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Eric Bell on founding Thin Lizzy, how big hit Whiskey in the Jar was recorded as a joke, being booed off stage in Birmingham... and having to leave the band to get off drink and drugs

Ahead of his band's 50th anniversary tour, the guitarist tells Linda Stewart about his adoptive family, his passion for music and love for his wife who passed away last year

Eric Bell
Eric Bell

Eric Bell's first guitar was a toy one - a Christmas present bought for him by his family when he was 11 and living in east Belfast. But it was more than just a toy, the former Thin Lizzy guitarist says.

"It was a plastic guitar and it had six coloured strings in blue and green and yellow - and real frets. It was a toy and a guitar at the same time," he says.

It was enough to get him started on the career that has seen him go down in the annals of rock history as a founder member of one of Ireland's most renowned bands.

As a youngster, Eric practised at his plastic guitar until the day he spotted the real thing in Smithfield Market.

"At the time it had this big enormous glass dome with hundreds of shops inside - and they sold everything from German helmets to false limbs - they sold all this crazy stuff," Eric says.

"I saw this wooden guitar hanging from the ceiling in one of the shops, and I ended up doing a paper round to supplement my income so that I could buy this guitar - and that was the start of it all."

Now 71, Eric is still on the road and is touring the UK to celebrate Thin Lizzy's 50th anniversary, with hotly anticipated gigs in Belfast and Castlederg in October.

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He has just completed an eight-day tour of England and Scotland with The Eric Bell Band, a gig at Crumlin Road Gaol and has also done a few dates with George Jones and the Monarchs.

After years of living in London, Dublin and West Cork, he is back, living in the Ards peninsula village of Carrowdore.

"I was adopted - I was born in England and brought over to Belfast when I was one-year-old and the Bell family adopted me," he says.

"They were like my father, brother and uncle all rolled into one - Harold Bell and his sister Ivy. They acted as my guardians. He was a mechanic, a really gifted motor mechanic."

Eric has fond memories of his childhood in Jocelyn Avenue, just off the Woodstock Road, describing it as "magic". "I loved it. Summers seemed to be about three months long in those days. Society was completely different in those days - all the front doors of the houses were open and there were probably only two cars parked in the entire street," he says.

But he does admit to becoming pretty moody at the age of 11 after finding out that he was adopted.

"I think something clicked inside my head when I was told this - to be told you don't really belong to the family," he says.

"This distance came into things, and that changed me completely, into a sort of Marlon Brando or Jimmy Dean type of character, chip-on-my-shoulder type of thing. I found out later that my mother was in Manchester and I had a brother and sister and so on. I tried to (get in touch), but not really. I think I've got some relatives still in Manchester but we don't keep in touch."

Eric describes himself as a romantic youngster who dreamed of being a vet or a newspaper reporter, but he didn't pass his 11-plus. After he left Orangefield School, he embarked on a five-year apprenticeship as a motor mechanic at AS Baird's on Ormeau Avenue.

"I went there and I suddenly found out what the nine to five world was like, which I absolutely detested. I hated it with a vengeance. I was supposed to be doing a five-year apprenticeship, but I left after one year and that caused a civil war in our house. (My aunt) went f****** nuts. Apprenticeships were the thing then - if you hadn't got that you were nobody.

"I said I wanted to play the guitar for a living and I don't know how they didn't throw me out, because trying to make a living as a guitar player in Northern Ireland in those days was equivalent to an elephant climbing up Everest backways."

That was the start of a whole string of jobs - some of which didn't last any more than two days. But he did get offered a place in a professional showband and ended up living eight to a room in bunk beds with his fellow musicians in Glasgow.

"It was the first time I'd been away from home - my God, it was unreal," he laughs.

"No harm to Scottish people but after a few drinks, it was crazy.

"It was a real wake-up call.

"I remember the singer coming over and telling me that if a fight breaks out in the crowd to get the mike stand and put it at the back of the stage as they will grab it to use as a weapon - that's what it was like!"

The big break came when he was offered a place in another showband in Dublin called John Farrell and the Dreams and found himself earning good money and playing ballrooms across the country.

But after a while it started to pall and Eric began to dream of starting a rock band.

"There really were two tribes of musicians in Dublin and they used to hate each other. I was in one tribe at that time, but in my heart I wanted to be in the other tribe."

