The best of Thin Lizzy begins and ends with Phil Lynott—the band’s legendary, afro-headed, black/Irish lead singer and chief songwriter. Lynott had the swagger and charm of a dandified highway bandit. His devil-may-care attitude was there in the band’s first hit single, a cover of “Whiskey in the Jar” the fitting tale of an Irish country lad who robs the English Captain Farrell, then foolishly gives his loot away to his love, who betrays him. Sure, there were great musicians and producers along the way like Gary Moore, Scott Gorham, Brian Downey, Brian Roberston, and Tony Visconti, but the heart and soul of Thin Lizzy was always Lynott.
For a time, he was happy enough to play along as this romantic, twinkle-eyed hoodlum. It was part of the band’s appeal and success. But success tends to trap and limit talent from ever progressing beyond a popular incarnation. This was true for Thin Lizzy who found incredible success in the seventies only to discover the nature of their hard partying, hard rockin’ image hemmed them in from developing creatively.
I suppose this dilemma is best summed up in the lyrics of one of their classic songs “Jailbreak” which leads to the question that unravels the whole facade:
Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak / Somewhere in the town…
A jailbreak? Really? Somewhere in this town? Have you thought it might just be at the jail, Phil? That big building with all the bars in the windows and prisoners inside? No? Just a thought. Most jailbreaks tend to happen, or originate from, jails right?
This is not to say Lynott was some kind fossilized relic. He was a complex, smart, and self-aware man. He also had diverse musical tastes. He was a keen and early supporter of punk. He formed an offshoot band The Greedies that covered Sex Pistols songs and later featured Steve Jones and Paul Cook. He also enthused about New Wave, electronica, and even the New Romantics and was a regular at the famed Blitz club. But musically, most Lizzy fans wanted the same greatest hits over and over again—and as these were the people buying the records and concert tickets, Lynott and co. had to play the tune(s).
If you played along with Phil and co., then I, like millions of others would tell you Thin Lizzy was easily the best feel good band in the world. But if you didn’t, then you’d probably think that they were okay but sometimes they didn’t quite hit the mark and almost moved into caricature. But that was not always a bad thing as their greatest songs “Jailbreak” and “The Boys Are Back In Town” prove.
Thin Lizzy: Manchester Apollo 1983. Photo by Harry Potts.
By the 1980s, Thin Lizzy was coming unstuck. Lynott was on heroin which was fucking him and the band up as was seen during their Japan tour when they had severe difficulties in scoring smack. A string of replacement guitarists meant a lack of cohesiveness. And while the albums were still getting made (finishing on the mighty Thunder and Lightning), Lynott was spending more and more time concentrating on his solo work—which confused some band members who didn’t know whether they working on the new Thin Lizzy or new Phil Lynott album.
In 1983, Lynott decided to call it to a halt. Thin Lizzy gave their farewell Thunder and Lightning tour. Anyone who saw Thin Lizzy during that tour knew they had witnessed one of the best bands on the planet with Lynott one of rock’s greatest ever frontmen. It seemed as if Thin Lizzy at the very moment of disintegration were on the verge of finding a new direction. Apparently, Lynott thought the split would only be temporary and Thin Lizzy would one day get back together. Sadly, Lynott never lived to see this happen. He died three years later from a variety of health issues related to his drug addiction. It was damned shame.
Part of Thin Lizzy’s farewell tour was captured by the BBC for their “simulcast” series Sight and Sound where 30 minutes of the concert was broadcast live on TV and radio so you could tune in and listen to the show in stereo as you watched. It’s vintage Lizzy and will probably leave you wanting more. Track Listing: “Jailbreak,” “Cold Sweat,” “The Sun Goes Down,” “The Boys Are Back In Town,” “Rosalie,” and “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Every home should have a Thin Lizzy album and this little gig whets your appettite then check out these top five Lizzy albums for starters.