02.05.2018

HEROES AND MADMEN – SHORT ESSAY ON THIN LIZZY'S VAGABONDS OF THE WESTERN WORLD

Av Jens Nepper

Thin Lizzy Vagabonds of the Western World cover.jpg

HEROES AND MADMEN

– A SHORT ESSAY ON THIN LIZZY'S VAGABONDS OF THE WESTERN WORLD

 

45 years ago, the legendary Irish rockers Thin Lizzy entered A.I.R. Studios on Oxford Street in London to record their third full-length album for Decca Records. Having enjoyed chart success with the renowned “Whiskey in the Jar” single the year before, both the band and label were eager to capitalize on its success and build on its momentum. The resulting album entitled Vagabonds of the Western World contained eight songs that were quite diverse and captivating, each with a story of its own to tell. Featuring legendary bassist/vocalist Phil Lynott, world-class drummer Brian Downey, brilliant guitarist Eric Bell, and a production crew consisting of Nick Tauber (producer), Derek Varnals (engineer), and Alan Leeming (engineer), the sessions for Vagabonds began in the middle of April 1973. However, the recording sessions were occasionally interrupted by live obligations that Thin Lizzy had to fulfill, which entailed that the band recorded the album in bulks. The upside to this was that they were able to air some of the new songs on the road and see how the audiences responded to them. As a result, the record sounds more complete and fully formed than its predecessors do. By 1973, Thin Lizzy were coming into their own.   

While perhaps not the most commercially successful or memorable Lizzy album in existence, Vagabonds of the Western World is a cohesive, coherent, and utterly solid album that only loses momentum in a couple of places. As enchanting and cool as the first two albums by the band were, Vagabonds was more muscular and displayed much more confidence and attitude than the self-titled debut and Shades of a Blue Orphanage did. One could argue that the Thin Lizzy blueprint layout was truly starting to take shape around the Vagabonds record and that the musical sound and style of the band were mutating into something that was different to the previous two albums. Author Alan Byrne also touches on this: “There is an audible shift in this new material that the band recorded, but they were given time to develop the arrangements leading to a much more focused outcome” (48). Lynott's evocative lyrics are as amazing as ever here, especially the ones for the title track and “A Song for While I'm Away”. The ones for the latter are so goddamn moving and heartbreaking that it fucking hurts. “Little Girl in Bloom” is another melancholy piece that has a strangely soothing vibe to it.

The first proper hit (or rather fan-favorite) penned by Lizzy themselves, namely “The Rocker”, also appears on this record, and there can be no doubt that the success of that particular track provided the band with confidence and proof that their new musical direction was worth pursuing:

 

“The Rocker”, engineered by Varnals and Leeming, displayed a new intent by the band. Varnals comments on the guitar phasing was done to get that sound on the song: “When recording the basic track, they had to learn that it is the performance, rather than the sound, they should worry about. The engineer makes it sound like a record on the mix, the musicians supply the ingredients”. (Byrne 50)   

 

“The Rocker” has more or less been a constant in the Thin Lizzy set list ever since its inception, which is testament to its longevity, musical qualities, and popularity among the fans. Eric Bell also includes “The Rocker” in the set list whenever he performs live, which is hardly surprising given that the track is very much centered on his fabulous guitar playing, and it always goes down a storm with the fans. It possesses a drive and an intensity that sets it apart from all the other songs that constitute Vagabonds of the Western World. Interestingly, Brian Downey lists it as his all-time favorite Lizzy tune

[The Rocker] from the Vagabonds Of The Western World album, the third album we did for Decca. We went into the studio in London and left everything open for spontaneous jamming. And that shows on the record, but it sounds brilliant: it was so rough and ready when we started the song, it sounds like a jam we just happened to capture on the day, and that’s basically what it was. We had the idea, we rehearsed it a lot before we went into the studio, but yet again it was left slightly open, so we could play whatever we wanted, and that’s what happened.

We played for six or seven minutes, which is a long time for an album track, and I’m kinda glad it takes up a lot of space on the album - I’ve heard a few different edits - because Eric Bell plays some unbelievable guitar on it. We seemed to gel and knit really well on that record, and that makes it my favourite Lizzy song.

 

Whenever Brian Downey's Alive and Dangerous perform nowadays, “The Rocker” always makes an appearance, which is hardly surprising given his fondness for it. The ironic thing is that although it was a Lizzy favorite among members and fans of the band, it was issued a little too late to actually help the band make their way back into the charts back in 1973, which is truly a shame:

 

“The Rocker” was to the first ever song that the band pruned from an album for release as a single, though it appeared several months after the album was released. Had it been used as a taster and released prior it may have had the desired effect and slid the band back into the singles charts. (Byrne 53).

 

Either way, the single marks a shift in the band's tone and style thanks to it driven, energetic, and aggressive feel, so its importance cannot be overstated.     

Thin Lizzy were already out on the road and touring when Vagabonds of the Western World hit the record shelves and according to Byrne, the album garnered positive feedback and reviews, which in turn must have given the band a huge confidence boost and inspired them to pursue their newfound direction with renewed vigor. As Byrne states,

 

The new album, Vagabonds of the Western World, was released on 21 September 1973, mid-way through the tour. The band had now fulfilled their recording commitment to Decca, so while they were on tour, negotiations were ongoing between their management and the record label. Review for the album were quite positive. Writing in 1974, Sounds' Mick Rock considered Lizzy “a band whose work rewards closer attention”.” (55).

 

Unfortunately, Eric Bell broke down on stage in Ireland and left the band, which resulted in Downey and Lynott asking guitarist Gary Moore to step in so that they could finish the tour and not have to cancel any remaining dates. In that sense, the Vagabonds of the Western World album and tour marked the end of the magnificent Bell/Downey/Lynott line-up. 

An expanded and remastered version of the album was reissued by Decca Records in 2010 and contains a lot of interesting bonus material that is well worth immersing oneself in, so keep an eye out for that one the next time you are browsing your local record store or glancing at Amazon.  

 

Tracklist:

.       Mama Nature Said

.       The Hero and the Madman

.       Slow Blues

.       The Rocker

.       Vagabond of the Western World

.       Little Girl in Bloom

.       Gonna Creep Up on You

.       A Song for While I'm Away

 

Line-up:

Eric Bell – guitars

Brian Downey – drums and percussion

Phil Lynott – bass and vocals

 

Recorded at A.I.R. Studious in London and the Decca Studio 4 in Tollington Park

Produced by Nick Tauber

Released on the 21st of September, 1973, by Decca Records

 

Check album out on Spotify:

https://open.spotify.com/album/50rAk7bSVe2jgzRMLAKnsR

 

Works cited:

Byrne, Alan (2015). Are You Ready? Thin Lizzy: Album by Album. Soundcheck Books

https://www.loudersound.com/features/the-10-best-thin-lizzy-tracks-by-brian-downey

https://www.metal-archives.com/albums/Thin_Lizzy/Vagabonds_of_the_Western_World/4444

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagabonds_of_the_Western_World

 

 

 



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