Graded on a Curve:
Thin Lizzy,

Celebrating Brian Downey in advance of his 73rd birthday tomorrow.Ed.

You wanna hear a miracle? I lived for almost five-and-a-half decades without ever hearing Jailbreak, or any other Thin Lizzy album for that matter. Here vocalist/bassist and chief songwriter Phil Lynott and his Irish compatriots put out a truly tremendous LP in America’s Bicentennial Year, not to mention a parcel of other great LPs, and what was I doing? Listening to Elton John and John Denver and England Dan and John Ford Coley, any band basically with a guy named John in it. If Debbie Gibson’s middle name been John, I would have listened to her too.

I would love to be able to say I simply wasn’t into hard rock back then, but I owned albums by Bad Company, UFO (UFO? Me? Inexplicable!), Robin Trower, and Foghat, so that’s sheer bunk. But there’s no point in crying over guilty milk, and it’s never too late to make up for past mistakes, that is unless you’re Lee Harvey Oswald or that chimpanzee (name: Travis) who ripped a woman’s face off in 2009, and I’m neither of those personages.

So here I am making up for atoning for my inexplicable oversight, and listening to Jailbreak which mixes tremendous twin-guitar hard rockers with sweeter fair, all of which I love with the possible exception of “Cowboy Song”—in which Lynott, a black Irishman, plays rodeo cowpoke.

But I take that back. “Cowboy Song” may start slowly, but its guitar solos are tremendous and Lynott’s vocals are impassioned (especially when he sings, “It’s okay amigo/Just let me go/Riding in the rodeo”) and the jam at song’s end is a bono fido guitar marvel. Turns out I love the damn thing! Just as I love everything about the LP, except for its cover. Too sci-fi for my decidedly earthbound tastes.

Thin Lizzy was founded in 1969 in Dublin by two former members of Van Morrison’s Them and two members of the band Orphanage (which reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s quip about orphans, to wit: “To lose one parent is misfortune; to lose two parents is sheer carelessness.”). The band moved permanently to London in 1971, and recorded their eponymous debut LP that same year.

Thin Lizzy’s first break came when their 1972 cover of the hoary Irish traditional “Whiskey in the Jar” scored big, even though the band itself was pissed by its release, believing it didn’t fit the band’s image. And it’s true; it didn’t. Thin Lizzy may well be the least Irish-sounding band in Irish history. Anyway, Thin Lizzy basically released an album per year until 1976, when Jailbreak (LP No. 6) became its big commercial breakthrough, thanks to the title cut and the ubiquitous “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

It seems everybody has heard Jailbreak but yours truly, and everybody who has heard it has liked it except for muzcrit/cantankerous dotard Robert Christgau, who wrote. “The proof of how desperate people are for new Springsteen is that they’ll settle for this—even “The Boys Are Back in Town” is the sort of thing that ends up in Bruce’s wastebasket.” But fuck Robert Christgau (I’ve always wanted to say that) if he doesn’t know great music when it burrows its way into his earholes (bet he loves all of Janis Ian’s albums). Gorham and Robertson put any guitar work The Boss put out to shame, and beats hell out of the guitar playing of that U2 dude who inexplicably named himself after a shaving gel.

Jailbreak rawks thanks to Lynott’s great songwriting and the band’s stellar musicianship (especially the dual-guitar interplay of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson). And speaking of the band, in addition to Gorham, Robertson, and Lynott (lead vocals, bass, and acoustic guitar), it included Brian Downey on drums and percussion. And let’s not forget (although he goes uncredited on the LP) Tim Hinkley, who plays keyboards on the song “Running Back,” which is NOT about American football running back Brian Piccolo of the Chicago Bears, whose life and death from embryonal cell carcinoma were turned into a 1971 TV movie, which still makes me cry when his bestest pal Gale Sayers says, “I love you, Brian Piccolo.” Editor, that’s one extraneous sentence, and feel free to take it out if you want.

