Horslips – 1976

Let me go back in time for a bit. Back in April, when I had a small kindling to start this blog, I wrote of a track from The Book of Invasions, “Warm Sweet Breath of Love”: “[This track] has everything that could be so right about music. Its all of these things: romantic, chivalrous, inviting, rocking, uplifting, poignant, bittersweet, progressive yet accessible, and best of all…memorable.” What I didn’t have then, and have now, was the venue to describe why it is so and how it ties into this whole English neo-folk sojourn. What’s interesting to me now might not be what was so interesting to me then.

Then, I didn’t realize how deeply their Irish identity informed its creation. This album created by five friends was started by a group that played the role of a band in a Harp Lager commercial. They enjoyed their camaraderie so much they said fuck it, why not start an actual band? And in doing so, kickstarted the whole Celtic rock movement. Alan Stivell might have given Gaelic people their musical brain, Van Morrison its soul, and Donovan its reflection, but Horslips gave them their visceral body. When you hear or view a Horslips performance you can feel the distinct Celtic culture hovering around them.

Just imagine that track without its wonderful Irish mandolin melody, would it sit right by you? Shit, it would never sit right by me. You can feel and sense the huge pride they had in their background and how it informed all the sentiments they could wring from you the listener. Its this pride that could only best serve its purpose presenting itself as this almighty force anyone can lose themselves in. This is something, in my humble opinion, that clearly presents itself in the pinnacle of all Celtic Rock, 1976’s Book of Invasions: A Celtic Symphony.

By 1975, sensing the evolution of music, Horslips, the band that started off with a self-created image as Pavee musical rockers that grew their hair long, bared its chest, wore frilly clothes, sacked in a rock’n’roller way most of Brittany…now cut its hair, wore leather jackets and dressed more like the punk rockers of the nascent time. Long, spiraling Celtic musical fantasias like 1972’s Happy to Meet – Sorry to Part and 1973’s equally brilliant The Tain, gave way to a band unsure of how to meet its role as leaders of a new Irish music movement.

1974’s Dancehall Sweethearts clearly sees them floundering whether to remain a rock or folk band, then giving in to a decidedly generic hard rock direction with 1975’s The Unfortunate Cup of Tea, and later that year over correcting itself by going all in to Celtic traditional folk with Drive the Cold Winter Away. In the end, did they want to compete with the Rory Gallaghers, Thin Lizzys, the Planxtys, Bothy Bands, or the Chieftains of the world? Here lay a band trying to be all things to all people, and failing miserably because of they lost sight of who they were. In 1975, they decided to give stop touring and give themselves time to go back home to write songs. They wanted to be the f’in Horslips, descendents from the Tuath Dé.

Lebor Gabála Érenn cover.

At first they were struggling to figure out a concept. However, Eamon the main lyricist and drummer of the band, had become enamored with the Lebor Gabála Érenn saga. Part history, part mythology, and huge part allegory, this book tried to give Irish people an origin story of sorts. One that could explain their lineage before Christians came in to roll a bunch of their beliefs into their own. The story itself is long and imaginative. Something about the original descendants being the one of the tribes that escaped the Biblical flood, only to have one man (Fintan) surviving, who then in turn turns into a salmon, then a hawk only to turn back into a man 5,500 years later to relate this history (as it/he saw it) occur in this book!

The main gist is what Horslips relates in the liner notes which I’ll graciously post here:

The Book of Invasions is a twelfth century chronicle of the various pre-Christian colonisations of Ireland. The race who occupied the country before our Gaelic ancestors were the Tuatha De Danann -the Peoples of the Goddess Danann. While their origins are unclear we do know that the Tuatha were a mystical race, handsome and learned, elegantly dressed, expert in every art and science and supreme masters of wizardry.

In the Mythological Cycle their place is among the traditions of Immortals. In fact the Tuatha were so magnificent their existence embarrassed scholars who, when transcribing the legends centuries later did not know whether to regard them as men, demons or fallen angels.

Bravest of all peoples their leaders were wizards first and warriors second whose victories were gained more by superior knowledge and magic than by warfare. The Agatha De Danann occupied the country and lived in relative peace from 3303 Age of the World until the coming of the Milesian warriors in 3500 Age of the World.

After their defeat at the Battle of Tailteann the Tuatha simply vanished from these islands. Tradition and popular belief has it that the Tuatha, through their esoteric powers, became the Sluagh Sidhe (The Fairy Host) and, taking their secrets and mysterious arts with them, entered an occult realm where they remain till this day.

