Up in Smoke: The Early Days of Thin Lizzy
Thin Lizzy's original guitarist Eric Bell tells the story of one of the greatest Irish rock bands of all time.
Image via Eric Bell's site
Before Thin Lizzy ruled the nighttime world with white-hot harmonized guitar action on albums like Jailbreak (1976), Bad Reputation (1977) and our personal favorite, Black Rose: A Rock Legend (1979), they were a considerably mellower three-piece rock band from Ireland with a penchant for acoustic guitars, Celtic folk songs and smoking heroic amounts of weed. That lineup—Phil Lynott (bass/vocals), Eric Bell (guitar) and Brian Downey (drums)—recorded just three albums before Bell announced his abrupt departure during a 1973 New Year’s Eve gig in Belfast by throwing his guitar in the air and walking offstage. Lynott and Downey later joined forces with ax masters Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson to become the much more notorious Thin Lizzy known for drinking, fighting, and fucking their way around the globe on the strength of ubiquitous hits like “The Boys Are Back in Town,” “Jailbreak,” and “Waiting for An Alibi.” But those first three vastly underappreciated albums with Bell—1971’s Thin Lizzy, 1972’s Shades of a Blue Orphanage and 1973’s Vagabonds of the Western World—are finally getting their due in the form of deluxe vinyl reissues via Light In The Attic. We recently phoned Eric Bell at his home in Northern Ireland to talk about drugs, music, and more drugs.
Noisey: Is it true that you were on acid the first time you met Phil Lynott and Brian Downey?
Eric Bell: Yeah, yeah—my first trip. I went to see their band, Orphanage. They were great. Brian Downey was a knockout drummer. He was exactly what I wanted for the band I wanted to start. Philip was a great singer, a great showman, but I didn’t pay much attention to him to be honest with you. It was just Brian.
And you formed Thin Lizzy that same night?
Yeah, more or less. I went into see them in the changing room to have a talk—which wasn’t easy on acid. [Laughs] To cut a long story short, Philip said he’d form a band with me if I would let him play the bass guitar and try out some of his original songs. So I said yeah. Then Philip asked Brian if he fancied starting a band with me and Brian just said no right away. [Laughs] But Philip somehow talked him into it. He came over to my flat about five days later with three songs that he had on a tape recorder. That’s when he started the band.
At some point, you and Phil moved into a house together in Dublin. Can you describe the scene for us?
Brian still lived with his parents then, but he was over at our house every day, so he might as well have been living there. It was in Clontarf, a very upmarket part of Dublin—very posh. After a while, there must’ve been about 14 people living with us. People would come over and just sort of stay. We started getting a bit of a reputation because there was a lot of groups playing in Dublin, and when their gigs were finished—about two o’clock in the morning—they’d drive over to our house on this very quiet, suburban street in these big transit vans. [Laughs] The neighbors wanted to get rid of us. They got a petition together, but at some point we had to leave to go live in London anyway.
That was after you signed with Decca. Was moving from Ireland to London a big culture shock?
Unbelievable, it really was—for me anyway. Philip seemed to enjoy it, and Brian was reasonably easygoing, but at that time I didn’t like London. It was too noisy and too big. You felt like sort of a stranger. Or I did, anyway. I like London now, but I didn’t then.
Did London audiences accept Thin Lizzy right away when you start playing gigs there?
Sometimes we’d start seeing the same people at gigs, so we had a tiny following of about ten people. [Laughs] But we didn’t go down that well in London because the London bands were more flamboyant. They’d be at the front of the stage posing and trying to put on a show as well as playing. But we just stood there and played. We didn’t have much of a stage act, which I think London wanted see.
But you had a revelation when Thin Lizzy did a tour opening for Slade.
[Laughs] It was unbelievable. We got booed off the stage. Slade were fabulous. They weren’t great musicians individually, but as a group they were fabulous. They went out and actually slayed the people, they really did. Philip especially would be watching this from the side of the stage and watching what [Slade vocalist] Noddy Holder did. He was a great frontman, Noddy was.
How often did Philip have to deal with racism in the context of Thin Lizzy? Was it a constant battle?
No, it was very rare. Hardly at all, really. You get some guy in the audience who’s had too much to drink and he’s probably a bit jealous because his girlfriend’s looking at Philip—that type of thing. But it rarely happened.
At some point between Shades of a Blue Orphanage and Vagabonds of the Western World, Thin Lizzy released “Whiskey In The Jar,” which as a huge hit in Ireland and the UK in general. How did that song change things for the band?
Oh, overnight. Before “Whiskey in the Jar,” we were playing in pubs and clubs that held 200 or 300 people. When “Whiskey in the Jar” took off, we did Top of the Pops and Crackerjack and all that. Within about a month, we were playing these mega-halls that held maybe 4000 people. We just weren’t ready for it.
