As a suburban kid raised on the one classic rock radio station in a mid-sized southern American city, I was bombarded daily with the same 45 songs on a never-ending shuffle. “Free Bird,” of course, and “Walk This Way” and “Sister Christian” and “More Than A Feeling” and “Take The Money And Run” and “Slow Ride” and, if I was lucky, “Running With The Devil” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Roundabout” or “Ziggy Stardust” or “Dream Police.” If you’d asked me back then, I’d have told you Thin Lizzy had one song, “The Boys Are Back In Town,” and that it was – and by extension, I assumed, they were – beer commercial rock, maybe like Bad Company with two guitarists or Edgar Winter Group without the noodly keyboards.
Thankfully, I found out pretty quickly that I was wrong.
I was maybe 13 when I read a review of Dedication: The Very Best Of Thin Lizzy in RIP magazine. I remember the reviewer saying something like “When everyone else was worshiping Led Zeppelin, I was listening to Thin Lizzy,” and I was instantly intrigued. Most of my friends and classmates were just falling into that eternal adolescent male obsession with the mighty Zep, talking endlessly about the merits of their dad’s cassettes of Houses Of The Holy or Physical Graffiti as though they were the first awkward pimply boys to ever discover Page and Plant. Between that and the month of Zeptember and Get The Led Out every day in the 5 PM drive-time, I was already jaded and worn out on these New Yardbirds. (As great as Led Zep were and are, I’ve truthfully never quite recovered, and I’d put quite a few bands above them on my list of favorites, including Thin Lizzy.)
Oh where oh where was a guitar-driven classic rock band I could dig into and love and call my very own, a band I could actually discover for myself since their material wasn’t beaten into my brain by Fox 102.3?
I spent my allowance on a CD of Dedication, and in one spin, I was hooked. I was already a Springsteen devotee, and Phil Lynott’s blue-collar-beat-poet imagery and vocal cadence fit the Boss’ mold. I was a fledgling guitarist and an Iron Maiden fanatic, so the intertwined leads of Gorham and Robertson were perfect for me, and the contributions of the ever-underrated Gary Moore and Eric Bell were equally impressive, even without the guitarmonies. Lizzy’s more laid-back folksy elements separated them from the dunder-headed blooze boogie of the beer-ad rock that I had initially lumped them into – here was depth, an intelligence that I hadn’t imagined; here was a musical and lyrical prowess that I hadn’t noticed in “The Boys Are Back In Town” (although it is there) – and of the two, the latter of those was one far more impressive than Zeppelin would ever have.
Of course, now I’ve moved from that mid-sized southern city to a larger one, and from time to time I still find myself tuned into the classic rock station; it’s a different one, but it’s still the same one. And if you ask most of the fine folks at Clear Channel’s 105.9 The Rock, it would appear that they’d still tell you that Thin Lizzy has one song, “The Boys Are Back In Town.” Maybe half of them would tell you that Thin Lizzy actually has TWO songs, and the other is called “Jailbreak” and Jason Isbell once had a mildly funny tweet about it:
Heard “Jailbreak” on the radio. Love that song. “Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak… somewhere in the town.” I’m guessing at the JAIL.
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) January 25, 2013
Of course, Thin Lizzy isn’t an underground band, not any longer. Decades late, Lizzy has finally gotten at least some of their due, some of the success here in the US that they’d always had elsewhere. Now they’re rightly hailed as giants by more than just the music nerds. And yet even with all that, they still feel like the entree into some tighter inner circle of rockers, like on one side, there are People Who Listen To 105.9 And Get Excited To Hear Boston’s First Album For The Third Time Today, and then over here, hanging down at Dino’s, there are the People Who “Get It,” Who Know There’s Something More.
Behold, then, the 13 greatest songs in a catalog filled with greatness, and welcome to the club.
By the arrival of Thin Lizzy’s breakthrough Jailbreak, rock and roll had already been around for decades. And for much of that time, rock and roll had been infused with a certain amount of rebellion. “Jailbreak” is about rebellion both metaphorically and literally, charging against law and authority to gain one’s freedom, life and limb be damned. The song rides a bottom-feeding, crushingly-heavy-for-its-time main riff through the verses while Lynott charismatically crafts the story like only he could. The iconic chorus then serves many purposes: It’s a statement of intent, a warning to passers-by, and an admission of danger. More than anything, it’s a confident assurance that, no matter the outcome of the titular jailbreak, Phil and his abettors will be victorious. As shown by how the ensuing bridge riffs fly above the sirens, rebellion is both means and end. The mere act of rebellion is a win.
They may have had bigger hits (well, one bigger hit), but no song quite captured the ethos of Thin Lizzy quite like “Jailbreak.” They were a minor success before this point, but this was the moment that they announces themselves to the world as a major force. Breakout! [ZACH DUVALL]
BAD REPUTATION[Bad Reputation, 1977]
It’s difficult to know just how wise fans were to the ever-increasing rift between Phil Lynott and guitarist Brian Robertson in the mid-70s—without the convenience of the facebooks and twitters of today, infighting was mostly left for the tabloids and outbursts onstage. But a bar fight gone terribly south caused Robertson to miss the bulk of Thin Lizzy’s tour prior to the release of album number eight, Bad Reputation, and any doubts as to Lynott’s ultimate thoughts on the matter were quickly washed away the moment people saw the album’s cover art. Just three dudes?? In truth, Lynott himself couldn’t have been the easiest cat to get along with—Bad Reputation’s cover was also curiously missing long-time collaborator Jim Fitzpatrick’s artwork, thanks to an absent-minded Phil flying to Madison, Wisconsin instead of Madison, Connecticut to discuss its final stages.
Yet, somehow amidst all the quibbling and turmoil, Bad Reputation not only managed to find the light of day, it also ended up swinging about as hard a fist as the band had ever swung, largely by virtue of knob-twiddler Tony Visconti. The record still pushed the more breezy hits, but a song like the title track revealed a threesome that was more than just a little ready to roar. “Bad Reputation” kicks off with a very tough but strangely hushed groove, and it quickly moves into a very meaty crux that’s built on a surprisingly heavy bass riff and Brian Downey’s fantastic (and fantastically hefty) drumming. Scott Gorham still gets an opportunity to rip, but “Bad Reputation” is one of those Lizzy tracks that proves the band’s influence on metal was more than just a “twin axe attack,” they actually knew how to be pretty damn heavy. [CAPTAIN]
MASSACRE[Johnny the Fox, 1976]
From a vaguely Native American-sounding introductory theme, “Massacre” leaps forward into one of the hardest-rocking numbers in the mixed bag that is Johnny The Fox. The tale of 600 unknown heroes and their subsequent unfortunate fate — you can guess from the title what happens — the meat of “Massacre” rides a simple-but-oh-so-perfect sixteenth-note riff atop Downey’s persistent drive, with some typically sweet soloing from the Gorham / Robbo tandem and Phil’s unique soulful belting. That heartfelt “If God is in his heaven / how can this happen here?” is so powerful that even the godlike pipes of one Paul Bruce Dickinson couldn’t improve upon it over a decade later. The studio version is grand, an epic rollicking rocker that stands among Lizzy’s finest harder-edged tunes, but the live version on Live & Dangerous… well, that’s the sound of a great band at their greatest point. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
THE ROCKER[Vagabonds of the Western World, 1973]
Vagabonds of the Western World is a wildly inconsistent album, but particularly after the drab Shades of a Blue Orphanage, it nevertheless showed Thin Lizzy as a band with such piss and hellfire in their bellies that its highest heights pointed the way for even greater future triumphs. The undisputed champ, of course, is “The Rocker,” which kicks through a straightforward (if braggadocious) pub shuffle in its first two minutes, with Phil Lynott elevating some fairly pedestrian lyrics into near poetry with the inimitable charisma of his delivery. The real reason for the season, though, is the next two and a half minutes, in which Eric Bell puts on a masterly display of hard rock guitar soloing, bouncing from AC/DC twanging to high-fret and wah-bent Hendrix homage and plenty of spaces in between. Thin Lizzy is rightly remembered and lionized for pioneering the twin guitar attack that would define so much of heavy metal’s foundational fire, but “The Rocker” is more than ample evidence that sometimes, all you need to bring down heaven’s thunder is three people in a studio with a chip on their shoulders and something to prove. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
By 1975, guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson had been playing in the same sandbox together for a year, and album number five from Thin Lizzy, Fighting, did one hell of a job grandstanding the bond the two quickly established. The record is melodic as the day is long, and brightly vigorous, too, especially compared to the fairly easygoing Nightlife that preceded it. The decision to include a song concerning suicide that was brazenly called “Suicide,” however, was a risky move for a band poised to hit the mainstream. One might expect something so grim to result in a slow Lizzy burner swaddled in Lynott’s signature smooth ’n’ somber croon, but it’s actually one of Fighting’s gnarliest struts. The song rumbles from the gate like thunder, and that sassy little riff after about fifteen seconds brings in an immense amount of swagger that sounds as if it could go toe-to-toe with The Warriors in a street fight with switchblades and chains twirling. By the time the thirtieth or sixtieth lead rips through the speakers towards its close, one can’t help but wonder, “How in the HELL is this song actually about something as gloomy as suicide?” Surprise, it’s actually based on an episode of Perry fucking Mason: “The Case of the Lover’s Leap.” Oh, Phil… You mad, beautiful genius, you. [CAPTAIN]
