After thrilling Thin Lizzy fans with his thorough and exhaustive analysis of the band's formative Eric Bell years, on through the release of the Irish rockers' landmark Jailbreak opus, famed Canadian music journalist Martin Popoff recently returned to the world of songwriter Philip Lynott and Co. to recount the tales surrounding Thin Lizzy's career throughout the 1970s, on through the early 80s and into their post-Lynott reformation.
The last time we spoke, the decision to turn your analysis of Thin Lizzy into a 'trilogy' of career covering books wasn't yet written in stone. What made you decide to move forward with the decision to continue on with these two final volumes?
I guess, like all of them, started out as one book, and-through the gracious help of Peter Nielsen in Sweden-we just had so many images, and there were a lot of articles, old press and my own interviews. It just grew and grew, even though at first it was only supposed to be two books, but then I figured there was a lot of discography stuff, and I've never worked on a full discography. So the third book contains quite an extensive discography, with all three books totaling about eight hundred pages.
Was there a different mindset to the second and third books, given that both of them were completed rather quickly from one another, whereas you had some time in between the completion of the first book into the second?
I suppose so. I still remember it was one complete process, and more so, I sort of split them into the different eras of the band, with the first volume dealing specifically with the Eric Bell era on through Jailbreak. Additionally, the last book deals a lot with the various side projects, Grand Slam and Phil dying; there's a lot of variety in that one, whereas the second one is the classic material we all love.
Was there any challenge in separating when to stop book two, and which eras of the band to cover, album-wise?
It was more predicated on the page count, dealing with how much it would cost to mail, the gram size, etc. More so than anything, though, they all kind of had to be the same length, so I had to be careful deciding when to cut them off. I expected that people would eventually own all three, anyway, because there's this cult following of people who are supporting me, buying these books. I didn't do much with regards to an introduction with book two, instead just sort of barreling into our story! It really is one big, crazy trilogy!
Was there any difference in how you approached the narrative tone, or was it pretty much the same process?
I think it was pretty much the same process. I loved including all the old ads and promotional material; I love all those visuals being in there, throughout. Peter's collection is just amazing, and it's built from all the crazy, deep knowledge of some dedicated Lizzy fans, so it really is a group effort, with all the complicated crediting involved in the whole process! What struck me was how much graphic material gets generated for a band like this. Here we are in North America-where Thin Lizzy really wasn't all that big-yet there's all kinds of promotional materials available. I think each of these books contain over 250 graphics to go along with the text, so it's amazing to think all of this was floating around for Lizzy during their time.
It's really turned out to be timeless material, which leads me to believe that if someone were doing their job with due diligence-keeping track of things like Soundscan and stuff-that these records have continued to sell at a modest yet healthy clip throughout the years.
Do you think this might be testament to the fact that the music industry was a very different animal back in the 70s? A lot more time and attention was placed to this promotional material, in the hopes that all this effort might result in a following for these acts, who were still being given a shot to "make it," whereas these days, artists as dropped after only one failed recorded effort.
I think that a lot of that has to do with just how few bands there were back then; there wasn't much of an indie infrastructure. Let's say that four years ago there was an infrastructure encompassing everything from making and releasing a record from your bedroom and becoming a YouTube sensation, to the very old school way of doing things. These days, the pendulum has shifted very much in favor of the indie guy, even though I suppose the old school way of doing things still exists to a lesser extent.
Back then, there was no indie industry at all. There were smaller, cottage industry labels, but essentially ninety percent of the industry was the major label machine, with all of that stratified into radio, print press, promotion, payola, touring and booking. So all of these slightly smaller bands like Thin Lizzy, right into bigger bands like Led Zeppelin were all existed on the same, slanted playing field.
So you're right, the band did have a lot of money thrown at them, and it was expected that a band would release three, four or five albums. Lousy sales were fifty or eighty thousand copies; a pretty good figure today, yet one which would only keep the band alive to do the next record in those days. When you're out touring and promoting a record, it's this alchemical combination of burning and making money, and Thin Lizzy was definitely right in the middle of that world. The big eye on the prize was breaking it in America, a goal which it looks like they never really achieved.
Another aspect of being able to create more records back then meant being able to create albums like Chinatown or Renegade, albums which have gained a new, appreciative audience.
The other thing which enters into it is the "death of the album." It's a random length, which now really means nothing. These days, it's cheaper to record and release music, so young bands could conceivably release music for a long time, but you're right, it's great that these albums DID get made, and they're here for all history, and some of them have become timeless. I'm having this debate right now with someone about my Ted Nugent book, which ISN'T selling that well, compared to my Lizzy books, so we're having this debate that maybe Ted Nugent's music wasn't as timeless.
It's certainly possible. Thin Lizzy's music sounds regal in comparison to Ted's slightly juvenile sound. UFO is sort of the same thing. Thin Lizzy sounds serious and well put together with top flight producers at the helm. Who knows? It could last for hundreds and hundreds of years.
I think also there's the emotional resonance of Phil's lyrics, in comparison to Ted Nugent's, which might just evoke fond memories of a concert. I think the people who have memories of seeing Ted Nugent in the Seventies have more memories of the concert than any having any of his songs affect them in a meaningful, personal way.
That's a really good way of looking at it; that makes a lot of sense, and it's a very smart comment. I suppose Phil was a poet, and a very serious thinker; those lyrics possess a lot of deep meaning, and they're very timeless. It's really about the intensity of living a life, which is what you get from Thin Lizzy.
