Here’s to ‘Whiskey in the Jar’!
On this St Patrick’s weekend, Eric Montfort vividly recalls a version of the classic Whiskey in the Jar that was doing the rounds in the UK charts back in 1973.
I vividly recall the first time I heard Whiskey in The Jar. This was back sometime on a cold wintry Sunday afternoon at the Hotel Cote d’Or, now revamped as the Golden Sands Complex, back in February 1973. I was only 12 then, but full of enthusiasm for the pop and rock scene. My parents took me and my younger sister out and we were having tea there, and listening to the newly set-up Radio Malta on our Convair Radio. Then, the station used to broadcast on 999kHz Medium Wave only. On that day, there was Vincent Scerri. He had only left Rediffusion some six weeks before and took up the weekend afternoon slots with Radio Malta instead. I just could not believe what I was hearing when I heard the wonderful guitar sounds that opened this song. Then, I did not even know that Whiskey in The Jar was an old Irish tune. Soon, I would listen to it quite often as the song would enter the UK charts becoming Thin Lizzy’s first hit. It would also introduce the band to an exciting new crowd, and open the door to more wonderful, expressive and eclectic hard rock songs, which have yet to be emulated.
Thin Lizzy had actually formed a few months before. The band was based in Dublin and featured bass player and lead vocalist Phil Lynott, guitarist Eric Bell and drummer Brian Downey. Lynott and Downey hailed from Dublin and were Catholics, but Eric Bell came from protestant east Belfast. Despite the steep tensions that existed then, just a few months after the Londonderry debacle, the trio made it clear that they would not discuss politics and were only intent to focusing on their music. They did so with sheer panache on their take of what is arguably one of the most popular Irish traditional songs ever. The song dates back many years, as much as four centuries ago. Its origins are unknown and may also be associated with another folk song, a broadside ballad called Patrick Fleming, a valiant highwayman, who was betrayed and jailed, eventually executed in 1650. After all, Whiskey in the Jar is all about a highwayman who robs a military official and ends up betrayed by Molly, his lover and ends up in jail. Different names and occurrences are given in various variations of this song. The song endured, and even migrated to the USA, when many British and Irish crossed the Atlantic and settled in New England, USA. There would be versions sung in Massachusetts, and in New York. In more recent times, The Dubliners gave the song a big boost in the 60s, and another great Irish band, The Clancys used to sing it live but never actually recorded it. The Seekers in 1964, also lauded this folk-song and in the USA, the song would end up interpreted by Burl Ives, The Brothers Four and Peter Paul Mary, back in those times.
Thin Lizzy turned this song on its head. Their version of Whiskey in The Jar showed them in tight form, delivering with sheer determination and wonderful melodies, which sadly can never be emulated. A colleague of mine, Belfast man Ronnie Ringland, recalls meeting former guitarist Eric Bell after he had left the band. “Eric Bell named the band Thin Lizzy, after Tin Lizzie, a character in The Dandy comic. He co-wrote a number of songs with Phil Lynott and Brian Downey and although a massive hit for the band, Whiskey in the Jar was actually meant to be the B-side of the release. They recorded "Black Boys on the Corner" as the A-side and put the old Irish Song on the B-side because they didn't have anything else. It was the record company that decided to make "Whiskey in the Jar" the A-side.”
“Eric was born on the Woodstock Road, East Belfast (just around the corner from where I’m from) and still regularly plays in Belfast at the annual Woodstock Rhythm and Blues Festival. He hasn’t lost his roots and during the festival can be seen happily having a drink at his former local bar – The Longfellow - chatting with the patrons. He went to Orangefield Boys School in East Belfast (as did Van Morrison) and he’s still revered in his native east Belfast as the Blues Godfather. He has worked with a host of great musicians including Van Morrison, Noel Redding, Rory Gallagher and Bo Diddley and in 2005, he joined another east Belfast man, the late Gary Moore, onstage to perform "Whiskey in the Jar" at the Phil Lynott tribute concert in Dublin. Looking back, Eric feels the worst moment in his music career was the night he freaked out at a gig in Belfast and left Thin Lizzy. (He threw his guitar into the crowd and kicked over the amps). “
Whiskey in the Jar went on to be covered by the likes of Grateful Dead and became hugely popular when Metallica did their own heavier interpretation in 1998 on their Grammy winning Garage Inc. However, Thin Lizzy’s version remains the most influential, not least because of its brilliant lyrical guitar arrangements which would in turn influence U2’s style. They too have time and again covered this song.
Thin Lizzy performance of Whiskey in the Jar in 1973:
Eric Bell and Gary Moore - Two of Belfast’s finest: