Digging up the past

An Irishman’s Diary about ancient rock art

‘The album cover Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part (detail, above)  portrayed Horslips  against the backdrop of an old Celtic cross at Tully Church, in the Dublin suburb of Cabinteely. The cross was somewhat the worse for centuries of wear. Whereas the other ancient rock carvings in the picture – the band – were still in pristine condition then, albeit bedecked with the enormous amounts of hair and gold lamé typical of the era.’

‘The album cover Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part (detail, above) portrayed Horslips against the backdrop of an old Celtic cross at Tully Church, in the Dublin suburb of Cabinteely. The cross was somewhat the worse for centuries of wear. Whereas the other ancient rock carvings in the picture – the band – were still in pristine condition then, albeit bedecked with the enormous amounts of hair and gold lamé typical of the era.’

Fri, Sep 27, 2013, 01:00

It was with a mixture of alarm and amusement that, leafing through the autumn edition of Archaeology Ireland, I came across an item about Horslips.

On the one hand, it’s disturbing when bands you’re old enough to have seen start featuring in journals devoted to the study of antiquities. It also reminds you, embarrassingly, of an era when the verb “to dig” was considered cool, and not just by conservationists. Against which, in this case, there were humorously mitigating circumstances.

It turned out that the Horslips feature related only to photography from the band’s 1972 album: Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part. A classic design in its own right – the sleeve had an octagonal gatefold shape, like a concertina – this portrayed the musicians against the backdrop of an old Celtic cross at Tully Church, in the Dublin suburb of Cabinteely.

The cross was somewhat the worse for centuries of wear. Whereas the other ancient rock carvings in the picture – the band – were still in pristine condition then, albeit bedecked with the enormous amounts of hair and gold lamé typical of the era.

Anyway, an Archaeology Ireland reader had lamented that the album’s photography did not reveal the finely-carved figure on the cross. So the issue was taken up by Horslips drummer-turner-journalist Eamon Carr, who defended the professionalism of the photographer involved.

The latter’s main task, as Carr pointed out, was to highlight the band’s trousers (which are indeed portrayed in superb, tight-fitting relief). And having cleared that up, the Horslips man went on to enter the spirit of the journal, offering his own insights.

“Research shows that the Horslips Glam Rock era so admirably accessorised by the old cross dates approximately from March 1972 until August 1973, at which point the band reverted to costumery from an earlier period, circa 500 BC, with a mixture of leather, calf-skins, wolf-pelts, and bronze fittings,” he wrote.

“It’s believed that tedious delays at airport customs [later] resulted in a breakthrough of sorts and the introduction of conventional cheesecloth and satin.”

It must have been in the cheesecloth era circa AD 1979 I first saw Horslips live. But I don’t remember the clothes much. It was other details that impressed me: like the way the guitarist, Johnny Fean, used keep a lit cigarette wedged between the ends of his guitar strings while playing.

If you were near the front, you could even get a light off him between songs. I didn’t smoke, but it was the sort of thing that made you wish you did.

The band were still fairly hirsute then, I recall, although another half-remembered photograph from the period suggests they had abandoned ancient history as a backdrop in favour of science fiction.

It was picture of them posing alongside an Irish road-sign, for “Clones”. But the point is that it appeared in (and was intended for) the English music papers, where most readers would not have known that Clones has two syllables. And right enough, as portrayed, the band did look like a cautionary tale about the dangers of unregulated science.

They say you should never meet your heroes. But on the contrary, I occasionally cross paths these days with Eamon Carr. And not only is he a very affable man, he must also be an extremely rare specimen of a 1970s rock drummer who is both a) still alive and b) very well preserved.

In fact, I’m delighted to learn, this coming weekend sees him launch a new book: Deirdre Unforgiven – A Journal of Sorrows. See doirepress.com for more details.

But back to Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part, which made history for more than sleeve art. It was also one of a number of otherwise-unrelated albums recorded in a truck owned by the Rolling Stones. Not just a truck, of course: this was a mobile studio that the band bought to circumvent the limitations of fixed-space venues.

In Horslips’s case, the main recording site was in the grounds of Longfield House, near Cashel, where they sat around on straw bales (very prickly in those trousers). But the technical stuff was done in the truck, which thereby links Happy to Meet with albums by Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, and many famous others, including the Stones themselves.

The Rolling Stones – now there’s a band that could fit right in with archaeology. In fact, never mind quarterly journals. I hope that, when the sad day finally comes, the Stones will dispense with conventional obsequies in favour of having Keith Richards mounted, tastefully, and displayed in the British Museum.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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