"Lots of careers have been made from regurgitating the same record. If I'd made millions, I'd be making jazz records": A spiky interview with Gary Moore

Gary Moore studio portrait
(Image credit: Guitarist Magazine)

Though it’s not a subject he cared to dwell upon, in some ways the late Gary Moore was trapped by his past. By 2006, Belfast-born Moore had been a recording artist for more than a quarter of a century, his career exploring the blues (with Ireland’s Skid Row) and progressive-fusion music (as a member of Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum II). But it’s the tuneful hard rock he played during several spells with Thin Lizzy for which he was arguably best known. 

As a solo artist, Moore began a run of hits with the gorgeous Parisienne Walkways, made in collaboration with his good friend Phil Lynott. The short-lived band G-Force and a collaboration with Greg Lake were followed by several critically acclaimed hard rock albums, but having toured 1989’s After The War, Gary ditched his leather jackets for suits and began embracing the music of his childhood, the blues. 

Still Got The Blues was Moore’s biggest-selling solo release, though some fans still hankered to hear him plug in and blast once again. Moore fulfilled a lifelong dream by playing Clapton to ex-Cream men Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in BBM in 1994, later experimenting with samples and tape loops on 1999’s A Different Beat. After joining up with ex-Skunk Anansie bassist Cass Lewis and Primal Scream drummer Darrin Mooney for the harder-edged Scars in 2002, the title Power Of The Blues (released two years later) was self-explanatory. 

In agreeing to play 2003’s Monsters Of Rock tour, it seemed that Moore would turn back the clock, though not far enough for diehard tastes. Indeed, Gary Moore remained determined to stick to his guns. Rarely featured outside of the specialist guitar magazines, he was nevertheless fêted by fellow musicians and was still a popular live attraction. 

Shortly before he opened for BB King on his farewell tour, Classic Rock visited the guitarist at his Sussex home to discuss his latest album Old, New, Ballads, Blues. We came clutching vinyl copies of 80s hard rock albums Victims Of The Future, Run For Cover and Wild Frontier to begin the debate. 

"My favourite of those is Wild Frontier because it was made just after Phil [Lynott] died,” Moore revealed. “I was thinking about him a lot at the time, hence its Celtic influences. It’s a reflective record, whereas this [picks up Victims Of The Future] is just one of my feeble attempts at heavy rock.”

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Do you honestly think that?

Well, I don’t like to go around saying those records were a load of crap because some people still like them. But they’re not what I’d want to do now.

You’ve said that you were “a misfit” playing that style of music, even that you weren’t very good at it.

I never really felt like I belonged in that world, and I’m totally convinced of it now. At least with Wild Frontier I injected a bit of the Irish thing, but by the end of the 80s I’d had enough of it.

But it wasn’t just the music. Before each tour you’d spend more time with the fucking set designer than playing with the band, it got really stupid. It was a model of Stonehenge or Andy Pandy’s fucking playset. We were playing these huge venues and it seemed like things were going really well but I’d be in the dressing room playing blues licks to myself.

Those albums are still pretty revered.

Not around here they’re not, mate!

Did you hear Nightwish’s version of Over The Hills And Far Away?

Yeah. To me, it had a bit of a karaoke vibe because the backing track was so similar. I don’t mean that insultingly, but it was almost identical. I believe they’re a pretty big band now, so it’s cool that they did it.

The wheel sometimes turns full circle and Neil Carter, who co-wrote 1985’s Top 30 hit Empty Rooms with you, now apparently teaches your kids music.

He does come into contact with my son, but I don’t think he teaches him directly. I do see Neil now and again. He’s still got a big nose – less hair now. But he’s great. Neil gave us so much flexibility because he could double the guitar parts and add keyboards. He was also a great singer. And he had a big nose. What more could you want?

Last August, on what would’ve been his 56th birthday, you fronted a Phil Lynott memorial show in Dublin that’s now been issued on DVD.

It was nice playing those songs again and doing Black Rose with Scott [Gorham, guitarist] gave me a real shiver. I realised how good those songs were. And of course singing them myself I also learned what a great singer Phil was; he made it look so spectacularly easy. I had to really concentrate, which was a shame in a way as I didn’t get swept away with the emotion of the gig. Eric [Bell, guitarist] did Whiskey In The Jar, which was brilliant. It’s nice that he and I have become really good friends again.

Did everyone hang out together afterwards?

We all went back to the Westbury Hotel, and Robbo [Brian Robertson, guitarist] sat with his lot. I had a couple of drinks with Scott.

I ask because you’ve been pretty vocal about Lizzy not continuing without Phil.

That’s just my opinion, but I’ve also said that people have to make a living. I still maintain that without Phil there isn’t really a Thin Lizzy. It’s a bit of a strange situation. I imagine that Brian Downey [ex-Lizzy drummer], who’s not there anymore, feels the same.

Do you think that Phil would approve?

I can give you two answers to that, and one wouldn’t be as nice as the other. He would probably approve of the fact that his songs are being kept alive. [Giggling] And he’d also probably think it was pretty funny that there’s a statue of him [in Dublin].

A thread on the Thin Lizzy discussion forums suggested that you were guilty of hogging the limelight a little.

[Sighs deeply] Well, Brian Downey suggested opening with Walking By Myself [a Jimmy Rogers song from Still Got The Blues], and I thought it would be really arrogant to go out and play Jailbreak first.

I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to be Phil, it was just to break the ice. It was a Gary Moore gig but was my idea to share it with the Lizzy guys. I really take offence at that. I bet that shit all came from Dublin.

If I hadn’t put the gig together it wouldn’t have happened. So those cunts can all fuck off.

In Cardiff on the first night of your Still Got The Blues tour there were boos. That must’ve been terrifying.

Yeah, people were shouting, “Where’s the real Gary Moore?” A few people wrote in saying they were ashamed of those that did that. I was like, “Fuck, is this what it’s gonna be like?”

You later admitted that your audience didn’t get it when you “painted yourself into a corner” with drum loops and samples on the A Different Beat album.

[Shrugs] I’d wondered why there wasn’t any guitar on that sort of dance music, and I probably found out the hard way [laughs]. It’s funny, I took a drum loop from a record and I had to go to this flat in Docklands and play what I’d done to Rob Playford, Goldie’s producer, for approval. It was heavy-duty stuff. He was in this flat full of guys with their arms folded and they went, “Yeah, it’s better than we thought.” I was really out of my depth, man.

Peter Green famously sold you the 1959 Gibson Les Paul that he used on many of his classic Fleetwood Mac recordings, and so the story goes even gave you change from the £160 you paid for it. But now you’ve sold it.

I don’t really want to talk about that because it was supposed to be a very discreet sale, and now it’s all over the fuckin’ web. I’m really unhappy because I didn’t want to part with it in the first place. Then that fucking twat shot his mouth off; it’s like having your trousers pulled down in public.

Have you heard from or spoken to Peter recently?

Not for years; somebody told me he’s in Sweden. That whole Splinter Group thing wasn’t the greatest showcase for his talents. For some of the people close to him, it was just a meal ticket. From what I hear, that’s all finished now.

You’d hinted that you were willing to re-visit your hits from the 80s at Monsters Of Rock, but we got largely the same set as usual.

[Slightly annoyed] No you didn’t. I did [Lizzy’s] Don’t Believe A Word and Wishing Well [by Free], I hadn’t done those since the 80s. I did Shapes Of Things [by The Yardbirds] because it was very reflective of that era.

But they’re all cover versions…

[Interrupts] There’s always been covers in my set. Half of Still Got The Blues is covers. I just played the stuff I felt comfortable with – I wasn’t gonna resurrect stuff like Rocking Every Night. I got slagged off so much for that set, especially in Classic Rock. They said, “Why didn’t he play more blues?” and I thought, well the tour’s called fucking Monsters Of Rock, you know.

If anything, we moaned that you didn’t play Empty Rooms, while your version of Out In The Fields seemed tokenistic.

Well, I didn’t have a keyboard player for a start, so Empty Rooms was impossible. You just can’t win in those situations, and I would only compromise so far.

You definitely looked uncomfortable up there.

Well, it was like The X-Factor of rock or something. I didn’t actually want to do it in the first place.

So why did you?

We were writing songs and when the offer came in I said to the guys, “It’s a bit fucking dinosaur, but do you wanna do it?” Darrin [Mooney] and Cass [Lewis] are from a totally different era, but I sold it to them on the basis that we could play to lots of people, have some laughs and also do some of our stuff. The money was good as well, don’t get me wrong. But I wouldn’t do it again, it was like being dragged backwards and I quickly remembered why I left that world in the first place.

Are you saying you’ll never play Murder In The Skies or Empty Rooms again?

Empty Rooms is a song that I still like very much, and I’ve thought about resurrecting it. We could do a nice new version of that. But [wrinkles his nose] Murder In The Skies?

As implied by its title, Old, New, Ballads, Blues is a combination of existing and original material.

One of my favourites is Done Somebody Wrong by Elmore James, which I first heard the Allman Brothers do when I was 17. Skid Row opened for the Allmans and I modelled my slide upon the way Duane Allman used to play. There’s some new songs, a couple of ballads and some blues on there. It does what it says on the tin.

What about the tug-of-war between what the fans from the 80s want to hear from you and the music you feel more at home playing?

With Still Got The Blues, I lost a lot of fans – but I gained lots more. I honestly didn’t know that would happen. I was in my late thirties and I didn’t want to end up in my forties and fifties playing that kind of music because it can be quite undignified. The blues is much more elegant.

In an April 2001 interview, Classic Rock accused you of lacking career focus, even of chasing trends.

Oh, some cunt will always slag you off. I’ve always just done what I liked. If I don’t like it then I can’t expect anyone else to. Lots of careers have been made from regurgitating the same record. If I’d made millions of quid, I’d be making jazz records.

Def Leppard’s Vivian Campbell once said that you were a better player than Edward Van Halen. Has the fact that you now play the blues – as opposed to a flashier style of music – caused your contribution to be undervalued?

I don’t think I’m undervalued. I’ve had all the accolades I could wish for. I’ve felt overrated sometimes, not underrated. Being called a legend makes me cringe.

The scar on your cheek came from a bar fight over a girl. So how did you feel when Ozzy Osbourne famously remarked that you have “a face like a welder’s bench”?

[Hoots with laughter] Three words came to mind: ‘pot’, ‘kettle’ and ‘black’. He’s admitted having more chins than a Chinese phone book.

Truthfully, Ozzy was just pissed off that I wouldn’t join his band. When I lived in Los Angles, G-Force helped him to audition musicians. If drummers were trying out then I played guitar, and if a bassist came along my drummer [Mark Nauseef] would help out. We felt sorry for him, basically. He was always hovering around trying to get me to join, and I wasn’t having any of it.

Has that fact that even your hero BB King has drawn a line in the sand made you realise that some day everyone has to stop?

I believe that you can do this for as long as you want to. And if you don’t want to keep on, then you shouldn’t do it anymore. If your playing turns to shit then it’s time to stop. Of course [laughing again], not everyone pays attention to that last part.

The original version of this interview appeared in Classic Rock 92, published in May 2006.

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.