One of my favorite aspects of Thin Lizzy was that aspect of their debate with including a song like "Angel of Death" on a record, for fear of it coming across as too "cheesy heavy metal." I think that one could gleam that some of the best heavy metal has been created from bands who feel that heavy metal is "beneath them," and that's why I think Thin Lizzy are so good. They had a good BS detector.
I wanted to touch on how intent Lizzy seemed to feel about avoiding that "heavy metal" connotation. You have a generation of bands now who are heavily influenced by the heavier side of Thin Lizzy, as opposed to the Eric Bell material.
I don't know if I've seen anybody stand up in a big, concerted, organized way for Thunder and Lightning, but certainly all the heavier Thin Lizzy songs from the classic era are the ones which live on the most, even over the mellower song from the classic era. When you were saying that, I was thinking about how many people grew up with Tony Martin or Dio Black Sabbath, and, as a result, identified more with those eras. It's interesting, and with Lizzy it would definitely be the "classic" period versus Eric Bell versus the one off album, Thunder and Lightning.
When you're analyzing a band you enjoy so much under a microscope, what did you take away after you finished all three books? Did you find that you loved them even more after discovering all of "the dirt?"
Yes, definitely. The more I learn about the songs and production--which is the stuff about which I most enjoy writing-the more I can appreciate the band. I get so many emails from people saying that it's done the same for them, as well, and that's my favorite part about writing these books. I've also not become so sick of Thin Lizzy that I can't listen to them, which is something that definitely happens writing these sorts of books. I think I still come away with the general, emotional feeling that this was a very classy band, outside the realms of heavy metal, who appreciated all sorts of music, including heavy metal. I also got the feeling that they were a very competitive band, as well, which was interesting, because I don't normally enjoy hearing that some of my favorite bands happen to be careerists.
I also really enjoyed the chapters where you delved into the band's appreciation of the punk rock movement. You hit right on the head when you mentioned how Thin Lizzy appreciated punk, but were smart enough to realize they could never incorporate it into their music.
There were probably a lot of things they realized they couldn't incorporate, which is why Phil ended up releasing those two AMAZING solo albums, which are also talked about at length. It just seemed that it was a chaotic time, where they were very sure as to what they could include on a Thin Lizzy record, and what they couldn't, despite the fact that there was a quite a wide range. They seemed to know exactly where that line was drawn.
Where do you think Phil might have went, had he enjoyed a longer solo career?
Wow, I don't know. I think we might actually have received a lot of pretty crappy music. Maybe he would've went more electronic, more disco/R&B...who knows, right? He loved so much stuff, I think maybe he would've realized that Thin Lizzy was quite a career kick for him, so maybe we would've kept receiving Lizzy records. I suppose he would have continued what he was doing, which would've meant we would've kept receiving both Lizzy and solo records...as well as some stuff we probably would have hated! (laughs)
I'd like to get into a little back-and-forth, fanboy stuff before we get going here, if I could.
What are your thoughts on Life-Live? I can understand why many fans don't like it, but I've always appreciated the desperation and melancholy I hear in that last gasp of Thin Lizzy. It captures the same sort of tragedy I enjoy in such late period Lizzy tracks as "Baby Please Don't Go" and "Hollywood."
That record, to me, is the big, tired and bloated record which I compare to Rush's Exit Stage Left, Priest...Live! or Blue Oyster Cult's Extraterrestrial Live. I think the production is too thin and "wall of sound" to be effective, although you can definitely hear the desperation in Phil's voice, he's losing his voice, because he's staying up too late and doing too many bad drugs.
To be honest, I've never spent much time with that record, because I just found it ear fatigue; I'm tired after listening to it. I was never a guy to care a heck of a lot about whether a live version was better than studio, because, to me, the studio version is always better. I just don't like live records. I never spent a lot of time with them, I don't like crowd noise or songs which weren't written together mixed up in order. I just enjoy the studio album concept; it's a cozy snapshot in time. I never put in the intellectual work into live albums enough to care about them.
While I agree with your comparison to Priest...Live!, the ad libbing present on the Life-Live version of "Hollywood" makes it my favorite rendition. Phil's ad libbing is actually what led me to collect so many Lizzy bootlegs; he's just the best at it.
Wow, that's interesting. Had I really been smart enough to pay attention to that, a concept like that would've been great to put into these books, but I'm just not smart enough to notice. Or I'm not deep enough a fan, even! Here I am a guy who's written three Thin Lizzy books, yet there's certain stuff no one but a superfan can have the proper insight, and that's something I totally missed!
I also love John Sykes's lead on "Still in Love With You," which I know is a song-beloved by many Lizzy fans-which you're not into at all.
It's almost my least favorite Thin Lizzy song of all time. I hate it; don't care for it at all. I don't even like the solo in it from ANYBODY! (laughs) I find the solo completely pointless and annoying, and completely non-creative. To me, my favorite Lizzy solos are "Baby Please Don't Go," and various twin leads throughout the catalog; they're all over the please. I just find that song completely uncreative; it's not a blues number, nor is it a ballad: it's just a depressing combination between the two, and the solo's right along with it. I just find any sort of ear piercing high, slow, traditional solo boring and annoying. There's nothing about that song I like, even down to the ridiculously dull title! (laughs) So...there ya go!
LOOKING FOR MORE? ALL THREE OF MARTIN POPOFF'S THIN LIZZY TITLES ARE AVAILABLE DIRECT!