IRELAND: Jailbreak - Thin Lizzy
Updated: Mar 17
It would be criminal to suggest that the record is simply a one hit wonder as Thin Lizzy blow the roof off, allowing their audience to momentarily fantasise about the joys of being a rock star
Legends of hard rock Thin Lizzy undoubtedly elevated themselves to superstar status on their sixth studio album, Jailbreak, thanks in part to their biggest hit The Boys Are Back In Town. The riff heavy nature of their music seems to work for them as in doing so they stumble across a genius riff in The Boys Are Back In Town that has remained a presence in the public consciousness for 45 years. The song itself has almost reached anthemic cult status amongst fans of rock and even those who don’t usually like the genre. This ability to reach a wide audience is largely because Thin Lizzy’s music has within it an attitude that is so immensely appealing.
“...Thin Lizzy create a sense of illusion that anyone can be a rock star as their music has a power to force its audience to mimic the headbanging and play the air guitar as they listen along”
Their confident energy and faux machismo is rather charming as unlike many rockers they do not take themselves too seriously. I have often believed that good rock needs to be authentic, deep and meaningful – Thin Lizzy really put this theory to the test on this album. They are indeed at their best when they are pretending to be rock stars who have conquered the world of rock with no struggle whatsoever. Having left Ireland in the early 1970s, due to the fact that the rock music scene there was underdeveloped in comparison to their neighbours across the Irish Sea, they arrived to England at the height of glam rock madness. Whilst they never went fully glam, they did seem to embrace a certain tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that glam bands like Wizard and Slade also achieved. Thin Lizzy at their best sound like they are perfecting the pretence of being rock stars and it is in these moments when they fulfil their own fantasies but also the dreams of those listening who have wished to achieve similar godly status on the stage who live vicariously through the band's success.
On tracks such as The Boys Are Back In Town, Thin Lizzy create a sense of illusion that anyone can be a rock star as their music has a power to force its audience to mimic the headbanging and play the air guitar as they listen along. Their hit is made more enjoyable as it is also a rather meta track because it serves as a rock n’ roll song about the joys of rock n’ roll - a rose-tinted view of the industry that many of us have momentarily dreamt of experiencing. The story behind the track is rather endearing as they weren’t initially going to include it on the album, and only did so because they were convinced by their manager to as the album was their last shot at glory as money had almost completely dried up. What’s more, the song in some ways revolutionised hard rock as it is famed for its epic twin guitar sound. However, this twin harmonising lead guitar approach only occurred because guitarist Eric Bell left the band several years before and so they got in two guitarists as a precaution for if one was to quit again.
Much of the rest of the album gives its listeners a similar sense of escapism and liberation as they are allowed to engage in this fantasy world pure rock. Even though there is a certain amount of playfulness in the way the band seem to perceive themselves, they are so obviously aware of their limitations, one can almost visualise them winking at you to make sure you are in on the joke as they strut their stuff in a rather absurd fashion. As such, they have not gained a reputation like compatriots Bono or Bob Geldof who are often criticised for taking themselves too seriously, and they steer clear, for the most part, of showing their true vulnerability and singing about serious topics on this record.
Though Phil Lynott carries with him a legendary status for his immense lyricism, this rarely comes to the fore on this album in the same way as it does within his later work. For me, the tracks in which they are least flamboyant and are more earnest are paradoxically probably the weakest, due to the fact that they rock less than the others, which is when they are really in their element on the album. It is not that those tracks are bad songs, it is merely that they do not seem to fit within the 'vibe' of the album. Of course, amidst a backdrop of the infamous openly racist ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’ attitude that was brewing in England, it is important that Lynott stood against this, particularly as he was one of the rather small black Irish community in that era; whilst Fight Or Fall has an important sentiment behind it, obviously close to the heart of the singer, his message of ‘brothers, we got to fight for one another’ is rather lost due to the comparative lower quality of the track.
However, aside from Fight Or Fall the other song in which they appear more vulnerable, Running Back, allows listeners to realise their more authentic sentimentality and thus make their seemingly ironic chauvinism even more humorous and cutting when it appears on the rest of the record. In this song Lynott reveals his true self, not as a macho idiot, but rather as a reflective former lover. There are, however, many other goofy crowd-pleasers that tackle the theme of love in a different tone that are pure fun such as Romeo And The Lonely Girl which exist to be enjoyed in a different manner. Really entertaining songs like the title-track Jailbreak and Warriors do undeniably 'rock' in the greatest sense of the word, with the latter including a poorly sung lyric that momentarily seemed fitting for a heavily masculine-bravado laden album “My heart is ruled by Venus” (the soft pronunciation of the letter ‘V’ maybe was used intentionally by Lynott to trick his audience into thinking that he was singing about the male appendage, when he in fact rather romantically is suggesting that his instincts are guided by womankind on more than just a sexual level).
Furthermore, Thin Lizzy clearly have a soft spot for the glittering portrayal of the United States that was popular across the world (perhaps down to Hollywood movies or the more broad global cultural imperialism that made the idea of chowing down on a Wimpy’s burger to be the most glamorous thing). The Boys Are Back In Town makes numerous references to the US, most notably “Dino's Bar'n'Grill” and Cowboy Song is an obvious homage to the Deep South, which would of course resonate with fans outside the States. Whilst I believe it is their confidence that ultimately carries them through, their obvious love for the rock n’ roll lifestyle helps them in sounding like established superstars. In some ways listening to the album reminds me of Mike Myers and Dana Carvey's wholesome portrayal of Wayne and Garth in the Wayne's World sequel due to the similar immersion into a genre that they believe they are the best in the world at. Although, the record is inherently different to Lynott's later work for which he is critically acclaimed, this is the album that paid the bills for him to be able to experiment with higher concept thought and should be appreciated on its own terms. Though both Irish music and rock itself are known for their rebellion songs, the fact that Jailbreak contains very few of those is largely unimportant as its larger-than-life twin guitar sound, Lynott’s unique vocals and the band’s self-aware ridiculous swaggering makes it a rock classic that can always been enjoyed.