Horslips: Celtic Rock Pioneers

Horslips in concert

Born of a chance meeting in a hallway and christened by a casual remark, Horslips has since received ovations for careless mistakes and compliments for unplanned incidents. As such, you might fairly conclude that luck has contributed to the group’s prosperity. But luck cannot be solely credited for the success of Horslips’s 1975 U.S. gigs or the mounting sales of its third LP. Moreover, in order to launch its own record company and keep it afloat, give profitable concerts throughout Europe, and win successive contracts from Atlantic and RCA, the Dublin-based group obviously needed something more than a four-leaf clover.

At one London concert I attended, the five musicians showed what that something is. Having stormed confidently into its performance, the band soon brought the audience to their feet and kept them there until the end of a second encore. Horslips’s rock and roll, spiced with solos on Irish war pipes, pennywhistle riffs, and other diversions, seemed almost energetic enough to hold the rapt attention of a Sominex OD victim.

The next day, after sleeping off the effects of a post-concert party, guitarist Barry Devlin and drummer Eamon Carr were lounging in the barroom of the Inn on the Park hotel. “We grew up listening to rock,” commented Devlin. “But on the other hand, we’re not exactly from the Mississippi Delta. So instead of culling the licks in our music from an American blues tradition entirely, we use what we know of rock and also licks from the Irish traditional musicians.

“We’re not purists in any sense and we’re not dedicated to any one style. Unlike, say, Alan Stivell, who feels a mission to revive Breton music in France. God knows, Irish music doesn’t need us; it has a lot of performers who aren’t into any sort of fusion. We’ve just picked up from rock and blues as well as from them.”

Horslips’s members come from backgrounds as diverse as their influences. When Devlin, studying for the priesthood at Dublin’s University College, first met keyboard player Jim Lockhart, the latter was selling political pamphlets in a hallway. But besides heading the school’s S.D.A. chapter (Irish equivalent of the S.D.S.), Lockhart led a jazz/rock outfit called Clark Kent and His Flying Four; and Devlin’s sideline happened to be folk music.

“We talked,” Devlin recalled, “and I told him I didn’t really want to be a priest; he said he didn’t really want to be an anarchist. We both played music and it got started from that.”

They were soon joined by drummer Eamon Carr, a former teacher, model, advertising media planner, and aircraft refueler. Fiddle and mandolin player Charles O’Connor, a transplanted Englishman and the group’s fourth member, enlisted after going to work for an ad agency that had just hired Devlin.

Through this firm, the fledgling musicians obtained their first gigs together. “I had this great racket,” Devlin explained with a chuckle. “For two years, every ad that appeared on Irish TV had a jingle. I know, ’cause I wrote them. I would always say, ‘What you need for this is a jingle.’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah, really, you think we need a jingle for pots and pans?’ I’d tell them: “It’s the coming thing. And I know a band that’ll get you one very cheap.’ The band was me, Jimmy, Eamon, and Charles. We’d dash down to the studio, rattle off a jingle, and charge it up to them.

“And actually, we made a lot of money this way until they found out that the jingles didn’t sell anything and that we were, in fact, a racket. At that point, Charles and I quit the agency and the four of us began to concentrate completely on the music.”

Johnny Fean teamed up with them a few months later. “I met him in a pub when he was on a 48-hour drinking binge,” remembered Devlin. “He was technically asleep, you know, but he was still playing his banjo.

“We got to talking and he said, ‘I play a bit of guitar as well, not much but a bit . . .’ And it turned out, he had done the thing of locking himself in a room for two years with Eric Clapton records and he knew all the blues licks and the traditional Irish music as well.”

In early 1971, with the lineup now complete, the group got its first important break—a regular spot on an Irish TV series—and the musicians needed a name for the credits. “When we realized this,” said Carr, “we were in a Chinese restaurant in a monosodium glutamate coma.

“We were sitting around with our heads rolling. Someone suggested the name ‘Apocalypse’ and we all laughed heartily. And someone else said, ‘What about calling it ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”?’ That seemed sensible because there were five of us. And then someone else said in a slurred voice, ‘What about “Four Poxmen of the Horsalips”?'” Carr laughed. “We settled on Horslips.”

When, in spring 1972, the band’s members felt ready to cut some tunes, they held an equally off-the-cuff discussion about record contracts. “Having seen the people who were putting out albums in Ireland,” Devlin said simply, “we decided, ‘Well, hell, if they can do it, so can we.'” Forming the independent Oats label, the five recorded a debut album, Happy to Meet . . . Sorry to Part, and supervised its printing and manufacture themselves. When they finished the LP, in late 1972, the musicians distributed and promoted it on their own.

Impressed by Irish sales of Happy to Meet, RCA and Atlantic reps approached the group; and in mid-1973, the labels agreed to distribute the LPs in England and the rest of the world, respectively. Then in July 1974, after releasing its second album (The Tain) under this arrangement, Horslips initiated a new deal with RCA. That label now distributes the group’s material worldwide (though Oats still operates in Ireland).

“For Atlantic,” stated Devlin, “we were just some sort of weird Irish band who weren’t selling any significant quantities of records in the States and about whom they knew nothing. Whereas RCA Britain had some inkling that something was going on here. They just showed a lot more interest because they had seen that we could move crowds.”

During the past few years, Horslips has “moved” many crowds—sometimes literally. Devlin recalled, for example, the finale to a performance of “The Tain” at Ireland’s National Stadium: “The whole band was supposed to disappear in smoke. And, automation not having reached Ireland, we had our manager up on the balcony; he was to throw two smoke bombs while other things went off on the stage.

“He threw them all right, but they fell short . . . into the audience. So the place was rapidly filling up with smoke.

“Now the headquarters of the Irish army is next to the stadium. And the boys were all sitting in their barracks when suddenly this series of explosions came from next door. The next thing we knew, a squad of the army appeared at the exits to see what was going on. And the audience, they thought this was all organized as part of ‘The Tain,’ so they began to cheer the army . . . who got completely freaked.

“And at this stage, the place was totally filled with smoke; people were rushing for the doors and the army was using riot shields. A complete and unprecedented debacle and everyone thought we’d organized it! People were saying afterward, ‘It was great! To be honest, there was a bit too much smoke for my liking, but bringing in the army was a great stroke!'”

A stunt that got out of hand at another gig apparently pleased everyone present with the exception of Peter Clark, then Horslips’s lighting man. According to plan, Clark had thrown a sodium flare onto the stage; when it failed to go out, he rushed from the wings to stomp on it. The flare stuck to his shoes, his trouser legs caught fire, and, said Devlin, “he was dancing around the stage, blazing merrily.

“Finally, he was pulled backstage and extinguished. And again, everyone thought it was part of the act. They gave us a standing ovation. And we got lots of letters saying the act has never been as good as when we incorporated the fire dancer!”

Understandably, though, the band has since eliminated smoke bombs, fire dancers, and other assorted inflammables from its act. But while its concerts no longer feature such sideshows, the group continues to turn on crowds and now works a heavier schedule of gigs than ever before. Meanwhile, the band’s third LP, Dancehall Sweethearts, has been garnering more Stateside attention than did either previous disc.

“The album focuses loosely on the life of a medieval harpist we admire,” remarked Carr. “A guy named ‘Carolyn’ who was quite a character. He used to ride around Ireland on a horse and he had a roadie, because he was blind, who led him everywhere. In fact, he used to condemn the roadie for leading him into swamps and things.

“Anyway, we thought it would be nice to do a sort of examination of the parallels between his lifestyle and ours. So we took a crack at this but then it started to get out of hand and we decided not to do it as a concept album; we rearranged the order of the tracks.

“A lot of people have sensed that it’s vaguely thematic, though; and actually, it’s sort of an on-the-road-in-the-16th-Century album. That’s not the way we planned it, but that’s how it turned out.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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