Shamrockin' all over again

 

Four decades after they first donned shiny bell-bottoms and shamrock-shaped guitars and pulled a scandalous career- launching publicity stunt on the nation, rock legends Horslips are taking to the stage again

THERE IS A terrific story about the beginnings of Horslips that the band’s drummer Eamon Carr once told this writer. It’s a bit of shaggy dog tale that bears all the hallmarks of Carr’s excellent recall – as well as, perhaps, some minor adjustments to the myth-making process, so a degree of patience is necessary. It concerns the staging of a gig in Navan in the very early 1970s, for the then-unnamed band.

“We could hire the hall in Navan, I said, and turn it into an event. Run a couple of buses from Dublin for our mates and the people we worked with – a magical mystery tour to Navan! So Charles, a graphic designer, said,great, he’d do the poster. We also had to come up with a name, and so that came about (from surreal wordplay on Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse). Anyway, the poster was really cool. Charles took a graphic from a woman’s magazine – a pair of bright red lips with a long cigarette dangling from them, with a red tip on the end of the cigarette. He did the name and venue across the top – Horslips appearing at the CYMS Hall, Navan – with the visual of the lips in the centre. And of course, because of the time that was in it, we had to have a light show. So, to make the poster look even more interesting we put on the poster the following words – the Afro-Dizziac Light Show.”

The hall was hired, the posters printed, and then subsequently plastered on walls at most points between Kells, Dunshaughlin and Navan. Unfortunately, remembers Carr, O’Connor had put his telephone number on the bottom of the poster in case someone might like the design and give him a nixer outside his advertising agency job (the same agency, incidentally, where Carr and Devlin worked as copywriters). No sooner were the posters put in place, however, when “O’Connor receives a phone call from the top priest in Navan, who tells him in no uncertain terms that he’d never seen anything quite so disgusting in his life. Ructions!”

Cue the cancellation of the band’s live debut. “I rang up, but didn’t get the priest,” says Carr. “I spoke to someone who told me, however – and I quote – that ‘20 good fathers and true had called up to the presbytery and demanded that this filth not be allowed to infect the town.’ Complaints also came from a group of mothers who played bingo in the very premises that the gig had been booked into.”

It seemed Horslips would split up almost as soon as they began, but because of their working backgrounds, the band were more media savvy than most. They contacted the newspapers with a story involving God and his fight with the Devil’s music. Within days, headlines such as “Bingo Priest Bans Pop Group” were screaming from the news stands.

“Controversy raged,” laughs Carr. “Without ever playing a note, the name and photo of Horslips was all over the national press an exercise in pure situationism. There was a degree of notoriety about a group who, frankly, hadn’t stepped outside the door.”

A day or so after the press scam, Carr met an RTÉ producer who had just come back from the US. She told him that she was about to start work on a new TV series and asked him if he knew of any band that would be interested in appearing on the show. “I said to her: ‘Have you not heard of a band called Horslips? They’re all over the newspapers’.”

Fast-forward almost 40 years and Horslips are all over the newspapers again. Except this time, it’s certain that the good bingo-playing people of Navan, if not the entire country, are up for checking out the band’s official reunion gigs in Dublin and Belfast in December.

While there have been sporadic sightings at memorabilia exhibitions and random pub gigs, the concert will be the first time the band have played on a large stage together since their split in 1981. The band, that is, in name only.

Unfortunately, there is one basic flaw in the comeback – Carr will not be joining the other original band members on stage (his drum seat is to be taken by Johnny Fean’s brother, Ray).

Although appearing in photo shoots and promotional interviews for the forthcoming gigs, Carr’s no-show could be viewed (in the context of the promotion of the shows, at least) as an exercise in mild chicanery. To stretch an analogy, it would be like U2 reforming after 25 years without Larry Mullen Jr – and yet there’s Larry in the corner talking up the shows. On the other hand – and not in any way taking from Carr’s crucial input to Horslips – does it really matter that the original drummer won’t be there? Well, no, probably not (or, possibly, only to die-hard fans) – but wouldn’t it have been a better, perhaps more honest idea not to have involved Carr in the promotional process in the first place?

Carr’s reasons for taking a back seat are vague if valid. “It’s a psychological thing, in a way,” he admits. “It’s alright getting up to do a gig at a wedding or a pub, but getting back on this other thing – it’s a change of mindset. Especially for a drummer, I think – like, you’d need to be in it 120 per cent. It took me a long time to pass a hotel without rushing up to one of the rooms and throwing a television set out the window, so you have to move on. And the rest of he band knew this. I was always saying that I wouldn’t be playing, and this time, instead of looking at disappointed faces around the table, I said the lads would be crazy not to do it, but why not replace me on the live gigs with Ray? He knows the band, the music, and he hung out with us.”

“We weren’t particularly annoyed,” admits Lockhart, “because nobody was champing at the bit to get back on stage. It wasn’t a matter of life and death. We’ve all had a life since the band broke up, and we have stuff to be doing, so it was a bit of a leap for everybody. Yes, the rest of us would have been more on the side of ‘yes, why not give it a go’, but there was a lot of reluctance to do it without Eamon. It was never a case of anything else.”

“I’m perfectly cool with sitting around, jamming, all that kind of stuff, having fun,” says Carr. “But, personally, I think you’ve got be on top of your game musically, and you have to have the fire in your belly. Some friends of mine find my attitude confusing, and I’m not saying that I don’t find it confusing also.”

And so to December, when – buckets of goodwill dripping with nostalgia notwithstanding ­– the band with the shamrock-shaped guitars take their rightful place on one of the biggest rock’n’roll stages in the country. As for what might happen next year, no one knows. “All I know,” reveals Lockhart, “is that Charles has some good ideas for T-shirt designs, and he’s very annoyed that the manufacturers haven’t been following his instructions!”

BACK IN THE early 1970s, Horslips evolved out of a series of zeitgeist-driven coincidences. Spearheading the fusion ethos prevalent at the time, the band quickly developed their mix of Irish folk idioms and mythology and rock instrumentation to become one of Ireland’s major music exports of the decade. These days, all five members are still around, living their lives, quite successfully. Carr is a journalist, Devlin a film-maker, Lockhart a radio producer, O’Connor a designer, while Fean has continued as a musician.

The reasons behind the regrouping are hardly connected with money, then, or a lack of fulfilment. Rather, the primary reason is simply wanting to play music again. “There wasn’t any huge impetus,” says Jim Lockhart, “but we would have these occasional admin meetings, and at one of them, we just thought it’d be more fun playing music than talking about it – playing music is the only thing that actually makes it worthwhile. So we said we’d schedule a week in the middle of this year to see what we could knock up; maybe come up with a few additional tracks to put on Drive The Cold Winter Away(the band’s fifth album, originally released in 1975), which will be re-issued towards the end of the year.”

Factor in interest from MCD’s Denis Desmond in wanting to get the band to play live (“he was always there asking us to do festivals, tours, this, that and the other, for the past five or six years,” says Lockhart) and you have a ready-made, credible money-making unit that will pack ’em in – from the first-time-rounders to a much younger audience reared on the music emanating from their parents’ record/CD players.

Both Lockhart and Carr are long enough in the tooth and experienced enough in the travails of the music industry to be aware of eyebrows being raised at the band-to-reform-to-play-major-gigs scenario. Lockhart has a particularly choice explanation as to why some rock acts get back together after a lengthy time apart. It’s a theory, he claims, based on the basic economics principles of supply, demand and curve. “I always reckoned that if the downward slope is record royalties, and the upward slope is the weekly coke bill, then the point at which they intersect gives you the reunion time for the band.”

Carr says: “Some work, some don’t. It works best when musicians get together to play music, and not so much when it’s people who don’t speak to each other. I’d be naturally suspicious of some bands’ motives, but with this one it’s genuine, so I’m happy with it.”

Horslips play Belfast’s Odyssey, Thursday, Dec 3rd, and Dublin’s O2, Saturday December 5th

LIFE BEYOND HORSLIPS

EAMON CARR Drummer

Carr continued in music with The Zen Alligators and The Host, and as the trippy brain behind one of Ireland’s most fondly remembered indie labels, Hotwire. Gradually, he settled into broadcasting and journalism. A book of Carr’s poetry was published last year and latterly he has again taken up co-songwriting, working most recently on Henry McCullough’s 2008 album, Poor Man’s Moon.

BARRY DEVLIN Bassist

Devlin had a tentative post-Horslips career as a solo musician, as a record producer (he worked on some early U2 demos) and as the composer (with Jim Lockhart) of the theme tune to RTÉ’s drama series Glenroe. He found steadier success, however, in movie and television work as a screenwriter and director His work includes 1994’s A Man of No Importance, and episodes of Ballykissangel.

JOHNNY FEAN Guitarist

Fean stuck to music and experienced, by all accounts, something of a tough time for a while in making ends meet. A superlative guitarist, however, is never out of work for too long, and – stints with a Horslips tribute act notwithstanding – over the years Fean could be found (in the company of Steve Travers) playing the length and breadth of Ireland.

JIM LOCKHART Multi-instrumentalist

Lockhart has continued to dabble in production work, songwriting arrangements and signature tunes for various RTÉ programmes, but has held down a post at RTÉ 2fm for many years. He is currently head of production at the radio station.

CHARLES O’CONNOR Multi-instrumentalist

O’Connor remains heavily involved in folk and traditional music in his home recording studio in Whitby in England (where he also runs an antique shop called The Stonehouse – the tag line of which states “we’re mad and we’re glad“). His experience in design and photography, however, is key to the way in which the re-issued Horslips albums will look.