The Boys are Back in Town – with a new name
A band formed out of the ashes of Thin Lizzy are currently rocking the UK, with the Black Star Riders on the crest of a wave after the success of their first album, as MALCOLM WYATT found out from guitarist Damon Johnson.
When Phil Lynott died in 1986, it seemed to mark a definite end to Thin Lizzy.
In barely a dozen years they steadily evolved into world-beaters, splitting three years before the charismatic Dubliner’s death, the 36-year-old by then a solo artist.
But the band re-emerged in 1996, marketed as a tribute to Lynott, that five-piece still including founder member Brian Downey and 1974 recruit Scott Gorham.
That was 22 years after Gorham replaced original member Eric Bell, the Californian immediately integral to Thin Lizzy’s guitar sound.
A watershed followed at the end of 2012 as drummer Downey left while Gorham went ahead with a new incarnation of the band, ditching the old name and launching the Black Star Riders.
The new band’s debut album All Hell Breaks Loose was something of a statement of intent, with those off to see the Black Star Riders at Preston’s 53 Degrees tonight promised a big night from “the next step in the evolution of the Thin Lizzy story”.
Gorham will be joined by vocalist Ricky Warwick, guitarist Damon Johnson, bass player Robbie Crane and former Megadeth drummer Jimmy DeGrasso.
And while treating with reverence all that came before, the Black Star Riders have plenty of belief in their new direction too, as Damon stressed over the phone.
The 50-year-old Alabama guitarist and song-writer, previously with Brother Cane, Alice Cooper and Whiskey Falls, said: “We’ve been fortunate enough to step out of the shadow of Phil a little bit, and knew we had to if we were to continue to perform.
“We were in a unique situation, having played a part of Thin Lizzy. It was an honour to be asked to participate, and they were a tremendous influence on us.
“We knew the band was very strong, but Scott wanted to write new songs and create new music.
“Some were excited by the thought of new music under the Thin Lizzy name, but some were like ‘no, that wouldn’t be right’. Common sense says it wouldn’t be.
“Not only was Phil the frontman and the voice of the band, but he wrote all that stuff.
“It was a leap of faith to step out of that security blanket. It’s much easier to get promoters to book you if it’s a name that has history and a fan-base.
“But we are so appreciative to the Thin Lizzy faithful – they have embraced the Black Star Riders in a way we could never have dreamed.
“That reinforced that we did the right thing to change the name, and we also delivered a pretty spectacular debut album that we’re proud of, and the fans are.”
Damon’s impressive CV before being recruited included tours with Van Halen, Aerosmith, Robert Plant and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Were those wild days?
“If you could sit all my kids down and say ‘OK, this is how your Dad lived for five or six years, they would say ‘yeah – that’s pretty wild!’
“I certainly learned a lot about the business, about song-writing and performance, and learned a lot about life. I feel pretty lucky I got to go through a lot of that stuff.”
Was December 2012’s re-brand an exciting time for a guitarist who also wrote for Sammy Hagar and Stevie Nicks and worked with Ted Nugent, John Waite, Carlos Santana and Steven Tyler?
“Incredibly exciting, mainly because we knew we had some great material. We were sitting on some great songs, another thing that made the decision a lot easier.
“To finally get the album released and get out and book dates in the UK as Black Star Riders – that’s something we’ll never forget.
“We’re sat on the back of well over a dozen new songs, so we’re full steam ahead in the process of getting this second album ready.
“In fact, there’s no sitting about here, man – we’re pressing on, excited about the future!”
When did Damon first hear his heroes?
“July 16th, 1979, when I made my way into a Ted Nugent concert in Huntsville, Alabama, and there was some band called Thin Lizzy opening the show.
“I’d heard The Boys Are Back in Town on the radio a couple of times. You can use whatever adjectives you like, but it changed my life. I hit the streets the next day looking for as much Thin Lizzy as I could get my hands on.
“That started a steady 10-year study, starting with the guitar players and those great parts, and getting up close and personal with Phil’s writing, phrasing and story-telling.
“So, rolling the clock forward to 2011 when I got a phone call saying the guys were interested in having me come and fill the guitar spot, that’s just crazy!
