Although Martin Popoff doesn’t front a band or shred his six-string on the stage, this proud Canadian journalist is hard rock and heavy metal royalty all the same. From his tenure as senior editor at the famed Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles magazine to the number of comprehensive review books Martin has self-published throughout the years, Popoff’s reputation of ‘the world’s most respected heavy metal journalist’ has indeed been well-earned over the course of his impressive career.
The man’s latest book is a labor of love for the mighty Thin Lizzy, titled Fighting My Way Back: Thin Lizzy ’69-’76, and compiles all of Popoff’s encyclopedic knowledge of this renowned Irish rock act into a neat, efficient tome, assisted on images by noted Lizzy historian Peter Nielsen. Fighting My Way Back tells the tale of Thin Lizzy and their iconic, doomed bassist, songwriter and frontman Philip Lynott, as they emerge from humble, folk-influenced roots to become one of hard rock’s tragic legends; a trailblazing act whose triumphant Jailbreak LP wove memorable dual guitar harmonies in between Lynott’s epic yarns of love, lust and war…all placed atop a pounding, hard rock backbeat.
Longtime Lizzy fans and newbies alike have something to gain from Fighting My Way Back, as Martin uncovers some of the band’s most interesting stories via countless interviews with band members, management and those who best knew Philip during these formative years. What’s even better is that Popoff has since announced plans for a second book, detailing the band’s successes ‘n shortcomings in a post-Jailbreak world…ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit, aren’t we?
Read on to get the scoop from Mr. Martin Popoff himself!
Last time we spoke, you had mentioned how you were becoming more comfortable writing books on particular, favored artists—such as Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath—with which you were most knowledgeable, after writing all these comprehensive review books of the 70s, 80s and so on. You’ve certainly achieved this here with Thin Lizzy, so I was wondering how you were feeling on making this switch to historian from comprehensively compiling reviews?
Well, I feel like I’m getting into a bit of a groove. I don’t ever entertain writing a book on a band unless I have tons of my own interviews, and I remember talking to Brian Slagel from Metal Blade Records before the UFO book, thinking there was NO way I could do it, because at that point I had NOTHING. I just sort of got it in my mind, though, and started getting interview after interview. Thin Lizzy was sort of the same thing. I had a fair number of Thin Lizzy interviews, but Peter Nielsen—who runs this amazing site—started really spurring me on. He had great images we could use, and he helped me get a lot of the more obscure interviews in the book.
For a long time, I thought I wasn’t the one to do this, because I didn’t have enough of my own, fresh material, but as time went on, I eventually had lots and lots of interviews! They’re all done the same way, cut and pasted into pieces, covering a particular album or song. I’ve also made use of the available press. I’ve been a lifelong Thin Lizzy fan, and I’ve listened to those albums over and over again. Even before I was considering making this book, I was listening to tons and tons of Thin Lizzy for some reason. It was just a pleasure to do, and it’s such a cool story. Me being an older guy who just wants to be a historian these days, it’s a pretty finalized story these days with Phil not around. Thin Lizzy is this ‘cast in stone’ situation, although they ARE threatening to release new music…
I wanted to get your take on that, because I saw them in Connecticut with the new lineup, and I thought it was excellent. They headlined, and the song selection was excellent. What’s your take on the John Sykes-era reunion lineup verses the one they have now?
That’s a really interesting question, and I’m glad you brought it up, because one thing which Darren Wharton said which I felt was interesting was when he said, ”no disrespect to John, but Ricky [Warwick, of The Almighty, current Lizzy singer] has that sort of humility and temperament Phil had.” He’s an amazing frontman.
Essentially with John Sykes, you have this guy with all this baggage of being this big rock star. He’s this big, burly, good looking guy with long, blond hair, playing shredding, superstar guitar and singing. So there’s a sort of incongruity with that lineup. Yes, John is a legitimate member because he was on the last album, [Thunder and Lightning]; he’s up there playing guitar and singing, and it’s interesting how his voice sounded a little big like Phil. It was a pretty legitimate experience, I thought.
