When it comes to Thin Lizzy these days, the boys are back in town.
It’s just a different group of boys.
Since 1996, guitarist Scott Gorham — who was with the Irish rockers from 1974-83, including the “Jailbreak” album and its hit “The Boys Are Back in Town” — has been leading various latter-day incarnations of the band. The endeavors have been greeted with both joy and skepticism; Thin Lizzy, after all, hasn’t released new music since 1983’s “Thunder and Lightning” album, and iconic frontman Phil Lynott is there in spirit only, having died in 1986 at the age of 36 from the toll drug abuse took on his body.
But Gorham says that while the prospect of making new Thin Lizzy music does exist — more on that later — he’s mainly driven to keep the old music, 16 years of vital, vibrant and timeless hard rock, alive.
“It’s just about the songs, you know?” says Gorham, 60, a California native who moved to London after graduating from high school. “As time goes by, I’m starting to realize how good these songs actually are. Maybe I didn’t appreciate that as much when Phil was alive; at that point I was probably a little too close to it and couldn’t see things objectively.
“These days I’m able to look at it all and say we actually wrote some pretty cool stuff, and this is fun (music) to play. That for me is the biggest attraction — I know I can walk on stage and I’m in a band that can play some really killer songs.”
And, Gorham adds, it can play them to fans who span original fans from the ’70s and those who have caught on to the Thin Lizzy legend since the band’s initial demise in 1984.
“It never seemed to go away,” Gorham says of Thin Lizzy’s audience. “With most bands you break up and people might play your stuff for three, four, maybe five more years before the popularity starts to wane. You get played less and they talk about you less until eventually nobody talks about you anymore and they go, ‘Whatever happened to ... ’ I was fully and mentally prepared for all of that to happen with Thin Lizzy.
“Thank God, it just never happened. The fans wouldn’t let it go. Journalists loved writing about it. When we go out and play, you actually see it on people’s faces; everyone’s just having a really kick-ass time. It’s very gratifying.”
Thin Lizzy, which was listed at No. 51 on VH1’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock, came together in 1969 in Dublin, formed by guitarist Eric Bell and organist Eric Wixon — both members of Them with Van Morrison — who joined forces with Orphanage members Lynott and drummer Brian Downey. The group’s first single came out in 1970 and its first, self-titled album followed in 1971, and it would prove to be a volatile outfit that went through more than a dozen members, including guitarists Gary Moore and future Whitesnake member John Sykes.
There were several breakthrough points along the way. A revved up rendition of the traditional Irish ballad “Whiskey in the Jar” hit the Top 10 in the U.K. and landed the group on the “Top of the Pops” program. The group also recorded a version of Bob Seger’s “Rosalie” in 1975, and Gorham recalls that Thin Lizzy’s first U.S. performance was at a theater in Highland Park, on a show headlined by Spencer Davis.
“It wasn’t the greatest area back then, either,” the guitarist remembers. “I remember checking into the Holiday Inn and there was bullet-proof chicken wire. I thought, ‘OK, this is a great part of town ... ’ It was a real experience.
“But the audience really had a great time with us and we had a great time with them, so it was a great introduction to Thin Lizzy in America.”
The group’s pinnacle, however, came in 1976, when the “Jailbreak” went gold and spawned radio hits in the title track and “The Boys Were Back in Town” — although Gorham has somewhat ambivalent feelings about that album.
“I think it had potential. I never really thought that the production level of that particular album was all that great,” he explains. To that end, however, Gorham and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, a big Thin Lizzy fan, helmed the remastering of “Jailbreak” and the same year’s “Johnny the Fox” for recent deluxe edition reissues, bolstering the parts they felt were weak.
“There’s all kinds of things we heard that were deep down in the original mix that shouldn’t have been buried,” he says, “like little exclamation points in the music. Back then you thought differently than you do now. You kind of grow up and you’ve had time to think about that stuff, and we had a chance to correct them.”
Nor was Gorham shy about going a step further during the process. “If I thought there was a weak part of the song, guitar-wise, I was able to strap on a guitar and put on what I called ‘straightening parts’ in these certain sections,” he says. “It was a really cool experience.”
Ditto, says Elliott. “To get into this classic music and make it a little better — not that it wasn’t great in the first place — felt like a real privilege,” he says. It gave me a whole new appreciation for how good that band was.”
Thin Lizzy came to an acrimonious end in 1984, with Gorham out of the band dealing with his own drug issues. Lynott had released two solo albums by that point and went on to form a new band, Grand Slam, and was even talking about a Thin Lizzy reunion at the time of his death. “He was a ... great guy, and a ... great songwriter,” says singer and activist Bob Geldof, who worked with Lynott in a later band called the Greedy Bastards. “There’s this sort of hole in the air where Philip should be — that’s what I think whenever I think of him.”
Gorham was, likewise, devastated.
“When Phil died,” he says, “the last thing I thought of was, ‘Geez, I lost a bass player’ or ‘I lost the singer of the band.’ For me, it’s, ‘Hey, I lost my buddy. I lost one of my best friends.’ I can’t call Phil anymore, ‘Come on over. Let’s go out for a drink.’ That’s over. People have to remember that no matter how much they miss Phil, (multiply) that by about 100 and that’s me.
“When we’re out on stage, without sounding too Zen, it’s like Phil is out there with us. He gets introduced every night along with everybody else, and Phil ends up with the biggest cheer of the night, which is only right.”
Gorham feels that both Thin Lizzy and its legacy are in a good place these days. Brian Downey has returned to the band, whose particularly strong lineup includes Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell (on loan), bassist Marco Mendoza (Ted Nugent, Whitesnake) and Irish vocalist Ricky Warwick. “It feels really good knowing there are that many people out there that will drop everything and come and join the ranks,” Gorham notes.
And now he predicts that it might even be time to consider adding some songs to the canon that’s sat largely dormant since Lynott’s death.
“That’s the No. 1 question we’re getting from people, are we gonna record some new material?” Gorham notes. “The fans seem to trust this lineup, and I don’t blame them. We’ve kind of jumped this emotional hurdle together. Ricky’s writing some ... killer lyrics, and with the kind of talent that’s in Thin Lizzy now I think we can pull off a really cool set of tunes.
“At least it’s something that we can think about now, where before it wasn’t on the table.”
Thin Lizzy performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 31, at Sound Board in the MotorCity Casino-Hotel, 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $30. Call 313-237-7711 or visit www.motorcitycasino.com.
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