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Dear, oh dear. In and of itself its a massive slide into mediocrity, but having the misfortune to come out in 1980; the year where any metal band that could put out a great album, did put out one; sweet Jesus the crippling effect this album did to Thin Lizzy's momentum.
Mind you this album is not garbage, far from it. It's just....average. Yes, yes average Thin Lizzy is still better than most, but this is most certainly something that you would label "fans only" in the proverbial buyer's guide to Phil and the gang (at least to anything to post 1975). If you're one of those playlist folks like me who are fiending for something from every album to put on your Lizzy list, fear not, as there are some choice tunes here that won't bring the party to a screeching halt. The most notable is the one-two punch of Sugar Blues and Killer on the Loose. The latter kinda recycles the main riff to Are You Ready (why wasn't that made a studio track again? It would have solved a lot of problems), but its one of those Vanilla Ice excuses where you DO notice the distinct difference in riffs. It's just probably not the best idea have those two side by side. Sugar Blues is a fast number, and you can't go wrong with speedy Lizzy numbers. The lyrics suit the speed as well, considering the sugar in question is most certainly not endorsed by the DEA (at least not without paying them a hefty customs fee). It's distinctly a rocker though rather than speed metal (which could be applied oh-so-slightly to Killer On The Loose), with that backbeat rhythm that made songs like Beating Around The Bush and Rocker so feisty but danceable.
The second half of this album is where the mediocrity starts to really slip in. Especially with Having A Good Time which is a rather sad attempt at re-creating the party glory of The Boys Are Back In Town. I'm never, ever one to call Phil Lynott contrived or pretentious, but that couple of minutes where he's calling out every other member to do their thing is when Phil is having maybe a little too much more fun than everybody else. Killing of the Buffalo starts out solid but it falls into a trap of fading out on chorus repetition for a little too long (to be fair, you'll be checking your watch and the track time at the end of Killer On The Loose as well). Hey You seems like it will be one of those laid back Fight Or Fall tracks, and the first verses or so are like that, when all of a sudden, around 2:19, Phil gives you a gentle cattle prodding to the dick and forces you to bang your head and smash furniture. I'm all for dynamics, but at this point in the album it feels like the whole song should have been like that, particularly with side two's lulling.
Proceed with caution, and don't spend too much money either. This is actually the only Lizzy album that I would maybe recommend getting used. Would definitely rank no higher than 10 on a top 10 of 1980 list and that's if it's really lucky.
Despite their so-called obsolete, classic blues rock sound, Thin Lizzy prevailed among iconoclastic punk and commercially-appealing new wave disco groups at the death of the 70’s. Their unforgettable double live album Live And Dangerous gave them some goodly chart success, while Black Rose proved to be a strong follow-up, with Gary Moore eventually willing to be part of the band, as well as getting involved in the song-writing – helping the band get over the departure of teen phenomenon Brian Robertson. Yet things started going wrong and getting worse when both Lynott and Gorham’s heroin addiction got out of hand, soon taking its toll on the tightness and quality standards of the stage performances, alienating Moore, leading to his abrupt resignation in the middle of a tour. One more time they were looking for a guitarist, founding a proper replacement on highly-proficient, expert player Snowy White after hiring no less than 2 musicians (Midge Ure and Dave Flett), a choice which confirmed Lynott & co.’s determination to mark a new era for Lizzy, in a time when startling NWOBHM kids started revamping the traditional rock values. Saying Gorham:
“Phil and I had actually been aware of Snowy since 1977 since we saw him play with Pink Floyd at Madison Square Garden in New York on the Animals tour. We were quite surprised to see this other guy on stage with David Gilmour, but even more surprised when this other guy got a solo spot! Snowy was firing off some great shift, and Phil and I were going: ‘Who the hell is he?’”.
