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The Boys Are Back In Town – Thin Lizzy

‘Every street gang in the world can relate to it’

The Boys Are Back In Town – Thin Lizzy

Vertigo 6059 139 (UK) / Mercury 73786 (USA)

Recorded at Ramport Studios, Battersea, London

Released 23rd April 1976

Writer Phil Lynott

Producer John Alcock

UK # 8   6/76   USA #12   7/76

One of the most important and influential bands to emerge from Ireland, echoes of Thin Lizzy’s twin-guitar-harmony front line can be heard in all forms of rock, not least heavy metal. However, major success was a long time coming and for about three-and-a-half years in the mid-1970s, following something of a false start, they looked dangerously like becoming a one-hit-wonder act after their initial success in 1973 with an update of the traditional Irish tune, ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ which dates back to the 17th century. As most rock fans will also be aware, the song was covered by Metallica on their 1998 album Garage Inc. where they stuck pretty much to the original Lizzy arrangement, the song reaching #4 on the US charts. In fact they won a Grammy for their rendition in 2000 as Best Hard Rock Performance. (The Pogues together with The Dubliners also had a #3 hit with it in Ireland in 1990)

Formed by half-Irish, half-Brazilian Phil Lynott in Dublin in 1969, and named after a Beano comic character (‘Tin Lizzie’), Thin Lizzy were the band who showed that the ‘Emerald Isle’ could produce its’ own brand of hard-riffing rock and roll. The first cohesive lineup was a trio consisting of Lynott on bass and vocals, Brian Downey on drums and Eric Bell, the first of a plethora of guitarists who would pass through the band during its 15-year existence. A couple of albums for London’s Decca label were fairly unsuccessful (apparently only 5000 of the second were pressed due to a vinyl shortage!) and in an effort to exit the arrangement it was agreed to record a final single, and if that wasn’t successful – Decca unwilling to finance a third album – they’d be free of their contract.

The band duly recorded Lynott’s ‘Black Boys On The Corner’, though in need of a B-side they decided to tape Eric Bell’s stunning guitar arrangement of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, a song the band had been refining for some years back in Ireland, and probably best known at the time in a late 1960s recording by the Dubliners. Decca were considerably more enthused with this B-side which was thus promoted to the A-side becoming a UK and Irish hit in 1973. Consequently a third album was recorded for Decca (strangely not including ‘Whiskey In The Jar’) and when this too flopped, the band departed Decca and got themselves a new deal with Vertigo Records, a label far more in tune with promoting rock bands, being also the home of Black Sabbath, Status Quo and Uriah Heep.

At this point, guitarist Eric Bell departed, feeling, after the hit with ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, that the band were becoming too commercial for his liking, and for the first of numerous occasions, Belfast born blues guitarist Gary Moore became a temporary replacement. Mr Moore and Mr Lynott were old buddies, Phil having briefly played in Moore’s band Skid Row in the late 1960s. Gary Moore remained until Lynott made what would be the decisive change for the band – he was replaced not by 1, but 2 guitarists, Brian Robertson from Glasgow and Californian Scott Gorham and thus arrived the famous twin-harmony guitar frontline, so much copied in later years, becoming a power-metal trademark. Gorham says the two guitarists clicked immediately but admits that there was no grand plan and the sound came about purely by accident. (While Lizzy’s twin-harmony guitar frontline was highly influential it was by no means their own creation, previously featuring in bands such as Fleetwood Mac and particularly, Wishbone Ash, though in retrospect, Lizzy seem to receive most of the credit – probably due to their commercial success)

The bad boy anthem, ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, was probably written by Lynott during a 1975 American tour – many references in the song stem from observations he made on their US trek – though it’s also been widely reported that the song is a sort of tribute to a bunch of gangsters who operated in Manchester, England, during the 1960s, known locally as ‘The Quality Street Gang‘ who were apparently regulars at the hotel and bar run by Phil’s mum in the city! Described as ‘Ireland’s first true rock anthem‘, while ‘The Boys Are Back’ is the one that finally established Lizzy as a force to be reckoned with many will be very surprised to hear that it nearly didn’t get released at all! Following 2 albums for Vertigo, Nightlife and Fighting, neither of which had made any impact on the charts, the sound and the songs had finally come together on their third album for the label, Jailbreak in 1976, though guitarist Scott Gorham reveals that by that time, following 2 flop albums and with no hits for over 3 years, it was definitely make or break time for the band.

Apparently they’d recorded 15 tracks for Jailbreak and then picked what they considered to be the 10 best songs…but guess what…Gorham reveals that ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ wasn’t among the ten they chose! Fortunately, their manager disagreed and insisted the track be included. Still not convinced the song had any hit potential they were completely surprised to hear while on an American tour in mid-1976 that the song was rapidly climbing the charts back home – a success repeated in America where it would become their biggest hit reaching #12. Scott Gorham recently told Classic Rock magazine, “We were playing in some club in the US when our manager came in and said, ‘Well, looks like we’ve got a hit.’ We were like, ‘Which song?’ Seriously, we didn’t have any idea at all which song it was that had taken off for us.” He continued: “Obviously, ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ is the one that really changed things for us, and I’m very thankful that it did (but) whenever we were discussing lead-off tracks I always said, ‘Don’t listen to me – I’m the one who thought it shouldn’t have been a single!”

The Jailbreak album became the bands biggest transatlantic success reaching #10 in the UK and #18 in America, and having finally hit the big time, Lizzy followed through with further killer albums including Johnny The Fox, Bad Reputation, Chinatown and Live and Dangerous (rated as one of the classic all-time live albums despite claims that much overdubbing was done in the studio) plus another dozen or so hit singles, while we should also not forget further guitarists who went through the band including Midge Ure (1978), Snowy White (1980), John Sykes (1982) and then of course there’s Gary Moore who returned to the band again on at least 2 further occasions (1976 and 1978) when a replacement guitarist was required due to either accidents, sudden departures or temporary disagreements with Mr Lynott!

Lizzy finally called it a day in 1984, and the possibility of any future reunions with their main-man were definitively shattered by Phil Lynott’s unfortunate drug-related death in 1986, though former members Scott Gorham, drummer Brian Downey and keyboardist Darren Wharton were still performing occasionally as Thin Lizzy up until December 2015, but only as a live act. Describing the track most readily identified with Thin Lizzy and also a somewhat appropriatte title for their return to success after over 3 years without a hit, Phil Lynott noted that its’ popularity was probably due to the fact that, “Every street gang in the world can relate to ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’.” 

In Q magazine’s 2005 list of The 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks, the song came in at #38, and it just scapes into Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time at #499! To close, a run down of the 10 best Lizzy tracks as selected by Classic Rock and in reverse order: ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’, ‘The Rocker’, ‘Emerald’, ‘Little Darling’ and ‘Do Anything You Want To’. And the Top 5: ‘Don’t Believe A Word’, ‘Cowboy Song’, with ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ at Number 3, ‘Jailbreak’ at Number 2… and what a surprise… ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ at Number 1 – a fine legacy for Phil Lynott and one of the best and most influential hard rocking bands of the 1970s and 80s.


Copyright (C) 2017 SongStories/Tony Burton

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