Yet with Ricky, it really feels like he’s in that role, and he’s carrying the band as a frontman, without an instrument most of the time. It’s also a big band, with two guitarists who can concentrate on playing guitar. Brian Downey is back in the band on drums, so I think it’s a great lineup. It’s just a fun night out, because it’s you, the band and Those Songs. We all grouse about these illegitimate lineups of Foreigner or Lynyrd Skynyrd, but Thin Lizzy is proving it. I know long time fans are complaining about new music, but I’d like to hear it, what the heck?! It makes for a messy catalogue, I suppose, but I’d rather hear new music than NOT hear it…
It’s tough, because you hold on so closely to a person or songs which mean a lot, but at the same time, caring about those people means you should want them to enjoy being creative, and not being a cover or heritage band.
That’s an excellent point. You want to see them keep writing. Even without them saying it, you can notice all the great songwriters on that stage. Scott [Gorham, guitar] has mentioned—half jokingly—how, “if we don’t come up with something…we’re SCREWED!” It’s interesting that you have this army of songwriters up there…why NOT have them write songs?
Speaking of songwriting, I’ve learned a lot from reading this book—which is the mark of any good book, of course—specifically how Phil ‘adopted’ song ideas, taking lead credit on some songs which may have been more of a ‘band effort.’ It was enlightening to read how little the arrangement process counted towards songwriting credits in those days.
Yeah, I’m learning that now, too, especially when you speak to guys like [ex-guitarist] Brian Robertson.
The gist I get is that Phil was one of those guys who was enthusiastic about learning the business within the band, and was also the one closest to management, so he was crafty and wily in that regard. There are some anecdotes from [former member] Gary Moore which will appear in the second book about Phil being the smartest concerning publishing; making sure he was in on those credits. So if anyone got more than their share it was Phil, but you do notice down the catalog that the songwriting credits are pretty varied, and mostly everyone is included.
I guess what I’m saying is that it could’ve been much worse! At the heart of it, Phil was obviously a talented, literary guy, and a tremendous songwriter, even getting down there and producing or co-producing some of the records while handling bass, vocals and lyrics for all these tracks.
I’m glad to hear that there will be a second book!
Yeah! I’m half way through it—basically half way through the Chinatown chapter right now—and I swear I think it’s gonna be longer than the first one! If things don’t stop eating up word count, there might even be three books! That would be kind of crazy. I mean, I’m self-publishing these things, so it isn’t as if this is commercially viable. I only printed three hundred copies of the first one—reprinting when needed—and am doing things via mail ordered, signing and mailing each one. I didn’t even go out and search for a publishing deal, simply because it’s so bleak out there right now. I basically have my tiny audience, and if it does ‘ok,’ then it’s been worth it. I did a two part Deep Purple one where the first book was all the commercial stuff everyone knew about, yet with Thin Lizzy it will be the second book which covers all the music everyone knows…so hopefully the second volume sells as briskly as the first! Like I said, if I keep getting this much good stuff, it may turn into a Thin Lizzy trilogy!
Are you able to make a profit, self publishing this way?
It’s funny, basically if I can get to around four or five hundred copies of anything I self publish, then it’s been worth it. I would make probably as much as I would on any publishing deals, which are becoming harder and harder to get, because books are almost considered ‘old fashioned,’ like compact discs. We’re moving into the e-reader world. What I like about self publishing, however, is that it’s all in house. I don’t have to rely on anyone else. I can lay it out myself, pick my own images, and do it all while retaining the rights. In that, you could either a) eventually seek out a proper book deal, and have it reprinted, or b) explore foreign language rights. Plus, every book I’ve done keep tick along, and they keep selling. I’m in no hurry to sell 800 or 1000 copies, and they still do well, in particular the Deep Purple, UFO and Blue Oyster Cult books, which have proven to be the most popular.
