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THIN LIZZY Appreciation: Classic Jams Covered by HIGH ON FIRE, IRON MAIDEN, MASTODON and More

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photo: Harry Pots

In the space of twelve years starting in 1971, Thin Lizzy put out fourteen albums, including two live recordings. After embarking on his solo career which produced two albums, vocalist Phil Lynott left Thin Lizzy in 1983. Brian Downey, a founding member of Thin Lizzy who remained close to Lynott until his death, told the BBC shortly before Lynott's passing that Phil was already working on his third solo album. There was also talk of getting the band back together. Based on Thin Lizzy's career and Lynott's solo career, there have been few other bands (apart from Black Sabbath) that have been universally embraced and praised by fans, musicians, and bands. Within the heavy metal community, this is especially true. Lemmy Kilmister and Phil Lynott, for example, were close friends. Lemmy qualified this statement by somberly stating that out of everyone he had known in the music industry who had died, Phil Lynott was the only one he "really missed," referring to him as "a great musician." When Ramones bassist Dee Dee Ramone learned of Lynott's passing, he "freaked out." On the 25th anniversary of Lynott's passing Dublin, Ireland music magazine Hot Press published a special issue dedicated to Phil. In it, James Hetfield shared some powerful and personal reflections on the transcendent Lynott and the hole his absence created in the world and rock and roll: 

“It was one of those moments that was so sad. You just wondered, ‘Why did God take such a creative person?’ But I think there was a purpose to it all, because the struggles that he wrote about: with drugs, drink, ethnicity, all of those things, they almost speak louder now he has passed. For me, going through the struggle with alcohol and addiction in general, just going back and listening to his lyrics it’s like, ‘Wow, I know what he’s talking about now. I love that.”

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I've had the privilege to write about Thin Lizzy and Phil Lynott a number of times over the years, and can honestly say (outside of his drug addictions), not one person has had anything but nice things to say about Phil Lynott. Due to his mixed-race, this man suffered from racist attacks as a child and as an adult (both physical and verbal, which he loudly denounced). He would pull himself out of poverty forming his first band at the age of sixteen, and eventually make himself into one of the most enigmatic figures in music history. Despite the perception that Thin Lizzy and Lynott have never been fully appreciated, there is plenty of evidence that their contributions have left a deep imprint on rock and roll. They have influenced so many, including Cliff Burton, who said he was influenced by "everything Thin Lizzy did" in a 1986 interview published in 1990 by the German journal Rock Hard

Hopefully, this article will help bring a better understanding of the importance of Thin Lizzy and how you should get to know the band a bit better if you're not familiar with their jams. To grease those rock and roll wheels, let’s start by going through a chronological list of metal bands covering Thin Lizzy over the last thirty years. That means we’ll kick things off with Iron Maiden and their 1988 cover of “Massacre.” 

Iron Maiden: “Massacre” (1988)

Iron Maiden's cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Massacre” comes from Lizzy’s fantastic record Johnny the Fox (1976). Many of the bands featured in this post are natural fits for Lizzy’s music and Iron Maiden absolutely checks that box. Iron Maiden founder and bassist Steve Harris has cited Thin Lizzy as a personal influence. In 2012 Bruce Dickinson performed a version of Lizzy’s “Emerald” at Sunflower Superjam supported by the sublime sounds of guitarist Uli Jon Roth (Scorpions). Thin Lizzy’s “Massacre” sounds like a speeding car put to music. Iron Maiden’s cover is about as good as it gets to the original – which is rather untouchable. Maiden’s cover of “Massacre” can be found on the B-side of the “Can I Play With Madness” single. It also shows up on a 1995 reissue of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.

Sodom: "Better off Dead" (1990)

Sodom started off in 1981 as black metal with satanic lyrical tendencies (or "witching metal," as the band described themselves), before sliding into a more thrashy metal sound in the mid-80s. This earned them the distinction of being one of Germany's "big four," thrash bands, along with Tankard and Kreator. This makes Sodom's choice to cover Thin Lizzy one of the better examples of how wide Lizzy's appeal runs through different genres of metal. In other words, even Satan – or in this case, bands that like Satan – love Thin Lizzy. Sodom's cover of "Cold Sweat ", taken from Thin Lizzy's final record with Phil Lyontt, Thunder and Lightning (1983), can be found on Sodom’s 1990 album, Better off Dead

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Anthrax: “Cowboy Song” (1993)

Anthrax’s cover of “Cowboy Song” is found on Sound of White Noise (1993), their first record without vocalist Joey Belladonna, and first with Armored Saint vocalist John Bush. While I’m sure fans of Anthrax would have liked to hear Belladonna belt out this Thin Lizzy classic from their breakthrough album Jailbreak (1976), Bush does a more than admirable job of capturing some of Phil Lynott’s vocalization style. Later, on Anthrax’s sixth album, Anthems (2013), devoted to 70s and early 80s bands, we would finally get to hear Belladonna on vocals for the bands’ version of “Jailbreak.” As far as Thin Lizzy’s influence on Anthrax, drummer Charlie Benanate summed things up pretty simply, saying “There might not have been bands like Iron Maiden if there hadn’t been bands like Thin Lizzy and Boston.” 

