Horslips

Can you almost feel the finish line? Allow me to go back a year, to a year 1973, when another band of Dubliners such as Horslips, whose name derives from the wordplay of “The Four Poxmen of The Horslypse,” figuratively rained Celtic rock bombs on the masses. Spurred on by the sound of early Fairport Convention, early Britton folk like Alan Stivell, and Donovan’s groundbreaking Celtic Rock exploration in Open Road they went all in on a sound that was being relegated to the dustbin of history.

Trading lead vocals were Charles O’Connor (fiddle, concertina, mandolin) and Barry Devlin (bassist). Around them a brilliant set of musicians, Jim Lockhart, Eamon Carr, and Johnny Fean (lead guitar) created a maelstrom of truly manic rock music. Such was the Irish economy that there was no musical market for new Irish music, let alone one of electrified versions of new and old songs. To this end, they created their own label, came up with their own cover designs, stage wardrobe and image, through thoroughly researched concepts/sounds they could use to bring Celtic music into the modern age. Before Thin Lizzy and other groups of the same ilk, here was Horslips bring that all out two or three guitar attack to songs that had resided in the history books sometimes for centuries on end.

Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part album cover.

Their first album, Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part, with its concertina-like fold-out cover, was mostly a traditional affair although one with decidedly heavier undertones than anyone had ever done before. Original songs like “Halls of Mirrors” and “Furniture” rubbed up nicely to traditionals like “Dance to Yer Daddy” and “The High Reel”, all of them showing a far more unconventional take on Irish music than stiff traditionalists. This album became the first true Celtic Rock album and sold massively in Ireland to the surprise of everyone involved.

The Tain, released in 1973, would take it further, almost completely dispensing of the acoustic part, it combined even more originals with some rarely heard traditionals they’d dig up while researching for a new album concept. Based on the Old Irish epic of Táin Bó Cúailnge they’d use the album format to tell that great tale of mythical beasts, witches, and all sorts of warrior fantasy (over a prized bull, no less…!) to go through all sorts of varied sonics and modern rock jams. “Dearg Doom”, with its Thin Lizzy meets Richard Hell guitar attack, for instance is based on the truly ancient pipe and fiddle piece O’Neill’s March.

The Tain album cover.

Their growth as musicians allowed them to start affecting Irish sensibilities without even having to couch them in Irish traditional songs anymore. Original songs “Faster than the Hound” with its elegiac Abbey Road-like tone and “Time to Kill” with its complex pop smarts hinted at a band that knew exactly how to conquer the rest of the world with this sound. My favorite song is the one that ties all of this new sound together “You Can’t Fool the Beast”, with its winning refrain that has a certain swagger that other bands in the neo-folk idiom didn’t have. Take a listen to the rest of this Celtic masterpiece, for a certain swagger that neo-folk starts to attain in 1973. Now finding their footing, they’d start to challenge the audience to follow them on a new journey. More of that tomorrow, though…

Listen to the Tain at Grooveshark.

Bonus track, if you’ve got time to kill check out their performance at Dublin in 1973: