Scott Gorham can’t recall exactly when he was introduced to a certain towheaded youngster who’d never heard of Thin Lizzy, but at the time, the encounter irked him. “This kid looked at me like, ‘Thin what? Who’s that?’ Then somebody told him, ‘You know, they did “The Boys Are Back in Town” and “Jailbreak,”‘ and it still didn’t register. And I thought, ‘Really?‘ We made all these records, traveled all over the world, played to millions of people, and it’s like, ‘Nope, never heard of you!’ It wasn’t so much for me, but knowing that Phil was getting lost in the shuffle – that kind of pissed me off.”
It was a wake-up call. It had been nearly a decade since the death of Phil Lynott – Lizzy’s charismatic lead singer, bassist, warrior-poet and proud black Irishman, and at just 36, a tragic casualty of the rock & roll lifestyle. When Lynott was alive, he had almost single-handedly elevated Irish rock to the world stage, infusing the band’s sound with a soulful honesty and rebel swagger that coaxed drummer Brian Downey into backbeats as steeped in hard funk as they were hard rock. Meanwhile, the twin-guitar attack of Gorham and Scottish firebrand Brian “Robbo” Robertson became a boldface signature of their melodic prowess as a unit.
Lizzy peaked in 1976 with their exuberantly confrontational Jailbreak album, which went gold in the U.S. Throughout the latter half of the Seventies until their drug-fueled crackup in 1983, the band also shared some incendiary live dates (and legendary nights of hell-raising) with the likes of Aerosmith, AC/DC, Journey, Rush and, most famously, Freddie Mercury and Brian May, on the North American leg of Queen’s A Day at the Races tour.
In one sense, Gorham’s current band Black Star Riders grew out of his long-running quest to cement Thin Lizzy’s legacy. After he kick-started a new touring version of the latter group in 1994 with latter-day Lizzy guitarist John Sykes, Gorham guided the lineup through several personnel changes until he finally brought singer Ricky Warwick (frontman for the Scottish metal band the Almighty, and a fiery Northern-born Irishman himself) and guitarist Damon Johnson (formerly with Alice Cooper) into the fold. Right off the bat, there was a chemistry, a camaraderie, that led them to start writing new material together.
“People kept asking me, ‘So, when are you gonna bring out a new Thin Lizzy album?'” Gorham says, his California drawl still prominent after years of living in London. “And all along, to think about doing that without Phil was pretty incomprehensible for me. To be honest, you take a leap into the unknown when you say, ‘Well, we need to drop the Thin Lizzy name and create this new thing out of the ashes.’ So when it came down to crunch time, I just couldn’t take it any longer. I told Ricky and Damon, ‘Listen, I can’t bring myself to bring out a new Thin Lizzy album.’ And the relief on their faces was pretty comical really, because we’d all been thinking the same thing.”
Recorded at Rock Falcon Studio in Nashville, Heavy Fire – out Friday – is the third studio outing by the band that eventually took the name Black Star Riders, and their second with producer Nick Raskulinecz, who’s known for the densely layered, muscular sound he has brought to albums by Alice in Chains, Deftones, Evanescence and Mastodon. And while vestiges of Thin Lizzy remain – most notably in the dueling guitars of Gorham and Johnson, and in the Lynott-like vocal phrasings of Warwick on such cuts as the rollicking single “When the Night Comes In” and the downtempo rock ballad “Cold War Love” – this is still the work of a band that’s carving out its own turf.
“I think we really had enough time to do what we wanted to do,” Warwick says. “I mean, three weeks for us is plenty because these guys are such great players. But that made a big difference because we could actually sit and live with stuff a little bit more. And I think now, with this record, we have our own sound that’s set in stone. It’s very established. Nick really pushed us, and I’m really glad he did. It was worth every ounce of sweat we put into it.”
Anchored by the rhythm section of bassist Robbie Crane and drummer Jimmy DeGrasso, Black Star Riders have certainly expanded their palette; the more melodic and even folk-tinged sensibilities that the band hinted at on 2013’s All Hell Breaks Loose and the follow-up The Killer Instinct are now well-honed features on the new album. They’re still quite happy to butter their bread with bludgeoning proto-metal riffs – check the Sabbath-y title track and the headbanging “Who Rides the Tiger?” – but in taking another page from Thin Lizzy, the Riders can deliver soul-flavored rock (“Ticket to Rise”) and even power pop (“Letting Go of Me”) without irony.
“I think with Ricky and Damon being such huge fans, they caught on to that way of doing things,” Gorham observes. “You don’t have to be afraid to ease down into something a little slower or more meaningful, or a little bit more melodic. Even in the Lizzy days, when Phil would bust out the studded belts and the whole rock look, we were never afraid to show the softer side. Whatever we wrote, however we were feeling at the time, that’s what we were gonna record, because we actually liked that, and we weren’t embarrassed to show that other side of us.”
More than thirty years after Lynott’s death – he collapsed in his home on Christmas Day 1985, and succumbed 10 days later to complications related to septicemia – his presence still looms as a benevolent force not just for Black Star Riders, but for a sprawling vanguard of younger bands, among them Mastodon (known for their rousing encores of the Jailbreak-era chestnut “Emerald”), Sheer Mag, Christian Mistress, Hammers of Misfortune and Earthless, as well as seasoned vets like U2, Metallica and Def Leppard. Gorham, Warwick and Johnson still pay their respects; just recently, they played the last in a series of Thin Lizzy tribute shows with Aerosmith’s Tom Hamilton on bass and Judas Priest’s Scott Travis on drums. And for their upcoming tour, which will hopefully hit American shores later this spring with an as-yet-unnamed headliner, the Riders plan to fold a rotating menu of Lizzy classics into the set.
To this day, the connection to Lynott feels especially close for Warwick, who still thrives on the music, poetry and politics of his Irish upbringing. “I never got to meet him, but Phil was the soundtrack to my youth,” he says. “In the North where we were from, with the Troubles and all the bullshit that was going on, it was quite an insane existence, but that’s normal if you’ve never known anything different, which we didn’t. With the security, the curfews at night, the bombs going off, the British soldiers in the streets – nobody wanted to come and play. So the Irish bands were our heroes, because they were the ones that played – Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher, Stiff Little Fingers, Horslips, the Undertones, all those bands. We latched onto them, and as they became big and broke out into the world, they gave kids like us hope. We thought, we can do that too. We can get out of this, and change our lives for the better.”
Gorham felt similar pangs of expectation and wonder when he first auditioned for Thin Lizzy back in 1974. It’s a story he’s chuffed to recount enthusiastically and often – and with Universal Music in London making plans to roll out a long-awaited box set of studio outtakes and rarities later this year, he might consider getting used to telling it even more. “I mean, I had no idea what the hell I was walking into,” he quips. “The first person I meet is this black guy with an Irish accent, and that really threw me. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is different straight off the bat.’ And then we got up onstage, and the power that these three guys were generating – forget about me, you know? Just on their own, they were incredible. As soon as we got together and started to play and started to jell, things fell together pretty quickly. I think Phil was looking for a new sound, and he got it.”