Thin Lizzy: Thin Ice
Originally published in Guitar World, July 2009
With Still Dangerous, Thin Lizzy unearth a long-lost gem
recorded on the eve of their legendary 1977 tour. Guitarist Scott Gorham provides a revealing look into the classic era of the real Irish rebels.
"We were warmed up, ready to go and ready to hit the road, and this was the concert from the tour that we were convinced would finally break us in America.”
Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham is discussing Still Dangerous: Live at the Tower Theater Philadelphia 1977 (VH1 Classic Records), the newly released live document of one of the greatest bands in rock history. Still Dangerous captures Thin Lizzy at the start of their very first tour following completion of the Bad Reputation album, and it features the classic lineup of guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, drummer Brian Downey and the incomparable Phil Lynott on bass and vocals.
Combining Lizzy favorites such as “The Boys Are Back in Town,” “Jailbreak” and “Cowboy Song” with then brand-new songs like “Soldier of Fortune,” “Dancing in the Moonlight” and “Opium Trail,” Still Dangerous is a testament to the incredible chemistry of this Thin Lizzy lineup at its best, and it makes a welcome companion to the band’s long-revered live opus, 1978’s Live and Dangerous. Working in conjunction with Gorham, legendary rock producer/engineer Glyn Johns oversaw the production of Still Dangerous—from the handling of the original multitrack tapes to the mixing and final mastering of the tracks—and the results are spectacular. As Still Dangerous clearly demonstrates, Thin Lizzy were at the time performing with razor-sharp precision and undeniable power. “We were like streetpunk guys,” says Gorham, “and while we never caught the art of the recording studio as well as we’d have liked to, we caught the live art very well.”
Thin Lizzy formed in Dublin, Ireland, in 1969 and, led by the principal songwriter/bassist/vocalist Phil Lynott, were one of the very first multiracial rock bands. The most successful incarnation of the band featured Lynott alongside guitarists Gorham (a Californian who had emigrated to the U.K.) and Robertson and drummer Downey. Their 1975 breakthrough album, Jailbreak, with its hit single “The Boys Are Back in Town,” carried the band to the top of the charts internationally. The music of Thin Lizzy combines elements of hard rock and protometal with the influence of Irish and Celtic music, and is fueled by dueling, harmonized guitar lines, first explored by Gorham along with Robertson and later elaborated on with such formidable axmen as Gary Moore, Snowy White and John Sykes, the latter of whom is a current member of the band.
Scott Gorham recently visited the Guitar World video studios to offer this in-depth look at Still Dangerous and, on the accompanying CD-ROM, demonstrate how to play a handful of Thin Lizzy classics.
GUITAR WORLD Thin Lizzy’s 1978 release, Live and Dangerous, is widely considered one of the greatest live rock albums ever. What led to the decision to release Still Dangerous: Live at the Tower Theater Philadelphia 1977, 32 years after it was recorded?
SCOTT GORHAM It all began with finding the tapes from this show, which, in and of itself, was pretty much an accident. We had no idea those tapes were even there, though I suppose somebody knew they were there. In our accounting statements, we kept getting charged for these two “lock-ups” [a record company fee for keeping tapes in storage]. We’d been blindly paying these charges month by month, year by year, for over 30 years, and we really had no idea what was in there. So we finally said let’s find out what the hell is in these lock-ups!
We sent someone down there, and what he found was two rooms filled with boxes of two-inch multitrack recording tape. One of the boxes we came upon was labeled “Philadelphia 2,” which was intriguing. I remembered doing a show at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia for the King Biscuit Flower Hour [live radio] show, but I couldn’t remember doing two nights. I called up our old manager and asked, “What’s the story here?”
He reminded me that, at the time, we’d just finished the Bad Reputation album in Toronto, and we’d been offered a three-month U.S. arena tour. We thought that this would be the perfect opportunity for us to go back to America and show what we could do—that this could actually be the tour that would allow us to crack America. Instead of being the band that’s only known for that one song, “The Boys Are Back in Town,” or that one album, Jailbreak, we were finally going to take America by storm.
GW The success of the band was very different in Europe, wasn’t it?
GORHAM Oh yeah. We had a huge fan base in Europe and more than a dozen Top 40 singles, but in the U.S., it was just the one, “The Boys Are Back in Town.” So we were determined to crack America with this particular tour.
The two shows in Philly for King Biscuit were actually the very first shows of a mini two-week warm-up tour. We set up this mini tour so we could “air out” the new songs that we’d just written and recorded for Bad Reputation—to try them out and road-test them in front of an audience and see where they would fit best in the set.
GW So that second Philly show is what we hear on Still Dangerous?
GORHAM That’s right, and what you are hearing is not only us road testing these brand-new songs but the sound of a band resolute in its goal to conquer America, once and for all!
