25 years ago: ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist John Sykes on Vancouver's Bob Rock and the Little Mountain sound

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow–on June 16, 1989–the Straight published my interview with British rock guitarist John Sykes.

“Big whoop”, you say.

Well, I probably wouldn’t be celebrating that milestone if it weren’t for the fact that Sykes played guitar on the very last Thin Lizzy studio album, Thunder and Lightning.

And I do f***in’ love my Lizzy.

Plus, he cowrote “Cold Sweat”.

And he was only 23 at the time.

So, in honour of Sykes and all things Lizzy, I’m gonna spend part of my Father’s Day retyping that old story, which up until now has only been available on a strange substance that we used to call “paper”.

Yer welcome, rock-lovin’ papas everywhere.

 

By now, most every rock fan in Vancouver must be aware that many of North America’s best-selling bands–Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, and the Cult to name a few–have been making their latest chart-topping records right here in town. Little Mountain Sound on West 7th has been the studio, and people like Bruce FairbairnBob Rock, and Mike Fraser have been the producers and engineers.

One locally produced band people might not have heard about yet is Blue Murder, but it shouldn’t be long before they do. The group’s self-titled album–helmed by Bob Rock and recorded here late last year and early in ’89–has entered Billboard‘s Top 100 and is rising fast after just four weeks on the chart. Not bad for a debut album. Not bad at all.

The Georgia Straight contacted Blue Murder guitarist-vocalist John Sykes at his home in L.A. recently, and discovered that the band’s Vancouver connection first developed while he was a member of Whitesnake, and was in town recording basic tracks for that band’s blockbuster 1987 LP.

“Bob Rock was next door workin’ with Bruce Fairbairn on Honeymoon Suite,” says the British-born Sykes, “and we kept bumpin’ into each other in the lobby. Mike Fraser was working on the Whitesnake album, but his wife had just had a baby, so he took a week off and Bob came in with us. He actually created my guitar sound on the Whitesnake album, and we’ve been friends ever since. I wanted to go for an early ’70s type of sound more than a late ’80s thing, and Bob’s into early Purple and Zeppelin, so it was great.”

Although Sykes cowrote nearly all the songs on the breakthrough Whitesnake album, he says he took an undeserved shellacking from Whitesnake leader David Coverdale, who fired him (along with bassist Neil Murray and drummer Aynsley Dunbar) without explanation.

Through various friends and record industry acquaintances, Sykes hooked up with former Firm bassist Tony Franklin, and then rounded out Blue Murder’s power-trio with veteran skin-basher Carmine Appice.

“Originally it was gonna be Cozy Powell on drums,” says Sykes, “’cause I’d worked with Cozy prior on Whitesnake’s Slide It In tour. But I was eight months into the project when Cozy decided he wanted to get out and do some sessions. As it turned out, Dio was playin’ in England, and [Dio drummer] Vinnie Appice heard I was lookin’ for a drummer, so he called his brother Carmine.”

WIth the lineup solidified, Blue Murder came to Vancouver and recorded for six weeks, then took a break while Rock worked on Bon Jovi’s New Jersey album and the Cult’s Sonic Temple. During this time, Sykes kept on trying out singers, because he hadn’t planned on doing the lead vocals himself.

“After a lot of time spent auditioning, the boys finally turned around and said to me, ‘Look John, you just go in and sing, because you sing it best.’ So it took me a while to just get around to it, but once I did it was allright.”

Fans of Thin Lizzy may recall that Sykes played on the band’s final studio album, 1983′s Thunder and Lightning, and the double-live LP Life. Sykes dedicated the newBlue Murder album to Lizzy leader Phil Lynott, who died of a heart attack in 1986.

“We were great friends,” says Sykes.

Looking back on his abortive stint with Whitesnake, Sykes says he wasn’t particularly surprised by the Whitesnake album’s platinum-plus success.

“I was pleased about it–because obviously the cheques roll in–but at the time there wasn’t a lot out to rival the album. It was like the right place, right time, right thing. Nobody was doing ‘Still of the Night’-type stuff, and I think that broke a lot of new ground. It got a lot of kids back into the bluesy-type element,” he says.

And what does the fleet-fingered fretmaster think of the news that David Coverdale has now acquired the talents of former David Lee Roth guitar whiz Steve Vai in Whitesnake?

“I just wonder what happened with the other two guitar players [Vivian Campbell and Adrian Vandenberg]. Coverdale changes his band every five minutes, so we’ll see how long it works out, ’cause David’s a very blues-style singer. Steve’s not really a blues player–he’s more like a Joe Satriani-type of guy.”

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