- 14 Dec 20
You’ve got to give a little love for those who love to live. 1976’s Jailbreak was the commercial breakthrough for Thin Lizzy, but the previous year’s Fighting is where it all came together, argues Pat Carty
There are many, many great stories about Phil Lynott, one of the greatest Irish men to ever draw a breath. There’s Bob Geldof remembering how Philo insisted on getting a limo to take them to an awards show that was only around the corner because that’s how things were done. And then there’s Dave Fanning sitting backstage at the first Slane concert when the helicopter – from Crumlin – touches down, and Phil Lynott disembarks to walk amongst his people.
“Out steps this rock god,” said Fanning. “And I thought ‘Wow, we are on the map! To hell with Led Zeppelin and their special plane, look at this!’” Not that he needed helicopters or special planes of course, for Phil Lynott was a rock star when he was making the breakfast. If he ever did, that is.
Here’s another one for you. Sometime in the nineties, I was in for a pint with my then girlfriend in a city centre watering hole, possibly The Bailey, but I’m not sure. As well as being far too good for the likes of me, she was a bit older, and had stories of the nights she was in the same pub when Phil Lynott would arrive in. To say she went a bit misty eyed is quite the understatement. Twenty-something me had to wave his hand in the woman’s face to remind her I was still in the room – but then no mere mortal could ever compete with Philo.
You are reminded of that incredible presence every time you walk past the statue on Harry Street: an inanimate object that seems somehow to rock, and how could it not? You can almost hear the twin guitars in the air, you can feel him winking at you, although it’s far more likely he’s winking at the girl behind you. That’s Phil the star – but it’s the music that put him there.
That’s really what it comes down to in the end with Philo.
It would, perhaps, be easier to talk about Live & Dangerous or Jailbreak. They’re unassailable classics beyond criticism and, as far as I could tell, appeared to have been handed out by the government to every older brother with long hair back when I was in short trousers. As an illustration of how good they are, let us remember that ‘Running Back’ was used to soundtrack a bread ad - a bread ad! – and it only seemed to make the song sound even better. Yer man would come on the telly, driving the bread van down the road, and everyone in the country would nod and smile, “There’s The Lizzy. Class.” There are some things you just can’t tarnish.
Hand on heart, I’m not crazy about the early albums – mind you, there’s no arguing with something as marvellous as Vagabonds Of The Western World’s ‘The Rocker’ and it would be a fool indeed who would refuse a ride in the Lizzy Mobile on the single’s B-side – although I do like 74’s Nightlife. It’s got ‘Showdown’ and ‘She Knows’ on it for a start, not to mention ‘Still In Love With You’, one of Lynott’s greatest songs. Things were starting to crystallise, but they really coalesced on the next one.
I Am Your Main Man
First of all, take a look at the cover of Fighting. Yeah, it’s a bit ridiculous, the classic line up of Lynott, Downey, Gorham, and Robertson stood in an alley, tooled up for a kicking. Should they have gone for one of Jim Fitzpatrick’s fabulous designs? Yes, but there’s something great about it too, for here was a band finally ready to compete at the top level, the team was in place, and they were coming out of their corner, fighting.
It might seem odd for one of Ireland’s greatest songwriters – Lynott sits at the top table with Van, U2, Rory, MacGowan, and Paul Cleary – to open an album with a cover, but Bob Seger’s ‘Rosalie’ sounds like it was written for The Lizzy anyway. Was Lynott listening in when the band toured with Seger in early ‘75, and thinking ‘that’s the one for me’? He sticks his grin on to the Stones-alike riff and seals the deal with handclaps behind the guitar solo, putting the comparatively tepid – although the backing vocals are pretty cool – original in the bin. “Chaganooga, Jacooda, Boogaloosa” or whatever he’s actually singing – as a setting out of an album’s stall, it takes some knocking.
If you’re not into a bit of self-mythologising then rock star is not the job for you. Lynott never had any such reservations – have another listen to ‘The Rocker’ if you’re unsure – and who else is he singing about on ‘For Those Who Love To Live’ apart from himself?
Okay, maybe the boy who could kick a ball is his mate, George Best – and there’s a night out – but Philo is the boogie-woogie man who loved, and was determined, to live life to the fullest. It’s not just the Lynott show, mind. The song kicks off with Philo and the great Brian Downey, who gets a co-writing credit, bouncing off each other. A side note on Downey here, I saw him in the G.P.O. of all places last year, with his band Alive & Dangerous, at an event celebrating An Post giving Lynott their stamp of approval (I know) and the man behind the kit hasn’t lost even half of a step.
As the song ends, those harmony guitars come up, the twin attack that became The Lizzy trademark, while Phil and Brian work away behind them. A sudden stop, and we’re granted a second to catch the breath, before ‘Suicide’. A track called ‘Baby’s Been Messin’’ surfaced on the recent and very great Rock Legends box set, which is basically the first version of this better known song, with Eric Bell’s slide but without the middle section, although it still has that crucial key change. Lynott had filed it away and then refined it into something better. Is he roaring “Don’t it make you wanna BOOGIE,” before the wah-wah solo? Probably. It certainly does anyway.
