Recently, two members of the Velvet Thunder writing team have had books published in the ‘On Track’ series by Sonicbond Publishing, delving into every album and every track by a selected artist – Graeme Stroud covering Thin Lizzy and Steve Pilkington taking on Iron Maiden.
We are pleased to be able to present exclusive sample chapters from these books, and with Iron Maiden coming up shortly, firstly we focus on the THIN LIZZY volume, with Graeme Stroud taking a look at the breakthrough Jailbreak album…
Released: UK 26 March 1976, US 18 February 1976
Label: UK Vertigo, US Mercury
Recorded at: Ramport Studios, London, December 1975 – February 1976
Phil Lynott: Bass guitar, acoustic guitar, vocals
Scott Gorham: Lead guitar, guitars
Brian Downey: Drums, percussion
Brian Robertson: Lead guitar, guitars
Tim Hinkley plays keyboards on ‘Running Back’ but is uncredited on the album notes, as is the unknown sax player on the same track.
Produced by: John Alcock
Album duration: 36 minutes
Chart position: UK 10, US 18
Well, Fighting had at least sniffed the charts, but it hadn’t set them alight, and the two singles it had spawned had both sunk like a stone. This means that out of five albums and all the singles, recorded by various line-ups over a six-year period for two different labels, only ‘Whisky In The Jar’ had been a major hit – a novelty single, an old Irish ballad that had little or nothing to do with this band of rockers. Thin Lizzy looked like becoming one-hit wonders, and they had cost the label more than they had earned by some considerable margin. The band had a contract with Phonogram for three albums, and they had already had two strikes, so they had to hit the ball this time and hit it hard. They looked outside for a skilled producer once again, and came up with John Alcock, who had built a studio in Battersea and had major-league experience with The Who. He was tasked with creating a sonic soundscape that accurately reflected Lizzy’s rapidly-rising live reputation, while also being commercially viable. Lynott wrote, Lizzy played and Alcock produced throughout the winter of 1975/76, all the time with Vertigo leaning on them like a ton weight. Alcock did a brilliant job it must be said, but the real taper that lit the touchpaper was a throwaway song Lynott had apparently originally written about soldiers returning from Vietnam. It wouldn’t have meant much outside of the USA, but the suits at Vertigo’s American subsidiary Mercury were hot for it. The song was reworked, renamed and shoehorned on to the album almost as an afterthought, but it made the boys into rock stars. The album was Jailbreak, and the song was ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’. Thin Lizzy suddenly started lighting up the US and Canadian charts as well as various places in Europe.
On the vinyl, we find the heaviest power-rock the band has yet produced sitting side-by-side with aching ballads, with some absolutely glorious, tasteful and melodic guitar work underpinned by rock-solid yet sensitive drumming and bass work. The whole set is a bit light at 36 minutes, as were many of the following LPs, but the unit really came together symbiotically for this album, with ideas bouncing around the studio, passages written for one piece being dropped into another, everyone contributing ideas for each other’s songs and lots of fine details in the background. No extra instrumentation is credited, although the keyboard washes towards the end of ‘Warriors’ are an important feature of that number, as is the saxophone on ‘Running Back’. The lush gatefold sleeve sci-fi underpinning and short story on the inner sleeve parallel Vagabonds Of The Western World and connect this phase of Lizzy’s career with the Eric Bell days. Jailbreak is a masterpiece, pure and simple, and at last, Thin Lizzy were poised to become international rock stars.
