"Phil picked up my second guitar and went up to the microphone and just started singing all these silly songs" – Eric Bell on the unlikely success story of Thin Lizzy's version of Whisky In The Jar

Thin Lizzy From left to right, singer Phil Lynott, drummer Brian Downey and guitarist Eric Bell of rock band Thin Lizzy, UK, 23rd February 197
(Image credit: Jack Kay/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When Brian Downey, Eric Bell and Phil Lynott were pushed into recording traditional Irish tune Whiskey In The Jar in 1972, they’d already been going three years, had released two albums and were showing little sign of scoring that elusive hit single. The song, which folklorists have traced back as far as the 17th century, is a tribute to a lovelorn Irish highwayman who robs a British army captain, only to later find his victim’s been cavorting with his lady.

While the ditty was one of the big Irish standards by the time Thin Lizzy came to cover it, no version had ever sounded anywhere near as rocky as their arrangement.

The instantly memorable melodic lead lines that Eric Bell wrote into Lizzy’s Whiskey In The Jar would help take the track to No 6 in the UK charts and No 1 in their native Ireland for 17 weeks. Bell’s riff would also turn up in numerous other covers over the course of the next few decades, including versions by U2, Belle & Sebastian, Simple Minds, Gary Moore and – most famously – Metallica.

Phil Lynott was only messing around when he first started playing the song during an abortive band practice at the beginning of 1972. “Phil picked up my second guitar, the Telecaster, and went up to the microphone and just started singing all these silly songs,” recalled Eric Bell to Total Guitar in 2011. “I was just sat down, really bored, reading Melody Maker, and Brian was on his drum kit reading some magazine. After about 20 minutes, Phil started singing Irish songs and then he started singing Whiskey In The Jar just as a joke but, for some strange reason – I think it was just out of boredom – I put down the magazine and started playing it with him, then Brian started playing the drums. 

About a minute later, the door opened and our manager Ted Carroll come in…” Carroll was dropping off a new transistor HH amp he’d just picked up for Eric, but the bit of kit was quickly forgotten about. “Ted kept saying, ‘I was standing down the bottom of the stairs as you were playing that song and I think you might have a hit record there!’” explained Eric. “And we were looking at him like he had landed from Venus! We were going, ‘What? You’ve got to be kidding, mate – we left Ireland to get away from this kind of stuff!’”

Nevertheless, Carroll did convince the band to lay down the track while they were holed up in Decca’s Tollington Park studio recording Black Boys On The Corner, which had been earmarked as the next Lizzy single.

It was suggested Whiskey In The Jar would be the B-side. Lynott and Eric both donned acoustics for the initial backing track, but Bell just couldn’t fathom a decent electric lead line overdub. Weeks later, inspiration for the intro came during a long car ride after a gig in Wales. “It was like The Twilight Zone, about half one in the morning, and me and Brian were in the back a little bit stoned and very tired,” recalls Bell. “Phil’s in the front and he’s got a little cassette recorder with him and, at this particular moment in time, he had The Chieftains on and I heard these Irish sort of Uilleann pipes and I went, ‘Right, that’s the approach to use on the intro of Whiskey…’”

The catchy lead lines came during another car trip – this time while Bell was sitting in the back of a London cab en route to his flat after a magazine interview. “The driver’s talking to me, saying, ‘Hello mate, what part of Ireland are you from?’ and all that,” says Eric. “But, as he’s talking to me, I suddenly made a riff in my imagination. I went ‘Duddle dah da dah da dah da dah’ and I thought, ‘That’s it!’”

Luckily, Eric managed to keep the riff in his head for the rest of the journey back to the flat where he grabbed his axe and Lynott’s tape recorder. “I learnt those notes on the guitar, I put it on the cassette and I phoned up the f***ing management and said, ‘Right, I’ve got it! Let’s do it!’” explains Eric.

“I had the intro, I had the riff and then the solo just came from the riff and that was that.” When he finally came to lay down the lead overdubs at Decca, Bell not only plugged his trusty Strat into his relatively new HH transistor amp, he also double-tracked the riff using a revolving Leslie cabinet to get that classic sustain. Whiskey… was chosen as Lizzy’s next A-side and the band’s name was soon scrawled in the annals of rock history.

On 5 July 1999, Metallica played the Point Depot in Dublin and asked Eric if he’d join them onstage to guest on their own take of Whiskey… But Bell doesn’t hold the fondest of memories of that gig. For a start, he had to play the song in F for the first time due to Metallica tuning down and, secondly, he was paid nothing more than a bag of Metallica merch that a roadie tossed to him after the show.

“We flew back to England in their private plane,” explains Eric, who still lived in London at the time. “And they said, ‘OK, man, see you again – nice one!’ Then they all f***ed off, got me a car back to my flat but no money, and that was that!”