Is it encouraging to find that there are people out there who want to read about a—and I loved this quote from the book—‘middle tier’ band like UFO, Blue Oyster Cult or Thin Lizzy?
What I like about this whole thing is that, at the time, all these bands used the same, high end expensive producers and studios as all the smash albums of the day. They’re using the same studios, so all this art we’re talking about is at the same, high level. It’s different when you move into the 80s, and the advent of indie labels and making records in your bedroom. Back in the old days, everything went through the same high end, high standards mill. There WERE no small labels putting this stuff out in the old days. All the bands are out there, touring together and in the same pot together.
So, in terms of the book and the music, I’m NOT surprised that there are fans out there who know all this stuff. UFO, Thin Lizzy, Blue Oyster Cult…there’s this unwritten rule that says this stuff is ALWAYS gonna sell in drips over time, just the same as a Rush, Led Zeppelin or AC/DC album.
This stuff is called ‘classic rock’ for a reason, and it’s because it was made with all the same high class stuff as the other classic rock of the period.
Do you think that Phil’s bout with hepatitis during the Jailbreak tour and Brian Robertson injuring his hand had anything to do with cutting the band down at the peak of greatness? Do you think that if the band hadn’t have cancelled this headlining tour, that things may have turned out differently? That they might have ‘broken’ America?
Yes, for sure, and another bigger, more insightful point on the whole thing—beyond the more concrete examples you just mentioned—think about all the drugs and drink on the road.
I get a glimpse of this listening to these guys during interviews, how they were tired and cranky, so maybe every Thin Lizzy show WASN’T a knock ‘em dead affair. Possibly the headliner was blowing Thin Lizzy away, as opposed to the stories you hear about Lizzy blowing the headliners off the stage. Also, you read about how the drinking, drugging and personalities within the band gets them in trouble in terms of fights and promoters. You wonder if all this is a slight burning of bridges, as time goes on.
There’s also this talk of Phil turning into a bit of a diva on the road, only wanting to stay in nice hotels and making a lot of demands. There are stories of them starting to be this way after touring with Queen and watching them be divas, but you think about all this stuff rolling into one, and yes, cancelling tours, exhaustion and all that. There’s a story in the second book about Scott having to come off the road and the band having to play as a four piece, which you can imagine probably wasn’t that impressive.
I know they used to call Midge Ure from Ultravox to fill in, sometimes.
Yeah, so you have fill in guys—whether it’s Midge, or Dave Flett from Manfred Mann, or Andy Gee and John Cann from Atomic Rooster—coming out who may not be that familiar with the material. So if you add all this up, for all the enthusiasm and ambition there was in Phil, these guys were rock ‘n rollers, and they screw up a lot!
With Jailbreak being the only charting gold record in America, commercial rock radio only plays “Jailbreak,” “The Boys Are Back In Town” and that’s IT. The American knowledge and interest in the band seems to die there, with no one even knowing about what comes afterwards, whereas in Europe, their star sort of stayed high profile. Phil was still doing a lot of T.V., and stuff was still a big deal in Europe. Fans knew about Johnny the Fox, Bad Reputation and Chinatown.
Yeah, and it’s really kind of sad. It points to a lack of intellectual curiosity on the part of classic rock radio, but I think the albums only start really getting really good AFTER Jailbreak! My five favorite albums are probably the five albums which came AFTER Jailbreak!
So it’s really too bad. Jailbreak is just the tip of the iceberg. All the classic, amazing songs are after that, so it’s really too bad. You’re right, basically they were a vital, working band, getting a lot of exposure in Europe throughout the entire run.
I wanted to run this analogy by you, with the Eric Bell era being Mk 1, with the Fighting and Night Life albums signifying a rebirth and a ‘finding of feet,’ Jailbreak setting the Thin Lizzy template and everything after Jailbreak perfecting that template.
