Horslips were the first rock band I ever saw live. "Dancehall Sweethearts" was the first album I ever bought. Barry Devlin was the first "Rock Star" I ever interviewed. That's a simple, sweeping statement, but one which, taken as one case among many, underlines an undeniable fact. That for nine years Horslips were the most Irish of rock bands, the closest to its everyday realities and the band who came closest to a seamless synthesis of their native roots and the demon rock.
Not many people thanked them for it: the country's national inferiority complex saw to that. They were dismissed in many quarters as Culchies making amped-up Culchie music. To many others they provided a readily definable grasp of the country's history and of their own cultural heritage. Oh, and great gigs too. Paralleling and reinforcing that polarisation was the usual argument about whether they were a "good" band or a "bad" band.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not here to whitewash the story, to rabbit on about what a great piece of rock 'n roll "Dearg Doom" was. I just want to get beyond the usual futile arguments, to see why they never attained the success achieved by their contemporaries, Lizzy, Gallagher, Morrison.
I refuse to put it down to a lesser talent. Get that right straight from the beginning. I see their "failure" as bound up inextricably with the nature of the musical form they evolved, and the decisions they took very early on as to the ways in which they were going to make and promote that music. Horslips "failure" on the broad market level was a function of their "Success" on a musical level.
An integral part of the national inferiority complex alluded to above is the tendency we have to ignore the best on our own doorstep. Not only have not enough people ever made a serious effort to understand Horslips' music, but they have also ignored the possibilities and examples offered by the way Horslips went about consolidating their initial plans.
But Horslips experience is in fact far more relevant to the current crop of Irish bands (of whatever persuasion) than the experiences of Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher or Van Morrison, for the simple reason that whereas these artists fled abroad at early 'stages of their careers, and "made it" abroad, Horslips stayed put and deliberately set out to succeed as an Irish band in Ireland under circumstances far less favourable to rock 'n roll than those existing at present.
What faced them was a vacuum, the total absence of any form of rock music infrastructure. Now there are in Ireland a large and growing body of bands of all kinds seeking to complete at least a decisive phase of their career at home. Few are throwing the gear into the van after the fifth rehearsal and heading for the mailboat. The bands aren't doing it from patriotism, that's for sure; rather too many horror stories about the fate of Irish musicians in London are circulating to allow young bands to escape the conclusion that you've got to be as developed and organised as possible before making the big Jump. Whatever the motivation, what we are seeing in Ireland for the first time is the growth of what can only be described as rock 'n roll grassroots capitalism. It's emerging albeit painfully slowly, in the form of new independent labels, ventures, ideas, fanzines.
It's a path Horslips trod long ago. Their frustration with the state of the music industry in Ireland led them to begin on an independent footing. From their lst two self-financed singles was secured the finance for their debut album. From that they combined their newly-won experience with licensing deals with the industry majors abroad - Atlantic, DJM - to lay the foundations for the label which right up to the end controlled their whole operation. All eleven albums were recorded, produced, pressed and promoted by their own label in conjunction with the majors on a strictly partnership basis. Distribution abroad was handled by the majors under licence. The contracts they signed with Horslips were so heavily favourable to the band that even mandatory clauses such as the "reasonable technical standard" clause, (a clause that stipulates that bands deliver tapes of listenable quality to their companies) were omitted at the band's insistence.
Barry Devlin credits Eamonn Carr with much of the original organisational suss. "Put it down to blind enthusiasm on my part and hard business suss on his. He didn't suffer fools gladly and all he saw around him in the business were fools. There was no one equipped to handle any kind of bands at the time. "We decided to stay at home because it was the only place we could write the music we wanted. It was very conspicuously Irish music, and a pretty outlandish version of it at that. No one believed it would sell except us. Even when Atlantic gave us a deal they were planking afterwards at the thought of all that money wasted!
"We did the first two singles and they sold well and people said "great!" Now get yourselves a British album deal. " But we said "Fuck it, let's do our own album" and it just went from there".
There's a wealth of experience there that few bands have ever picked up on. Horslips themselves, of course, missed opportunities to put their experience at the disposal of the new bands; one aspect of their operation often criticized is their failure to sign any new bands to their label. Moreover, it 'd be misleading to draw too many parallels between their experience and that of the new bands: Horslips won the grassroots response that they did because of the immense popularity of the musical form they sought to fuse rock with. Few bands will again enjoy such a reaction. That U2's assiduous working of the country's live circuit and their plethora of Irish 45 releases have failed to produce a similar reaction is an example of the difficulties involved in achieving such a breakthrough. At the same time, U2's current contract with Island shows many similarities to the Horslips model: U2 manager Paul McGuinness learned much from his extensive involvement in gig promotion with Horslips manager Michael Deeny in the early 70s.
