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Eric Bell: 'I couldn't handle a 9-5 existence. How do you maintain an interest in working at a pickle factory?'

Legendary guitarist Eric Bell tells of his wild times and bad trips with Thin Lizzy

By Stephanie Bell

If he hadn't been a legendary guitar player, Eric Bell could easily have made a name for himself as a raconteur.

Our conversation has only covered the first couple of years of his five-decade career in the music industry and already there is enough material for a book, never mind a newspaper article.

It is a fascinating story right from his teenage days when he rebelled against a life of tedium, working in a factory in East Belfast, to forming iconic Irish band Thin Lizzy and living a rock star life of drugs and booze in London to his complete meltdown on stage in Belfast - all by the age of 22.

Now at 68 years old he is as excited as ever to be embarking on yet another chapter in his eventful career by launching a new album and a new tour.

Retiring is not even on his radar and he credits Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones for making it cool for rockers to continue long after most people have pocketed their pensions.

He says: "We owe an incredible debt to the Rolling Stones. If I had walked on stage at the age of 68 a few years ago I would have been told to 'sod off granddad'.

"Mick is 72 and still going strong and still fabulous - they are leading the way. It just shows that no matter what age you are if you still have that passion you can still do it."

Eric spent a good part of his life living in London, Dublin and Cork. He moved back home to Northern Ireland from West Cork three years ago and has settled in Carrowdore with his wife of 26 years Rhonda and their son Erik (26). He also has a son Robin (42) in Canada and two grandchildren.

He grew up in East Belfast, an orphan raised by his aunt and uncle.

When he left school he started an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic but decided to give it up for his love of the guitar, much to the horror of his aunt and uncle.

He virtually starved for a few years while playing with a showband in Glasgow and between bands worked in local factories which he said he loathed.

He recalls: "I couldn't handle the 9-5 existence. How do you maintain an interest in working in a pickle factory? I did so many crummy jobs from the age of 15 and it was absolutely soul destroying.

"I looked at my guitar and thought I better do something with this or sell it and I started getting up early in the morning before I went to the factory to practice and again at night for a couple of hours when I came home.

"I think if you are very serious about something you will attract things to you, and you need to take risks, and I took a lot of risks in life. "

His first opportunity literally came knocking on his door at the age of 16 when a seven piece band showed up and asked if he wanted to join them in Glasgow.

Much to his adopted parents horror he left his job as an apprentice motor mechanic to join his first professional band.

He said: "The door knocked one night and when my aunt opened it there were seven members of a band standing who I had never met before.

"They needed a guitar player and asked me to join them. When they said they were based in Glasgow and were professional I jumped at it. There was civil war in our house as back then in the '60s if you had an apprenticeship you were set up for life and my parents virtually disowned me for giving it up.

"I left for Scotland with no one on my side or anyone to say 'keep at it'. Instead I was being told to forget about it and get a proper job.

"The band was called The Blue Beats and two weeks after they rapped our door I was on a boat to Scotland and I couldn't believe it, it was like a dream come true."

He spent the next year and a half squeezed into one room with his seven band-mates, virtually penniless as he was paid a pittance for playing six nights a week all over Scotland.

When the band broke up and he returned home to Belfast he had no choice but to get a job in a local factory.

He said: "I got a job in a rope works and it was like something out of Charles Dickens and because I had experienced the buzz of performing I knew I had to carry on with it."

Word of his talent was obviously spreading and opportunities continued to arise. He played with a number of bands over the years, including top Irish show band The Dreams, the Noel Redding band - Noel played guitar with Jimi Hendrix - as well as with blues guitarist and singer Bo Diddley.

Eric is perhaps most famous as the founder member of Thin Lizzy, who he played with for four years before drug addiction forced him to reassess his life.

He wrote and played the opening riff to Whiskey in the Jar and came up with the band's name, inspired by Dandy comic character Tin Lizzie.

Even his years with Thin Lizzy came about by accident, when he went into a Dublin bar by chance with a friend, to find Phil Lynott and Brian Downey playing with a band called The Orphanage.

It was also his first ever experience of LSD and he says he was tripping when he first approached Lynott and Downey to ask if they would form a band with him.

He says: "I had been trying to set up my own band but had no success. I had taken LSD for the first time and went into this bar and they were playing. Brian just knocked me out, he was superb on the drums, and he was only 18 and playing with such maturity, and Philip was doing these exotic shapes and singing and he was really good.

"I don't know where I got the nerve from but during their break I just knocked on their dressing room door and asked if they wanted to set up a band with me. I was really out of it, tripping really badly on acid and at first Brian said no but Phil persuaded him and that was it, Thin Lizzy was set up that night."

They soon became the biggest band in Ireland and moved to London to make a name for themselves. It was a crazy lifestyle when smoking dope and drinking alcohol became a normal part of every day. After four years, Eric could take no more and famously had a spectacular meltdown on stage, while playing at Queen's University in Belfast during and Irish tour.

It was to be a huge turning point in his career as well as his life when he realised that he had to get off drugs.

He was 22 and he recalls every detail as if it was yesterday: "We had been smoking dope and drinking every day with Thin Lizzy, it was just part of the lifestyle at that time.

"Everything was fabulous at the start but it became a bit of a nightmare because of the drugs. "

It was starting to spiral out of control and one night I took a tab of acid which I shouldn't have done. It was a stupid thing to do and I was on my own and I hallucinated very badly. It was like a horror trip and it took me a long time to recover from it.

"After that every time I smoked dope I got really paranoid and I drank alcohol to try and make me feel better.

"The gigs started to suffer because my guitar playing wasn't that great because I wasn't practising.

"I remember we were half way through our Irish tour and playing in Queen's University in Belfast.

"I was completely legless going onto the stage, I didn't know where I was or what I was doing and there were about 1000 people there.

"It was like this voice in my head - probably the only brain cell I had left - said 'you've got to get out of this situation and you've got to get out tonight, get out now.

"I just acted on this voice and threw my guitar up in the air and kicked the amps off the stage. It felt like a dream as if it wasn't really happening. It didn't feel real. I staggered off the stage and crawled underneath it and collapsed."

For his health's sake he severed his links with the band and went cold turkey, settling in Dublin with a girl he was seeing at the time.

It wasn't long though before he was working. Shortly after he left Thin Lizzy he was asked by ex-Jimi Hendrix band guitarist Noel Redding to play in his band for several years, playing all over Europe. His latest album Exile also came about as a result of a chance meeting with a supporter in England.

He said: "Last year I was asked to play a blues gig in Manchester and at the end of the night this guy Andy Quinn, who was running the gig, came up to talk to me and said that he had loved early Thin Lizzy. And a week later I got an email from him saying would I like to record an album and he would foot the whole thing."

Last week he was in Manchester recording two videos for his new album which is his first studio album in six years and his first ever which he says he can listen to from start to finish without cringing.

He says: "I always felt, in the past, that my albums fell short and I never got the sound the way I wanted to. I'm always writing songs at home and have a wee four-track machine and I do it all myself. I brought it into the studio and I played everything on the album myself and it's great. People seem to really like it and I've just done two videos. I'm having a nice buzz at the minute, there are a few things going on."

While it is a tough business, after 50 years and still going strong, Eric says he has learnt that you make your own chances in life. He says: "I've found if you keep performing and practising, even if nothing is happening, opportunities will come your way. If you do nothing that doesn't happen.

"It has taken me a long time to learn that, but to attract things to you, you can't be sitting doing nothing."

  • For more information on Eric's albums and forthcoming tour dates go to

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