Horslips matter. They mattered in the 1970s and their reunion proves they matter still. Why? Perhaps, to quote from the opening narration of Return of The Dancehall Sweethearts, the 2005 documentary on the band, “We saw in Horslips something that was ours, something that was of us...[they are] part of what makes us, us.”
Horslips vocalist and bassist Barry Devlin was in Galway last week in advance of the band’s Race Week concert this Sunday at the Galway Docks – their first show in the city in 31 years – and talked about the band, their music, reforming, and many memorable nights in 1970s Galway.
Happy to meet...
Horslips formed in 1970 in Dublin, drawing its members from across Ireland - Barry from Co Tyrone; Jim Lockheart (keyboards, whistle, flute ) from Dublin; Johnny Fean (guitars ) from Limerick; Eamon Carr (drums ) from Co Meath; and Charles O’Connor (mandolin/violin ), who was born in Middlesbrough to Irish parents.
That era was an exciting time for music in Ireland. The folk boom was in full swing while rock musicians Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison were enjoying success at home and abroad, encouraging the ambitions of other talents.
“There was an interesting bunch of young musicians around Dublin in 1970/71,” says Barry. “Phil Lynott was one of those. I remember a session with Eamon Carr, Peter Fallon [poet], Phil Lynott, and Eric Bell [Thin Lizzy guitarist]. Phil was playing guitar, reading lyrics and poems he had ready for Thin Lizzy like ‘The Clifton Grange Hotel’ and ‘Little Girl In Bloom’. I think we were the first to hear those songs.”
Horslips released their magnificent debut album Happy To Meet...Sorry To Part in 1972. The album’s mix of traditional Irish music, prog-rock, hard rock, and even ska was revolutionary and made an instant impact – as did the band's Celtic warriors go glam rock image.
“There was a lot of wagging tongues,” says Barry. “We were disapproved of by the purists!”
Horslips were part of a larger movement in Ireland and Britain which was reviving the native musics of the two islands, but giving it fresh life through fusion with rock.
“1969 to 1971 was the maelstrom of fusion rock,” says Barry. “You had people like Blood Sweat and Tears and The Flock combining rock with jazz, and The Nice mixing rock with classical. We were trying to combine prog-rock with stoner rock and what we knew about trad. We liked bands like Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, and King Crimson and we though of ourselves as prog-rock. There was a movement.”
These inspirations and ambitions would coalesce to even greater effect on what is arguably the band’s masterpiece: 1973’s The Táin.
“It is a stand out album,” declares Barry. “We were playing this bastardised, augmented rock and fusing it with myth and modernity in a way that was interesting to us. Eamon Carr is a massive Marvel Comics and Stan Lee fan and he brought that to The Táin, which prevented it from becoming fey and mock-romantic.”
Horslips released an album a year throughout the 1970s; and among the highlights were 1974’s Dancehall Sweethearts; the thrilling and ambitious The Book Of Invasions (1976 ), which challenged The Táin for status as the band’s best album; while Aliens (1977 ) and the excellent The Man Who Built America saw Horslips develop a more straight up hard rock sound and deal with contemporary concerns of emigration and the fate of the Irish Diaspora.
“The best years of my life were spent in Galway”
Throughout the decade Horslips were frequent visitors to County Galway, playing regularly the former RAF aeroplane hangar in Salthill Park, popularly known as The Hangar; at The Talk Of The Town on the Headford Road; Seapoint in Salthill; and Teach Furbo.
“I think the first gig we ever did in Galway was in The Hangar,” recalls Barry. “It was a hippy hangout and a place where you would have seen Thin Lizzy and Rory Gallagher. I remember it was an eccentric venue. You didn’t go there for the acoustics, but for the sense of occasion.”
That debut Hangar show proved fortuitous as it provided the band with a road crew in the form of three “überfans”.
“What I remember about our show there was these three loopers beside the stage,” says Barry. “They were massive Horslips fans who had come down from Shankill in Dublin for the show. We were talking to them afterwards, they were as mad as brushes – Robbie McGrath, who went on to become the Rolling Stones soundman; Kevin Detrich, and Joe O’Neill – and we asked them to become our road crew. It was a brilliant gig.”
