The Year Queen Lizzy Shook America

Harry Doherty, Melody Maker, 1977

(Thanks to Harry Doherty for submitting this interview.)

Queen and Thin Lizzy tour the USA

The winter of 1977 was fierce on the East Coast of the USA, a thick layer of snow engulfing the territory between Boston and New York. This freezing environment was to be the killing ground for two of Britain's biggest rock bands. Queen were at the height of their creative powers, having captured the world with 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and A Night At the Opera, now consolidating their position with 'Someone to Love and A Day at the Races.
Thin Lizzy, too, were no slouches. 'The Boys Are Back in Town' and its parent album Jailbreak had finally given them chart status, and this was sitting well with an awesome live reputation. 'Don't Believe a Word' and 'Johnny the Fox' emphasised their intention to stay around a while. Live and Dangerous, which would turn out to be rock's definitive live album, was just round the corner.
It was sheer bad luck and circumstance (on Lizzy's part) that led to them to touring America with Queen. An earlier tour had been cancelled when Phil Lynott contracted hepatitis just as they were nudging coast-to-coast fame, and when the time came to cross the Atlantic again, erratic guitarist Brian Robertson, a young Scot with an unfortunate attitude, decided to pick a fight with the wrong man in the Speakeasy the night before they were due to fly out. The upshot: a broken bottle slashed the tendons on Robbo’s right hand. Tour off.
The first night of Thin Lizzy's enforced stay in the UK was spent at Advision Studios, where Queen hosted a playback of A Day at the Races. Scott Gorham and Phil Lynott ended up in deep conversation with Brian May and Roger Taylor. Queen were big fans of the (once, now half, Irish) band. During photo sessions with Mick Rock, they would insist that Vagabonds of the Western World, Lizzy's last album as a trio (Lynott, drummer Brian Downey and ex-guitarist Eric Bell), was played to help them relax. Now, at Advision, both bands talked enthusiastically about touring the States together.
With Gary Moore returning to the Lizzy fold in place of Robertson, both bands found themselves in Boston. Boston is special to Queen and especially Brian May. They're big mates with Aerosmith, and it was in this city that they would prepare for US tours. May will tell you that it was through Boston that Queen broke America. More about that later.
Lizzy are the support band on the tour, playing an hour-long set compared to Queen's one hour and 45 minutes. As support, they are under the usual restraints, no thunderflashes, no wandering into restricted areas of the stage marked only for Queen use. One night Gary Moore broke out of Lizzyland and into Queendom, delivering a blistering solo in the process that brought the crowd to its feet. He was warned not to do that again.
There's no animosity between the bands, though. Lizzy see it as a bit of a learning curve. "There were about a dozen bands that wanted to do this tour with us," said Roger Taylor. "We thought that Lizzy suited our audience better than any of the others, and they're probably better that any of those bands anyway. I mean, there's no point in making it easy for yourself. We wanted a good all-round show. It's a good tour for both bands anyway. Lizzy playing to tremendous audiences, 10-20,000 a night.
"It's a very valid tour, I think. I'm probably biased, but this is the best line-up around. As a rock 'n' roll fan, I would come and see this show if it came to my town. Definitely!"
Scott Gorham was pleased with the match. "It's a good one for us because we're playing in a lot of places we've never played before and we're playing in places where they haven't even played our record, so that's the real challenge. Obviously there's a bit of competition but our aim is not to blow the ass off Queen. We got out to blow the asses off the audience and win them over because it's Queen's audience, though I'm sure we've sold a lot of tickets."
I joined the Queen/Lizzy tour in New York and was taking in Madison Square Gardens, Nassau Coliseum, Syracuse Civic Center and, finally, the Boston Garden. As an avid Lizzy AND Queen fan, this was my dream tour, the sort of thing you jot down during boring college lessons under "Great Tours I Would Like to See". Never having seen Gary Moore during his earlier (brief) stint with Lizzy, I was particularly keen to see how he would fit into the setup. He was a hired gun this time, taking over from the popular Robbo, and now having to play Robbo's set pieces and solos. How would this sit with Moore?