Relying on the money he had saved up, Eric left the showband and set about starting a three-piece band of his own, scouring the pubs around Dublin city centre in search of like-minded musicians. He was in a rock club when he first encountered Phil Lynott and Brian Downey in one of their early bands.

"Phil was the singer out front - he wasn't playing bass. He was wearing an Indian kaftan and throwing all these shapes, and Brian Downey was the drummer, and I thought, I've got to get this drummer for my new band."

But when he knocked on the dressing room door, they didn't seem too keen - in fact, it was a flat no from Brian to the idea of starting a new band with Eric.

"I started walking out the door and Phil kept on 'Come on man, let's form a fresh group. We've been going a year and a half and we're going nowhere' and Brian said 'I don't care, do whatever you want to do'.

"So Phil said he would do it on two conditions - one, I want to play bass guitar and two, I want to do some of my own songs.

"I gave him my address and arranged for him to come up a week later with a reel with three songs. And when I put on the reel and listened to these three songs, they were fabulous. I couldn't believe it - the voice, the lyrics, the chord structure.

"He wasn't a chancer - he was the real article. This guys has definitely got something special and I knew I could fit my guitar style into his songs. And that was the start of it - we started rehearsing."

At one point, the band realised they had their first gig in three weeks and still had no name. "We started talking names - Desperate Dan, Three Blind Mice - anything at all - but it went on and on. And we started thinking about comics - the Dandy, the Beano, Keyhole. There was one character who was a female robot and she was called Tin Lizzie, so I said to the guys, call it Tin Lizzie and they said 'That's a f****** dreadful name'.

"I thought the people in Dublin, when they say thick, they say 'tick' - thin, 'tin'. So if we call the band Thin Lizzy, they will call it Tin Lizzy. Years later in an interview, someone asked Phil 'Where did you get the name?' and he said 'Oh, that was Eric Bell being profound...'"

None of the members had any idea of the success they were about to enjoy, but within nine months they were the biggest band in Ireland.

They were told to move to London if they wanted to be taken seriously, but once there had to start all over again, supporting Rod Stewart and the Faces and Status Quo.

Whiskey in the Jar came about when the manager was out buying a new amp and the band were rehearsing.

"Some days you couldn't get any ideas and this was one of those days," Eric explains.

"Phil went up to the mike and started singing all these corny songs and after about 20 minutes he got into Whiskey in the Jar, and as he was singing I started playing the guitar and Brian started playing drums. Then the manager walked in with the new amp and went 'What was that song you were playing when I came in?' and we said we were only messing about."

The manager suggested recording Whiskey in the Jar for the B-side of their first record with Decca.

"We were going to throw him out the window because we left Ireland to get away from this music," Eric laughs.

“More or less to shut him up, we recorded it.”

Eric had to come up with a guitar part for the song and says each of the three now-iconic guitar sections took him about two weeks to compose.

“It was the hardest piece of music I’ve ever worked on in my life. I was getting phone calls from the manager — when are you going to put that guitar on?... it’s been six weeks. We went into the studio and played all the bits that I’d worked out and released it — and it did b***** all. It was like a sleeper hit. We were telling the manager ‘We told you not to record this f****** thing’!”

It was only when they were in the middle of a “horrendous” German tour that the telegram arrived telling them to get straight back to London because Whiskey in the Jar had reached No 15 in the charts. Within three weeks it was up to No 6 and it spent 14 weeks at No 1 in the Irish charts.

Eric describes the change for the band as “just unreal”, and admits they soon felt a little out of their depth when they were on tour supporting Slade, then the biggest band in Europe.

Used to playing clubs and pubs, they hadn’t learned how to really project to bigger audiences and they were in for a severe shock when they were booed off by an unruly 4,000-strong crowd at Birmingham Town Hall on the first gig of the tour.

Eric explains: “I swear it was like Nero and the gladiators. We just walked on stage and died a death.

“Phil went up to the mike and said ‘Give us a chance, we’re trying our best’ but they just kept chanting ‘We want Slade!’

“We walked off and went into the changing room and we were sitting there completely devastated — the bubble had burst.”

But most devastating of all was the diatribe they received in the dressing room from former Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who managed Slade and Jimi Hendrix.

“He went ‘What was all that about? You were put on this tour to wake the audience up, not send them to sleep — let’s see some action out there!’