Absolutely. I agree with you one hundred percent.
The Eric Bell era Thin Lizzy is a great band, and my favorite songs from that period are the quietest, folkiest songs. When they try to ‘rock out’ it usually wasn’t as successful. I suppose the reason songs like “Eire” and “Banshee” went over the rock songs was being on a shoestring budget back then, it was easier to make songs without a lot of drums in them sound good.
I totally agree that Night Life and Fighting show the band finding their feet, although I like Fighting almost as much as Jailbreak. Still, it’s not ‘the Thin Lizzy sound, and you’re absolutely right again that when you get to Jailbreak, it sounds like every other Thin Lizzy album up to Renegade. It’s the modern era Thin Lizzy appearing. So basically I think all the songs from Jailbreak to Renegade are all more or less interchangeable as the same band in the same style, with, of course, Thunder and Lightning sounding like a completely different band.
One of the catalysts for me first getting into Lizzy was actually your review of Thunder and Lightning, specifically of the song “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which is one of my all time favorites, and I know yours, as well. This album also stands apart from the catalogue in terms of its sound, and I wanted to get your thoughts on it. Is it more of a metal album, do you think?
It’s absolutely more of a metal album.
It’s a great album from which I’ve drawn a lot of value over the years, but it’s not one of my favorites. It reminds me of the Iggy Pop Instinct album and the Budgie Power Supply album, in that if you want to make a tailor-made fan instruction guide, you get Thunder and Lightning, and if you give the fans what THEY would draw up, it isn’t always exactly successful. Again, I have a hard time getting past the production, and I think Phil’s voice sounds tired.
I think the album cover is a real drag, as well. Cheap and cheesy. I think the title track is terrible; a crappy heavy metal song.
You’re killing me here.
(laughs) I don’t think the riff or lyrics are very good! There are some charmers on it. “Bad Habits,” “Cold Sweat” and “Heart Attack” are great. The solo in “Baby Please Don’t Go” might be my favorite. “Holy War” and “This Is the One” are both great, so about eighty percent of it is amazing, amazing songs.
Will there be any room for Grand Slam or Phil’s solo work on the second (or third) Lizzy books?
Absolutely. I don’t wanna go too crazy into that stuff, but I will definitely give everything I have into interview footage. There’s definitely a bit of Jimmy Bain from Phil’s solo band and Brian Robertson’s Wild Horses, producer Kit Woolven, Mark Stanway from Grand Slam. I don’t want to be too off topic, and hammer in tons of quotes and available press on the solo albums and Grand Slam, and I’m also against the word count. I think what’s going to happen is the second book will be thirty or forty pages longer than the first; any longer than that and I’ll HAVE to break it up into two separate books. It’s crazy, but I might just do that, and possibly make the last book Renegade forward or even Thunder and Lightning forward…would would be TOTALLY crazy—it wouldn’t sell any copies! (laughs)
The work just drags on and on, so I really am being an academic who’s working on these books and not making very much money at them, so I almost feel like I’m sacrificing income to do this very noble thing, writing about all this stuff. I just don’t stand to make very much on it!
BONUS! MARTIN & METALGEORGE PICK THEIR HITS!
Martin Popoff’s Favourite Thin Lizzy Songs
1. Got To Give It Up
2. No One Told Him
3. It’s Getting Dangerous
4. Waiting For An Alibi
7. Brought Down
8. The Pressure Will Blow
9. Baby Please Don’t Go
10. Chatting Today
MetalGeorge’s Top 10 Thin Lizzy tracks!
1. Baby Please Don’t Go
2. Waiting For an Alibi
3. Got to Give It Up
4. Bad Reputation
5. Cowboy Song
10. With Love
FIGHTING MY WAY BACK: THIN LIZZY ’69-’76 AND ALL OF MARTIN POPOFF’S BOOKS CAN BE ORDERED DIRECT THROUGH HIS WEBSITE!
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