40 Years Ago: Thin Lizzy Score Their Biggest Hit With ‘Jailbreak’
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It was make or break time for Thin Lizzy when they entered London’s Ramport Studios in December 1975 to make their sixth album. Five previous records didn’t really sell, and none of them managed to even crack Billboard‘s Top 200 albums chart. Understandably, the Irish band’s label was getting antsy for some kind of hit.
Up until this point, the group hadn’t made much of a dent anywhere. Only the previous album, Fighting, slipped onto the U.K. charts, and was somewhat of a reinvention for Thin Lizzy, who’d lost a couple of guitarists and their record company since their self-titled 1971 debut. But no one was expecting something like Jailbreak from the band. Not even the band.
The album marked a turning point for the group. The quartet — led by singer, songwriter and bassist Phil Lynott — focused its approach, and, with producer John Alcock guiding them, sharpened both their playing and the way the songs were structured. Sessions were completed in early 1976, and by the middle of March, it was ready for release.
And from the very first song, the title track, Thin Lizzy sound like a new and revitalized band. The stuttering guitars dance and duel in the background as Lynott struts in as a confident storyteller for the first time. His singing is more focused too, deliberate in its phrasing and casually forceful all at the same time.
Critics and fans at the time noted the influence of Bruce Springsteen‘s Born to Run from the previous year as an influence on the group’s new direction on Jailbreak. And it’s not hard to hear the similarities between the two albums, especially the sweeping narratives in cuts like the fatal-lovers tale “Romeo and the Lonely Girl” and “Cowboy Song,” which comes with its own lonesome antihero.
But it’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” that truly sealed Jailbreak‘s legacy as Thin Lizzy’s best album. Like the rest of the LP, the twin-guitar harmony leads power the song, which became the band’s first and biggest hit in the States, just missing the Top 10. But there’s so much more to it, including one of Lynott’s most soulful vocals, his greatest hook and guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson’s most complementary work together.
Jailbreak finally broke Thin Lizzy. The album reached No. 18 in the U.S., their all-time biggest seller. Seven months later, they followed it up with Johnny the Fox, but the band slowly began falling part by then. Lynott came down with hepatitis during the tour in support of Jailbreak and had to cancel part of the tour. Then Robertson was fired. And then the records started dropping off. Almost 10 years after Jailbreak was released, Lynott died at the age of 36 of heart failure and pneumonia, exacerbated by years of drug and alcohol abuse.
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