Horslips

TrackAlbum
FurnitureHappy To Meet - Sorry To Part
Dearg DoomThe Táin
King Of The FairiesDancehall Sweethearts
Trouble (With A Capital T)The Book Of Invasions
The Power And The GloryThe Book OF Invasions
Sword Of LightThe Book Of Invasions
Warm Sweet Breath Of LoveThe Book Of Invasions
Speed The PloughAliens
LonelinessThe Man Who Built America
The Man Who Built AmericaThe Man Who Built America

Horslips photo

Horslips (l to r): Eamon Carr, Barry Devlin, Charles O’Connor,
Jim Lockhart, John Fean

 

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm
Horslips playlist

 

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Growing up in a small town in the West of Ireland in the late 1970s/early 1980s the chances of seeing a good live rock band play locally were slim to non-existent. The nearest decent music venues were in Galway city which was about 23 miles away. I did get to see some excellent acts there, including artists of the calibre of Thin Lizzy, the Undertones, Clannad (when they were still a great group) and John Martyn. The music scene in my home town, however, was primarily centred on the fag-ends of the ‘showband’ scene (there is a discussion of their history here. Among the showband acts I saw at the time were people like Dickie Rock and Big Tom. The latter was then the ‘King’ of Irish country music, which must rank among the worst musical genres of all time. There were also a few one-off musical events. One that stands out in my memory was seeing the new wave band, The Atrix (whose classic single The Moon Is Puce is far too little known) perform to an audience of about three people. There was also a folk music festival in the early 1980s which featured some superb musicians including Christy Moore, Paul Brady, De Danann and Scullion. Apart from these, the one real exception to the meagreness of the live music on offer there were the occasional appearances in the town by Horslips. When I saw them, they had moved beyond the ‘Celtic Rock’ image of their early years but were still a really excellent live group. Indeed, it is arguable that they never quite translated their power as a live act on to the records they made in the studio, although they came very close on occasion. The concerts I saw them play in those years, both in my hometown and in Galway, were uniformly excellent (the set lists would have been very similar to those on their fine live album, The Belfast Gigs.) And, of course, they were also very emphatically an Irish band, who from the very outset had attempted to create a fusion between our own traditional music and rock. Along with this, they were one of the very few groups who had no hesitation in playing gigs in the smaller towns all around the country. They were all superb musicians and, in Johnny Fean, they had one of the most underrated guitar players in Irish rock history.

 

So, who were Horslips?

Origins

The original members of the group – Barry Devlin, Eamon Carr and Charles O’Connor – first met when they worked at Ark, an advertising agency in Dublin. While there, they were asked to pose as a rock band for an advertisement for Harp Lager. To do so more convincingly, they enlisted the help of Jim Lockhart, a local keyboard player. Having enjoyed posing as a band, they then moved on to becoming one. At this point, two new members also joined – Declan Sinnott on guitar and Gene Mulvanney on bass. There were also very fleeting cameo appearances in the band by Gus Guest and Kieron ‘Spud’ Murphy. Mulvanney stayed slightly longer than the others, but even he moved on within a year.

The remaining members went on to record the band’s first single, Johnny’s Wedding, which was released in Ireland in 1972. It was highly original for the times as it represented the band’s first recorded attempt at what came to be known as ‘Celtic Rock’. It was also innovative in appearing on their own record label, Oats, a step which was essentially a new one in Irish rock music. Here’s a later live performance of Johnny’s Wedding:

Horslips’ fusion of Irish folk and rock music was aided by the fact that two of its early members were talented multi-instrumentalists – Jim Lockhart who played keyboards, flute, tin whistle and uilleann pipes and Charles O’Connor on guitar, slide guitar, concertina and mandolin (often an electric one) and fiddle. When Johnny Fean joined the group in late 1972, he added his skills on banjo and mandolin as well as on lead guitar. He replaced Declan Sinnott, who went on have a distinguished career as a producer and accompanist for artists of the quality of Mary Black and Christy Moore. This change also enabled the band to switch more easily from a largely acoustic mode to a full-on rock band as and when a song required it. Fean’s arrival also meant that Horslips had finally settled on what was to become widely accepted as its definitive line-up.

With Fean’s arrival, the band also began to record their classic first record, Happy To Meet – Sorry To Part. Rather than record it in an English studio, they hired the Rolling Stones mobile one (which the latter group had used for Exile On Main Street and which Deep Purple subsequently used to record Smoke On The Water). While they recorded the sessions, they stayed in Longfield House in Tipperary, one of the old ‘Big Houses’ (as they were known) in Ireland.

