With Jail Break, Thin Lizzy had finally gotten the break they were looking for. There was a mass hit single, “The Boys Are Back in Town,” and things seemed to finally be locking into place. So later that year, 1976, Phil Lynott and the boys decided to head back into the recording studio and put out another album, one to keep up the momentum of Jail Break, and maybe, hopefully, if only turn their band into the next Led Zeppelin. What came out was Johnny and the Fox, a not-really-concept-album that while it was no where nearly as successful as Jail Break, it still rocked fairly hard.
Thin Lizzy always has an air of danger in their music. The guitars are edgy, the drums are cautious, tight, and the black Irishman, Phil Lynott, is the perfect outcast front man who’s so cool but so different with his mustache, afro, bass, and voice that seems like it’s always telling a story. Ultimately, Phil’s vocals keep this album together. While Jail Break was all about the dueling guitars of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, Johnny the Fox features, dare I say, average guitar work. But Phil’s intoxicating voice keeps this album worthwhile.
Johnny the Fox begins with an sweet little outlaw-esque bass line and drums. “Johnny” tells the story of a man gone bad and now on the run. The “Whoa Johnny” for a chorus are excellent, but my favorite line, which is repeated throughout the song is “It’s alright to lose your heart, but never lose your head.” That perfect, simple bass line runs throughout much of the song, and keeps the two solos moving. This and “Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed” are the only songs that gave me a hint that this was a concept album, unfortunately I do not think that is the case.
I’m not really a fan of the next track, “Rocky.” It’s about Rocky Rocky the Rock and Roll Star. There’s nothing exciting in the song for me. It has some typical Thin Lizzy lyrics, a recycled riff, and that’s about it.
“Borderline” is a ballad, a really good one. Phil Lynott’s voice really lends itself well to ballads. It’s slightly melancholy and has impeccable rhythm. His vocals mix really well with the slow guitar work. The song is about starting over again, or something, going back on the borderline. It’s very touching, with some vulnerable lyrics mixed with power chords.
“Don’t Believe a Word” has the chorus “Don’t believe me if I tell you, especially if I tell you, I’m in love with you.” The opening riff is nothing special, but the lyrics and the way Phil sings them make this a great song.
The riff for “Fool’s Gold” is hopeful, uplifting, which contrasts the intro, where Phil describes the Potato Famine over mournful guitars. But his desperate vocals show that the hopeful guitars were…fool’s gold. And at long last: the guitar solo. It’s short, but sweet, and long overdue. There were solos before, but absolutely nothing to get excited about. This is one of my favorite songs.
“Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed” is a major departure from the blues rock that Thin Lizzy had been playing thus far. It’s starts off with a funky drum beat, Brian Downey’s most interesting drumming on the album. The guitars fit nicely as Phil sings of the shady dealings between the outlaw Johnny and a sneaky little man named Jimmy the Weed. It’s not one of my favorite songs, but I appreciate Thin Lizzy experimenting with other genres.
“Old Flame” is not exactly interesting. It drags along until the nice guitar solo, where the guitarist (I can never tell whether it’s Scott or Brian) seems to skip up the fretboard. But it’s too little too late, this album has already established that it’s about Phil Lynott. I miss the dueling guitars…
And then my favorite song, “Massacre.” This is a perfect song, three minutes, an epic intro with the tribal drumming reminiscent of Jail Break, some fine, well placed screams from Phil Lynott like when he goes “If Gaaawd is in heaven, how could this happen here?” and a fine riff before the power chords. This is one angry, angry song. As shown by the quote, this is someone witnessing a massacre, and asking how something like this happen? This song is the definition of spine-chilling.
Unfortunately, “Massacre” is the last good song on the album. “Sweet Marie” is a dreamy little number, that makes me tired. And “Boogie Woogie Dance” has the most annoying chorus. The guitars are good, but this song would’ve done better somewhere in the middle. If only Thin Lizzy would stop at “Massacre,” it would’ve been a closer equal to “Emerald” from Jail Break, but Johnny the Fox limps on for two more tracks.
The final verdict? This is a good album, nothing on par with Jail Break. It seems Thin Lizzy abandoned the awe-inspiring guitar work. Instead, here they tell stories over music. I still like it, but not as much as I enjoy a good 4 minute instrumental after two verses. It was inevitable that Johnny the Fox would be compared with Jail Break, they were put out in the same year. That ultimately worked against Johnny the Fox. It is a good album, but the spotlight is put on Phil Lynott far too much, especially for one of the original guitar bands.