Thin Lizzy: The Boys Are Back in Town

Thin Lizzy

What can I say about Thin Lizzy? I love this band, love them in spite of their many flaws, love them because of their many flaws. I’ve loved them ever since I first heard “The Boys Are Back in Town” on my pink plastic clock radio back in 1976; Phil Lynott sounded like he was authentically both tough and sensitive, and those haunting minor chords on the verses burned themselves into my heart forever. No discussion of “The Best Band Ever” ever happened on my watch (in my hard-rock-lovin’ adolescence) without me bringing up Thin Lizzy — although usually The Who ended up winning the day. Don’t front on the Lizz: they were as great in their prime as Cheap Trick. And that’s high praise, you cynical bastards.

Sure, there are many “critical” reasons to appreciate Thin Lizzy now. They were Ireland’s first huge rock band (Bono has said that U2 never would have happened without Thin Lizzy), which counts for something. They were one of the only hard rock groups to embrace new wave music and punk — they pulled Midge Ure out of a Visage recording session to become part of the touring band — although they didn’t get any punk respect at the time. They also had a bit of the ol’ funk to their metal crunch: Brian Downey’s nimble drumbeats have been sampled and celebrated by hip-hoppers for 20 years. (Ever heard Grandmaster Flash scratch the break from “Johnny the Fox?”)

Critics hated them back then, mostly, but Lynott gets a lot of posthumous props for his poetic writing, which veered wildly between his romantic and Yeatsian side and his working-class aggressive side. People have come to understand that Thin Lizzy had at least three great guitar players rotating in and out of the two spots reserved for them: Gary Moore was the blues expert, Brian Robertson was the mercurial fiery yobbo, and Scott Gorham the American rhythm guy who could also solo some (and great hair! and really white teeth!). And then you have the facts that Lynott was biracial, which is interesting if probably a moot point when it comes to their music, and that he died young, victim of his addictions to heroin and alcohol and insular self-pity. VH-1’s Behind the Music episode on the band made me weep bitter 2 a.m. tears the first time I saw it.

But what it comes down to with Thin Lizzy is: Do you like the songs? If you’ve ever caught yourself rocking out to “Jailbreak” or “Dancing in the Moonlight” or “Whiskey in the Jar,” then you’re in the club. If you think that maybe “The Rocker” and “Wild One” are just retreads of songs that other bands did better, but you’re not quite sure, then maybe there’s hope for you yet. And if you don’t think that all the bullshit mythologizing and cheesiness of “The Cowboy Song” (“The coyote calls / And the howlin’ winds will wail / So I ride out to the old sundown”) are redeemed by Lynott’s impassioned vocal and the stunning guitar work . . . well, then you’re really not going to want this DVD.

You might not want it anyway. It’s only 41 minutes long, the editing and filming are execrable, and the sound quality is the very definition of piss-poor. But what this DVD lacks for the audio- and video-phile it more than makes up for in authenticity — looked at the right way, it seems to embody the best of Big Rock Music more than anything else I’ve ever seen.

This is the document of an outdoor concert from October 1978. Lizzy wasn’t the only band on the ticket that night, but there’s no mention of that anywhere, and no introduction, and no super-engaging stage patter, and no Classic Moments either. What it is is just eight songs, done well and tough and cool by a great band. This is the Lynott/Moore/Gorham group; band fanatics probably prefer Robbo on lead, but Moore tosses off a couple of jaw-dropping solos that you really just can’t argue with at all. And, because Downey (simply one of the greatest rock drummers of the 1970s) had severed an artery in his hand in a bar fight and had to stay home in Dublin, blues veteran Mark Nauseef fills in on drums, and acquits himself nobly enough on the short notice. So it’s not exactly classic Lizzy . . . but it’s damned good nevertheless.

The opener is “Jailbreak”, and why not: this is just a flat barn-burning classic from the word go. After a beautiful Beavis and Butthead moment — flashpots and eruptions of fire! — they launch into this overblown and rebellious anthem at a blistering pace. Lynott sneers out his lyrics, hugging the front of the stage in his Spinal Tap leather trousers, his Afro perfect in the afternoon sun: “I can hear the hound dogs on my trail / Tonight’s the night all systems fail / Hey you! Good lookin’ female! / Come here!” When he yells this sexist and probably violent image, the camera cuts to a blond Australian perched on her boyfriend’s shoulders. We’re not exactly talking about subtlety here — but if you want subtlety, then you’d just better stay away from Lizzy altogether.

You can quibble if you want to about the way the thing is filmed and edited, and I won’t argue that it’s sophomoric in the extreme: little insets floating across the screen, cameras focusing on one guitarist when the other one is soloing, crowd cutaways right at the dramatic part of some of the songs. But this is somehow perfect: this was right at the advent of “video” technology; everything was corny like that back then, and it seems to fit the music somehow. It’s hilariously amateurish in some spots, and that seems to enhance songs like “Are You Ready?” and “Baby Drives Me Crazy”. You really feel like you’re watching Australian TV in 1978! And it’s Thin Lizzy! And they rawk like a beast!

Plus there’s one editing trick that you just won’t be able to catch: in the original concert, the PA blew out during “Cowboy Song” and Nauseef had to do a long unamplified drum solo to keep the crowd involved while they fixed the sound. While this hilarious circumstance isn’t documented on the video, it is covered over wonderfully — the song seems seamless, they seem to launch right into “The Boys Are Back in Town” without a break, and I had no idea about the other until I read it on the Internet. That’s cool as hell . . . although it would have been cooler if we’d been able to see Nauseef laboring back there.

The performances are impeccable: Moore’s solo on the always-unreleased “Me and the Boys Were Wondering How the Girls Are Getting Home Tonight” (that’s really the title) is as close to blues-rock heaven as you’re gonna get, and Gorham, with his long straight ironed hair and anorexic-model cheekbones and high-heeled boots, does some manly things on his guitar that you just didn’t think he could do. Lynott acts every bit the enigmatic bass-playing bandleader, whether he’s spitting out the proletariat words to “Bad Reputation” or the wistful ones to the brand-new “Waiting for an Alibi.” He refuses to give up his central spot during the solos of his bandmates, which rocks, and he does a bit of rock-star stuff during the brand-new “Waiting for an Alibi”, working his bass like he shouldn’t have been allowed to in public. He was a really great frontman . . . but, as this video shows, a somewhat insecure one. When he tries to get the audience involved singing the choruses of songs and doesn’t get the thunderclap response he wants, he calls out, “Are you out there?” It’s like he’s not sure they love him enough. And then, when they do respond, he acts like the happiest little boy in the world, doing that one-hand-pump-in-front-of-him thing.

This isn’t ironic posturing, and it isn’t post-modern metal-blast pop like Weezer and Pavement; this is Big Rock Music, and it’s got hooks and solos and riffs and lyrics that try too hard, and you can tell that they’re not getting along very well at all, and you can see the beginnings of the end in Lynott’s (probably drugged-out) demeanor . . . but it still kicks ass like an ass-kicking machine. If you’re not interested in seeing this, then this is not your video. But may Phil have mercy on your soul.