Anyway, Jailbreak opens with its lithe and fast title cut, which begins with a mighty guitar explosion after which the paired guitars of Gorham and Robertson enter, one from stage left and the other from stage right, to play a monstrous riff (and one very cool whammy bar) while Lynott sings threateningly about a jailbreak about to happen somewhere in this here town.

That said, he’s not so busy making his getaway to proposition a bonnie lass (“Hey you!/Good lookin’ female/Come here!”). The chorus rocks balls, and things get really wild when Lynott cries “Break out!” and somebody imitates a siren and the twin guitars slash ferociously away until the song returns to its opening melody. “Searchlight on my trail,” sings Lynott, who, ever the Good Samaritan even if he is an escaped jailbird, continually warns the citizenry to make themselves scarce.

Meanwhile, “Angel From the Coast” bops along riding the crest of one cool wave of guitars, with the lead and rhythm guitar interplay sorta reminding me of something off Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Downey’s drumming is funky and spot on, and as for Lynott, he sings about a female hit man (“Angel, she’s a killer/Just flown in from the coast/Makes the hit, it’s a winner/Leaves you dead as the post”).

But the real stars of this song are the guitars, one of which plays a choppy cool rhythm riff while the other plays a super-short solo followed by some titanic power chords. And if this ain’t one of the slinkiest tunes I’ve ever heard, I’ll change my name to Aonghus and eat jellied moose nose, which isn’t Eire fare but would be if there were moose roaming the Emerald Isle like big hairy leprechauns with four legs and antlers.

“Running Back” caused much dissension between Lynott, who brought in Hinkley to sweeten it up for public consumption—he wanted a hit, damn it—and Robertson, who wanted a bluesier sound that included him playing piano and bottleneck guitar. Lynott won, and “Running Back” is the most commercial-sounding and polished (as with 50 layers of lacquer) song on Jailbreak. It boasts a catching-as-typhus melody, handclaps, and Hinkley’s simple keyboard riff, to say nothing of a sax that is totally uncredited.

Lynott’s in fine voice, and he sings the great (or dumb, I haven’t figured out which yet) line, “When they say it’s all over/It’s not all over completely.” And let us praise famous guitar solos, such as the one on “Running Back” (over which Lynott says, “I miss that girl”). True, the lyrics aren’t much to write home about, but they get the job done.

Meanwhile, “Romeo and the Lonely Girl” is a guitar-driven and fetching tune with a fab chorus (“Oh, poor Romeo/Sitting all on his own-io”) that I’ll love forever, if only for that Banana Boat Song-sounding “own-io.” And I’ll also always love the guitar solo at the song’s halfway point, which Lynott sings over as it goes on and on. And the song goes out with endless repetitions of “poor Romeo.” If this isn’t my favorite song on Jailbreak it’s more my fault than the band’s, because to be honest, songs that reference Romeo always get my goat. Shakespeare has a thousand characters; why not name-check Iago or Urich or Ventidius or Wart? Is it really too much to ask that somebody write a song about Wart? Does not Wart deserve his own song?

“Warrior” boasts a long, laid-back instrumental opening, and then the guitars blast away and Lynott comes in singing with lots of echo on his vocals about how the future ain’t “Pretty, pretty, pretty.” He’s a warrior and a messenger and the message is that he’s a warrior, if you follow his drift, whose heart is ruled by Venus and his head by Mars, etc., but what I really love is the long feral, raised-by-wolves guitar interplay between Gorham and Robertson, the Romulus and Remus of rock, which is followed by some drum work by Downey that is great, great, great. Then an astral choir snatched from Gary Wright’s private astral plane (you should see the mansion he built on it) sings, the guitars play all staccato and then toss in some big bad wolf riffs, and the song stops on a dime.

Everybody knows “The Boys Are Back in Town” thanks to its great chorus, Lynott’s excellent lyrics, and a melody that—spread the word around—lets you know Lynott knew how to write one catchy tune. To say nothing of the fact that it still gets played about 1,000 times per day on radio stations outside the major urban centers. And the guitars are shards of broken glass so don’t listen to this one barefoot. And if you don’t love Lynott’s whispered vocals—sssshhh—towards the end, “thou art” (actual Shakespearian insult approaching) “a Castilian King urinal.” Ditto for the increasingly loud guitars and drum crash that end the song.

