Thin Lizzy

Thin Lizzy are probably the most underrated band of the '70s; despite their stadium-topping success among the heavy metal crowd of the day, they never got much respect from the critics (who generally snubbed their noses at metal in the '70s) and though several of their songs are staples of classic rock radio stations, they're generally overlooked in the pantheon of '70s hard rock acts these days, overshadowed by Zeppelin, Mott, Sabbath, Aerosmith, etc. Which is a shame, since Thin Lizzy were as worthy as any of the above-named, and in some ways worthier: tighter, more melodic (leader Phil Lynott had strong pop and R & B leanings). A good comparison would be Mott the Hoople - both played tough, driving hard rock that was at once big and anthemic yet surprisingly sensitive and lyrical, and while to my ears Lizzy never quite reached the heights of Mott at their very best (I mean, to me, "All the Way From Memphis," and "All the Young Dudes," are the definition of rock'n'roll), Lizzy were much more consistent. Between 1975 and 1979, they didn't release a disappointing album -- in fact, they might have been a little too consistent, as all of their prime albums tend to pretty much all sound the same, following the basic, highly winning formula of Lynott's soulful vocals and anthemic/lyrical songwriting married to a twin-lead guitar harmonized attack (Lizzy's guitar slots became a revolving door of technically skilled journeymen; aside from Lynott, drummer Brian Downey was the only member to stick with the band for their entire career). If you like the formula, dive in, and adjust my scale by how much you like your first taste -- I probably like'em better than most folks; over the course of listening to all these Lizzy albums, I've developed quite a bit of affection for Lynott and his macho but down to earth fantasies and charmingly naive attempts at poetic significance. And affection is the right word -- Lynott can be a bit hard to respect, as he always seemed to barely miss the mark of his lofty goals, mainly due to a lack of discipline and the fact that as a songwriter, he was overly derivative of Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen. Lynott lyrics' too often fall back on easy cliches, though they're heartfelt and display a worthy talent - his muddled concept albums that never stick to the concept aside, he generally kept his fantasies more grounded in the real world than most other heavy metal bands (no tunes about lost Atlantis, dragons, or spaceships here). Unfortunately, Lynott never got a chance to mature -- his pathetic drug addiction eventually destroyed his talent and his band, and caused his premature death at 34 in 1985. The legacy he left he could be proud of, though -- Thin Lizzy were the godfathers of a certain strain of anthemic martial hard rock that directly led to their descendents in the Clash and U2, and all of their male-bonding, oversized guitar descendents from Big Country to Rancid (okay, not the greatest legacy in the world, admittedly...) And Metallica learned a few things from'em, too, for what that's worth - so why is this band always overlooked? Beats me.

Thin Lizzy (1971)

Their first album, with only one guitarist, Eric Bell.

Shades of a Blue Orphanage (1972)
Vagabonds of the Western World (1973) ***1/2

Before this album was recorded, Lynott & the boys had a huge hit in the British Isles with an electric reworking of the traditional Irish pub ballad, "Whiskey in the Jar," helpfully included as one of the four bonus tracks on the reissue. Previously having only heard the classic Lizzy twin lead guitar lineup, it took me a while to adjust to the less-fleshed out sound resulting from only one guitarist - but it's all good, this power-trio cooks hard, heavy, and funky. It's on the slide guitarfest eco-protest "Mama Nature Said," that the lack of an added guitar harmony sounds needed most to beef up the sound, and it's the first track; oddly enough, this album gets noticably stronger as it eases into the second half. Since Lizzy were still searching for their sound and hadn't firmly set into formula yet, it's more wide-ranging musically than later albums, but only somewhat - in addition to the usual funk-rockers (the rapist/mugger/stalker anthem "Gonna Creep Up On You"), tender balladry ("Little Girl in Bloom"), and macho posturing ("The Rocker"), there are a couple of quasi-prog mythologically-oriented storypiece workouts. The title track, with its "green eyes, green eyes" refrain (read the long story-poem in the gatefold for explanation), is probably my favorite tune on the disc, but "The Hero and the Madman," is only half-successful - Eric Bell takes his turn to sing the Lynott-penned lyrics, and hearing this white boy imitating the cadence of Lynott's rhythmic vocalizing goes a long way in underlining what a great Lynott was. Also, the "higher, higher!" chant in the middle is simply silly. However, aside from all that, when Lynott takes the mike, it actually turns out to be a pretty good tune. And it's leagues better than the utterly dull "Slow Blues," which lives up to its title in the worst way. The other bonus tracks on the reissue are, except for another boring slow bloozy grind "Broken Dreams," are worthwhile - "Randolph's Tango," wouldn't have sounded out of place on a contemporaneous Springsteen album, and "Black Boys on the Corner," is perhaps Lynott's most successful marriage of funk and hard rock - it totally smokes, with the telling self-confessional line, "I'm a little black boy and I don't even know my own race," slipped in amongst the macho strutting about hanging round pool halls and such.