Jim Fitzpatrick was reinstated to create the cover art and devised a masterpiece that tied in several themes from the album and elsewhere into a lush and imaginative gatefold sleeve. The inside hosted a trademark comic-book depiction of the foursome on the run, after the theme of the opening title track. The front cover is rendered in a silvery-sheened monochrome, as a grim-faced comic-book style character in the Judge Dredd vein watches the scene play out on his silver screen, which is actually a hole in the cover through which we can see the fleeing fugitives. Open up the gatefold to view the picture underneath and we find that the boys are sprinting away, not from the cops or the armed forces, but alien tripods based on H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds. The cyberpunk anti-hero on the cover is at first impression clearly the warrior from the album, watching the jailbreak unfold on his silver screen. Deeper inside the cover though, the plot is muddied by a short story that tells the tale of the jailbreak itself as a noble rebellion, backed by a heroic sword-wielding warrior, against the evil ‘Overmaster’ of Dimension 5. Suddenly the cover character looks more like the overlord than the ally, and this is confirmed by Fitzpatrick; it doesn’t really matter though; the multi-layered theme doesn’t so much portray a coherent story as present an atmosphere that represents the band as sci-fi superheroes, determined underdogs out to throw off the yoke of oppression. Incidentally, the hole in the outer cover is only big enough to see three of the band members, but this was not the original intention; in the US edition there is no gatefold so the hole in the cover lets through to the inner sleeve – the picture inside is correctly shrunk so that a large margin is left round the edge and all four characters can be seen from outside.
‘Jailbreak’ (Lynott 4:01)
Released as a single 30 July 1976 in the UK (where it reached no. 31) and Ireland, plus Australia where it was titled ‘Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak’ (to differentiate it from ‘AC/DC’s Jailbreak’), and the Netherlands. In the US, Canada and most other countries, this track was used as the B-side to ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’. So, the set starts with a power chord that can’t fail to grab the attention. It rolls into a chunky, tight riff with rock solid drumming; the bass follows the riff, but mixes so well into the sound it is difficult to pick out individual bass notes. It’s not overtly aggressive though; the chords are stabbed, not slammed, and the vocal style is somewhat confidential, almost conspiratorial. Suddenly Lynott shouts ‘Breakout!’ then alarms and sirens go off as all hell seems to break loose – a last climbing riff culminating in triumphant harmonising guitar notes, and then the action story continues. The board game Monopoly gets a glancing mention in the line, ‘Like the game – if you lose, Go To Jail’. Similar to a number of songs on the previous LP though, this one stops out of the blue on a bit of an anti-climax.
‘Angel From The Coast’ (Lynott, Robertson 3:03)
A clear-toned funky riff starts this number, with an overdriven cross-riff coming in underneath – it’s pure counterpoint; either one of the riffs would have done for the song, but having them both together is genius. As with a number of Lizzy compositions, there are no chords as such; the backing is carried by harmonising riffs. The verses, each of which describes some downbeat, gritty event, are apparently independent of each other, as if each one is an individual episode from a TV cop show – the one about a hit-woman who flies in to assassinate a victim then flies out again, provides the title for the song. Despite the content, the song is upbeat and soulful. A harmony solo at a minute and a half precedes a change of key, with yet another funky backing – again, it stops out of nowhere, but at least this time Lynott’s last words echo into the distance, as the crook (not Angel, another crook), gets away… then a final pair of chords provide the closing credits. This American-themed, glossy number was chosen as the B-side to ‘Cowboy Song’, which was only released as a single in the US and Canada.
‘Running Back’ (Lynott 3:13)
This was the B-side to ‘Jailbreak’ in the UK and other countries where that track was released as a single. A jolly, buoyant, melodic pop rock number with a saxophone in the background of all things, shows Lynott’s soul-boy side again. A thoughtfully-constructed guitar solo is accompanied by that background saxophone from – who? Not only is the sax player uncredited, but his (or her) identity has completely sunk into the swamp. What we do know is that the jaunty electric piano line that defines this track is provided by session man Tim Hinkley, even though he too is uncredited, and already some grating friction in the band is presaging trouble ahead. The young Robertson was a firebrand without a doubt, a musical prodigy and a loose cannon. He visualised the track in a bluesy vein and played slide guitar on it, as well as laying down a piano track. The management had mooted it as a likely single through, so Lynott wanted it to be chart-friendly and insisted on more of a poppy feel – hence that saxophone and Hinkley’s professional presence on the piano. Robbo was incensed, and reckons he didn’t appear on the final version at all, although the reason has been suggested that he refused point-blank to have anything more to do with it. It’s a good pop song no doubt and well produced; some double-claps towards the end come from each side of the pan; a neat extra that it is easy to miss. Lynott’s multi-tracked close-harmony singing at the end is a neat trick too, as the timing is quite demanding. Lynott stated that the song was heavily influenced by Van Morrison, especially his time in the band Them.