I shouldn't have worried. Moore's input reflected his own effervescent style, adding a powerful injection of axe style. He was also an inspiration to Gorham, who seemed content to play second fiddle to Robertson but now brought out of his shell. So what, we all wonder, does the future hold for Lizzy and Moore? The band seem, wisely, to have left their options open. "I thought it was going to be a real tough one," Gorham considered. "It took Brian and me two years to get to where we were as dual lead guitarists, and when we decided that Brian was out, I was a little bit more freaked than anybody else. But after just eleven days rehearsal with Gary, it clicked. We worked on the harmonies a lot and I'm taking more leads than before. It's hard to say why there's more harmony work with Gary. Brian was more into playing lead guitar, and after a while he lost some interest in the harmony things so we were starting to do less and less of it. But Gary likes it as much as I do, so that reintroduced the harmony guitar work into Thin Lizzy.
"Playing with Gary is the happiest I've been for a long, long time. It's like breathing fresh air again. I guess it was kinda getting stale for a while. I know that on the last English tour, I was getting pretty depressed with a lot of those gigs. I would go back to the dressing room and I wouldn't talk top anybody, and just go back to the hotel and lock myself in there.
"There was really a lot of heavy raving going on. People were losing control of themselves, and it wasn't making for good music. It seemed sometimes that just a lifetime of noise was coming out, although we did have our nights when we came off and felt great. Brian was drinking pretty heavily, and I was going a bit crazy, too, and Phil, of course, still had hepatitis and he would get depressed. So this whole thing is just one big blast of fresh air, where everybody has perked themselves out of the staleness. We've got a new vibe in the band now. When we walk on stage, we have a great time again. It's like a whole brand new thing, with 100 per cent more music coming out of it now."
It was Thin Lizzy’s first tour of the American East Coast. Through their series of misfortunes – first Lynott's hepatitis and then Robertson's hand injury – they never reached New York and the surrounding states until last week. You could smell the disappointment in the dressing-room afterwards when they felt that they didn't do their music justice at their first-ever gig there.
The band never quite clicked. They had, said Lynott, treated Madison Square Garden as just another gig. Scott Gorham sat in a corner totally depressed by the whole affair, annoyed that this prestigious venue had not seen Lizzy at their best. The disappointment was such that Lizzy wouldn't go back on to do their encore; they didn't feel they deserved it.
Syracuse, in New York State, was another gig where Lizzy did not work as they should. Here Moore was having difficulty with his guitar, damaged earlier in the day, and never settled down, while Scott Gorham was just a little too laid-back for comfort.
Lizzy went down well at both places, but for this band, it's the sub-standard gig that breeds the excellent one, and it was significant that on the nights following the Garden and Syracuse, Lizzy went on to play concerts full of controlled aggression and anger. They meant business and were taking no prisoners.
This was especially true of the gig at Nassau Coliseum, another one in front of 20,000 fans, and all staunch Queen followers. Lizzy were forced to work hard to win the support of the audience, a challenge they thrived on. They simply battered the crowd into submission, and fully earned their encore.
After seeing the full Lizzy set on numerous occasions during their last couple of British tours, I felt a little sad to note that it was drastically cut to suit the time and needs of the US tour, although I was assured that sacrifices had to be made. Out went classic Lizzy rockers like 'Suicide', 'The Rocker' and 'It's Only Money', and I couldn't understand why 'Johnny The Fox' was retained at the expense of a much superior track from the same album, 'Johnny'; but the set is to be re-jigged for the second half of the US tour, which starts in Miami this weekend, when 'Johnny', 'It's Only Money' and 'Don't Believe A Word', the new Stateside single, come in for 'Massacre' and 'Johnny The Fox'. A better balance, all told.
