Phil Lynott (1949-1986) was the bassist, singer and primary songwriter for classic Irish-American rock band Thin Lizzy. He lead Lizzy through its entire existence up until its 1984 breakup. Through this journey he became an iconic rock star, known for his curly Afro, trickster smile, and black, Fender Precision Bass slung across his tall, slender body. There was even more to Lynott than this, though. In life Lynott was fond of his native, Irish culture, and frequently quoted, referenced and synthesized Irish literary and musical traditions into rock and roll music.
“Emerald,” from Jailbreak
From Thin Lizzy’s most successful LP, in “Emerald,” Lynott describes a harrowing Viking raid upon an idyllic, Irish village. The Vikings’ first recorded Irish attack was in 795 on Rathlin Island. Lynott’s words echo those Nordic raids, which came without warning and endangered lives and property.
“To the town, where there was plenty/ they brought plunder, swords and flame,
When they left, the town was empty/ children would never play again.”
The last verse refers to the song’s namesake, a metaphor for Ireland herself. Lynott sang they “had come to claim the emerald, and without it they would not leave.” Vikings eventually did settle in what’s today Northern Ireland, and the Ulster Province in the Irish Republic. Some places there still bear old, Norse names.
This entire 1976 album is a bit disjointed, but its success was including songs that talk about both contemporary and 19th century Ireland. The titular Johnny is a drug addict, presumably living on Dublin’s dirty streets, and like Phil Lynott he is a black man in a lily-white society. His only “friend,” if you can call him that, is dealer Jimmy the Weed, whom Johnny double-crosses in an alley “where only black men can go.” Johnny doesn’t hinge upon this tale, though. “Fool’s Gold,” relates an Irish immigrant’s experiences after he goes West to the United States, fleeing the Great Famine, and describes the character’s frustration, loneliness, prejudice and struggle to succeed.
“Roisin Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend,” from Black Rose: A Rock Legend
This epic song, which picks up where “Emerald’s” grandiosity left off, reads like a who’s-who of Irish folklore, literature and music. Everyone and everything from Van Morrison (“Van is the man.”), William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Queen Maeb, Cuchulain and the traditional, “Shenandoah,” are name-checked or woven into the song’s heavily Celtic influenced melody. Thin Lizzy’s known for their twin-guitar harmonies, and they’re employed to amazing effect here, evoking bagpipes, woodwinds and violins at different phases.
“Whiskey in the Jar,” 1973 single
Most people know Metallica’s version of this traditional from their “Garage Inc.,” album. It’s far older in fact, and Metallica cribbed their take from Thin Lizzy’s radical reworking in 1973. Purer versions have been covered numerous times, and The Chieftains and The Irish Rovers are certainly notable for their more faithful “Jar” recordings.
“Whiskey in the Jar’s,” story is straight from Irish tradition: a protagonist does something foolish for a lady, and that lady betrays him. Eric Bell’s guitar melds blues and Irish folk, a new technique for the time, and one which many bands like Iron Maiden, The Pogues, The Dropkick Murphys and many others aped later. Ironically Bell was the only guitarist in Thin Lizzy at the time, but the band would later be known for its dual guitar lineup.
“The Friendly Ranger at Clontarf Castle,” from Thin Lizzy
Honestly, I’m baffled by this one. It comes from Lizzy’s first, eponymous album in 1971. At this stage Thin Lizzy was very different from how people know them today. “Ranger,” is somewhat psychedelic, carries some beat influence, and the music accompanies Lynott’s half-spoken singing rather than focusing on a tangible melody. The lyrics themselves – well, it’s hard to say just what he was singing about, but the famous castle is mentioned, along with pastoral Irish themes.
“Banshee,” from Nightlife
This song is an instrumental off their 1974 release, Nightlife. If lyrics were intended, nobody’s sure, but in Lynott’s notebooks a draft for a song called “Banshee,” were found. It seems to be a simple love song, and the titular banshee plays her role of foreboding warner to those whom see her. In Irish legend, the banshee wailed when someone was about to die. Seeing her meant that you were probably next.
“Sarah,” from Shades of a Blue Orphanage
There are two Lizzy songs called, “Sarah,” and this was the first, off their March 1972 LP. This one is a very soft ballad (Maybe one of Lizzy’s softest songs), but its lyrics are very Irish-sounding. It mentions a noble captain, the captivating Sarah, Irish pastoral imagery, and heavy romanticism. It’s almost too syrupy, and sounds nothing like the thundering Lizzy that would come later. The second “Sarah,” came later in 1978, and appeared on Black Rose. That one discussed Lynott’s then newborn daughter, whom he named the song after.