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When We Were High Kings
They toured the world throughout the ‘70s, earning rave notices from Bono, The Edge and Melvin Bragg, upsetting the clergy, terrifying the American public in the company of Blue Oyster Cult and the J Geils Band and out-glamming even Bowie with their flamboyant sartorial taste. With a new DVD on the way and much speculation about a possible tour, legendary Celtic rockers Horslips here talk to Hot Press about a decade of adventure, decadence and great music.
Colm O Hare, 04 Feb 2005
Between 1972 and 1980 Horslips released thirteen albums and toured incessantly across Ireland, throughout the UK, Europe and in North America. A musical and cultural phenomenon, they were the first band to blend rock with Irish traditional airs, single-handedly inventing Celtic Rock. Their debut album, Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part was an instant success and they took to the road with a vengeance where they remained for most of the decade.
Arguably their most important legacy was in bringing rock and roll to the showband-dominated ballroom heartlands, giving rural audiences their first taste of a real live rock band. Despite widespread critical acclaim and commercial success abroad they continued to tour in Ireland right to the end.
Their 1977 album Aliens reached the US album charts and they concentrated on the American market for much of the late ’70s. However, despite widespread touring they failed to make the big breakthrough and went their separate ways at the end of 1980.
But the Horslips story wasn’t over just yet! Early last year all five of the original members reconvened for a brief acoustic set at an exhibition of Horslips memorabilia in Derry. Last summer they went into Grouse Lodge studios and over a couple of weeks they recorded what was to become Roll Back – 15 acoustic re-workings of Horslips classics. The album was released late last year to widespread acclaim. A much-anticipated documentary, The Return of the Dancehall Sweethearts, will be broadcast on RTE and released on DVD at the end of February. There are even rumours that Horslips will tour again for the first time in a quarter of a century.
The classic line-up consisted of Eamon Carr (drums), Barry Devlin (bass, vocals), Jim Lockhart (keyboards, flute etc), Johnny Fean (guitar), and Charles O’Connor (violin, mandolin, vocals and sundry other instruments).
Here they reminisce about a decade of dancehalls, decadence and dodgy clothes.
HAPPY TO MEET…BEGINNINGS
Eamon Carr: Myself, Barry and Charles were working in Arks Advertising Agency in Dublin. The agency was looking for a band to feature in a Harp Lager ad. It was purely a photogenic thing - nothing to do with music. They thought Charles O’Connor looked like a musician and decided they could build a band around him. Barry had these big side-burns so he was in. I mentioned that I used to play drums in a band so I was in too.
We didn’t have to play – we just mimed all day! We went for a meal afterwards and somebody said, ‘that was a laugh, why don’t we try and get an actual band together?’ So we did! We were just fooling around for the first few months. It was all acoustic Stones numbers and folksy stuff.
We had all been involved in music. I was doing a poetry thing called Tara Telephone doing readings in Slattery’s and that kind of stuff. There’d be musical interludes and people like Phil Lynott would turn up. Jim (Lockhart) used to come down and play a bit which is how I got to know him.
Barry Devlin: The early stuff was a bit ropey. Eamon and I hadn’t worked out what kind of rhythm section we’d be. But I remember the sheer excitement of doing something that nobody else was doing. And that was before we consolidated into what we would eventually become.
Jim Lockhart: Everyone brought something to the party. Eamon had an incredible breadth of knowledge of rock and roll history, Charles and Johnny brought in traditional influences. Barry brought his pop sensibilities. It was just a bunch of different people listening to different things.
Eamon Carr: Then we got a gig on RTE as the house band on an Irish language program called Fonn, which meant we had to put together two or three songs every week for about six weeks. Suddenly we had a repertoire!
When the TV series had ended it was like ‘what the fuck do we do now?’ We thought it would be an idea to do some gigs. So I suggested that we do a gig in Navan. The idea was, we’d hire a hall and run a few buses down full of our mates. But the parish priest didn’t like the look of the poster and he banned the gig. It made the papers with headlines like “Bingo Priest Bans Pop Group” or something like that. So without playing a note before an audience we were already notorious.