Night Life (1974) ***

An important turning point in the band's development was the replacement of Eric Bell with not one but two guitarists: Californian Scott Gorham and Scotsman Brian Robertson, which allowed two guitarists in the fold, and the band began finding its signature twin-lead guitar sound (the most immediately identifiable sonic detail of the band). However, the important adjective is "developmental"; this is a transitional record, and clearly sounds like it, as the band haven't quite settled on the direction they want to take, stumbling through inconsistent material of various styles. Lynott in particular seems unsure of himself, testing out an irritating number of different vocal styles, from ragged-rough to faux love-man soul to throaty Van Morrison-isms (guess which voice he eventually settled on). There are several fine songs here, as well as a several outright stinkers. Neo-funk workouts like "Showdown," I've always found completely boring; "I'm Still In Love With You," doesn't deserve to lick Al Green's grits; the melodramatic ballads "Frankie Carroll," and "Dear Heart," pale compared to Ian Hunter's attempts at such things (and the ballads were never my favorites from Mott); the title track is credited to Lynott, but it's a complete rip-off of the Willie Nelson (!) tune of the same title. "She Knows," is a fine, melodic slice of Catholic soft-rockery, "Philemona," a catchy little Celtic romp, "Sha-La-La" one of the few truly hard-n-heavy rockers on the album, but the best song the bitingly cynical, "It's Only Money," -- unlike a lot of heavy metallers, Lynott really knew how to use a good, swift, funky rhythmic kick. A promising beginning, but that's all it is -- promising; it pales compared to what came later.

Fighting (1975) ****

After four albums, Thin Lizzy have finally found their sound, with Gorham and Robertson's harmonized guitar interplay filling in the sonic details, and Lynott's songwriting abilities gaining focus and consistency. For this and the next four albums they'd stick to the formula and run with it; it's hard to choose between any of these albums (excepting their masterpiece Jailbreak), as they are all of nearly the exact same quality. These bar-fightin' Irish lads lead off with a cover of Bob Seger's lust ode to a Canadian DJ, "Rosalie," and actually make you like it. Lynott hovers alternately between cheap romanticism and cheap cynicism, but the deep, aching guitar lines that hook into "Wild One," convey the loss Lynott attempts to articulate better than his cliched lyricism. But deep lyrics aren't what Lynott's songwriting is about: he relies way too much on cliches such as "for I would beg, lie, steal, I would borrow," but he sings them in a manner heartfelt and emotionally poignant enough to overcome the occasional clunkiness -- the term is soul. That's what makes "Wild One" the album's most moving song. Yet the most classic moment comes on side two with "King's Vengeance" slipping into "Spirit Slips Away." It can be seen as a mini-epic: the first song is set in olden times, perhaps the Middle Ages or the 17th century -- spring comes and teases while a commoner faces the wrath of His Majesty's justice for some no doubt petty offense, for the King's vengeance is aimed upon the poor. It's telling of Lynott's earthy working-class sensibility that his foray in the Heavy Metal Medieval Ballad Genre (every '70s band had at least one - even Aerosmith (!)), he'd choose the plight of the common man rather than some knight slaying dragons. The second song might or might not follow the same commoner's plight, as perhaps he got the noose and finds the cold, empty tomb -- the way the two tracks flow into one another creates the impression, and "Spirit Slips Away," is the most chilling, desolate song Lynott ever wrote (after all, what's more chilling and desolate than death?). A subject obviously on Lynott's mind at the time -- both the cruel, viciously sarcastic "Suicide," (the mocking verses "the boy could boogie" are downright mean) and the sympathetic die-young-n-pretty "For Those Who Love To Live," feature protagonists who prematurely leave this vale of tears. Lynott still hadn't quite fully developed, however, and there are a handful of rough moments, but the only songs that are truly weak all the way through are "Silver Dollar," and "Ballad of a Hard Man," - which makes sense, since those two were written by Robertson and Gorham, respectively. Whatever - their limits as songwriters aside, the pair prove their mettle (hah! a pun) with their fiery, lyrical guitar lines.

