INTERVIEW AND PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ
The legendary guitarist John Sykes’s name rose to the public after joining the New Wave of British Heavy Metal band, TYGERS OF PAN TANG. In 1982, Sykes was recruited into THIN LIZZY by the mastermind Phil Lynott himself. After one album, the classic THUNDER AND LIGHTNING, and a double live LP entitled LIFE(1983), THIN LIZZY disbanded. Soon after, John found himself working alongside Jon Lord, Cozy Powell, Neil Murray, and David Coverdale in WHITESNAKE, in time to make an appearance on SLIDE IT IN (1984) record. The biggest success was yet to come, and it took shape in the 1987 self-titled album, which went on to sell millions. Having been fired from WHITESNAKE (along with everybody else), John started BLUE MURDER, which released two albums, the self-titled in 1989 and NOTHIN’ BUT TROUBLE (1993). In 1994 John, Scott Gorham, and Brian Downey decided to resurrect THIN LIZZY for some select shows in honor of their departed leader. Since then, in between doing solo albums and tours, Sykes has, along with Scott Gorham, kept their version of THIN LIZZY going to the present day with the lineup presently being completed by drummer Tommy Aldridge and bass player Francesco DiCosmo. In this interview, John Sykes shares some insights on the various stages of his illustrious career.
You’re now again on tour with THIN LIZZY. Is there a specific theme on this tour, like the 25th anniversary of the THUNDER AND LIGHTNING album, for example?
Well, I said to Scott about it that we should do the whole THUNDER AND LIGHTNING album, but he didn’t want to do it, but we should have. I thought it could have been cool, you know. It’s the 25th anniversary of THUNDER AND LIGHTNING, do the whole record. I thought that if we did that, and then we did a lot of the LIVE AND DANGEROUS stuff as well, but he didn’t want it, maybe you should suggest it to him; he might listen to you “laughs.”
Yeah, it’s been 25 years since that album was released. It was your first and, sadly, the only studio album you ever did with Thin Lizzy. Do you still remember the time when Phil Lynott asked you to join Lizzy more than twenty-six years ago?
Yeah, it was in London. We had done the single “Please Don’t Leave Me,” which resulted from leaving the Tygers because I had a solo single to do. I asked Chris Tsangarides; he had produced SPELLBOUND and stuff. He’d worked on RENEGADE with Phil, and I said, “I’ve got this solo single I need to do,” and I asked if he could ask Phil to come and help me out with it. I was thinking it was a longshot, a real longshot, but asked him anyway. So he asked him, I think I’d given a copy of the music, and he gave it to Phil, and much to my surprise he came back and said Phil had agreed and I was like “Fuck, that’s unbelievable!” I remember flying into Ireland, and I remember seeing Phil. The first time I saw him getting out of the car, he had a purple jacket on, and I was like, “There he is!” Then we got together and hit it off right away. We had a great time, worked in the studio on the cut, went out to a bunch of bars and clubs and had a lot of fun, hung out together. I spent a few days in Dublin with him and then went back to London. Then probably three or four days went by, and I never heard anything, then suddenly the phone rang, and Phil asked if I wanted to join the band. I was like, “Fuck yeah!” you know. So that was that, and it was like a dream come true actually. It was just great, really cool… one of my heroes, you know, all the guys in Thin Lizzy. I grew up listening to it and loved it.
Alright, can you then tell us about the reunion of Thin Lizzy, back in 1994, almost a decade after Lynott’s death?
