Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Guess Who Just Got Back Today? -- Thin Lizzy

Around high school and college, I had a habit of trying to avoid limiting myself to singles and familiar tracks from any given artist as a means of making sure I didn't unintentionally and unknowingly find myself without some lesser-known but glorious music. It also helped to know where to start with artists who never really had a "Greatest Hits" due to their relative new-ness or because it simply hadn't happened in any reasonably available fashion. Of course, the fact that albums are some of the more commonly discussed in circles surrounding music history encouraged this as well, nevermind the affinity shown by musicians toward making "albums" as a cohesive unit of music starting sometime in the late 1960's, which is the beginning of when I find most music interesting.¹

As a result, I spent a lot of time in those days with complete (though simple) discographies from artists who caught my ear, thinking it would be rather peculiar for anyone to write a number of songs that I liked and only that handful--or, really, even a single song. I suppose the logic ran that if the band or artist was still known and discussed ten, twenty, thirty years on, there must have been enough of value in all their work to maintain a fanbase after their initial charms might have worn off. I've mentioned that XTC pushed me to eventually pursue more complete (sometimes excessively so) discographies, but that came from pushing through album after album, getting scattered first by things like well-regarded EPs from modern artists.

Still, for quite some time, many artists from the 1970s and 1980s in particular were available primarily only via their album-styled works or greatest hits compilations, rarities being not-oft discussed, let alone easily found. Heck, I didn't realize how often bands would even bother with them in the major label, popular-mainstream of things until stumbling into things like The Cars' Just What I Needed anthology, or The Police's Message in a Box set (which actually isn't a box, for the record).

One of the bands I picked up in those days, alongside less traditional (though possibly more loved) artists like Tom Waits--leading, incidentally, to my fascination with his lesser-regarded earlier works--was Thin Lizzy. Of course, most people think of them from that 1976 smash hit (assuming they even know what band was behind it) "The Boys Are Back in Town," and I was not much of an exception. Now, to spare you just a bit, let's drop that song in, to give those unfamiliar a simple hook to start from, via that very song:

Of course, the whole reason I was pushed, believe it or not, was VH1's Behind the Music on the band, which I remember finding one of the more interesting and engaging ones. When I went home and asked my dad about Thin Lizzy, having discovered he had none of their albums at all, he said he always thought they were kind of boring, but that vocalist/bassist Phil Lynott's solo album Solo in Soho was really good. Knowing his distaste for things I could enjoy like AC/DC and other hard rock (and, of course, metal), I shrugged and decided this would be another exception.

Now, this was one of the first bands I did all this with, so I was just randomly grabbing whatever songs people made available (this was all in the late 90s and early 2000s, so plenty of you can guess exactly what my method was), which meant I was getting a listener-selected "best of" more than anything else, which dropped their other huge single right in after "The Boys," being the title track from Jailbreak:

I wandered into a copy of the album from which they both came, and then, after the less-famous single "Cowboy Song" really clicked with me, started spiraling out from there. I'd listen to an artist straight through chronologically and songs would click here and there elsewhere in their works, and the associated album would rise in my interest and estimation as a result. One of the others that stuck was probably the next biggest hit, and the next most-associated with the band, the non-album single "Whiskey in the Jar."  Being non-album, I guess I can forgive myself for not getting the associated album--though, of course, U.S. distributors tacked it onto the album released alongside it, Vagabonds of the Western World from 1973, even if it was released a year later than the single.

Of course, "Whiskey" is a traditional Irish song, but at this point at least half the renditions released for mass consumption are based on Lizzy's arrangement, enough that many don't know they did create this arrangement, which strays pretty far musically from the traditional version, as heard by, for instance, the Dubliners or even the Pogues (who naturally sped it up, but otherwise left it pretty well alone).

I'd usually start with the temporally adjacent albums, given one to start from, and in Lizzy's case, that meant Johnny the Fox (the Jailbreak follow-up from 1977) and Fighting (the predecessor from 1975), as I was occasionally too lazy--or it was too difficult, in those days, before words like "discography" became second nature to me and before there were as many easily found and readily available resources--to find out where songs I'd found I liked came from.

Johnny the Fox is possibly the most well-regarded Lizzy album by those who just can't bring themselves to like an album that contains a monstrous hit and/or an album people would most readily associate with a band. I'm being a bit snarky, it's true, but this mostly relates to the people who really loved Lynott as a lyricist and songwriter, as it approaches (rather vaguely) the "concept album" range of things, telling the story of Johnny, a user whose addiction leads him way, way over the line unintentionally--even if Phil never accidentally killed anyone, this was unfortunately familiar ground to him otherwise.

