Eric Bell’s Northern Light
Thin Lizzy’s founding guitarist opens up about the early days, his exit from the band, and his new solo album, Exile.
On the phone from Carrowdore, Ireland, a small town just east of his native Belfast, Eric Bell is laughing down the line about one of his earliest memories of sharing a house in Dublin with Phil Lynott. “We had two single beds in one of the bedrooms,” he recalls, “and every morning, I’d get up or Philip would get up and make a cup of tea for the both of us, and then he’d roll a big spliff and we’d smoke it and put on Astral Weeks. And it was always on, you know? We’re both lying there stoned, drinking cups of tea, and listening to Astral Weeks.”
Plenty of friendships have gelled over the music of Van Morrison, but for these two lads, their connection was more literal. Just several years earlier, Bell had spent a few months on tour as the guitarist in Morrison’s group, Them. Van himself had recruited Bell at the ultra-hip Crymbles Music Shop in Belfast. Lynott, for his part, was a budding poet, lyricist, and frontman, and Morrison was one of his idols. With songs that always seemed to find a universality in tales of romance, breakups, street fighting, and hard living, sung with a voice that could peel paint or melt hearts—well, there was a quintessentially Irish lean to Morrison’s art that moved Lynott to distraction.
But the story really begins one night in late 1969, when Bell and his friend Eric Wrixon, the former keyboardist with Them, stumbled into a club called the Countdown and caught the band Orphanage, which featured Lynott out front on vocals. Bell saw a spark in the singer, but it was really the drummer—a high school chum of Lynott’s named Brian Downey, a gifted firebrand on the kit—who held his interest. During a break in the set, he went backstage to talk to them. What they didn’t know yet was that Wrixon had given Bell a tab of acid before the start of the set.
“I walk in and Philip and Brian are sitting on the sofa, and they’re looking at me,” Bell remembers. “‘Yeah, can we help you?’ I says, ‘My name’s Eric Bell, and I used to play with the Dreams show band—,’ and I’ve got a fucking suit on, and my hair is quite short. I look like the drug squad, basically. And then all of a sudden the acid kicks in again, and I start walking around the room laughing at everything. And they’re going, ‘Hey man, are you alright?’ I could hardly talk, but I’m like, ‘Yeah—it’s my first trip on acid.’ And they’re going, ‘What? What’s it like?’ And I’m like, ‘Fucking amazing.’”
It was an icebreaker. Great moments in rock history usually happen on a lark—Eric Clapton hitching a fateful ride back to London with Ginger Baker at the wheel, or Linda Keith seeing Jimi Hendrix in New York’s Cafe Wha?—and the founding of Thin Lizzy was no different. Downey had been reluctant to start a new band with Bell, but Lynott was insistent, provided he could play bass (which he’d been learning from local hero Brush Shiels, founder of the original Skid Row) and play some of his original songs.
Bell agreed, and within a year the band had a contract with Decca and moved to London to record their first album. As a power trio in the vein of other Irish rock bands like Skid Row and Rory Gallagher’s Taste (and with a deeply reverent nod to Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience), Lizzy cultivated an exotic and unusual look: Lynott, the tall, handsome, bi-racial son of a white Irish mother and a Caribbean-born father; Bell, the wild-haired Northern Irishman with a penchant for Hendrixian leads; and Downey, the diminutive but musically precise powerhouse behind the drum kit. The secret to it all was their sound—a guitar-driven mixture of heavy blues, Irish folk, and groovy, psychedelic hard rock, all boosted by Lynott’s well-wrought lyrics, passionately spot-on vocals, and bludgeoning low end—that set the tone for all the albums to come.
In 1971, just before Lizzy recorded their debut, Bell acquired the brand new Fender Stratocaster that he still plays today. “When I was with an Irish show band called the Dreams, I’d swapped my Gibson ES-330 with the guitar player in the support band,” he says. “He had a white Stratocaster, and after eight months with Thin Lizzy, it started falling apart. The tones weren’t working, there was only one pickup working—all this stuff started happening. And it seems impossible to think about now, but you couldn’t get a new Stratocaster in Ireland back then. So our management sent to London for it.”
Thin Lizzy came out to little fanfare, but the band was gaining experience on the road. By the time they recorded the follow-up album, Shades of a Blue Orphanage released in 1972, they’d landed one of the opening slots on Slade’s U.K. tour. Glam rock was just starting to jump off, and Slade’s fans weren’t all that enamored of the gruff boys from Ireland, but when the single “Whiskey in the Jar”—a cover of a traditional Irish folk song, with a lively opening guitar melody written by Bell—came out in November of that year, Thin Lizzy suddenly had a hit in England.
