Planxty

TrackAlbum / Single
The Cliffs Of DooneenPolydor 2078-023
Raggle Taggle Gypsy
- Tabhair Dom Do Lámh
Planxty
The West Coast Of ClarePlanxty
The Jolly BeggarPlanxty
As I Roved Out (Christy)The Well Below The Valley
As I Roved Out (Andy)The Well Below The Valley
The Well Below The ValleyThe Well Below The Valley
You Rambling Boys Of PleasureAfter The Break
Little MusgraveThe Woman I Loved So Well
Blacksmith - Black SmithereensLive 2004

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

Bob Dylan: There’s a group you have here, what’s it called, Plankston?

Bono: Planxty.

Dylan: They’re great!

By general critical consensus, Planxty was the finest of the many talented groups which emerged from the third wave of the folk music revival in Ireland (the first wave had been made up of exceptional individual talents like Seamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, Joe Heaney and Seán Ó Riada while the second had consisted of the great popularising bands like The Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners). There was, however, a special magic which occurred when the four original members of Planxty played together; an alchemy which, notwithstanding the remarkable musical talents they each possessed as individuals, always exceeded the sum of their parts. It was this special quality to their musical partnership which led some observers to dub them the ‘Irish Beatles’. As a label this was hardly accurate if measured solely in terms of commercial success, but it did give some indication of the remarkable contributions which the members of Planxty were to make to Irish musical culture, both in their years with the group and subsequently.

By the time Planxty was formed in 1972, all four of its initial members had already served several years’ apprenticeship on the Irish and English folk music scenes. The group’s main singer, Christy Moore, had moved to England from his native County Kildare in 1966 and had subsequently developed a reputation there as a fine ballad singer. He had also come to the attention of Ewan MacColl and had performed on a number of occasions in the latter’s club, The Singers Club, in London. While Moore had been abroad, the two main string instrument players in the group, Andy Irvine and Dónal Lunny, had themselves been involved in the relatively successful folk groups, Sweeney’s Men and Emmet Spiceland respectively. During his time with Sweeney’s Men, Irvine, along with another extremely talented musician, Johnny Moynihan, had played a key role in introducing a previously exotic instrument, the bouzouki (which was Greek in origin) into Irish folk music.

The two men had also developed a style of interweaving arrangements which often featured Irvine on mandolin and Moynihan on the more exotic instrument. During their time with Planxty, Lunny and Irvine were, however, to bring this style to new heights of subtlety and sophistication. The last member of the group, Liam Óg O’Flynn (‘Óg’ means ‘young’ in Irish and was used to distinguish him from his father who was also a musician), was the most traditionally minded of the four and had developed his skills as a uilleann piper under the expert tuition of the great Seamus Ennis. The older man was not only one of the greatest masters of that instrument ever to have lived, he was also, through his work as a collector in both Ireland and the United Kingdom, an acknowledged expert on the musical traditions of both countries.

In 1969, Christy Moore had recorded his first album, Paddy On The Road, in London. The record had been produced by Brendan Behan’s brother, the prominent writer and folk musician, Dominic Behan. However, Christy was not entirely happy with the end result and he was determined that if he were to make another one, he would do so in Ireland and with local musicians. In 1971, Moore was given the opportunity to do so when he was commissioned to make a record for the English folk label, Topic. Having known Dónal Lunny from his schooldays and having been in a band, The Rakes of Kildare, with him briefly, Moore decided to ask him to play on it. He had also become aware of Andy Irvine’s work with Sweeney’s Men and believed that he would act as a good foil to Lunny’s skills on the bouzouki and mandolin. Moore was also determined to have a uilleann piper on the record and had been impressed on hearing Liam Óg play at one of the first traditional music sessions he had ever attended at Dowling’s pub in Prosperous. Essentially the album which resulted from this collaboration, Prosperous (named after the town in Kildare in which it was recorded), was to set the template for the Planxty sound, even though the group itself was not to be formed until the following year. Indeed, Prosperous even contained some tracks which were to be re-recorded on the group’s first album.

