thin Lizzy member Gary Moore died of a heart attack on Sunday 6 February 2011, aged 58.

Appropriately enough, some wag might say. For in later life, his playing was as bloated as only a corpse should be.

And if I say ‘oh, but you should have heard him when he was young’, no doubt that will sound like a symptom of my own morbidity. But in Gary Moore’s case, there really was a huge difference between Young Gary and the Old.

To find the young one, however, we’ll have to go back a long way. Way past ‘Parisienne Walkways’ (the dirge!) and the allegedly halcyon days of Thin Lizzy (so rock it was already camp).

Back as far as winter 1970-71. Sorry, I should know the month but memory doesn’t wear that well. I do remember less than a hundred people, including myself and a couple of school friends, in the ‘function room’ of a pub on the outskirts of Coventry. The décor (if that’s the word) was like the bar in Only Fools and Horses.

Recollecting that night, I was about to say ‘and on stage…’, except now I recall there was no stage. The young man in the woolly hat playing the most sublime guitar I have ever heard was standing on the floor just a couple of feet away. His name was Gary Moore.

‘Most sublime’ – and that includes Jimi Hendrix, who topped the bill of the ‘package tour’ that visited Coventry a few years before. Of course Jimi was sexier, even for boys; but Gary Moore didn’t have time to be sexy. He had too much playing to do.

What was striking was not only the lyricism, but also the precision of it. Tight, we used to say, appreciatively. This was more tightly formatted than anything we had come across, but also continually bursting out and almost on the point of breaking down. Now I know to compare Young Gary Moore’s playing with the liquidity and tenacity of saxophonist Charlie Parker, undisputed heavyweight of bebop: both of them offering a kind of molten attack on the listeners’ sensibilities (assuming we have the sense to appreciate it).

Young Gary may have been unique among guitarists, but he wasn’t alone. That night in nowhere (as I said, Coventry), he was one of the Irish trio named Skid Row (the eponymous American band is said to have bought the name from him, much later); and the other two – singer and bassist Brendan ‘Brush’ Shiels, drummer Noel Bridgeman – matched him riff for riff, rhythm for rhythm. Yes, Gary Moore was the soloist, but really this was rock bebop, with guitars standing in for jazz horns and woodwind.

Soon after that night, I lost track of Gary. I have it from Wikipedia that he left Skid Row in 1972 on the eve of an American tour. More importantly, I reckon, the audience for intelligent, aggressive music of this kind broke up into (1) those who walled themselves in behind its complexity, stupefying it in the process (prog rock); (2) those who simply simplified it (cock rock); and (3) those (including me and my school friends) who spent the next 10 years pretending to be more stupid than we really were, which really is stupid.

Never mind the personal stuff about Moore, of which I know nothing and care less - one of the reasons for the gap between Young Gary and Old Gary is that he was all pared down like a Modernist painting, and we left him no place to go.

Andrew Calcutt is is editor of Proof: Reading Journalism and Society. He is co-author, with Philip Hammond, of Journalism Studies: A Critical Introduction, published by Routledge. Buy this book from Amazon(UK).

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