Jailbreak (1976) ****1/2

The breakthrough that made them international hard rock sensations and scored a string of well-crafted AOR hits in the States, Jailbreak is the band's undeniable peak, their most consistent set of songs - there's not a stinker in the bunch, a rarity for a Thin Lizzy album. There's subtle shift in direction as Lizzy ditch some of the softer pop and folky leanings of the previous two albums for harder, more consciously metal attack, but overall it's an improvement: Lynott's writing might suffer its weaknesses, but the Gorham/Robertson tag team are unstoppable - just listen to how tightly efficient the band sound on the title track. There's a concept this time, a muddled conceit concerning some 1984-like future in which a gang of warriors bust out of the jail where they were unjustly imprisoned by the Overlord, to lead a revolt against his fascist rule. The storyline hardly reaches even the comic-book level of Roger Waters or Pete Townshend, so let's do what everybody else who listens to this album does and ignore it altogether (though there is the remote possiblity that at some point in time some rabid Lizzy fan tried to take the concept seriously) - Lynott's not exactly the deepest of thinkers. What matters is that the quasi-concept (and I say "quasi" because about half of these songs don't even bother to deal with the storyline at all - unless you consider the male-bonding partying of "The Boys Are Back In Town," as blows against the system) delivers some top-notch tunes. And yep, I mean tunes - unlike a lot of heavy metal songwriters, Lynott composes real pop melodies for most of his material, and most of'em are quite catchy. "Running Back," is a straight-up Van Morrison imitation, and probably the weakest number for that reason, which isn't to say that it's a bad song, merely an overly derivative one. See, that's the main problem I have with Thin Lizzy - they recall other bands a wee bit too much at times; Lynott wasn't the most original of musical visionaries, simply content to revisit the turf other songwriters had covered -- but if you can deal with that quibble, which in the end it really is (the band did have their own easily identifiable sound and style), there's plenty of quality to be found here. And the band's richly textured, complex attack pointed the way to the future - the stampeding, militaristic "Emerald," could come off an '80s Metallica album (almost). But the band recalls the past as well - "Fight or Fall," sounds like a soulful come-together leftover from the hippie '60s; the boy-meets-girl "Romeo and the Lonely Girl," could have been written in any era; and "Warriors," shows that Lynott had been understudying for the role of Jimi Hendrix (not necessarily a good thing). The macho fantasies of "The Cowboy Song," and "The Boys Are Back In Town," follow in the tough/tender Hemingway-Sinatra-Springsteen softheaded underbelly tradition, but extend them to a gloriously liberating, instantly nostalgic place that in my more sentimental moments I'd like to live - who wants to grow up? I want to hang with the boys out in Dino's all night long drinking beer and playing my favorite song for the rest of my life! Sigh...but I can't. The most technically perfect heavy metal album of the '70s - which doesn't mean it's the best, but technical perfection is nothing to sneer at.