Although the album was not to be a commercial success, Moore was convinced that it provided firm evidence of the potential benefits which a more lasting collaboration between the four musicians could bring. Ultimately, he convinced the other three of the truth of this proposition and the new group was formally launched at a gig in Slattery’s pub in Dublin in early 1972. Even at that early stage, the band’s capacity to electrify an audience soon became clear. They also had an ability to appeal to a youth audience in a way which few folk bands had been able to do up to that point. Part of this appeal may have lain in their appearance which was unlike that of most of the existing folk groups in the country. Indeed, with the exception of Liam Óg, the others looked as if they could as easily be found playing in a rock band. It was also the case that from the outset, their music had an energy and dynamism which was largely new to the genre. The band’s initial momentum was also aided by the fact that its first single, Three Drunken Maidens, reached no.7 on the Irish Charts The follow-up to it, The Cliffs Of Dooneen, was a re-recording of a song which Christy Moore had first recorded for the Prosperous album. The Planxty version was a clear demonstration of both Moore’s supreme ability as a ballad singer and Dónal Lunny’s skill as an arranger of folk songs and it is my first selection here. You can find it on The Planxty Collection CD.

The band’s early singles also showed that Planxty had managed to fuse a range of disparate influences into creating a sound which was uniquely their own. One of the most important of these early influences was that of Seán Ó Riada and the group, Ceoltóirí Chualann, which he had formed in 1960. A trained classical musician and composer by background, Ó Riada had pioneered the use of the group format in relation to Irish folk music. Up to that point, the emphasis in that genre had tended to be on individual instruments and singers. Where groups were concerned, the main form which ensemble playing in the country took was the ceili band. These were usually made of part-time amateur musicians who often tended to play a rather ersatz version of Irish traditional music. By contrast, Ceoltóirí Chualann, was made of professional musicians, many of them acknowledged virtuoso’s on the instruments that they played. Ó Riada had also led the way in introducing new instruments into the field and these had included both the harpsichord and the bodhran which he had played himself. By doing so, he had opened up a new seam in Irish folk music which later bands like The Chieftains, Planxty, The Bothy Band, Clannad and Altan were to mine and to develop in new ways. .

Along with this influence, however, the band’s sound was also shaped by the interest which its members had taken in the folk revival movement in England and the United States. Through his involvement on the English folk circuit, Christy Moore had both performed with and been influenced by many of the musicians he had met on it. These included performers as diverse as Ewan MacColl, Hamish Imlach, Mike Harding, Martin Carthy and The Watersons. His involvement there had also given him access to a wide store of songs on which he was to draw during his days with the band. To add further to this mix, Andy Irvine had long been interested in both American music and in music from Eastern Europe. Woody Guthrie had long been his musical idol and during his early days on the London folk scene he had been a protégé of one of the latter’s main disciples, Rambling Jack Elliott. His interest in Eastern European music had been whetted during his time with Sweeney’s Men and had been reinforced during a trip that he took to Bulgaria in 1968.

This diverse range of interests, combined with its founding members’ deep respect for and profound knowledge of Irish traditional music, gave the band’s music an energy and a dynamism with which few other groups in the genre could compete. Their pre-eminence in that respect was amply proved on the release of their first self-titled album in 1973. In Ireland the album is better known as the ‘Black’ album, a nickname given to it due to the grainy black and white picture of the band which appears on its cover. Much praised on its first release, it remains one of the very best Irish folk music albums ever released. Indeed, such is its quality that I found it very difficult to select which tracks from it I should include here. In the end, however, my choice was based on selecting those tracks which gave a good representation of the qualities of the album as a whole.

My first features one of the great transitions in Irish music from the boisterousness of the classic ballad Raggle Taggle Gypsy (a variant version of the song, The Seven Yellow Gypsies, which Martin Carthy had recorded to excellent effect on his 1969 album, Prince Heathen) to the more sedate and courtly Tabhair Dom Do Lámh. The latter title means ‘Give Me Your Hand’ in English and the piece was written early in the Seventeenth Century by the Irish harpist, Ruairi Dall O’Cathain. The only other transition in Irish music that I can think of that has the same visceral impact as this one is the great shift on Thin Lizzy’s Live And Dangerous album from the cover of Bob Seger’s song Rosalie into the band’s own classic Cowboy Song. In both cases, the seamlessness of the transition is testament to the dexterity and inspired musicianship of which both these great bands were capable.

My next choice here, The West Coast Of Clare is, perhaps, the best song that Andy Irvine has ever written. It is a beautifully atmospheric song about lost love and regrets and its effect is heightened by the superb arrangement by the band. My last choice from Planxty’s magnificent first album is The Jolly Beggar, a classic folk song about seduction and betrayal which is superbly sung by Andy. His voice is a very distinctive one and at times has a slightly wispy and quivery quality. However, like Christy, he has a superb ability to put a song’s message across in a way which other more technically gifted singers cannot rival.