But it was still a well-judged, hard-hitting set, marked by the performance in Nassau of Gary Moore, who left me stunned at some of the solos he was producing.
Even in the simplest of affairs, such as adding a little atmosphere to the introduction of 'Warriors', he tackled his job with verve. The real clincher at the gig came with the drum solo of Brian Downey during the riffy 'Sha La La'. The crowd wasted no time in showing their appreciation for Downey's energetic wrestling bout with his kit, and from then on in, it was Llzzy's gig, ending with 'Baby Drives Me Crazy', which thankfully evoked the right "baby baby baby" response from the audience, instead of the embarrassing silence of the previous night at Madison Square Garden, and encoring with 'Me And The Boys Were Wonderin' How You And The Girls Were Gettin' Home Tonight', still the best encore in the world and, with Moore adding his own touches, better than ever.
The atmosphere in the dressing room was much more positive than the previous night, with Lynott triumphantly announcing: "We showed 'em. We made an impression tonight all right. Follow that."
Lizzy managed to surpass the success scored at Nassau three nights, later, in Boston, a city they've never played before and which, apart from 'The Boys Are Back In Town', which everybody knows, is unfamiliar with their music. This time, Lizzy took only five minutes, and, by the end of 'Massacre', the second number in the set, they sensed that it was their gig. Lynott, for one, was showing more aggression, and portrayed his tough man persona to the hilt.
It's been an excellent tour so far for Lizzy. There's no real danger that they will blow Queen off because they are playing in front of Queen audiences. But they are making Queen work harder than they have ever had to.
Queen had been getting a hard ride from the American rock critics this time around, the majority of whom have opted for underdogs Lizzy as their favourites in the show.
"The local press has been almost unanimously anti-us," Brian May complained. "But it is very unpredictable, because usually the local guy who gets sent along from the local newspaper doesn't really know what's going on. I don't know if they know.
"It's hard to talk about the press really because I don't take any of it seriously, or very little of it. I take people seriously who go to the trouble genuinely to try and find out what's going on and then write it.
"Constructive criticism is healthy but I don't like the fashionable easy slagging-off that tends to happen a lot, and a lot of these local journalists pick it up from the big guys and they want to be famous, too, so they go in and slag off the big band. I think it's all on a very childish level."
Nor are Queen worried that many critics attempt to play them off against Lizzy. They view that as "a false rivalry". As Roger Taylor says, it was inevitable.
May and Taylor, in particular, are close to Lizzy, and often go out drinking together after gigs. Taylor's allegiance to Lizzy's hectic lifestyle is obvious, as I witnessed when I went to his room at the plush Plaza hotel in Manhattan. Taylor had built a Scalextric racing kit through two of the rooms, and suitably lifted by champagne and whatever else was available, he was having the time of his life.
The man is just a born rock and roller, but May is a much quieter person and enjoys hanging out with Lizzy because he is into that type of hard-rocking band. He and Lynott are getting on very well together, with May keen to play on Phil's solo album.
Freddie Mercury and John Deacon, on the other hand, keep themselves detached. Deacon has his wife and kid on the road, and that, coupled with his natural tranquility, makes him almost inaccessible.
Mercury, however, is still playing the star card to the max. It’s strange to see at airports that he doesn't mingle with the rest of the band who mingle with Lizzy. Freddie will be sat at another part of the lounge, accompanied by his friendly neighbourhood masseur and other friends. And, true to his adorable camp nature, he’s not doing interviews, as he explained to me at one after-show party. Eyeing me from the other side of the room, he sauntered over, gave my bum a gentle pat and whispered: "Harry, dahling, I’m so sorry about the interview. But I’m just not giving them anymore… no exceptions." And with that, he disappeared into his fawning throng.
The music played in the interval of the Queen/Lizzy concerts is, to say the least, a mite unusual. There's none of yer hard rock, country rock, pop or anything like that. It's down to the sober music of Chopin to entertain the punters and prepare them for the arrival of Queen.
