If you have ever been to Dublin, Ireland, then you know that Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy casts a long shadow over the city. There is a statue in his honor and his gravesite is a national monument, visited by tens of thousands of fans a year. His Mum, Philomena, routinely visits the site and will invite a fan or two back to the house to see his room and talk with them about Phil. Quite something. Dublin celebrates two days, one is his death, the other his birthday, with Thin Lizzy cover bands and music throughout the city. Philomena even does a little tour of some of the establishments. He’s a National Treasure. A singular achievement— ESPECIALLY for a mixed-race man in Ireland. And if there is ONE song that personifies the reasons why, it’s “The Boys Are Back In Town.”
By 1976’s Jailbreak the Lizzy were on their sixth album and badly in need of a hit. They entered the studio with Producer John Alcock, who had extensive knowledge of the location that they had picked. The resulting record would be their biggest seller and garner them worldwide success, although some members of the band bemoan the “stiff” nature of the recordings and wish that it had reflected the looser sound that they were known for when playing live. Either way, the proof is in the pudding and the album is a monster that came to define them in the eyes, and ears, of the General Public.
The line-up of the band featured on Jailbreak is:
Drums – Brian Downey (We share a birthday and the choice of instrument. #useless facts)
Guitar – Scott Gorham (Born in Glendale, CA, Scott was originally a bass-player who switched to guitar after the death of a friend. He went to the UK in 1974 and auditioned for Phil who hired him on the spot)
Guitar – Brian Robertson (He was 17 when hired for Thin Lizzy. In Nov of ’76 he got in a bar fight that ended with him damaging his hand and a furious Lynott kicked him out of the band. He returned within a couple of years)
Bass/Vocals – Phil Lynott (Born Phillip Parris Lynott. He passed away in Jan of 1986 from sepsis/pneumonia)
All right…let’s get started!
Downey’s drums part is deceptively simple. The whole thing rests on two significant choices: The first is the groove on the hi-hats. That bounce is VERY difficult to nail and then maintain. So clever. It gives the whole song that swing necessary to support the “swagger” of the lyric. As a drummer I’ll tell you that that ain’t easy AT ALL. The second choice is to hit the “pushes” on the open hats and the cymbals. It’s the moment that almost feels like a shove from a bloke staring you down in the pub and waiting for you to say something so it can REALLY pop-off. There’s a malevolence to it. Matched with the guitar it really is brilliant. Especially in that middle bit where the whole song breaks down to a whisper. Simple. Complex. Simple. My favorite thing. Brian went on to play in a number of harder leaning bands including records by John Sykes, Gary Moore, and Lynott. Hit like a champion!
The Bass. Good grief. Just listen to it. One of the things I generally find with bass-players who are also the lead-singer in the band is that they play in a VERY melodic manner. It makes sense. They’re instinctively going to be making choices in relation to the ones that they have made with the vocal melody. Lynott’s choices here are all inspired. Sinuous, snake-like, weaving through the track with a liquid ease that almost sounds like it’s ALSO wearing leather pants JUST like Phil’s. It’s sexy as the Dickens and a little dangerous. Just as it should be. It’s when you hear the drums and bass together that you hear the importance of the hi-hat groove. It’s the back-bone. Lynott’s R’n’B line in the verse is in stark contrast to the Panzer Division thumping used in the choruses. I particularly love the counter-melody part at the conclusion of Verse 2. So bloody good. Phil Lynott is an under-appreciated bass-player, in-fact, I would hazard a guess that most would imagine that he played the guitar in this band. It is VERY hard to have THIS much swagger and be playing bass. Lemmy may be the only other bloke to pull it off! There’s a reason Sting ain’t on the list of “Swaggeriest Bassist Lead Singers In The World.” It would be a VERY short compilation. If you can think of any others please leave their names in the comments. I would love to check them out.
Here’s Christian’s breakdown of “The Boys Are Back in Town’, track by track. Enjoy!
