When a stoned, drunk and very angry Eric Bell stormed off the stage of Queens University, Belfast on December 31, 1973, publicly tendering his resignation from Thin Lizzy by hurling his guitar in the air and kicking over his amps, many assumed we’d never hear of the mercurial Belfast guitarist again.
But the man who co-founded the band, co-wrote The Rocker and devised the timeless riffs on Lizzy’s take on Irish folk standard Whiskey In The Jar has remained a working musician for the past four decades, recording and touring with the Noel Redding Band, Mainsqueeze and his own Eric Bell Band.
Exile, Bell’s first studio album since 2010’s Lonely Nights In London, finds the 68-year-old guitarist in fine fettle, serving up stinging blue licks that will resonate with anyone reared on early Lizzy.“I still love playing guitar,” he says. “So many guys my age have retired from nine-to-five jobs and don’t know what to do with themselves, but I’ve got this music, and this album coming out and a new tour coming up, it’s great. I consider myself pretty lucky.”
Exile concludes with Song For Gary, a rather beautiful tribute to fellow Thin Lizzy alumni Gary Moore, who you first met back when he was a teenager. How did it come about?
Well, a lot of the songs on Exile I’ve had stockpiled for years, but I actually wrote that about three weeks before I went into the studio. I was thinking about how Philomena, Philip Lynott’s mother keeps his flag flying, and Rory Gallagher’s brother Donal kept Rory’s flag flying, but nobody was doing anything for Gary. So I thought ‘I’ll write a song for you Gary.’ It was originally a blues instrumental, but then I wrote some lyrics based around our friendship and I think it turned out great.
At the more biting end of the album, Vote For Me would suggest you’re no fan of politicians.
No, not in the slightest. It’s funny, because about two years ago I was living in West Cork and in one of the local papers there was an article about David Cameron, and he said that his favourite track ever is Whiskey In The Jar, which made me do a double-take. We’ve actually sent a copy of Exile to 10 Downing Street for him, so it’d be interesting to hear his reaction to that.
Perhaps the first time people became aware of your guitar playing outside your native Belfast was when you joined Them with Van Morrison: what was it like working with ‘Van The Man’?
Well, Them I joined was actually the third incarnation of the band, so we were called Van Morrison and Them Again. That was a strange band. I’ve never worked with anyone like Van in my life. He was very intimidating and he had no sense of humour: he knew exactly what he wanted and he was like a little bulldog, nothing would stand in his way. We rehearsed for about a week before our first tour and our first show was opening up this club in Belfast called The Square One. Just as I was about to play the intro to Baby, Please Don’t Go, the first song on our set-list, he turned to me and said ‘Start a Blues in E, man.’ I said ‘What? What about the list?’ and he said ‘Fuck the list!’ You never knew what he was going to do, he seemed to just make stuff up on the spot, which was pretty amazing.
That must have kept you on your toes as his guitarist?
It did, yeah. Funnily enough, the last gig I did with Them was at Queens University too. It was Rag Ball week and all the students were going crazy, and I got quite out of it too, because we’d loads of drink on our rider. Van asked me to turn down my amp volume, so I did, and then he turned his up, so I said ‘Well, fuck this’ and turned mine back up again, which didn’t go over well. It was pretty messy. At the end of the night I think ‘’I’m going to leave’ and he just said “There’s your money man” and that was it. And then of course I play Queens again with Thin Lizzy in 1973, completely out of my tree, and the same thing happens. Pretty strange.
Compared to Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy was much more a meeting of equals presumably?
Absolutely. Philip was amazing to work with, and he gave me so much freedom within his songs. I’ve so many fond memories of playing with Lizzy. I know people will always think I was crazy to leave, but by the end I was going through such a bad time with drugs and alcohol and my girlfriend fucking off to Canada with another bloke, leaving me with our son, and it just came to a head as I was drinking and doing so much acid. Now Philip’s gone, and Gary’s gone: it’s a strange old business and you have to look after yourself.
Do you ever think of Phil now?
Absolutely. I just played the Vibe For Philo gig in Dublin, a huge tribute gig they hold every year, and it was packed, the amount of interest is still amazing. Years after I left the band, and they’d become even more successful, I’d bump into Philip in Dublin and he’d come over and say ‘What monster have we created?’ and then walk away with a smile. He was a good guy, and a great talent.
Do you ever get tired of playing Whiskey In The Jar?
For a while, Philip, Brian [Downey] and I had a real love-hate relationship with it: one week we’d be saying what a load of shit this is, we should have recorded something else, and then a few weeks later it’s on the radio all the time and everyone loves us and we’re like: “Yeah, this is amazing!” There were times where I just didn’t want to play it any more, but every note I played on it I made up myself, and with the passing of time I’ve become a bit proud of it. Writing songs and playing has always been a kind of therapy, and it’s certainly helped me deal with some demons.”