One of the most striking things about Happy To Meet was its cover. It was an octagonal design in the shape of a concertina created by Charles O’Connor who had studied at art college in his native Middlesbrough. In the documentary on the group, Return Of The Dance Hall Sweethearts, the band’s manager, Michael Deeny, claims that when Mick Jagger saw the cover he asked how that ‘cockamamie Irish band’ were allowed to use such an expensive design. This was due to the Rolling Stones’ previous run-ins with record companies over the cover art for their albums.

Generally speaking, Happy To Meet reflected Jim Lockhart’s stated aspiration to take “melodies that were inherently Irish or Celtic” and “put them in a different form of music”. In doing so, one of his big influences, as he told Horslips’ biographer Mark Cunningham, was Seán Ó Riada. For Lockhart, O Riada showed him that “there were more ways than one of engaging with the tradition”. My choice from the album, Furniture, is an example of this, as it incorporates elements from the folk song Óró, Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile (‘Welcome Home’ would be a rough translation. Ronnie Drew’s version of the song can be heard here. Apparently, the lyric of the Horslips song refers to Lockhart’s own relationship with his father.

 

The Táin and beyond

Horslips’ next album, The Táin, was their first concept album. It was based on the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Irish epic, which first appeared in manuscript form in the eleventh/twelfth centuries (it has survived in a few different versions). However, all of these were based on earlier oral transmission of the tale which went back far before that, possibly to as early as the eight century. In essence, the story centres around the attempt made by Queen Medb of Connacht to steal the Brown Bull of Cooley in the province of Ulster in the North of Ireland. Her aim in doing so was to equal the status of her husband, Ailil, who owns a prize bull, Finnbenach the White-Horned, which was superior to any of those in her herd.

At that time, wealth in Ireland was largely based on the possession of cattle. As most of the warriors in Ulster were then incapable of fighting due to a long-time curse, the defence of the province was left to the hero of the tale, Cuchulainn. He managed to hold off the entire Connacht army due to his combination of superhuman strength and cunning. For Eamon Carr, who had studied Old Irish at Trinity College Dublin, there was a link between Cuchulainn and “the Marvel comic heroes” he had read about in his youth. This link is made explicit in my next choice, Dearg Doom (Red Doom), which is essentially written from Cuchulainn’s perspective. It also reflects the boastfulness about his martial prowess that Cuchulainn displays throughout The Táin.

What makes ‘Dearg’ such a brilliantly effective rock song, however, is primarily Johnny Fean’s great guitar riff, which is one of the very best in the history of Irish rock music.

It later became maybe the most recognisable one in Ireland, largely through its use in this. As a result, it is now indelibly associated with the Irish national soccer team. The riff itself is based, in part, on the version of Marcshlua Uí Néill recorded by Seán Ó Riada and Ceoltóirí Chualann.

 

My next choice, King Of The Fairies, is one of Horslips’ best arrangements of a traditional tune. It is based on a well-known set dance and features some great playing by all of the members of the party. Johnny Fean again shows his super ability to twist and turn a riff until it begins to emerge as something altogether new. Here’s a live version from 1973 which also serves as a reminder of a long lost Dublin:

Perhaps a word is due here on some of the outfits that Horslips wore during this early period. These did veer occasionally into Spinal Tap-ish territory (particularly on the cover to Dancehall Sweethearts, the 1974 album from which King Of The Fairies came). In the Horslips documentary, Charles O’Connor does concede that, in their early days, the band did closely resemble The Darkness at times. In their defence, it is only fair to point out that many bands at the time were wearing similarly ridiculous costumes. This was the heyday of ‘Glam Rock’ after all.

 

My next four selections come from the 1976 album I regard as Horslips masterpiece, The Book Of Invasions: A Celtic Symphony. This was their most fully realised album where all of the different elements in their music came together to form a truly coherent whole. Like The Táin, Invasions was a concept album, this time based around a different prose source, Lebor Gabála Érenn (a rough translation would be ‘The Book Of The Taking of Ireland’). This was a collection of mainly mythical stories designed to provide a kind of potted history of Ireland up to the twelfth/thirteenth centuries when the stories began to be printed in manuscript form. Later writers added to this work, with the later sections (some written as late as the seventeenth century) being seen as far more historically accurate than the earlier part. In a sense, their primary design was to provide foundation stories for the Irish ‘people’. As with The Táin, Horslips used the texts to give a rough thematic structure to the album. Their fondness for using such devices led some critics at the time to link them with contemporary prog bands, although they were such a maverick band that it proved difficult to categorise them in such a simplistic way. They did have some elements in common with Jethro Tull – particularly given that Jim Lockhart occasionally played flute – but they always had more of a straight rock edge than had the latter.

