Might this be the dark horse in Thin Lizzy’s catalogue? On second thoughts, perhaps that title would be better suited to Vagabonds of the Western World, or Thunder and Lightning, or maybe even Chinatown. Whatever the answer may be, Johnny the Fox is most certainly the darkest album of the classic Lizzy years.
Johnny the Fox follows on from Jailbreak in similar ways that Jailbreak followed on from Fighting. In my review of Jailbreak, I noted how there appears to be a vague story lying beneath the songs, and that is also apparent on this album as well.
But here, Phil attempts to tackle the story with more focus. Although characters went unnamed in Jailbreak, Johnny the Fox gives us a wide cast to indulge in. Rockey, Sweet Marie, The Vulture, Jimmy the Weed, and the titular character himself, Johnny (the Fox).
It all adds up to engaging listening, but yet again, the story itself, if indeed there is one, is still vague and unclear. And yet I find it doesn’t detract from the album at all. If anything, I believe it adds to it. So far, I believe I may have focused more on the music than the words, but on a purely lyrical level, this is my favourite Lizzy album, hands down.
I think Phil hit a peak here, as a story-teller. Again, like Jailbreak, the individual stories on each song make for truly evocative listening, like a series of mini-movies. The fact that these characters Phil sings about now have names give a much more convincing feel to his stories, as he tells the various adventures that Johnny, Rockey, and the rest of the cast get into.
It feels like a tale of the complexity of love (lost love, unrequited love, and untrue love) and dangerous men on the run from authority, from families, and from themselves. The mini-movie feel to this is added by John Alcock’s atmospheric production. To Lizzy fans, the only producer worth mentioning would be Mr. Tony Visconti, but here, John’s production techniques, while seeming simple at first, give the songs an almost film noir feel to them, particularly on such slower numbers as Borderline and Sweet Marie.
And that’s another tick for Johnny the Fox. It features four of the most beautiful ballads Lizzy ever did; the aforementioned pair, along with Fool’s Gold and Old Flame. The rockers are archetypical Lizzy, vicious, muscular, coiled and growling. In the studio, Lizzy were a masterpiece of tense dynamics, and here it all seems to hit another peak. Rockey and Johnny are two of the most dramatic rockers in Lizzy’s catalogue, while the slashing Massacre and the near-proto-punk Don’t Believe a Word made killer additions to the live show.
The remaining two numbers are rather quirky, but add to the album nonetheless. Johnny the Fox meets Jimmy the Weed is a fine example of funk being applied to heavy rock, while the closing track, Boogie Woogie Dance (seemingly an ode to the various drugs of the world and their similar effect, i.e. the Boogie Woogie Dance), is a frantic, shuffling slab of rock.
As ever, Scott and Robbo simply litter the place with their magnificent guitar work, Brian continues to claim the title of Most Underrated Drummer Ever, and Phil yet again delivers the goods, singing, writing and bass-playing, and all playing together fabulously, and all given subtle representation from the producer.
This would turn out to be the last full album with the bands first classic line-up. The future would hold many more changes in personnel, style, and events, but here, for one glorious moment, it all seemed to have come together at last, with everyone at the top of their game.
Tomorrow, Bad Reputation!