Album Review: Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak (1976)

The first two albums of the Scott Gorham/Brian Robertson era Thin Lizzy, “Night Life “(1974) and “Fighting “(1975), hadn’t exactly set the world on fire sales wise and certainly weren’t held in the regard they are now back then. So the pressure was on for Thin Lizzy to deliver a breakthrough top drawer album. To be fair “Fighting” had scrambled into the lower echelons of the chart, something which none of the previous albums had managed, but the singles had bombed and it was only the high profile touring and reputation they had as a live outfit that was keeping them in a bracket above the ordinary.  The band had been unhappy with the production of the “Nightlife” album and Lynott had produced the follow up “Fighting” alone. However with the need for some recorded output that could match their live reputation paramount former The Who producer John Alcock was brought in to produce their sixth album. After another high profile tour, this time with Status Quo, the band went into the Ramport Studios in London to begin work on what was to become one of their most popular albums, “Jailbreak”, in December 1975.

Initially Alcock wasn’t overly impressed with the material and whilst he accepted that it showed promise began suggesting ways in which the songs could be fine tuned,  given a little more polish and made slightly more commercial. Whereas Lynott was quite open to these suggestions and keen to learn anything that could help him to become a better writer it didn’t sit well with all of the band. Guitarist Brian Robertson in particular was unhappy with the employing of session musicians to augment the sound and subsequently refused to play on the track ‘Running Back’.

The album itself kicks off with the classic title track and with its powerful start it literally grabs your attention and throws it up against the wall like a scene from a bar room brawl. When I came to listen to this album for writing this review I had previously been listening to something a little tamer and had the left the volume up just a little too high. When the opening notes burst through the headphones I felt the force and power thrust me back in the chair such is its ferocity. The song itself is a typical menacing tough guy lyric from Lynott over a  chugging twin guitar harmony with some nice wah wah effects from Robertson. Straight out of the top drawer of Lizzy tunes it is one of those rock classics that you never tire of. It also inspired the following years ‘Burning Sky’ by Bad Company. For me it is the best track on the album and is close to being their best ever. ‘Angel of the Coast’ has a funky almost jazz like riff and is another one of Lynott’s storytelling lyrical masterpieces. The jazzy solo and riff actually reminds me of Trapeze and even bands like  The Doobie Brothers in places. The most infectious riff on the album follows in the shape of ‘Running Back’. This was the song that caused all the trouble with Robertson as Alcock scrapped the bluesy version that Robertson had recorded and replaced him with Tim Hinkley on the keyboards and harmonica. To say Robertson wasn’t happy is an understatement and he refused to play on the new arrangement. I’m firmly in Alcocks’s camp as the Tim Hinkley keyboard riff, which is not dis-similiar to Frankie Miller’s ‘Mailbox’, and Lynott’s lighter poppier vocal make the track. It was initially going to be the lead off single and it would surely have done quite well in the charts at the time. Robertson finally recorded his own original arrangement on his 2011 album “Diamonds and Dirt”. ‘Romeo and The Lonely Girl’ has another bouncy jazzy riff and some interesting lyrics from Lynott although rhyming Romeo with “on his ownio” is maybe pushing it a bit. The fast solo is probably the highlight but the track is far more than filler. The first half of the album ends with ‘Warriors’ which is much heavier and is more in the mould of the title track than the three jazzier lighter tracks in between. Lynott is almost doing a Jimi Hendrix impression vocally in places and although the guitar is obviously not a patch on Hendrix the solo has that kind of feel about it. Despite the high regard it is held in by Lizzy fans for me it is one of the least enjoyable tracks on the album.

The second half starts with the unmistakable machine gun riffing sound of ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ a song that inspired a generation to go out strutting and live it up on a Saturday night. It is a classic example of how to present a hard rock tune to a mainstream audience without losing any power or credibilty. It would have to be up there as one of the most important rock singles of all time for me and I’m sure nobody needs me to say anything else about it. Of course with a track like that anything that immediately follows is going to sound a little pale in comparison. It may then have been wise to follow it with what is possibly the weakest track on the album ‘Fight or Fall’. Lynott still delivers a fine vocal and the laid back solo is quite nice but it just meanders a bit and fails to hold the attention throughout. ‘Cowboy Song’ is often cited by many as a favourite track and it is indeed up there amongst the best on the album. Lynott provides a superb vocal which on the slower paced intro is very reminiscent of Frankie Miller. The longest track on the album it features some great guitar work throughout. It actually made its way into the live set before the studio version was recorded, an early version being available on the “UK Tour 75” album. The album closes with the fifth of the nine tracks that found its way into the live set and subsequently the album “Live and Dangerous”, ‘Emerald’. One of Lizzy’s most recognisable and loved tracks it remained in the live set right until the end and features some great guitar duelling as well as a menacing passion filled heartfelt vocal from Lynott. It is probably one of the best examples of the trademark Thin Lizzy double guitar sound. For me though the studio version just lacks some of the passion and excitement of some of the live versions. After hearing the live versions this studio mix can sound a little flat at the beginning.

Jailbreak was completed in January 1976 and unleashed to the public towards the end of March that same year. With its sci-fi type sleeve and story on the back cover it appeared to some to be some sort of a concept album at first but although there are some linking themes in the story telling element to the lyrics the cover only really refers to the title track. On the back of the success of the single release of’ ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ it very quickly became the bands best selling album and is still, along with “Black Rose” regularly cited by fans as Lizzy’s finest album. I wouldn’t disagree with that and would put it up with the most important rock releases of the seventies. The trademark dual guitar sound had by this release been honed to perfection with constant touring but it was far more than just twin heavy rock guitar as there are elements of numerous styles going on underneath the melodies in little snatches. Lynott’s vocals and storytelling lyrics were at their peak and it is quite often overlooked that he was a top quality bass player too. Add to that Brian Downey’s no nonsense tight drumming and the little bit of fairy dust provided by John Alcock and what you have is a classic rock album. In truth Thin Lizzy were always a better live outfit than a studio one but if you are going to own a Thin Lizzy studio album then either “Jailbreak” or “Black Rose” which followed a few years later would be the one. If I was you I’d get both of them.

© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM July 2011

About Martin Leedham

Music critic, Horse Racing Tipster, Hapless Dreamer, Defender of the Underdog
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