- 21 Sep 20
47 years ago today, Thin Lizzy released their third studio album (and their final album with original guitarist Eric Bell), Vagabonds of the Western World. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Eric Bell's 2010 interview with Hot Press's Colm O'Hare.
Eric Bell remembers the moment he decided he wanted to be a full-time guitar player. The future Thin Lizzy legend had left school and was in the first year of a five-year apprenticeship as a motor mechanic in his native Belfast. One day, he decided he’d had enough and walked off the job. “I went home and told my parents and they went insane,” he recalls. “They asked me what was I going to do with myself and I said, ‘I’m going to be a professional guitarist’. They went crazy and said, ‘never mind the bloody guitar – you’re going to get a proper job.”
Giving in to his parents’ wishes, he stumbled from job to job for a while, still harbouring a desire to become a musician. “It was a very depressing time for me,” he says. “I came home one miserable, wet night and, after having my dinner, I went up to my bedroom and looked at my guitar standing in the corner. It was one of those moments when I thought, ‘are you going to start playing this fucking guitar or what?’ I made a pact there and then that I would practise every night for two or three hours.”
He did just that and the rest, as they say, is history. But before he came to Dublin several years later to become a founder member of Thin Lizzy, he was in a succession of local bands. “There was a great little vibe in Belfast at the time and I started to get to know all the local musicians. Any guitarist I saw I would ask, ‘how do you do this?’ and ‘how do you do that?’”
Bell had first been smitten by the guitar when, at the age of fourteen, he received a cheap plastic affair as a Christmas present. Influenced by the skiffle legend, Lonnie Donegan and TV guitar tutor Bert Weedon, he learned to play chord by chord. While at school he joined a “Shadows type band” and remembers his very first gig at a local youth club one Saturday afternoon. “It was a nightmare,” he laughs. ”I had sent away for this cheap guitar called a Rapier 22, which cost 22 guineas. It had this tremolo arm and a very sharp bridge. By the third song, my strings had started snapping on the bridge which literally sawed through them. I said to the drummer ‘let’s take a break’, and we went into the kitchen and I wouldn’t go on again. After that I used the tremolo arm sparingly.”
Bell soon bought a better guitar – a Gibson 300 sunburst (which he later swapped for the white Fender Stratocaster he would use in the early Lizzy days) “I remember talking my uncle into signing the hire purchase agreement. When I said it cost £200 he nearly flipped and said ‘I’m not bloody signing that’ but he eventually gave in.”
The first three Lizzy albums featuring the early line-up of Phil Lynott, Brian Downey and Bell have recently been re-issued with Vagabonds of the Western World getting the full deluxe treatment with bonus tracks and live BBC sessions etc. For Bell, who left the band shortly after Vagabonds was released, it marks a timely and long overdue re-appraisal of the Thin Lizzy (Mark 1) line-up. He will be appearing at the upcoming 25th Anniversary Vibe for Philo at Vicar Street where he’ll be revisiting some of those early Lizzy classics.
“I’m really chuffed at the re-releases and the fact that they’ve been getting nice reviews,” he says. “I was very proud of Thin Lizzy in those early days and how far we took it. It was just two guys from the backstreets of Dublin and one from backstreets of Belfast. Listening to some of the tracks again I’m sort of re-learning them and Jaysus, it’s hard (laughs).”
While the self-titled debut and follow up, Shades of a Blue Orphanage were well received at the time they were more experimental and folk-oriented while Vagabonds is regarded as the first time the band’s distinctive hard-rock sound came together. The album’s key track and first single, ‘The Rocker’ remains one of Bell’s proudest moments on record.
“I was reasonably pleased with my own playing on the first two albums but on Vagabonds I decided I wanted a better sound,” he explains. “I was listening to all the greats at the time – people like Jeff Beck and Deep Purple’s Richie Blackmore and I had this sound in my head that I wanted. I had a H:H amp and two pedals – a Coloursound tone-booster and a Watkins Copy Cat echo-chamber. ‘The Rocker’ was done on the first or second take – we just did it live the way we played on stage. The swirling sound on the guitar came about when we were listening to the playback and one of the engineers said, ‘I’ve got this phaser which you just turn from left to right’. We tried it and we liked it so it stayed on the record. We knew we’d got it right and one night we were coming home from some gig and we heard Kid Jensen on Radio Luxembourg raving about it and it just took off from there.”
Surprisingly Bell says he usually depended on just one guitar – the white Strat – during most of his days in Lizzy. “I didn’t even own an acoustic,” he says. “In the early days you could send out for stuff when you were in the studio. For Vagabonds I asked for a Gold Top Les Paul, which I used on some tracks, Philip would ask for a Rickenbacker and Brian took off the skins on his drums and bought new ones. I thought I was the bee’s knees one day when I said, ‘I’ll have a pedal steel guitar’. I’d never seen one in my life and when it arrived, I thought ‘what the fuck is that? It looked like a sewing machine.”
These days Bell who enjoys a successful solo career has an assortment of guitars at his disposal but for the Lizzy classics he sticks to his trusty Fender Strat “I’ve a beautiful old Hofner acoustic, a sort of jazz guitar and I bought a Dobro recently but you can’t beat the Strat.”