At the dawn of 1976, Thin Lizzy was in trouble.
Neither of the quartet’s previous two studio albums, Nightlife and Fighting, had sold well. With pressure mounting from Vertigo Records, Lizzy had to produce a hit – or consider folding.
“Despite all our touring, Fighting stiffed amazingly,” said guitarist Scott Gorham, remembering the perilous situation. “The record company had faith in us, but there was a question mark. We thought we were a great band, yet the facts spoke for themselves. We were in debt up to our eyeballs.”
Led by bassist/vocalist Phil Lynott (1949-1986), Lizzy left London to work up new material.
“We rented a place in the country with no distractions, brought in an eight-track, and rehearsed the hell out of everything,” said Gorham, the half-Irish group’s sole American. “We wrote 20 songs, recorded them, and rearranged the parts constantly. We knew that three strikes in this business means you’re out – and the fastball was coming!”
Returning to London, they linked with producer John Alcock and decamped to The Who’s studio in southwest London.
“Ramport was a very rock-friendly studio,” Alcock recalls. “It had a single room, so the atmosphere was conducive to relaxed recording. [Engineer] Will Reid Dick and I went for an open, live sound; Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson’s stacks were miked with Neumann U67s, as I recall. There was a lot of gear at the studio. At some stages we may have used some of The Who’s 4×12 Hiwatt cabs, and maybe an amp head or two.”
Tone-wise, Gorham and the Glasgow-bred Robertson were part of the generation that defined the Les-Paul-and-Marshall sound. Gorham took the more melodic solos, often using phase shifter, while Robbo was an aggressive wah specialist.
“Our gear was all Les Pauls and Marshalls,” Gorham noted. “Brian played Customs and Standards, and I had a sunburst Deluxe with the mini-humbuckers. I saw a Les Paul Standard in the store I really wanted – but the band couldn’t afford it at the time. So I ended up with the Deluxe.”
Robertson jammed on a black ’73 Les Paul Custom that became his signature axe. However, he remembers it with little fondness.
“It was a piece of sh*t (laughs)! I just picked it up because it looked great with my white jeans, but it played like a bitch and I sold it in L.A. on the Bad Reputation tour in ’77. For echo, I used an old WEM Copycat tape echo unit for my guitar, something I wouldn’t do today, but it worked well at the time. My wah was a Colorsound.”
At Ramport, Thin Lizzy recorded a number of fierce hard rockers, including future FM anthems like “Jailbreak,” “Cowboy Song,” “Warriors,” and “Emerald.” There was another song in the can, but Lizzy wasn’t sure it would make the cut.
“We came up with the short list of songs for the album – and ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’ was not on that list,” Gorham said. “I guess because of the stiffed albums, we lost confidence in our judgement of what a hit song should sound like. The only reason we eventually used it was because our manager, Chris O’Donnell, said, ‘Wait a minute… you’ve got this song, “The Boys Are Back in Town,” the lyrics are great and that guitar riff is happening. You’ve got to put it on the album.’ So we thought, ‘Well, here’s one guy who likes it, so we’ll take another one off and put ‘The Boys’ on there. It became the single and Jailbreak became a hit – and got us out of debt.”
Beyond strong songwriting and Alcock’s punchy production, the guitar work was a revelation. Gorham reflected on the ingredients that went into Lizzy’s potent guitar duo.
“Brian and I were a real guitar team. He would really study my style and I’d study his, even to the point where we’d be checking out each other’s vibratos.”
“Our chemistry was more or less there from the start,” added Robertson. “With drummer Brian Downey and Phil on bass behind us, we really had an open field to take the guitars to a different level. Also, we didn’t work things out; it was one of us coming up with a melody line and the other one trying to pick the right harmony for it.”
By the end of ’76, Jailbreak had ascended to #18 on the U.S. album charts, despite reviews unfavorably comparing Lynott’s voice to the whiskey-soaked whispering of Bruce Springsteen. The six-string harmonies developed by Gorham and Robertson also became a cornerstone of the Thin Lizzy sound – though its origin was rather humble.
“The harmony guitars came about as an accident,” Gorham noted. “I had come up with a guitar line and we recorded it on a four-track or an eight track, and somebody said, ‘What would that sound like if we put a harmony to that?’ I knew Wishbone Ash did harmonies that go way back. Brian and I weren’t trying to copy anybody – we just stumbled upon harmonies by chance.”
Today, of course, “The Boys Are Back in Town” is one of the most beloved classic-rock songs of all time. So, what’s it like to have produced a multi-generational anthem – one played and broadcast around the world every day?
“Strangely, with the passage of time, there’s a disconnect for me since it was 45-plus years ago, almost as if it was another me that produced the record,” mused Alcock. “Of course, it was immensely pleasing to have been involved with Thin Lizzy and their most successful recordings – though it’s sad that Phil died so young. I think he could have become an even more influential poet and performer.”
This article originally appeared in VG’s November 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.