They’d arranged the song almost as a joke, in a moment of boredom during an unproductive rehearsal. “Philip picked up this second guitar that we had in case I broke a string,” Bell says, “and he started messing about. Myself and Brian, we were just reading Melody Maker or something, but Phil kept on, singing through the mic and strumming this Telecaster. At one point, he got to ‘Whiskey in the Jar.’ Then for some reason, I started playing my guitar along with him, and Brian started playing the drums, and about two minutes later, the door opened and our manager Ted Carroll come in. He had an HH Electronic transistor amp for me—one of the first in London. And as I set it up and started playing through it, he asked us, ‘What was that song you were playing?’”
It ended up cementing Lizzy’s legacy—over three decades later, Metallica would cover the song in tribute—but in Bell’s mind, it was a mixed blessing. The band was playing to larger crowds, and they were rock heroes back home in Ireland, but Decca execs were already ratcheting up the urgent demands for another hit single.
In the summer of ’73, when the trio went into Decca’s brand new Tollington Park Studios to record Vagabonds of the Western World, they were determined to make a statement. Overall, the album begins to define the full, wide-angled sound that would become Thin Lizzy’s trademark, from Bell’s double-tracked guitars on the title song to the proto-metal riffage of “The Rocker,” the album’s first single and a paint-peeling staple of their live set [see “The Rocker” video below]. And the sci-fi-meets-comic-book-superhero cover art by Jim Fitzpatrick is an integral part of the package; in a near-emulation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis: Bold as Love, the three members of Lizzy are portrayed almost as a trinity of star-born deities.
“A lot of hard work went into that album,” Bell asserts, “and the songs are really strong as well. I’m pretty sure we all thought, ‘Right, this is gonna wake them up.’ Our second album, Shades of a Blue Orphanage, was very spontaneous. We felt like we hadn’t really nailed the material for that, so we all made a vow that the next album, we’d have to get it together, you know? And I think that’s the sound you hear on Vagabonds.”
Even so, rock critics at the time didn’t get it. For Bell, it was the beginning of the end. “All of a sudden the music business was starting to change us,” he says. “We had to conform, to become another band that did their hits and said the right thing, wore the right clothes, and did the right poses. I wasn’t really into that way of thinking. I was more of a rebel, and I wanted Thin Lizzy to stay the same. But Philip realized it’s not just about being a musician; it’s about being an entertainer and a frontman. So the boat started rocking, you know?”
Bell finally succumbed to the pressure at a New Year’s Eve gig in Belfast. After a day of hard partying with family and old friends, he melted down in the middle of Lizzy’s set, tossing his guitar and kicking his Hiwatt cabinets off the stage. The following day, he parted ways with Lynott and Downey. Skid Row guitarist Gary Moore was hired to take his place for the remainder of the tour. For the moment, it seemed, Thin Lizzy was on the ropes.
Thin Lizzy’s founding guitarist, Eric Bell, says Hank Marvin of the Shadows was his inspiration to play a Strat. “A lot of people knock him, but I think he’s incredible,” Bell says of Marvin. “It’s so exciting, the actual sound he got from his Strat in those days.” Photo courtesy of Eric Bell
The Band Plays On
All these years later, Bell has no regrets about his departure. He admires the monster success that Thin Lizzy stirred up in its second incarnation, when Lynott recruited the twin-guitar attack of Scott Gorham and Brian “Robbo” Robertson to record the classic albums Nightlife, Jailbreak (with the timeless radio smash “The Boys Are Back in Town”), Johnny the Fox, Live and Dangerous, Black Rose (with Gary Moore subbing for Robertson), and more. By 1983, Lynott had broken up the band. A few years later, he died at the age of 36 after complications brought on by prolonged drug use, but his mythic stature as one of Ireland’s most influential rock stars still endures.
Bell continued to play music throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and even joined the second Lizzy lineup on several dates. He teamed up with Brush Shiels to form the Bell Brush Band, and then recorded two albums with the Noel Redding Band before joining saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith’s fusion group Mainsqueeze, who also toured as Bo Diddley’s backing band in the mid ’80s.
