40 years on: Thin Lizzy’s last great studio album Black Rose

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40 years on: Thin Lizzy’s last great studio album Black Rose

On this day in 1979, ‘Black Rose’ – a defining album from a seismic year for Irish music – was released, but it marked the end of Phil Lynott’s band as a force in rock music


Demons: The Thin Lizzy line-up of Downey, White, Lynott, Gorham and Wharton in 1980
Demons: The Thin Lizzy line-up of Downey, White, Lynott, Gorham and Wharton in 1980
Demons: The Thin Lizzy line-up of Downey, White, Lynott, Gorham and Wharton in 1980

Although it may not have seemed remarkable at the time, the 1970s was an era of prodigious output for the world’s most significant acts. Releasing an album every year was common. Some brought out two albums per annum in rare purple patches. And a handful, Elton John included, saw fit to release three albums over the course of 12 months during especially hyper-productive periods.

Thin Lizzy were prolific, too. They may have released their self-titled debut album in 1971 but by the final year of that decade they were already on to album number nine. And although a handful of other albums would appear in the early 1980s, the one that was released 40 years ago to the day remains their last great long player.

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Black Rose: A Rock Legend would be a fitting end to a decade in which the group proved themselves to be one of the defining guitar bands of their time as well as the outfit who – with the greatest of respect to Horslips – helped put Irish music on the map more than any other in the 1970s.

The Phil Lynott-fronted outfit had become one of the era’s most incendiary live bands – something forever captured on the 1978 concert album Live and Dangerous (still considered a landmark in live album releases), but they showed over the course of the decade that they could be adventurous in the studio, too.

And Black Rose – with its striking cover designed by long-term collaborator Jim Fitzpatrick – bears all the hallmarks of an album given great care in the studio. Once more, they turned to Tony Visconti – still David Bowie’s go-to producer back then – to add a bit of sheen to their thrilling blues and Celtic-inflected rock.

It was the last time Visconti worked with the band – something that would be all too apparent on weaker later albums – but he really got the most out of them in studio and it still sounds great 40 years on.

And it’s an album that bears all the hallmarks of that esteemed Irish guitarist, the late Gary Moore. After brief stints in Lizzy in 1974 and 1977 – when he replaced the departed Brian Robertson – the Belfast native stayed long enough this time to deliver really special work alongside fellow guitarist Scott Gorham.

Moore’s relationship with Lynott dated back to the late 1960s – both had cut their teeth in the Brush Sheils-led Skid Row – and, later, in 1978, Lynott would lend his vocals and bass to Moore’s debut solo album, Back on the Streets, and to its celebrated single ‘Parisian Walkways’.

It was Moore who helped Lynott fashion the four-part suite, ‘Róisín Dubh’, that concludes the album. The album’s title track (as Gaeilge) is one of the great examples of folk standards being given a rock makeover and his guitar solos remain utterly captivating.

First, there’s a re-imagining of the ancient American folk song ‘Shenandoah’; then a striking vision of the ‘Will Ye Go Lassie Go’, the Scottish-Irish tune that was made famous by Belfast folk artist Francis McPeake in the 1960s. The Cú Chulainn-referencing suite is concluded by a giddy take on ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘The Mason’s Apron’, a reel often associated with The Dubliners.

In a retrospective review, Rolling Stone magazine declared it to be the best Irish rock song ever: “It’s a messily epic, brilliantly exaggerated and melodramatic ode to Ireland by the ur-Irish rock band.”

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Elsewhere on this most varied of Lizzy albums, there were signs of the sort of work Lynott would pursue in his solo years the following decade.

The gentle ballad ‘Sarah’ was written about his infant daughter – who was born in 1978 – and remains one of their most emblematic compositions while the brutally honest ‘Got to Give It Up’ – which looks at the perils of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle – would prove to be prophetic when he died seven years later of pneumonia and heart failure after a sustained period of drug and alcohol dependency. “I’ve been messing with the heavy stuff,” he sings, “for a while I couldn’t get enough.”

In his memoir The Rocker, Gorham noted that it was during the making of this album that Lynott’s drug-taking really intensified and he later talked about how ‘Got to Give It Up’ was a veritable cry for help from the Dubliner.

Producer Visconti later recalled just how out of it Lynott had been back then. “The thing with Phil was that he was visibly dying,” he told Irish music journalist Éamon Sweeney last year. “During the recording of the last album, Black Rose, his complexion was ashen. There were a few days when he couldn’t even get out of bed. I had more than one chat with him about this.

“It is very hard to tell one of your peers that they are doing it too much, when you do a bit yourself. You don’t want to come across as a hypocrite. I tried to reach out to Phil, but like a lot of people who have an addiction problem, he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control’.

“Thin Lizzy,” he added, “were probably the greatest rock band I ever worked with.”

The album debuted at number two in the UK charts – their best showing – and the future looked bright. But it wasn’t long before the old ‘artistic differences’ chestnut was rearing its head again and Moore quit the band while they were in the US on the Black Rose tour. He briefly founded a group – G-Force – and released an album of the same name in 1980 before, ever restless, disbanding them and setting to work with Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

In 2011, on the occasion of his death at the age of 58, Gorham paid tribute to Moore and the part he played in the Lizzy story. “Playing with Gary during the Black Rose era was a great experience,” he said. “He was a great player and a great guy. I will miss him.”

He was not involved in sessions for the Chinatown album, rushed out the following year, and – in retrospect – one can see that Black Rose marked the end of Thin Lizzy as a significant force in rock. The demons that were plaguing Lynott were beginning to take their toll on the music – as well as his health and well-being.

The band’s output in the 1980s would be largely forgettable and it is Lynott’s pair of uneven solo albums – Solo in Soho and The Phil Lynott Album – where the most important of his music is to be found.

But back to 1979 and the release of Black Rose. It would be a busy year for Irish music. The Boomtown Rats became the first rock band from these shores to top the singles chart in the UK – with ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ – and it was also the year that The Radiators released one of the very best Irish albums ever, Ghostown.

1979 was also a crucial year for the embryonic U2: it marked their debut release, the three-track EP, Three, and it was the year that they wrote must of the songs that would appear on their first album, Boy, released in the autumn of 1980. But, in 79, the smart money was on The Blades to become the next big thing. They had already demonstrated what a wonderful live outfit they were, but the big breaks never materialised.

Black Rose may need little introduction to Lizzy fans but it’s now ripe for reappraisal among those who are more familiar with the band’s breakthrough album, Jailbreak. Impressive as that 1976 release is, it is Black Rose: A Rock Legend that demonstrates the true range of Lynott’s gifts – and that of his supremely talented band, Moore included.

Indo Review


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