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Thin Lizzy were given the opportunity to at last court the elusive American market, opening for Rainbow in the States, but Lynott went ill and the group was dropped from the bill. With a solid album like Jailbreak behind them, it seemed the long-awaited commercial breakthrough in the US was about to come true – yet exhaustion, stress and one relentless schedule took their toll on the front-man’s health. As for the following record, Lynott tried his best to improve the song-writing, not exactly willing to make a sequel of the preceding, successful attempt, but sticking to a similar bluesy rock formula, as well as welcoming a bigger dose of melodious sensitivity and alternative, backing instruments. It’s 1976, punk was about to explode and the old British rock ways were being now derided – though Lizzy didn’t consider for a single second to give up on their old-school blues roots.
It might not be Jailbreak, but this album has some fresh rockers ready to go – “Johnny” and “Rocky”, despite their distinct feel and pulse, rely both on driving harmonies and even more accented melodies, painting pretty direct and reiteratively alternated song-bodies, giving room to both Robbo and Gorham to play their unrepentantly overextended solos – the simplicity and laziness of punk is denied. Still on the soft side, “Fools Gold” eludes as well to recreate fiery hard rock, exposing Lynott’s devotion to evocate Western misery stories instead, abusing this time of one conspicuously-repetitive chorus scheme – effectively endorsed by more of the guitar combo’s flashing harmonic licks. Even the heaviest, most animated tracks here succumb to strong melodies and smooth-texture twin-guitar lines – referring to “Massacre” and “Boogie Woogie Dance”, which mess things up with skittish beats and compulsive arrangements, denoting certain vacuity and mismatch concerning the song-writing, with the predictable, flimsy configuration and variation of riffs; leading to one too brief, compendious performance. “Don’t Believe A Word” stands out from those songs with its more gracefully-envisioned riff-pattern, the more premeditated soloing and charming frolicsome on Lynott’s words. That ain’t definitely the case with “Borderline” and “Sweet Marie”, whose inane chord-basis, lazy string arranging and disconcertingly-cheesy verses point again at a worrisome absence of spark of inspiration on its conception, as well as making clearer Lynott’s perceptibly exceeding self-indulgence and profusion, concerning the addition of ornate climaxes, sounds and colors those extravagant instruments provide – talking of the horn section, Collin’s percussion, Trench’s exotic, sitar-sounding strings…
Lynott is getting influences from everywhere, which may be the result of listening to radio stations whilst touring the States for hours. Lizzy actually sounds here much more American than ever, obeying such traditional, poppy and melodious blues ideals with a growing inclination for ballady stuff. The proudly Irish, Celtic folklore and fantasy is now withdrawing from its position, in favor of an unashamedly commercial, tender AOR edge, which points to a different direction. The sonic clarity and intensity on Jailbreak has vanished, now that Lynott’s writing is going soft, eluding the composure and tightness on the above-mentioned previous effort. They seem to put bigger attention on the external arranging of the music, concerning those unexpected instrument textures, that certainly give the songs so much atmosphere and color, but neither integrally contribute to make the structures stronger, nor set the context/feel of the music, rather being just an expendable addition. Lynott’s is also punctuating the melodious side of things emphatically – thank God Robbo persuaded him to go for a much faster tempo on “Don’t Believe A Word”, which was originally intended to be a dull, bluesy ballad. Now calmer, inoffensive guitar lines, enthusiastically polished and neat are taking over, omitting the fiery vivacity on “Warriors” or “Emerald”, with the band not relying that much on riffs only, but boosting-up the assertive melodies. From cocky funk and orchestral, cabaret love songs, to agitated, straight-up boogie rock and Eastern sounds, Johnny The Fox presents the most varied song-list Lizzy ever conceived, but more sonically comprehensive doesn’t mean musically stronger in this case, as the continuity and equanimity of the songs is being affected by Lynott’s divergent ideas, for sure.
Turning their heads on the declining British rock scene, as well as ignoring the nascent punk revolution, Thin Lizzy prefer to experiment and try out outlandish ideas, taking big risks in such tumultuous period for this kind of music. The minimal success this record scored would confirm they were pretty much losing direction, taking a step backwards to the Nightlife decrepitude and smoothness, proving this album to be a disappointing follow-up to the celebrated Jailbreak. Lynott is here in need of guidance and reasoning, Gorham and Roberson are back to their old tricks again, while Downey is sounding flatter than ever – all of them failing to give the song-writing the necessary turgidity and novelty. It came as no surprise actually only 3 songs from this album were included on Live And Dangerous, feeling out-of-place among much heavier rockers like “Are You Ready” and “Suicide” (with “Massacre” being the exception). Back on the borderline one more time.