A few years later, Bell moved back to Dublin and put the word out that he was looking to form a new band. He still had his road-tested Strat—retrofitted in the mid ’70s with DeArmond soap bar pickups at the neck and bridge—and kept up his chops, but it was slow going. The Eric Bell Band released Irish Boy in 1998. Meanwhile, Bell bounced between Dublin and London, tracking Lonely Nights in London there in 2009 before moving back to Ireland for good.
In the last few years, Bell has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance. First, the Light in the Attic label reissued the first three Thin Lizzy albums in deluxe vinyl packaging. The response was so positive that all three have nearly sold out, and several blogs, including Vice’s Noisey, sought out Bell for in-depth interviews. Around the same time, Thin Lizzy fan and U.K. record producer Andy Quinn approached Bell about recording a solo album. Exile is Bell’s labor of love—a collection of songs, almost entirely original, that stretches back almost 20 years in its conception.
“When Andy emailed me after I first met him, I thought, ‘What am I gonna record?’” Bell says. “So I got out all these cassettes—everybody has them, I suppose, these 40-second ideas for songs—and I started playing through them. I got out some of my old books that I’d scribbled lyrics in, and I just sat down and got on with it. It was very strange, because then I just started getting ideas. You start working at something, and it’s a bit cold for a while, but then a few days later you start getting into it.”
These days, Bell continues to play live with his Eric Bell Band (with Dave Wintour on bass and Romek Parol on drums), and still gets adulatory emails from Thin Lizzy fans all over the world. In January 2016, he played the 30th Vibe for Philo—an annual tribute to Phil Lynott and his music—with Brian Downey in Dublin. And at age 69, occasionally he even finds himself learning new approaches to the guitar.
“Yeah, I’m still working on it,” he quips. “There are so many brilliant players out there now, and they’re getting younger all the time. But there again, obviously the internet’s a lot to do with it. I remember when I first started, I had a record player and a guitar, and that was it. I used to lift the needle off and play the lick, and then lift it off again and again until I learned it. Hendrix did it, Beck did it, Clapton did it—they all say they did it, because that’s all there was. Kids today, they can go on YouTube and there’s five million guitar players on there going, ‘Right, this is how you play this.’ I find that’s almost too instant. The blood, sweat, and tears part is missing, you know?”
In September, this writer was lucky enough to meet with Bell in the Northern Irish seaside town of Bangor, just outside of Belfast. In person, Bell is a born storyteller with an infectiously wry sense of humor, and he still speaks of Lynott—as a songwriter, as a musician, and as a person—in only the most glowing and reverent terms. He may have titled his latest album Exile, but when he’s in Ireland, Eric Bell is truly right at home.
In his own words, Bell explains his guitar philosophies, tone influences, and songwriting processes.
Your fabled Strat played a big role in the recording of Exile. What’s the story behind the two DeArmond pickups you have in it?
Well, when I joined Brush Shiels’ band [in ’74], Brush was playing guitar at that point, and he was getting an electric guitar made for him by Gary Nelson—he’s an Irish guitar-maker who lives just outside Dublin. He hadn’t got any of these pickups that they have in America or England, but he did have DeArmond pickups. So he made the guitar, and Brush brought it down to soundcheck one night and asked if I wanted to try it out. I thought the tone was really nice, so Brush said, “Why don’t you try DeArmonds in your Strat? If you don’t like them, you can take them out.” So I went off to Gary Nelson and he put the two DeArmonds on, and they’ve been on there ever since. To this day I don’t know whether they’re single-coil or double-coil. They look like double-coil, but I think there’s a single-coil pickup underneath.
What can you describe about the tone that appeals to you?
It’s only a shade brighter than the original Fender pickup that I still have in the middle. They’re not super DiMarzios or built for distortion. I use the Fender pickup in the middle, and when I switch to the DeArmond on the bottom, there’s not that big a jump in volume. I can still get the Strat sound from them, whereas if you put on other pickups, sometimes they’re a bit too distorted for me. I can still play pretty loud with the DeArmonds and they don’t break up. That’s the most important thing to me. It’s not actually playing—it’s the tone. You can get a guy that plays these incredibly fast, fancy distorted licks, and it sounds like a wasp—it sounds sort of ugly. Then you get another guy who plays six notes, but the tone is beautiful. It’s so much more musical, isn’t it?
“Whiskey in the Jar” is the song that started Thin Lizzy’s legacy. In the early ’70s, Bell often played with a Colorsound Tone Bender and a Watkins Copicat tape echo, which comes through in his sound here.