DO ANYTHING YOU WANT TO[Black Rose: A Rock Legend, 1979]
Phil Lynott possessed many talents, not the least of which was his golden voice. But perhaps slightly underappreciated in discussions of his vocals was his ability to weave his tales using counter-rhythms and effortlessly off-beat cadences. His lines in “Do Anything You Want To,” the effervescent opener from the monumental Black Rose, show off this ability perhaps more than any other song. The second verse contains the following gem:
People that despise you will analyze then criticize you
They’ll scandalize and tell lies until they realize
You are someone they should have apologized to
These lines are wonderful in their written form purely due to their message of positivity and confidence in oneself, but within the song they take on extra life. Lynott had a way of making lines such as this simultaneously flow freely from the confines of the song’s rhythms while also seeming to add another percussive instrument. This song is full of such passages, the types of rock song sections that you spend time alone mastering just so you can confidently sing them in front of a friend to prove that you’ve attained some higher level. “Do Anything You Want To” is a classic for a number of reasons (the opening salvo of harmonies, Brian Downey’s rolling drums, that chorus, etc.), but being one of Lynott’s finest moments as both a lyricist and vocalist is certainly high on the list. [ZACH DUVALL]
SHA LA LA[Nightlife, 1974]
Nightlife is probably Thin Lizzy’s most wonderfully chill record, packed with laid back blues riffs and tones and totally mellowed out. Even when it fires things up for a moment (“It’s Only Money”), it still manages to take its time, to appreciate the glint of street light on tenement corners in the warm summer dusk. So it’s a bit of a shocker when “Sha La La” comes barreling from the back of the alley, windows down, headlights up, and giving not one jive turkey’s shit about sharing the street. With heavy metal weight in the riffs and a heavier and relentlessly driving drum pattern, it’s a whole lot of hefty swagger for an album that’s been content to hang out under the street lamp and shoot the breeze. And it works so, so well. From the sidewalk clearing rhythms to Lynott’s lascivious overtures and cocksure delivery, and then to the guitar play and interplay of Gorham and Robertson, this is the bell-bottomed, platform-shoed jam all the other jams on the block secretly wish to be. Just like contemporaries “Breadfan” and “Stone Cold Crazy,” “Sha La La” is at once quintessentially 70s and an intriguing and uncanny glimpse into heavy metal’s future. [LONE WATIE]
SOUTHBOUND[Bad Reputation, 1977]
Written solely by Lynott, “Southbound” is one of Lizzy’s classic ballads. For Bad Reputation, the band was essentially a power trio. With Brian Robertson out of the band (after missing touring time due to a fighting injury) and Gary Moore yet to join (as he would for Black Rose) guitar duties fell to Scott Gorham, who handled them beautifully and humbly in addition to his regular songwriting duties. It’s the rhythm that shines, provided by Brian Downey, beating out a simple rock beat that would be as at home in an arena as it would in a dingy bar on the streets of Dublin, always pushing “Southbound” forward. Melodic guitar solos take hints from layered vocal harmonies, sometimes cropping up far in the background as Lynott uses a second track to answer and support his lead vocals. [MANNY-O-WAR]
THUNDER AND LIGHTNING[Thunder and Lightning, 1983]
On the surface, tracks like “Thunder and Lightning” and “Stone Cold Sweat” are indicative of Thin Lizzy feeling much more comfortable playing faster and heavier, but what the songs also do is draw a bigger juxtaposition between emotions in what would unfortunately be the band’s final full length. In an arena rock setting, there probably isn’t much cooler shit you could see than Phil & Co. smashing right out of the gates with a jump-up-and-down headbanger such as the one featured here. At the same time, having this share the same album space with softer, melodic tracks such as “The Sun Goes Down” or bass-driven, introspective songs like “The Holy War” really demonstrates how broad a swath with which Thin Lizzy was starting to paint nearing the end of Phil’s life. Try not looking at Thunder & Lightning as the heavy album, and instead view it as the album that covers some of the most ground the band ever covered. There ain’t a bad song on the album, but “Thunder and Lightning” is certainly the best starting point one could have while on their journey. [KONRAD KANTOR]
GOT TO GIVE IT UP[Black Rose: A Rock Legend, 1979]
