After years of trying to match the commercial success of their breakthrough hit “Whiskey in the Jar”, it arguably happened at exactly the wrong time for Thin Lizzy. They had been given one last chance to record a breakthrough album and even when “The Boys are Back in Town” hit the charts in early April ’76, it was becoming increasingly evident that a new youth movement was in the ascent, making hard rockers like Thin Lizzy look more than a little dated.
With this in mind, the album had to be a hit that would propel Phil Lynnot, Scott Gorham, Brian Downey and Brian Robertson on to bigger and better things. Luckily they’d already become a road-hardened touring act of considerable stage presence, with Robertson and Gorham’s twin guitar work and Lynnot’s charming swagger setting them apart from their peers. Their growing pains seemingly behind them, Thin Lizzy were now primed and ready for their moment in the spotlight, they just had to ensure that they made the most of it.
Rocking, without being leaden, Jailbreak was exactly the right album at the right time for Thin Lizzy. As big a hit as the glorious “The Boys are Back in Town” had proven to be, if Jailbreak had been sub-par, they were dead in the water. With producer John Alcock giving the album perhaps a little more focus than previous releases, Jailbreak was accessible without being too poppy, aggressively hard rocking, while still being commercial enough to find its audience.
It opens with the title track, a song which simultaneously signalled to existing fans that Jailbreak was going to be about everything they already loved about Thin Lizzy, while establishing exactly what Thin Lizzy were all about to any new fans, with Lynnot as charismatic gang leader, Downey’s crisp drumming and twin guitars wielded like pocket knives. “Jailbreak” remains one of the band’s best loved tunes, and with it’s no-nonsense riff, and Lynott’s simple yet effective lyrics, it’s no mystery as to why that is. Perhaps the secret to Thin Lizzy’s success suring the punk years was the fact that, unlike many hard rock acts, they were accessible and easy to relate to, much in the same way that The Faces had been during the early 70s, and something that the likes of Terrorvision would tap into during the 90s.
For all it’s straight ahead hard rock credentials, Jailbreak has the ability to surprise, nowhere more so than the jangling guitar feature that opens “Angel from the Coast”, which quickly gives way to a more typical Thin Lizzy riff. For that brief moment though, you could easily mistake it for a riff that would open an early 90s baggy / Madchester number. Elsewhere there are more mellow numbers, such as “Fight or Fall”, the near-single “Romeo and the Lonely Girl”, and in “Emerald” a sturdy slab of celtic rock. For those that have lazily perceived Thin Lizzy to be hard-of-thinking good time rockers, Jailbreak provides all the evidence you need to blow that opinion out of the water.
It’s the rockers that are the heart of Jailbreak though, with “Warriors” being a firm fan favourite and “The Boys are Back in Town”, a song which is so well known that it has transitioned from being cool, to so familiar that it almost became obsolete, before being reassessed as actually one of the prime examples of that notoriously elusive holy grail that is the perfect blend of pop and hard rock.
If Jailbreak has a negative, it’s that the mastering, particularly on CD reissues, is a little thin and bloodless. Sometimes it just lacks that little bit of extra punch that it would have benefitted from, but there’s such a sense of purpose woven through Jailbreak, that you can’t help but end up being swept along with it. Perhaps most surprising for me is how much Jailbreak has grown on me since I first heard it. Initially I had found the album a disappointment after being impressed by the much lauded Live and Dangerous, however before long I found myself laying awake at night marvelling how unexpectedly brilliant the opening riff to “Running Back” was, or how the whole of “Cowboy Song” is one of the lost classics of the era. Jailbreak is an album which has crept up on me and caught me by surprise, which is something I wish would happen a lot more often than it does. Simply put, Jailbreak is a great rock album by a band with that elusive everyman quality that precious few rock acts during this era of mega-bands possessed.
Regardless of the bad timing of Jailbreak’s release, Phil Lynnot, Scott Gorham, Brian Downey and Brian Robertson had a spirit of character about them that ensured that they not only survived, but thrived, while punk was raging all around them, even to the point where they would occasionally join forces with various members of The Sex Pistols to form The Greedies over the next few years. Sure, the future would see line up changes, with a rapidly revolving door of guitar players, but on Jailbreak, Thin Lizzy had finally pulled the rabbit out of the hat and released the album that would make them stars.