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The Story Behind the Song: Thin Lizzy’s weekend anthem ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’

Certain songs don’t seem to have been written in the traditional sense; like some berserk 1990s Nic Cage movie, they seem like they had to be created to save the world from slipping into a doomed alternate reality. That is the case with ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’; it is simply too deeply entwined with society to imagine the human race without it. From the first chord, you know what’s coming next, and the title is so ubiquitous that scientists ought to check that the lyrics are programmed somewhere in our DNA if they ever get a spare five minutes.

Fortunately for Thin Lizzy, they happened upon the fated weekend anthem in the nick of time. In 1972 ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ had landed them a monumental hit in their native Ireland, and whilst it travelled just fine, it was rubbing shoulders with strong international competition. Thus, the band were swamped under the melee of 1970s rock greatness. They were in debt to their label and on the brink of being dropped from their label if the record Jailbreak flopped. ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ was the first single, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

So, who were these notorious boys that Phil Lynott speaks of? Much of Lynott’s childhood was spent skipping between his grandparents in Ireland and his mother, who ran a nightclub in Manchester. During his stays with his mother, Lynott observed the Manchester club scene with a keen eye. The singer became aware of the infamous Manchester Mafia known as the Quality Street Gang, who would frequent his mother’s club.

As the Manchester folklore goes from the time, the Quality Street Gang were apparently a smartly sartorial bunch, clad in clothes that were “dressed to kill”, hence the lyric. The argument postulated by Manchester locals that the song was indeed about the ‘QSG’ gains credibility when you consider that Thin Lizzy’s next album Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed, was about gang’s ringleader Jimmy ‘The Weed’ Donnelly. 

The song is also scattered with other references to the QSG’s hotspots, including Deno’s, a Manchester nightclub probably referred to in the lyric ‘Down at Dino’s Bar and Grill’.

Amazing the success of such an eponymous rock hit took the band by surprise. Ad guitarist Scott Gorham told Classic Rock, “We were playing in some club in the US when our manager came in and said, ‘Well, looks like we’ve got a hit.’ We were like, ‘Which song?’ Seriously, we didn’t have any idea at all which song it was that had taken off for us.” 

Before adding, “To tell you the truth, we weren’t initially going to put ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ on the Jailbreak album at all. Back then, you picked ten songs and went with those because of the time restrictions of vinyl.”

“We recorded 15 songs, and of the 10 we picked, that wasn’t one of them,” Gorham added. “But then the management heard it and said, ‘No, there’s something really good about this song.’ Although back then, it didn’t yet have the twin guitar parts on it.”

It seems incredulous now to think of this song as anything other than a sure-fire hit. It is a track full of more testosterone than a bodybuilding contest and more leather-clad ego than a field of the most arrogant cows in Aberdeenshire. It is a track that makes subtlety seem senseless and celebrates cliches, and with it, they hit the nail so firmly on the head that it is still lodged in the legend of weekend rock history to this day.