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Back to the Best #4: Thin Lizzy

Grab yourself a bottle of your favourite Irish whiskey and join Michelle Godding as she takes us on a Lizzy journey from 1969 through to 1983.

Born in 1969, Dublin, Ireland. Thin Lizzy officially started as a three piece, recording the albums Thin LizzyShades of a Blue Orphanage and Vagabonds of the Western World. These early recordings saw the release of the popular tracks ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ and ‘The Rocker’.

After the departure of original guitarist Eric Bell in ’73, a young guitarist and old friend from Belfast called Gary Moore was brought in. He then departed prior to the completion of the Nightlife album and Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham were recruited, bringing a bit of Glaswegian and Californian style into the Irish mix.

With this classic line up, Thin Lizzy really came into their own; the twin guitar leads accompanied with Downey’s trusty drum grooves and Lynott’s soothing vocal poetry, setting the bench mark with the fifth studio album Fighting things could only get better!

I will be looking at Lizzy albums that stand the test of time to this day. The one’s that send shivers down my spine every time I hear the first chord of the opening tracks. With the brief early history concluded, it bring’s me up to the magnificent album Jailbreak. What better way to celebrate the 40th anniversary than by starting off with my first Thin Lizzy album?

Jailbreak, 1976

After failing to break the US and generally reach the record sales expected by the label, Lizzy where given a last shot to give it their all and create a new album. What an album it is! The striking first chord and note intro to the title track ‘Jailbreak’ really punches you in the face; you can feel the fight or flight mode coming into play. The band are collaborating much better musically despite the clashes of the strong personalities involved. They have been on the road together for a while. Gorham and Robertson’s dual guitar attack harmonises perfectly. Taking inspirations from early bands such as Wishbone Ash and The Allman Brother’s Band. Phil Lynott’s lyric writing is on top form as usual, penning their most well known track ‘The Boys are Back in Town’. The album takes you through a journey, almost the soundtrack to a lone cowboy on his own adventure experiencing the highs and lows and surviving life. The mellower tracks such as ‘Running Back’, ‘Romeo and the Lonely Girl’ and ‘The Cowboy Song’ draw you in, giving you a moment to reflect before changing the tempo once again with cheeky guitar riffs and bluesy solos. The music throughout is infused with blues and funk, something that I absolutely love about Thin Lizzy. You can tell that a lot of the writing was influenced by the band’s travels in America, with Scott Gorham even saying that Phil’s first visit to the States “hit him like a sack of shit”. The album climaxes with ‘Emerald’ bringing back the Celtic roots of Thin Lizzy. They break out into an absolutely stunning twin solo that would make anybody proud to be Irish (even though Gorham and Robertson aren’t!)

Johnny the Fox, 1976

Riding on the success of Jailbreak, Lizzy were on a roll, having secured themselves a support slot for an upcoming US tour with ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’. Unfortunately due to illness, Phil was flown back to the UK with the others returning shortly after. From a hospital bed in Manchester, Phil began to write the tracks which would make up the album Johnny the Fox.

The albums popular catchy tune ‘Don’t Believe a Word’ was a result of Phil and Robbo’s constant disagreements. After several arguments about the pace of the track Phil left the studio for two whole days. In the meantime, a determined Robbo spent time in the studio with Downey re-crafting the tune. When Phil returned he absolutely loved it. The band achieved the tight and punchy production and big drum sound they longed for, recording in Ramport Studios, Battersea. The groovy slick track ‘Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy Weed’ portrays a scene between a member of the Quality Street Gang (with whom Phil was fascinated with growing up) and the mysterious Johnny character who has cropped up in several times before. Lynott’s use of American lingo was very much evident throughout his lyrics, using words such as ‘chicks’ instead of ‘women’ and ‘cats’ instead of men. Life on the road and past loves and life struggles are referenced in the slower songs ‘Sweet Marie’, ‘Old flame’ and ‘Borderline’. After tales of guns, drugs and gangsters, we are brought back to Lynott’s fascination with history written in his usual poetic way. Reflecting on the bloodbath that taints America’s Past with ‘Massacre’ and the dreams of hope that many Irish experiences during the times of famine and disease which led to searching for a new life in the land of the west. The album ends with the pace picking up again in ‘Boogie Woogie Dance’ with Robertson and Gorham’s smart riffs and guitar licks working with Lynott and Downey’s deep grooves. Steady tribe like beats fade into the the silence, marking the end of Johnny the Fox.

Bad Reputation, 1977

The recording of Bad Reputation began in the summer of ’77 in Toronto, Canada. The band was without Robbo at this point; he’d had his hand slashed by a glass bottle whilst defending fellow Scottish musician Frankie Miller the night before he was due to fly to New York for a tour. The unfortunate timing of this incident and the already tumultuous relationship between Robbo and Phil came to a head. Whilst he was absent Scott Gorham laid down the backing tracks and did most of the dual guitar parts himself….the wonders of modern (at the time!) technology. He felt that his guitar playing suffered a bit without the constant presence of a second guitarist, however, Robbo got in with the band again, long enough to be able to be credited on a few tracks.

The overall mood of the album is much darker and pensive than the previous; from the starkness of the album cover to the songs ‘Opium Trail’ and ‘That Woman’s Gonna Break Your Heart’; this is definitely one of my favourites! The album does start with a heart-warming little ditty followed by the signature dual guitar harmonies in ‘Soldier of Fortune’ before breaking out in the groovy deep title track ‘Bad Reputation’. Brian’s drumming and Phil’s bass playing is booming, giving the track real depth. Scott Gorham’s changes the pace and mood with a cheerful little harmony before breaking out in to a soulful long solo which is just so smooth on the ears. You just feel so cool listening to this….well I always do; this is one of my favourite guitar parts in the whole Thin Lizzy discography! Scott Gorham’s playing in ‘Opium Trail’ is also fantastic.

It’s not all dark and sinister. We are reminded of their softer side with ‘Southbound’, ‘Downtown Sundown’ and the unforgettable ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’. Phil’s passionate vocals mixed with lyrics such as “When I passed you in the hallway, well you took me with a glance. I should of took that last bus home but instead I asked you for a dance”, there is a romantic sense of nostalgia; the good times that you look fondly on. The album ends on a hopeful sombre note with ‘Dear Lord’, written with Lynott’s religious faith in mind. It closes the album perfectly.

Black Rose, 1978/79

The post Bad Reputation period was an extremely busy time for Lizzy. From the release of the powerful Live and Dangerous album and following tours, to Robbo’s restless behaviour causing him to leave the band. From Gary Moore replacing Robbo, to the ‘Greedy Bastards’ side project between Lizzy, to The Sex Pistols and to Phil’s own solo ambitions. ’78 was definitely chock-a-block. Brian Downey even stepped out of the band prior to the US and Australia segments of the ‘Live and Dangerous’ tour due to becoming fed up and exhausted. Booze and drugs were becoming a steady part of the lad’s lives as well.

Recordings were done between a period of months over ’78 to ’79 in Paris and London, once again produced by Toni Visconti. Gary Moore was very conscious that Gorham’s confidence in his playing had been stunted next to Robbo, so he deliberately tried not to overshadow him. The album starts with a steady war like drumbeat followed by a twin guitar lead that is in perfect unison. Phil’s lyrics and vocals are spot on. His ability to manipulate a rhyme scheme reached a new peak in this period. The opening track ‘Do Anything You Want To’ is such a strong, gutsy song. Maybe even slightly influenced by the punk movement that was happening at the time.

The following three songs set a scene and tone that is slightly more seedy, looking at shady characters and situations, mixed in with drugs, sex, violence and gambling. Perhaps it was a narrative to their own lives, with subtle hints of personal experiences.

There are joyous moments too with the song ‘Sarah’, written after the birth of Phil’s daughter, who he was completely in awe of. You can tell from the lyrics. “When you came in my life you changed my world, my Sarah/ Everything seemed so right my baby girl, my Sarah”. The song was composed on an acoustic guitar by Gary Moore with Huey Lewis accompanying on harp. The soft, mellow tune cushions Lynott’s soothing vocals flawlessly.

