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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

CD Review: Thin Lizzy - Jailbreak and Johnny the Fox Deluxe Editions

Thin Lizzy - Jailbreak and Johnny the Fox Deluxe Editions
2011 Universal Music Group
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Maybe it was the disco surge. Maybe it was an American bicentennial that guzzled up the infectious sugar pop courtesy of Abba and the Bee Gees, the street pimped strut of Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield and the costumed boom and crunch of Kiss. Or maybe it was the underground rumblings in New York and London of kids dancing on pins and needles and flying gobs to show the world its hatred and punk bands their love. Queen hijacked mainstream hard rock of the seventies in a long-running stranglehold, declaring themselves champions of the world, while those who sought to keep it real longed to pull a beer or two under the shady moss of sweet home Alabama.

All of these reasons and then some, if you're to ask the question why Thin Lizzy weren't bigger than they should've been. A continued revolving door of guitarists hinted instability in the Lizzy camp, while poor Phil Lynott had essentially made himself a dandy case as the Irish Bruce Springsteen, but nobody knew it until he'd died. Worse, Lynott was an oddity in the heavy rock world: aloof, introspective, both a bassist and lead singer and he was black. Stereotypes being what they were even in the seventies and early eighties, Thin Lizzy sadly were victims of an unspoken, subconscious racism. Not that it was blatant. As with most cases in social acceptance, most people shy from what they cannot understand.

This, despite the fact Thin Lizzy rocked harder than most of their peers, they boasted unparalleled guitar solos executed in slavers, not clumps. Their songs were tight, they were--at the height of their prowess, before Lynott tried his hand at more progressive theories later down the road--flawless and memorable. The songs were often romantic, but not in a sickly way, frequently hopeful and occasionally snarky. Thin Lizzy often opened insightful portals to the road life that even the Stones' Exile On Main St. hadn't quite put a finger on. Thin Lizzy's "Sweet Marie" may get overlooked because of its swooning balladry that stands out like a canker sore on Johnny the Fox, but you get Phil Lynott's loneliness and isolation on the road.

It was Lynott's smooth pipes that gave Thin Lizzy their cadence and elevated them past the burst of cock rockers who came and went within a few album cycles. Thin Lizzy were as pro as you'd want in a live band and still today, should be considered one of the reasons arena rock became a phenomenon. Lizzy could fill the gaps and then some. Dare we say, they had a hand in helping the New Wave of British Heavy Metal find its sea legs, and metal itself owes Thin Lizzy for paying a large chunk of its dues. Put "Massacre" from 1976's Johnny the Fox up against early Judas Priest, you'll get it.

"The Boys Are Back in Town" will always be considered a rock classic, but why won't those format FM retro stations spin "Bad Reputation" or "Jailbreak" or "Don't Believe a Word?" For that matter, "Borderline," "Johnny," "Rosalie" or "Cowboy Song?" By now, there's no real prejudices we can blame upon the general snubbery Thin Lizzy has faced. Textbook ignorance is more the operative excuse. Long since broken up and now with Lynott and former guitarist Gary Moore having departed terra firma for the great rock hall on the other side, interest in Thin Lizzy has been slowly rising the past few years. Sad that death prompts us to seek out long-standing bodies of work, but it's the nature of the beast, and it's certainly better late than never we do so.

Universal Music brings us the Jailbreak and Johnny the Fox Deluxe Editions--both originally released in 1976--and it's not just reflection or cash-in reissue pieces we're dealing with here. Two discs apiece, with remastered albums and hunks of demos, alternate takes, remixes, BBC recordings and a few previously-unreleased songs, such as "Blues Boy" and "Derby Blues" (a rough treatment of what would go on to become "Cowboy Song") on Jailbreak, plus "Scott's Tune" on Johnny the Fox.

If you've been a fan of Thin Lizzy or even a pure rock aficianado, seldom few songs get you more revved up by the intro power chord of "Jailbreak." know it instantly and whatever's caging you up--figuratively or literally--will seem more imperative once Phil Lynott croons with a gust in his throat, "Tonight there's gonna be a jailbreak, somewhere in this town, see, me and the boys don't like it, so we're getting up and going down..." Hell yes, that's more metal than "Shout at the Devil," people. Lynott makes you believe there will be trouble and you'd better not be around if you're the authorities. Metaphorically the same message as Motley's "Shout," but issued less than a decade earlier and with tremendous conviction. This is is one of the original sons of anarchy and it's a shame punk rock in its infancy stages didn't glom onto "Jailbreak" instead of seeking to bury Thin Lizzy and others of their ilk.

Lynott's street-bled poetry on "Angel From the Coast" and "Romeo and the Lonely Girl" (Romeo sitting on own-eee-o, ripe stuff) are part of Jailbreak's massive endearments, while it hails their signature cut "The Boys Are Back in Town." Both are reasons you should own this album, but it goes deeper than that. How about the tag-team guitars of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson? Amongst the best the business has ever produced, KK Downing and Glenn Tipton notwithstanding. Homogenous, fluid, instinctive, the guitars on Jailbreak (and, for that matter, Johnny the Fox, Bad Reputation and Fighting) are halcyon, worthy of study by every future guitarist.

