When Thin Lizzy’s Uneven ‘Johnny the Fox’ Followed a Breakthrough
Thin Lizzy finally had their breakthrough moment in the U.S. with the release of their sixth album, Jailbreak, in March 1976. New fans pushed songs like "The Boys Are Back in Town" and the title track onto the airwaves, and the tracks would remain among the biggest of their career.
The group wasted no time making a follow up. As Jailbreak flew off record-store shelves, Thin Lizzy were all set to tour the States with Rainbow, but singer, bassist and songwriter Phil Lynott's health problems put the brakes on what could have been their most successful tour. He wound up in the hospital with hepatitis. During the downtime, he wrote many of the songs that ended up on Johnny the Fox, which Thin Lizzy started to record during the summer of 1976.
With producer John Alcock back behind the boards, Lynott – along with drummer Brian Downey and guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson – recorded the 10 tracks that would make up the album released on Oct. 16, 1976. They more or less followed the template set in place on Jailbreak, with Lynott's songwriting traveling the same working-class narrative path he had taken on the band's breakthrough LP.
That had already drawn some unwanted comparisons. "There's a guy here in L.A. who's written how I'm Bruce Springsteen" Lynott told Creem in a 1976 interview. "Now, I have to spend half my interviews saying I'm not fooking Bruce Springsteen, and that I appreciate him, but I don't try to imitate him. I take it as a compliment when we're compared, but I take it as an insult when it's said I imitate him. This guy here in L.A. worded it in such a way that all of a sudden I'm on the defensive."
Lynott certainly finds his own voice on Johnny the Fox's opening one-two punch of "Johnny" and "Rocky." The momentum continues on "Don't Believe a Word," the bluesy "Borderline" and the dramatic "Fool’s Gold." Side two doesn't fare as well, however.
Things begin to fall apart as Johnny the Fox moves on: The storming "Massacre" isn't bad, but "Sweet Marie," "Old Flame" and "Boogie Woogie Dance" fail to ignite. Overall, the album lacks the focus and dynamic the band more than delivered on Jailbreak, and sales reflected this.
While Jailbreak cracked the Top 20, Johnny the Fox didn't even make the Top 50. Thankfully, it was only a temporary setback: Thin Lizzy rebounded artistically and commercially with Bad Reputation a year later.