Bad Reputation: The real beginning and the real end of Thin Lizzy
In 1976, Thin Lizzy were just another rock band. Then they released Jailbreak, and the boys weren’t so much back in town as running it. But after a disappointing follow-up, the pressure was on
For the first five years of their topsy-turvy career, Thin Lizzy had been also-rans – strictly second div, with their 1973 novelty hit Whiskey In The Jar, their earnest ‘Irish rock’ concept albums and their constantly blurring line-ups. Could-have-beens. Maybes. Jokes.
They were saved by the bell of their sixth album, Jailbreak, in 1976. For the first time the band successfully showcased their intoxicating blend of rock-funk-folk-blues bloodletting, and overnight Lizzy went from uninvited guests to new leaders of the pack.
The big hit single from the album, The Boys Are Back In Town, had taken them from town halls to the big league: multiple nights at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, a first major tour of America, gold records on two continents. Cool cats adored by their kitties.
Twenty-six-year-old singer and bassist Phil Lynott was the star. Black Brazilian father, white Irish mother, Lynott combined the Stagolee swagger of Jimi Hendrix with the street poetics of Van Morrison.
Flanked by two genuine gunslingers in 20-year-old guitarist Brian ‘Robbo’ Robertson (Scottish, fiery, bad for good) and 25-year-old Scott ‘Good Looking’ Gorham (So-Cal cool, hair, chick magnet), in the blister-popping heatwave of the summer of ’76, nobody in rock carried more heat than Thin Lizzy.
Then, almost before the party got started: the crash. As drummer and co-founding member Brian Downey puts it now, speaking from his rural Irish abode: “It wasn’t helped by the lifestyles the band were living, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. People coming down with hepatitis and slashed hands… Situations that you could never predict would happen – but did happen.”
A prestigious US arena tour opening for Rainbow had been abandoned after Lynott – already deep into his potions and powders – had picked up hep C from a dirty needle. Fleeing home to London, Lynott wrote most of the songs for the band’s hastily scheduled next album from his hospital bed. The result, Johnny The Fox, had ‘follow‑up’ written all over it – emphasised by the fact its own hit single, Don’t Believe A Word, was an almost identikit Boys Are Back reshuffle.