Wednesday 16 March 2011

Thin Lizzy: Fat Cheque For Thin Men?

British Band Crashes America On Second Tour Shock Horror Probe!

That's what we're dealing with here. The lesson we will learn is that one hit album in America and your days of penury and obscurity are over. Promoters will lay stages at your feet. Holiday Inns will present you with the key to the sledgehammer cabinet. Record company presidents will remember you exist. All from having a record doing a 100 yard dash up the charts.

This year has seen a renaissance of sorts for British bands to make a large dent in America on their first or second tour. Thin Lizzy is a case in a point. They toured as support to BTO a year ago, and this year went for what was initially meant to be six weeks, third on the bill.

By the time Phil Lynott collapsed with a virus two and a half months later in Columbus, Ohio, they had risen through the ranks to headlining. Why, they sold out two nights in Allenstown, Some State Or Other, and supposedly only three bands have done that in the venue's five or six year history.

Lynott collapsing meant having to cancel New York, Detroit, and a few other hotcha rock and roll towns, but that'll only make it that much more berserk the next time. Nothing like a little myth to get the juices flowing.

BUT WHY NOT hear it from the horse's mouth? While Phil languishes in the luxuriousness of a Manchester hospital, Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham, erstwhile Thin Lizzy guitarists, are ensconced in their publicist's elegant Victoria manse, telling it like it was.

The telly is tuned to Wimbledon, where Nastase's efforts are actively encouraged and applauded by Scott. The heat is nothing for this Glendale, California, boy; just chug another beer and dream of water-skiing.

"We've got an album to do in August," he reveals. "We're going to do that at Musicland studios in Munich, because the tax man is with us now." He laughs at the absurdity of such a thought.

"In October we'll do an English tour – 30 days – and then back to America. We're going to try and do Australia, New Zealand and Japan at the same time – the next step sort of thing." Then, in a sincere voice he adds, "I'm waiting to get over and see those Japanese ladies man, oooh! That'll be a good one."

His smile is only slightly less blinding than the twinkle in his eye.

"Living in California, it was always my main ambition to do a tour of America. Our last tour was just the East Coast, so for me that wasn't too much fun. But coming back was too much – Did you see that?!" he exclaims as Nasty executes a particularly fine volley. "Wow..." He returns to his train of thought.

"Something I'd always wanted to do, and here I was doing it. We did really well in Los Angeles. I must admit I was a little nervous at that stage. People were talking to me and it was just going in one ear and out the other because all I could do was stare at the stage. I'd been there so many times to see other bands and all of a sudden I was going to walk out there and do it myself. We played a storm...Knowing that your friends are out there..."

THE ADAGE has it that an American tour always separates the men from the boys. Certainly Lizzy came back that first time with about 20 stone of added muscle.

"That first tour made us realise that we'd have to go out there and work a hell of a lot harder or else nobody will notice you. Americans are very much into 'I paid to see you so I want to see a show'. It taught us a lot about being on stage and the effort that you have to put into it.

"It was a release – I love being on stage and that brought it out even more. Now I'm not nervous at all about going out there and doing anything I want to instead of just staring at the floor. It was a good thing to learn, a well taught lesson.

"The second tour brought home to me what a hit record can do for you. When we first got over there a lot of people were comparing us to Bruce Springsteen – "

Eh? I can see a few connections lyrically, especially since Phil introduced me to Springsteen's music, but anyone who thinks Brucie's baroque and roll and Lizzy's Celtic thunder are similar must have his ears in his tennis shoes. But continue.

"– which was a drag. I don't care what band you're in, you always want to be known as having your own sound. Then they saw us play live and that was it – no more comparisons. The reviews we were getting were phenomenal – ‘Hey, what band is this?!?’

"You're not really sure where you stand, though, until you go out there and hear kids yelling for tracks off the album and then the previous two albums. That was great. And I ran into people who knew a lot more about the band than I did. Incredible.

"Last year it was like, 'Ah, they're third on the bill, I still gotta find my seat'. This time they made sure they were in their seats. People yelling our names out – to me that's when they definitely know who they're seeing."

Attention turned to the album that was causing all this hoopla, the immensely playable Jailbreak.

"The previous ones we did in a sort of clinical way," he said with one eye on the telly. Nastase was serving brilliantly. "I'd have my two songs and Phil would have his five, Brian Robertson would have his two, and that was it. 'Let's work on Phil's,' or 'Let's work on Brian's,' but on Jailbreak we all dived in on everybody else's songs, putting parts we had for our own songs into other people's.