The story is that Decca sent the single out to radio stations with nip bottles of whiskey…
No, that was our management. I went to their office around that time, and there was about 20 cardboard boxes sitting in the office, all filled with miniature bottles of whiskey. These were sent out to each DJ with the record, which sorta nearly guarantees you a play. [Laughs]
Have you heard Metallica’s version of “Whiskey in the Jar?”
[Laughs] Well, they phoned me up and asked me to do a gig with them. And the bastards didn’t pay me.
Sure. They phoned me up about eight or nine years ago when they were in London, where I was living at this point. They were staying at this very plush hotel in Marble Arch, and they asked me to play “Whiskey in the Jar” with them in Dublin. I said yeah, so I flew over with them on their private plane. They went on for about three hours, and then I came on to do “Whiskey in the Jar” with them. [Laughs] And then we flew back to London again. They gave me all this merchandising stuff, like scarves and hats and t-shirts and sorta said, “OK, man. Thanks!” But no money. I was supposed to talk to some bloke about getting paid, but I just took it for granted that he was gonna come across with the money after the gig. But nobody come near me.
Back in the old days, you preferred to go onstage stoned. How did that affect your playing?
Dramatically. [Laughs] I remember George Harrison being asked that: Do you think if the Beatles or the Stones or Jimi Hendrix hadn’t experimented with drugs, their music would be the same? And George Harrison said, “I don’t know if it makes you play better, but it certainly makes you listen better.” And I agree with that, definitely. It certainly does something to the imagination.
Did all three of you get high before you went on?
Yeah, like very gig. But it wasn’t just us—nearly every band in Britain smoked in those days. There was one night that Philip just had this little piece of hash, but I had none and Brian had none. We were going onstage in about half an hour, so I said to Philip, “Do you fancy getting one together?” You know, roll a joint. But he said, “I haven’t got enough. I wanna have a smoke with my girlfriend when we go back to London tonight.” So I was petrified, like, “What? C’mon, mate. Roll us a small one.” But he said, “I told ya—I haven’t enough.” So I went into this real bad state. I got my guitar out of its case, and it felt really weird. I started losing all my confidence because I knew we were going on in about 20 minutes, and this was the first night I didn’t have a smoke in about two years—easy. And the place was really stuffed with people, so I’m going, “Oh, Jesus—what am I gonna do?”
Oh, definitely. Then someone knocks on the door of the changing room, and this guy walks in. He goes up to Philip and does all these weird handshakes. Then he pulls this big joint out of his coat pocket and lights it up. He and Philip are in the corner talking, and I’m sitting looking at them, thinking, “For fuck’s sake, pass it over!” And they’re not bothering. So I went over and interrupted their conversation. “Excuse me, any chance of getting a smoke?” [Laughs] Philip sorta fuckin’ glared at me, but I didn’t care. I just wanted a few drags. Anyway, the guy gave it to me. Five or six minutes later, I picked up the guitar and I was playing like Jimi Hendrix. It was at that point I sorta realized that I needed to be stoned before I could play guitar. I’ve got over that long since, but it was a real bad way to be for quite a while.
The album cover for Vagabonds of the Western World was the first Thin Lizzy sleeve that wasn’t photo-based. The illustration was done by Jim Fitzpatrick, who also did the iconic Che Guevara portrait that’s been done to death on t-shirts. He did a comic-book-superhero rendering of the band. What did you think of it?
I wished I looked like that in real life. [Laughs] But to be honest with you, it reminded me of [The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s] Axis: Bold as Love, with the three heads.
The big song off of that album was “The Rocker,” which seems like the first step toward what Thin Lizzy became after you left—and yet you co-wrote the song. Did you get a sense that there was a new direction happening within the band at that point?
Well, the first album was the real Thin Lizzy because we were using acoustic guitars and 12-string guitars as well as electric. So there was a certain Celtic folk element. Also, Philip’s style of writing then was more poetic. They were poems put to music, nearly. On the second album we still used a bit of acoustic guitars, but not that much. And then the third album, Vagabonds, was mostly electric. On the day we started recording that album, I changed my attitude pretty drastically.
I mean, I can’t remember recording the first album because we were so stoned. Seriously, the whole studio was just filled with smoke. Everyone who came in—the milkman, the fuckin’ guy that made the tea—would sort of walk out with a smile on their face. [Laughs] So it was really spontaneous. A lot of it was ad-libbed. The three of us just went for it in the studio because we were all smashed. But also we had played all those songs onstage so we were quite confident in our playing. The second album, Shades of a Blue Orphanage, wasn’t quite as planned as the first album or the third album. We sort of lost our direction a little bit on that one, but I still think there’s some nice stuff on it. But then the third album, I remember having a good talk with myself before we went into the studio. I just said to myself, “Eric, this is the third album. You know that what you play, once it’s recorded, is going out. You can’t change it. So make sure everything you do is as good as you can do it.” I’m glad today that I did that.