There’s a line of pure Irish writing that goes through the Lynott songbook, all the way from ‘Eire’ on the first record up to ‘Roisin Dubh’, and ‘Wild One’ is very much a part of it. It’s the “Oh, sure” in the chorus: take that out and the song changes completely. It’s a line from everyday Irish speech, one we all certainly use more frequently than any whacking for your daddios. There are “gypsies warning of the danger” too, and if it was good enough for Muddy Waters and Hendrix…
Another thing: you can always tell a great guitar band by the fact that you can sing their riffs, and you only need hear those twin-guitar opening bars of ‘Wild One’ coming out of a car radio, a home stereo or a jukebox to point your fingers in the air and mouth the legend, “LIZZY!”
I’m Tough, Rough, Ready, And I’m Able
The title-track, sort of, ‘Fighting My Way Back’, is just breathlessly exciting, whether you’re hearing it for the first time or the thousandth. Lynott’s decision to fill the sound out with two guitarists deserves a slap on the back for this alone. Why two? Eric Bell had had enough by the end of 1973 and he wandered off stage, literally, and never came back. He was replaced by Gary Moore, who also moved on sharpish. The story goes that Lynott decided on the adding two guitarists, as much to ensure that they wouldn’t be caught short if someone else bailed, as to change the sound.
He hired John Cann and Andy Gee to fulfil some touring duties in the middle of 1974, but he didn’t get on with Cann, and Gee had already placed his signature elsewhere. Even Downey handed in his cards after this line-up, although only temporarily. Brian Robertson – a mere 17 years old from Scotland – and Scott Gorham – an American whose visa was about to run out – got the nod after auditions were held.
They grumbled about the slightly tame nature of Nightlife, their first album on Phonogram, so they weren’t going to make the same error twice. Lynott was the man behind the desk for Fighting, the only Lizzy studio album he’d helm on his own.
The main riff sounds out over the wah-wah backing, while Philo shouts about “Fighting his way back”. Is this about struggling back from the one-hit-wonder-land of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ or about getting up from under the table after a load of whiskey out of a jar? There’s more of that self-mythologising in the middle eight, “This kid is going to wreck and ruin/ and he ain’t quite sure of what he’s doing,/you see it all happened a little too soon/ but it’s all here in this here tune.”
The song is built on several memorable guitar figures, which prompts the question – and we’ll come to the guitarist’s acknowledged songwriting shortly – what’s the difference between songwriting and arranging, apart from the size of the cheque? Lynott is credited as the sole writer on this tune, but it wouldn’t be half what it is without those riffs. But, of course, we don’t know who dreamt them up, do we?
Those riffs are a huge part of Thin Lizzy’s appeal, like ‘King’s Vengeance’ for a convenient example as it's up next – and Gorham does get a co-writing credit here – with the power chords in one channel and the intricate chord work in the other. It’s a marvellous performance from the whole band, but the moment that really makes it is when the music drops out and the Les Paul, the heart attack machine, plays that descending line.
That, and Lynott pleading “Oh My God, OH MY GOD!” just before the solo. The man just instinctively knew how to throw an aside into a microphone. We could of course mention the “OLA!” in ‘Old Town’ at this juncture, the finest moment in any Irish rock n’ roll song, ever, but that’s another story for another day.
Won’t You Give A Boy A Break?
If anything, Phil Lynott probably doesn’t get enough credit for his lyrics, but something like “Spring she comes and spring she teases,/bringing summer winds and summer breezes” could be a lost line from Yeats’ ‘The Stolen Child’. It could slip in right after “mingling hands and mingling glances”, the rhythm and the language are there, and no, I don’t think that’s too fanciful at all.
If you wanted to get morbid, you could point at the words of ‘Spirit Slips Away’ as foreshadowing later Lynott events, but let’s instead focus on the verse where the music “unfolds its secrets, the mysteries are told to you.” That’s the day that your spirit slips away, and takes flight, into that mystic Van Morrison was on about, which is a better view altogether.
While that tune might be a little downbeat, ‘Silver Dollar’ veers just a bit too far in the other direction. You could call it slight, but it’s writing royalties probably paid for a few pints of lager for Robbo, so let it off. Lynott manages to put his stamp on it anyway with another aside, “I’ve still got my guitar” – nodding back to Hendrix again.
Philo dons his comanchero/caballero/cowboy hat for ‘Freedom Song’ where poor old Jack McDuff ends up swinging from the hanging tree for his beliefs. It’s a guise he’d revisit with more success in ‘Cowboy Song’, but there’s nothing wrong with it here either.
Gorham’s ‘Ballad Of A Hard Man’ proves the better of the two guitarists’ song-writing efforts. The track is as hard as the bloke in it, and he was definitely writing for his mate when he penned the “No rocker, docker, show stealin’ teenybopper gonna get a thing from him” line, which is pure Philo-ese.
Two other songs deserve a mention. ‘Half Caste’ was the B-side of the ‘Rosalie’ seven inch. It’s hardly a long-lost classic, but it does find Lynott exploring another area of ‘black’ music with its lolloping reggae-lite beat, and those lyrics must, at least in part, be self-reverential. ‘Try A Little Harder’ is a better bet, an outtake from the sessions that gets into the groove and stays there. It’s a Robertson co-write too, so hats off to him there: it might have been a better option than ‘Silver Dollar’, but this is nit picking where it’s not necessary.
Fighting did ok, It charted, although we’re only talking No.60, but it was progress. It proved that Lynott and Lizzy were on the right track, although the lads at Phonogram weren’t convinced, and told the band, in no uncertain terms, that their next effort was their last swing at the piñata.
They need not have worried. Jailbreak broke loose with its sirens wailing in March 1976, and went gold in the US, carried along by ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, a song that we really should have adopted as our national anthem years ago. The fighting was over: they had found their way back.