I was playing in Japan a lot. I had a pretty thriving career over in Japa,n, and I was doing many things there. I did a lot of press and stuff, and they’d keep asking me, “Do you think there’s any chance Thin Lizzy will get back together?” and I’d say, “Are you crazy? How the fuck is Thin Lizzy going to get back together?” I was just kind of shunned it and thought it was just silly and ridiculous. This went on for a couple of years, and they’d just keep asking. Finally, I recorded a live Blue Murder record, and I think I did a couple of THIN LIZZY songs, “Cold Sweat” or something. They’d ask me again, and I was like, “You know what, I’ll ask Scott [Gorham] about it because they just kept asking. So I called Scott one day and told him that Japanese promoters and press wanted us to get together and do a reunion. I asked what he thought about it. He was like, “I don’t know, let me call Brian Downey, and I’ll ask him.” And much to everyone’s surprise, Brian said, “Yeah, okay, let’s think about it. Let’s try it. Let’s get into rehearsal and see.” so that was the beginning. Then we got into rehearsals and then we did the shows, everything went kind of well. The shows were received very well, and that was kind of the spark that started the whole thing. We realized that Phil’s songs were timeless classics, and the funny thing is we have three generations of people from young kids coming to the shows. And they love music, and it spans generations. I love Scott, and I have a great time with him. We get on really well, and I thought, “Let’s just go out and have some fun, go play these songs, just do it the best we can and see what happens. We kind of just did that and kept asked to do more things.
At that point, in addition to Scott and yourself, you had Brian Downey, Darren Wharton, and Marco Mendoza in the band. How was that lineup put together?
I’d been playing with Marco in my Blue Murder band. I kind of dragged Marco out of a club in LA and got him to start playing rock because he was mostly just playing jazz. He was doing a lot of Stevie Wonder stuff and covers and things. I spotted him and kind of pulled him out and got him to come into my studio to play some rock stuff. So, I got him involved with the Blue Murder thing, and he was the only guy that I could find that could play fretless bass like Tony [Franklin]. So that was my relationship with him, and of course, the other guys were all THIN LIZZY members, so it just made sense for me to bring them in, and that’s who it came together.
After the first few tours with the reunited Thin Lizzy, Brian Downey left the band. How did you feel about that?
People would like to see Brian [Downey] up there [on drums], but he doesn’t want to do it. Brian’s an amazing player. He’s really what I call a melodic drummer, and he always plays the right parts for the songs. He’s just great. I love Brian’s playing, and it’s a huge part of Thin Lizzy’s original recorded sound. I mean, if you listen to the drums, it’s another amazing rhythm section, Phil and Brian. You listen to those guys play together on like “The Boys Are Back in Town” or any of that old stuff actually, they’re just locked-in, and it counts for a lot.
In the year 2000, the reunited Thin Lizzy, now with Tommy Aldridge on drums, put out the ONE NIGHT ONLY live album. How do you like that record in hindsight?
To be honest with you, I haven’t listened to it since we did it. It was in Germany, and I think it was the third show that we’d done with Tommy [Aldridge]. It just kind of got thrown together.
Have you ever considered recording new material, like a whole new studio album as Thin Lizzy?
Yeah, we spoke about it. I’ve been dead against recording for a long time because I thought it might be disrespectful to start recording [as Thin Lizzy again]. There’s been a lot of people saying, “We’d like to hear some new stuff,” and finally, Scott wanted to do it. And finally, I just kind of thought, “You know, maybe it’s time. It’s been a long time”. If we can come up with something great, I’m into doing it.
Back in the day, how was your first meeting with David Coverdale?
It was good. It was okay. What happened was, I think we played “Masters of Rock” or something a couple of times with Thin Lizzy and Whitesnake. I mean, to be honest, I always thought he had a good voice, but I was never really a big fan of Whitesnake. It was always a little too light for me. I like more of the heavier stuff, you know. I liked his stuff with Deep Purple, especially BURN, because I love Ritchie Blackmore and all the Deep Purple stuff before that. I loved the BURN album with Glenn Hughes on it; that’s one of my favorite albums, you know. I think he [David] sang great, and I thought he had a great voice on that, but I always felt that he needed a rock player that could really drive him, not just strum along. He needed something like a kick in the arse, you know? I had a phone call from him, and Thin Lizzy was already pretty much disbanding. My original plan was to stay with Phil anyway, work with Phil. Anyway. They saw us playing at “Masters of Rock” or something, we did a couple of shows with them, I had a phone call, and it was Coverdale or his people or something. They called me up and asked me if I wanted to join, and I said, “No, I don’t. I’m not interested. I’m staying with Phil.” They called up again and said, “Just come over.” I think it was Munich we went to then? They were recording the 1984 SLIDE IT IN album or something. I thought I’d go over and take a look. I think they called me two or three times. I went over and met David and Mel Galley, who was a really nice guy. I hung out with them for a couple of days and jammed on a couple of songs. When I came back to London, they rang out for me, offered me the job, and I said: “No, I don’t want to do it.” Then they basically said, “How much money would it take for you to do it?”, so I threw a number out there that I thought I would never get, and they said “Okay.” and gave me the money.