It was at once a source of the band's greatest strength and also the origin of their failure to make a deeper impression on the international rock world that their whole operation was characterized by a tight, almost claustrophobic introspection.
While their decision to remain independent instead of accepting without qualification the big bucks and big promises of the majors may have eventually cost them dear in terms of international impact, it was essential to the kind of music they were evolving. As a result, the development of their music right up to the end took place on their own terms.
They were in a position to develop their concepts with little or no outside interference. For this reason the band's music is probably as near perfect a synthesis of ancient and modern in Ireland as is possible in a rock idiom. In their hands the "concept album" became, for the first and possibly only time, something to be admired. The "artistic freedom" they won gave them the time and space they needed to fully develop as a synthesis band. The mix of modern and traditional shifted, flexed, contracted and expanded, from the invigorating explorations of the possibilities offered by the concept ideal, "The Tain", "Book-of Invasions", and "Aliens", to explorations of less closely structured ideas and experiences. Such as "Dancehall Sweethearts" and "Happy to meet etc". The shifting mix could swing to a heavenly rock-orientated music as on "Aliens" or to a totally traditional music, as on "Drive the Cold Winter Away", an all-acoustic traditional album prompted by the band's conviction that the pace had become too hectic and that a breathing space was in order. Whatever its merits as a traditional album it was a clear example of how free the band had left themselves to explore all the areas within the limits they had set themselves.
For all that, however, the self-imposed isolation was taking its toll, in the inability of the more esoteric aspects of the music to appeal to a broad audience, an inability compounded by the band's lack of a charismatic frontman and, in Barry Devlinís words, "the failure to write hit tunes". Their contemporaries, Lizzy, Gallagher, Morrison and later the Rats, were working in foreign idioms that greatly enhanced their appeal. Horslips' music was obeying its own rules and as a result not a whole lot of people outside Ireland were ready to listen. Their isolation, however, did not preclude a hunger for Success: first Europe, then almost exclusively the US were exhaustively toured every year.
It was in 77-78 that Horslips made their boldest move to expand from their original base. The projected trilogy of albums begun with "Book of Invasions" in 77 was to have as its theme settlement, invasion and finally colonisation.
The setting for "Book Of Invasions" had been prehistoric Ireland. The 2nd album In the trilogy, "Aliens" took the theme right through history to 19th century New York; Its theme was "an old people in a new land", the stock sprung from those prehistoric figures of mythology, suddenly uprooted and planted in a raw, new environment.
It was a bold and ingenious move: the exploitation and extension of the concepts explored in "B of I" along a radical new line of development. It seemed to give the band the best of both worlds: one foot remaining firmly on their traditional ground, the other determinedly exploring avenues that could fire the imagination of a far broader sweep of "consumers" i.e. the US public.
"Aliens" remains Horslips' finest album, a formidable meshing of their extensive experience in rock 'n roll with their traditional influences radically but realistically updated. It was in many ways the culmination of everything they had learned.
With this album they set out to storm the US charts, backed up by their new company, DJM, who pushed the band as far as their limited capacity as an independent would allow.
Three long seasons campaigning followed. Chart entries were won, but stardom never seemed to beckon. And finally, the effort unbalanced the band, not in terms of band relations (it would be hard to find a band more immune to the rigours of touring than Horslips) but in terms of their music and the way they had run it up to then.
The further they reached for the US market, the less sure their footing became in their original concepts and ideas. They began to lose their grasp because, for the first time, their hunger for success was forcing them to leave the tight corner they had won for themselves and to try to venture out meeting the demands placed by "success" half-way.
"The Man Who Built America" was the result. In retrospect it can be seen as the band's last throw in terms of the concepts they had always worked within. At the same time US producer Steve Katz was brought in to tailor the sound for the US market. The results screamed out that something had gone badly wrong. The concept, so effectively developed on "Aliens", now seemed tired and forced. The last-minute name change from "Wheels of the World" to "The Man Who Built America" aroused suspicions that there was an all out repackaging for US consumption afoot, suspicions confirmed by the album itself. The production seemed aimed at turning the band into another US Stadium Rock group, another Boston or Aerosmith: all plunging powerchords and chord progressions which, added to a syrupy cloying production, totally swamped the credibility of the concept and with it, almost the credibility of the band itself.
"M.W.B.A." summed up their dilemma. It was a case of falling between two stools, of trying to work an ultimately incompatible mix of super-commerciality and the music the band had always sought to make. It was the last "Horslips" album. The bridging of the cultural divide had proved structurally defective. "Aliens" had had both feet planted firmly where they belonged; "M.W.B.A." dithered, zig-zagged and finally lost its way.