“It’s the stuff of dreams, and would make for a great movie.”
Ulsterman Ricky Warwick perhaps has the hardest job as front-man - perceived as a substitute for Lynott, a hard act to follow.
But he also had a busy apprenticeship, fronting Scottish hard rock band The Almighty and including roles with New Model Army, Stiff Little Fingers and Circus Diablo.
“Ricky is a proper artist in his own right, and an incredible song-writer. And for a guy so influenced by punk and the spirit and essence of everything that stood for, he also studied Phil’s writing.
“I just can’t imagine Scott could have found a better guy to sing those Thin Lizzy songs, giving it more integrity and respectful allegiance.
“I joined Thin Lizzy because I wanted to play those great songs with Scott and Brian Downey. But let me be clear - I’m in the Black Star Riders because of Ricky.
“He’s a great spiritual leader – his commitment not just to his band but his family, putting in a great performance, staying healthy, and all that.
“It restored my faith in the belief of starting a new band.
“Trust me, man, after all the bands I’ve been in, my initial reaction to starting again was ‘ugh – it’s so hard!’”
One year on from the release of All Hell Breaks Loose, there’s been a positive reaction. And there’s a clear Celtic influence on certain tracks. While America may be home, there’s plenty of Irish passion and original Lynott spirit.
“Ricky makes it authentic. Everyone has a lot of love and respect for that music, but it wouldn’t be nearly as authentic if it was just a bunch of American guys borrowing from that Celtic musical library. Ricky’s the real thing, man!”
There’s a harder edge, musically. Was that the way Thin Lizzy were going?
“We’ve planted our flag firmly in the hard rock camp, and the pop music of the day when Phil was still around had more in common with guitars.
“Our roots are definitely in classic old school rock, and we’re proud to carry that flag.”
Does having a former Megadeth drummer involved add to that?
“You know, some days it’s great and others it drives me crazy! But I love Jimmy DeGrasso so much and he’s absolutely brought the thunder to this band, certainly in the live set but in the studio as well.”
The Black Star Riders name suggests homage to Wild West roots too.
“Coming up with band names is really a drag, but we just kept telling ourselves the music is going to define the name.
Tracks like Bound for Glory are pure Thin Lizzy.
“We just try to write great songs. Scott certainly brings that Thin Lizzy guitar sound to the table, but if you strip the song down to just acoustic guitar it’s simple a really good song.
“The fact that our fan-base feels like it’s carrying on the Thin Lizzy spirit – that’s wonderful, and we’re proud of that.”
What do you think Phil Lynott or late Thin Lizzy guitar legend Gary Moore would make of you?
“I think it would be impossible for them not to recognise the quality. That’s what they would be proud of.”
Are the Riders properly wild between gigs, or have you caught Scott in a relatively ‘pipe and slippers’ era?
“He’s somewhere in between! To go on that stage with that guy every night – he still carries himself with so much swagger and style.
“It definitely defies his early 60s age. Look no further than all the females in the front three rows. You know what I’m saying? They’re watching the master do his thing!”
Is there a good vibe backstage and on the bus?
“I was talking to one of our road crew and he said, ‘Damon, you do know everyone wants to work with the Black Star Riders? The word is out that it’s such a good hang and such a great bunch of guys.
“There’s no drama, and the band storms it every night on stage’. Wow, that’s a tremendous compliment. We’re all serious about our business, but at the same time we go to movies together, eat dinners together, and all that.”
Are you close to finishing the second album?
“The writing’s just marching along, and the plan is to be in pre-production, working all this stuff out in the first week of September, then charge ahead from there.”
And what kind of show can we expect at 53 Degrees?
“There’s one word those who come are going to say when they leave – ‘relentless’. We basically drop the first note and it’s unwavering for the next 90 minutes, man.
“We’re fans of the four-minute rock song. It started with The Beatles and it was certainly carried on by Thin Lizzy. That’s what Scott’s always been passionate about.
“We experienced that in Thin Lizzy and now with the Black Star Riders.
“We’re going to cram 20 songs into that 90 minutes, so just be ready! Tell them all in Preston – be ready!”