Maybe, I thought, there was a little psychology involved here. Lizzy had just come off and delivered a hard-rocking, energetic set, and perhaps this was to defuse their audience and put them hack into a more relaxed mood.
Roger Taylor knocked my theory on the head. "I think it's nice if you come to see a Queen and Thin Lizzy concert to have something a little different. It's pointless to play identifiable music at the interval, so we just play Chopin, which seems to have a good effect. It seems better than playing Joni Mitchell every night. There's really no psychology involved." So there.
To be quite honest, I would not have been too surprised it Lizzy had blown Queen off on this tour. After all, up until recently, one was primarily a band where records totally outshone stage performances, and the other, Lizzy, have gained a reputation for their uncompromising stage performances.
To Queen's credit, there was no time during the four gigs I caught that they were going to be totally out-gunned. At Madison Square Garden, in fact, they left Lizzy all but standing at the post.
This was important to Roger Taylor: "This American tour has seen Queen arrive as a performing band. The set is strong and well-balanced, and dismisses, for the first time ever, memories of the production on record."
May: "We've spent a lot of time not only changing the show but just making those little adaptations to meet the demands of the bigger places and it does take a slightly different psychology in pacing and the way we work on stage.
"In fact, I think the show now is so suited to the bigger halls that when we come down to the smaller places it takes a bit of getting used to, and we don’t feel quite right.
"We used to think that in playing the big places we would lose intimacy, and we were pretty cautious about doing it on the last tour. Rather than play big places, we would play three or four nights in a theatre, but we gradually felt the big places out to find out what we would have to do to get across, and I think it has worked."
As usual, Queen's stage show is high on effect, with the predictable, but entertaining, use of thunder flashes and dry ice at various times during the set. Mercury's vocals are showing notable improvement in live performances. It was getting so that you could tell just when he wasn't going to hit the notes. The opening number is usually the one where he displays nervousness, but this time his voice was firm and under control.
That said, I should also record that one of Queen's weaknesses seems to be that they are liable to crack under pressure. If something goes wrong, it takes them a couple of minutes to get in the groove again. It happened at Nassau Coliseum when Mercury's mic failed and it took him some time to compose himself again.
But what is most impressive about Queen on this tour is the way they pace their act. They have, it seems, refused to just give their fans sheer hard rock, and have included poppier songs and ballads.
May: "We want to take the whole scope in and we try to have a complete and balanced act. I know a lot of people expected us to do a straight hard rock set this time round but you have to stand up for what you think, and I think that in the end, if you do that, it's appreciated. Because of the slower stuff and the lighter stuff, the heavy stuff has that much more meaning and that much more variety."
So on this tour, Queen attempt songs that they would never previously have touched, due to heavy production and overdubs and millions of voices.
Hence the arrival onstage of 'Somebody To Love', 'Millionaire Waltz', 'You Take My Breath Away' and, of course, the full and unexpurgated version of 'Bohemian Rhapsody', all songs that, on record, are given the full production treatment with piles of harmonies and guitar overdubs."
'Somebody To Love' transfers brilliantly and the magical thing about its live performance is that while the layers of harmonies aren’t there, the performance more than compensates. 'Millionaire Waltz', included as part of the now standard medley, features Brian May conjuring up all sorts of sweet danceable sounds on his harmony machine, while 'You Take My Breath Away' is remarkably successful for its simplicity, featuring only Mercury on voice and piano.
The 'Bo-Rhap' is straightforward, with the band taking their leave during the middle operatic section, leaving the work to tapes, and return, with a change of stage gear, for the rock section. Adapting those songs for the stage set was a chance well worth taking.
May: "The decision to do songs like that was a response mainly to so many people writing in and saying that we should play the hits, when we were more concerned with just having a good show.
"It wasn't that we were scared to do them before; it was just that we've always thought it wrong to regard a tour purely as a promotional exercise, because some people have done that, and gone out and slogged away at the hits and the new album, and I don't think that makes for good touring. Maybe we went too much the other way, so we've made a little compromise."
