BY FRED MILLS
Although most folks—usually American—think that Thin Lizzy’s story begins with 1976’s mega-hit “The Boys Are Back In Town,” by that point the Dublin group had been together for six years, cutting five albums prior to the classic Jailbreak. They’d also enjoyed an earlier hit single (in the UK at least) in the form of “Whiskey In the Jar,” a rocked-up version of a traditional Irish ballad that stormed the British charts in early ’73. Yet even prior to that, the initial stirrings of greatness for Lizzy could’ve been spotted, most notably in the form of charismatic frontman Phil Lynott. The bassist/vocalist was initially recruited, along with drummer Brian Downey, by founding members Eric Bell (guitar) and Eric Wrixon (organ). Wrixon would subsequently leave prior to the recording of 1971 debut Thin Lizzy, but by then the group was already gaining momentum, a ’71 relocation from Dublin to London helping to accelerate matters.
Last year Light In The Attic, via imprint Future Days, saw fit to reissue Thin Lizzy on 180-gram vinyl in a deluxe gatefold “tip-on” sleeve with a handsome booklet outlining the band’s early history. To say it was manna for Lizzy devotees would be a huge understatement; and now comes a double-dose of more manna in the form of 1972’s sophomore outing Shades of a Blue Orphanage and its 1973 followup, Vagabonds of the Western World. Neither boasted a significant hit, and for reasons known only to the band, “Whiskey In the Jar,” originally released between the two albums, was not added to Vagabonds (the members were reportedly unhappy with Decca Record’s choice of it as a single rather than an original tune). But along with the first LP, both represent intriguing glimpses of a pre-stardom Thin Lizzy.
Indeed, right from the get-go, Orphanage puts forth some of the signature Lizzy elements, with opening track “The Rise and Dear Demise of the Funky Nomadic Tribes” boasting Lynott’s raspy, bluesy vocals and a groove-laden, riffy vibe not unlike early ZZ Top. There’s even a drum solo, f’r chrissakes—we’re talking pure, unvarnished seventies, kids. Other subtle gems dot the album, from the moody, folkrock-tinged “Brought Down” and the strummily acoustic “Chatting Today” to the lengthy title track, a nostalgic traipse through Lynott’s back pages awash in mellotron and sweet harmony vocals. And there are oddities too, in particular the neo-rockabilly of “I Don’t Want to Forget How to Jive” (with Lynott doing a kind of scat-singing Elvis impression) and the double-time Prog of “Baby Face” (Prog is not a style usually associated with Lizzy, but like I said, it was the seventies).
Music historian and archivist Kevin “Sipreano” Howes relates the band’s tale during this period, interviewing both Downey and Bell along with their Decca A&R man Nick Tauber so you get a clear picture of how life was in the Lizzy camp back in the day. For example, the story behind the “Whiskey In the Jar” release is detailed, along with Bell and Downey’s insights into what made Lynott tick. Howes continues that tale in the booklet for Vagabonds of the Western World, including how the band came to work with internationally-known artist Jim Fitzpatrick (for the record’s “Celtic sci-fi” art as well as several subsequent album sleeves) and the series of events that to guitarist Bell quitting the band in the middle of a Dec. 31, 1973 New Year’s Eve Belfast concert, thereby setting the stage for his replacement, Gary Moore, and then, later, the Lynott/Downey/Scott Gorham/Brian Robertson lineup that would cut the hits-laden Jailbreak and see the group into international stardom.
Point of fact, though, while Vagabonds may have been a disappointment, commercially speaking, it contained some of the group’s greatest early material, notably the epic, Hendrix-like “The Hero and the Madman”; the equally epic title track (a kind of Celtic boogie, if you can picture that, what with its “too-ra-loo-rye-ayy” refrain); the dreamy, elegiac and deeply romantic “Little Girl in Bloom”; and of course the punchily insistent, hook-drenched anthem “The Rocker” which clearly foreshadowed “TBABIT” and no doubt inspired its own legions of fist-pumping, Bic-flicking punters. The record, taken as a whole, is as consistently listenable as any of the band’s later, better-known LPs, which makes having it again on fresh 180-gram vinyl a gift not only to die-hard Lizzy fans but also for consumers curious to find out more about the group.
Lynott, of course, passed away in 1986, from medical complications related to his drug addiction. Since then a de facto “cult of Phil” has arisen, along with the inevitable Thin Lizzy tribute projects and recordings and even an occasional touring version of Lizzy comprising sundry past members. Everyone knows, however, that without Lynott, it ain’t a “true” Lizzy. Luckily, he left behind an impressive legacy in song and on record, and for true believers, Johnny The Fox will never truly die.
DOWNLOAD: “The Rise and Dear Demise of the Funky Nomadic Tribes,” “Shades of a Blue Orphanage” (Shades of a Blue Orphanage); “The Rocker,” “Vagabonds of the Western World,” “Little Girl In Bloom” (Vagabonds of the Western World)