My first selection from the record, Trouble (With A Capital T), features a superb introduction on flute by Lockhart. It then develops into one of the band’s finest driving rock songs. My next two choices. The Power And The Glory and Sword Of Light, both show the musical tightness and concentrated power which Horslips had developed in the years since they first formed. ‘Sword’ also shows their skill in utilising traditional tunes (in this case a well-known reel, Toss The Feathers) as the basis for their own songs. By contrast, my final selection from Invasions, Warm Sweet Breath Of Love, is one of the band’s most melodic songs. It is also one of their most effective love songs.

Invasions was designed as the first in a trilogy of similar concept albums. The other two, Aliens (1977) and The Man Who Built America (1978), were also concerned with Irish history but they brought the story closer to more recent times. (Phil Chevron of The Radiators From Space later argued that this shift by Horslips gave him the confidence to explore the failings of contemporary Ireland on that group’s classic Ghostown album.) Both Aliens and America dealt with the history of Irish emigration to the United States. They also marked a significant shift in direction by the band. By now they were hoping to make a significant breakthrough into the American market. To achieve this end, they moved towards adopting a much more radio-friendly and a less distinctively Irish sound than they had cultivated up until that point.

 

Nevertheless, my final three selections – Speed The Plough, Loneliness and The Man Who Built America – are all excellent riff-laden pop songs.

By late 1980, however, the increasingly marked shifts in musical fashions (including the advent of punk and the general reaction against the type of skilled craftsmanship on which Horslips music had been based) and the growing sense among the group’s members that they had taken their particular brand of music as far as they could, led them to go their separate ways. Although, in more recent years, the band has reformed and continues to play well-received concerts, this marked the end of its days as a real creative force.

In some ways, I find it hard to be objective about Horslips. They were an important part of my teenage years and their music still brings back many associations from those times. What I will say is that they managed, for almost a decade, to create a music that was uniquely their own and clearly expressed an ‘Irish’ identity in a more or less entirely new medium. And on top of that they were also a brilliant live act at a time when they were not easy to come by in a relatively small town in the west of Ireland.

 

Footnote

For those wanting to find out more about Horslips the best book about them is Mark Cunningham’s “Horslips: Tall Tales – The Official Biography”. The documentary about the band, Return Of The Dancehall Sweethearts, is also well worth watching. Because of legal and contractual issues, there were a large number of inferior quality reissues of their albums between 1981 and 1999. These should be avoided and the Edsel reissues which began to be released in 2000 are far superior. For anyone interested in finding out more about The Táin the best recent translations are by Thomas Kinsella and Ciaran Carson.

 

 

Horslips on BBC TV’s arts programme “2nd House” in 1974

 

The Official Horslips Website

Horslips fansite

Horslips at Irish-Showbands.com (masses of photos!)

Horslips at irishrock.org (photographic discography)

Thiefdom Of Horslips (on Twitter)

“Horslips: Tall Tales – The Official Biography” by Mark Cunningham (O’Brien Press 2013)

“Return Of The Dancehall Sweethearts” (DVD) – a film by Maurice Linnane (2013)

Horslips biography (AllMusic)

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 ….

Here are just some of Andrew’s other posts on Irish musicians on this site:
Willie Clancy, Clancy Brothers, Dubliners, Johnny Duhan, Séamus Ennis, Joe Heaney, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Seán Ó Riada, Planxty, The Radiators from Space

TopperPost #890

4 Comments

  1. Michael P Davis
    Aug 3, 2020

    Cool! Horslips are one of my favorite bands. My list for kicks:

    Dearg Doom – The Táin
    Trouble (With A Capital T) – The Book Of Invasions
    The Power And The Glory – The Book Of Invasions
    Sword Of Light – The Book Of Invasions
    Warm Sweet Breath Of Love – The Book Of Invasions
    King of Morning, Queen of Day – The Book Of Invasions
    Stowaway – Aliens
    Loneliness – The Man Who Built America
    The Man Who Built America – The Man Who Built America
    Guests of the Nation – Short Stories, Tall Tales

  2. Andrew Shields
    Aug 3, 2020

    Michael, thanks for this and a great list too. On another day your other choices might very well have made the ten.

  3. Calvin Rydbom
    Aug 4, 2020

    I look forward to a little exploration today. As I see a Horselips or two albums in Vinyl resale shops but really know little about them. So something to do today.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Aug 5, 2020

    Hope you enjoy Calvin. If you can get hold of a copy of The Táin or The Book Of Invasions all the better.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