The Vinyl Brew: Thin Lizzy - Vagabonds of the Western World

The Vinyl Brew: Thin Lizzy - Vagabonds of the Western World

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Vagabonds of the Western World by Thin Lizzy

By Eamon O'Neill
There are few bands as beloved as Thin Lizzy. Bonafide heroes in their home country and beyond, the rock legends stormed the music world like outlaws, as the band with the bad reputation, the trouble boys of Chinatown, and the first rock superstars ever to come out of Ireland.
Breaking worldwide when their 1976 masterwork ‘Jailbreak’ exploded leaving an indelible mark on the likes of Metallica’s James Hetfield and Cliff Burton, Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith and Dave Murray, and Jon Bon Jovi, they had however started life very differently, enduring a variety of line-up changes, a number of record labels, and releasing five studio albums before making it to that point.

Formed in Dublin in 1969 when Lynott was fired from Brush Shiels’ Skid Row (not to be confused with the late ‘80s hair metal heroes) the singer / bassist recruited drummer Brian Downey - who would stay with the band until their demise in 1983 - and soft spoken Northern Ireland native Eric Bell on guitar, briefly adding keysman Eric Wrixon. When Weixon left following the release of debut single ‘The Farmer’ in 1970, the classic original three-piece Thin Lizzy line-up was born.
Signing to the legendary Decca records, they released their self-titled debut album in the same year, following it with ‘Shades of a Blue Orphanage’ in 1971. Commercial success however, eluded them, and what came next was something so left field that it’s largely lost in Lizzy lore. With debts mounting, they reluctantly accepted an offer from a German label to make some fast cash, and adopting the pseudonym Funky Junction (surely the most seventies’ band name ever), they recorded an album paying tribute to Deep Purple. A brief anomaly, normality would soon return.

Opting next to release a standalone single, they tasted their first real success when their reimagined version of a traditional Irish song ‘Whisky in the Jar’ gave them a surprise hit, landing them an Irish number one as well as a top ten single in the U.K. in late 1972. Although a far cry from their nascent blues-based sound, the band had once again found their mojo, and their next statement be much more assured.
Released in 1973, ‘Vagabonds of the Western World’ was a game changer. The first to be housed in a sleeve designed by soon to be regular associate Jim Fitzpatrick, it also marked a steer towards a harder edged style, and in ‘The Rocker’, a perfect distillation of the sound and attitude that would come to define them.
Comprised of a succinct eight tracks, and with a runtime just shy of forty minutes, the album kicks off with the slinky grooves and slide guitar of ‘Mama Nature Said’. Even in these formative years it was clear that Lynott was a star, and although best remembered as a wordsmith and front man extraordinaire, his vocal here is simply astounding. At the top of his range, and with a raspy delivery, the opener is dripping with grit and conviction. Bell’s unique approach meanwhile is evident on the extended, double tracked slide solo, with the Belfast man melodiously gliding up and down the fretboard of his weathered Fender Stratocaster.

With an air of Clint Eastwood, ‘The Hero and the Madman’ told one of Lynott’s outlandish fantasy tales. Here, it’s Downey who is the real hero, with the largely unsung percussionist’s beats driving the song as it builds relentlessly.
Changing tack, the melodramatic ‘Slow Blues’ (complete with timpani) reveals their blues roots before sliding into a funky groove. A proto-‘Still in Love With You’, it predates the classic by only two years, and like ‘The Hero and the Madman’, features a blistering Bell guitar solo.
It’s at the midpoint where the album truly ignites however, with perhaps the definitive Thin Lizzy track; ‘The Rocker’. From that incendiary riff, to the lip-curling vocal delivery, when Lynott declares; “I take no lip, no one’s tougher than me”, it’s entirely believable. Five minutes - or just under three, with the single release unceremoniously shorn of its ripping solo - of attitude, thundering bass, infectious riffing, and undeniable swagger, it’s the highwater mark of their early years.

Admittedly, it’s a hard act to follow. The title track reveals an unmistakable celtic influence, while the genteel ‘Little Girl in Bloom’ remains one of the album’s more popular tracks, and as ‘Vagabonds’ comes to a close, there’s dirty funk on ‘Gonna Creep Up on You’, while ‘A Song For While I’m Away’ harks back to the sixties with its hippy guitar and dreamy vocal lines.
Finally getting a deluxe release on vinyl in 2023, Universal Music have gone all out to mark the 50th anniversary of the album’s release, with both a stunning double purple vinyl set, and an expanded 4LP box set. Stuffed with extras, from non-album single A (including ‘Whisky in the Jar’) and B sides, these are the definitive versions of the album.
Despite its promise, ‘Vagabonds of the Western World’ would sadly prove to be the last album from the original trio, with Eric Bell quitting by the end of the year. Though Lizzy would go on to achieve far greater success with twin guitar gunslingers Scott Gorham an Brian Downey, following his departure, the original band is still incredibly revered, with Bell being invited to join Metallica on stage in Dublin in 1999 for a runthrough of what else, but ‘Whisky in the Jar’.
A national treasure, Thin Lizzy remains one of the most important acts ever to have come out of Ireland, with a far reaching influence to this day. Speaking to eonmusic in 2020, Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith enthused; “I loved Thin Lizzy. They had an influence. I mean, it kind of marries up well with metal, the celtic thing, and also the stories, the folklore and all that sort of stuff. If you listen to some of Maiden’s music, the guitar harmonies and some of the progressions, there is an element of that.”
Thin Lizzy; vagabonds who took on the western world, and won.
Album Details
Vagabonds of the Western World was released on 3rd November 1972 and is available to buy at Vinyl8.

1. Mama Nature Said - Thin Lizzy (4.54)
2. The Hero and the Madman - Thin Lizzy (6.12)
3. Slow Blues - Thin Lizzy (5.17)
4. The Rocker - Thin Lizzy (5.15)
5. Vagabond of the Western World - Thin Lizzy (4.49)
6. Little Girl in Bloom - Thin Lizzy (5.17)
7. Gonna Creep Up On You - Thin Lizzy (3.32)
8. A Song for While I'm Away - Thin Lizzy (5.14)

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