Horslips: back in the days of Dearg Doom

A new account of the band, full of personal recollections, gives a peek at Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s

Horslips: Tall Tales, the Official Biography
Horslips: Tall Tales, the Official Biography
Author: Mark Cunningham
ISBN-13: 978-1847175861
Publisher: O'Brien Press
Guideline Price: €24.99

Ah, those bold moustachioed men. Back in the early 1970s Horslips were looked on as spearheads of the music fusion prevalent at the time, and quickly developed their mixture of Irish folk idioms and mythology, and rock instrumentation, to become one of Ireland’s big music exports of the decade. They were ahead of their time yet managed to wring a 10-year career (and release nine studio albums) out of a music industry that was all too willing to cast off music acts with sell-by dates sticking out of their back pockets.

The band's history has been outlined in many books, but these sketches inevitably focused on the highlights (typically, the end-of-the-night Irish dance-hall favourite Dearg Doom), the major albums (notably 1973's The Táin and 1976's The Book of Invasions: A Celtic Symphony) and the splitting up of the band, in 1980.

Official biographies come in a variety of packages. Some authors swap access for a sanitised version of events, and if they waive copyright then there’s nothing they can do about the result, which is usually fine-combed by the subject and their management in order to erase any embarrassing details. Then there’s the ghostwritten autobiography, where the writer has full access to the subject, then constructs the subject’s story in his or her voice.

Wisely, Mark Cunningham has chosen the Studs Terkel oral-biography route, telling the band’s first-person stories chronologically. With the five Horslips very much alive it makes sense: there’s no diffusion, no confusing cross-cutting. And, especially in the case of Horslips, whose music has been analysed ad infinitum, there’s no waffle.

The book starts with potted biographies of the band: Barry Devlin, Jim Lockhart, Eamon Carr, Johnny Fean and Charles O’Connor. (Their original guitarist, Declan Sinnott, declined to take part in the book. The way Lockhart puts it, there appears to be no love lost: “He wasn’t happy being in the band, and we weren’t happy with him, either. It was a relief when he was gone”)

The story of the band, which begins in 1970, unfolds slowly but entertainingly. Horslips formed from the warm ashes of Tara Telephone, Carr’s poetry-prog-psychedelic act – “an Irish version of Pentangle,” he says. At this point he had started work as a media-campaign planner at the Arks advertising agency, which also employed Devlin as a copywriter and O’Connor, whose skills would later be used on all of the band’s posters and album covers, as a designer.

This early section consists of superb recollections, with each member of the band, as well as friends and colleagues, regaling the reader with a stream of information, anecdotes and surprises.

The nuggets include the ground-shaking news that Carr's uncle is the comedian Noel V Ginnity (who, through his involvement in the Irish ballad boom of the 1960s, introduced his nephew to the music of The Chieftains and Seán Ó Riada); that, as Arks employees, they appeared in ad campaigns ("Charles was actually a fashionable male model," recounts Carr. "In one ad, I was cast as a poet who only used Parker pens"); that, for a television commercial for Harp lager, a nondescript yet "suitably hairy" early version of Horslips played in front of a trendy audience of extras that included the future U2 manager, Paul McGuinness; that, briefly, Chris Davison (soon to become Chris de Burgh) was considered as the band's lead singer; and that, while on tour in Germany promoting their 1977 album, Aliens, Carr and Lockhart were arrested on suspicion of being members of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang.

The Horslips story continues in chunks of uninterrupted quotes. We hear about Devlin's spoonerist naming of the band (from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the Four Poxmen of the Horselypse); the band exerting artistic control by founding a record label, Oats (then unheard of); the band's increasing success not only in Ireland but also in Britain, Europe and the US; the inevitable fall in sales coupled with the high-energy work rate; the signing of an international record deal with DJM Records; the success of The Book of Invasions: A Celtic Symphony; touring the US; the gradual replacing of concertina and mandolin with electric guitars; breaking up at the start of the 1980s (Devlin: "The possibility of playing to diminishing numbers of the same faces was something we feared . . . I didn't feel that our best work was ahead of us any more, so it seemed a good time to cut and run"); legally regaining master tapes sold without the band's approval or even knowledge; re-forming almost 10 years ago.

What holds this lengthy, involved story together? It helps that the band are smart chaps who know their cultural history (tucked into the waistbands of their green satin hipster flares were copies of O'Neill's Music of Ireland, the early 20th-century collection of old fiddle tunes and airs) and that when the band folded the members returned to the "real" world (still connected to music yet without the bubble-wrap coating that international success brings).

It’s a bonus that the book is a repository of previously unpublished memorabilia and of high-quality design: 1970s gig-ticket stubs adorn the inside of the front cover; the inside of the back cover features stubs from 2004 onwards – and this continues throughout, with archive posters, promotional images, set lists, handwritten lyric sheets, newspaper ads and personal photographs expertly laid out.

If nothing else, the book gives a peek at Ireland and its capital in the mid 1960s and early 1970s, two evocative examples being a mention of Captain Americas, which opened on Grafton Street in Dublin in 1971, and became Horslips’ primary hangout for a while (Lockhart: “Kevin Myers once described its attraction as being that the staff looked as though they might have had sex at some point in their lives”), and a reproduced 1972 poster for a concert at the Fillmore West, in Bray, with the UK prog-rock trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, that apologised for the show’s postponement “due to the present political situation”.

The book ends on an optimistic note, including a hint about possible future releases from the archives (Carr: “Recordings exist that have never officially seen the light of day, and there are probably good reasons for letting them out of the bag”) and a sense that what-ifs and maybes no longer count as much as they once did.

“What we have in front of us now,” says Devlin, “is a blank canvas.” Parts of which, no doubt, will be painted shamrock green.

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture