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Formed 1970 in Dublin, Ireland, HORSLIPS were the nearly men of folk and rock, an innovative and courageous band perilously balancing both genres to the purist apathy from both music camps.
Abandoning the name Horslypse (a play-on-words for “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”), handy musicians – and singers – Charles O’Connor, Barry Devlin, Eamon Carr, Jim Lockhart and early member Declan Sinnott found a market for their unique blend of prog-ish rock and trad-folk. Turning pro on St. Patrick’s Day (17th March), 1972, HORSLIPS were in the Irish singles charts a few months later with `Johnny’s Wedding’. Finding a replacement for the aforementioned Sinnott by way of permanent member Johnny Fean, the quintet had another homeland hit in `Green Gravel’; they recorded themselves on the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio.
When their self-financed Oats independent was finally eaten up by RCA Records (but only outside of Ireland), HORSLIPS were now ready to unleash their debut LP, HAPPY TO MEET, SORRY TO PART (1973) {*8}. This became the fastest-selling album in Ireland for some time to come, musicians Carr and Lockhart going some way to keeping it Celtic by adding the bodhran and uillean pipes respectively to their melange of instruments. Fusing traditional elements of The CHIEFTAINS (on opener/finale pieces `The Clergy’s Lamentation’, `The Shamrock Shore’, `Flower Amang Them All’, `Scalloway Ripoff’ and `Bim Istigh Ag Ol’), and the complex, harder edges of early THIN LIZZY, WISHBONE ASH or YES (on `Hall Of Mirrors’, `Furniture’ and `The Musical Priest’); the medieval twist was shown in `Ace And Deuce’, while trad cues came via `Dance To Yer Daddy’ and `An Bratach Ban’.
During a STEELEYE SPAN support tour, HORSLIPS delivered another self-penned record, the ambitious, inspired concept creation, THE TAIN (1973; 1974 UK) {*7} – based on events from around 500 BC (aka “Tain Bo Cuailgne”). With prog-ish flute work on `Charolias’ not unlike JETHRO TULL, melodious musicianship on `You Can’t Fool The Beast’ (think STRAWBS) and the PLANXTY/THIN LIZZY-ness of classic 45 `Dearg Doom’ – a chart-topper in Germany! – the set deserved better rewards outside of their loyal home fanbase; just what STEVE HOWE or DAVE SWARBRICK made of the respective frets or fiddle work on `Time To Kill’ is anybody’s guess.
With the emphasis more on prog-rock with flourishes of folk (think JETHRO TULL or Genesis for this one), DANCEHALL SWEETHEARTS (1974) {*7} turned the speakers up to 11 and dressed accordingly. From the opening guitar licks on `Nighttown Boy’, to `Stars’, `Mad Pat’, `Blindman’, `King Of The Fairies’ etc, this set was almost unique and unparalleled in respect to their contemporaries and previous records.
THE UNFORTUNATE CUP OF TEA! (1975) {*3}, was unfortunately not to everyone’s taste – definitely not their proverbial cup of tea. Served up as HORSLIPS’ most commercial album to date, the record never really got out of the stalls; only the SANTANA-esque `The Snakes’ Farewell To The Emerald Isle’ (or at a push, the prog-meets-FAIRPORT-like `Everything Will Be Alright’) saved it from a right pasting.
Just when one thought all was lost from HORSLIPS, along came traditional Irish set DRIVE THE COLD WINTER AWAY (1976) {*6}, a brave attempt at getting back to their roots. At times baroque and minstrel-like, at times Celtic and traditional, the record weaved between tunes from ye olde scribe of Turlough O’Carolan (`Sir Festus Burke – Carolan’s Frolic’); LOUDEST WHISPER had attempted the feat two years previously. Okay, it’s a little ALBION BAND/Christmas-ish (example `The Snow That Melts The Soonest’ or `Do’n Oiche Ud I Mbeithhill’), but it was great to see the band finding their true Celtic identity at last. Instrumentals `Thompson’s – Cottage In The Grove’ and `The Snow And The Frost Are All Over – Paddy Fahey’s’ probably escaped The CHIEFTAINS or PLANXTY, while `Crabs In The Skillet’ was a lovely sea shanty.
Not exactly Live Dates, The Song Remains The Same or Yessongs (unless one was Irish), the HORSLIPS’ LIVE (1976) {*5} double-set combined the quintet’s ragged hard-rock edge with an interspersion of STEELEYE SPAN/FAIRPORT folk. For the latter, check out `Rakish Paddy’ and `High Reel’, while there was also room for a 15-minute rendition of `Furniture’ and a revamp of `Johnny’s Wedding’ for the finale.
Signing for the D.J.M. label was indeed a masterstroke for HORSLIPS, as it finally gave them a deserved UK Top 40 entry courtesy of studio set number six, THE BOOK OF INVASIONS – A CELTIC SYMPHONY (1977) {*8}. A return to their prog-rock-cum-folk-concept days of yore, one of their more devilish tunes came via the JETHRO TULL-meets-WISHBONE ASH `Trouble (With A Capital T)’; a comparison with the former oft irritated the band. Ditto `The Power And The Glory’, but not the THIN LIZZY-cloned classic, `Warm Sweet Breath Of Love’ – Fean’s guitar was indeed interpretative of the latter’s title, while one could be forgiven for thinking GARY MOORE had walked into the studio for `Fantasia (My Lagan Love)’.
Stretching the semi-concept formula to breaking point (while jumping on the power-pop bandwagon – think DOCTORS OF MADNESS), both ALIENS (1977) {*4} and THE MAN WHO BUILT AMERICA (1979) {*4} took the theme of the Irish immigrant with disarming effect – folk purists, steer clear of their pap-pop reading of `Speed The Plough’. Not surprisingly, both sets sold reasonably well in the States.
SHORT STORIES / TALL TALES (1980) {*3} took the new Carr-run HORSLIPS to new depths, their folk-rock substituted for horizontal slick rock. They said their farewells towards the end of the year via THE BELFAST GIGS {*5}, a record saved by a finale 7-minute crack at `Dearg Doom’.
O’Connor’s offshoot group, HOST (with Fean and Carr from short-lived R&B act, Zen Alligator), were the closest thing to HORSLIPS; album TRYAL (1984) {*3} was about a 19th-century witch trial, Fean was soon to be part of the Nikki Sudden (ex-SWELL MAPS) and Simon Carmody pairing. With a couple of decades in the wilderness, it was great to see HORSLIPS back, albeit primarily for reunion concerts and a re-workings set, ROLL BACK (2004) {*7}. Several years on, the Irish band were still alive and kicking at the Waterfront, Belfast (on St. Patrick’s Day) for LIVE WITH THE ULSTER ORCHESTRA (2011) {*6}.
© MC Strong GFD 2010 // rev-up MCS Aug2015

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