THIN LIZZY – The Renegade Angel
THIN LIZZY’S DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
2016 marks the 40th anniversary of Thin Lizzy’s timeless Jailbreak album as well as the 30th anniversary of the passing of the legendary Philip Lynott. As I am writing this, Thin Lizzy are out there on the festival stages in Europe performing anniversary shows and celebrating the band’s ever-inspiring musical past. The current line-up consists of brilliant musicians, namely Scott Gorham, Darren Wharton, Ricky Warwick, Damon Johnson, Scott Travis, and Tom Hamilton, and judging by the quality of their live performances this year, Thin Lizzy is still a force to be reckoned with. Naturally, the aforementioned anniversaries seem to be on everyone’s lips within the classic rock and hard rock communities these days, and quite a few articles celebrating the Jailbreak album have already cropped up. However, 2016 also marks something else, more specifically the 35th anniversary of the Renegade album, which was released back in November 1981. Personally, I have always felt that this particular album is both overlooked and underrated. Some consider it the beginning of the band’s downfall, but I strongly disagree. I would go so far as to say that Renegade is my favorite album by the band along with Jailbreak and Thunder and Lightning, their three very best studio outputs if you ask me. Renegade oozes quality and class, and it is way up there with the very best.
1981 was an amazing and important year for heavy metal. Iron Maiden released the awe-inspiring Killers, Venom exploded onto the scene with the ferocious Welcome to Hell, Black Sabbath released the excellent follow-up to Heaven and Hell in the shape of Mob Rules, and Ozzy Osbourne’s Diary of a Madman simply ruled. Let us not forget Point of Entry by Judas Priest and the bone-crushing No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith by Motörhead. Then there was the NWOBHM movement, which spawned many great bands and releases. Where did Thin Lizzy fit into all of this? To be perfectly frank, nowhere. Thin Lizzy were pretty much sticking to their guns as opposed to adapting to what was popular or current, and why should they not? They were pioneers. A band with a sound and an identity of its own. However, the events leading up to the recording of Renegade and the actual recording sessions in the studio were no walk in the park. The line-up consisting of Brian Downey (drums), Scott Gorham (guitar), Phil Lynott (bass/vocals), Darren Wharton (keyboards), and Snowy White (guitar) was strong from a purely musical point of view, but internally things were not quite right. According to author Alan Byrne,
The sessions that made up the new Lizzy album became a cross to bear. Guitarist Snowy White began to lose interest and the recognizable Lizzy sound seemed to be becoming more and more diluted. In Philip’s absence the other members took to putting down load vocals on demos, something never previously done. (Renegade 112)
Even though it was a frustrating task for the band to compose, arrange, and record the album, the end result turned out to be both captivating and diverse in my opinion. Perhaps the problems and hardship played a small part in shaping the sound and atmosphere of the record. Of course, this is merely conjecture on my part, but I kind of like the idea of each member channeling his frustration and aggravation into the album, thereby making it more heartfelt.
Going back to what I mentioned before, some are of the opinion that Renegade was the beginning of the end for Thin Lizzy. As Byrne says,
The band continued to write and record but the direction of the material was getting muddier. Songs like ‘Hollywood’, ‘Leave this Town’ and ‘It’s Getting Dangerous’ emerged with only the latter shining through and showing that there might be something left in the Lynott engine yet. When the record company heard some of the early versions of the songs they insisted on a new producer coming in to help shape the direction of the material, Chris Tsangarides. Tsangarides was young and bringing him in was an interesting move considering that Philip’s best work was done under the direction of someone older than him, more experienced. Label management, however, was unwilling to finance a bigger name producer so Tsangarides was in… (Renegade 108)
While I strongly disagree with Byrne’s view that the material was less than stellar, I think the combination of Tsangarides and Thin Lizzy was brilliant. A young, keen, and enthusiastic producer who was eager to prove his worth and a struggling band who were trying to stay true to who and what they were while still remaining relevant as the eighties dawned. Tsangarides was not the first producer on the scene, however. Kit Woolven was there pretty early on but eventually became so frustrated that it was agreed that the whole recording project should be handed over to Tsangarides. With Lynott writing and demoing songs for both Thin Lizzy and his solo project simultaneously, the whole affair became a bit fragmented and confusing, to say the least. Woolven was never sure if he was working on Lizzy songs or Lynott’s solo material:
Woolven’s frustration was borne from not knowing which album he was going to be working on from day to day, and felt that his message to Lynott was misunderstood when they were in the bar at Morgan Studios. "Sometimes, Phil would say ‘there’s a tape with an idea and I’ve got an idea I want to add’," says Woolven. "So you go with the flow, but it did become irritating because you ended up not knowing what project you were working on…all I really wanted to know in advance was some clarity on what we were going to be working on from day to day. If we went into the studio and he said ‘This is a solo day’, then that would have been great. Or ‘today is going to be all Lizzy’. (Ready 189)
As to Tsangarides’ approach to the album, there can be no doubt that he did his utmost to make the album successful and with respect to the production I definitely think that he succeeded. As Tsangarides himself told Byrne,
…I considered it an honour for me to work on an album with Lizzy. I approached it from the perspective of a fan. I would work doubly hard to achieve everything I possibly could in order to make the album successful. They did struggle to find a single on the album and I struggled to see one, but I think we felt that ‘Hollywood’ was the closest and even then I wasn’t quite sure how it might do. (Renegade 108)
Renegade may not have been the chart-listing monster of an album that the label and management were hoping for, but that does not mean that it sucks by any stretch of the imagination. On the contrary. I find it puzzling that there was even any doubt as to what the single ought to be as "Hollywood (Down on Your Luck)" is instantly catchy and memorable. "Angel of Death" is intense and menacing, and I consider this one of the best Lizzy tunes ever conceived. Nothing really sounds dated on the album. Songs such as "The Pressure Will Blow" and the title track still sound sufficiently punchy and hard-hitting all these years later. Give the deluxe edition of the album a spin and you will see that the remastered versions sound even more vibrant and dynamic than ever before.