At the time, Whitesnake had a really cool lineup of Coverdale, Cozy Powell, Jon Lord, Mel Galley, Neil Murray, and you. Not a bad lineup if you ask me!
That was the best lineup he ever had, I think. That lineup, him, Cozy Powell, Neil Murray, and me, that was the magic band, you know, because it was all right there.
That was probably also the only time WHITESNAKE played shows with only one guitar player in the band?
I guess so, yeah. Initially, we did shows with Mel [Galley]. We had a little accident, and Mel broke his arm, and then he kind of went into a hospital and got that worked on. Initially, he was going to come back, and then we went out and continued playing, just the four of us with a side order of keyboards. Actually, when I first joined, Jon Lord was in the band; he’s fucking amazing. I mean, I’ve stood in front of a lot of Marshall stacks over my years, but I’ve never heard anything as powerful as Jon Lord’s keyboard. One day he just, I guess, wrote a letter to David and said he would leave the band [for the Deep Purple reunion]. Then we just got like a side order of keyboards playing on the side, but most of it was just me, Cozy, Neil, and David.
Back in 2003 or so, there were rumors about Whitesnake’s possible reunion with you in the band. Was there any truth behind that rumor?
OH GOD! Well, he called me up and started talking and asking about getting together. We spoke a couple of times, and he was basically asking my advice about what band to get, who to get in the band, and everything. I told him [about] Tommy [Aldridge] and Marco [Mendoza], and then he never called again. He took my ideas, you know, same old joker. He changes his band every five minutes anyway, I was looking at some website, and he’s had like almost forty different members in that band over the years. Shit, just go out as a solo artist if that’s what you’re going to do!
If he, at that point, had asked you to rejoin Whitesnake, would you have been up for it?
Well, no. The thing about it was that it didn’t really get around to that point because it was more of a situation where we talked a couple of times, and it didn’t really, you know, as far as I’m concerned, he’s still standing on the 1987 album. His whole career hangs on that album. He hasn’t done a SHIT without me, and I told him that. You know when I spoke to him. I said, “You know what, man? You aren’t worth nothing without me anyway! So “whatever,” and that was the end of that because it’s the truth. When we get together, that’s magic, and he can get any guy to come in and try and play like me. Shit, I can go down to Los Angeles and find bands like The Atomic Punks and stuff, where the guy plays just like Eddie Van Halen, but IT’S NOT Eddie Van Halen, and WHO CARES? If you don’t have anything to say for yourself as a musician, what’s it worth, you know?
Could the reason that David contacted you back then be that he needed a partner to write songs with him?
Yeah, he does, and he needs someone to kick him in the arse!
Have you heard the new Whitesnake album GOOD TO BE BAD that came out recently?
I heard a couple of songs. A friend of mine came over and played a couple of cuts. I thought he was basically singing the same old melodies over some different chords. He was singing like just a lot of the stuff off the 1987 record, the same melody lines with different chords underneath it. Whatever? Time moves on. That was a part of my life and career, and it’s gone and done. It was a great time, and we made just magic together. We could have done a lot more, but it didn’t happen. His ego got in the way.
So there’s not much chance of seeing you working with Mr. Coverdale ever again?
There’s probably more of a chance of getting us in a boxing match together than a fucking concert. You know, “White Snake” is the right term for him.
TYGERS OF PAN TANG
Have you ever been asked to rejoin TYGERS OF PANG TANG, making a guest appearance or something?