This was the genesis of the Irish, and the band at first was rightfully reluctant to tackle such a subject, but seeing that the saga itself is divided into three movements Geantrai (joyful music), Goltrai (lament/sad music) and Suantrai (sleepy/lullaby music)…they said in their own words: “We ran shy of it for a while, thinking, ‘We couldn’t do that, it’s outrageous’. But that feeling gave way to, ‘Aw, fuck it, let’s try it‘.” It was a symphony just waiting to be writ by someone. In their clutches, they’d tackle the three sections this way, the first would detail the Tuatha De Danaan, the second would be the 19th century Gaelic migration, and the third would be its current Irish diaspora and fruition. Now hearing all of this makes sense to me as a listener!

When you hear the absolutely awesome, rocking beginning of the first movement Geantrai/Joy (When Gods Walked the Earth) after setting the mood with the heavy Celtic folk opening of “Daybreak” and “March Into Trouble”, you get “Trouble (with a Capital T)” which transforms Brian Boru’s March into an absolute be-a-u-ty of a war rocker with an electric guitar mimicking the original flute melody. Your hear this flute and guitar interplay pushing forward a magical sound meant to invoke the incoming Tuatha De Dannan cloaked in all their fog. Using this mythical tale they start to transform a pieced together fantasy into a genuinely heartfelt piece of art. All of this culminates with the just swooning “The Rocks Remain” (which starts at the 4 minute mark below).

Horslips in describing all the cloaks, precious stones, stolen thrones, that have vanished with time start to invoke the most important things that will remain when only stones remain…the love we all have for each other and what that produces. What makes the song brilliant, is that the song could symbolize the glory of cultures surviving in a land they love, or it could stand for the love between two people surviving through love, sickness, and health. Its this kind of relation to both types of definite, tangible things that just makes the whole album a joy to hear.

Book of Invasions – A Celtic Symphony album cover.

Now, I appreciate more that the “Warm Sweet Breath of Love” kicks of the Goltrai/Lament (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne) section, after the “Dark” that ends the joyful first. This masterpiece of Celtic power pop presents some kind of solace/hope that continues after a certain darkness continuously creeps in. It’s a short excursion regaling the idea that all that matters is finding peace in love despite all sorts of hardship, the main antagonist Fionn prefers taking revenge by not saving someone who fell in love with a woman who he wanted to marry but didn’t love him back. While Fionn can take the the simple pleasure of getting revenge on Diarmuid who weds Grainne, Diarmuid can feel all eternity flowing through him because he died in the embrace of his loving wife…that is what he wishes to feel one more sweet breath of. Diarmuid had fallen under the spell of love from Grainne, and Fionn withers on a pitiful existence thinking it was an all an actual demonic spell. Oof, that’s just a brilliant way to capture a long as all heck allegory, in one of the most brilliant of 3 minute love songs ever.

The final side ends on the Suantrai/Lullaby (The Living End) section which is kicked off by the elegiac “Sideways to the Sun” a plea of sorts to take care of your current land/history since your ancestors sacrificed much to let you live in it. They recognize the surface ludicracy of trying to use fairy tale and myth to deal with present, modern situations but they make the case for the importance of using new ways to gleam into your consciousness certain things that are timeless. As the album ends with the tough rocker “Ride to Hell” an epilogue of sorts, they make the winning case that modern rock or pop songs are our new fairy tales. The pop star becoming the person who is now swayed by new magics, golds, and spells into a certain fantasy realm. They were once normal people but now these enticements made them into our heroes with new stories to tell.

Or as Eamon, the drummer, put it: “How Fairy tales being an expression of the collective unconscious, I felt it would be fun to invoke some talismans and also provide rather blatant clues to three great contemporary cultural archetypes. Elvis, Dylan and the Hardest-working Man in Showbusiness, Soul Brother Number One. For me, Ride To Hell remains the psychic interface between Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People and James Brown’s King Heroin.

Horslips Book of Invasions photo session.

What can I say? I’m a stone cold sucker for any band like Horslips that knows how to drill down all these types of high minded ideas in ways that can speak to any shade of light. Memorable, that word truly defines the album, and I think I got it right the first time, before the long tale…anyway, what matters is how can anyone ever forget a song like “The Rocks Remain”? More memorable neo-folk tomorrow…

Listen to The Book of Invasions – A Celtic Symphony at Spotify.

Bonus track a performance of “King of the Fairies”, a killer track from Dancehall Sweethearts, up on a rooftop, in Dublin…