Thin Lizzy were founded one night in late December 1969 in Dublin, Ireland, when Belfast guitarist Eric Bell met up with organist Eric Wrixon in a pub and found that they shared an ambition to form a group. The same night, they went to see the band Orphanage, which featured vocalist Phil Lynott and drummer Brian Downey. Bell and Wrixon introduced themselves after the gig and suggested the four of them form a band together. Lynott and Downey were aware of Bell's good musical reputation, and agreed with the condition that Lynott play bass guitar as well as sing, and that they perform some of his own compositions.
In July 1970, Thin Lizzy released a single, The Farmer/I Need You, on EMI with the B-side written by John D'ardis, who owned Trend Studios where the single was recorded. The single sold just 283 copies and is now a collectors' item. Wrixon left the band before the single's release and moved to mainland Europe before returning to Belfast, rejoining his old band, Them. By the end of the year, Thin Lizzy were signed to Decca Records and they travelled to London in January 1971 to record their debut album, Thin Lizzy. The album sold moderately well but did not chart in the UK despite airplay and support from influential DJs John Peel and Kid Jensen.
Around March 1971, the band permanently relocated to London, before the release of the unsuccessful New Day EP in August. Despite poor sales, Decca agreed to finance the band's second album Shades of a Blue Orphanage, released in March 1972. Like the previous LP, the songs were filled with Lynott's personal anecdotes and references to his life in Dublin and the people he knew there. Musically the style was Celtic, with little warning of the hard rock direction that the band were to take in the future. Again, the album did not chart in the UK.
In mid-1972, Thin Lizzy were asked to record an album of Deep Purple covers, which was released under the title Funky Junction Play a Tribute to Deep Purple. No mention was made of Thin Lizzy on the record. Vocals and keyboards were handled by members of another band, Elmer Fudd, and a few instrumental tracks composed by the band were also included on the album. The album was released in January 1973.
In late 1972, the band embarked upon a high-profile tour of the UK with Slade, who were enjoying a string of hit singles at the time, and Suzi Quatro. Around the same time, Decca decided to release Thin Lizzy's version of a traditional Irish ballad, Whiskey In The Jar, as a single. The band was angry at the release, feeling that the song did not represent their sound or their image, but the single topped the Irish chart, and reached no. 6 in the UK in February 1973, resulting in an appearance on Top Of The Pops. It also charted in many countries across Europe. However, the follow-up single, Randolph's Tango, was a return to Lynott's more obscure work, and it did not chart outside Ireland.
The band's next album, Vagabonds of the Western World, was released in September 1973 to positive reviews, but again failed to chart. The accompanying single The Rocker also found little success outside Ireland, and the momentum gained from their hit single was lost.
Eric Bell suddenly left the band on New Year's Eve 1973 after a gig at Queen's University Belfast, due to increasing ill-health and disillusionment with the music industry, and young ex-Skid Row guitarist Gary Moore was recruited to help finish the tour. Moore stayed until April 1974, but the band recorded three songs with him in that time, including the version of Still In Love With You that was included on the fourth album Nightlife.
With the departure of Moore, Lynott decided to expand the line-up with two guitarists, and recruited two temporary members to complete a tour of Germany in May 1974. These were ex-Atomic Rooster and Hard Stuff guitarist John Cann, and Berliner Andy Gee, who had played with Peter Bardens and Ellis. Neither were considered as permanent members, as Lynott and Cann did not get on well personally, and Gee was under contract to another record label. The tour was ended early, and with Thin Lizzy's contract with Decca coming to an end, a disillusioned Downey quit the band and had to be begged to return.
Auditions were held for new members, and Lynott and Downey eventually settled on Glaswegian guitarist Brian Robertson who was only 17 years old at the time, and Californian Scott Gorham. The new line-up gelled quickly, dropped most of the old songs when they played live, and secured a new record deal with Phonogram, but the resulting album Nightlife was a disappointment for the band due to its soft production and underdeveloped style. Robertson described Ron Nevison's production as "pretty naff" and Gorham said the record was "ridiculously tame". Like the previous three albums, it failed to chart.