Side two of Black Rose starts with ‘Got To Give it up’, a song written by Lynott and Gorham. The soft intro of Phil’s vocals against a chord/solo intro before breaking into a faster pace. The opening lyrics ‘I’ve got to give it up, I’ve got to give it up that stuff’. The song is very bittersweet to me; on one had it’ of my favourite Lizzy tracks of all time, but at the same time the subject matter is incredibly heavy; a cry for help in the world of excess drugs and booze, the very thing that ultimately led to Phil Lynott’s death in 1986. The vocals, the guitar, the rhythm section, you can truly hear the heartfelt sincerity behind the story.

The next two tracks ‘Get Out of Here’ and ‘With Love’ are two very contrasting the tracks, the first a kiss- off message and the second regret in love and relationships.

The title track ‘Roisin Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend’ is definitely a very ambitious piece of work by the band; it seamlessly worked it way across four beautifully thought out instrumental sections working Phil’s lyrics inspired by his love of celtic mythology and of Ireland, ending with the traditional layered guitars.

The dark black rose on the cover is another Jim Fitzpatrick creation in collaboration with Phil. The black rose was used to represent Ireland, the homeland, paying homage to the history and legends with such rose tinted sentiment. However ,the drips of bloody could have been used to symbolise the struggles that the band had faced in the past and currently.

Thunder and Lightning- 1983

After Black Rose, Gary Moore made his final departure from Thin Lizzy to pursue his own solo journey. The next two albums that proceeded failed to make an impact as great as the others; Thin Lizzy were in need of a powerful injection of energy.

Despite Chinatown and Renegade not making a smashing impact overall, there are absolutely stunning tracks, such as  ‘Chinatown’, and some of my absolute favourites, ‘Angel of Death’ and ‘The Pressure Will Blow’. The guitarist Snowy White made a worthwhile contribution to these two albums and young keyboard player Darren Wharton was introduced.

Thunder and Lightning is my absolute favourite Thin Lizzy album. Probably because I’m very much into early 80s heavy metaland massive fan of John Sykes. He had been in Tygers of Pan Tang previously and by chance met and worked with Lynott. The two got on so well, that after a jam with Lynott, Downey and Wharton, Sykes was basically in the band. There he came up with the riff for ‘Cold Sweat’. This album is a strong statement to show that they were willing and able to keep up with the younger crop of bands that emerged with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement.

The album opens up with the title tack ‘Thunder and Lightning’, the high energy intro and fast paced powerful riffing immediately hits you. The typical Phil Lynott lyrics are delivered powerfully. Its still Thin Lizzy, but boy, it’s Thin Lizzy at its heaviest. Complimented by Darren Wharton’s incredible keyboard playing putting paid to any doubters who’d queried his role in the band. A lot of the album was written before Sykes joined, from the excitable ‘This is the One’ to the haunting ‘The Sun Goes Down’, however his guitar playing has well an truly made it’s stamp on this album.

The pounding bass and drum intro the the brilliant ‘The Holy War’ welcomes Sykes and Gorham’s tough and melodic riffs and exceptional solos. There is a feeling of going to battle. This is followed by the Lynott/Sykes collaboration. ‘Cold Sweat’ was release as a single and represented Lizzy at their best.The songs ‘Someday She’s Gonna Hit Back’ and ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, modern day tales of romance gone wrong, followed by ‘Bad Habit’- a much more light-hearted track with that cheeky Thin Lizzy feel of romantic nostalgia.

‘Heart Attack’ closes the album following through with the chunky riffs and heavy drumming, signature dual guitar leads layered with Sykes’ powerful and melodic solos. The album ends the way it started with this urgent vibe leaving you wanting more.

Click here to check out our review of Thin Lizzy @ Ramblin’ Man!
Thin Lizzy’s Setlist @ Ramblin Man
Jailbreak / Are You Ready/ Killer on the Loose / Dancing in the Moonlight (It’s Caught Me in Its Spotlight)/ Massacre/ Angel of Death/ Waiting for an Alibi/ Emerald/ Rosalie/ Don’t Believe a Word/ Cowboy Song/ The Boys Are Back in Town/ Whiskey in the Jar

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Back to the Best #4: Thin Lizzy


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