This album brings back so many nostalgic memories for me it is unreal. Now I know people argue whether Thin Lizzy are metal or rock or borderline, but as they are here on the metal archives, I thought I should review their shit. I was listening to Thin Lizzy before I was seriously into metal, I mean Venom would have probably made me shit my pants at this point if I'm being honest, just to give you an idea of how uninitiated I was. At the time I was listening to stuff which definitely would not give me much cred on the MA, such as Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, Van Halen, Boston, KISS, Led Zeppelin, Queen and a bit of Hanoi Rocks I think. I was a year off of thirteen, and I was still hung up on my 70's rock heroes which I was too young to actually experience first hand at the time, so I was kind of delving back into the prior decade digging up gems which I required from the "classic" era. My points of view on the subject of what actually is and isn't classic from 70's hard rock, have changed dramatically over the years. But I can say with ease Thin Lizzy's "Johnny the fox" is as classic as any album in my collection, I wouldn't consider it a metal classic, but enough about the genre of this damned thing already! When this came out Thin Lizzy were already established with other rock defining classics such as "Fighting", "Vagabonds of the western world", "Jailbreak" and to a lesser extent "Nightlife". But after the release of "Jailbreak" (I think this was their most commercially successful, but they had a resurgance in popularity in the early 80's so I don't know.), they decided to strip things back a little. I can hardly call the predessecor watered down to cater the needs of the radio, as much rock from the era was just written this way, even the most obscured bands who were underground would still sound "soft" or "infectious" compared to much of today's undercurrent.
So what is it about this thing I just like so much? It is catchy but still retains that dangerous attitude rock was primarily about and still should be. Even though it is jolly in places, I can still picture Phil Lynott in some hotel room passed out next to an empty whisky bottle, or down town in some hot shot club in Hollywood downing shots of Jäger with acquaintances from bands like Rainbow or Led Zeppelin. It is a glimpse of a lifestyle most of us could never have, the life we try and live up to on a weekend, but find ourselves semi-crouched over a toilet puking involuntarily, regretting that last beverage which clearly had trouble going down smoothly. Not to say this album is excessive and bloated, nor is it a pressure cooker like Guns N' Roses "Appetite for destruction". Hey it might even just be my over active imagination, but this album is a stream lined product of attitude perfected. The first two tracks "Johnny" and "Rockey" have some great riffs from beginning to end, and are perfect album starters as they have hooked you, and even if it was all downhill from this point on, you would persevere and listen any way. Thankfully it only gets better. "Borderline" and "Old flame" are ballads which are quite impressive in execution. Phil emits an almost macho sadness on these two tracks, and it annoys me that there are some who would call this emo. Call this emo, I fucking dare you! "Don't believe a word" is one of Thin Lizzy's most recognisable songs, and a live favourite for many years and rightly so. I actually have heard an alternate version to this, I think it is the original version which is more slow in pace, and just as good! Check it out on youtube, because I don't know what your chances of finding a physical copy are. "Massacre" has an infectious plodding chorus and "Fool's gold" has quite a heartwarming effect, but at the same time doesn't verge on cheese. "Johnny the fox meets Jimmy the weed", has a kind of funky dance vibe about it, but Phil's charisma more than redeems this track, it makes it one of the best on offer here! I'm glad I don't take myself serious enough, to not admit enjoying this song.
It almost seems bizarre that a couple of months after listening to this album, I would make a descent into metal madness, which would disturb my parents and change my outlook on the last wave of rock leading up to metal. However nothing that has passed, be it pioneering or just trend, has hindered my views on this album. It is just ace, and even though I love it so much, I'm having trouble finding reasonable words to plead my case as it were. Some here would consider this inferior. The moment I consider this inferior should be the day you should just shoot me. Honestly, if it happens just blow my fucking head right off, and spare me from the herd and the worker bees and the purists.
Having awakened the world to the strength of their music with Jailbreak earlier that same year, Lizzy stuck while the public was hot, and issued an equally stunning, and possibly more polished and mature effort as their next salvo. Johnny The Fox is something of a concept album, if only in fragmented style, a tale of desperate, righteous but hell-bent urban characters, much like mini-biographies of band leader and voice Phil Lynott himself. Lynott, like most great song writers was deeply personal in his approach, and wither his tales are bawdy, regretful or just plain cool, they always reflect some aspect of the man’s own odd place in our world. Or do most black Irishmen find it easy to fit in? Maybe it’s just me reading too much into it.
Anyway, the album punts off with “Johnny,” a tale of tragic addiction gone berserk, fueled by the newly urgent guitar interplay provided by Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson. See these guys had played well on the band’s previous three albums as well, but here they’re like caged animals let lose to ravage. Robertson himself proves that on the unbelievably great “Don’t Believe A Word,” one of Lynott’s most confessional songs about his own infidelities and shame. Not only lyrically heart breaking (but honest) this track’s guitar solo is alternately bruising and healing, wielding the perfect mix of bravado and sorrow to match the lyric. Just awesome. Also similarly amazing from the guitar perspective is “Old Flame,” one of the more evocative songs on its title subject ever written. Not heavy, but just gorgeous. I defy any red-blooded lad to not relate to its charms and ability to invoke one’s lusty memory. There’s also a little terse funk on hand (“Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed”) some tribal metal (“Boogie Woogie Dance,” dumb title I know, but this the still the seventies we’re into here! Kick butt guitar work here all the same) and a genuinely beautiful cut in “Sweet Marie.”
Ever evolving, each Lizzy release we encounter adds another batch of unforgettable songs to this band’s history, and indeed to metal’s. Johnny The Fox is history as far as this writing is concerned, but why stop here? Run, don’t walk straight to 1977’s Bad Reputation, one of the true jewels in the crowded Lizzy crown.