“Phil was on the point of tears because Jimi Hendrix was one of his heroes and to be dressed down by Jimi Hendrix’s manager was a big blow for Phil’s ego. The night after our show he stayed in the wings and watched Slade, watched Noddy Holder selling himself to the audience and watched what he did, playing the crowd. Phil was quite shy on stage in those days and the next night he started trying a few moves, taking risks to try and seem like he knew how to work a big crowd. It started to take effect and we soon knew a little bit more on how to handle a very big crowd of people.”

But as the band grew bigger, Eric began to struggle as he got into the drink and drugs. At first he was able to handle it, but he soon found he couldn’t stop drinking after the show was over.

“I stopped eating, I stopped exercising and I started going downhill pretty fast,” he says.

“The thing that I really enjoyed, like the high point of my life — being with a successful band that I started — suddenly turned into a nightmare. I tried to stop drinking and I realised there and then that I had to get out, I had to leave the band to make a change. I couldn’t make the change in the band.”

Even in the first big performance on Top of the Pops, he was “miserable as sin”.

“Every time I see it, I remember exactly how I felt. I should have been on top of the world. You can see Phil was on cloud nine and I just wanted to get out,” he says. “Halfway through the Irish tour one of the gigs was in Queen’s in Belfast and that was my last gig with Thin Lizzy, on New Year’s night.

“I was so drunk and so stoned that I didn’t know who I was, where I was or what I was doing. They should have cancelled the gig but I walked on and I didn’t know what was going on. I was standing there in a daze and this voice just said to me ‘Eric, you’ve got to get out of here, mate’.

“Show business can affect a certain type of individual — there’s no doubt about it. You start losing reality and you start believing in the tinsel. After the fourth song, something was saying to me ‘Leave, get out, you have to get out of this situation’ — it’s like something is staring you in the face.

“I threw the guitar up in the air, kicked all the amps off the stage and staggered off stage. They tried to put me back on stage, but I was completely out of it — it was a waste of time. It was like kicking a dead horse to get it up and running.”

The next day, Eric was staying at his family’s house when the manager phoned from England and Eric told him he needed to leave the band.

“He said, “Is that your last word?’ and I said yes and he said ‘Okay, then I’m going to get Gary Moore to finish the Irish tour’ and he slammed the phone down and that was it.

“Phil ignored me for years and years — and I can’t blame him. If I was in that position I’d do the same. He slowly forgave me — we weren’t the best of friends, but ...”

Eric decided to try to wean himself off the lifestyle and moved with his girlfriend to Dublin.

“I bought a push bike, started cycling around, I was slowly but surely eating better. It took a good four or five months.”

He formed a few bands but admits they were a “heap of s***” and then was approached by Jimi Hendrix’s bass player Noel Redding to join his band. But after a while he found himself hating the music and struggling with the hedonistic lifestyle, and left four or five times, walking out for good after their US tour.

In the years that followed, he formed his own band and started getting into songwriting, moving back and forward between London and Dublin. He was approached to write an album and insisted on keeping the recording pared down with no other musicians.

“I just pretended I was recording at home and it got some good reviews which I wasn’t expecting,” he says.

Now living on the Ards peninsula for the last couple of years, Eric is reluctant to talk about the death of his wife Rhonda, who lost her battle with cancer last year.

Eric still lives with their son Erik (29) and he also has another son in Canada, Robin, whose mother was his girlfriend during his Thin Lizzy days. He describes Rhonda as “fabulous” and tells how they met when he was playing a gig at the Sir George Robey in London and she was the sound engineer.

“This lady got up on stage in a pair of shorts, trainers and a top and started putting mikes round the drum kit,” he says.

“She was incredible. She got it together in about two minutes — usually it takes a guy 20 minutes — and the sound she got that night was perfect. I went up at the end of the gig and gave her a big hug and said that was one of the best sounds I’d had in a very long time. I was back playing there eight weeks later and I asked her out, and we started seeing each other. We were together for nearly three decades.

“She didn’t give a damn about money. She was very truthful in a way. If we’d gone out for a meal, she would always leave a tip — it was really an insult to the waiter or waitress if you didn’t leave the exact amount,” he says.

“If I stayed in a hotel and I took the facecloth, she wouldn’t use it because she thought I’d stolen it. She was full of life and we got on well — we both loved music.”

Eric Bell is on tour to celebrate Thin Lizzy’s 50th anniversary. He plays his Tribute to Thin Lizzy at The Black Box, Belfast, on October 10 and The Townhouse in Castlederg on October 12. Tickets are available via www. ticketsource.co.uk

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