Immortality was never far away for Thin Lizzy, which is ironic, given the early death of frontman Phil Lynott. ‘Live And Dangerous’ will always remain in my top 3 albums of all time; even though it was heavily doctored in the studio, almost every song sounded so much more alive and energetic than its studio counterpart. However, ‘Johnny The Fox’, the second record the band released in 1976, succeeds surprisingly well in combining the Thin Lizzy’s raucous live energy with the possibilities that the studio offers. It’s raw and energetic, but it’s also incredibly well-arranged and sophisticated. A difficult line to walk, but Lizzy does it in style.
Honestly, everything Thin Lizzy released between the first 1976 record ‘Jailbreak’ up until 1980’s severely underrated ‘Chinatown’ should be owned – or at least listened to – by any fan of Rock music, but ‘Johnny The Fox’ is the studio album I revisit most often. ‘Jailbreak’ was the band’s breakthrough record, but it was also overproduced to the extreme; something that especially comes to light when you hear ‘Live And Dangerous’. ‘Johnny The Fox’ was released only seven months later, but feels so much more dynamic and powerful. And with Lynott being the greatest songwriter ever, of course the music itself is amazing.
While ‘Jailbreak’ was highlighted by the songs that would remain on the live sets for years to come, ‘Johnny The Fox’ is amazing all the way through. Sure, ‘Boogie Woogie Dance’ isn’t one of Lizzy’s best tracks lyrically, but it’s heavy, yet swinging rhythm makes it a winner. Also, I would generally be wary of a ten track album with three ballads, but they are all really good. ‘Borderline’ is dreamy and moving, ‘Old Flame’ is poppy and nostalgic and ‘Sweet Marie’ has a downright beautiful chorus that feels almost symphonic in terms of arrangement.
But Thin Lizzy could rock. Better than any other band at the time even. Nobody except for maybe Judas Priest at the time called themselves Heavy Metal, but that’s exactly what the amazing ‘Massacre’ is. Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson sound like a little guitar orchestra, Brian Downey’s drumming is propulsive and Lynott’s lyrics criticize religious intolerance… It’s no wonder that Iron Maiden later covered the track. ‘Johnny’ is another great rocker, balancing on the edge of seventies Rock ‘n’ Roll and early Heavy Metal. Thin Lizzy even tries its hand at Funk and does it quite successfully; ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’ features some delicious rhythms as well as a particularly cheeky vocal crime story from Lynott.
The album’s slightly underproduced nature actually contributes to its class. Even when it’s sometimes a little weird – my god, Lynott’s bass is loud in ‘Borderline’! But in terms of performance, ‘Johnny The Fox’ comes closest to ‘Live And Dangerous’. And in terms of songwriting, nothing can quite top late seventies Phil Lynott. Don’t believe anyone who says that this album is not what it could have been due to its troubled genesis – Robertson injuring his hand in a bar fight, Lynott hospitalized with hepatitis – each and every moment is worthy of your attention. Also, Lynott’s romanticism which is just as much wild west as it is his Irish heritage is always charming in its own right.
Recommended tracks: ‘Massacre’, ‘Johnny’, ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’