Although Phil Lynott wouldn’t be dead for another seven years, “Got to Give it Up” was a dark look inside the lifestyle that would ultimately lead to his early downfall. It is for me the most emotional song Phil ever wrote (or co-wrote, along with Scott Gorham). But it’s not simply the foreshadowing in the lyrics that make the song so historic. The guitar lines, although they sound as simplistic as basic 12-bar blues, are actually dissonant, minor chords underscoring the severity of the song’s message. Further, it’s a testament to the truly brilliant guitar playing that was always the backbone of Thin Lizzy’s compositions. Gary Moore’s brief yet vibrant, emotional solos merely serve to embolden fans to cry out that Gary Moore is not only highly underrated but deserves a spot atop the list of all-time guitarists. While often a fun band, “Got to Give it Up,” shows Lizzy’s softer, more vulnerable side and should be played on loop. [MANNY-O-WAR]
WILD ONE[Fighting, 1975]
That Thin Lizzy is not universally regarded as one of the very finest bands ever to grace this great green earth is an error of cosmically grotesque proportions. I mean, Christ on crutches after 12 pints of the best Irish bitter, have you HEARD “Wild One”? Here, every single aspect of the Lizzy arsenal – from the Gorham-Robertson twinned guitars to supple, sympathetic percussion and Phil’s ability to hone his vocals to a pitch-perfect emotional match for any mood – is committed to painting a picture of such melancholy and yearning that the song nearly weeps itself out of the speakers. Although this skill would continue to be sharpened over the next several Lizzy albums, on “Wild One,” Lynott displayed an uncanny ability to write songs that sounded like folk songs that had already existed for centuries, as if he was just tapping into some deep vein of music that coursed through the green hills and grey streets of Ireland. Smash Mouth’s “All Star” was nominated for “Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals” at the 2000 Grammys, and yet “Wild One” is, as of this writing, still not the national anthem of every goddamned country on this planet. How’s that for justice? [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
If one were to distill to a single example the reason so many metal bands have covered or been influenced by Thin Lizzy, there’s no better example than the thunderously heavy but painfully infectious “Emerald.” Like so much of Lizzy’s work, the song is steeped in their Irish identity, both in the character of the twisting shuffle in the main riff and the lyrics’ tale of ancient warring clans. “Emerald” closes the classic Jailbreak with one of the band’s very highest peaks, thanks in part to the scorching dual/dueling lead work from Gorham and Robertson. If the world was a fairer place, this song would have taken its rightful place among not just Thin Lizzy’s greatest hits but the greatest hits of all 70s rock. As it is, the song has earned a legendary spot among any fan of hard rock and heavy metal worth his salt. [MATTHEW COOPER]
RÓISÍN DUBH (BLACK ROSE): A ROCK LEGEND[Black Rose: A Rock Legend, 1979]
If there was ever to song to cap a practically flawless career, or one by which to envision Phil Lynott’s final breath, there is nothing more heart rendering than “Roisin Dubh.” Looking at the band’s most epic track analytically – as the medley of traditional Irish folk songs gone heavy metal that it is – is an exercise in musical perfection in an of itself, but how the song makes its listener feel is a whole different ball game. The Black Rose encapsulates so much raw, uncontained emotion that it is nearly impossible to contemplate – let alone listen to – with dry eyes. Although Thin Lizzy was far from done when it hit the most creative and powerful stride it had ever taken, this song is absolutely the one best served as the final moment before the closing of the curtain on Phil’s life. When a musician dies too young – when any heart dies too young – the greatest exercise one grieving can have is to envision the most emotionally charged moment they ever shared with that person. For fans, especially ones that never met Phil, “Roisin Dubh” is the absolute capstone of that sentiment. So sing your fucking heart out again, Phil. From the highest mountains to the darkest coal mines, let your voice be inescapable for everyone who cares to tune you in as you tell us a tale of such triumph and tragedy. We are here to listen. We will always be here to listen. From the depths of our hearts, we thank you for leaving the world behind with so much of yourself, our Black Rose, left in it. [KONRAD KANTOR]
Final editor’s note: There has maybe never been a Devil’s Dozen that cast as wide a net as that of Thin Lizzy. A full 45 different songs received votes, ranging from the softest of ballads to the hardest of rockers and those that share as much DNA with The Allman Brothers as they do with Judas Priest. Nearly every album had at least a song nominated, with only the self-titled debut and Shades of a Blue Orphanage missing. That’s quite the legacy.
And in case you’re curious, “The Boys Are Back In Town” just barely missed the cut.