THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
A new band with an unbeatable lineage —
Black Star Riders pick up Thin Lizzy’s baton
In every line-up of Thin Lizzy’s long and illustrious history, barring the very early days, you’ll have seen Californian guitar hero Scott Gorham stage left, cranking out crunching riffs and melodic harmony guitar lines, long hair flowing. The Lizzy name has ended, but the music’s still alive as Gorham, three recent Lizzy band-mates and a new drummer emerge, phoenix-like, with a new name and a great new album. The Black Star Riders are here.
BSR comprise Gorham, singer Ricky Warwick (formerly of New Model Army and The Almighty), guitarist Damon Johnson, bassist Marco Mendoza and new boy Jimmy DeGrasso, who previously played with Alice Cooper and Megadeth. At his home in London, Gorham ran The American through the whys and the wherefores of the bands legacy and its future.
Waitaminit, London? Yes, he’s a permanent resident in the UK — like many expats when he’s at Heathrow he still has to go through the ‘All other passports’ channel. “I’ve lived here since 1975 — you think they’d give me a break,” he laughs. “The accountants told me not to go for dual nationality for tax reasons, but I get nailed by both sides anyway so I might well just do it.”
The UK was always important to Thin Lizzy. This writer was lucky to see them in April 1976 at a run-down hotel in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England called Skindles. Once the glamorous weekend haunt of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII, Queen Victoria’s son and not Prince Charles) and his mistresses and cronies, its basement became the perfect sticky-floored dive to see bands up close and very loud. Lizzy’s classic album Jailbreak had just gone massive. Most bands in their position would have cancelled the club dates and small venues they’d been booked into and rearranged into large theaters, maybe some arenas.
“We were the kind of band that would never do that. Once we made a promise to anyone we went out there and did it. We’d come up through the ranks and played all those little gigs. I joined the band in early ’74. I was told to meet the guys in an African restaurant/nightclub in Hampstead, London. The first guy I met was Phil Lynott — this big, tall, lanky black guy. In actual fact I thought he was one of the waiters — nobody told me that Phil was black, they just told me it was an Irish band, and when I heard this Irish accent come out I thought, what the hell’s going on here? But you could tell straight off the bat he was the go-to guy. When we got on the stage and they started to teach me some songs both the Brians [Downey, drums and Robertson, guitar] deferred to him on everything, so he was obviously the main man. Of us guitar players Brian [R] was the veteran... he was there two weeks before me.”
The new twin-guitar line-up was innovative. “Eric Bell, the previous guitarist, had quit right in the middle of a gig and left Phil and Brian [D] there — they just carried on with the rest of the set. This was before drum ‘n’ bass became popular! With two guitars I think Phil thought, if that ever happens again at least we’ll have one guitar player to keep going.”
This writer was in a band that supported Phil in his post-Lizzy band, Grand Slam, and he seemed the nicest and most supportive guy in music. Was that the case, seen from the inside? “You said it right there, he was a real musician’s musician, he got personally involved with probably every support band we ever had, trying to help ’em out, rearranging their set so they’d go down better. Any support band that played with us got killed on stage, with the audience chanting ‘Lizzy, Lizzy’, and they never got a look in. We all of us felt that, but Phil especially felt strongly about trying to make the support band feel comfortable because we’d had to go through that ourselves — we knew what they were going through.”
Phil gave Grand Slam a new name because it had a new line-up, without his old friend from Dublin, Brian Downey, or Scott. After Phil’s death Scott carried on with various reunion line-ups of Thin Lizzy but despite a similarity of recent members he has chosen to name his new band Black Star Riders. Why so?
“We’d been talking about doing an album for a couple of years. About a year ago I gave it the green light and we started writing — the songs came out rather quickly. We were still thinking we might do it as a new Thin Lizzy album, but after about four months I became more and more uncomfortable about doing it when Phil’s not there. My whole Thin Lizzy life was with him on my right hand shoulder, in the middle of the stage, the guiding light, the energy. I talked to Brian [D] about it and he said he was feeling the exact same way. We talked to Ricky and Damon to see how the boys were feeling. We expressed our concerns, and unbeknownst to us both of them were uncomfortable too. All of us were feeling that way but none of us wanted to be the first guy to say anything. It’s a big thing to do, especially now we had the ball rolling on the album and we’d told people what we were doing. The management suggested we pick a date to stop being Thin Lizzy and start being a whole new band. We had one last tour in Australia with Kiss, the last date was in Brisbane and that was the last Thin Lizzy show. That’s when we started the new band. We got to the demo stage for the new album Brian said the penny had dropped as to what it would mean to get it all up and running, all the promotion work, the months out on the road. We’d just been on the road for three solid years and he really missed his daughter, and opening his own refrigerator instead of the mini bar at the hotel... He said ‘I love the music, I love you guys, but I want to step aside and be at home for a while’. I said, ‘that’s cool, this isn’t a prison sentence, it’s supposed to be fun.’ The same thing happened with Darren [Wharton — recent Lizzy keyboard player]. There’s not a whole lot of room for keyboards on the new album, it’s pretty guitar orientated, and he has a couple of projects he’s not been able to finish so he asked if he could step aside.”
A new name could imply a totally new beginning, but there’s no doubting the lineage of new album, All Hell Breaks Loose (see below) — in the best way, it sounds like a classic Lizzy record.
“A few people have said that... and I guess they’re right. I play guitar like I play guitar, and I write songs the way I do. I’ve had forty years of doing this so I’ll bring a little of that to whatever I do. And Ricky [Warwick] has been in Lizzy for years so that’s crept into his DNA. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
Ricky does sound extraordinarily like Phil in places. He has a similar timbre to his voice. He’s also from Ireland (albeit Northern Ireland, Newtownards, County Down, to be precise). Is that Celtic connection important to Scott?
“I played on Ricky’s first solo album and he wowed me. Not just his voice — I was blown away by his lyrics too. I never thought I would work with another Phil Lynott kinda guy after Philip died, but here’s this big Irish guy with a huge personality, and he’s writing stories that he can put into this four minute format, and writing melodies that you’re singing right afterwards. He’s one of the most prolific lyricists that I’ve ever worked with. And I’m half Irish myself — my mother’s grandfather moved from Enniskillen to Saginaw, Michigan, to a giant Irish enclave. In fact she was the first person from her community to marry a non-Irish, it was a big deal. I’ve always had an affinity with the Irish — if you go to Dublin or Belfast they’re some of the greatest people on the planet. How do you not like the Irish?”
Scott has the the longest tenure of anyone in Thin Lizzy and in his time the band’s always had a trademark twin lead guitar line-up. Does he have a favorite co-guitarist? And is Damon Johnson, who was in the recent Lizzy line-up, playing second guitar to Scott’s lead?
“I couldn’t say who’s my favorite. They all have their own personality, quirks and traits — and things I can steal from ’em! Brian Robertson and I started out the twin harmony guitar thing and developed that together. Brian was a genuinely funny and talented guy. Gary Moore — what can you say, he was a phenomenal guitar player and turned out to be a great songwriter and singer also. Snowy White’s great too — I first met him when he was in Pink Floyd, for God’s sake. John Sykes who’s a little more on the metal side... they’re all good people. And there’s no second guitar in what we do — Damon and I are the guitar players, he’s on the right side and I’m on the left side!”
Unusually, Scott was originally a bass player, later switching to guitar. Does it give him a different perspective to music, or a different approach to playing guitar? After a pause he says, “You know, it probably does. The only reason I started playing bass, at thirteen, was that all the other positions in this junior high school band were taken. I played bass until I was about seventeen. It gave me a great appreciation for the bass guitar and what a bass player can do — how essential they are to the sound of a band. Guitar layers and singers, we’re just the fluff — the bass player and drummer are the engine.”
Talking of guitars, for years Scott and his Lizzy co-guitarists were synonymous with Gibson Les Pauls, but he switched to Strats for a while. “Well, the only thing standard on those Strats were the body shape. Everything else was pretty much Gibson. And Gibson have come up with a new line, the Les Paul Axcess, it has a Floyd Rose tremolo system, and it’s a much lighter guitar — it’s a little bit thinner and to get the tremolo on it, it has a flat face compared to other Les Pauls. I walked into the Gibson Centre in London and there it was sitting on a guitar stand. I said to David Bower, the head of Gibson here, ‘David, I don’t want that guitar — I f***ing need that guitar!.’ He was happy to hear that, put the wheels in motions and I’m endorsing Les Paul now.”
The new album, All Hell Breaks Loose is out on a German label, Nuclear Blast that has specialises in heavy metal. Is that the direction Scott sees Black Star Riders going? “No, no, no. The owner of Nuclear Blast came to one of our shows and asked if we had any concerns about the label’s name or the other groups on it. It doesn’t concern me at all. I said, ‘Monty, the reason we’re going with you guys is because of you guys. They wanted to sign us as soon as they heard the demos. We had two majors and another couple of labels looking at us but Nuclear Blast showed the commitment and wanted to work with us. It was an easy decision to make.”
All Hell Breaks Loose has that classic Lizzy twin-guitar sound, but with a modern edge. Kingdom of the Lost has the Irish rock sound of Emerald, or even Whiskey in the Jar. Maybe it’s Scott’s and Ricky’s backgrounds, perhaps a subliminal tribute to Phil Lynott, it is a powerful song. The album’s production, by Kevin Shirley, is punchy and live-sounding too, perhaps helped by recording twelve songs in just twelve days. The first single, Bound for Glory, is out now and the album is released on May 27th.
All Hell Breaks Loose
Black Star Riders have arranged four festival dates in 2013: June 1st Max-Aicher-Arena, Chiemgau Inzell, Germany; 2nd Loreley, St. Goarshausen, Germany; 8th Sweden Rock Festival, Solvesborg, Sweden; November 29th Hard Rock Hell, Pwllheli, Gwynedd, North Wales.
A UK tour in October is promised, then dates in Europe, the United States and Japan. The American will bring you details when they’re announced.