Eric Bell: 'If I hadn't left Thin Lizzy I'd be either dead or a junkie - I was a basket case'
The original Thin Lizzy guitarist - east Belfast-born Eric Bell - reveals how his parents 'freaked' when he told them he wanted to become a guitar player, how he helped start and name one of the most revered rock bands of all time by accident and how no one could ever tell what Van Morrison was going to do next.
Q. What was life like for you growing up in east Belfast?
A. It was a different society from today. It was all to do with serving your apprenticeship - that was the number one goal in life in those days.
In 1962 I left school, at 16, to become a motor mechanic. One day I came home and told my parents that I'd left the garage, and it was like civil war in the house. They just freaked completely. Even my friends said I was stupid.
Q. When did you first perform in front of people?
A. I went to Orangefield boys' school and I heard there was a little group formed by guys in the school.
I went to see them practising. They had little amplifiers and a drum kit. It was the first time I'd ever seen people playing electric guitar in the same room. It was unbelievable.
I started playing with little groups around Belfast at that time, then one night a showband, the Bluebeats, called round to my house.
I wasn't interested. I wanted to play rock 'n' roll and blues, but they said they were based in Glasgow and I went "what, you're professional?"
So that was my first professional job, going to Glasgow with these cowboys from Belfast.
Q. You had a stint with Them and Van Morrison. How was that?
A. That happened maybe two years after the Bluebeats split up. I came back to Belfast and got a nine-to-five job again. One day I was in this music shop called Crimbles - it was a very popular place at the time and was near Matchetts music shop in town.
All the musicians would meet up there every Saturday afternoon and not buy anything.
One day Van Morrison walked in and it was like "what?" This guy was like a superstar.
He said: "Hiya, are you Eric Bell? I'm Van Morrison." I said: "I know who you are." I went up to his house and he said: "I'm going to put this tape on, can you jam along with the songs? The first one's in G"
That was my introduction and I just played off the top of my head. He seemed to like what I did.
We went out and did a few gigs, which were very strange because you didn't know what that guy was gonna do, even then.
Q. In what way? What do you mean by that?
A. I had this list of songs we'd rehearsed on my amplifier. The first gig was in the Square One club, which was in Royal Avenue. We opened the club and it was absolutely stuffed with people.
We walked on and I started to play that riff for Baby Please Don't Go,.Van turns round and says: "We'll start in blues in E".
I said, "What about the list?" and he said to forget about it. It was such a fabulous experience. I'd never experienced it before, making music on the spot.
Q. And did you get on particularly well with him?
A. Oh no, forget it. I really admired the guy for his music and he was so dedicated and determined. He was incredibly well-known, but no one cared about him. No one was managing him or getting him gigs - he was doing it all himself.
Q You moved to Dublin to join another showband, the Dreams, and then helped form Thin Lizzy. What happened?
A. I'd left the Dreams. I just wanted to play guitar and you can't do that in a showband playing Simple Simon Says.
As the weeks went past and my money was running out I thought, "What have I done?" I was asking a lot of musicians to form a group with me and no one was interested. I went one night to this club with (Belfast organist for Them and later Thin Lizzy) Eric Wrixon.
We knew the owner of the club and he let us in for nothing - that's why we went.
Half an hour later this band walked on stage called Orphanage. I thought, "Wow". Philip (Lynott, future Thin Lizzy frontman) was out front singing. Brian Downey on the drums knocked me sidewards - his playing was incredible.
Q. What impression did Phil Lynott make on you that night?
A. I was talking to Philip. I don't know what he thought of me that night. I was wearing a showband suit and my hair was incredibly short. He just sort of looked at me and thought I was from the drugs squad. I looked really straight.
I kept saying to him, "I'm looking out for a bass player and drummer".
I was just about to walk out of the changing room and Philip called me back. If that hadn't happened there would have been no Thin Lizzy. He came up to my flat a week later with a reel of three songs, just him and an acoustic guitar. They were really quality lyrics, singing and chord construction.
I said, "Man, they're excellent." I knew I could work my guitar playing into it and that's how Thin Lizzy started.
Q. Famously, you came up with the name of the band.
A. I got this very profound idea that people in Dublin talk differently from people in Belfast. They don't pronounce their Hs and they say 'Tick' instead of thick.
So I had this idea of a female robot out of the Dandy called Tin Lizzy. I said, "Why don't we call the band Tin Lizzy, but put an H in it and people in Dublin will still pronounce it the same way?" It was that deep.
Q. In the early days you shared a house with Phil Lynott in Dublin. Was he a good flatmate?
A. Yes, he was. It became a commune. We moved in first, then our girlfriends and others, until there was about 11 of us living there and obviously smoking dope all day and listening to records all day and night. We were all really into music.
This was quite an upmarket area in Dublin called Clontarf. A lot of rich people live there and they tried to get us out with this petition of about 40 names.
We got this reputation of being an open house, of these vans and minibuses turning up about half one in the morning - groups who had just played a gig in Dublin. So you're talking maybe 30 people in our front room. It was crazy.
Q. The first big hit for Thin Lizzy was Whiskey in the Jar, and you composed the guitar section. What was it like to have that breakthrough?
A. It was a complete shock because we didn't want to record it from the start. It was done as a joke.
It was our first single for Decca Records, called Black Boys On The Corner, that we wanted that as the A-side, but we had no B-side.
Our manager suggested we try Whiskey in the Jar. We hated it but he said, "Why don't you try it anyway?"
They gave me a cassette and asked me to work out some guitar work. It took me forever, about five or six weeks. It was the most difficult piece of music I'd tried to make something up for in my life.
Q. You had a sudden exit from Thin Lizzy in 1973 after a gig at Queen's University in Belfast. Why?
A. It was something of a relief. If I hadn't have left I'd be either dead or a junkie and alcoholic, take your pick.
I was going off the rails - an awful lot of drink, drugs, taking acid, Valium from the doctor. I was like a basket case basically.
There were also a lot of serious problems in my private life. My relationship broke up. I had a 10-month-old son who my girlfriend took away with another bloke. So all this was only going on at the same time and I was only about 21 or 22.
I wasn't happy with my playing either and I had stopped practising. Everything came to a head that night.
I was just out of it, I didn't know where I was, who I was or what I as doing. This little warning voice inside me said: "Eric, you've gotta get out of here. You've gotta leave tonight or you're f*****".
So I listened to that voice and physically took my guitar off and threw it in the air and kicked all my amplifiers off and staggered off the stage.
Q. Was it strange that all of this happened while you were in your hometown?
A. Absolutely, and the funny thing about it is that at Queen's University I'd also had a row with Van Morrison and left him that night as well.
Q. Have you dared to play at Queen's since?
A. Yes, I have played there and I was a bit spooked.
Q. You went on to play with The Noel Redding Band (the famous bass player for the Jimi Hendrix Experience). How was that?
A. I'd moved to Dublin after being in London with Thin Lizzy. One day I got this phone call. "Can I speak to Eric Bell, please, this is Noel Redding."
I thought it was one of my mates joking... Jimi Hendrix's bass player phoning you just out of the blue?
He said: "I heard you left Thin Lizzy. I'm forming a new band. Do you fancy coming down for a jam? I'm living in west Cork."
A week later I got the train down and Noel was standing waiting for me at the platform. It was like he just walked off an LP cover. He looked amazing.
He had little pink glasses and incredible clothes that you just wouldn't get in Cork.
I got off the train with my bag and he says, "Allo mate, I'm Noel. Do you play darts?"
That was the first thing he says to me. I said, "Yes", and he says, "Right, you're in the band."
There was a bar on the platform. We went in and had a pint of Guinness and a game of darts and that was my audition.
We went out of the train station and he had this real flash, light yellow and black sports Ford Capri. It really looked the business.
We went to his house in the middle of nowhere. It was this massive old Georgian farmhouse. He lived there with his American girlfriend, Carol. Noel was very hard to get on with at that point in time. He was on a bottle of gin a day, six pints of Guinness and very strong dope.
I was out of the frying pan into the fire. He would get very cynical sometimes and start ranting and raving. I said to myself, "I'm getting out of here, this guy's a weirdo."
Q. I would have thought the fact you both played with iconic frontmen gave you something in common. Was that not so?
A. In a way. The real Noel came through now and again, but he'd get so wrecked and out of it after being with Hendrix for four years.
The only reason I stayed in the band was for an 11-week tour all over the US. It was amazing. Some of the stories in America... unbelievable.
Q. You're recording a new album this year. Tell me anything more about it?
A. Just over a year ago I was headlining a blues gig near Manchester. The guy that asked me over, Andy Quinn, said: "You're one of my favourite guitar players. I've been trying to learn some of your solos for the past 15 years."
(He offered to pay for Eric to fly over to Manchester to make an album. He agreed on the condition he could record everything by himself).
When I got to the studio I thought, "What have I done?" There was only me, Andy and a young engineer who was about 25 years old.
But it turned out really nice. It was called Exile.
It's got some lovely reviews I was very surprised about, and a lot of people wrote on my website saying how much they enjoyed it. I'm going over in June to record another album.
Q. A career in music can be an uphill battle. What keeps you going?
A. I suppose the fact there's still people out there my age still doing things. A lot of musician friends around my age, they don't even have record royalties, which I get.
But it's what I do. The times that we live in are brilliant. I think we all owe a great debt to the Rolling Stones for being able to come out on stage at 72, still deliver and still look like rebels, with millions of people turning up to see them.
Q. How long would you see yourself playing?
A. I'll play as long as the good Lord calls me, or if something happens like I get arthritis in my hands.
In a way you're dependent on your physical body much more now than before.
But I'm still working at my music, still practising and writing songs and really looking forward to recording a new album.