Johnny the Fox (1976) ****

The success of Jailbreak and "The Boys Are Back In Town," must have gone to Lynott's head, because the followup is his most ambitious undertaking -- a great many other rock geniuses had set down their all-important classic concept album, so why shouldn't Lynott, who desperately wanted to be one rock's all time heroes? The problem is Lynott's fatal flaw, a crucial lack of discipline: the album follows the storyline for an entire side, but quickly falls apart on the second half. Lynott, high on success and drugs, obviously didn't have the attention span to bring his great project to fruition. The storyline introduced on the first track, "Johnny," concerns a drug addict named Johnny the Fox who's on the run after shooting a drug store attendant, but already on the second track, "Rocky," the concept begins to run off track -- sure, it's a nifty number of cocky mythic rock-star-in-his-mind making in a Ziggy Stardust vein, but just how does Rocky relate to Johnny? The lonely fella at the bar drinking "seven beers and still sober/it's time to try something stronger," is obviously Johnny filling in as Lynott's alter-ego, but is it Rocky or Johnny telling some backstage groupie "Don't Believe A Word," 'cause he just sang to some other pretty girl in another town (okay, so that's obviously Rocky filling in as Lynott's alter-ego). But then the best song on side one, the breathtakingly lovely and anthemic in Thin Lizzy's patented style, "Fool's Gold," follows an entirely different saga, that of Irish refugees from the Potato Famine finding their way to America and having their family split apart in the process - the old prospector winds up all the way in California; is that epic sweep or what? I bet Bono played that particular tune quite a bit as a wee lad before he came with The Joshua Tree. It's really hard for me to decide whether "Fool's Gold," or the next song, the amazing funk-metal proto-rap song "Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed," is the album's strongest track. Johnny shows up again as Lynott's alter-ego scoring drugs in places where only men like Lynott (that is to say, black men) can go, all the while grooving to the voodoo music played by this crazy DJ who can send you right on to heaven. I patiently await the inevitable hip-hop cover. After that peak, the album begins its slide in quality - no, not on the next song, the lyrical "Old Flame," but with the final three songs, which don't measure up to the quality of what came before: "Massacre," and the limp ballad "Sweet Marie," are merely passably OK, with "Boogie Woogie Dance," which is as stupid as you'd expect from the title, the truly awful one.

Bad Reputation (1977) ****

Yet another sterling set from Thin Lizzy; by this time the band was so assured of its signature formula it sounds like they could cruise effortlessly on autopilot. Amazingly enough, this album (as one can tell from the photo of the band on the cover) was mostly recorded as a trio - Robertson's fist was recovering from a barfight (he would leave the band soon after), which left Gorham to overdub all of his lines to create that classic Thin Lizzy twin lead guitar harmonic tandem. Lynott didn't bother to come up with an album concept this time, as far as I can tell, which is all good and proper (as if any sensible person actually paid much attention to the plots of the previous two releases). There's an altogether too obvious play for a crossover pop hit, "Dancing In The Moonlight," in which Lynott skips curfew to take a gal out on the town, but mostly the first side sticks to typical Lizzy anthemic epics a la the opener, "Soldier of Fortune," (the man's fondness for military metaphors obviously rubbed off on the Clash). "Opium Trail," is the first of Lynott's explicit warnings to himself concerning his tragic drug addiction; given what we know of how his struggle turned out, the message is poignantly harrowing - "It clears all pain/But your soul is claimed." The majestic "Southbound," is the album's highlight, a Springsteen-esque epic of cinematic sweep following in the "Cowboy Song," tradition - the Wild West has already been won and the Eastern ways are gone, so Lynott's hero heads to the only logical place left. I'm not sure if that would be Mexico - Lynott's not too specific except that it's somewhere South. Well, isn't Antarctica the only uninhabited continent, the last frontier - he has to be talking about packing up the wagons and heading towards the land of ice and penguins! "Downtown Sundown," a tender, moist ballad, seems like such a perfect, tranquil way to end an album, I'm upset that there are two more songs left, fine though they are: "That Woman's Going To Break Your Heart," which certainly had a huge impact upon Henry Rollins (ever heard that guy go off about how great Phil Lynott is? I'll bet you any sum you'll lay down that he cues this track up for his "Thin Lizzy / I just broke up with my girlfriend" workout tapes), and the sincerely religious "Dear Lord," in which Lynott pleas for God to help him with his struggle (he never specifies exactly what problem, but it's not hard to guess what he's begging for help with - see track #3).

Live and Dangerous (1978) ****

While Thin Lizzy's studio albums sold respectably, like many a hard rock combo, it was as a live band that they gained most of their notoriety, and this double live recorded during their Gorham/Robertson prime ranks as one of the greatest live albums of all time - yes, right up there with Live At Leeds and Cheap Trick at Budokan. Only a handful of numbers outshine the studio versions ("Rosalie" blows the Fighting take away), but that's the way live albums go. The band's in top form, brilliantly matching the overdubbed studio originals in a live setting and thereby proving what a technically skilled Thin Lizzy were (who had enough rough-hewn fire to keep them from mere professionalism). As a substitute greatest hits, the selection is just right for newbies, and for those who are already familiar with the Thin Lizzy ouvre, it's a more than worthy companion to the studio discs. There's not much else for me to add - after all, it's, you know, a live album.