Unfortunately, the “curse” of Thin Lizzy struck again. We got to the end of the two-week warm-up period and Phil was complaining about feeling very ill. In fact, before the very last show of that two-week tour, he lay on the floor and said, “I can’t get back up. I’m too tired.” This was a totally alien thing for any of us to hear from someone like Phil Lynott. He just wasn’t that guy. Phil never complained about stuff like that, so something was definitely seriously wrong.
Our management said that we had to fly to Ohio after the show that night, and once we got there we’d get a doctor in to check on Phil. The doctor came in the next morning, and after he saw Phil he said, “You guys are done. The tour is over with. You”—to Phil—“shouldn’t even be standing. We need to get you back on a plane, back to London and into a hospital, because you have an advanced case of hepatitis C.” So our “All Conquering Tour of America” came to a screeching halt right there!
But we did get the Still Dangerous show out of that tour, and it does show everyone where we were as a band at that moment. And the reason I wanted to get this out there is that you can hear that the band was hitting a really nice peak right at that time.
GW How would you say Still Dangerous compares to Live and Dangerous?
GORHAM Personally, I think Still Dangerous is a better album all around. I like it just because of what it took to get it on tape, plus the presence of the new tunes, so in that respect it’s a more interesting album to me.
GW If anyone ever fit the description “Rock Star,” it was Phil Lynott. What was Phil really like?
GORHAM He was the gunslinger, but he was absolutely the most generous guy at the same time. No matter who was working with us at any given time, Phil always wanted to push all of us as equal partners, which was really great. He was a real star, and he knew it, but he didn’t dwell on it all that much. He wanted everyone around him to take part in this whole thing. He actively pushed you up to the front of the stage. Back in the very beginning, he actually grabbed me one night by the collar, pulled me up to the front and said, “Don’t fookin’ move!” [laughs], because I was cowering in the back, thinking, What the hell is going on? He wanted you to take part in the whole thing. He wanted you to have your own time in the spotlight.
There are not too many guys that are like that. Once they get the spotlight, they kind of want to keep it, and they’ll elbow other people out of the way. But that wasn’t Phil’s way. I loved the guy.
GW One of the greatest things about the Thin Lizzy sound is the amount of swing in the grooves of even your hardest rocking tunes.
GORHAM A lot of that had to do with [drummer] Brian Downey and the way he approached his drum grooves. Brian wasn’t a real “slammer” of the snare drum. There was a lot of “ghosting” [light syncopated accents] in the parts that he played. He had a real “wristy” thing going with his hi-hat, too. You hardly ever got the straight quarter-note tish-tish-tish-tish thing from him. He always had to add little 16th-note accents in there. But all of that created a different feel to the music, which was a more swinging kind of thing, and that made me, as a guitar player, think in another direction.
Then you’ve got Phil’s bass playing, too. He used to joke around and call himself the worst bass player in the business, but he knew that wasn’t true. I’ve played with several Class A bass players and each one was amazed at the things Phil could do, in terms of the notes he picked out, the strength with which he hit the strings and how he kept the groove going, while singing all of the time.
Phil was a big entertainer onstage. You can’t be a Jaco Pastorius kind of bass player while you’re trying to talk to the audience and pull everyone into the music; you’ve got to keep things level in order to bring an arena-sized audience into a “club” kind of feel, which is a real art in itself. And he was able to do that.
So for the guitar players, whether it was Brian Robertson and me or for Gary Moore and me, it was a really unique experience with these two guys holding everything down. Phil and Brian Downey were the engine room, and they enabled the guitar players to float on top. There was a lot of room for us to work all kinds of different things into the music.
GW Some great examples of the Thin Lizzy swing are “The Boys Are Back in Town,” “Dancing in the Moonlight,” “Emerald” and “Don’t Believe a Word,” which are all shuffle grooves.
GORHAM Brian Downey was the king of the shuffles. Nobody could do that groove any better. And apparently, playing a great shuffle groove is a really tough thing for a lot of drummers to do. It’s almost like a specialized area. I’ve played with a lot of drummers and, over time, it’s made me realize how great Brian really was, and still is.
GW The harmonized twin guitars, essential to so many Thin Lizzy classics, exemplify the signature sound of the band. How did you guys work out those lines?
GORHAM I think a lot of that came from the influence of Irish music, which probably occurred on a subliminal level for us. We weren’t intentionally thinking of bringing that sound into our music, but being a guitar player you’re like a sponge soaking up all kinds of peripheral musical elements. Because of the way Phil wrote his songs, with lyrics that were very explicit and the strong storyteller aspect, it rubbed off on the guitar players, and we wanted to contribute to the melodic side of the Thin Lizzy sound. We went for the idea of creating signature guitar parts that would work inside the songs. On a lead guitar bit, rather than thinking, Here’s my 15 seconds to rip, we thought about where we were in the song, and how to fit harmonized melodies into the songs in just the right way.