JOHNNY THE FOX
Released on October 16, 1976 (Vertigo/Mercury Records)
Considered by some music critics to be a step back after the commercial breakthrough success of early 1976 release Jailbreak, Thin Lizzy‘s Johnny The Fox is an unexpected rock and roll fan favorite that in all actuality shouldn’t have even been. Released a mere seven months later, the result of frontman Phil Lynott‘s time off due to hepatitus that canceled the band’s planned 1976 US tour with Rainbow, Johnny The Fox is a record that, had Thin Lizzy been able to push forward touring in support of Jailbreak, might have never even existed. For fans like me who side more with the likes of critic Martin Popoff who called Johnny The Fox “a rich textural work of melodic, soft-edged metal, lyrically soulful, melancholy, in many places tragic”, the thought of a world without the album is perhaps just as tragic as some of the album’s themes. For many, this “lost” classic is a favorite, myself included, and if truth be told, despite a love for Lizzy‘s more worldwide commercially know releases like Jailbreak and Bad Reputation, the Thin Lizzy record I most cannot live without IS the one that nearly wasn’t – Johnny The Fox. Looking back, it’s tough to imagine Thin Lizzy‘s killer album run from 1975’s Fighting through the tail end of the decade minus Johnny The Fox.
As the band’s only album to go gold out side of the UK, expectations surely were running high for Thin Lizzy to ride Jailbreak into a huge place among hard rock’s elite bands. With “The Boys Are Back In Town” and the title track grabbing decent radio time in the US and a planned slot warming up the stages for hot live act Rainbow, it had to be disheartening to have to cut things short. Sure Lynott could have just laid around moping in his misfortune for a few months but rock and roll hearts don’t rest so easily and with acoustic in hand, he started to create the songs that would become the unplanned and unexpected Johnny The Fox. And the reason it works just as well, if not better, than the band’s previous releases including Jailbreak is that Thin Lizzy records for the most part all contain a common trait rarely found in hard rock – an almost old world poetic storytelling approach often more attributed to likes of American roots artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits – and Johnny The Fox is unapologetically loaded with both. OK so maybe it’s also an Irish thing as Van Morrison had a tendency to also weave a few lyrical tales himself but bottom line, that same sort of romantic, poetic vagabond heart beat hard and heavy inside of Lynott.
In some ways, Johnny The Fox listens like a concept album but for me personally plays simply like a rock record loaded with Lynott‘s signature tales of love, heartache, and on occasion, historical days of yore. Bits of old world history mixed with his own updated takes on Shakespearean tragedy. Of course, there’s the ironic to the point narrative of incredibly honest single “Don’t Believe A Word” which in melody alone should have been a more international hit along the lines of “Jailbreak” but just a quick listen through Johnny The Fox reveals tunes even more worthy of success despite how quick the songs and album were created and despite claims by many critics that the record is incomplete with one critic even writing that Johnny The Fox was “an odd, half-baked concept album.” Well, what the fudge do critics REALLY know?
While already a fan thanks to a couple of older kids in my American housing area during our second stay in Germany in the second half of the ’70s, my affection for Johnny The Fox actually began in the American thrift store nearby where one day walking past the gently worn and traveled nic-nacs and brikabrak. Sitting quietly in a crate in front of a pile of records by the likes of mostly now forgotten polka and German pop artists sat the eye-catching cover of Johnny The Fox and by the time my mom broke the trance by asking if I was ready to go, I was hooked visually. With my pockets a buck lighter and my arms an album fuller, I ventured out of the store and on to an unexpected lifelong romance for this unexpected of albums.
As with most albums during this time period, the experience centered around me sitting cross-legged in front of my stereo system nearly covered by the incredibly huge headphones that surrounded my head as musical journey’s kidnapped by mind. Typically one hand holding the album, the other unconsciously fiddling with the spiral headphone cord, both eyes glued to the record cover, and ears, boys, mind, and soul all planted firmly on the music. Truth be told, decades later, little has changed aside from the fact that it’s my wife that walks in to find me eyes closed, head swaying and lost in the music and not my mom. In this experience long ago though, I was on the brink of losing it by the time I softly set the needle down on what would turn out to be one of the greatest thrift store finds of my long career as a record hunter.
Right off the bat, Johnny The Fox kicks out everything that was great about Jailbreak. In some ways, it wouldn’t be odd to wonder if maybe ol’ Phil was looking to start things off on the new record kinda like Thin Lizzy did on their just months old classic and that idea doesn’t seemed so far fetch as opener “Johnny” carries that same kind of dark, storytelling weight as “Jailbreak” the song. It’s a very visual, storytelling sort of fictional grab loaded with a bits of imagery culled from daily real life. Carrying that same sort of just a few hair past mid-tempo grind, “Johnny” is classic Thin Lizzy and as choice as anything else the band could have picked to open up an album. With its catchy lyrics, simple infectious chorus, and blistering guitar solo, the tune marks a great dark start introducing the tragic “Johnny” just before welcoming in the more uplifting rock and roll hero “Rocky” on the next track. It’s tough to beat a one-two punch like “Johnny” and “Rocky” and while the fit is perfect and in some ways snug, “Rocky” has its own personality including classic Lizzy twin harmony guitars on the solo and for long time fans, it’s a familiar nostalgic sound we never tire of. The walk down to the final verse a simple yet effective choice.