In early 1975, Thin Lizzy toured the USA for the first time, in support of Bob Seger and Bachman–Turner Overdrive. They then recorded the Fighting album, which became the first Thin Lizzy album to chart in the UK, reaching no. 60, although the singles still did not chart. Opening with Seger's Rosalie, the album showed the first real evidence of the twin guitar sound that would lead the band towards their greatest successes, particularly with the dual harmonies of Wild One and both guitarists' soloing on Suicide.
After a successful multi-band tour in support of Status Quo, the band recorded the album Jailbreak, which proved to be their breakthrough record. Released on 26 March 1976, it featured the worldwide hit The Boys Are Back in Town which reached no. 8 in the UK, and no. 12 in the US, their first charting record in that country. The twin guitar sound had been fully developed by this time and was in evidence throughout the album, particularly on the hit single, and other tracks such as Emerald and Warriors. The album also charted well on both sides of the Atlantic, and the follow-up single, Jailbreak, also performed well. Thin Lizzy toured the US in support of various bands such as Aerosmith, Rush and REO Speedwagon, and they planned to tour there again in June 1976, this time with Rainbow. However, Lynott fell ill with hepatitis and the tour was cancelled, which set them back a few months.
While Lynott was ill, he wrote most of the following album, Johnny The Fox. The album was recorded in August 1976 and the sessions began to reveal tensions between Lynott and Robertson; for example, there was disagreement over the composition credits of the hit single Don't Believe A Word. Lynott was still drawing on Celtic mythology and his own personal experiences for lyric ideas, which dominated Johnny The Fox and the other albums of Thin Lizzy's successful mid-1970s period. The tour to support the album was very successful and there were further high-profile TV appearances, such as the Rod Stewart BBC TV Special.
A further tour of the USA was planned for December 1976, but it had to be cancelled when, on 23 November, Brian Robertson suffered a hand injury when trying to protect fellow Glaswegian, singer and friend Frankie Miller in a fracas at the Speakeasy Club in London. Miller had been jamming onstage with the reggae band Gonzalez, but had been drunk, offending Gonzalez guitarist Gordon Hunte. Hunte attacked Miller with a bottle in the dressing room, and Robertson intervened, suffering artery and nerve damage to his hand. Robertson subsequently broke Hunte's leg, broke the collarbone of another man, and headbutted another, before being hit on the head with a bottle, rendering him unconscious.
Robertson maintains that, contrary to reports at the time, he was not drunk and had only gone to the venue for a meal. Lynott was angry and replaced Robertson with Gary Moore for another tour of the States in January–March 1977, this time supporting Queen. The tour was a success and Lynott asked Moore to stay on, but he returned to his previous band, Colosseum II. Robertson had not been sacked but was unsure of his position and made plans to start another band with Jimmy Bain of Rainbow. Before the American tour, Lynott had also invited Irish guitarist Jimi Slevin to "try out a few things" with Thin Lizzy, prompting speculation that the ex-Skid Row member could replace Robertson.
Thin Lizzy flew to Canada in May 1977 as a trio to record Bad Reputation, with Gorham handling all the guitar parts. A month into the sessions Robertson joined them, in his own words, "as a session player" and in Lynott's words, "as a guest". Robertson added lead guitar tracks to three songs as well as rhythm guitar and keyboards, and was officially reinstated in July. The album was released in September and sold well, reaching no. 4 in the UK, after a successful single, Dancing In The Moonlight. Also in 1977, Thin Lizzy headlined the Reading Festival.
In 1978, Lizzy released their first live album Live and Dangerous. There is some disagreement over just how much of the album is actually recorded live – producer Tony Visconti claimed that the only parts that were not overdubbed were the drums and the audience. However Brian Robertson has disputed this, saying that he had refused Lynott's request to re-record a guitar solo, and that the only overdubs were backing vocals and some guitar parts by Gorham. He added, "It's just not true. The only reason we said that it was recorded all over was obviously for tax reasons... so everything that Visconti claims is bollocks". Gorham concurs, stating that he attempted to re-record a solo but could not recreate the live sound, adding, "I re-did one rhythm track and a few backing vocals. But that's it." The album was a huge success, reaching no. 2 in the UK, and was ranked as the best live album of all time by Classic Rock Magazine in 2004. But this success was overshadowed by the permanent departure of Robertson some time after a gig in Ibiza on 6 July 1978, the disagreements with Lynott having developed to an impossible level. Robertson soon teamed up with Jimmy Bain to front their new band, Wild Horses.
