By Jeremy D. Larson
For years the band had been building to this moment, piece by piece, guitarist by guitarist. Then in 1976, Thin Lizzy released Jailbreak and changed the world.
It is without hyperbole one of the Top 10 greatest rock albums of all time that shows a band playing at its absolute peak in both artistry and craft. Jailbreak is deceptively simple, wholly personal, and of course, full of melodies from those twin-lead guitars.
Before he would go on to front one of the largest bands of the ’80s, before Jailbreak even came out, Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliott was a scrappy kid from Sheffield, England, who was excited at the possibility that lay in Lizzy’s first hit, “Whiskey in the Jar.” It seemed to be a sign of something big on the horizon.
Elliott, and the rest of the world, would have to wait another three years before hearing anything from Lizzy again. But after that, Elliott formed a bond with the band—specifically guitarist Scott Gorham—and since has became intrinsically tied to them.
In 2011, Elliott and Gorham set about to remix Jailbreak, and two other Lizzy albums, 1976’s Johnny The Fox and 1978’s double live LP, Live and Dangerous, hardening the production to give it bit more edge. They even found an unheard verse from the late Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott on “The Boys Are Back In Town” and reformatted the song.
This is all to say: Elliott and Lizzy are extremely close.
In honor of the most famous rock band in Irish history, we spoke to Joe Elliott about his relationship with Thin Lizzy, his favorite song, his favorite album and how Phil Lynott blamed Def Leppard for splitting up the band.
Radio.com: What was your first memory of Thin Lizzy?
Joe Elliott: My first memory of Lizzy was “Whiskey in the Jar,” which was kind of a minor hit in the UK back in ’73. I remember buying the single on Decca records, and thinking, “Jimi Hendrix look-a-like, nice songs, we’ll see where he goes from there” sort of thing because everybody gets excited when they’re kids at new music. A band comes along whether it’s Bowie or T-Rex or whatever and you’re just wondering what’s going to happen next. Is it going to be a sustained attack or something? Is it just going to be this one hit? And after that there wasn’t anything else for three years, and you kind of forgot all about them. This was me in Sheffield, of course. You talk to somebody in Dublin and they’ll be like, “Oh no no no we heard them all the time.”
But the next time I heard them was when the next time everybody heard it, which was when “The Boys Are Back In Town” became a huge hit. And a huge hit for a rock band was Top 20 because you were fighting “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” and the likes of. And anything from “Radar Love” by Golden Earring, Thin Lizzy, Argent, “God Gave Rock ‘N’ Roll To You” infiltrated Top 40. But with Lizzy, it’s almost like the singles are accidental. I don’t think they ever set out to be a pop band, it was just something they just drifted into being one. By then I was 16 and I was starting to go to gigs so I saw the classic lineup, not on that particular tour, because I didn’t see them until the Johnny The Fox album which would’ve been ’77.
When you formed your own band, did you carry anything over from Lizzy? A sound you liked?
Other than the first song we ever learned to play was “Suffragette City,” the next song we learned to play was “Rosalie.” In front of an audience we regularly did ‘Rosalie’ and ‘Jailbreak’ and ‘Emerald.’ We played those songs with a passion and quite often. It was a big deal for us. I’ll never forget the first time [former Def Leppard guitarists] Pete Willis and Steve Clark actually nailed the middle section of ‘Emerald’ and got it right. It was a big moment, that’s when I realized we were actually a good band.
Lizzy were a big influence, listen to our first album you can hear elements of their music in what we were writing. There’s a song on our first one called “It Don’t Matter” which is Thin Lizzy through and through. The beginning bit of “Lady Strange.” The twin-harmony guitars is certainly more Lizzy than it was Wishbone Ash or Allman Brothers. It wasn’t just the twin-guitar thing, it was the simplicity of their songs. I mean, God knows what the chord sequence is for ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ it’s certainly not simple, but “Jailbreak” is moronically simple. I mean that as a compliment. How come nobody had ever written that before, it was staring everybody in the face.
The opening lyric is almost famously bad, too: “Tonight there’s going to be a jailbreak/ Somewhere in this town.” I would bet that the jailbreak would be at the jail.