It didn’t look like Lizzy were about to fight fire with fire, concerning the lethalness and adventurous-minded attitude of young NWOBHM bands. On songs like “Sweetheart” and “We Will Be Strong”, the band explores even further and more intensively their sensitive side, their flair for deriving driving melodies – accentuating eagerly those trademark, lively harmonies, fueled by the legendary, hugely-inspirational twin-guitar sound of White and Gorham. With the pace remaining mostly sober, Lynott’s sensitive aplomb is given the chance to break through, adding a blues melancholy-vibe to the attentively-configured structures. Texture on the above-mentioned harmonies is boosted and tightened up by colorful effect pedals and intrinsic string techniques, proving the taste and ability of this flamboyant guitar-combo. Besides uplifting finesse and elegant melodiousness, certain level of dexterity is envisioned with the ambitious perspective on “Sugar Blues” and “Having A Good Time” giving Snowy room to imagine and elaborate generously lengthier soloing, more abundant, effusive fills and nostalgic blues licks. Not only the refulgent instrumental mastery, congruity and professionalism, but the chemistry and good feeling between the Lynott-Downey-Gorham axis and White is providing the music of so much grace, sonic clarity and flawlessness, sounding so natural and effortlessly-driven. This new incarnation ain’t closing its ears to the burgeoning metallic attack from the NWOBHM either, somewhat answering to it with choleric, malicious riffs and controversial lyrics, in the form of the title-track and the “Killer On The Loose” up-tempo, which saw Lynott & co. delivering a less-restrained, fuming performance. “Hey You” and “Genocide” unleash more clever aggression, though making way for increasingly progressive, perfectionist song-structure patterns, contrasting reggae licks, sporadic frenzied pulse shifts and twisting harmonies, remaining rigorous on their perpetration, detail and development of their diversified bottom-up ideas. No wonder Downey recently declared:
“Snowy had a much more laid-back style and I have a feeling Phil had that in mind with the songs he was writing. Snowy was a different guitar player, he was more bluesy, had a very deliberate style of playing. I certainly was aware of the fact when Gary left we either had to get somebody in who was going to be completely different or similar…Snowy was ideal because he was (totally) different to Gary Moore”.
Chinatown sounds considerably distinct to anything Thin Lizzy had offered to that point. Certain values and parameters stay untouched, though, concerning the distinctive, captivating twin-guitar harmony lines, specially – but with Snowy now being given enough room to bring his own stamp to the band, unrestrictedly, the sound goes to another level, tighter, way more tidied-up and technically accomplished. Avoiding to step into anybody’s shoes (call them Bell, Robertson or Moore), Snowy is bringing in his fondness for classic blues, which Lynott actually could relate to, recovering the sentiment and lyricism Lizzy had been omitting since the mid-70’s, without however turning their backs on power and aggression, elements which take form exuberantly on this record with bigger class, mindfulness and subtlety than any NWOBHM act around at the time. So riffs are getting vicious and galloping sometimes, yet not designed just to bang away emotionlessly, no blunder, noisy playing, rather creditably and perspicaciously conceived. Lynott said:
“I just didn’t really jump up on the stage and be angry, for the sake of it, and so that’s why I could never associate with the punk thing, why I can’t associate with this heavy metal revival. I have to be saying something”.
So their melodious essence is bravely exhibited, think of “Didn’t I” and its smooth chord-basis, the fluffy electric piano and synth, and the lost-love verses a la Solo In Soho; but balanced at the same time with exquisite insightfulness with thoughtful harshness and bubbling speed (check those propulsive dynamics on “Hey You”), making clear Thin Lizzy still believed in their traditional training, their intransigent instrumental rigorousness and old-school blues roots, no matter how derided and proved-obsolete that mindset was by uncompromising punk and metal bands. Too bad Woolven’s dreadful production is ruining the potency, feel and sharpness on these songs – check those incendiary 1980 Cork sound-check tracks on the 2011 Deluxe Edition CD2 and you’ll see what I mean; as well as Lynott’s increasingly complacent, lazy effort and extravagant, druggy rock star lifestyle affecting the rationality and depth of both song-writing and performance. Most of the time, it’s Snowy, with a modest help from flat, Donwey’ drumming on auto-pilot, who’s pushing the band forward, taking it more serious than Gorham and his growingly-insipid, lifeless lines.
Chinatown was unfairly dismissed by the fans, despite the significant chart-success the album itself (peaking no. 7), and the “Killer On The Loose” single (no. 10) actually scored in the UK, (succumbing to The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” in the end, sadly). The above-mentioned track also kicked up some controversy with those ominous lyrics, as Woolven recalls:
“Everyone was quite surprised that “Killer On The Loose” did so well. Phil had doubts about it. He felt he had to justify the lyrics. His feeling was: ‘Hold on, there are all these killings going on, why oh why is this still happening? Why hadn’t anything been done about it? Why hasn’t the guy been caught?’ That was very much his point”.
“Because it was a much heavier track, I was really pleased that it did well as a single. It was a bit different – it’s not as formulaic as some of the other songs. Like “Chinatown” itself, has those harmony guitars – the Lizzy trademark if you like – but “Killer On The Loose” doesn’t have that. It’s more hard driving rock”.