The album’s chillest track, “Fight or Fail,” opens on a very mellow, almost jazzy note, and stays mellow with the guitars, rhythm section, and Lynott keeping the volume down. And Lynott sings “tella myself” to himself over and over, moving from one headphone to the other, which is very cool. Then a short but exceptionally sweet guitar solo takes over. And it gets funky towards the end, with Lynott singing, “Brother, brother” with voices jumping in all over the place (such as Lynott singing “We’ve got to fight for each other!” until the fade-out.

“Cowboy Song” opens quietly with Lynott running free with the buffalo and sitting by the campfire and listening to the coyotes call, which frankly doesn’t sound like fun to this guy. Then the drums signal a transition to a more in-you-face rhythm and tempo, and the chorus is happening (“Roll me over and turn me around/Let me keep spinning till I hit the ground/Roll me over and let me go/Running free with the buffalo”).

And of course he’s missing a woman (every cowboy has a woman he hankers after but lost; I’m a cowboy, I should know). Then Lynott says, “Here I go” followed by a six-shooter of a guitar solo after which the tempo slows and picks up again just in time for another great solo, one that will have your steed up on two legs playing air guitar, and Lynott goes out singing, “The cowboy’s life is the life for me.” (Ditto for me, if I can spend all my time in the saloon, spinning my spurs.)

As for album ender “Emerald,” it signals an abrupt historical time shift from 19th Century America to ancient Eire, when fierce warrior types (“in their shields and their swords”) came to claim what they considered rightfully theirs. Lynott’s lyrics are great and remind me of my own immortal tune “This Is Not the Revolution,” especially in the stanza that goes, “To the town where there was plenty/They brought plunder, swords and flame/When they left the town was empty/Children would never play again.”

“Emerald” rocks until about the mid-point, when the guitars go into a lilting pseudo-Medieval jam before segueing into a fierce modern-day guitar workout with lots of interplay between the two guitarists that is so good it’s to die for (by a broadsword to the guts most likely) and takes the song out.

And that’s it. Lynott’s story does not have a happy ending; he died on January 4, 1986 at age 36 of heart failure and pneumonia due to septicaemia, a systemic inflammatory response system, whatever that means. Frankly I don’t give a shit what it means; what matters is that it took a music genius away from us.

Despite being both a junkie and a drunk, Lynott remained functional enough to dabble in punk in the late seventies, when he could be seen hanging with the likes of John Lydon. (He was well aware he was killing himself; in “Leave This Town” off 1981’s excellent Renegade he sings, “I’ve gotta stop taking care of my business/Start taking of my health.” Didn’t happen.) In 1980 Lynott launched a solo career contiguous with his work with Thin Lizzy, until the Liz dissolved in 1983. He recorded plenty of solo material, but his serious drug and heroin problems finally caught up with him in 1985, when he collapsed, was taken to Salisbury Infirmary, and died shortly thereafter.

Thin Lizzy put out a handful of great albums and you should own them all, even if it means stealing them from your grandmother, who still thinks Lynott had the sexiest voice ever committed to record. Thin Lizzy regrouped several times sans Lynott, once with Bob Geldof on vocals, but there’s nothing worse than a band that continues on without its chief creative force and moneymaker. Just check out the post-Morrison Doors’ LPs Other Voices and Full Circle if you don’t believe me.

Anyhow, Lynott had his richly deserved time in the spotlight, and put out such great LPs as Jailbreak, Bad Reputation, and Live and Dangerous, and is truly one of the greats. Thin Lizzy, with its great melodies, lyrics, and twin-guitar attack, was one of the best bands of the seventies and early eighties. Too bad all you ever hear by them is “The Boys Are Back in Town.” Even Dire Straits, who aren’t fit to polish Thin Lizzy’s boots, have two songs you hear on the radio. Ain’t no justice in this world, people, especially when you consider Phil Collins has dozens.


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