One of the things that set Thin Lizzy apart from all others is that, usually, in a band, with two guitar players one of them plays lead and one of them will provide the support with rhythm parts. The combo of Robertson/Gorham set the stage for the Twin Axe Attack of Iron Maiden and many, many, others to follow. The solo section at 3:30 is pure perfection. It must’ve been so amazing to have been in the room hearing that all come together. All was not paradise, however, as they BOTH disliked the “rigid” nature of their performances and the lack of improvisation allowed by Alcock and the guitar tones that he chose for the recordings. An argument CAN be made, though, that it is PRECISELY his instruction that allowed for this track to become the success that it was/is. Such is the ephemeral nature of the relationship between Producer/Musician/Song. One can never know where one stops and the other starts. No matter their feelings on it the truth is that his song is the best example of all of the elements coming together to create PERFECTION! I mean…the riff ALONE!! Incredible. Put on some phones and focus on the hard-panned guitars, even in the verses the interplay between the two of them is Tetris’d in such a way as to bring the fight to the pub. Almost like the two blokes on either side of you, egging the protagonist on. The Boys are, indeed, back in town! And the tones are exactly the razor-blade 6 strings needed to cut through the mix. these guitar players, I tell you!
As I first listened to the vocals solo’d on this song, I was immediately struck by how much of Phil’s vocal style was influenced by Van Morrison. It is hard to over-emphasize the importance of THAT man in the history and creation of Ireland’s musical output. Even if Lynott HADN’T been a fan he would’ve had no choice but to wear that influence on his sleeve, such is the power of Van The Man. I love Phil’s voice. The husky, cigarette-worn, whiskey-soaked, growl of a bloke who has spent his life yelling into the abyss. It is no surprise that he became addicted to heroin. That drug takes the best of the music world, the confusion, and pain, of the artist is not to be taken lightly.
Lynott was raised by his grand-parents. A mixed-race child in 1960’s Ireland. One can only imagine the complications of that life. Philomena wrote a book about it all called My Boy. It’s on the list of “Things I Need To Read.” There is a plaintiff, sweet, “edge” to the lyric and vocals in this song. He released books of his poetry and always spoke for the Common Man. In this way he was much like Ireland’s Bruce Springsteen, another musician who owed much to Van. The two chose to take the every day occurrence and speak of it in, almost, mythological tones. Lynott’s anger in the lyric is tempered by a tiredness. It feels to me like he is simply over the repetition of conflict and fighting he witnesses nightly. He just wants to have a drink, and a chat, and then head home with someone to while away the hours with. He’s a lover, not a fighter. But he WILL bring the fight to you, if needed. A complicated man. With a voice that spits itself at you and then, just as quickly, softens in exhaustion. Beautiful.
Phil Lynott passed-away on Jan 4th of 1986, at the age of 36. He was incredibly proud of being Irish, and Ireland is incredibly proud of him. It’s a shame that we didn’t get to share in his journey into the Elder Statesman that he probably would’ve become. His perspective on Ireland’s future as we have witnessed it would’ve been fascinating, I’m sure. But he is frozen in time. The lanky, leather trouser’d, bruiser, that we see in the video for this song. He was one of the coolest looking mother f’ers in all of music. Gone but not forgotten. Especially by the people of Dublin. It’s just a bummer we only really have Bono left to hear from about it all.
In 2017 I traveled to Ireland to do a couple of my live shows, and it was with great pleasure that I was allowed to break this song down on one of Dublin’s local radio stations. The host I shared the experience with was brought almost to tears by the vocals. Stunned silence greeted the conclusion of the last lyric. It’s one of my favorite moments in my broadcasting career. An honor. I can only hope that I served Phil well.
“The Boys Are Back in Town” is one of those songs that has gone on to have a Life of Legend far beyond the music itself. It will never NOT be the perfect song for THAT moment in the TV show, or film, you know the one, it’s when the blokes return to do the thing that they are going to do in that place they were at, but aren’t anymore and then came back to. It is flawless. Iconic. And blistering. Wherever you are today, get in the car, turn it up, and cruise around. You will become One Of The Boys in Lynott’s gang, trust me. It’s a helluva magic trick. But, then again, isn’t all music?
Thanks for reading.
See you at the next one.
Recognize THIS bloke?