The excellence of their first album established Planxty as one of the very best traditional music groups ever to have appeared in Ireland. It also demonstrated their appeal to young people in the country, many of whom had had little or no interest in folk music up to that point. This also meant that the expectations surrounding the release of their second album, The Well Below The Valley, were set at a very high level. In the event, however, the album proved to be another very fine one, matching and possibly even superseding the excellence of their first one. My first two choices from it are two songs with the same title (a typical Irish joke, some might say). The first of these is a superb version of another classic ‘seduction’ ballad, which had previously been recorded by the great Irish sean-nós singer Joe Heaney among others. In England the song was better known as Seventeen Come Sunday and had been the subject of a number of arrangements by classical composers with an interest in folk music like Percy Grainger and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The second As I Roved Out on the album was sung by Andy Irvine and had one of the most beautiful melodies to be found in Irish and English folk music. It was also superbly sung by Andy, who captured superbly the air of ruefulness and regret which underpinned the song. My final choice from the album is the haunting title song, which with its combination of a strange and hypnotic rhythmic pattern and a disturbing and powerful lyric, was one of the more exotic songs to be recorded by the band.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that with their first two albums, Planxty had succeeded in revolutionising the Irish folk music scene. Indeed, over time, their influence was to be felt across the Irish music scene in general and was to affect songwriters such as David Kitt, for example, who were not folk musicians themselves. For the band themselves, however, the incessant touring which they undertook between 1972 and 1974 was becoming increasingly exhausting. At the same time, new divisions were also beginning to emerge within the group as to the future musical direction it should take. Such tensions became apparent in late 1974, when both Dónal Lunny and Christy Moore decided to leave in order to pursue other musical projects.

Although new members were drafted in to fill the gap left by the two men, the band lost a good deal of the momentum it had built up over the previous two years as a result. This new line-up which included Johnny Moynihan, a stalwart of the Irish folk scene since the early 1960s, and Paul Brady, an upcoming talent who was later to establish himself as a pre-eminent figure on the Irish music scene generally, did go on to produce a fine album, Cold Blow And The Rainy Night. However, it did not have anything like the same impact which the band’s earlier releases had and in December 1975, Planxty split up for the first time.

Despite the personnel changes which had occurred in the band in this period, for most people its classic line-up remained the original four members. As a result, when Planxty decided to reunite in 1978, it was that first line up which was at its core. However, they did also bring in the brilliant flautist, Matt Molloy, as an additional member. It was this five-man group which produced the excellent 1979 reunion album, After The Break. Among the many highlights on that record were the extraordinary instrumental, Smeceno Horo, a track which reflected Andy Irvine’s long and sustained interest in Bulgarian music. Another gem on the album was the band’s superb take on the jokey sailor’s song, The Good Ship Kangaroo. Although I would have liked to included both of these tracks, I eventually decided to choose the fine ballad, You Rambling Boys Of Pleasure as my selection from the album.

My next selection, Little Musgrave, comes from the band’s fine 1980 album, The Woman I Loved So Well. By this point, the group had been further augmented by the inclusion of two fine musicians from County Clare, Noel Hill on concertina and Tony Linnane on fiddle. While Christy Moore had previously recorded a fine solo version of this classic betrayal/seduction/murder ballad, the rendition of it here has a dignity and grace which the earlier version did not quite possess. The Planxty version also includes one of Liam Óg O’Flynn’s most effective uilleann pipe solos, a touch which shows the band’s brilliance as arrangers of folk songs. Little Musgrave also shows Christy Moore’s complete mastery of the long narrative song.

Planxty’s first reunion was eventually to come to an end in 1983, when the band split up for the second and, it now seemed likely, final time. Its members all went on to have distinguished careers outside the group with Christy Moore becoming one of the most popular solo artists in Ireland. At the same time, Dónal Lunny seemed to have a hand in almost all of the major developments in Irish folk music over the next thirty years. For example, he was a founding member and a key figure of such important groups in the history of Irish music as The Bothy Band and Moving Hearts (a band which pioneered a distinctive fusion of folk and rock music and which also included Christy Moore as a vocalist from 1981 to 1982).