Taylor: "'Somebody To Love' was hard to do because there are so many voices on the record that I didn't know if we'd be able to do it. I enjoy playing it now, but when we first started the tour, we were dreading it when it came round in the set.
"Yes, I suppose we have got over the barrier of reproducing tracks live. I mean, we'll have a go at anything. I've always thought of the band as a live band, but we've never really tried to recreate the records from the second album mainly because I don't think it's always wise to try and go that way; you tend to lose spontaneous and aggression, that spark. But at the moment we've got a good balance between the two."
Apart from the new opening- with the magnificent oriental riff from May's guitar orchestra leading into the new Queen single the chugging 'Tie Your Mother Down' ("it's not what we usually put out, but at least it's rock and roll" – Roger Taylor), the rest of the set remains practically the same as already seen in this country, only much tighter.
There's also the same run-up to the finale, which perhaps could be doing with a change, with 'Keep Yourself Alive', 'Liar' and 'Lap Of The Gods', encoring with 'Here I Stand' and 'Big Spender'/'Jailhouse Rock'. Mercury still strips to hot pants, which shows just how out of date it is. It's becoming a bit too predictable for comfort.
"I know we've been doing it for years," May reasoned. "But in some of the places it's kind of expected. I know that if I go and see people, and I've bought a record of theirs, I know it'll give me a nice feeling if they play it."
Of the gigs I caught, Queen's form was best at Madison Square Garden, when they were really full of power and confidence. Mercury was in fine form, moving about in that silly ballet outfit, but really playing the front man.
Roger Taylor walked through his drum kit at the end. The pose cost him L400 for a microphone he damaged during his demolition job.
Nassau, the following night, was a little bit strange, and the audience a lot younger, with a few well-timed screams going the rounds. But I don't think the band would have been too pleased with the gig. Apart from Mercury's nervousness. May's fingers were sore from playing too hard, and he held back a bit.
They play a set so well put together though that it can stand up to strains, so that only the band and other people who have seen them on their better nights can distinguish the good from the bad.
Syracuse was good for them, I think, although it still wasn't top form, and in Boston anything after that scintillating Lizzy set would have been an anti-climax; but the response was still wildly positive from the kids.
So there you have it. I think it's the greatest tour in the world at the moment. After four gigs, I left with a score of two all.
Will we ever see this pair appear on the same bill in England? Well, from what I could ascertain from speaking to the two bands, both would be keen on playing some sort of a one-day festival. A bit of lobbying might do the trick.

2001 Postscript

It’s always dodgy covering your favourite bands, especially if there’s a flavour of criticism. I found this out a couple of weeks after the article appeared in Melody Maker. I’d been to the Rainbow Theatre to see Elton John and spotted Queen’s May and Taylor in the audience. Up I went to say hello. Taylor was his usual affable self. Brian May, on the other hand, had seen my piece and wasn’t best pleased. "Nobody blows us off in Boston," came the opening salvo. "Boston is our town. Nobody blows us off and Thin Lizzy didn’t. You weren’t even there. You left with Lizzy before we came on." Which, I hadn’t, but what can you do. May apologised for the outburst later, but at least he was passionate in defence of his band. Queen went on to become bigger everywhere else in the world… except the States.
Thin Lizzy never really broke America. Gary Moore threw a tantrum in the middle of the next – you guessed – American tour and left after one album, Black Rose. Phil Lynott learned on thing from the Queen tour. Having spotted how pampered Freddie Mercury was on the tour, he decided to have some of the same and got more and more spoiled with each subsequent Lizzy tour.
Of course, they never did get together to play the same tour in the UK. It was a great idea, but it was materialised, and never will. Both bands have now lost their main men – Freddie Mercury to the ravages of AIDS, Phil Lynott to the disaster of drug abuse. Rest in peace, boys: you should have stuck around for an encore.