I for one like the slightly bleaker lyrics and the emphasis on the loner-theme that seems to be quite prevalent in songs such as "Leave This Town" and "It’s Getting Dangerous". Lynott sounds almost a bit downtrodden and weary in places, which only enhances the melancholic aspects of the record. In addition, it makes it sound more passionate and emotionally charged to my ears. Renegade also has an intuitive vibe to it that comes across as genuine and honest. According to Snowy White, Lynott wrote some of the lyrics more or less on the spot as opposed to bringing fully formed ones to the studio, which, he argues, resulted in some of the songs never being completed and finalized as such:
"Phil would try to write a lot of the lyrics ‘on the spot’ instead of doing some homework on them, which meant hours of hanging around while he tried out different ideas," recalls White. "On the Renegade album I think he was still writing lyrics when the deadline passed for delivery to the record company, so some of them [songs] were never really ‘finished’." (Ready 184)
Speaking of lyrics, the words to "Angel of Death" came about due to Lynott watching Robert Guenette’s The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, which revolved around the prophecies of Nostradamus (Ready 191). "Hollywood (Down on Your Luck)", on the other hand, thematizes and comments on the difficulty of making it to the top in the music business and all that goes along with it (Ready 192).
But let us be honest here; is it any fun listening to me raving on and on about how awesome Renegade is? Right, that is what I figured. So, to make this more interesting, I thought that it would be cool to ask well-known and noted author Martin Popoff what his thoughts on the album are. As you may know, Popoff has written excellent books on Thin Lizzy, Yes, Judas Priest, Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, and countless other bands and topics relating to hard rock and heavy metal. The list of his published works is both long and impressive. I e-mailed him a few questions regarding Renegade and here is what he had to say…
Some fans and critics are of the opinion that Renegade is one of the most forgettable and downright weak Thin Lizzy albums to ever see the light of day. As you know, I strongly disagree and consider the album a bit of an overlooked gem. I love the diversity and variety of it. How did you feel about the album when it was released, and how do you feel about it now? What would you say are its strengths and weaknesses?
M: When it was first issued, I wasn’t that much fan of Renegade, and that’s because my buddies and myself only wanted the rockers. And so, three of four on side one were fine, the title track sounded like, I believe the big hit song at the time that had the same sort of melody was Bonnie Tyler’s "Bette Davis Eyes". Over to side two, it was all over after "Hollywood". There were no more heavy songs, and so the record was a disappointment. Now it’s my favourite thin Lizzy album. I love the plush and perfect recording, the melancholy, the reflection, the wistful introspection. Lifting it in fact is the title track, which contains my favourite Brian Downey drumming. Interestingly, the heaviest song on the album, "Angel of Death", is now close to my least favourite because it’s the least characteristic of Thin Lizzy. But the rest of the heavy songs on that side are fine, and then the real gems are "No One Told Him" and "It’s Getting Dangerous", which feel like the sundown of Phil Lynott’s life, and are the sundown of this album. Even "Mexican Blood" is good, as a typical western tale from Phil. That side is so good. It almost makes you wish that Thunder and Lightning never happened. I wouldn’t say the diversity of the record is any greater than any Thin Lizzy album, and helping it cohere is the incredible recording, and sort of the singular and focused playing by everybody. There’s also a weird sort of cohesion with "The Pressure Will Blow", "Leave This Town" and "Hollywood", in terms of them all being heavy, but just being so high fidelity at the same time.
Some also feel that Snowy White never really fit into the group, but I think him and Gorham were great together. The bluesy feel that creeps into Renegade here and there emphasizes and underlines the melancholy that certain songs possess, at least in my opinion. What are your thoughts on the Downey-Gorham-Lynott-Wharton-White line-up?
M: The Renegade lineup of players was ideal for Thin Lizzy, I thought. I love Snowy and Scott together, although I don’t necessarily consider Snowy bluesy, more just like regal and universal and thoughtful in his approach when he had to be heavy. Darren Wharton is used perfectly on this record as well, not too intrusive, and not dated at all, using no brash ‘80s techniques. In other words, he fits into the luxurious feel of the mix. Which in turn fits in with the luxurious look of the album cover, those reds and greens and golds.
