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Thin Lizzy: Live And Dangerous 40 Years On
Michael Hann , June 18th, 2018 09:16

Thin Lizzy's best record was a double live album, says Michael Hann. Just how authentically 'live' it was is debatable but relatively important, instead it shows us that we've lost something along the way

Earlier this year, I was asked to DJ before the third of the Hold Steady’s three London shows. Of course, I was always going to say yes, but I extracted a price: that they let me choose and cue up their walk-on music. For years and years, I’ve wanted to hear a rock & roll band walk on stage to Thin Lizzy’s ‘Are You Ready?’ First, it cues up the show lyrically – “Are you ready to rip it up? Are you ready to tear it down?” – and, second, it acts as test. ‘Are You Ready?’ is a song so taut and single-minded, so devastatingly exciting, that if a band can follow it, then they deserve to be on the stage. It makes me feel old-fashioned, as if the natural position of the left foot is on the monitor and fingers were made to be curled into fists and thrown into the air. It makes me want to drink whisky. I can’t stand whisky.

‘Are You Ready?’ doesn’t appear on any of Thin Lizzy’s studio albums. It was released on the 1978 album Live And Dangerous, “recorded” (the inverted commas are important) in London in 1976 and Toronto in 1977. Live And Dangerous might not be the best live album ever made, but it’s the best album Thin Lizzy ever made, a double album that’s pretty much a pleasure from start to finish, and a live album without any of the manifold vices that traditionally afflicted such records: no 20-minute solo spots, little in the way extended interaction with the crowd, no radically inferior reworkings of beloved songs in order to keep the band mildly interested in their 3,923rd performance of it.

It would also be impossible for a band of Thin Lizzy’s status now to release a live album as anything other than a tour souvenir, certainly not for it become a definitive part of their catalogue. When Live And Dangerous was released, Lizzy had managed two top 10 albums and two top 10 singles. A slight air of underachievement loitered: greatness hung about them, but never quite enveloped them. Live And Dangerous, a double platinum album in the UK, allowed them to make the step to greatness.

That Live And Dangerous became the most beloved and popular Thin Lizzy album is a product of circumstance. Through the 1960 and 1970s, live albums served specific purposes. They might act as de facto greatest hits records; they might capture the live magnificence of a group not deemed to have quite bottled the magic when they went into the studio; they served as a flab-free introduction to groups that a label wanted to get behind but couldn’t quite find a way to sell; they were the way to bypass inconsistent albums to produce a single collection that could be marketed strongly.

Live And Dangerous ticked all those boxes. Every important song Lizzy had written up to its recording was there (discounting, as Phil Lynott did, the folksy early recordings), so it was a greatest hits; it captured the band in full flight in a way they hadn’t really managed in the studio; it was easily marketable, right down to the startling cover image, which had been intended for the back until a last-minute switch; and it dealt with Lizzy’s ever-present inconsistency in sterling style. Maybe UFO, a similarly patchy and underachieving studio band, were paying attention, because the following year they released Strangers In The Night, another double live record that also elevated a slightly marginal group to the front rank by means of ruthless concentration on their strengths.

The argument that still swirls around it is whether it really is a live album. Tony Visconti, the producer, would later say 75% of the music came from studio recordings, and that only the drums were consistently from the shows. Lizzy’s manager, Chris O’Donnell, insisted it was the other way around, and 75% of the music came from the gigs. Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson, bullishly, insisted it was almost all live, because Lizzy played so loud that it would be impossible to isolate individual tracks from the whole recording to overdub.

Given that even the principals don’t agree, we will never know the truth, unless someone digs out unaltered masters from the original shows. Still, we can get an idea in the form of the 2009 release Still Dangerous (Live At The Tower Theatre Philadelphia 1977), a show that although not officially credited, Visconti has said was used for Live And Dangerous. Live And Dangerous is certainly harder and punchier, but then it did have Tony Visconti overseeing it for a prestige release (that said, Still Dangerous was produced by Glyn Johns and Scott Gorham, and mixed and mastered by Johns). What one can probably say with some degree of sureness is that Lynott’s vocals for Live And Dangerous were overdubbed, and probably some of the guitars were, too. It’s not that Still Dangerous is sloppy, more that is sounds like a rock band – there are slight mistimings, the odd flubbed note. Nothing too serious, but it’s not the diamond-hard perfection of Live And Dangerous.

If you compare, for example the versions of ‘Baby Drives Me Crazy’ – hands down the worst song on Live And Dangerous – on the two albums, you get the picture. It’s an utterly unremarkable 12-bar shuffle, and on Still Dangerous it can’t possibly transcend that. I would claim it suddenly reaches transcendence on Live And Dangerous, but it gets a long way closer to being interesting than it would without some studio interference.

For some, Live And Dangerous is discredited because of the suspicion of it being largely a studio album. But, really, does it fucking matter? Even if lacks veracity, it has verisimilitude. It sounds like you are at a phenomenally exciting rock & roll show: it roars out of the speakers at you, in a way that makes you feel as though you might have been standing in the stalls at Hammersmith Odeon. Everyone who has bought or downloaded a bootleg, or watched a rock band on TV, knows how badly served they can be by anything approaching a true recording: underpowered where there was force, tinny where there was depth, every error amplified, and the thwump in your sternum when pedal meets kick drum replaced with the nagging feeling that maybe it really is a bit of a ragged mess. Why would anyone want that from an official live album? Do what you want in the studio: make it feel like being at the gig, please (and if you were at the gig and it doesn’t exactly chime with your memories, well, it’s an album – it’s intended for more than the people at the gig).

But none of the arguments about Live And Dangerous would have taken place had it not been for the brilliance of the songs and the wondrousness of the band. Gorham and Robertson’s playing, wherever they were doing it, is electrifying, and Brian Downey was one of hard rock’s most supple drummers, capable of swinging and pummelling, where too many of his contemporaries could manage one or the other, but never both. They did the songs complete justice. And, oh, those songs. Every facet of Lynott’s persona was on display here: the warrior king (my least favourite, to be honest, but there’s an undeniable comic book thrill to ‘Emerald’ and ‘Massacre’), the gangleader poet (‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’, ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’), the rock macho man (‘Are You Ready?’, ‘Jailbreak’) and, most prominently, the bruised romantic (‘Still I Love With You’, ‘Don’t Believe A Word’, ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’). That last facet of Lynott was crucial in humanising the others, undercutting the machismo with sad-eyed vulnerability and acceptance of his own flaws. It’s the reason why zealous feminist friends will engage in long discussions of their favourite Thin Lizzy songs, with just a tut at the sexism (“Hey you, good looking female, come here,” from ‘Jailbreak’ may be the least prepossessing seduction line in pop history.

Listening to Live And Dangerous now makes you regret that the days of the statement live record have passed. Perhaps studio albums became more consistent, and there was less need for the summation. Maybe the advent of the greatest hits with the two brand new bonus tracks meant it was no longer economically sensible to invest in a big push around a live record. The transition of music from an audio to a video medium in the 1980s certainly meant the focus of major record labels switched to selling their artists through MTV, and while the performance-plus-candid style of clip served hair metal bands through the decade, a straightahead live clip was unsellable, so perhaps live albums became an afterthought for that reason.

There were outbreaks of enthusiasm – MTV Unplugged produced some huge sellers, and Nirvana’s appearance resulted in a live album that was canonical. But the live album became an afterthought: when you could buy shows from a band’s website straight after the show, why would an “official” live album matter one jot? If you could watch endless decent quality live footage on YouTube, why would you want some sprawling set taking up shelf space. Occasionally, still, someone puts out a live album that a fan might recommend to a non-fan as a good starting point – Daft Punk’s Alive 2007, Kate Bush’s Before The Dawn, perhaps – but the live album as event is dead. The power and grace of Live And Dangerous makes that seem like an awful shame.