Fighting, though...well, that's the reason I'm writing this right now, really. Over the last few years, Lizzy's catalogue has been surprisingly but pleasantly re-released in some very nice editions. 1971's Thin Lizzy, 1972's Shades of a Blue Orphanage (a title combining the names of bands the members were in previously) and 1977's Bad Reputation all got some expanded single discs, buffed out with b-sides, EPs and BBC session tracks (John Peel was, as is often the case, an early champion). The rest of the albums have received the full "Deluxe Edition" treatment, with similar extra tracks, but also modern remixes (not in the chopped-up sense, but in the "reconsider how the track was mixed for release" sense), outtakes, rough versions and alternate versions. It was a satisfying thing for me, gathering up Jailbreak, Johnny the Fox and Vagabonds of the Western World in thoroughly expanded forms, as well as those aforementioned single disc releases. I'd bought a "MADE IN GERMANY" copy of Fighting shortly after moving to this area, though, excited to even see it anywhere, and, at the time, having only my questionable digital copy and the American issue on vinyl.

This year, however--just this month, in the U.S., no less--those deluxe editions hit the two albums skipped over: 1974's Nightlife (which I have been listening to as I write this) and, yes, Fighting. Why is Fighting so exciting to me? Well, really, if I don't dress it all up nice and pretty, the answer is one song, which was indeed released as a single--though I didn't know that when I heard it:

"Wild One" is--by far--my favourite Thin Lizzy song, bar none. The twinned guitar that made them most famous electrifies the very opening of the song, and as Phil reaches back to the song title after opening with it, Brian Downey drops my favourite drum fill of all time in the middle of his otherwise steady drumming, descending through his toms with short rolls until Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham jolt the song back into their opening lick. People who've been around me playing music for them occasionally see me point to the speakers and say, "THAT." This is possibly the perfect example of this, hitting on most of the things that cause me to react thusly: interesting drumming (Moon is not my favourite drummer for nothing), emotionally-heightened instrumentation, anticipatory leads into moments I like (using one to go into the other, no less!) and just generally sounding good to my sense of aesthetic.

If Fighting has a flaw, good lord, it's the ridiculous original cover:

Scott is probably the only one who escapes unscathed, as Brian Robertson, the band's first Scottish member--added after original guitarist Eric Bell left the band in 1973, ending their run as purely Irish--has a facial expression and hair that seem to have nothing to do with the rough-and-tumble gang appearance intended, Phil is seemingly joyous and happy-go-lucky as he raises a bat or truncheon over his head, and Downey looks like he hasn't got a clue how to look hard. Scott--hailing from California, of all places, for a band known for being Irish--doesn't seem to be trying to look badass in the sense of being willing and able to violently hospitalize someone, which is probably the only reason he doesn't look goofy--though I think the band, as a whole, rather regrets the cover. It was changed for its American release (with which I was comparatively more pleased, and thought it was the original for a time, as it looks less cheesily designed):

This run of Lizzy's, once those two joined the band, primarily after finding their footing and chemistry with their second album together (which, as it happens, is Fighting) is their most famous sound, led by Robertson and Gorham (second from- and all the way to the right in the US cover above, respectively) and their twin guitars (often two Les Pauls) carrying the melodies high and anthemic over Phil's solid bass and emotionally resonant vocals, carried by the quality drumming of Downey. Tempers frayed (as they often do) and Robertson left the band after Bad Reputation, which led to their "declining" phase, with which I am--let's be honest--totally unfamiliar. I do wish to hear Chinatown, Black Rose and even the apparently questionable Renegade, but I've yet to do so in any way. I've also not heard the legendary live album, Live and Dangerous, which is apparently one of the best cases in the world for "live albums can be worth hearing for people other than fans."

Before I move on and discuss the other period I do know, let's cover those other two "classic period" albums in brief beyond what I've already done, and start with the title track from Bad Reputation, on the whole a starker, darker, harder album than its bright and shiny predecessors, or its fragile, on-the-edge immediate ancestor, Johnny the Fox.

It probably says something weird about me that I hear "Bad Reputation" and think of this song before Joan Jett's (which was not released for another four years past the date this one was, but is doubtless far more famous). They do share an interesting sort of sensibility, in that they are both built on heavy, solid low-ends, as Phil's bass comes more to the fore and propels "Bad Reputation" in a more audible way than previous tracks. Jett's track is doubtless a lot cheerier, and a bit more tongue-in-cheek about the idea of bad reputation, though.