Before Planxty’s first reunion, Andy Irvine had already made a record with Paul Brady, the very originally titled Andy Irvine/Paul Brady released in 1976, which ranks high among the best Irish folk albums ever released. After the band’s split, he went on to be a member of the excellent group, Patrick Street, and also made a number of very fine solo albums. During these years, Liam Óg O’Flynn also continued to be a significant figure on the Irish traditional music scene and took part in a number of significant collaborations with the composer, Shaun Davey. These included the extremely popular orchestral suite, The Brendan Voyage, which was first performed in 1980.

Given its members’ varied other interests, the second reunion of Planxty (which featured the original classic line-up of Dónal, Andy, Christy and Liam) was to come as something of a surprise when it occurred in 2003. One of the major reasons for it was the growing groundswell of interest in the band’s back-catalogue and the consequent awareness of how significant a force they had been in bringing Irish traditional music to a new audience. The Irish music journalist, Leagues O’Toole, had also played a major part in this process, particularly through the excellent documentary which he made on the band which appeared on Irish television in early 2003 (it can be seen here). Whatever its causes, the band’s reunion was to lead to a series of inspirational concerts which occurred across Ireland from late 2003 onwards.

Having been lucky enough to attend one of these, I can confirm that the particular magic which surrounded this great band had lost none of its sparkle. What was also striking was the sheer power and dynamism which they continued to command. At times, indeed, it was difficult to believe that there were only four musicians playing on the stage. As a result, I felt I had to include at least one track from their superb live album, Live 2004, which was recorded on the same tour in Vicar Street in Dublin. The track I have chosen, The Blacksmith, is one that they first recorded on the classic Planxty album. They do this fine song full justice here and then go on to show their brilliant musicianship in the instrumental section, Black Smithereens, which follows it. Indeed, that superb live album conclusively proves the special place which this brilliant group of musicians hold in the history of Irish folk music.

 

 

Christy Moore official website

Andy Irvine official website

Dónal Lunny official website

Liam O’Flynn (Wikipedia)

Planxty discography

Planxty reunion, full concert, Vicar Street, Dublin, 2004

Sweeney’s Men bio & discography

Emmet Spiceland bio & discography

The Bothy Band bio & discography

Moving Hearts official website

Patrick Street bio & discography

Planxty biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

Read Andrew’s toppermost on Irish traditional (sean nós) singer Joe Heaney

TopperPost #531

7 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Jun 19, 2016

    Possibly the most satisfying of the more or less traditional Irish groups to appear from 1960s. They need far more international recognition. And like so many, most of the imitators (though by no means all) are inadequate.

  2. Colin Duncan
    Jun 20, 2016

    Really enjoyed reading this, Andrew. Informative and interesting. Used to visit somebody, who played Planxty, but am not an expert. I was really into The Chieftains. Really enjoy Paul Brady and play his work regularly. Also, I chose ‘West Coast of Clare’ in my Maura O’Connell Toppermost list. It is a truly great song. I will seek out Planxty’s version. Thanks very much.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Jun 21, 2016

    David & Colin – thanks for these comments.
    David – a few other bands worth checking out are The Bothy Band (especially their classic live album Afterhours), Altan and early Clannad (before the Harry’s Game/Robin The Hooded Man phase). For me, though, Planxty remain in a class of their own.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Jun 22, 2016

    Colin, should also have added that, in my opinion, Paul Brady’s ‘Welcome Here Kind Stranger’ is one of the best Irish folk albums ever made. And that was before he started his whole other career as a singer/songwriter…

  5. Colin Duncan
    Jun 23, 2016

    I didn’t know of that album, Andrew and although I knew about the Paul Brady/Andy Irvine (great Scottish name) collaboration, I have never heard it. Thanks. Other links I have with your article is I really enjoyed watching Hamish Imlach, a great act, and John Martyn, one of my favourite artists was his ‘apprentice’ in his early days. Also, this afternoon, I have been playing ‘Delirium’ by Capercaillie, which was produced by Donal Lunny. Thanks again. Really enjoyed your article.

  6. Andy Irvine Fanblog
    Jun 28, 2016

    Really well written piece, always nice to see Planxty get the recognition they so deserve.

  7. Andrew Shields
    Mar 15, 2018

    Very sad news for Irish music yesterday with Liam’s death, but what a great legacy he leaves behind. There is an excellent obituary here.

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