Yeah, if you’re gonna find them, they’d be at the jail. Yeah, that’s been knocked out in a lot of sarcastic English magazines over the years. But that’s the thing about rock ‘n’ roll, we don’t all have to be Bob Dylan. The thing about Lynott was, he was a bit of a poet. If he was from the phonetic point of view to get the point across: “Tonight there’s going to to be a jailbreak somewhere in this town,” it just sounds good. If he’s doing that with a kind of an Irish brogue sense of humor, I’ll follow it.
When did you first hook up with Scott to remix Jailbreak?
I first hooked up with Scott in 1980 when we signed to Polygram, through the obvious, “Hey can you get us on the guest list” type situation. And when we got on the guest list their tour manager said, ‘Oh there’s this young band called Def Leppard’ obviously they must’ve been “Oh yeh yeh yeh yeh yeh I heard about those guys bring them back let’s say hi” kind of thing. We met them at the hotel and Scott was the one guy out of the four of them who was like, “Hey you wanna drink? Come on over here, baby!” one of those kind of guys.
I’ll never forget when we were mixing the X album in London. We were getting out of the cab and there he was walking down the street and we were like “Scott!” We invite him in to hear the album and he’s raving about it, and we were just hanging out and you know about that same time I had started working with a guy called Ricky Warrick, and he’s been in a band called The Almighty, and he wanted to do a solo record. So we had Scott come over and I had him doing stuff he was never doing in his life. I was like, ‘Scott, if this doesn’t work, or if we like it and you don’t, we’ll put a false name on it. But we need you to play slide guitar and we need you play solos like you were in The Stooges. Just rip the f–king wammy bar off the f–king thing.’ He sounded great, he was happy enough then to put his name to it. We stayed in touch ever since.
Do you have any stories about meeting Phil or the rest of the band?
Back in 1983 I was living in London and we’d finished Pyromania but we hadn’t released it. And I went to Frank’s Funny Farm which is a club where all the musicians used to hang out. And I went upstairs to the bathroom and the Phil Lynott was in this room on his own, there was nobody there, really. He was upstairs talking to someone, and I was like, “Oh my God” and walked right past them. And after I had done my biz, as it were, there was kind of a hole in their conversation and I just said, “Phil, don’t mean to interrupt I just wanted to introduce myself, I’m Joe from the band called Def Leppard.” And he just looked at me and shook my hand very vigorously and said, “I heard your album, and it’s the reason I’m splitting the band up.”
I was gobsmacked. I wish I had the balls then that I have now, I would’ve slammed him up against the wall and said, “Well why don’t you go back home, tear up the blueprint, and try and f–king make a better record.” It’s the worst left-handed compliment I’ve ever had in my life. I felt responsible, you know what I mean? How serious was he when he said it? Who knows. But he says, “I can’t compete with that.” In fairness, with Pyromania, we had made a record that nobody else had really made before with the ridiculously big vocal harmonies that made Boston sound like The Buzzcocks.
What is your all-time favorite Thin Lizzy song?
It’s hard to beat “Emerald.” It’s got the power of a classic rock song, it’s not heavy metal it’s hard rock, it’s got its roots in Celtic music, got a great kind of Celtic lyric. It’s flamboyant and at the same time old-fashioned. I saw The Black Star Riders the other week and it was quite possibly the best live version of “Emerald” I’d ever heard.
Is it safe to say that your favorite album is also Jailbreak?
Well the Live and Dangerous album is probably the one I play the most because it sounds better. If the whole Jailbreak record sounded like our remixes, yeah, it would be Jailbreak. As studio albums go, it’s my favorite. I’m a big fan of Fighting. But what Jailbreak was, it was the coming together of everything at the right time. They had two albums they did through Polygram before Jailbreak as warm ups. I bought Nightlife and Fighting after Jailbreak because I was one of those kids who did it. Fighting was getting there and by Jailbreak they got it. The production’s not perfect, but the band knew what they were doing, the songwriting came together.
Def Leppard is planning to release a new album sometime soon. Joe tells us there’s a song that really sounds like Thin Lizzy on it.