I've said a bit about Johnny the Fox but neglected to clarify my comments with any musical interludes, so let me choose from its tracklist the song that defines it most clearly for me, even if it isn't considered the most classic song from the album (usually that's "Don't Believe a Word" or "Fool's Gold"), even if I hear Phil intone "Johnny the foxxxxxx....," with its drawn out ending sibilant in "Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed," when the album comes up, rather than the chorus of "Oh Johnny/Oh Johnny," from this song that opens the album, "Johnny":

More fantastic fills from Downey, though this time they are so frenetic that they are inseparable from the on-the-run story of the song, and I feel like Downey must just barely have control over fitting all of them in when he suddenly jumps into them, except that they are perfectly precise as they roll over each other and turn into synchronized beats on two toms pounding the band back into the song. I did link to the other "Johnny" song from the album above, and it's worth checking out simply because it's unusual for the band in some ways, almost a story-teller's role and not a singer's from Phil, over an exceptionally funky track from the band. Of course--Phil did this sort of storytelling once, long ago...

Now, to complete the notion that I naturally eschew convention, the subject of the early years of Lizzy must be addressed, not out of a sense of history, or to deliberately confuse chronology, but because it's less famous, though still important. There was something strange and fascinating when I discovered those early albums for the first time, the band unrecognizable--largely, one would guess, because they were also just a trio then: Lynott and Downey coupled with Eric Bell to form a fully Irish trio that played more blues-inflected and more noticeably derived from Phil's outcast status as poor, black Irishman, seemingly to carry a folk bent in tone, even if not sound. Their first album opens with the obvious Irish reference "The Friendly Ranger at Clontarf Castle," which sounds nothing like the Lizzy most of us know--though its roots can almost be felt, as I alluded above, in "Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed," before it turns to "Honesty Is No Excuse," backed by strings (!) and moving more slowly and waltz-like than their later material, even as Phil's voice and Brian's drums are recognizable:

To say nothing of their debut single, "The Farmer," which almost sounds to me like Phil was listening to a lot of The Band:

When I last saw my friend Matthew (last "seen" here when I discussed At the Drive-In), I was listening to my newly acquired copy of the expanded second album, Shades of a Blue Orphanage, which is led with a strong opener, "The Rise and Dear Demise of the Funky Nomadic Tribes," but that one is followed by the curious "Buffalo Gal":

I mentioned these albums are half-forgotten--not easy to find solid, quality, listenable versions!

But when he got to me, I was deep into the album, and we were into the super-funky, muscular and blues-inflected "Call the Police," which led him to ask just who it was because it was so good:

Again--this time, a few clips from The Wire are interspersed, including (for reasons unfathomable) dialogue. Oh well! Though do be warned that this means that the words are very, very much not safe for some listening environments.

Part of the reason the new deluxe editions encouraged this writing is that--alongside having surprised my father by playing him Lizzy he'd written off years ago to his surprise, not realizing how good it was, apparently--I was picking them up from CD Alley and owner Ryan told me Lizzy was a void in his musical knowledge. To the left: a comforting fact for me, as he's one of that group of people I find intimidating and assume knows far more than I about music, or, at least, enough in more specific areas to show expertise at them, which I tend to think I cannot with any genre, time-frame or other major grouping. To the right: it seemed like something I should take up as I know that gap is shared by many. It's a taste of the "bands I love but find criminally reduced to hit singles" theme, though a much more easy-to-swallow one for the high-fallutin' types than, say, Robert Palmer--at least, until I get to the point of writing that.

Oh, and if you're wondering just what the heck their name is all about: they decided to name themselves after the robot "Tin Lizzie" in the The Beano comic, solidifying its place in rock history after being shown in the hands of one Eric Clapton on the cover of the headache-inducingly named Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton. Or maybe it's With Eric Clapton, since John Mayall called his band the Blues Breakers. But then, it says "John Mayall" on the cover, so maybe it's John Mayall with Eric Clapton - Bluesbreakers. Or maybe it's self-titled, Bluesbreakers - John Mayall - Eric Clapton.

I hate trying to put that album into alphabetical order anywhere.

I've gotten off track here--anyway, if you're wondering: "But it's THIN Lizzy, and you just said the robot was TIN Lizzie..." I'm assuming you can gather the spelling of "Lizzy" just sort of happened (indeed, the label on the 7" of debut "The Farmer" says "Thin Lizzie"), but "thin" is a stupid joke: with an Irish accent, "thin" comes out "tin" anyway, so they thought they would screw with their countrymen in naming themselves this.

¹ There are exceptions to be sure--I like some earlier jazz, for instance, and a decent bit of 20th century "classical" composition, which pre-dates widely available recorded music, though my taste tends not to go back any further as things stand.

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