On Wednesday evenings I have started going to a Jam night. Populated by elderly gents with officially more money than sense it’s a chance to play through some classic rock tracks and generally give everyone a chance to show off their expensive guitars, amps and effects pedals.
For anyone, well any man, over the age of 50 classic rock is a bit of a touchstone. It’s not something that’s really grabbed me but it’s in my DNA I can’t escape it. With anything up to 4 guitar widdlers and the drum seat already taken, I have elected to play bass. Bucking the trend for expensive equipment I bought a £70 squire bass from cash converters and I’m good to go. One of the great things about classic rock is that it’s pretty accommodating in terms of musical ability as long as you have some basic skills there’s a chance you can join in especially with a competent guitarist or two to do the difficult bits.
And so there’s a bit of Skynard, a smattering of Bryan Adams and a smidgen of Clapton, Free and Bad Company. But there’s one band that we come back to time and time again. The songs seem very logical to play on the bass, probably because they were written by the bass player, the guitars are a bit tricky but not beyond the reach of a competent pub player. It’s possible to make a pretty decent attempt on the songs at first run through, but there is one element that no one can copy, that’s the vocals. That group is Thin Lizzy, probably the archetypical classic rock band.
The origins of the band are in the late 60’s of course. The band had had a hit with the traditional song ‘Whisky in the Jar’ in 1972. That was a very different band and a different era, the only available clip of them performing the song is in grainy black and white it seems ancient. ‘Whisky in the Jar’ was quite a remarkable interpretation due in no small part to Guitarist Eric Bell’s distinctive solo work but it wasn’t classic Lizzy. They wouldn’t play the song live, but now we were aware of the distinctive talents of frontman/bassist/songwriter Phil Lynott.
Lynott was a phenomena for the early 70’s, the fact that he was black in a very conservative country not known for it’s multiculturalism can’t be underestimated. The face that he not only survive but thrived in 60’s Dublin is testament to the force of his personality, he was destined for show business. Lynott was a good songwriter and a distinctive vocalist. A lot of his phrasing could be trace back to Van Morrison and he possessed the same lyrical sensibility in his lyrics. It was this uniqueness that would separate Lizzy from the rest of the rock pack.
Lizzy had three phases, there was the hippie Eric Bell era, Bell was a major force in the band initially but chose to get out when his drinking was getting out of hand. In the late 70’s and early 80’s there was harder rock years when the band were a major attraction but struggled with drugs and a revolving stable of guitarists. Sandwiched between the two were the band’s classic years.
Post Eric Bell Lizzy tried a couple of other players before settling for Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson on guitars. There were no longer a strictly Irish band, now having American and Scottish members. They continued to tour and tour cropping up at festivals probably crammed in between the Groundhogs and Blossom Toes. They made records but apart from Lynott there wasn’t enough to distinguish them from the other lumpy second division bands.
Gorham had clearly listened to the Allman brothers and along with Robertson was starting to develop harmony guitar parts, soon Lizzy were sounding a bit special.
By 1976 there was something in the air we weren’t sure what it was yet but it was time for a change and the time was right for the band to up their game. ‘The Boys are back in Town’ had it all, from the opening power chords to the harmony guitar lines and engaging lyrics. It was a special single and rightly regarded as a classic. Admittedly the boys sound like a right bunch of bozos with their fighting and drinking and laughing at women but Lynott rescues it all with a bit of poetry at the end.
Jukebox in the corner blasting out my favourite song
The nights are getting longer and it won’t be long
Wont be long till summer comes
Now that the boys are here again
No one knows where the boys have been all the time they were away but the song’s been appropriated for any occasion when there’s any homecoming, notably for troops returning from various conflicts. The songs been played so many times on so many occasions that’s its recognisable literally from the opening chord.
It’s worth mentioning the role that drummer Brian Downey played in the band’s sound. Downey was an old school player versed in jazz and blues as most musicians would be in the 60’s. He could rock pretty hard and was quite up for using two bass drums, but he also had a lightness of touch which would probably be missing had he been born 10 years later. ‘The Boys are back in Town’ is actually a light shuffle which lifts it beyond the realm of heavy rock, despite the power chords the song just skips along rather than plodding or imposing a beat. Downey was a constant in the band from the his school days with Lynott and is one of the most underrated rock drummers of all time.
Any meteorologists will have spotted a glaring error in Lynott’s lyrics. Nights getting longer signals the start of winter not summer. Lynott was not a precise lyricist, his next signal would predict a Jailbreak ‘somewhere in this town’. In the field of rock, especially heavy rock, Lynott’s lyrics were exceptional however, drawing on the Irish literary tradition,romanticism,storytelling and influenced by the likes of Van Morrison and later Bruce Springsteen.
With the single and the Jailbreak album Lizzy would make the crossover from hard touring band to rock gods. Lynott would go onto a solo career in the 80’s including writing the new theme for Top of the Pops which was a big deal in Britain. In the short term he survived punk by being a fairly friendly guy who didn’t wear flared jeans. In the longer term he failed to survive heroin use and a rock and roll lifestyle.
The single the band released prior to Boys was ‘The Rocker’ I’ve probably heard it but I can’t remember it. Post Boys there was a deluge of memorable rock singles that people would still dance to in Discos and youth clubs. I’ve never really felt the need to own a Lizzie record or to make any real effort to listen to them but now I’m jamming their songs on the bass a whole musical legacy is sirring in my synapses. I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday but I can recall the middle eight in ‘Waiting for an Alibi or the riff to ‘Emerald’