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Monday, 22 April 2019

Ranked & Rated: Thin Lizzy (Paul H)

Thin Lizzy

Few bands were as constant in their delivery of albums as Thin Lizzy. Formed in 1969 in Dublin by Phil Lynott, Eric Bell and Brian Downey, the band produced 12 albums between 1971 and 1983, and released two live albums in that time. When you look back at the chaos that ensued around the band, with various line up changes, disputes and of course, massive drug addiction, it’s astonishing that the band managed to produce such quality throughout their career.

Rating Lizzy’s albums is a real challenge. The early albums saw the band developing, their Celtic folk and blues background influencing their first three albums, and it was only with the departure of Eric Bell in 1973 and the arrival of the duel guitar attack of Brian Robertson and American Scott Gotham that the band began to establish their ‘classic sound’. Even then, several of their albums contain some real duff songs, but the band has enough gems in their catalogue to truly warrant being rightly remembered as a magnificent hard rock outfit. Led by Lynott, who did much of the song writing, Thin Lizzy careered through the 1970s, blowing several cracks at the States due to a number of mishaps, bad luck and idiotic behaviour. By the time they hit the late 70s the band was creaking, Lynott’s addictions influencing his direction, style and behaviour and yet even at the end of the band in 1983, they were capable of cranking out some quality hard rock like the guitar heavy riffs of Cold Sweat, still an absolute killer track.

The hardest part was ruling out possibly the greatest live album of all time, the magnificent Live And Dangerous, a ferocious album that captures Lizzy at their height. Shows recorded at Hammersmith Odeon in 1976, Philadelphia and Toronto in 1977 and released in 1978, there is much mystery around how much of the album is actually live but bollocks to that, it’s a fantastic album that drew together songs from Nightlife through to Johnny The Fox and is a real statement of the force that Lizzy were in the live arena. Robertson and Gorham’s duelling axe work, the driving bass of Lynott, the rock steady drumming of Downey and of course, the Irish charm of Lynott that still makes me smile. But let us take a journey on those 12 albums. This is my view of course, and everyone who loves Lizzy will have a different take. Starting at the top.

1. Jailbreak
Released in 1976, Jailbreak had a bit of everything. The third album to feature Robertson and Gorham in tandem, there are few weak tracks and some absolute belters. The album opens with the title track, a straight-out rocker, Lynott telling stories as he always did in his own inimitable manner. Jailbreak contains one of my favourite stupid lyrics; “Tonight there’s going to be a jailbreak, somewhere in the town”. Oh, and that other memorable line “See, Me and the boys mean business, busting out dead or alive”. No words needed. But look past these lyrics and you get an absolute classic hard rock track. What a start. We also have Warriors, a song that lauds the heavy drugs users of the time, with a nod to Hendrix and Duane Allman, and then the most famous of Lizzy songs, The Boys Are Back In Town. Written by Lynott, this is possibly the perfect hard rock song. A riff more infectious than a Newport kebab house, great driving groove, instantly memorable chorus, duel guitar work, and the king of the story, Lynott once more narrating stories from home. A song that appeals to virtually everyone from the most devout black metaller to the granny at the wedding party, we all love this song and I never ever tire of hearing it. Just magic. After that, Fight or Fall and then the light intro to Cowboy Song, the delicate guitar and Lynott’s narration, before the track kicks in and the rock starts to roll again. Another great riff and chorus, with Downey laying down a solid beat to drive it forward. And then we get to Emerald. A monster. The epic which features possibly the best guitar work ever on a Lizzy album, the duel harmonies majestic, the solos fierce and full of class, and Lynott selling the tale with ease. A perfect end to the definitive Thin Lizzy album.

2. Bad Reputation

The final album to feature Brian Robertson, albeit on only three songs, and that was only solos, the album cover wasn’t designed by the band’s usual artist Jim Fitzpatrick and featured Lynott, Downey and Gorham with Robertson’s image only displayed on the reverse of the sleeve. With Gorham handling the bulk of the guitar work, Bad Reputation is lean and heavy, and improved on its predecessor, the lukewarmly received Johnny The Fox. Bad Reputation features the feisty title track with Downey in rampant form, clattering the drums for fun, layered guitar work and Lynott’s driving bass lines prominent as always. In some ways, he played the bass like Lemmy, almost as a guitar. The album also contains the magical Opium Trail, featuring Robertson’s slicing solo; a hypnotic mystical track, I remember having it on 12” single with Bad Reputation and Dear Miss Lonely Heart, and I was hooked. Lynott’s vocal performance fantastic, his husky tones haunting. And then there is some balance to the hard rock with the gentle Southbound, a track about returning home and a typical Lizzy hook in the chorus, before we get to the Lynott masterpiece, Dancing In The Moonlight (It’s Caught Me In the Spotlight). The opening bass line, the snapping fingers and that saxophone all add to Lynott’s superb tale of young love, and who hasn’t got chocolate stains on their pants? Almost disco, certainly danceable and influenced by Van Morrison, the Northern Irish star who Lynott loved.