"John Alcock (the producer) was a great guy to work with, he's got a lot of good ideas, he's easy to work with, a good man for sussing out when you're in the mood and when you're not in the mood. He's by far the best guy we've worked with. I really respect him."

Mr. Alcock, whenever you need a reference you know who to call.

"He'll be with us in Germany...Seeing all the frauleins over there. It's a good place, Munich."

The mouth and the eyes go nova again.

"We try to walk into the studio with a lot of ideas already fixed. Rehearse for a couple of weeks first, talk all the ideas out, play them out. Just work it to death and then walk into the studio with a really good idea of what's going to happen. But we'll still change things or write a song in itself – I like that – walking into the studio and writing a brand new song nobody's heard before and seeing how it comes out. That's what happened with 'Emerald'. It's a lot of fun.

"Jailbreak is a kind of a concept but not a concept, if you know what I mean." Absolutely. "It just happened. Phil wrote the liner notes, and I wouldn't say I helped him, but he would write some and I'd look them over and say what needed improving. I'm terrible with words. I'm, 'Well I sent my baby down to the store' – worthless. If you see a song by Gorham/Lynott it'll be me doing the music and him the lyric."

Scott's publicist interrupts with a slip of paper with a girl's phone number. "Here are her details." Provocative.

AS NASTASE wins his second set Scott delineates the role he and Brian Robertson play within the band.

"We both play lead guitar." There's a subtle emphasis on the adjective. "We'll both play breaks for a song and take a Teac (tape recorder) to rehearsals and suss out who's got the better feel.

"I use a Les Paul because I like the feel and the overall sound of it. I played a Stratocaster for about a year and a half; I couldn't come to terms with it. It didn't feel right, it didn't lay right with me. It didn't give me that biting sound – the cleanness – that I wanted. I went out and bought a Les Paul, which was the best purchase I could make.

"Brian uses one because it works well, they blend with each other. He had his first while I was using a Les Paul copy. It was a good little guitar, but when I had to get up there with high volume I needed a regular Gibson. I mean, I was only making 12 quid a week when I was buying the copy!"

This is as absurd as the taxman wanting their wages. He laughs.

"We try to make them sound different, otherwise what would be the point of two guitars, but at the same time we try to work together as much as possible to make everything coagulate together. I'll come up with a lot of the original guitar lines, but Brian is the technician and works out the actual harmonies to those lines."

Gorham had a trio Stateside that didn't do anything. He came to England on the assumption that not knowing anybody or anything about the musical scene would force him to work harder. He also meant to join Supertramp but arrived several months late.

"I wanted to play someplace different, I wanted to play different music, and I wanted to play with different people. And it worked. I'd never heard of Lizzy before I joined. I'd see their name in the music papers but it never registered. They were just one of a number of bands. I'd come over too late for 'Whiskey In The Jar', thank God.

"When I went down for the audition I had no idea what they sounded like, which was good. I had no reputation I was going to listen to. I just figured I'll have a blow and if it works out, fine. What the hell, it's gotta be better than what I'm doing now, making £12 a week.

"Fortunately for me – and the band," he adds magnanimously, "It worked. I joined the same day.

"The music had so much power and energy...That's one of the days I won't forget. I think I was nervous when I went down. It was the first audition I'd ever done in my life. I didn't know what it was like to do an audition...'What am I supposed to do now?'"

Suddenly he jumps up. "That's it! Nice one, Nasty! Attaboy!"

Nasty is grinning widely, the third set safely won. With Arthur Ashe on the court Scott's attention wanders. Arthur lacks any sense of style in Scott's estimation. Arthur plays it like a businessman. Scott starts reminiscing about the American tour.

"We were doing business like you wouldn't believe. When it rains it pours. I worked in construction for three years and it was nothing on working in Lizzy." He laughs.

"I love it though. Being off the road right now is a drag because I don't really know what to do with myself. I'm trying to work out as many songs as I can but I'd rather be on the road getting on a stage and doing it, sweating my ass off. To me, that's where it's at with the band, being on stage. That's where the love of the band is."

Well then, road gourmet, where's the best Holiday Inn in America?

"San Antonio, Texas. It seemed like every room was different. It was a big circle thing overlooking a river, and right before our sound check they were having speed boat races. Big jobs with blown Chevy engines, just streaking down the river."

He waxes eloquent about 200 mph speed boats and water skiing and sports in general.

"I'm a jack-of-all trades at sport. I play all of them but none really well. I just like the competition."

Arthur Ashe safely slaughters his competition.

Sounds, 3 July 1976
© Jonh Ingham, 1976

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