Thin Lizzy: The Boys Are Back In Town & Dino's Bar and Grill
In 1976, Irish rock band Thin Lizzy released their sixth, and most successful studio album. ‘Jailbreak’ put them on the map in the US with their biggest US hit, ‘The Boys Are Back In Town.’ Released as a single, it was named the 1976 single of the year by the British newspaper New Music Express and in 2021 was listed by Rolling Stone at number 272 on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
In February of 1976, the band, consisting of Phil Lynott on bass and lead vocals, drummer Brian Downey and guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson set up at Ramport Studios in London to record the album. Owned by the rock band The Who, the studio has been used by bands like Supertramp, who recorded their 1974 breakthrough album, ‘Crime Of The Century,’ and Judas Priest for their major label debut ‘Sin After Sin.’
Their label, Vertigo, told them it was their last chance to produce a breakthrough record. They ripped through the recording of the album quickly, leaving guitarists Gorham and Roberton unimpressed. Gorham didn’t like his guitar tone - produced by John Alcock - and Robertson felt that he wasn’t given enough freedom to improve his solos. Nonetheless, the album was released, and they toured the US to promote the album. While on tour, the band was surprised to learn that was becoming a hit. The song's success was attributed to two Kentucky DJs who played the song constantly. Gorham recalls:
“Jailbreak wasn't shifting and we weren't selling any tickets...Had that song not kickstarted the sales of the album, then the band was over.”
After hearing it on the radio station and calling to request it, people started calling other radio stations as well; they started playing it and it got a ton of exposure across the US and everyone fell in love with it. It was at this point that the record label decided to release ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ as a single. Unfortunately, the 1976 tour had to be cut short after Lynott contracted hepatitis and management decided it was best to cut the tour short to allow the frontman to focus on his health.
Ironically, the song was almost left off the album. Originally titled ‘GI Joe,’ it hadn’t made the original ten-song cut. According to Scott Gorham:
“We had demoed about fifteen tracks for what became the Jailbreak album, and we’d selected those we felt were the ten best ones. Then our co-manager Chris O’Donnell came down to listen to the songs, and we played him all fifteen. He picked up on something we’d titled GI Joe, but we had already rejected it as not good enough for the album. He liked it and told us that we should include it. We accepted his judgment, but there was still work to be done, because the lyrics were anti-war, which wasn’t really right for us, and musically it wasn’t there. However, we sorted it all out, and GI Joe turned into The Boys Are Back In Town.”
The band had no expectation that the song would ever become as popular as it did. It wasn’t even finished when they entered the studio to record the album. Gorham said:
“To us, this was a decent album track, no more. We certainly did not think it could be a single!”
Gorham remembers how it all started:
“I was at Phil Lynott’s house, and we were in his living room, going over songs we’d been working on for the album. At the end of the sessions, Phil played me this bass line and asked what I thought of it. He then started to scat sing some lyrical notions he had in his head. From there we fleshed out a verse and a chorus.”
“It was just Phil and me involved. But the next day at a band rehearsal, all four of us – including Brian Robertson and Brian Downey – played through the skeleton of the track. Brian Downey did this shuffle on the drums, and that’s when things began to take shape. Because I got the idea from him for what became the guitar harmony you hear now. We had an eight-track recorder in the rehearsal room, which was used to demo songs, and that’s when we did the version of GI Joe which our manager heard and liked..it wasn’t a complete track even by this time. We actually still didn’t have the title. But then one day. Phil came into the studio and said he wanted to call the song ‘The Boys Are Back In Town.’ He also had the lyrics written, and I read through them, thinking: ‘Hey, now this is fucking cool!’ Brian Robertson and I then got the guitar harmonies finished to our satisfaction. Although the guitar part in the middle of the song that helped to make it work so well came from Phil. He played it on the bass, and then Brian and I adapted it to the guitar.”
Dino's Bar & Grill
Friday night they'll be dressed to kill
Down at Dino's Bar'n'Grill
The drink will flow and blood will spill
And if the boys wanna fight, you better let 'em
Dino’s Bar and Grill, mentioned in the fourth verse of ‘The Boys Are Back In Town,’ is a reference to a place that is still debated. In Manchester, England, you’ll be told that the song is about the Quality Street Gang, a mafia-adjacent gang that hung around a club called the Showbiz; a club that was run by Phil Lynott’s mother. A member of the gang was Jimmy “The Weed" Donnelly, the subject of a song on Thin Lizzy's next album called ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed.’ The Quality Street Gang also frequented Dino's, another Manchester nightclub. In the US, Dino's Lodge was a Hollywood cabaret with a Dean Martin theme (Martin was a business partner). Scott Gorham has claimed, after Lynott’s death, that it was this California establishment that was referenced in the song. The Manchester hangout of the Quality Street Gang seems a far more likely place for “blood to spill.” The band would often drink heavily, stir up trouble and end up in fights. They hired roadies largely based on their ability to fight. It also should be noted that it was Lynott who wrote the lyrics to the song - not his California-born guitarist, Gorham.
The ‘Jailbreak’ album is certified gold in the US, Canada, and the UK. ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ single reached number 1 on the charts in Ireland; peaked at number 8 in Canada and the UK, and settled at number twelve in the US on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Luckily for the band, they decided to let co-manager Chris O’Donnell listen to all fifteen demo tracks…