When it comes to groundbreaking rock’n’roll outfits, few are more deserving of kudos than Thin Lizzy. Led by the charismatic Phil Lynott, this flamboyant group were responsible for some of the 70s’ most enduring hard rock classics and – as their peerless Live And Dangerous album proves – they were a force of nature on stage. While Thin Lizzy recorded plenty for the punk and metal crews to enjoy, they also crafted glorious ballads and put their inimitable stamp on everything from funk to traditional Irish standards. They’ve been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2020, so we raise a glass to this truly singular Dublin group and pick the 20 Best Thin Lizzy songs of all time.
Best Thin Lizzy Songs: 20 Essential Classic Rock Tracks
20: ‘The Rocker’
Arguably Thin Lizzy’s first truly stellar song, the aptly titled ‘The Rocker’ was the stand-out cut from their third album, 1973’s Vagabonds Of The Western World. One of the few early songs that remained in the band’s live set after their lead guitar duo of Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham replaced original six-string incumbent Eric Bell in 1974, ‘The Rocker’ drew up the template for the stylish, swaggering anthems that defined Thin Lizzy’s oeuvre during the mid-to-late 70s.
19: ‘Killer On The Loose’
The most controversial song in Thin Lizzy’s canon, edgy rocker ‘Killer On The Loose’ was released as a single in the middle of the lengthy manhunt for the notorious British serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, better known by his tabloid nickname, “The Yorkshire Ripper”. Sutcliffe wasn’t the inspiration for the song, but that didn’t prevent the press from accusing Phil Lynott of exploiting his murderous spree for artistic gain when ‘Killer On The Loose’ peaked at No.10 in the UK Top 40 during the autumn of 1980.
18: ‘Whiskey In The Jar’
A classic folk song concerning a highwayman who is betrayed by his sweetheart after robbing a government official, ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ was first popularised by traditional Irish folk outfit The Dubliners during the 60s. The romance’n’roguery-fuelled lyric appealed to Phil Lynott, and while the song was hardly representative of Thin Lizzy’s overall sound, their potent recording rewarded the band with their first UK Top 10 hit (and first Irish chart-topper) in February 1973.
Released in 1981, Thin Lizzy’s penultimate album, Renegade, saw the group trying to find their feet among the era’s rapidly changing trends. They retained their songwriting chops, however; indeed, Renegade’s best moments, the driving ‘Hollywood (Down On Your Luck)’, the Latin-flavoured ‘Mexican Girl’ and the record’s melancholic title track are capable of duking it out with the best of the Dublin stars’ work.
16: ‘She Knows’
Though it may have lacked some of the firepower of future classics such as Jailbreak, Thin Lizzy’s fourth album, 1974’s Nightlife, is something of an under-appreciated gem. The album’s consummate opening cut, ‘She Knows’, captures the group at their most poppy and accessible, but it’s also significant for being the first of many songs co-written by Phil Lynott and guitarist Scott Gorham. “Right off the bat, Phil encouraged everybody to write, he didn’t want to be the lone ranger,” Gorham told American Songwriter in 2013. “He always wanted to be able to write with other people – especially the guys in the band.”
One of the many highlights of 1977’s Bad Reputation, the reflective ‘Southbound’ found Phil Lynott vividly relaying the story of a travelling troubadour who – like Lizzy in their early days – endures countless one-night stands as he chases fame and fortune. Wistful and poetic (“So tonight after sundown, I’m gonna pack my case/Without a word, without a sound, disappear without a trace”), the song was embellished by some of Scott Gorham’s sweetest guitar melodies and it remained a live favourite throughout the late 70s.
14: ‘The Sun Goes Down’
Thin Lizzy’s final studio album, 1983’s Thunder And Lightning, was recorded with a new line-up, with Lynott, Gorham and drummer Brian Downey joined by guitarist John Sykes and keyboard player Darren Wharton. Though generally more metal-inclined than their landmark work, it was still a fine record and, retrospectively, feels like the beginning of a new chapter rather than an epitaph. Thunder And Lightning spawned two minor hits courtesy of ‘Cold Sweat’ and the title track, but its stand-out track is surely ‘The Sun Goes Down’, a pensive neo-ballad delivered with dignity and a palpable air of resignation.
As the July 1973 version of the song from the band’s At The BBC collection proves, ‘Suicide’ was thoroughly road-tested during Thin Lizzy’s first phase, during which time it was a showcase for Eric Bell’s wailing, bluesy slide guitar. Lynott and his team toughened up the song’s arrangement up for 1975’s Fighting, wherein it afforded the band’s new lead guitarists, Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham, an early opportunity to display their firepower.
12: ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’
An insight into Thin Lizzy’s diverse personal listening tastes, Johnny The Fox’s atypically funky ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’ was based on Phil Lynott’s love of Philly soul outfit The O’Jays’ ‘For The Love Of Money’, which influenced the song’s main riff. “At every soundcheck, he’d be playing that funky riff,” Scott Gorham later told Classic Rock. “The whole thing took off when Brian Downey… put his personal funk take on it with the drums.” Described by Gorham as “part of a gang of cultured thieves”, the song’s two titular characters were based on real people who often frequented Lynott’s mother’s hotel, the Clifton Grange, in Manchester.
11: ‘Do Anything You Want To’
Their only album to feature guitarist Gary Moore, Lizzy’s ninth studio effort, Black Rose: A Rock Legend, was stuffed wall-to-wall with classics and it deservedly peaked at No.2 in the UK Top 40 in the early summer of 1979. Starting as it meant to go on, the record opened with ‘Do Anything You Want To’: a quintessential Lizzy anthem full of confidence and verve which also cracked the UK Top 20 as a standalone single. Implausibly, the song’s amusing promo video depicted Phil Lynott as a schoolteacher in charge of an unruly class which included his bandmates.