Regardless of the vituperation and negative criticism this album has been victim of down the years, it has stood the test of time in prime form, sounding more enduring and musically wide-ranging than any of these guy’s other albums. Snowy made Lizzy sound more melodious and sensitive than ever, yet at the same time refreshing, vivacious and wise – accentuating their blues background and traditional rock habits, which they would shortly afterwards push away in favor of noisy decibels and over-the-top shred licks. Too bad the fans and ruthless British music press didn’t see it that way. Saying Lynott, after being asked on the unexpected chart success the album peaked:
“I knew this one was a good one, ‘cos Snowy is so good (…). Here we are a year later, back in the charts, back in Australia, and the future looks really bright for us.
I think what’s really neat about Chinatown, a lot of people thought like I might be going soft with the solo album and the kids and stuff. Chinatown dismisses that right away, because you can see the aggression”.
Thin Lizzy are truly an amazing band. Phil Lynott’s poetic and thoughtful lyrics coupled with his superb songwriting skills simply make for an outstanding musical formula that the band has repeated again and again and again to moderate success. Chinatown is simply another nearly flawless Thin Lizzy album.
The positive We Will Be Strong runs out at you with all guns blazing. This song contains some of the band’s most inspired twin guitar leads, and some of Lynott's finest lyrics. If you’ve ever had an off day and you simply don’t feel good, listen to this song. The twin leads give off a very classy positive vibe sure to shake anyone out of a downer. Phil Lynott has one of the smoothest and most reassuring voices in rock, and that causes confidence to literally radiate out of the speakers and into your heart. The title track drops this attitude, and begins to go for a more mysterious rocking feeling. Brian Downey is probably the most underrated drummer in the history of music. His playing here is refreshing, crisp, and is absolutely what ties everything together behind the scenes.
The title track also features a fairly heavy main riff. The distortion is fairly low, but who gives a shit? This is rock n’ fuckin’ roll! It just happens to be rock n’ fuckin’ roll that is borderline metal. Sweetheart is another fairly uplifting tune that yet again shows off Phil Lynott’s casual and suave finesse with the ladies. This man is a ladies’ man to end all ladies’ men. His bass playing doesn’t make its presence nearly as known, being quite content with bringing up the low end of the songs. But what you can hear is enjoyable and spunky licks. Take the intro to Sugar Blues for instance. The bass intro shows off Phil Lynott’s personality. It has a bit of a bouncy quality. Then the vocals kick in a bit later, and the womanizer goes to work. His bass also shines through on the intro to Hey You. What is it with musical atmosphere making me think I’m in a rainy dark city lately? It does that here.
Speaking of heavy, the very middle of Hey You breaks into this fuckin' funkay little speed metal riff. This band can do heavy, and they can do heavy very well! Genocide is another fairly heavy track. The riffing is very vintage 80s heavy metal. Phil Lynott continues his clever lyrical escapade and sings about people not taking kindly to killing of the buffalo. Killer on the Loose is a fast rocker dealing with Jack The Ripper-esque subject matter, while Having a Good Time is about…well, having a good time! This song completely idealizes what’s great about rock and roll.
“Everybody likes to get a little crazy, in their own particular way. But my buddies and I, we go over the top, and go over again today.”
After the first verse, Lynott shows off his poetic and throws in a bunch of wordplay involving similar sounding words. Pretty entertaining, but somewhat useless. There’s a little bit of corny, “HIT ME WITH THAT DRUM AS HARD AS YOU CAN!” type of shit going on. What adds insult to injury is that when Downey actually hits the drums…uhh…as hard as he can, it stays at the exact same volume level. It just seems a little…well, dated? I don’t know. Then again, it’s rock n’ fuckin’ roll! This shit doesn’t have to be serious. Being laid back is probably one of the best qualities a band could even have. Didn’t I is the obligatory ballad, and it rules. Yeah, I’m saying a ballad rules. What are you going to do about it? You’re going to listen to this ballad and agree with me.
Phil Lynott was such a romantic dude. Any guy would be lucky to be half as romantic as he was.
This album is textbook Lizzy. If you like any of their mid/late 70s output, you’ll like this as well. Thin Lizzy simply had some kickass mojo going for about a decade that forced them to continue throwing out great albums, and this one is no exception. No Thin Lizzy collection would be complete without this, as it is one of their MANY masterpieces.