I spoke to Robb Weir not too long ago. He’s a really good guy and an old friend of mine. They’ve got a new band, it’s just Robb left, and he’s got some good players. I guess they’ve been out playing, and he said they’re doing something at the end of the year, I think we’re playing a festival with them somewhere, but it’s over a two or three-day period. He asked me if I was going to be around, and I said I’d get up and jam a song with them if I’m there. SPELLBOUND was a good album. It’s like an underground classic because there’s a lot of great stuff on that record. I didn’t listen to it for years, and then one day, some friend went, “Go on and listen to it.” I put it on and was like, “Wow, man, it sounds pretty decent.” We were just kids with crazy dreams, but it was good. It definitely was a really good record.
SOLO CAREER / BLUE MURDER
When you did the latest solo tour, you, later on, released a live album BAD BOY LIVE! That was in Japan in 2004. You had a fantastic setlist on that tour!
Yeah, that tour was done with Tommy [Aldridge], Marco [Mendoza], and Derek Sherinian on keyboards. It was just a retrospective setlist. There was a lot of stuff from my whole career, you know, just a little bit of everything.
However, after that tour, there hasn’t been much going with your solo career. Do you have plans to make more albums in the future?
I haven’t focused on it, to be honest with you. I took a lot of time off, and basically, I have been having fun, living at home, hanging out with my kids, my girlfriend, and my pets, just doing whatever I wanted. I really just haven’t been bothered with it, to be honest. I need to get off my arse, though. I’ve been doing this for thirty years, so I just thought, “Fuck man, I’m going to stop for a while and just go out to play live shows and have some fun.” The music business, quite honestly, especially in the ’90s, was so fucking lame. It was so bad that I just felt like I could come out with fucking SGT. PEPPER right now, and nobody would give a fuck. They’d download it anyway. I’ve got a standing contract with Japan to do an album. It’s been there for fucking years, and also, I’ve got a ton of material at home. I’ve got a ton of songs that I’ve written that I just need to get in and do. I’ve been getting lately the feeling to want to get back into it. Now I feel like it’s time. I’ll be getting in there and start doing some recording.
What type of material have you written? I mean, is it something along NUCLEAR COWBOY lines, or more old-school stuff?
All kinds of stuff, it’s more blues-based. I mean, I’m basically a blues player that plays rock. I always was. NUCLEAR COWBOY was a bit more of a stretch out. I was co-writing with a friend of mine, Peter Black, and he’s an amazing talent and a great writer, a really talented guy from Los Angeles. Long ago, before any of the stuff that’s going on where they use drum machines and drums, I was talking about using that before anybody did it. I was talking about it to the Japanese before Linkin’ Park or any of those bands, using a drum machine and real-live drums. They took it and did great, it came about anyway, and it was just a natural progression with technology. That’s kind of what NUCLEAR COWBOY was. It was more of a stretch into a future sort of sound. Some people loved it, and some just preferred the old stuff, straight drums, and guitar. I think it’s a great album. I love it, I think there’s a lot of good stuff on there, but I just think when it came out, it was an adjustment for the fans just to kind of get into that type of sound.
You never played any of that stuff live, or did you?
No, but I’m sure they translate well to live, some of those cuts.
So, presumably, these recordings will get released under your name, as “John Sykes” album?
You know, I always get offers to do Blue Murder again, and I still get offers to do solo stuff under “John Sykes” or whatever, but I don’t know. People keep asking me to do Blue Murder. I was asked to do Sweden Rock and Arrow Rock Festivals with Blue Murder this year.
I think it was two years ago when Carmine Appice said in the press that there is a plan to Blue Murder back together, and you would make a tour in Japan. But it never happened. Why?
Well, it’s not his decision. Carmine does a lot of talking, but it’s not his band, so it doesn’t matter. He was a part of the group, but with Blue Murder, I was the only guy signed to the contract; it was my band. I picked those guys to play in my band, but Carmine always talks like it’s his band. And that’s why we never get together because he’s too much of a pain in the ass.
Still, if anything was ever going to happen with Blue Murder again, would it be with you, Carmine, and Tony Franklin in the band?
I think it should be Tony and Carmine, but you know, maybe I’ll use Simon Phillips and somebody else on bass. It’d be easier, and it’d still be great, but again, people wanna see the original players “laughs.”
Thank you very much for the interview, John.
I appreciate it, guys.
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