Of course what would a Thin Lizzy album be without Lynott opening up his Romeo heart for the rock and roll masses and here, Thin Lizzy take their first delightful detour into the melody, power, and soul courtesy of the incredibly beautiful “Borderline.” As talented as he was at penning hard rocking songs, Lynott perhaps was most at home delivering his soul when creating ballads with “Borderline” being in my opinion just as wonderful as any of Lizzy‘s incredible moments of poetic balladry. On Johnny The Fox, Thin Lizzy deliver the ballads perfectly planting “Borderline” and the ethereal “Sweet Marie” between the perfect rows of rockers in a way that few other hard rocking bands of the day could have even hoped to pull off.
As great as their ballads are, it is through their rock and roll tracks that most of the free world is familiar with Thin Lizzy and once again on this fall 1976 release, the Lynott along with drummer/co-founder Brian Downey and guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson (appearing in official full-time band capacity for the last time) crank out the rock goodness including semi-hit “Don’t Believe A Word” which not only happens to be on my all-time fave Thin Lizzy record, it is actually my all-time fave Lizzy track. But that’s not to say that there aren’t loads more killer stuff here. Still plenty to come even after side one polishes off with nicely with “Don’t Believe A Word” and rollicking Irish immigrant tale “Fool’s Gold” where once again Lynott manages to spill darkness and despair with infectious melody. You couldn’t find a better tale told even between a couple old codgers over ale in an old country pub.
According to Gorham, the groove of side two opener “Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed” was inspired by classic ’70s O’Jays‘ track “For The Love of Money” turning out to be the band’s sole attempt at a similar funk sound. It’s a shame really as the style works really good with the rock and power ballads sounds of classic Thin Lizzy. It leaves one to wonder what could have been if at least this version of the band had been inspired to go down the funky road a time or two more but while we will now never know, still we are left with the awesome rock and roll that the band DID leave behind. You can’t go wrong with the catchy, romantic vibe of “Old Flame” which easily could have been a hit for the likes of ’70s American artists like Springsteen and Steve Forbert yet sadly was not one for Thin Lizzy.
Perhaps just as much a shame as Lynott and company not revisiting funk is the fact that as a songwriter, Lynott was not nearly as appreciated as he should have been despite having written plenty of tunes just as poetically marvelous as any to come from the pens of Springsteen, Forbert, Waits, and more historically known as masters of the pop rock storytelling style of writing. Lynott just as easily had a knack for writing beautiful songs despite working within a genre not typically known for such. In that way, he can be partially blamed for my being open to discovering those other mainstream artists and to me wanting more out of my own music and personal relationships at an age younger than most. Yeah, I still wanted to rock and roll and raise a bit of hell but by the time I was barely a pre-teen, those ideas of lyrical expression and romance had already begun to bubble up inside thanks in part to the words and thoughts of Phil Lynott but even so, at the time Johnny The Fox was released, it was still mostly about the rock and roll. At least for the moment.
Leaving little to chance in appealing to their core audience, Thin Lizzy sandwiched ballad” Sweet Marie” with anti-prejudice track “Massacre” and the oddly spooky “Boogie Woogie Dance.” While the former is loaded with all the attributes Thin Lizzy songs are best known for including even the slightest hints of personal reflection (it was said that Lynott experienced his own struggles with prejudice as a Black Irish man), the latter is not really that “boogie woogie” of a track and uncharacteristically light lyrically and instrumentally bordering on monotonous. It is not only my least favorite track on Johnny The Fox, it might just be my least favorite Thin Lizzy song but that being said, I have never cut short any listens to this release before the final note.
While Johnny The Fox might be that unexpected child born into the Thin Lizzy discography, for many, it is no less loved by fans than the rest of Lynott and family’s studio creations. Ten songs of pure poetic rock and roll offered up as only Lizzy could and as wonderful as few in hard rock have managed since. A classic rock rhythm section spiked with half melodic/half blistering electric guitars and topped off with the world’s greatest hard rock Romeo. No one has written, rocked, and sounded like Lynott since he took his final breath in 1986 and I would venture to say that no one ever will. Yeah, the resurrected Lizzy and offshoot Black Star Riders share that similar vibe but Lynott was a one-of-a-kind original that only comes around a time or two in a lifetime and thankfully, he left us a body of work large enough to carry us through until our own final breaths. For myself, I am just grateful for that day long ago when I walked into that thrift store and had my heart stolen away by Johnny The Fox.
04. Don’t Believe A Word
05. Fool’s Gold
06. Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed
07. Old Flame
09. Sweet Marie
10. Boogie Woogie Dance
Phil Lynott – bass guitar, vocals, acoustic guitar
Scott Gorham – lead and rhythm guitar
Brian Robertson – lead and rhythm guitar
Brian Downey – drums, percussion
Fiachra Trench – brass and string arrangements
Phil Collins – percussion
Kim Beacon – backing vocals
Produced by John Alcock
Engineered by Will Reid Dick
Assistant engineer: Neil Hornby
Mastered by Denis Blackham
Reviewed by John Stoney Cannon for Sleaze Roxx, October 2021
Thin Lizzy‘s “Rocky” video: