Interview with JOHN SYKES (THIN LIZZY)

THIN LIZZY (Live at The City Hall, Newcastle, U.K., December 2, 2007)
Photo: Mick Burgess

As Thin Lizzy embarked on their biggest UK Tour in years, lead guitarist/lead vocalist John Sykes chatted with Metal Express Radio about life with Thin Lizzy.

You are about to embark on a 17-date UK tour covering the length and breadth of the country. This must be just about the biggest tour you’ve done since the Thunder And Lightning Tour back in 1983/84?

Yeah, I guess so. It’s quite a big one, but I’m looking forward to it. The first night of the tour starts at the Leicester De Montfort Hall and goes on through to the Hammersmith Apollo on December 13th.

The tour was, until about two days ago, to include Queensrÿche. They aren’t playing anymore. What happened there?

Something happened to one of the guys, I’m not sure what. I just found out as I was flying in so they are not doing the tour. We’ve just added Diamond Head to the bill so that should be good for the fans.

However, the good news is, you will be playing a 30th Anniversary Live And Dangerous set. You’ll be playing the full album start to finish?

That’s right. We’re looking forward to playing that. It wasn’t planned that we’d do this until a couple of weeks ago, and it just seemed such a good idea. We played with Deep Purple earlier in the year in The States and over in the UK. One of the tours they were doing the full Machine Head album and I was always a big Deep Purple fan and I was really excited about seeing that. A couple of weeks ago, Scott told me that there’s an idea floating around that we’d do the full Live And Dangerous album, and I thought it seemed like a good idea. It’s a great, great classic album with great songs.

There must be a couple on there that you haven’t played in years, like “Johnny The Fox” and “Sha La La.” Are you looking forward to digging those out?

Songs like “Southbound” we haven’t played for a long time so I’ll have to learn how to play them again, so I’m still scratching my way through some of them. We actually play a lot of those songs anyway as there’s a lot of the great classic Lizzy songs on that album. There’s a few we haven’t played for a while like “Warrior,” “The Rocker” and “Sha La La” and things like that, and we’re looking forward to it. I always say that if I forget the words to something I can always look into the audience as there’s always someone singing along so that’s my prompt!!

How will this work on the night … 2 sets with Live And Dangerous first and then the best of the rest?

We’re going to do that album and we’re going to do some of the other stuff too, so it should be a long night. We will be doing at least 20 songs, so it should be a lot of fun.

Which songs do find the most challenging and enjoyable to play?

You know they’re all great songs to play. With me singing the songs as well it took me a while to get into the swing of it. Phil sang across the beat a lot and I obviously have to play on the beat with the guitar so it gets interesting and you have to split your brain for singing mode and guitar playing mode.

Did singing in Blue Murder spur you on to do more lead vocals?

Yeah, I never really wanted to be a singer, but I sang some backing vocals and I actually did the lead vocals on the original Blue Murder demos. Our A&R man in America, John Kalodner, had been sitting in on the sessions and also during the auditions for singers, and he just said that I had been singing better than anyone who’d come in for the auditions and said I’d have to sing it. It was a hell of a load for me as it’s one thing singing in the studio, but live is something totally different. It took me a couple of months to practice just to be able to get the syncopation between the vocals and the guitar, and that’s basically how I got into singing. One thing lead to another and here we are today.

Phil Lynott had such a unique style, totally unlike anybody else. Was that difficult for you to master?

When I joined Lizzy I spent a lot of time with Phil, he was one of my heroes and I loved the guy and spent time working with him in the studio and got his phrasing sussed … so I think it’s close to his style, but obviously it’s not Phil and it could never be that, but it’s probably as close as you’re going to get.

Also joining you on stage is, of course, Scott Gorham. How do you feel as a musician when you’re knocking out those trademark Thin Lizzy harmonies together?

It feels fantastic. There’s me and Scott and those guitar harmonies and it’s timeless. We are getting a lot of younger people in the audience now and they know all the words and everything and they wouldn’t be old enough to see the band back in the day. They grew up with Lizzy because of their parents and they love it. It’s a great testimony to Phil’s songs; they’re simply timeless and people love his stuff. Phil was one of the greatest of all time. He was a great writer.

Tommy Aldridge will be on drums with you this time?

I’ve known Tommy a long time and he’s one of the best drummers in the world and he plays really well and hits those drums so hard.

What happened to Marco Mendoza?

Marco’s been playing with Delores, the girl from The Cranberries, and he’s been doing some solo stuff too, but he was juggling with everything. We had to pass on a couple of shows as he wasn’t available, but we couldn’t continue like that so we had to move on with someone else and that’s when we got Francesco DiCosmo into the band. We’ve played a few shows over in Europe with him to get loose a little bit, and he’s fitting in well and we’re just looking forward to coming over to the UK leg of the tour.

Will Brian Downey or Brian Robertson make any guest appearances during the tour?

When we go to Ireland, Bryan Downey comes out to see us. We’re still really good friends. The thing is with Lizzy is that anyone that’s been part of the band is like part of a family. We’ve all been involved and we all stick by Phil and we’re all like brothers. I haven’t seen Robbo for a while, but he’ll come down and see us in London sometime.

This ties in rather nicely with the excellent Live And Dangerous DVD that’s just been released. What’s included on that DVD?

I heard that it’s gone into the charts pretty high, which is good. I haven’t been able to see it yet but I’ve heard it’s got some good stuff on it.

It’s incredible to think that it’s been 30 years since Live and Dangerous was released. Why do you think it’s stood the test of time so well?

It unbelievable that it’s been that long, but it still sounds as amazing as it did back then. No matter where we go around the world, when people are asked what is their favorite live album, Live And Dangerous always gets into the Top 5, but usually it’s Number 1.

It’s often near the top if not at the top of polls of Live albums. What other live albums do you rate?

I love Live And Dangerous too, but I also love Made In Japan by Deep Purple. That’s a great live album. I just love the musicianship on that. There were so many great live albums made in the ’70s. That was THE decade, there was some awesome stuff going on then.

This is actually your second tour of the year in the UK as you had toured with Deep Purple and Styx earlier. Now that’s what you call a value for money package! How did you end up on that bill?

That was a lot of fun. We’re good friends with Deep Purple and we get on well with them and they like our band. It’s a great deal for the fans. If I wasn’t in the band, I’d have gone down to see it!!

Was it strange for you going on first?

I don’t mind really. We’re just happy to be up there playing. It doesn’t really matter who goes on first as you go out there and deliver your set as well as you can and hopefully people will have a really good time. It’s more about connecting with the audience.

Did you get a chance to watch the other sets?

Yeah, the good thing about going on first is that you can get on and get off and watch the rest of the show.

Going back to when you first joined Thin Lizzy in the early 80s … that was a huge break for you to join such a big band. Was it a shock to the system compared to being in the Tygers of Pan Tang?

Definitely!! Thin Lizzy were one of my all-time favorite bands anyway, and to be asked to join them was like a dream come true. It was an honor and a privilege. In fact, it’s still an honor and privilege now to sing those songs that Phil wrote. To be picked by Phil is probably the highlight of my career, and it doesn’t really get much better than that. I was young and what I lived for was being involved in Rock ‘n’ Roll. That was a wonderful time in my life, and I was only about 22 years old at the time.

It was just amazing being such a young guitarist and being picked to be in the band by Phil. It was a great experience being out on the Thunder And Lightning tour and every second of my involvement in that was great. I really cherish those memories and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Thunder And Lightning was seen as a real return to form by Lizzy and featured a much tougher sound than previous albums. Was this your influence or is that the direction Phil wanted to head in?

It’s was a little heavier and I think that was something that I’d brought to the table. I was into a lot of the harder guitar players in those days and I think that was something that Thin Lizzy wanted to get back to. Phil wanted to do stuff that was a bit heavier. He was really enjoying it and I definitely enjoyed it. It gave it more of an edge I think. We started digging in hard you know.

How did you write with Phil? Did you bounce ideas off each other or did you jam or maybe come up with complete demos and work on them together?

What happened was that we got in the studio we just sat on the floor and he asked if I had any riffs and I started playing the “Cold Sweat” riff, and he took that and started moulding it and put an arrangement together and about 20 minutes later it was pretty much all there. It all came together really easy.

It must have come as a huge disappointment to you when Lizzy announced they were to split. At what point did you realize this?

That was definitely a kick to the guts. I didn’t really think it was going to end and I don’t think Phil really thought it was going to end either. I remember back in those days it was a management idea. These days people announce a farewell tour and just keep going. It’s a bit like Kiss, their Farewell Tour has been on the road for something like 10 years or so!! The management thought that it would create a lot of interest and people would come out and be excited about seeing the band. Back in those days, once you’d announced that, you pretty much had to live up to it. Actually, when I was in Whitesnake, Phil had spoken to me about reforming the band. I know for a fact that Phil never wanted to end the band, but unfortunately things happened in a certain way and we had to honor it.

Did you personally feel that you had a lot more to give to the band?

Oh, definitely and I know that Phil felt that too.

Had you worked on ideas for a follow up?

We’d already been in the studio and worked on the likes of Dedication. I remember working on the demos of some of those songs. Phil had a studio in the back of his house and we played a bunch of songs and demoed some stuff with him. He was definitely moving in a direction where he wanted to bring it back on track, but unfortunately it didn’t end up happening.

What did you make of the final live album Life?

I thought it was a good record and there were some great songs on it, but I’m not too crazy about the finished mix on it. I think that could be one of those records that could do with being remixed. I think that album gets overlooked a little, but I think it’s a great record.

You did actually played some shows with Phil after Lizzy’s demise with Brian Downey and Mark Stanway. What happened to that project?

We went out on a solo tour with Phil. He asked us if we wanted to go and play and that’s what we did. It was a lot of fun. Phil took me under his wing when I was a youngster. I would have been happy to go anywhere with him to play.

Phil moved on with Mark to form Grand Slam and by the time you joined Whitesnake Phil had passed away. Had you stayed in touch with Phil after you had parted ways musically?

Yes, I saw Phil just six weeks before he passed away and I stayed at his house. We hung out a lot and went to Marbella. We were close friends.

You were instrumental in bringing the Thin Lizzy name back into limelight. Were you surprised that so many people still wanted to hear the music after so long?

You never know how people are going to respond. I wasn’t too sure, but once we went out and played we went down so well. Those songs are just so damned good. The first time we did it was in Japan and we just weren’t sure whether it would work or if it’d fall flat on it’s face. We went over and the shows sold out and everyone went nuts about it and from that we got offered loads of other things. One thing lead to another and it all just fell into place.

How do you respond to those who think there shouldn’t be a Lizzy without Phil?

It’s all about Phil anyway. We want to keep his legacy alive and keep his music out there. When I look out there and see a full house and people having a great time, that’s all the validation I need. If I felt in anyway that it wasn’t the right thing, then I definitely wouldn’t be doing it. As long as there’s people out there who remember Phil and enjoy his music, then we’ll keep playing for them.

You always dedicate each show to Phil so it’s clear you still miss him greatly?

That’s it and that’s what it’s really about. It’s all about Phil and his songs.

Once the tour is over what will you be doing next? What about Blue Murder?

I’ve got a lot of solo material that I’ve been writing at home so I’m looking forward to getting that recorded. I may do some Blue Murder stuff later in the year. There may be a tour and an album , but I’ll take things one step at a time and see how things go.

Do you think that you will record some new Lizzy material at some point?

I’m not too sure about that. This is more about remembering Phil, and unless we can do a song which is related to Phil and which we can dedicate to him then I think that’s the only way we can be comfortable about it. This is all about Phil and it just doesn’t seem right if we go out with a bunch of new stuff. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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