‘Romeo and the Lonely Girl’ (Lynott 3:55)
A whimsical tale of spurned love, this ballad takes the band ever further into lightweight pop territory. No wind instruments this time, but this rueful romantic poetry is certainly one of the most melodic pieces Lizzy ever did. Gorham’s solo is a masterpiece, clear and plaintive, and mixed decidedly stage-front – it continues underneath the vocal chorus afterwards, moving to the middle of the pan.
‘Warriors’ (Lynott, Gorham 4:09)
Hell yeah! The band takes a rare detour into fantasy space-rock here, dabbling in prog-metal at the same time, and they utterly nail it. Lynott mumbles a grim apocalyptic tale laced with ominous echo under a complex twin-guitar rock solid backbeat; Robertson unleashes an utterly superb wah-wah solo as the backing changes completely. A drum-soaked prog conclusion stops short, then the band comes back in with a heavenly chorus over a new riff backed by major 7ths in a keyboard wash. The tight, climactic ending is followed by a few quiet little clicks as the guys can’t quite dampen their overwrought guitar strings quick enough. The song is billed as ‘Warriors’ on the original album sleeve, although the lyrics only tell of one warrior, who serves ‘the death machine’. On various compilations and album formats, it appears as ‘Warriors’, Warrior’ or ‘The Warrior’, but surprisingly, Lynott himself explains the meaning as referring to heavy drug users, who push their physical limits to breaking point in a push for superhuman mental experiences. In an interview at the time with Chris Salewicz of NME he said:
When I wrote ‘Warriors’ on the Jailbreak album, which is a song about heavy drug taking, the only way I could give any sense of heavy drug takers was by describing them as warriors; that they actually go out and do it. People like Hendrix and Duane Allman were perfectly aware of the position they were getting into. They weren’t slowly being hooked. It was a conscious decision: to go out and take the thing as far as it can go. To the limit. And some of them really did. Tell us what it’s like, man.
It seems bizarre, because the lyrics don’t seem to reference drug use in any way, shape or form. In any case, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, of all the things these guys might be held in awe for, maybe their pioneering use of addictive chemicals is not the greatest choice.
‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ (Lynott 4:27)
Released as a single 17 April 1976 in the UK, but not until after it had been a hit in the US. The album’s lead single and the first Thin Lizzy single to break into the charts since ‘Whisky’, it hit no. 8 in the UK and no. 12 in the US. In Ireland, of course, it reached no. 1! Quite probably the most instantly recognisable song in the Lizzy repertoire, it’s difficult to see how everyone could have missed its potential, but even getting it on the album was a last-minute decision. The most insistent legend about the song is that Lynott originally wrote it as ‘GI Joe Is Back In Town’, a consciously US-friendly commentary on the American forces returning from Vietnam.
In fact though, it went through several iterations with various lyric sets, several amended melody lines and even different themes. It could, however, just as easily apply to any group of nomadic good-timers drifting back into town on a whim; a biker gang maybe, hero-worshipped by the neighbourhood’s wide-eyed adolescents; the lyrics are grimily contemporary and distinctly west-coast American. Some of the inspiration was almost certainly taken from the groups that used to congregate in Philomena Lynott’s Clifton Grange Hotel, especially the Quality Street Gang, who come more into focus in the next album. In any case, Gorham has gone on record saying that it probably wouldn’t have made the final cut were it not for management insistence and the accolades coming from the American distributors. Dino’s is the name of a real venue in LA, although not necessarily the kind of dive that would be taken over by boys who ‘wanna fight’ – it has been suggested that the juke joint in the song was based more on Barney’s Beanery, a known hang-out for aspiring rock stars that Thin Lizzy patronised while in LA, or The Rainbow on Sunset Boulevard; or perhaps more likely, Manchester nightclub Deno’s. The musical vibe exemplifies the Lizzy quick-change power chord structure, and the loud and clear harmony guitars are a master-class in melodic rock phrasing and climbing harmonies; there is no solo as such, but this cool, rocking classic continues to inspire. After the relatively successful release of the single ‘Dedication’ in 1991, ‘The Boys Are Back’ was re-issued, but only climbed to no. 63 in the UK, a creditable no. 16 in Ireland, but sadly nowhere in the US.
