Horslips is a band that once held a dominant place in the Irish music scene. And now, even today you still won’t find an Irish person who doesn’t know of them. Of course, some of the young ones I meet make a face and say it’s their dad’s music, but those kids are full of it. They know Horslips is still cool as eff.
The band was formed in 1970 as rock music in Ireland was slowly catching up to the UK. In fact, Horslips, as I found out in an excellent documentary on the band’s history, is to be thanked for setting up a touring circuit for bands where there was none before, venturing into small towns and playing the local dancehalls, even getting into sticky situations in the strife-torn north. Horslips is the without-whom of Irish rock n roll, proudly wearing its national identity for all to hear and taking the sounds of its homeland abroad.
At the beginning, the band bravely mixed weird glam fashions (check out drummer Eamon Carr’s getup in this vid!) with electric-folk closer to Steeleye Span than to Bowie, with original songs mixed in. Creatively, Horslips never stood still, releasing very traditional folk material alternately with albums of high-energy rock songs, but always with distinct Irish influences and sounds. And they did it in a classy way, too, never even remotely approaching the cloying, maudlin green-beery trap that some Irish folk acts land themselves in. Horslips was Irish, so they sounded Irish, and that was that.
The members are great musicians, too, from Johnny Fean’s soulful, bluesy axework, to Charles O’Connor’s deft fiddling and mandolin playing, to Jim Lockhart’s excellent keyboarding, to Eamon Carr’s inventive Dave Mattacks-esque (Fairport Convention) drumming, to Barry Devlin’s bouncy bass parts. None of the band members could be described as Pavarotti, but each sings passionately and energetically during his lead turns.
The band’s acknowledged classic is The Táin, a suite of songs inspired by, well, The Táin (read about it), and it’s pretty heavy and mythological. A definite classic (who can forget “Dearg Doom“?). Second best is usually considered to be The Book of Invasions, another concept album based on a piece of Irish mythology. Less highly regarded are the three albums that concluded the band’s career, Aliens (1977), The Man Who Built America (1977) and Short Stories/Tall Tales (1980). Horslips clearly felt the rock winds changing and thought they’d amp up the energy even more, changing from a band that played Irish progressive hippie rock to one that played Irish new wave, almost like a Celtic version of The Cars. This is something that might not have worked, and many critics seem to think that it didn’t.
I vehemently disagree. While the third of those albums is not as strong, Aliens and the album I’m about to discuss are very, very good albums chock full of concise, insanely hooky songs telling intense stories of Irish immigration to America, which adds emotional heft to the proceedings. This expanded the band’s fanbase outside of Ireland and I suppose some consider that a sellout, but I don’t. I think it was a bold choice of direction, and these gems of songs are ample evidence that Horslips’ hearts were in the right place.
The Man Who Built America is stronger than Aliens as the band perfected its new sound and the songwriting skills to match, and contains songs so tuneful that they burrow right into your head and never come out. The sound is bold, upfront and rockin’, but with the band’s characteristic lyrical Irish melodicism intact. It’s one of the best Celtic rock albums of all time.
Let us get to the highlights. (check the song titles for a vid link)
Clearly the harder-rockin sound of Aliens wasn’t enough, because this album explodes out of the gate with full-on punkish energy in this rollicking number, sung by Fean, who had not sung much on the band’s earlier albums. Who else was mixing punk/new wave riffing in 1978 with Irish fiddle solos? No one! A perfect manifesto for the new sound.
This super-catchy Devlin-sung number features clever harmonies and call-and-response vocals but also huge riffing and guitar lines that would fit well on a Thin Lizzy album. Rousing!
Again, Fean takes the lead on this tender ballad telling of the loneliness of those parted by immigration. It’s a lovely song but is especially distinguished by featuring the finest guitar work of Fean’s career in a couple of sections of soloing — his note choice is incredible, as is his ability to mix bluesy string bending with an Irish lilt. Easily the equal of anything Gary Moore could do, and that’s high praise. I could listen to this all day.
If It Takes All Night
Lockhart does some energetic blowing on his flute on this song that also has a great thumpy beat and an even mixture of folk melodies and hard rock riffery.
Green Star Liner
Eat your heart out, folk groups. Lockhart is rockin’ some harpsichord sounds on this one, as Fean twines broken chord fragments around Carr’s authoritative beat. Again, beyond catchy and with some really sweet background vocals. Oh, and there’s a uillean pipes solo.
The album’s single and title track is elegant and organ-driven and matches “Loneliness” in its rockin’ intensity, with great lyrics to boot and some spiky guitar lines. Finally I can complain: why the hell didn’t Scorsese use this song in Gangs of New York? I mean, Bono’s song is OK, but the theme of this tune is EXACTLY that of the film. What the hell? There was even a promo video for this one.
Another bouncy, jigs n reels meets punk number which ramps the energy into drunk whiskey orgy territory in the chorus. Fean’s guitar sounds, both rhythm and lead, are so razor-sharp on this whole album. Another one that will be a revelation to Lizzy fans.
The album’s second ballad is sung by O’Connor in his softly dramatic, deadpan voice. Ominous bass and slide guitar underpin another tale of immigrant sadness and misunderstanding. I don’t understand why this YouTuber chose to accompany the song with photos of his cat, but it takes all kinds to make a world!
Letters From Home
The weakest track is still pretty good. It’s a little too standard seventies hard-rock for me, but hell, all the songs can’t be perfect!
Long Time Ago
We finish with another slab of up-tempo Celtic rock.
If you like folk music, or you love high-energy rock music, particularly of the late seventies variety, you really shouldn’t miss this recording of heartfelt songs performed with characteristic Celtic intensity and an almost unparalleled sense of melody.
Agree all the way. Love the band. My fave is still Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part – it has a parlour feel to it, something about having been recorded amongst the hay bales but it has a feel about it that was never captured again. Following albums were very good as well but this one seemed to capture the echoe’s of a past with the approaching footsteps of the present. Not to be missed is Drive The Cold Winter Away. A new book by Mark Cunningham is about to be released, the band has been quite busy playing some very large shows and a show with the Ulster Symphony, all brilliant stuff. Check out http://www.horslips.ie for updates including dates they have played. The Canadian leg of the 1974 tour was just posted today ont he bands website. I did the stage production for the band at the St. FXU gig on November 13 1974 while a student there. Had my album autographed by them.
Great story! I’ll have to pick up that book for sure. I love the DVD they put together with their history as well as performances.
A wonderful live band who I saw quite a few times in the 70s – Hitchin College and the Albert Hall supporting Steeleye Span being particular favourites. “Aliens” for some reason remains my favourite album but the more recent all acoustic “Roll Back” is great too.
I think one of the problems they faced in England is how similar they often sounded (to some) to Jethro Tull. This was due, I guess to the use of flute and keyboards. Personally I prefer Fean’s guitar playing to Barre’s over the top playing (although he seems to have quietened down recently). Mind you, it was actually Anderson himself who played the electric guitar on “Locomotive Breath” according to the man himself.
I love Barre and Fean both. Barre’s playing on Tull’s folk-rock albums is generally more restrained, I think. But to me Steeleye Span is the best to come out of that genre. The only band with 5-part harmonies! Thanks for the comments.