Charles O’Connor: I don’t think we’d ever envisaged becoming a band. We did our practising in front of people but they didn’t seem to mind. We suddenly realised we could make a half-decent living. We set up our own label, designed the covers. We were out of advertising and into advertising.
Eamon Carr: There was never a plan. When you listen to Happy To Meet it’s just an album of stuff. But it was an astonishing success. We were literally begging pressing plants to make more copies to meet demand. Up ‘til then we looked like a scruffy San Francisco band. There was a suggestion that we should try and look the part – the part being T-Rex, The Faces and all that glam stuff.
THE NEVER ENDING TOUR
Barry Devlin: We started touring on 17th March 1972 and finished in 1980. I don’t remember it as being anything other than fun. The others might have a different view, possibly the more sensible view.
Eamon Carr: That first summer was wild! We’d be the star attraction on a showband night in front of 2000 savages. It could be dodgy sometimes. You go out wearing a poncey suit somewhere in West Cork in 1972 in front of an audience who were there to see The Dixies and you’re lucky to get out alive.
Charles O’Connor: Ireland was a foreign country to me. People thought I was Irish as I had an Irish sounding name but I was from Middlesborough. I developed this Irish accent, which I heard recently on tape and it was awful.
Eamon Carr: The audiences sat on the floor – presumably a lot of them were stoned. But you could detect that after an hour or so some people would be twitching a bit and wanted to dance. So we started introducing a few rock and roll numbers in the encore.
Barry Devlin: I really liked touring Ireland. I made a conscious decision to treat Ireland as a foreign country. That was how I dealt with it. The ballroom sets were two hours long and you couldn’t do less, we used to stretch out ‘Furniture’ for 20 minutes.
Jim Lockhart: We’d do ballrooms for a month or two and then we’d go off and do Germany which would be a complete culture shock. Then it would be the UK doing the Apollo in Glasgow or the Rainbow in London. Then we went off to the States to the Bottom Line or some place like that. And then we’d do festivals in Switzerland. It was all a bit weird but immensely good craic.
Johnny Fean: There was hardly any let-up at all. If you got two weeks off during the summer and a couple of days at Christmas you were lucky. To be honest it was very hectic. Maybe if we had taken more time off we would have lasted longer.
Eamon Carr: When Johnny came up with this ‘Dearg Doom’ riff I remember quite clearly and vividly going ‘holy fuck’ and I knocked together a lyric for it. The weird thing was it wasn’t well received in Ireland. The sleeve was in black and white for a start – they wanted colour and it just didn’t seem to be as much fun as the first album. But in England on a critical level there was a genuine positive response to it. We ended up doing this arts show with Melvin Bragg.
Charles O’Connor: A lot of people took us way too seriously. The whole Dancehall Sweethearts thing was a complete joke to us. Some of these kids had never seen a band before and they laughed at us and laughed with us.
Johnny Fean: We were in awe of America. They had beer in the dressing rooms and food on the table. And the Americans were very nice to us. We were touring with big bands like Blue Oyster Cult and the J Geils Band. Weird things happened. One time our van with all the gear went missing an hour before a show. The J Geils band came to the rescue and let us use their backline. After searching for five or six hours it was found parked on the outskirts of town. Later we’d heard it might have been sabotage on the part of some other band who didn’t like us muscling in on their territory.
Charles O’Connor: Touring America was definitely my favourite period. We were more professional by then and we had had a chance to really perform and we were getting more acclaim. I can clearly remember driving over the Rockies to Denver playing Little Feat in the bus. It was magic.
SORRY TO PART…THE END
Jim Lockhart: We were working too hard and we just burnt out. Times were changing and we were changing. We had grown up together and lived in each others’ pockets for a good ten years. I remember feeling at the time that the seam we were mining was mined out. We had taken the experiment as far is it could go. There was no big falling out. We just drifted.
