Of all the classic-rock bands that have been defunct for decades, few have had as big a commercial and critical resurgence as Thin Lizzy.
While the band and any hopes for its continuance effectively ended with the 1986 substance abuse-related death of founder/singer/bassist/guiding light Phil Lynott, classic-lineup guitarist Scott Gorham has kept the music alive live at least with sporadic shows. Since mid-2010, an active touring lineup has featured at various times original/classic lineup drummer Brian Downey and latter-day lineup keyboardist Darren Wharton.
But last year, when the current Lizzy lineup of Gorham and Damon Johnson (guitars), Ricky Warwick (vocals), Marco Mendoza (bass) and Jimmy DeGrasso (drums) kicked around the idea of putting out new music, it was a damned-if-you-do-and-fucked-if-you-don't proposal.
Ultimately bowing to their own internal instincts and the opinions of fans (and perhaps Lynott's estate), the quintet decided to start fresh. Thus was born Black Star Riders and last year's debut record, All Hell Breaks Loose (Nuclear Blast). And while the group certainly tips its amps to the sound of Thin Lizzy, this is definitely a new unit.
"It was a tough decision and there was so, so much discussion. But clearly we made the right one. Even though I really wanted my name on a Thin Lizzy record!" says the affable Johnson, who also did lead-vocal/guitar duties for '90s rockers Brother Cane and spent six years with Alice Cooper.
"Other bands, I get it. They make new music with new people, and it's under a brand name that people are familiar with," Johnson continues. "Believe me, it's hard to break a new band in the 21st century that's rooted in classic rock.
"Ultimately, it took a lot of pressure off of Scott," he adds. "Lizzy is not as big in America as Europe, but they have very diehard fans, and I'm one of them. I can assure you that if I wasn't in the band and someone told me Thin Lizzy was putting out a new record, I wouldn't have wanted to know about it!"
All Hell Breaks Loose has both tracks that certainly sound like lost Lizzy recordings (the twin guitar punch of "Bound For Glory," Celtic/Irish historical epic "Kingdom of the Lost," and the uptempo, slinky sounds of "Someday Salvation" and "Blues Ain't So Bad." But there are also more new band-sounding tracks like the title effort, "Bloodsport," "Hoodoo Voodoo," and "Valley of the Stones."
Named for the Western outlaw gang in the 1993 film Tombstone, Black Star Riders recorded 13 tracks in 13 days with producer Kevin Shirley, whose impressive resume includes Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Aerosmith, the Black Crowes, Black Country Communion, Journey and Dream Theater.
"I give him a lot of credit. Kevin pushed Scott, and Scott needed to be pushed," says Johnson. "But I'll admit I was super-nervous when [Ricky and I] played Scott the demos, some of it recorded on my phone! But he liked everything we played for him so it turned from fear to elation!"
Still, while the songwriters wanted to move more toward the Lizzy sound, Gorham wanted to pull away.
"I would get excited and say 'hey, this sounds like something off of Johnny the Fox, and Scott would go "Aw, who gives a shit about that record! I don't want to sound like Lizzy!" he laughs.
Johnson's admitted fan-worship of Gorham, though, still sometimes makes it hard for him to see the elder guitarist as much as a bandmate as a hero. When Johnson's sister pulled up some YouTube videos of the two playing together live shortly after Johnson joined Thin Lizzy, he was shocked to see his facial expressions were more like an "unprofessional goofy fan" than anything else.
"There are times that Scott will play something or suggest something and Ricky and I will make eye contact and go, Oh, there's the guy!", Johnson laughs. "I used to back that needle up 100 times trying to copy a Scott Gorham lick. And I can tell the difference between his and [other Lizzy guitarists] Brian Robertson and Gary Moore's playing."
In fact, Robertson -- the other half of classic Lizzy's "twin guitar" lineup -- was approached to take part in the reunion. But citing the needs of his own solo career and reluctance to play in a lineup with a keyboardist (as he told Rocks Off in 2011), he declined. Which, of course, was a fortunate decision for Johnson, who got the slot after Vivian Campbell (Def Leppard, Dio) and them Richard Fortus (Guns N' Roses) vacated it.
"Fans would love to see Brian up there, healthy, focused, and energized with Scott," Johnson offers. "And that includes me."
As for Houston, Johnson's big memory of playing here stretches back to Brother Cane's opening slot for Van Halen's second stop in the city on 1995's "Balance" tour. It took place that September at The Woodlands, though he adds that the city supported the band with radio play years earlier. It would be the last jaunt the Van Halen brothers would make with singer Sammy Hagar for many years.
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"I remember the place was packed and the people were rabid," Johnson recalls. "It was near the end of the tour, though. And it wasn't but a couple of weeks later they announced that Sammy had left!" (Note: Johnson's timeline may be a bit faulty, as Hagar's departure wasn't announced until June of 1996).
After the current tour, in which the band will play most of All Hell Breaks Loose and selected Lizzy classics, Johnson says that Black Star Riders will go into the studio later this year to record their sophomore effort.
He says that he and Warwick already have "8 or 9 songs" they are fleshing out. Producing will be none other than Def Leppard singer (and Lizzy enthusiast) Joe Elliott. Elliott also happens to be so tight with Warwick, that the BSR singer was the Best Man at Elliott's wedding.
Finally, Rocks Off wants to also know about Johnson's time with classic-rock legend Alice Cooper. So we ask, "What's one thing about the Coop that would surprise even his most diehard fan?"
Johnson takes no time to answer. "Alice Cooper has the diet of a 10th grader! He eats huge amounts of Twizzlers and Skittles and chocolate! He's a freak of nature, but he's built just the right way to stay in shape and be a Rock Lord into his sixties," he says.
But there is also one more addiction the King of Shock Rock has, and it's not just the golf obsession that he's become famous for. "Alice is completely addicted to Diet Coke!" Johnson laughs.
"I heard him say it every day 'where's the Diet Coke?' I'd meet him in the lobby of the hotel and he'd be there in his golf clothes with a Diet Coke in his hands! But he is one of my best friends and, when the opportunity to join Thin Lizzy came about, gave me his complete blessing. He was nothing but gracious."
Looks like the man who reveled in being "No More Mr. Nice Guy" has some rep-rebuilding to do.
Black Star Riders play Saturday, May 3 at Concert Pub North, 2470 F.M. 1960 W. Love and War open.
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