All hail the high kings of Celtic rock
As Horslips prepare to go back on the road, Barry Egan explains why their music is as powerful as ever
'We Irish should ke-ep these personages in our hearts," wrote WB Yeats in the preface to Lady Gregory's Cuchulainn of Muirthemne, "for they lived in the places where we ride and go marketing, and sometimes they have met one another on the hills that cast their shadows upon our doors at evening."
For over a decade in the Seventies and beyond, the increasingly bizarrely togged-out Horslips kept the personages of olde Ireland in our hearts with songs about . . . deep breath . . . Connacht Queen Maeve, brown bulls, magicians, all-knowing fairy children, fearless warriors, deposed kings and epic battles with silver spears and so forth and so on. It was an acid trip down through the ages of old Irish history with a touch of Lord Of The Rings thrown in for good measure. Another deep breath now . . .
Dearg Doom: "You speak in whispers of the devils I have slain/By the fire of my silver Devil's Blade." Ferdia's Song: "'Every step I take,' Cuchulainn cried, 'Is measured out in centuries'." You Can't Fool The Beast: "You can see a world of things/They can't understand." Charolais: "The druids read the smoke and sand." Faster Than The Hound: "I travel Ireland in a day. You just nod, I'm on my way."
Last Thursday evening in the Shelbourne Hotel, Eamon Carr and Jim Lockhart of Horslips say that Barry Devlin is on his way from his house in Dalkey. In the meantime, Carr and Lockhart tell me stories of their exploits as a band in the Seventies.
Lockhart once set a restaurant on fire in Germany with a wayward cigarette that caught the curtains. (He can't remember whether it was Berlin or Bremen. Who can forget the name of a city they set a restaurant on fire in?)
Carr remembers one of their entourage another night in Holland standing in a bath filled with blood and foam declaring, a tad melodramatically: "I am bringing this board meeting to a close. I'm losing a lot of blood!" The Shelbourne bar is filled with gnarled laughter courtesy of Carr communications.
Lockhart in turn recalls a man dressed in a police uniform coming backstage at a show of theirs in America, pulling a gun and asking them whether they had drugs. (It turned out he was the promoter of the show and he was worried that the band wouldn't play very well without aforesaid narcotics. He was wrong.)
On cue, Devlin arrives. "There was one time, en route to Stuttgart from Cologne, at four in the morning," he remembers, "and we hadn't got time to stop so I was holding one of the band by his knees out the door of the van so he could throw up without covering us."
The Co Tyrone legend is all flustered. He locked himself out of the house -- no car keys etc -- and had to take the train in. U2 guitarist The Edge once said that when he was a young fella he took the train from his home in Malahide to Skerries to see Horslips and he would never forget the energy of what he saw. This sentiment has been echoed by lots of musicians who were -- and still are -- influenced by them.
For me, and many others, Horslips are so much more than the founding fathers of Celtic rock. Their music wasn't just a new take on indigenous Irish music. The songs of Devlin, Carr, Lockhart, (Johnny) Fean and (Charles) O'Connor were also, in many places, great rock songs; equal parts The Grateful Dead and early Pink Floyd, Yes and Neil Young.
Horslips' performance of Faster Than The Hound on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1974 is a classic YouTube moment. It is pure Floyd, soulfully psychedelic with Neil Young-ish vocals courtesy of Devlin. One wag posed the question: was that Charles O'Connor playing mandolin or Russell Brand?
The Man Who Built America, Faster Than The Hound and, of course, Dearg Doom are classics. Horslips were surely one of the biggest and most exciting bands of that era. They should have been bigger than Thin Lizzy and the Boomtown Rats in the Seventies. Instead, they broke up at their height in 1980.
They reformed for a few big shows last Christmas and are now getting back together again for a string of hugely awaited shows around Ireland. But Carr will not be playing drums on the forthcoming gigs.
"Much as I'd like to do the shows," he explains, "logistically it isn't possible. Rehearsals and pre-production would take too much time. I didn't want to hinder the rest of the guys doing the shows so I convinced them that the set would work with a deputy drummer.
"My first choice was Ray Fean, brother of our guitarist Johnny. He's an old friend, a brilliant drummer and knows the Horslips songbook inside out. So Ray has agreed to play the shows. And everybody's happy. Obviously I'm still a member of the band and will be actively involved in more low-key gigs and recording sessions."
There is tentative talk of possibly recording some new work in the studio. "It would be nice to tackle a theme again on an album," says Lockhart, "because our best albums were the concept albums. So if we put together an album we would probably need a hook to hang it on but we are not exactly sure what that is."
Carr mentions a possible unplugged session: "We won't know until we start fooling around. There is a huge palette to choose from."
The band released 10 albums in their time. And as Devlin points out: "One of the great things about Horslips is that we never repeated ourselves. Every album has its own identity, production style and approach. There are very few bands who can claim that because most of the time they stick to a winning formula. And each of our albums manages to stand up for itself. They had a place and a reason for being."
Horslips still have a place and reason for being in Irish culture now. Many of us seem to love their music more now than we did then. It doesn't matter that the riff on Dearg Doom is based on O'Neill's Cavalry March. It matters as much as saying that The Jam's Start is based on Taxman or saying The Stones' Exile On Main Street is based on the Mississippi Delta or Led Zeppelin's career is based on Robert Johnson. It matters more that the songs of Horslips remain the same, remain magical.
It is also good that the band finally sorted out their legal issues with certain parties who were selling the music of Horslips. "We took a big pay day in 2000 in Belfast," says Lockhart.
Devlin jumps up: "Jim may have taken a big pay day but I want to say to the taxman that I probably didn't," he laughs. "And if I did, then I can't remember it."
"We're back together," laughs Lockhart. "It's too late to stop now."
"It's too much fun to stop now," chortles Devlin.
Horslips play the INEC, Killarney, on November 27; the Royal Theatre, Castlebar, on November 28; the Waterfront, Belfast, on December 1; and the O2 Dublin on December 4