Barry says playing Galway was always “fantastically exciting”, usually resulting in some madcap adventure or eccentric occurrence.
“We played Seapoint the first time in November 1971” says Barry. “It had a fine ballroom, but you had to go up flights of stairs to get to it. That was fine going up with guitars but the crew had a tough time trying to bring up the organ, so, the last time we played Seapoint in 1980, the manager of the venue took out the big window at the back of the ballroom and had the organ lifted in by crane!”
Playing County Galway usually meant staying in Sweeney’s Hotel in Oughterard.
“I have fond memories of Charles O'Connor and Chris De Burgh kicking football on the lawn by the little stream across the road from the hotel,” says Barry, “and the ball going into the river, which wasn’t three inches in depth, but being men of diminutive stature, they were nearly swept away by the water going after the ball!”
Horslips were a major phenomenon in Ireland and enjoyed cult success in Britain, including appearances on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and in the US – a notable achievement for an Irish band at the time.
Horslips were being looked up to by a new generation of Irish musicians and future U2 members The Edge and Larry Mullen cite Horslips as the first band they ever saw perform live. Then in 1978 a man called Paul McGuinness asked Barry to take a look at the young band he was managing.
“We were playing Wembley Arena in support to Thin Lizzy,” recalls Barry. “Paul brought Adam Clayton to meet me backstage. I think they were still called The Hype then and he asked if I could produce their first demos. I said I'm not a producer but they said they wanted to go in with someone they could trust.
“What was striking about the band was their ambition and hard work,” says Barry. “What The Edge was doing on guitar I had not heard before. It was non-blues based and used open strings and percussive echo to define how the song should move. We did ‘Shadows and Tall Trees’, ‘The Fool’, ‘Street Missions’, and an early version of ‘Stories For Boys’.
“I remember Larry Mullen snr came in at 2am to take Larry home and I said ‘I haven’t finished with the boys yet’ and Larry Mullen snr, in his bass drone voice said, ‘Ah you have!’ and took Larry home, so that was that. Larry was only 16 at the time.”
Return of the dancehall sweethearts
In 1980 Horslips called it a day and rounded off their decade long career with farewell shows in Belfast and live album The Belfast Gigs. The band members went off to pursue a variety of interests, with Barry becoming involved in film and screen writing, including directing music videos for U2.
Interest in Horslips was re-ignited in 1990 when U2’s Larry Mullen made the riff to ‘Dearg Doom’ the centrepiece of ‘Put ‘Em Under Pressure’, the song he wrote as the Irish football team’s anthem for Italia 90.
However the real Horslips revival began in 2004 when three fans – Jim McNelis, Paul Callahan, and Stephen Ferris – created a Horslips exhibition in Derry. Then band attended and reformed to play a couple of songs, a move which encouraged them to once again get back on the road.
Since then Horslips have not looked back, playing major shows throughout Ireland, most notably in the 02, and appearing on RTÉ's Other Voices alongside Elbow and Canadian indie-rock band Stars.
“Stars’ rhythm guitarist was telling me that when he found out he was going to Ireland, his father asked him if he might be able to find any old Horslips albums in remainder bins,” says Barry. “His father thought we would all be long dead, but when his son found out about appearing on Other Voices with us he rang him and said: ‘Dad you are not going to believe this, I’m going to play on stage with them!”
This weekend will see Horslips return to Galway as part of the Race Week concerts. So how are the band enjoying the reunion?
“We love it!” declares Barry. “We’re all still in good health and coming back together has reminded us of what fun it is to be touring in a band, cracking the same terrible jokes as before. You think time will erode the more obvious eccentricities but you come into the room and find they are all baked on like ceramics.”
Horslips play the Main Stage at the Galway Docks on Sunday at 8pm. Doors are at 6pm and tickets are €28 from Ticketmaster and wwww.ticketmaster.ie