Helloween: “Cold Sweat: (1994)

Helloween’s cover of “Cold Sweat" kicks Sodoms’ solid take on the track up a few notches. Found on Helloween’s sixth release, 1994’s Master of the Rings – the band’s first with vocalist Andi Deris. Deris’ vocals are a huge departure from original vocalist Michael Kiske, but that’s not a bad thing when it comes to their loyal take on “Cold Sweat.” Interestingly, the most recent lineup of Helloween includes Deris, as well as Kiske and Kai Hansen, who has filled in the vocal spot with the band on and off since 1985.  

Fu Manchu: “Jailbreak” (1998)

Leave it to Fu Manchu to deliver a very Fu Manchu version of Thin Lizzy’s 1976 anthem “Jailbreak.” The cover shows up on a split with Fu Manchu and California stoner rock band Fatso Jetson from 1998. “Jailbreak,” (along with “The Boys are Back in Town”), helped make Thin Lizzy’s sixth album, 1976’s Jailbreak, the band's most commercially successful release. The original is impossible not to dig (and if you have a friend who doesn’t find a new friend, friend). Fu Manchu does a solid job grooving it out this instantly recognizable Lizzy classic. 

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Metallica: Whiskey in the Jar (1998) 

Metallica headed back to the year 1973 for their cover of another anthemic jam in the Thin Lizzy catalog, “Whiskey in the Jar,” a song the band often plays live. The song isn’t an original composition by Lynott and Thin Lizzy, but a version of a traditional Irish folk song by The Dubliners, who have influenced other bands such as the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. When James Hetfield was in Dublin for the 25th Anniversary of Phil Lynott’s passing, he spoke about the influence Thin Lizzy has had on metal: 

"In metal, the number one influence is Black Sabbath. But for the more musical bands, it would be Thin Lizzy. The songwriting, the lyrics, the dual guitar, and unbelievably cool drumming, it’s just magic.” 

Hetfield’s insights into Thin Lizzy’s “magic” supports what musicians like Hetfield, his bandmate Cliff Burton, and Lemmy Kilmister already knew: Thin Lizzy’s deep influence in heavy metal can’t be denied, and metal is better for it. How about Metallica’s cover of “Whiskey in the Jar?” Metal is better for that too. 

Gamma Ray: “Angel of Death” (2001)

In 1981 Thin Lizzy released Renegade, a record that divided fans and critics. The first two tracks on Renegade clock in at over six minutes each – an ambitious way to begin a record at the time. As fans have recognized, the minute and a half intro to the first track, “Angel of Death,” is ripped from the future of heavy metal, specifically the Bruce Dickinson era of Iron Maiden. For Gamma Ray’s cover of “Angel of Death,” features Kai Hansen (Helloween), on vocals and some keyboard wizardry from Henjo Richter who puts a proggy spin on the original work of Thin Lizzy keyboardist Darren Wharton.

Motörhead: “Rosalie” (2007) and “Are You Ready” (2012)

We’ve already talked about the long relationship and mutual admiration between Lemmy Kilmister and Phil Lynott. This creates some bittersweet feelings about Motörhead’s covers of “Rosalie,” and “Are You Ready.” Like “Whiskey in the Jar,” “Rosalie" (which Lizzy recorded for their fifth record 1975's Fighting), isn’t a Thin Lizzy original. It is a cover of an original Bob Segar song from 1973. “Are You Ready,” a Lizzy original, can be found on 1978’s Alive and Dangerous. Motörhead performed a live version of “Rosalie” at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2007. They were also known for occasionally banging out a version of “Are you Ready.” In Paris in 2012, Lemmy addressed the crowd asking if they had “heard” of Thin Lizzy and “Phil Lynott.” Which, since they were fans of Motörhead, responded enthusiastically. As one should. Finally, if you want to see what it was like when Phil Lynott joined Motörhead on stage, watch this:

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Mastodon: “Emerald” (2008)