‘Fight Or Fall’ (Lynott 3:45)
A smooth ballad advocating a unified attitude: if we stand as one, we can hold out against those who would beat us down. It could indeed be a call to arms, but it’s not presented that way; the calm vibe is more confidential, more a case of hand-on-the-shoulder comradeship. It’s easy to assume that Lynott is protesting against racism here, but it sounds more like a trade union speech for higher pay and better working conditions, especially the warning against waiting ‘for another year’. The smooth vocals are double-tracked and reverb or echo-laden. Imaginative answer-back vocals are dropped into some extra bars in the middle of one of the verses, just because why not? Gorham supplies another sweetly-considered solo in a heavily reverbed clear Peter Green tone.
‘Cowboy Song’ (Lynott, Downey 5:16)
Released as a single in the US (where it stalled at no. 77) and Canada only, with ‘Angel From The Coast’ on the B-side. Lynott returns to his obsession with the old west, first heard on Lizzy’s debut single ‘The Farmer’. This classic was written after a US tour, especially Texas, which Lynott absolutely loved. Originally titled ‘Derby Blues’, when the guys came to lay down the recording, the more prosaic but far more descriptive ‘Cowboy Song’ came into being. An early live version carrying the name ‘Derby Blues’ was included on the 2011 2-CD expanded edition of the album. There is actually a harmonica behind those ambient arpeggios at the beginning, abetting the western theme. Another totally classic harmony riff builds from nothing over rising drums, then we hear another brilliant, clear Gorham solo. Loads of modulation on this one as the guys drop in some quiet, calm bits in between hard-rocking solos. Add a few mentions of buffalo, rodeos, busting broncs and a town in Mexico, and the cowboy image is complete. You can almost smell the dust.
‘Emerald’ (Gorham, Robertson, Downey, Lynott 4:03)
Released as the B-side to ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ in the UK, Australia and many other markets; ‘Jailbreak’ was used instead in several countries including the US and Canada. For the first time since ‘The Rocker’, Thin Lizzy go out and out on this one, a powerful metal anthem with Gaelic phrasing and a fantasy ambience. Lizzy were not the kind of band to leave things completely to chance; generally they liked to have some ideas already roughed out before entering the recording studio. In this case though, the hardest-rocking number on the album was written on the fly in the studio; a grim tale of slaughter and destruction with the aim of overthrowing the overlords and recovering some mythical gemstone – although the green, lush land of Ireland has long been given the epithet ‘The Emerald Isle’, so maybe it’s a power struggle for dominion. On a side note, the song’s opening line, “Down from the glen came the marching men, with their shields and their swords,” is a dead ringer for The Dubliners’ ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’: “As down the glen came McAlpine’s men, with their shovels slung behind them”. The Dubliners’ song is a compilation of words drawn from the working songs of Irish Navvies in the 1940s and ‘50s, labouring for the building corporations on the British mainland; the melody line was based on a song called ‘The Foggy Dew’. This tune itself is said to have originated from earlier sources, and so it goes, ad infinitum. For ‘Emerald’ though, phased guitars, power chords and guitar duelling anticipate ‘Black Rose’, as an answer-back duet gives way to a hard-rocking, elongated Robertson solo. Awesome! Ends on a single power chord.
‘Derby Blues’ (Lynott, Downey 6:51)
A live cut of this track recorded in 1975 appeared on the 2011 expanded 2-CD edition of Jailbreak. Obviously part of the live set well before Jailbreak was recorded, this is simply an early version of the track that would become ‘Cowboy Song’. In fact, Lynott introduces it as a new number, “as yet untitled – we call it Derby Blues.”