3. Black Rose

Black Rose, released in 1979, is the only album to feature Gary Moore despite his three tenures with the band. Alongside Lynott, Downey and Gorham, Black Rose opens with the poppy Do Anything You Want To, Gorham and Moore’s harmony proving that the two could deliver. Despite the unhappiness in the ranks, with Moore Leaving once more shortly after the album was completed, many rate Black Rose as the band’s finest achievement. There are certainly some fine tunes here, the pomp of Waiting For An Alibi, the strangely endearing delicate tribute to Lynott’s daughter in Sarah, the melancholic reflection of Got To Give It Up and of course, Roisin Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend, the clever rearrangement of traditional Celtic songs, with some superb guitar work from Gorham and Moore.

4. Fighting

The opening riff of Bob Seger’s Rosalie, to become a staple in the band’s live set, kicks off album number five in the Lizzy chronological catalogue. Released in 1975, Fighting followed the weak Nightlife, and was the first real Lizzy album to feature what would become their trademark duel guitar sound. With Lynott now in full rock ‘n’ roll poet flow, his lyrics a joy to listen to as he weaved his tales. Alongside him Gorham and Robertson now in full synchronicity, and a heavier edge to the band’s sound. Suicide, Fighting My Way Back, Ballad of the Hard Man all contained the riffs and backbone that may have been missing in earlier releases. Fighting is an underrated album which paved the way for the later classics, hence its high position in this list.

5. Thunder And Lightning

The final album to be released by the band in 1983, and a special place in my heart for this bad boy. With Lizzy in meltdown, and about to implode, the band had recruited Jon Sykes from Tygers of Pan Tang to add some steel after the departure of Snowy White, whose blues style was considered too light for the band. The album kicks off in fine style, the rampant title track, huge riffs and an urgency that has become rare for the band. With Darren Wharton’s thick keyboards, Lynott’s rapid vocal delivery and Gorham and Sykes duelling like two fencers, this was a blistering start from a band in its death throes. Of course, Sykes gets credit for the heavier guitar tone, but his only written contribution was Cold Sweat, probably the heaviest song Lizzy ever released and still a song that gives me shivers with that opening riff as it takes me back to a 13 year old feeling my way into rock music. This was the album that Lizzy released when I was able to buy it on release day, and their gig on the Life Live tour at St David’s Hall remains one of my fondest memories to this day. Cold Sweat simply melts the face, with Sykes adding a fresh vitality to the band with some razor-sharp guitar work. Other tracks that worked well on this highly reflective album included the moody The Sun Goes Down and the prophetic Heart Attack which closed the album. Little did we know that Lynott would be dead less than three years later.

6. Johnny The Fox

With Lynott recovering from hepatitis, Thin Lizzy were on the verge of crisis again with Robbo threatening to leave once more as the band followed Jailbreak with album number seven. Johnny The Fox is an interesting album, with some underrated tracks, the brilliant Don’t Believe A Word which Robertson called “shite”, the lyrical wizardry of Fool’s Gold, another weaving story from Lynott and the sobering Massacre which contained the by now expected double guitar work. For me, it’s always been the funk of Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed that is the stand out track on this album. The thumping bass line, tidy drumming and the efficient guitar work combine to produce a track that always makes me smile. Like any Lizzy album, there were inconsistencies, with Old Flame particularly rubbish but despite the apparent guest appearance by Phil Collins, overall this is a release which deserves more recognition.

7. Vagabonds Of The Western World

The first of many Lizzy albums to feature the artwork of Jim Fitzpatrick, Vagabonds of the Western World, the final album to feature the original line-up of Lynott, Downey and Bell, contains some fantastic blues rock as the band moved further away from their Celtic folk song roots. The opening Mama Nature Said is a superb example, with Bell’s slide guitar fabulous. A confidence that was missing on their first two albums is clearly evident here, with the dark psychedelic sound adding to the quality ... Full of swagger and attitude, nowhere is this more apparent than on The Rocker, a solid reliable inclusion of their live set that remained until the final shows. Gritty and gutsy, Bell’s swirling guitar work stellar whilst Lynott and Downey kept everything locked down. Whilst the 1991 remaster included the band’s take on Whiskey In The Jar, this wasn’t on the original album, having been released as a single some months before Vagabonds was released. Certainly, the best of the three Bell-era albums, Vagabonds of the Western World is an album that should be played more often than it is.

8. Renegade
1981’s Renegade features Snowy White on guitar and Darren Wharton on keyboards. The opening track, written by Lynott and Wharton, combines a killer riff and sweet keyboards and remains one of my favourite Lizzy tracks. Angel of Death tracks the history of man’s folly over time, the carnage of world wars and the ever-present angel of death ready and waiting. It’s haunting vibe, chugging rhythm and solid guitar work as Gorham and White hit it off together along with the breakdown in the middle where Wharton takes centre stage on his keyboards and Lynott’s sinister vocals impose and threaten. This is followed by the melancholy of the title track, a song which would have sat comfortably on a Dire Straits album, it’s delicate crafted open quickly overridden by another fat riff as the song kicks in. It’s another classic hard rock song that only Lizzy could deliver. Sadly, there is quite a bit of filler on this album, as the band lurched onward. The Pressure Will Blow the most aptly titled song on the album, and one of the weakest tracks the band have ever recorded. Leave This Town, with it’s rock ‘n’roll groove is another poor track although one might applaud the band for taking a different stance. By 1981 Lizzy were in trouble.

9. Thin Lizzy
The debut album from the band, released in 1971, there is little here which resembles the band that finished Thunder & Lightning a mere 12 years later. Thin Lizzy is an underrated release within the band’s catalogue. Eric Bell’s sublime blues guitar work is at times phenomenal, whilst Brian Downey’s time keeping sets a benchmark which he maintained throughout the band’s tempestuous journey. It’s also the start of Lynott’s poetry in his songwriting, the stories based on his life as a young man in Dublin. Songs such as Look What The Wind Blew In, with its 60s feel and style, the sweetness of the Clifton Grange Hotel, the ode to the home country in Eire and the band’s home city in Dublin, all demonstrate the seeds of greatness which were struggling to germinate at this time. Thin Lizzy isn’t an extraordinary debut album, but looking back, there is plenty to enjoy. Appreciate the innocence of a band in their heady first flush of recording.

10. Chinatown

Snowy White had replaced Moore on guitar after Black Rose. Thin Lizzy introduced a 17-year-old keyboard player called Darren Wharton to add quality to their songwriting and sound. Released in 1980, the album encountered controversy due to the track Killer On The Loose, due to the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, The Yorkshire Ripper whose killing spree was terrorising the Country at the time. I still remember the nightmares as a youngster that the news reports invoked. Aside from that, Killer On The Loose is probably the standout track on a fairly weak album. The title track contained a memorable hook, with White and Gorham combining neatly and the groove of this song infectious but other than that most of the tracks here are a bit hit and miss. It might be a mark of Lynott’s quality that now even some of the worst songs sound perfectly decent, but Chinatown isn’t a fantastic album.

11. Shades Of A Blue Orphanage

Having got their debut out of the way, 1972 saw the sophomore release from Lizzy and it opened in crazy style with Downey hammering away on the drums before Bell’s distinctive guitar kicked in on The Rise and Dear Demise of The Funky Tribes. A blues-soaked piece of psychedelic funk, this track no doubt appeals more today than it did 47 years ago. I suppose it was an early example of Lynott’s determination to deliver his own style of music. The album contains a touching tribute to his grandmother, who raised him, and Sarah mustn’t be confused with the song dedicated to his daughter on Black Rose. The meandering title track, with Lynott’s rambling story telling is possibly the best song on the album, a melancholic sojourn which showed both potential but just how far the band still had to go. Unlike the remastered versions, the original did not contain Whiskey In The Jar.

12. Nightlife

1974’s Nightlife saw the birth of the classic Lizzy duel guitar sound, something that would remain with them for the rest of the band’s career. With Eric Bell leaving and Gary Moore providing only a fleeting contribution, Lynott brought in help from outside Ireland. Scot Brian Robertson, who would later contribute to the underrated Motörhead album Another Perfect Day, and Californian Scott Gorham, who remain with Lynott until the end and continue the legacy up until the current day. A soulful, laid back album, the original version was blighted by a poor production which was described by Robertson and Gorham as “pretty naff’ and “ridiculously lame”. For me it’s the weakest album in the catalogue, although there are still flashes of brilliance, such as the pacy aggression of Sha La La, the groove of opening track She Knows, with it’s infectious rhythm and of course, Still In Love With You, with Frankie Miller’s vocals and Gary Moore’s superb solo. Overall though, it’s lightweight but did at least provide a hint of what was to come the following year.

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