Not to be confused with an earlier Thin Lizzy song of the same name (from 1972’s Shades Of A Blue Orphanage), Phil Lynott’s gentle, heartfelt ‘Sarah’ was written in response to the arrival of his newly-born daughter. Reputedly intended for a Lynott solo record rather than the Black Rose album, ‘Sarah’ was recorded at a separate session and featured just Lynott, guitarist Gary Moore and session drummer Mark Nauseef. In the end, however, it was chosen for Black Rose and its radio-friendly appeal ensured it was a UK Top 30 success as the album’s third and final single.
One of many highlights from Thin Lizzy’s breakthrough album, 1976’s Jailbreak, ‘Warriors’ was one of their steeliest rockers. The lyric was Phil Lynott’s tribute to musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman, stars who lived on the edge and “made the conscious decision to take the thing as far as it can go”, and it inspired his band to put in one of their most dynamic performances. “That’s what’s so cool about being a guitar player in Thin Lizzy,” Scott Gorham told American Songwriter in 2013. “Most of the songs are guitar-driven. They are made to be able to solo over.”
With its taut signature riff, duelling lead guitars, outlaw-related lyrics and monster chorus, ‘Jailbreak’ displayed all the hallmarks of a Thin Lizzy classic – even on first listen. Now a staple of classic rock radio, the band’s 1976 hit has long since carved out its reputation as one of the their most enduring songs, with Bon Jovi, Anthrax and former Lizzy member Gary Moore among the many artists who have since recorded their own versions.
Penned by Bob Seger, ‘Rosalie’ was a tribute to Rosalie Trombley, the musical director of the Windsor, Ontario, radio station CKLW-AM: one of the US’s leading Top 40 radio stations of the 60s and 70s. Thin Lizzy cut a punchy studio version of the song for 1975’s Fighting, but few would argue that their supercharged live version of ‘Rosalie’, from 1978’s Live And Dangerous (which also features a neat little snatch of Jailbreak’s ‘Cowboy Song’) is the definitive take.
6: ‘Waiting For An Alibi’
Infused with a punky energy, Black Rose’s first single, ‘Waiting For An Alibi’, featured one of Phil Lynott’s most cinematic narratives (“Valentino’s got a bookie’s shop and what he takes/He gives for what he’s got”) and a memorable call-and-response chorus, and it offered Scott Gorham and Gary Moore ample opportunity to trade imperious guitar lines. As punchy, direct and downright dynamic as a classic rock anthem gets, the song’s radio-friendly appeal gave it a further boost, and it eventually peaked at No.9 in the UK Top 40 early in 1979.
5: ‘Still In Love With You’
Unquestionably Thin Lizzy’s greatest ballad, ‘Still In Love With You’ was originally demoed early in 1974 by Phil Lynott, Brian Downey and Gary Moore, and it played a key part in scoring the band a new contract with Polygram Records that same summer. The official studio version of the song appeared on November 1974’s Nightlife album and featured a duet between Lynott and guest vocalist Frankie Miller, but ‘Still In Love With You’ really came into its own on stage. Embellished by Brian Robertson’s sumptuous lead guitar, the eight-minute Live And Dangerous version is truly unbeatable.
4: ‘Don’t Believe A Word’
Concise and infectious, Johnny The Fox’s signature hit, ‘Don’t Believe A Word’, said everything it needed in just two minutes and 20 seconds, and its UK No.12 peak mirrored its obvious commercial potential. Intriguingly, though, this eminently punchy anti-love song (“Don’t believe me if I tell you/Especially if I tell you that I’m in love with you”) started life as an acoustic ballad redolent of Ben E King’s ‘Stand By Me’ before Brian Downey devised the song’s shuffling rhythm and Brian Robertson brought in the sharp signature riff, completely transforming the arrangement in the process.
Jailbreak’s spectacular closing track, ‘Emerald’ gave Phil Lynott free rein to indulge his pride in his rich Irish heritage, its fiery lyric (“Down from the glens came the marching men/With their shields and their swords/To fight the fight they believed to be right/Overthrow the overlords”) rating among the most vivid and memorable in his canon. Musically it was also a tour de force, and as Scott Gorham told Classic Rock in 2013, ‘Emerald’ was the song where he began to forge a special chemistry with Brian Robertson. “It was the first time that Brian Robertson did the bounce off lead guitar thing where he starts, I start… the back and forth,” he explained. “That was kind of a launching pad for that style of writing between the two guitarists.”
2: ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’
Few other hard rock bands from the 70s possessed either the daring or the lightness of touch to write a song such as ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’. A fond recollection of teenage misadventure on the streets of Dublin, this enduring 1977 hit was an affectionate homage to Phil Lynott’s long-standing love of Van Morrison’s blue-eyed Celtic soul, and its gloriously slinky backing track also featured seductive sax, from Supertramp’s John Helliwell, alongside a consummate Scott Gorham guitar solo.
1. ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’
At least half of Thin Lizzy’s landmark Jailbreak album could fill a list of the best Thin Lizzy songs. When it comes to choosing the track that’s synonymous with Phil Lynott’s seminal band, however, that album’s signature hit, ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, is simply unassailable. Full of swagger and joie de vivre, this seemingly ageless rocker (which referenced Manchester criminals The Quality Street Gang alongside patrons of LA’s famous Rainbow Bar And Grill venue) was Lynott’s tribute to macho adventures the world over. It proved a game-changer for his band, hitting the UK Top 10 and paving the way for Transatlantic success.
Three of Thin Lizzy’s classic albums, Nightlife, Fighting and Jailbreak, have just been reissued on 180g vinyl. Buy them here.