Did you by any chance attend one of the shows on the Renegade tour in 1982? If so, what are your memories of that show?
M: No, never saw Thin Lizzy live with Phil Lynott, only a couple of times later. Graduated high school in 1981, and then was off to university, so my only chance would’ve been, really, Spokane, Washington in the summers after that, and of course, before Phil died, and only the very first year in Vancouver. Off the top of my head, I can’t recall the last time Thin Lizzy would have even been to the Northwest.
Lyrically, I think Renegade is quite introspective and somewhat world-weary in places, which probably ties in with what Lynott was going through in his personal life back then. The lyric to the brilliant "Angel of Death" even borders on the morbid and surreal but in a poetic fashion. I must admit that I am quite moved by, for instance, "Hollywood (Down on Your Luck)". Are there any songs in particular off the album that you consider stand-out tracks, not just musically, but lyrically as well? Any songs that truly move you, and why?
M: I think the standout tracks lyrically are the title track, "No One Told Him" and "It’s Getting Dangerous", which all seem to be about the outlaw, the outcast, a favourite theme of Phil’s. He liked that as a universal tale, could identify it within himself, although more superficially with his looks, and maybe the fact that he was an artist, but really, not because he lacked confidence or was the type of outsider in those types of songs. "Leave This Town" even has that sort of theme. And you can even find bits of this theme, or sorts of yearnings to escape and be somewhere else, in pretty much every other song on the album, which is kind of interesting. In a nutshell, both lyrically and musically, to me, this is the culmination of everything Thin Lizzy were trying to do through all the records, starting with Vagabonds. It is the full bloom, the full maturity of all those great Thin Lizzy characteristics rolled into one. Makes for a very messy end, because Thunder and Lightning seems almost the work of a different band. In that sense, Renegade is both the last Thin Lizzy album and the best Thin Lizzy album, and there aren’t too many bands that end with their best album.
It made me incredibly happy to see the 2011 and 2012 incarnations of the band perform songs off Renegade on their worldwide tours, namely "Angel of Death" and "Hollywood (Down on Your Luck)":
This certainly goes to prove that the band has neither disowned nor forgotten about the album. This summer they included "Angel of Death" in the set list. The thing is that the bestselling and/or the most commercially viable albums are not always the best ones by a band, but you hardly need me to tell you that. I find Renegade not only diverse and captivating, but also challenging and cleverly written. To me, it just keeps on giving in the sense that I discover new aspects and nuances of it whenever I listen to it. Also, the somewhat morose and melancholic atmosphere that frequently seeps into the mix provokes strong reactions in me, possibly more so than any other album by Lizzy. The creator of a given piece of work rarely knows when he or she has created something brilliant. Look at Ritchie Blackmore; on more than one occasion, he has stated that he does not consider the Rising album to be anything special apart from the majestic track "Stargazer". What does that tell you? Some members of Black Sabbath might try to fool you into believing that Technical Ecstasy is not a brilliantly conceived experimental metal album that was ahead of its time, but it is. Iommi’s solos are exquisite and the album as a whole is extremely diverse. Thin Lizzy’s Thunder and Lightning is the near-perfect combination of heavy metal and hard rock. Whether or not the members of the band think so too, I do not know. My point is that some artists are totally unaware of what their best work is. An artist’s perception of his or her own album is often colored by how comfortable or uncomfortable the writing and recording sessions were. While the majority of fans, critics, and perhaps even a couple of the band members themselves do not consider Renegade extraordinary, I fully agree with Popoff’s view that the album "is the full bloom, the full maturity of all those great Thin Lizzy characteristics rolled into one". In any case, you ought to listen to Renegade again with an open mind and simply revel in its many quality tunes. If you have never listened to it before, I dare say that you are in for a treat.
Thin Lizzy may have struggled when they wrote and recorded the album, and the recording sessions themselves may have been chaotic at times, but somehow those five guys managed to spawn one hell of a great album that has stood the test of time. It is Thin Lizzy doing what they do best; writing timeless and amazing songs for us to lose ourselves in. It is time to seriously reevaluate this particular gem of an album.
The Renegade line-up:
Brian Downey – drums
Scott Gorham – guitars
Phil Lynott – bass/vocals
Darren Wharton – keyboards
Snowy White – guitars
Byrne, Alan. Philip Lynott: Renegade of Thin Lizzy. Dublin: Mentor Books, 2012. Print.
Byrne, Alan. Are You Ready? Thin Lizzy: Album by Album. London: Soundcheck Books, 2015. Print.
THIN LIZZY – http://thinlizzyband.com/
SCOTT GORHAM – https://twitter.com/Scott_Gorham
DARREN WHARTON – https://twitter.com/DarrenWharton
MARTIN POPOFF – http://martinpopoff.com/
ALAN BYRNE – https://twitter.com/alanbyrnefback