Thin Lizzy’s songs typically addressed badass rock & roll topics like bar fights, jailbreaks and medieval battles. But on Black Rose: A Rock Legend — their ninth LP, released 40 years ago today — the band paid tribute to their Irish homeland with a highly unusual and weirdly touching album-closing epic.
“Tell me the legends of long ago,” Phil Lynott sings over a rolling, waltz-time riff at the beginning of “Róisín Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend,” named for an old Irish song that addresses the country as though it were a lover. “When the kings and queens would dance in the realm of the black rose. Play me their melodies, I want to know. So I can teach my children, oh.”
During the next seven minutes, the band puts its spin on various beloved Irish melodies, such as “Shenandoah” and “Danny Boy,” as Lynott sings of Irish mythological hero Cú Chulainn and embarks on a wild string of puns and plays-on-words as he shouts out iconic denizens of the Emerald Isle, from W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde (“While William Butler waits/And Oscar, he’s going Wilde”) to Van Morrison (“Van is the man”) and Brendan Behan (“Brendan, where have you Behan?”).
Six-stringers Scott Gorham — who will lead a latter-day Thin Lizzy through a full-album Black Rose performance in July at Wales’ Steelhouse Festival — and Gary Moore have a blast applying the band’s signature two-guitar harmonies to the jaunty traditional themes, as drummer Brian Downey somehow manages to make the song’s odd, skipping rhythm swing like crazy.
“It’s based on legends,” Lynott said of the song, the Gaelic title of which is pronounced “raw-sheen dove,” in a radio interview a few months after the album’s release. “I wrote the number about two years, and I tried to get as many legends and myths and good things about Ireland in it. Like, there’s a line ‘Georgie knows Best’ [a reference to Irish soccer star George Best, a friend of Lynott’s] and ‘Oscar’s so Wilde’ and ‘It was the joy that Joyce brought to me.’
“And Gary had a few jigs and reels that he knew, him being Irish as well,” Lynott continued. “He added a bit to it, and he had a few original Irish things that he came up with, and it ended up being the longest track on the album and the hardest for us to work out, so consequently we gave it the title track. ‘Róisín Dubh’ is the Irish for ‘black rose’ or ‘dark rose,’ which is a name they had for Ireland in the old days during the Troubles, and the poets, when they’d write about Ireland, they’d call it ‘my dark rose’ or ‘Róisín Dubh,’ and that was basically where the idea came from.”
In his memoir, Black Rose co-producer Tony Visconti wrote of the song: “Phil Lynott had outdone himself with writing a true Celtic rock opus.”
Here you can watch the band play an abridged version of “Róisín Dubh,” culminating in a stunning Downey drum solo, at a 1981 German show. Gary Moore had left the band by this point, so Snowy White takes his place on guitar.
Black Rose, which went silver in the U.K., followed Thin Lizzy’s double-platinum Live and Dangerous release. The band would make three more LPs before splitting up in 1983. Lynott’s alcohol and drug abuse — addressed in the Black Rose song “Got to Give It Up” — worsened, and sadly, he died just three years later, succumbing to pneumonia and heart failure due to septicaemia. An inscription on his gravestone reads:
Go dtuga Dia
suaimhneas da anam.
[“May God give peace to his soul.”]