Lynott replaced Robertson with Gary Moore again, and around this time the band loosely joined forces with Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, and also Chris Spedding and Jimmy Bain, to form The Greedy Bastards, who played a small number of gigs playing a varied selection of songs. In this way Lynott was able to align his band with the punk movement and avoid being tagged as a 'dinosaur' as many other 1970s rock bands had been.
In August the band began another tour of the USA, followed by a trip to Australia and New Zealand. Brian Downey did not accompany them, having contracted pneumonia and preferring to spend some time in Ireland. He was replaced for the tour by American drummer Mark Nauseef. On their return, Downey rejoined the band and at the beginning of 1979 they recorded Black Rose: A Rock Legend In Paris. The sessions were marked by the increasing drug habits of Lynott and Gorham, and the general presence of drugs around the band. This also showed in the subject matter on the album, in songs such as Got To Give It Up. Celtic influences remained, however, particularly in the album closer Róisín Dubh, a seven-minute medley of traditional Irish songs given a twin guitar rock veneer. Two singles, Waiting For An Alibi and Do Anything You Want To, were successful, and the album reached no. 2 in the UK. A third, moderately successful single, Sarah was Lynott's ode to his new-born daughter. However, on 4 July 1979, Gary Moore abruptly left Thin Lizzy in the middle of another tour of the USA. Years later, Moore said he had no regrets about walking out, "but maybe it was wrong the way I did it. I could've done it differently, I suppose. But I just had to leave".
After Moore's departure, Thin Lizzy continued the tour for a few nights as a trio before Lynott brought in Midge Ure to replace him on a temporary basis. Ure had prior plans to join Ultravox, but had co-written a song, Get Out Of Here, with Lynott on Black Rose: A Rock Legend, and agreed to help Thin Lizzy complete their touring commitments. He also contributed guitar parts for The Continuing Saga of the Ageing Orphans, a compilation album of remixed and overdubbed versions of Eric Bell-era tracks. On their return to the UK, the band were to headline the Reading Festival for the second time on 25 August 1979, but had to cancel due to the disruption within the line-up.
Before a tour of Japan beginning in September, Lynott decided to bring in another guitarist, Dave Flett, who had played with Manfred Mann's Earth Band, to enable Ure to switch to playing keyboards where necessary. The tour was completed successfully, but the line-up now contained two temporary members, and Lynott was spending a lot of time on projects outside Thin Lizzy, including composing and producing material for other bands, as well as putting together his first solo album, Solo in Soho. Lynott also reactivated The Greedy Bastards, who released a one-off Christmas single, A Merry Jingle, in December 1979 as simply The Greedies. With the group now composed of Lynott, Gorham and Downey with Sex Pistols Jones and Cook, the single reached no. 28 in the UK.
While Lynott searched for a permanent guitarist, he and the other members of Thin Lizzy, past and present, worked on Solo in Soho which was released in April 1980, and the next Thin Lizzy album, Chinatown. Dave Flett had hoped to be made a permanent member of Thin Lizzy but Lynott chose Snowy White, who had played with Pink Floyd and Peter Green. Midge Ure was still acting as a temporary keyboard player at gigs during early 1980, but was replaced by Darren Wharton in April, shortly after White joined the band. Wharton was only 17 at the time and was initially hired on a temporary basis. This new line-up completed the Chinatown album between short tours, and two singles were released from it. The first, Chinatown, reached no. 21 in the UK, but the second, Killer On The Loose, reached the top 10 amid much adverse publicity due to the ongoing activities of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, known as "The Yorkshire Ripper".
Chinatown was finally released in October 1980, and reached no. 7 in the UK, but by this time Thin Lizzy albums were not even reaching the top 100 in the USA. After a successful tour of Japan and Australia, the band undertook what was to be their final tour of the USA in late 1980. At the beginning of 1981, Lynott began work on his second solo album, using Thin Lizzy members among a large group of backing musicians. Around the same time, the band were recording material for the next Thin Lizzy album, and as before, the sessions seemed to merge to the extent that musicians were not always sure which album they were working on. Producer for the Thin Lizzy sessions, Chris Tsangarides, stated, "The feeling of confusion was in the air in that sometimes nobody knew if they were working on a Phil solo record or a Lizzy album." Snowy White had previously felt that, as a member of Thin Lizzy, he should have been paid as a session player to appear on Lynott's solo recordings.
In April 1981, the band's first 'greatest hits' album was released, and The Adventures of Thin Lizzy reached no. 6 in the UK, although a stand-alone single, Trouble Boys, only reached no. 53, the band's worst chart placing since 1975. According to White and Wharton, Lynott was the only person who wanted to release it, and nobody else liked the song. Trouble Boys had even been pencilled in as the title for the new album, but the single's chart failure resulted in the song being dropped from the album and the title changed to Renegade. One highlight for the band at this time was headlining the first-ever Slane Castle concert on 16 August, with support from Kirsty McColl, Hazel O'Connor and U2.
Lynott's second solo album, The Philip Lynott Album, was delayed until 1982 while Renegade was completed and released in November 1981. Renegade was not successful, only reaching no. 38 in the UK and no. 157 in the US. A single, Hollywood (Down on Your Luck), also flopped, although it did reach no. 24 on the US Mainstream Rock chart. Despite only two songs from the album being written solely by Lynott, and other members of the band contributing more to the compositions, both Gorham and Wharton have since stated their dissatisfaction with some of the songs, such as Angel of Death, Fats and Mexican Blood. Wharton was omitted from the band photos on the back of the record sleeve, despite the fact that he was by this time a permanent member of the band. "It hurt me a great deal", he said.
The beginning of 1982 was marred by both Downey and Gorham having to take breaks from the European tour to recover from personal problems. Downey was involved in a fight in a nightclub in Denmark in February, and Gorham was suffering from drug-induced exhaustion. Downey missed five concerts, and was replaced by Mark Nauseef again for three of them, and by Mike Mesbur of support band The Lookalikes for the other two. In March, Gorham collapsed and returned home; eight concerts were performed as a quartet and six others were postponed.
Snowy White left the band in August 1982, having tired of the disorganised schedules and Lynott's drug problems, although by his own admission he was too restrained and quiet to fit in well with his more raucous bandmates. Long-time co-manager Chris O'Donnell also left at this time, later stating, "A once-brilliant band was turning to crap before my very eyes".
Lynott wanted to find a replacement for White before starting to record the next album, which would turn out to be the band's last. By September 1982, he had settled on John Sykes who had been a member of Tygers of Pan Tang, and he co-wrote the first single from the album, Cold Sweat, although the rest of the album had already been written. Thunder & Lightning was released in March 1983, and was much more successful than its predecessor, reaching no. 4 in the UK. Sykes' presence had rejuvenated the band musically, the composing credits were evenly shared, and the style had grown much heavier, veering towards heavy metal.
The tour to support the album was to be a farewell tour, although Lynott was not convinced that this would be the end of the band. Sykes wanted to continue, although Gorham had had enough. The tour was successful, and some concerts were recorded to compile a live album. Partway into the tour, many of Thin Lizzy's past guitarists were invited onstage to contribute to some of the songs they had originally recorded, the only exception being Snowy White. The album was released in October 1983 as Life, which included an older performance of Renegade featuring White, and reached no. 29 in the UK. The tour continued while two more singles were released, the last of them, The Sun Goes Down, only reaching no. 52 in August.
After a difficult leg of the tour in Japan, where some members of the band had difficulty obtaining heroin, Thin Lizzy played their final UK concert before their break-up at the Reading Festival on 28 August 1983, which was eventually released in 1992 as their BBC Radio One Live in Concert album. The last concert came in Nuremberg on 4 September, at the Monsters of Rock festival, after which the band members went their separate ways.