Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Thin Lizzy - Johnny The Fox (1977) + bonus tracks

(Ireland 1969 - 1983, 1996- 2019)
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The first song I heard from Dublin's Thin Lizzy was "Jailbreak" from the album of the same name. If you've heard it, you know that it starts with a huge open note - a big string before the groove kicks in that forces you to take notice. The riff that follows is classic Thin Lizzy, but it was singer Phil Lynott's storytelling, and his fantastic vocals, that held my attention.

Lynott was the hard-rock poet. His way with words and images is something that few people in hard rock have been able to duplicate, and it cements Thin Lizzy's importance in the world of rock. Songs like "Cowboy Song" paint vivid pictures like a movie script, and "Emerald" tells a harrowing war story. "Johnny The Fox" is a story about a 1920's Italian Chicago gangster, while "the Boys Are Back in Town" is about getting the guys together for a night out.
Thin Lizzy released 11 studio albums between 1971 - 1983 and a double live album in 1979 "Live And Dangerous" which reached multi-platinum status.
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The Band
It was pretty consuming for me as a kid to hear one of my favorite rock bands put such effort into their lyrics-not always a strength in hard rock and metal. Soon after, when I heard "The Boys Are Back in Town," I realised that Thin Lizzy had another great signature: the playing of not just one great guitarist but two, who, in most cases, traded off solos and rhythms and played in harmony unlike any other band l'd ever heard. I was inspired to explore their whole catalog and excited to find that they'd released a number of albums before Jailbreak. Though Jailbreak is known as their definitive record, there are plenty of other great ones to check out. I wouldn't say every one of them is a masterpiece, but Thin Lizzy has enough great moments to justify being included in this book, not to mention their obvious influence and impact on so many bands over the decades.

While Thin Lizzy's music has only grown in stature throughout the years, it remains absolutely tragic that most people in America aren't aware of them beyond "The Boys Are Back in Town." In many other countries, Thin Lizzy has had more than a dozen bonafide hits throughout their career. In fact, their 1978 album, Live and Dangerous, is considered to be one of the greatest live recordings ever made in England. For whatever reason, though, they've never been able to break through with anything else in America.

In an interview I did with him for the 2009 release, Still Dangerous.' Live at Tower Theatre Philadelphia, 1977, I spoke with guitarist Scott Gorham about why he feels America has been so stubborn when it comes to learning about Thin Lizzy's catalog. He attributed this lack of attention to bad timing, saying that whenever they started to gain momentum through U.S. touring, they had to stop and go back to England. They were also crippled by Phil Lynott's drug addiction and related illnesses while on tour. They had to cancel several shows over the years, and when they did play, Scott said, they weren't always as good as people expected them to be. Drug abuse and the excesses of the time really took their toll on the band, as did a nonstop work schedule. He also never felt the production of many of the band's albums was at the level it should be and expressed an interest to me in completely remixing the catalog someday to give the songs the kick he thought they lacked on the records.

Regardless, Thin Lizzy has written some incredible songs and albums throughout their history. Their dual-guitar playing style had such a significant influence on hard rock and heavy metal of the late '70s and early '80s that it can be heard in bands from Iron Maiden to Metallica. Many of the bands that were influenced by them have actually helped Lizzy gain some new stature in America. Metallica's cover of "Whiskey in the Jar" was much more popular than Lizzy's version. Anthrax covered "Cowboy Song," Def Leppard did "Don't Believe a Word," and Bon Jovi was one of many bands that covered "The Boys Are Back in Town."


If  "The Boys Are Back in Town" is all you've heard from this great band, you should know that there's much more to discover, right up to the band's final studio statement, the 1983 release, Thunder and Lightning. It's one of my favorites. Metal fans should take note that this is their hardest-rocking album, which is mostly due to the arrival of young hotshot guitarist John Sykes, who breathed new life into the band. He also inspired them to get out on the road to do one more tour. The more than fifteen years of hard living had started to weigh on Phil, who was looking to shelve the band for a while, but Sykes came with a new energy and helped keep the band alive for a bit longer. Some say Lizzy with Sykes was "too metal," but to me it was perfect!

The band's final tour with Phil was in '1983. By this point, many in the group were battling addiction, none more seriously than Phil, who by then was a full-blown heroin addict. He recorded a few albums in the years after Lizzy broke up, but he was considered too much of a risk and could not score a proper record deal. Tragically, on January 4,1986, Phil died from organ failure and pneumonia, all brought on by drugs. He was just thirty-six years old.

Phil Lynott
Phil Lynott was one of rock and roll's all-time greatest songwriters, as evidenced by how many people can sing along to "The Boys Are Back in Town" and recognise its melody instantly. A lot of hard rock and metal lyrics are disposable, but Lynott's memorable characters and stories would've made perfect videos for the MTV generation.
[extract from Eddie Trunk's Essential Hard Rock And Heavy Metal, Abrams Image, 2011. p212-213]

The Album
The international success of Thin Lizzy's 'Jailbreak' album in the Summer of '1976 provoked a massive excess of both work and play. The band was still young and fresh and able to enjoy this new star status. But Phil Lynnot and his pals were also aware of the fickle ways of popularity. After all, an early line-up of Thin Lizzy had scored a chart hit in '71 with a novel version of the folk song "Whisky In The Jar". This gave a warped image of the group and also tagged them as one-hit-wonders for a frustrating period.

So Phil was determined not to squander a chance again. Lizzy were touring, constantly in America, hopping from the back of one band's tour onto another - lashing it out for three months. The bands asking price was spiralling upwards, much to the relief of management at home, which was struggling with cash flow problems. So Lizzy slugged it out manfully, winning the States in the old-fashioned way while partying plenty.
"As a band on those tours," guitarist Scott Gorham remembers, "we were smokin'. Every time we hit the stage, we were crushing all opposition."