That clean tone seems to be something you’ve always favored, even going back to Thin Lizzy.
Yeah, especially on the Vagabonds album. On the first album, to be honest with you, we were all stoned out of our heads throughout the entire recording. I found that a little smoke of hash, again in those days, it seemed to free your imagination. My technique wasn’t very good, so I relied more on imagination. By the time we got to the third album, we’d played together a lot more and our technique was better, so I thought, “I’m fed up with the distortion and sustain sound, because everybody’s doing it.”
Don’t get me wrong—it used to be incredibly exciting when it first come out. I loved hearing that thick, sustained fuzzy sound. But by the time Vagabonds came around, I was a bit bored with it, and I wanted to get a cleaner sound, actually a bit like Hank Marvin of the Shadows, who I absolutely love. A lot of people knock him, but I think he’s incredible. It’s so exciting, the actual sound he got from his Strat in those days; right around “Frightened City” and “The Savage”—that’s characteristic of it. It gives you chills up the back. In a way, that’s why I went for the cleaner tone on the Vagabonds album. It was much more difficult to play, but I’m used to playing that way now, and I much prefer it.
When you choose to play clean like that, your technique becomes more discernible. Can you talk about how that’s evolved over the years for you?
I find it’s more about accuracy, because on a Stratocaster, you get the note and that’s it. There’s nowhere else to go. On a Gibson, you’ve got that sustain, whereas on a Stratocaster, you hit the note and it’s dead. I remember when I made the change all those years ago, I couldn’t believe it. The things I played on the Gibson were so easy. When I tried to played them on the Strat, it was like starting all over again. So I had to change my technique. I was bluffing a little bit on the Gibson and getting away with things, especially with a thick sustained tone. Whenever you play that on a very clean Stratocaster, it sounds absolutely abysmal [laughs]. And I thought, “Oh fuck me, I’m gonna have to work on this.” So I started practicing more, because I found I had to. Otherwise I’d lose the feel of it quite quickly. With the things I’m trying to do onstage today, I have to work at it.
You bring a lot of influences to this album, and you ended up tracking most of it in the studio yourself [with Joe Oakes overdubbing drums]. Was that how you intended it?
Well, it was a bit strange because when Andy Quinn asked me to do it, something came into my head, and I said to him, “Would you mind if I come over on my own, instead of with the band? It’s just an experiment, and it might work, and it might not.” He liked that idea, so I flew over and I ended up in this studio with Andy and this young engineer Mark Winterburn. We got on really well, and I ended up making the album exactly the way I would do it at home—like a jigsaw puzzle, piece by piece. I would find a drum track first, and then I’d play rhythm guitar and a rough vocal. Then I’d try to make up a bass part, and then after that I would start putting on guitars to see how the whole thing shaped up. Sometimes I just had to scrap the idea and try a new one. But most of them worked.
You take a pretty wild solo in the song “Concrete Jungle.”
I planned a little bit of that, but most of it is ad-libbed. And the end of it—I don’t know how I played it. To this day, I have no idea what I did. I just said to the guys, “Okay, I’m gonna go for this.” At the start of it, I create a little bit of feedback with a tuning fork. I like to try these little experiments. I had it sitting on top of the Orange amp I was using, and I just hit it and held it over the pickup, and I got this whooom—a pretty strange sound. And then I threw it on the floor to finish the rest of the solo with my fingers. When I went in to hear it played back, I couldn’t believe it. I’m like, “Fuck me, how did I do that?” The guitar is that type of instrument, isn’t it? You sometimes do come up with this thing—I get it especially onstage, and I remember reading that about Hendrix. People would come up to him saying, “Fuck me, how did you do that?” And he just says, “I’ve no idea.” Which is part of the fun of the electric guitar, isn’t it?
Oh, he was an unbelievable player. No one ever had as much knowledge as he had about music in general. He was a very good friend of mine, and very generous. He gave me a lot of pedals and guitars and strings and DVDs and God-knows-what. I’d stay overnight at his house and we’d get out and play guitar, go out for some Guinness, you know? [Laughs.] He was always great company, great sense of humor, and very passionate about his music. He practiced all the time, and he was in love with the guitar, completely. So I thought the least I can do for him is to write a song.
Eric Bell is an avowed fan of Jimi Hendrix, and it shows in this bluesy, blistering rendition of this classic from Jimi’s Electric Ladyland.