In 2019 Mastodon bassist Troy Sanders was recruited by the most recent version of Thin Lizzy, to join the band as they toured in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Thin Lizzy’s formation. In 2014 Mastodon titled a song on their album Once More ‘Round the Sun as “Lizzy” as its original grooves were heavily influenced by Thin Lizzy. In comparison to the other metal bands that have recorded Thin Lizzy material due to the band’s impact on their music, Mastodon, who formed in 2000, comes from an entirely different era of heavy metal than Motörhead and Iron Maiden. Yet another example of Thin Lizzy’s enduring appeal to a generation of music enthusiasts who were busy being born during the early days of Thin Lizzy. For his tour with Thin Lizzy, Troy Sanders learned to play 27 different songs from Lizzy’s catalog, calling it the “best time in his life.” Indeed. 

As we bring this very metal Thin Lizzy listening party to a close, we’re going to hear three tracks from the excellent Thin Lizzy tribute compilation, Bow to Your Masters Volume 1: Thin Lizzy. It contains Thin Lizzy covers from eighteen different bands residing primarily in the stoner doom realm or nearby foggy graveyard. There are so many stellar homages to Thin Lizzy on Glory Or Death Records’ first installment of Bow to Your Masters, it is nearly impossible to narrow it down to just a few to feature here. Nearly. 

High on Fire: “Vagabond of the Western World” (2018)

High on Fire choice of 1973’s “Vagabond of the Western World” is an on-brand song for a metal band to cover. The album of the same name is a case study in Thin Lizzy’s shift to a heavier sound though the band wasn’t yet using what would soon become a staple of heavy metal bands: two guitarists. High on Fire guitarist and vocalist Matt Pike sets the vibe with his sinister Lemmy-esque snarl and things just get better as the song rolls on while High on Fire puts their unique stamp on this Thin Lizzy classic. Listen to it here

Next up is Boston band Worshiper, who also dug deep into Thin Lizzy’s catalog, selecting “Johnny” from Lizzy’s 1976 album, Johnny the Fox. The mythical Johnny is a bit of a recurring character in Thin Lizzy’s lyrics. He gets his face slapped by some “chick” in “The Boys are Back in Town,” and gets name-dropped several times on Johnny the Fox. Additionally, in the past, Lynott has referred to himself as "Johnny Cool." According to Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham, Johnny, or at least Johnny the Fox, was a real person. A hardened but likable thief who enjoyed having a good time at The Clifton Grange, a hotel owned by Lynott’s mother Philomena known for hosting some wild parties back in the day. As it turns out, Worshiper drummer Dave Jarvis also wondered who the heck Johnny was, as well as why Phil “wrote so many songs about him.” So at least we now have a bit of closure on that mystery. Since Jarvis is a very nice dude, he shared his recollections on hearing the band for the first time, and why Worshiper chose to cover “Johnny:” 

“My parents were both bartenders at a local nightclub where I grew up. I started watching live bands play by the time I was 5 or 6 years old. The bar had a jukebox and when people weren't listening to that, they were cranking (legendary Boston radio station) WBCN. That's pretty much how I heard every band back then. Thin Lizzy didn't stand out to me as a kid but as I got older and played music with other kids it obviously came up.

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The guys in Worshipper all have a deep appreciation for Thin Lizzy. It's hard when you get on these comps because everyone wants to pick their favorite tracks. It turns out that all the bands really want to play five or six tracks, so you really have to dig to find something that you all like as a band and will also suit what you're trying to accomplish in order to stand out on the compilation, but also pick something that no one else wants to play. We always try to choose a deep cut so that we don't pile on with all the other bands that want to play 'Jailbreak' or 'Cowboy Song.’ The story in the song ('Johnny') rules and the riffs do too, so It was an easy decision.”

Do you know what else rules? Worshiper's cover of “Johnny.” Check it out here

Mos Generator: “Massacre” (2018)

Mos Generator, one of Seattle’s heaviest riff merchants, was being compared to Thin Lizzy as far back as 2007. This makes sense, as Mos Generator are all about breathing new life into the kind of jams the 1970s were rife with. Reviews of the band’s 2018 record also noted the influence of the beloved Dublin band, as well as Black Sabbath. This brings us back to James Hetfield’s statement about his belief that two bands have distinctly influenced heavy metal; Black Sabbath and Thin Lizzy. Mos Generator’s cover of “Massacre,” is very faithful to the original as is vocalist/guitarist Tony Reed’s ability to channel Lynott’s tone and swagger. You can listen to it over on Glory or Death's Bandcamp page.

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