Thin Lizzy

Polygram, 1976


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


With most musical acts there’s an argument to be had about which album should wear the label of their best. Not so much with ’70s hard rockers Thin Lizzy; Jailbreak was pretty clearly the top of the mountain both creatively and commercially for a group that experienced tumult aplenty on both the uphill climb and the trek back down the far slope.

From the start, Thin Lizzy had a unique profile: an Irish rock band fronted by a Black man who was also the group’s bassist and principal songwriter, the reflexively charismatic Phil Lynott. The other constant in the band, Lynott’s Dublin schoolmate Brian Downey, brought the thunder behind the drum kit, while a rotating cast of guitar players filled out the lineup. “Rotating cast” feels like an easy cliché until you lay out the facts: the band featured no less than 10 different guitarists in the studio and on tour during its 14-year run from 1969 to 1983. According to Graeme Thomson’s biography of Lynott (Cowboy Song), the bandleader was so incensed after guitarist #2 Gary Moore quit scant months after Eric Bell’s 1974 exit that he decided to hire two guitarists in his place so that “[t]he next time one of those c***s walks out, there will be another one there.”

While born of a fit of pique, the twin-guitar sound turned out to be exactly what the group needed. Thin Lizzy’s next album Nightlife featured both Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson wielding six-strings, a lineup that would stick through four years and the bulk of the highlights in the band’s catalogue. From moment to moment Gorham and Robertson would play traditional lead and rhythm, then intertwining, complementary lines, and then in tandem, bringing a density and power to the band’s sound that helped propel them to the next level. Both guitarists were so versatile and so in sync in approach that it’s difficult for the casual listener to tell them apart.

The classic Thin Lizzy sound came together over the course of Nightlife (1974) and its successor Fighting (1975) at the same time that Lynott’s songwriting was advancing by leaps and bounds as he explored his identity as an outsider in his own land (and genre), albeit one full of romantic archetypes and fantasy visions. Jailbreak is a loosely framed concept album about outcasts defying oppressive authorities in the name of freedom… not exactly an original notion—it’s more or less the mission statement of rock and roll—but a potent foundation for Lynott’s evocative songs.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The opening title cut establishes the atmosphere immediately, a single, sharp, sustained chord giving way to a propulsive bass line that’s doubled and tripled on guitar, the band driving the song like a Maserati before busting into its eminently singable chorus. It’s all muscle and flair, with Lynott’s urgent, soulful vocals flooding the mic, punctuated by a “theatre of the mind” bridge with repeating, ascending chords accompanied by sirens and alarm bells, before it drops out and returns to the opening riff.

The rest of side one (that’s songs 2-5 on your tracklist) is filled out with some of the strongest second-tier material the band produced across a career that saw its share of filler make it onto their records. The energetic “Angel From The Coast,” a Lynott-Robertson co-write, intersperses thrumming verses with an explosive, wordless chorus and features strong dynamics throughout. “Running Back” and “Romeo And The Lonely Girl” spotlight Lynott’s lonely-romantic persona, the former a steady-rocking mid-tempo number, the latter a faster yet airier story-song. “Warriors” closes out the first half on a darker note, menacing guitars slicing through the night over a restless rhythm section; the only real flaw to this muscular rock tune is the overdone echo producer John Alcock applies to Lynott’s vocals in places.

Side two opens with the biggest hit the band ever scored, the bounding, exuberant, catchy-as-hell brotherhood anthem “The Boys Are Back In Town.” Yes, the hook and arrangement and Lynott’s swagger-and-joy-filled lead vocal are all superb, but in the end what takes the song to the next level is the specificity of the lyric. We’ve all been to “Johnny’s place” and “Dino’s bar and grill,” or someplace a lot like them, and felt the adrenalin rush of a reunion of true friends for an epic night on the town: “That jukebox in the corner blasting out my favorite song / The nights are getting warmer, it won't be long / It won't be long till summer comes / Now that the boys are here again.”

From there Lynott explores a different kind of brotherhood in the socially conscious mid-tempo r&b ballad “Fight Or Fall,” before trying on a ten-gallon hat for “Cowboy Song.” The latter starts out with a contemplative and restrained “by-the-campfire” verse before the tempo amps up and the guitars kick in, working up a nice head of steam leading into a sizzling solo in the final minute. Closer “Emerald” revisits the harder-edged rock and fantasy leanings of “Warriors,” thankfully without the echo, as Lynott leads his troops on a quest through the dead of night. Robertson and Gorham trade stinging solos through much of the fourth minute before falling back into bruising unison at the close.

Thin Lizzy’s classic Lynott-Downey-Gorham-Robertson lineup would last through one more studio album (1977’s Bad Reputation) and 1978’s epic concert album Live And Dangerous before the revolving door began to spin again. Three years after the group’s eventual 1983 breakup, Lynott would succumb to years of hard living and drug use. In 1999, Gorham and a couple of late-era members regrouped to further Lynott’s legacy by playing his songs live under the Thin Lizzy banner. Then in 2006, Gary Moore and Downey anchored a heartfelt tribute to Lynott (One Night In Dublin) that also included Gorham and Robertson.

But the latter are simply postscripts to the real Thin Lizzy story, which began and ended with the poetry of Phil Lynott, sung with his own inimitable soul and flair, set to twin lead guitars and the exceptional Downey-Lynott rhythm section. The climax of that story remains Jailbreak, to this day a standout among the raft of memorable mid-’70s hard rock releases.

Rating: A-

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