This Is The One: Thin Lizzy’s Thunder and Lightning at 40
Reflecting on the Irish greats’ final studio album
By late 1982, Thin Lizzy had begun to disintegrate.
The band’s latest release, Renegade, had met with mixed (at best) critical reviews, deservedly so, and it hadn’t sold particularly well. The group had begun to turn into a revolving door lineup. Of greater concern, the members personal problems increasingly became an issue, most notably because of founder Phil Lynott and long-time member Scott Gorham’s drug use. That year’s tour barely held together, with replacement artists and canceled shows. With Lynott’s solo career underway and everything barely holding together, the end was in sight.
True to a classic rock narrative, the group wouldn’t go down without a proper finale, though. Late that year, Thin Lizzy assembled in its latest incarnation – Lynott on bass and vocals, Gorham on guitar, youngster Darren Wharton on keys, Brian Downey on drums and new member John Sykes on lead guitar – to record a new album. The addition of Sykes may have been the key to the entire project. He brought a fresh energy to the sessions (he hadn’t been on the botched tour or squabbled over studio plans like Snowy White had), but he also helped move the band’s sound to where it had been trending.
The group’s hard rock had hinted at metal over the years, but with Sykes on board, Thin Lizzy pushed more fully into the genre. The playing comes closer to thrash at times, and the guitar tone in general shifts into early ’80s metal. “Cold Sweat” provides the clearly example of the shift, with the squealing guitars and fast runs. The group didn’t fully go there; shredding remains an enhancement to the songs and not a focal point, and the pop sensibilities remain strong enough to keep them even from settling into that side of the metal spectrum.
If the album cover didn’t give it away, the charged change of tone sticks out as soon as the title track begins the album. The thick guitar riff and the adamant vocals drive home the message: Thin Lizzy is here to rock and to fight, and that sort of primal drive powers the album ahead, whether the band tackles personal issues or existential questions. Whether or not they knew it was their last go-round, they musicians make sure to release any pent up feelings while they have the chance.
That approach comes with consequences, and much of the album deals with them. On “This Is the One,” the singer finds himself with a “bad situation” and a “certain reputation.” And while he’s “hell bent” and “hell raising,” he adds, “I can feel it in my soul.” The spiritual drama, of course, is part of the appeal, and its as much glory as catharsis or concern. These questions peak with “The Holy War,” a takedown of religious leaders that raises theological questions. If the message gets a little muddled, the anxiety and frustration still comes through.
The metaphysical angst songs don’t always succeed. “The Sun Goes Down” benefits from its somewhat obscure lyrics, but it suffers from its dated production. The track feels trapped in the early ’80s, and it feels out of step with the rest of the album. On Thunder and Lightning, the band was at its best when it could free its id, and the careful build-and-release doesn’t really pay off. Likewise “Bad Habits” hasn’t aged well, sounding more like a Cars knockoff than a Thin Lizzy classic. The second half of the song, with its growling split vocals, adds some necessary idiosyncrasies to it, but not quite enough.
Otherwise, the band fully utilizes its newfound energy. “Someday She Is Going to Hit Back” uses some tension and release to tackle domestic violence, an unlikely topic that the band addresses not through empathy or argument but, in fitting with the record’s tone, threat. Violence eventually gets its comeuppance, and the song focuses more on warning than advocacy. The guitar solo avoids the standard blues-based approach and makes for a linear progression through its statement back into the main body of the song. “Baby Please Don’t Go” effectively brings some power pop into the mix. The song has its traditional sort of rock lyric, but it serves the musicians well, who use the hook as a way to jump into a little shredding. “Heart Attack” closes the album with standard fare, a cut that could have gotten radio play but that relies on expected rhymes, “guns” in pockets, and drinking brought on by unrequited love. It’s not the strongest track on the album, but it makes a fitting finish given the tone and direction of this song cycle.
Something similar could be said about Thunder and Lightning in the context of Thin Lizzy’s career. The band, after years of drug issues and lineup changes, wouldn’t be able to reach its peak form. It did, however, recover much of its potency and creativity to finish with a strong album, and fans can wonder what would have happened had a new era continued with Sykes.
After touring one more time, the band broke up in August 1983. Sadly, Lynott would die a few years later, before he could complete his third solo album or, one can imagine, convince his bandmates into reuniting. The other musicians played in various configurations over the years, including under the name Thin Lizzy, and even released a few live albums. Sykes, meanwhile, achieved hard rock immortality for his work in Whitesnake and Blue Murder during the late 80s.
And while they never returned to the studio without Lynott, at least they produced one last bit of electricity in Thunder and Lightning.
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