After founding members Phil Lynott and Brian Downey recruited twin lead guitarists Scott Gorham and 18-year-old Brian Robertson, Thin Lizzy’s classic line-up fell into place during 1974. At this juncture, the much-loved Dublin’s band initial incarnation – involving Lynott, Downey and guitarist Eric Bell – had previously recorded three cult-level albums for Decca. Yet while the new-look band quickly inked a fresh deal with Vertigo and continued to gig ferociously, mainstream success remained elusive. But all that would soon change in 1976 with the release of the Jailbreak and Johnny The Fox albums.
The groundwork had been laid by 1974’s laid-back, bluesy Nightlife and the following year’s harder-edged Fighting, but it was with March 1976’s masterful Jailbreak that they finally hit pay dirt. Buoyed by the band’s first major international hit, the swaggering “The Boys Are Back In Town,” this diverse, confident LP cracked the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic and rapidly yielded a brace of gold discs.
Keen to press home the advantage, Lizzy embarked on high-profile US support slots with heavy-hitting hard rockers Aerosmith and Rush, but the momentum was curtailed when Lynott was struck down with hepatitis, and a scheduled US jaunt with Rainbow was promptly canceled.
The upside of Lynott’s enforced layoff was that he wrote a new batch of songs while recovering from his illness, and he quickly reconvened with his compadres to record them with Jailbreak producer John Alcock. Completed during August ’76 and in the shops on October 16, his band’s seventh LP Johnny The Fox continued on from where Jailbreak left off, peaking at No. 11 in the UK (where it won the band another gold disc) and rising to No. 52 on North America’s Billboard 200.
Lynott’s talented new crew had already left most of their hard rock contemporaries standing with the magnificent Jailbreak, and they displayed similar levels of verve and virtuosity on its follow-up. Gorham and Robertson’s Wishbone Ash-esque dueling lead guitars again came thrillingly to the fore on the tough, anthemic likes of “Rocky” and the frenetic, religious-prejudice-dissing “Massacre”; the charismatic Lynott indulged his romantic side on “Old Flame” and the mellow, string-enhanced ballad “Sweet Marie”; and his charges even summoned up enough chutzpah to detour into imperious Sly Stone-style funk on the enigmatic “Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed.”
Johnny The Fox admittedly featured one subpar track in the anticlimactic “Boogie Woogie Dance,” but that mattered little in the overall scheme of things. The record also had the punchy UK Top 20 hit “Don’t Believe A Word” in reserve, and Lynott won over any remaining doubters with the ambitious “Fool’s Gold,” a poetic, heartstring-tugging commentary on the devastation caused by Ireland’s notorious potato famine during the 19th century.