Is the first Thin Lizzy album your favorite?
I like all of them now. There was a while when we couldn’t give those records away. Nobody was interested. There were a few people, like [BBC DJs] John Peel and Kid Jensen—thank fuck—and they absolutely loved the early Thin Lizzy. Not many other people did. When we released the albums, they hardly got a mention. But I’m so fucking chuffed today, 40-odd years later, that people are starting to talk about them.
Thin Lizzy became a very different band after you left. What’s your take on the direction they went in?
It was a commercial setup. I mean, the two guitarists were great players, but Philip’s songwriting became commercial. It obviously clicked in his head that he had his foot in the door when I was in the band. Then I left, and things became a bit weird for a while. I know they tried other guitar players—I don’t mean Scott [Gorham] and Brian [Robertson], but other guys—and Brian [Downey] told me it was dreadful. They came back to London and were gonna break up, but their management told them to stick at it for another couple of months. That’s when they met Scott and Brian, who had that harmony guitar thing going. That became their trademark. But to me, it wasn’t Thin Lizzy. They had the same name, the same drummer, same bass player/singer, but it was something completely different.
You left the band during a New Year’s Eve gig in 1973. You just tossed your guitar in the air and walked off. Why?
I was outta my fuckin’ tree, completely. I shouldn’t have played. It was in Belfast, my hometown, and my cousins was all there—all my friends and family, my wife and a few of her friends, Philip’s mother and his girlfriend and her family and so on and so forth. But I was out of my fuckin’ tree—drunk and stoned, but mostly drunk. I could hardly fuckin’ stand. A lot of times we’d go on and play like that, but I was over the limit that night. I was going through a lot of bad stuff anyway in my personal life. Thin Lizzy was working all the time—just tour after tour after tour. You hadn’t any time off to get yourself together. It was just permanently traveling and playing, and it sorta got to me. So the whole thing came to a head that night, I don’t know why.
Do you regret leaving Thin Lizzy at all?
No, because I’d either be an alcoholic or a junkie or dead or in a fuckin’ mental institution. That’s one of the reasons I got out. I couldn’t stop drinking, and I couldn’t stop smoking dope. And I was taking Valium as well, which the doctor gave me. So I was walking about like a fried chicken. I didn’t know what day of the week it was. I just couldn’t stop, even on my nights off—which wasn’t many. I remember my girlfriend asked me, “Can you not go into a pub and have just one drink?” And I said, “The only reason I go to pubs is to get fuckin’ drunk!” But what she said sorta stuck in my head. She was right. I couldn’t just have a drink or two—I had to get out of my head. But I couldn’t change being in Thin Lizzy because you were surrounded by it all the time.
Were you able to clean up fairly quickly after you left?
No, it took forever. It took me fuckin’ years and years and years. It really was something. When you’re on the road with a band that’s pretty successful, everyone around you—the band, roadies, friends, fans—everybody just wants to party all the time. It was great fun. I adored it. But there did come a turning point. I just wanted to know how the other half lived now and again, but I couldn’t do it. And Philip was getting into coke at that point, which I didn’t really wanna get into. Smoking hash and grass and taking acid and drink is more than enough for me. And then obviously Philip started getting into smack—but that was later, after I left.
Philip passed away in 1986 after years of drug abuse. He was only 36. Were you surprised?
No. Philip thought he was indestructible. He would smoke you under the table; he would drink you under the table. He was one of those guys. A man has to be a man, you know? That was the attitude Philip had. “Look at how much I can drink, look at how much I can smoke,” all this type of stuff. Trying to keep up with that was just stupid. And that’s what it was like sometimes—a competition. I don’t know how it got like that, because when Thin Lizzy started it was marvelous. It was one of the happiest times of my life, when we lived in Dublin and started to make a name for ourselves around Ireland. That was the most enjoyable time.
Do those three Thin Lizzy albums mean anything different to you today than they did back when you recorded them?
No. As I said, when we recorded them we couldn’t give them away. I’ll tell you something very funny that happened: After I left Thin Lizzy, I moved back to Dublin and formed a band with [Lynott’s former bandmate and bass instructor] Brush Shiels called the Bell Brush Band. One night we were playing somewhere out in the country, and I got back late. My wife was in London at the time, so the flat was empty and somebody had fuckin’ burgled it while I was out playing. They stole a bunch of stuff, including my record player and about 40 albums. They left the three Thin Lizzy albums untouched. Even the fucking thieves didn’t want them.
J. Bennett will tell anyone who’ll listen that Thin Lizzy were the greatest rock band in the history of forever.