It would be cruel, but just probably true to say that what was revealed here was the band's inability to make an impact beyond the comforting security of their original concepts. Certainly what had been the band's greatest asset, the sureness of the concepts they were working with, was rapidly becoming an albatross. The breakout had gone sour, and suddenly there was very little to fall back on. They had made their mark so indelibly on every aspect of the musical form that they had evolved that to return to earlier concepts, to, for example, attempt another "Tain" or "Book of Invasions", would be too much an admission of defeat, scrabbling for inspiration among long-cold embers.
- Barry Devlin: "What can I say? I think you've summed it up. We basically were left with no place to go. We'd always known that we were dealing with a finite concept. Between "M.W.B.A." and "Short Stories, Tall Tales" we were faced with a Choice: stop or retread. We'd always managed to avoid retreads but now we just couldn't see anything left to do."
Horslips knew themselves too well to attempt a retread. In any event other interests were beckoning: Devlin got into video, and in particular, Charles O'Connor seemed to be rapidly losing interest in the band as it stood, and seeking new outlets, a symptom of which was the "Defenders" gig of the summer of '79. It had long been noted, particularly since the band dropped the "Book of Invasions" traditional symphony from the live set, that Charles was turning more and more away from the traditional side of the music. By late 79 he was strapping on a guitar at the start of each set, and only occasionally taking up the mandolin or the fiddle. While unwilling to apportion any "blame" for the breakup, Devlin agrees that O'Connor was losing interest.
"Charles is a very hip guy. He's always got his nose to the wind, smelling what's coming. Usually he sees it coming long before most other people. I think that he came to need to express himself in ways other than through the band. We used to have arguments as to how much notice we should be taking of whatever was happening around us in musical terms. Charles wanted us to be more "hip". I think he wanted to put new elements into the music which I felt were just not Horslips."
Did the US tours have anything to do with his loss of interest?
"No. We always had a superb touring team and there were never any hassles. Charles like I said is a very hip guy, but it was all inside him. I mean, he bought a lot of suits in the States, I think that was the limit of the cultural influence it had on him! The US is pretty hick, anyway. Charles was way too hip for most of them over there."
The gradual loss of interest was reflected in a growing reluctance to tour; the return to the US was originally set for January 1980, then for September 1980. Both dates passed, the band apparently marking time, touring at home, but seemingly coming to a standstill.
"Ah no, I wouldn't agree with you that there was just a loss of interest, Like I said, we were running out of things to do, and that was what was slowing us down, a gradual realisation that things were coming to an end of their own accord."
"Short Stories, Tall Tales" was, when it came out in late 79, hailed as a "blood-change" for the band, an exciting new change of direction, In reality, it was the signing off. Where "M.W.B.A." was the culminating expression of classic Horslips at a standstill, "Short Stories" was an expression of the awareness that the concept had been worked dry. Even before the album was fully written, there was deep confusion within the band as to how it should be approached.
I wanted the album to be a concept album. I wanted to call it just "Short Stories" and base it on Irish short story writers and how we reacted to their Work. The rest of the lads thought it was pretentious and too much of a retread. Looking back on it they were probably right. We always used to argue over the mix of the various albums. We were always a democratic band and in many ways we had needed the concepts to give us direction, but now we were arguing over where we were going from here. The argument was a lot more basic.
The eventual agreement was that the concept idea would be dropped. As a result there is a staggering difference in style between "M.W.B.A." and "S.S.T.T.". "S.S.T.T." is a spare, clean fast-moving album, but an album made up of a "collection of tunes". The style varied widely on the album, from Devlin's attempts to keep the concept ideal going, to O'Connor's straightforward rock songs. "S.S.T.T." was recorded by five individuals who had begun to stop thinking like a band.
Horslips split not because of "irreconcilable musical differences" or "ego clashes", or for any similar "normal" reasons. They split up because their original concept had played itself out.
"Horslips" as originally conceived had been as successful as it would be. With the rapid erosion of the concept that had been the focal point for the five very individual band members, there just wasn't anything left to hold them together.
"The consensus is gone", Barry Devlin says, "There are absolutely no plans for the future. There's another album all written, all we have to do is go into the studio, record it, and we pick up the money. But we're not doing it, because Horslips as Horslips is finished, and we'd only be ripping off the public. There won't be any farewell gigs either. We feel that anyone who's been a regular gig-goer has seen a farewell gig, so that's it. Farewell gigs are only an excuse to get some bread together quickly, and I'm certainly not coming back to pay the taxman."
There's a note of bitterness in those words that seems to bely the diplomatic aura around the breakup, but again it must be stressed that Barry Devlin's express wish when providing the above comments was not to appear as the Horslips who broke silence to get his version of the split in first. There are no white Stetsons or black Stetsons in this story.