Thin Lizzy: Johnny the Fox (Deluxe Edition)

Expanded look at the follow-up to Jailbreak

With the success of the Jailbreak album earlier in the year, Thin Lizzy was poised for major stardom. Both the album and its key single, “The Boys Are Back in Town,” were commercial successes, and numerous album tracks had become turntable hits on FM and college radio. The band climbed the ranks from opener to headliner and was slated to go out in support of Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow, but just as they were to ascend to the major leagues of U.S. rock stardom, songwriter, lead vocalist and bassist Phil Lynott was bedridden with hepatitis. He continued to write as he recovered, but by the time the band recorded this follow-up album and commenced to touring, the steam heat of their commercial breakthrough had cooled.

The band had recorded Jailbreak under label and management pressure, but for the follow-up they recorded under the pressure of fame slipping through their fingers. Though the band plays well, and guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson further refined their twin-guitar sound, opinions are split as to whether the album was recorded too hurriedly. Gorham feels the sessions were rushed and that the songs weren’t all fully fleshed out by their final takes, while the band’s manager notes that the tour-record-tour-record treadmill was simply how it was done in the mid-70s. Sessions began at Munich’s Musicland Studio, as much for its tax advantages as its sound, but quickly relocated back to the same Ramport Studio where, together with producer John Alcock, the band had recorded Jailbreak.

Lynott doesn’t write directly of his illness and recuperation, but it’s clear that the months off the road led to deep introspection. “Fool’s Gold” casts the pursuit of illusory rewards in multiple settings, not least of which was the wild night life that landed Lynott in the hospital. A contemplation of the daily misery essayed in the news, and Lynott’s appraisal of his religious background led to “Massacre,” in which he questions, “if God is in the heavens / how can this happen here?” The album’s lyrics are often allusive, rather than direct, and the band’s sinewy bass punch is supplemented by heavy guitar solos. The album’s single, “Don’t Believe a Word” scored in the UK, but stiffed in the U.S., and though the album went gold, it failed to spark the excitement of Jailbreak. The resulting U.K. album tour was a success, but the U.S. leg was canceled after Brian Robertson was injured in a London bar fight.

As with Jailbreak, the quality of the recordings and the final mixes nagged Scott Gorham. On the second disc of this reissue, Gorham and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliot have reworked three of the album tracks, broadening the stereo image, clarifying the instrumental mix, pulling a few things into tune (notably, the horns on “Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed”), and in one case (“Don’t Believe a Word”), augmenting the guitars. Their intent was to “enhance them to the point where they sound like they were done in 2011,” which many will find a strange goal for an album that’s cherished for its representation of the mid-70s. Still, it’s clear that Gorham and Elliot feel there was something more to be had from the original session tapes, and the original mixes are safe and sound on disc one.

Beyond the remixes, disc two provides its real treats. A trio of BBC sessions from late in 1976 shows the band’s tremendous prowess as a live unit, and instrumental run-throughs of four album tracks show how the band developed their songs. Neil Jeffries’ exceptional liner notes place the album in context within the band’s career, and offer thoughtful details and analysis. Fresh interview material with Gorham, band managers, and cover artist Jimmy Fitzpatrick complement quotes from period interviews with Lynott. Whether you find the remixes to be an interesting reinvention or revisionist claptrap, the remainder of the bonus material on disc two makes this a worthwhile upgrade from previous single-disc reissues.  [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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