Scott Gorman
But even the bravest of constitutions couldn't sustain this style indefinitely. The highlight of the American conquest was due to happen on Independence Day,  supporting Alice Cooper in Detroit. As a prelude to this, the band was setting out with the act Rainbow, and in their ever-competitive way, Lizzy planned to wipe out the headliners. Scott remembers one glorious night at the Rainbow Bar on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip. Phil was getting wasted at the bar and playing mind games with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, telling him how his Lizzy boys were going to annihilate his Rainbow band on the stage. To the side of this bickering pair, Led Zeppelin's John Bonham was creasing up, loving, the lrishman's swagger.

Yet these boastful schemes were banjaxed just before a gig, at Columbus, Ohio, when Phil became sick. His eyes had turned banana yellow. He had infexious hepatitis. The medics that diagnosed him were already preparing a bed when management rushed him out of the country - via Detroit and New York - to place Phil in a hospital bed near his mother's hotel in Manchester. "Even when he was in hospital," Scott remembers, "he just wanted to get out there. He really was like a man possessed."

Brian Robertson
However for three weeks, Phil's mother Philomena urged him to recuperate. She nagged him about his poor health and his bad teeth and his crazy lifestyle. Phil joked about it later, how he couldn't even defend himself against her lectures. So he became philosophical instead, recognising, that he was indeed a borderline case.

"It does hit you after a while," Lynott said afterwards, "that the night life is maybe a bit of a wild life. You're chasing the wrong things. That was the idea behind "Fool's Gold". I wouldn't have written that or "Massacre" without having, been ill".

There was certainly a more reflective side to the body of songs that Phil was now writing - the makings of the 'Johnny The Fox' album. The song "Massacre" had been prompted by a hospital visit from a Protestant clergyman. He was a nice guy, but Phil's Catholic upbringing made him defensive and uptight towards the Reverend. Later, Phil realised he had been stupid, and so wrote a lyric that condemned religious prejudice and holy wars. "If God is in his heaven," Phil decided, "how could this occur?"

Brian Downey
Not all the songs came out sounding morose, though. "Don't Believe A Word" was originally written as a slow blues, but didn't sound ideal. In the studio, Brian Downey suggested a more vibrant heat. The two guitarists then piled in and another blaming hit single was ready. The resourceful character of Johnny The Fox is reckoned to be Phil himself, but the rival figure on the album has a more interesting history. Jimmy The Weed is a thinly disguised reference to a Manchester hood called Jimmy The Weazel. He was associated with the Quality Street Gang, a posse who were fearfully regarded at the time. "They were nice guys," a friend of Phil's remembers, "But they didn't do nice things."  Jimmy The Weazel was last spotted 'enjoying' himself in the Costa Del Sol.

Robertson & Lynott
But if Phil was adopting a more easy manner, the other band members weren't necessarily chilling out. Guitarist Brian Robertson was just out of his teens and wanted to pursue his fierce impulses - socially, as well as in the studio. Robbo felt that the discipline of the 'Jailbreak' album (established by producer John Alcock, who also supervised the follow-up album) wasn't always in keeping with the Lizzy spirit. "It turned out a bit too tight and clinical for me," Robbo said of 'Jailbreak' in November '76. "It lacked a lot of the feel, l think that 'Johnny The Fox' has. l like hearing mistakes, sometimes. I just go in half outta me nut and blast away."

Certainly, 'Johnny The Fox' (released in October '76) was a showcase for the band's guitar power - a vital balance to Phil's more dreamy aspects.
Robbo's attitude was justified by the fact that in the mid-'8Os, hip hop acts constantly stole guitar breaks off Thin Lizzy's sixth album, loving the tone and the energy of the record. 1976 was a mighty year for this band. They worked like Troians. They had fun. The singer was critically ill. And they released both 'Jailbreak' and 'Johnny The Fox'. Could you ever ask for a more phenomenal time of it?
[Liner Notes: by Stuart Bailie, New Musical Express]
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This post consists of FLACs ripped from my CD copy (I owned the album as a teenager but alas stupidly traded it in for some other LP) and the usual supporting artwork and label scans.
Although not quite up to the standard of Jailbreak, this album still stands solid in my collection and I'm happy I've at least got it on CD, cause it's hard to find. To sweeten the deal, I've chosen to rip my prized 45 for you "The Boys Are Back In Town"  / "Emerald" and add them as bonus tracks.
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Track List
01 Johnny 4:23
02 Rocky 3:41
03 Borderline      4:32
04 Don't Believe A Word 2:18
05 Fool's Gold 3:51
06 Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed 3:42
07 Old Flame 3:08
08 Massacre 2:58
09 Sweet Marie 3:55
10 Boogie Woogie Dance 3:08
[Bonus Tracks]
11 The Boys Are Back In Town     3:10
12 Emerald      4:02

Thin Lizzy were:
Phil Lynott - Bass, Acoustic Guitar, Lead Vocals
Brian Downey - Drums, Percussion
Brian Robertson - Guitar
Scott Gorham - Lead Guitar
Phil Collins - Additional Percussion
Kim Beacon - Backing Vocals

Thin Lizzy Link (293Mb)

2 comments:

  1. Great stuff, thanks! Saw them only once, in 1977, in Philadelphia, where they recorded some of the tracks that were on the '78 live album "Live And Dangerous"! Grew up in that area, think i was like 16!

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  2. Lucky devil ! 77-78 was definitely their peak. I'm very envious of you as they didn't tour to the land of OZ much. Take care Jim.

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