Black Rose (1979) ****

During the interim between this and Bad Reputation, the punk rock movement came along to replace the heavy metal Lynott & Co. proved so skilled at, but that didn't seem to affect the band one iota -- they sound the same as before, and this album became their most successful in the UK. It's easy to see why: it trails Jailbreak closely as their second-best effort, as Lynott pens tighter and more pop-catchy material (verging on power-pop on several tunes). Brian Robertson had been replaced by Gary Moore, which is the album's only real downside -- Gorham and Moore hadn't played together enough to form the symbiotic relationship Gorham and Robertson had eventually attained, though you'll have to have listened to all these Lizzy albums dozens of times to really notice. The keep your head high power poppy "Do Anything You Want To," and the hard driving anti-gambling "Waiting For An Alibi," rank among Lynott's finest ever songs, as does his touching ode to his newborn daughter, "Sarah." "Toughest Street In Town," reaffirms Lizzy's rough-hewn working class roots and rocks like a mother; "Got To Give It Up," continues Lynott's self-warnings, as he sounds increasingly desperate and alone. The only real stinkers are "S & M," a mundane funk workout with dumb, misogynistic posturing, and "Get Out Of Here," which would be fine if I hadn't already heard "Toughest Street In Town," already on the first side. It's up to you whether you'll get sucked in to the final track or not: a lengthy guitar epic that parallels a Celtic Neil Young, "Roisin Dubh (Black Rose)" recounts an incident of Irish revolt against English opression, until the end when Lynott turns it into a free-for-all call of Irish pride, goofily tossing off cries of "Oscar - he's goin' Wilde/Sing Playboys of the Western World," that type of thing (he gives shout-out to "Van the Man," as expected). Myself, I'm kind of inbetween: didn't like it at first, it impressed me a few times, and now I'm sitting on the fence. But I'm definitely not sitting on the fence with the rest of this album - one of the most terrific LPs that's never been released on CD and is sadly out of print (?! - didn't this reach #2 on the UK charts?).

Chinatown (1980)
Renegade (1981) **

By this time Lynott's drug abuse had finally gotten to the point that it seriously undermined the band, and this is one of the most depressing albums I've encountered in recent memory: it's painful to hear a once great talent detiorate before your ears into a pathetic, has-been junkie who can't come up with anything more than tired tunes that palely echo his previous accomplishments - and that echo only makes the hurt worse; Lynott still retained enough innate skill to craft quarter-decent songs (which is half of halfway decent, but you take what you can get), but the inspiration is long gone, and his songwriting skills sound ravaged from his misspent youth. Gorham's still on board, but new recruit Snowy White adds nothing to the band's sound, which unfortunately has taken a turn for the '80s in its overreliance on synthesizers and overproduction. The opening six-minute epic, "Angel of Death," is Lynott's attempt to ape "Sympathy for the Devil," (he even recycles lines about being with Hitler in '39), and it predictably falls flat; the title track restates the outlaw ethos to a yawn-inducing effect. "Hollywood," "It's Getting Dangerous," and maybe a couple of others briefly recapture a bit of the old Lizzy magic, but it's clear this band's best days are behind them.

Life (1983)

Another live release.
Thunder and Lightning (1983) *1/2

Snowy White is replaced by yet another newcomer, John Sykes, as Lizzy's final release before Lynott's death finds the band sinking further into mediocrity. Unlike all the other Thin Lizzy releases, there's virtually nothing here to distinguish them from a hundred other generic heavy metal bands - the band rocks harder than ever before, as Gorham abandons his trademark harmonized melodicism for a much less interesting rip'em up the fretboard generic '80s metal attack, which leaves the band sorely in need of sonic identity. Lynott's detioration progresses at an alarming rate, as he misplaces his sense of melody for loud, routine rockers based around unmemorable, shouted choruses; the ballad, "Sun Goes Down," goes practically nowhere, as if Lynott thought atmosphere would carry him alone. It's mindlessly satisfying as headbanging '80s metal if you're into that type of thing, but if not, only completists really need apply.

Thin Lizzy put out one more lengthy tour before calling it a day. Phil Lynott lost his battle with his demons, and died of drug complications during the final days of 1985, bringing Thin Lizzy's saga to its tragic end.

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