A product of its time, Jailbreak could've traded with Boz Scaggs and Steely Dan with "Running Back" and "Romeo and the Lonely Girl," while "Warriors" out-Kisses Kiss with a similarly-styled riff attack with more grit and less sleaze. Listen to the solo section on "Warriors" as well and try not to think of earlier Motorhead. Ahead of their time, Thin Lizzy.

You have to think future bands like Tesla were spinning the boundary-pushing "Cowboy Song" with relentless fury in their younger years, taking note how Lynott gets his muse lost in dreamland while being bucked off a bull's ass. It took awhile for the pro rodeo circuit to bring black and Latin bronc and bull riders into the circuit, and you have to think Phil's smiling down from Heaven at it. "Cowboy Song" became a fan favorite in Thin Lizzy's live repertoire and with good reason. We're all tall in the saddle thanks to Phil Lynott.

It's an absolute sin "Don't Believe a Word" never made it upon the DJ playlists of yesteryear and today. Okay, perhaps it's a bit heavier than mainstream rock and pop stations of the day could hack, but there's a monster hook and slide to "Don't Believe a Word" that should've made Thin Lizzy masters of the universe by the time Johnny the Fox came on the heels of Jailbreak. Only a click behind its predecessor, Johnny the Fox is still stout work, even in a quasi concept that's barely conveyed and not really fleshed out.

Johnny the Fox is heavier than Jailbreak, while the former is leaner and more driven. "Fight Or Fall" from Jailbreak has hints of funk to break up its light candor, while the quixotic "Borderline" from Johnny the Fox serves as a veritable blueprint for every hairball power ballad that followed in its distant wake. "Borderline" has punctuated guitar strikes amidst its lofty verses and a home run guitar solo that seeps into the second chorus. It's the prototype love lost rock jam that is only superceded by the Scorpions' "Still Loving You."

Thin Lizzy withholds the funk licks for "Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed" and it likely did Curtis Mayfield proud. You get the picture there's a lost gutter trash film out there that got shitcanned because it could've used a badass intro tune like this one.

Even while "Fool's Gold" reworks the riff segments of "The Boys Are Back in Town" and drops the tempo several notches, it still hums and gets further benefit by gnarly guitar ticks. All before Johnny the Fox dips back and forth between swishy and aggressive, i.e. "Old Flame" then "Massacre" then "Sweet Marie." Few bands can pull such blatant mood swings and get away with it.

Some of the alternate versions to these deluxe editions include a steadier pulse to "Johnny," including harder guitar solos and a planted horn section plus a lankier work-in-progress take of "Don't Believe a Word." There are instrumental takes on "Rocky," "Massacre" and "Fool's Gold," plus different vocal tracks for "The Boys Are Back in Town." There are session recordings Thin Lizzy did with the BBC for "Jailbreak," "Emerald," "The Warrior," "Cowboy Song" and "Johnny." Of the "new" tracks, "Scott's Tune" is an especially ripped-up bit of abbreviated fun worth hearing for any Thin Lizzy disciple.

Thin Lizzy spent more time after their core body of work living up to their image as desperados while changes in modern music all but demanded they leave Dodge. This stress and sense of unwantedness likely had everything to do with the so-so showings of Chinatown and Renegade in the early eighties. It also is the probable linchpin to Phil Lynott's self-destructive modes which claimed his life at age 35. His drug death is more tragic than most because there was hardly any "righteousness" to it. Lynott's music is more timeless than listeners have given him credit for and the historical lack of appreciation for Thin Lizzy has been nothing short of criminal. Lynott's home was where his heart was and it wasn't much of a home, to paraphrase his near-weeping on "Sweet Marie." That's as painful as anything recorded in anybody's genre.

Thank you, Universal, for helping set the record straight.

Rating: *****


cjk_44 said...

Ray, great article -about a great band and two great albums. If there is a more criminally under-appreciated song in the hard rock canon than "Don't Believe A Word" I haven't heard it yet.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

hear hear, my friend...I'd lobby to have that one put on the mandatory playlist at classic rawk stations

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

and thanks, btw ;)

Heavy Metal Merchant said...

Ray, I've just discovered your blog its some great work and a labor of love its not hard to tell.. as for the Thin Lizzy catalogue 'Johnny the Fox', 'Bad Reputation', 'Black Rose', 'renegade' those are the classics for sure to my well worn ears.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

HMM, thanks a mil, my friend...I've always tried to keep a high quality of writing here...may not always succeed, but it makes me very happy when others feel I've done so, thank you very much...definitely the old Lizzy albums are all critical slabs of rock and it's a shame most fools think they're a one-hit wonder