Eamon Carr: The real sense of creative adventure went out for me at the time of Aliens. My heart wasn’t in it but I felt I should stick around. I thought maybe we’ll see sense and swing back. But the game was up.
Barry Devlin: The fact that we decided to be self-financing probably wasn’t that sensible in that it committed us to gigging all the time. There were some albums where that incessant gigging had an effect. The Unfortunate Cup of Tea suffered from a lack of rehearsal. It’s a lesson that you shouldn’t call your album by an ironic title if it’s going to live up to it.
Johnny Fean I had no idea we’d last that long. After Happy To Meet I didn’t really look too far ahead. I think that from ‘76 to ‘79 was our hottest period from the Book of Invasions up to Aliens and The Man Who Built America. After that our hearts weren’t really into it.
Barry Devlin: Bands want to be as big as they can be. Part of the thing is to reach for the stars. I would have loved to crack America like U2 but we never did. The fact that the record company in America hated Aliens didn’t help. I think Jim put it best when he said there was no plan B.
Eamon Carr: To be honest some of the writing could have done with some serious editing or some quality control. But you didn’t stop and ask. The first objective was to make a record. The in-joke with Happy To Meet, Sorry to Part was that we were getting a chance to make an album. There was no question in our minds that we were going to make a second album. It was hail and farewell, hello and goodbye.
Barry Devlin: It just happened – like a late pregnancy. When we started playing together again I had a strong feeling that I liked these guys a lot more than I thought.
Jim Lockhart: This whole project grew out of the DVD directed by Maurice Linnane and the Derry thing. It was at that point that somebody said wouldn’t it be nice to do an acoustic thing as a bonus with the DVD. It was only when we started to knock up a few things in rehearsal that we noticed that things had changed. There was stuff going on that hadn’t happened before. It started to sound different and it could hold its own.
Eamon Carr: I was reluctant to embark on any of this carry-on. I thought it would be embarrassing. We agreed to do a little acoustic thing for the Derry exhibition but I was still very wary. Then the suggestion was made that we would record a couple of tracks to give away with the DVD. There was a caveat that if anyone thought this was muck we could walk away. It was Barry who said why don’t we draw up a list of songs that we liked that we’d like to hear differently, which is what we did.
Jim Lockhart: It’s mostly archive material like National Stadium gigs, which were done by RTE and stuff we did for the Old Grey Whistle Test and for Melvin Bragg with one or two videos. There are also interviews with us and with other people like Pat McCabe, Joseph O’Connor and John Waters. Bono and Edge are on it. Horslips were the Edge’s first ever gig and I think he says something like going to see Horslips made him realise the importance of footwear in a band. And Bono says some nice things.
Anyone who remembers what it was like when life was lived in black and white should find it interesting. It’ll come as quite a shock to realise how distant in time that whole era is.
HORSLIPS LIVE IN 2005?
Eamon Carr: There’s this thing in the air that Horslips might be doing a gig or a tour but nobody has come up with a proposal yet. I’m personally reluctant to do it. I might seem curmudgeonly about it. But I would go on record as saying I’ve no desire to play live ever again. I did it for long enough. The question that arises for me is which Horslips are we talking about? The band had a career that lasted ten years with 13 albums. Are we talking about the Belfast Gigs Horslips or the Happy to Meet Horslips?
Jim Lockhart: We’re taking it step by step. I’ve no problem with doing something live but you can’t be putting on satin suits and glitter shoes.
Johnny Fean: We have kind of tossed around the idea of doing some dates. I would be up for it. There’s unbelievable goodwill towards the band after all these years. It could be great
Charles O’Connor: I think something might happen. We’d be a little bit nervous about it, though we’re not scared that we wouldn’t sell out a venue like Vicar Street. But we’d have to be marketed differently today than in the past. We’re old fellas now, we look like a bunch of gangsters like the Sopranos.
Barry Devlin I would love to tour again. I’d be mad enough to want to do a ballroom tour.
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