IT was a cold night in Carndonagh and Barry Devlin of Horslips thought the audience lying prostrate before him was involved in "some bizarre ritual' of appreciation for the band. Then he noticed the guys at the back with the balaclavas and rifles.
"They started firing shots into the ceiling. And our only concession to panic was that we couldn't get out of the middle eight," he laughs. "But we always went back to places, no matter what happened... and a lot happened. It was scary sometimes. We were identifiable as being Fenians because we played fiddles and concertinas so we had a few hairy times."
Not that their hairy times were restricted to the northerly counties, as drummer Eamon Carr found at a gig on his home turf in Meath. "Remember the night in Navan?" says fiddler Charles O'Connor "Eamon was doing his shuffle on the hi-hat and a butcher's knife went flying past his head, just missed him. There had becn a fight, a knife was produced and some fan grabbed it off this bollocks and chucked it at the stage, which seemed the safest place to throw it because there were less people!" No wonder Horslips had a variety of techniques for dealing with Trouble With A Capital T.
Says Devlin: "The great rule for playing ballrooms was that you never looked at the fight 'cos if you looked at the fight, everyone else would look at the fight and join in." The pair are reminiscing about the crazy days of Horslips, when along with Carr, Johnny Fean and Jim Lockhart, they straddled the '70s with a grand experiment in celtic rock fusion. Whether you loved or loathed the 'Slips, the musicians themselves now feel able to listen to their own material for the first time in almost two decades. The substandard CD release of their recordings by another party who believed he had the rights had prompted a lengthy court battle, which the band finally won last year, and now their re-mastered back catalogue is in the shops.
Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part, their debut album, became the fastest-selling LP ever in Ireland on its release in 1972 and also marked the start of some adventurous concert presentations. Surreal instruments such as the shamrock-shaped guitar, the skeletal fiddle and the emerald green Ludwig drumkit were accessorised with an equally eclectic glam-rock wardrobe. "That was my fault, I was taking the piss." says O'Connor. "We went into Clery's and bought big, flowery rubbishy cloth for curtains and made loon pants out of it. We put this big, six-by-four-foot poster all over O'Connell Street with us holding our crotches, wearing big loon pants and blue roses all over our outfits. We toured a little bit in them until we realised that they got very stinky and didn't look very hard, and eventually it was back to the jeans and the leather jackets."
Adds Devlin: "We always had what I think hairdressers like to call 'a themed look'!" "But a really serious, point about Horslips," he continues, "is that we weren't a Dublin band. We had a regional break-out - Monasterevin, Portarlington and Clara are the places where there was first Horslips mania. But we were really outsiders, and deeply, profoundly provincial. "We were a lot of kids' first band because we were rural. I mean, no other rock band " played Clonmel and Ballyshannon and while we were playing these places, we were also having American Top 40s so, to that extent, we were the real deal. And one thing you could be certain of with us was that you would get the same or a better gig. That was part of our problem, we played shite in New York and we played brilliant in Clonmel!"
A la Daniel O'Donnell, they were also believers in the post-show chat with the fans. Says Devlin: "We were a very unsexy band. I don't mean we were bad-looking but that wasn't the primary purpose. After the gig, people didn't go home, the kids just hung around and talked to us. It was quite democratic, it wasn't sexual, it wasn't hero-worship, it was: 'They're ours', it became almost paternalistic, I spent a lot of time explaining to kids: 'No, we weren't doing drugs when we were on stage and would you just do the Leaving Cert please'."
For all that, love stories did begin at Horslips' concerts, though they were commonly regarded as places where you went to sweat, not to shift. "The kids just threw themselves around and if they landed on a girl at the end of the evening, that was luck more than anything else," says O'Connor. However, not everyone was so enamoured with their drive to combine traditional Irish airs with rock. Says O'Connor: "A lot of people objected to the fact that the tunes were honed down into a minimalist thing that sat in the ethno-rock field instead of taking the true elements of the music, the feel of it. But you can't play all the flourishes and frills on an electric guitar. "We were passing on something too… - how to hold a rock 'n' roll guitar, how to put your foot on the monitor The lads were watching you doing the rock 'n' roll stance and you knew there'd be air guitar later, guys going home and practising with the broom, the cricket bat or their penises and then eventually getting the guitar and doing it for real."
Devlin remembers "the outrage on Fonn, this mixum-gatherum TV series which had an operatic tenor, a choir, a fell singing ballads in Irish, and us. A woman rang RTE to complain that Charles O'Connor was playing the fiddle and she could see hair under his arms through the t-shirt." For all that, they enjoyed getting down with pure traditional musicians when the chance arose, though they couldn't always quite carry it off. Says Devlin: "We were rehearsing in Ballyvaughan one time, an at night we'd go to the pub and play sessions, the local guys would get out their whistles, there'd be a fella dancing, it was seriously cred. "One night, there was a big, sweaty bald headed, fat bollocks from Dublin, in Guinness sweater, sweating and drinking pints, and he was complaining that their was no ABBA. And we were all happily playing diddle-dee-doh and yer man is wandering around, going: 'No fucking ABBA.' And finally, he goes to us: 'I know youse, youse are the Horslips,' and we go 'Yeah, there you go, isn't this cred?' and he looks around and says: 'Tell us this, do yiz always play the kips?"
It all ended in 1980 when, says O'Connor "we'd done three albums too many" "Or five," Devlin volunteers. O'Connor continues: "Ten years, five lads in the same room, the same car, smelly feet, 12 album: 10 of them studio albums." Says Devlin "Our last year, we thought, was difficult we felt we were pulling in different directions but we realised afterwards that the worst night we ever had was the way most bands toured! For nine years, we really loved each other and enjoyed ourselves." Surely, then, whether playing the kips or otherwise, this post-Riverdance millennial era is tailor-made for some Horslips reunion gigs? Devlin is unsure "It's a time problem. The music we did was, for better or worse, symphonic, it was full of stops and starts, you had to have the right number of verses, it wasn't 12-bar, So it would take me, from now, six months to get back up to speed." They have, though, been messing about at O'Connor's house in Whitby and the fiddler is leaving the door open.
"The idea hopefully, is to get together do something one or two tracks, and if we like it, put out as an EP and give it away. And if it sounds like you could do them live with Dearg Doom and Trouble, if it sounded good well then….
Article by Oliva Doyle - The Sunday Tribune - 19 November 2000
Picture from Muse.ie