Horslips’ Roll Back

rollbackJohn O’Regan penned this review.

Growing up in Ireland at the tail end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, one witnessed a cultural revolution at first hand. Irish folk music came out of mothballs and closets to become cool and fashionable. This was achieved initially through the pioneering work of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and The Dubliners. They turned the popular spotlight on traditional musicians and singers who had been quietly working to public indifference in corners and barrios for years. Soon names like Sonny Brogan and John Kelly were rediscovered and through their association with Sean Riada in his monumental Ceoltoiri Cualan, the Chieftains first breathed their musical alchemy.

With the coming of psychedelic winds in 1967 the music got more eclectic and intense. Dr. Strangely Strange answered the call for a local version of The Incredible String Band and Sweeney’s Men harnessed Irish, American and Eastern European styles together. These exotic fusions went even further: Gay and Terry Woods electrified traditional ballads with Steeleye Span and their own Woods Band, and the ethereal strains of Mellow Candle blew brains and sonic barriers with their translucent Pentangle / Renaissance / Fotheringay crossover. Somewhere among all this experimentation, one band crossed both borders of traditionalism and rock ‘n’ roll cool. That band was Horslips.

Before U2 and The Boomtown Rats, besides Van Morrison, there were three major Irish home-grown rock heroes: Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy, and Horslips. While Rory sweated blues and rock, and Thin Lizzy, fronted by the charismatic Phil Lynnott — rock idol, sex symbol, and romantic poet — evolved from their progressive beginnings to create melodic rock of classic proportions; Horslips were a unit, a collective effort, and it is as a band that they are remembered.

Horslips was the band that mixed contemporary rock, traditional music, and Irish historical legend to create a legend of their own. They took old stories from ancient myth like The Táin and The Book Of Invasions and rewrote them as contemporary narratives complete with a rock ‘n’ roll heart. Later they tackled the weighty subject of emigration through their last three studio albums AliensThe Man who Built America and Short Stories Tall Tales before quietly bowing out in 1980. They played to packed houses all over Ireland, introducing many virgin ears to the excitement and beauty of their corrosive brand of Celtic Rock. I first saw them in the Savoy Cinema with my mother, a fellow big fan, in 1972; thus began a lifelong love affair with their music. My father was a Dubliners fan and my mother loved Horslips so I had no choice! I bought the vinyl LPs of The TainDrive the Cold Winter AwayThe Book of Invasions — A Celtic Symphony in my school days and they were part of my growing up.

Horslips first breathed life in 1969. Charles O’Connor and Jim Lockhart came from the ranks of the advertising world and had been involved in various folk club session outfits. Eamon Carr founded the bohemian poetry / music conglomeration Tara Telephone while guitarist ‘Spud’ Murphy and bassist Gene Mulvanney completed the lineup. Horslips stumbled across a magic formula of playing traditional music in acoustic form and electrifying it successfully. Gaining their first breaks on the RTE TV series ‘Fonn’, the name quickly spread as they began gigging on the local club / concert circuit. Later Wexford born guitarist Declan Sinnott replaced ‘Spud’ Murphy who later took the cover photos for John Lennon’s Imagine album and Gene Mulvanney returned home to the family farm to be replaced by Barry Devlin. Declan Sinnott appeared on their debut single ‘Johnny’s Wedding’/ ‘Flower Among them all’, released on St Patrick’s Day 1972 on their own Oats label. ‘Johnny’s Wedding’ hit the Irish Charts, followed by ‘Green Gravel’ on which Gus Guest replaced Declan Sinnott. He was subsequently replaced by Johnny Fean in Summer 1972 as Horslips recorded their debut album ‘Happy To Meet, Sorry to Part’ using the Rolling Stones’ mobile unit. ‘Happy To Meet, Sorry to Part’ captured Horslips’ effervescent mix of traditional folk songs and tunes in a rock context. Other albums, including their masterpiece The Tain, Dancehall SweetheartsThe Unfortunate Cup of Tea followed, before they released an acoustic album To Drive the Cold Winter Away followed by their second major concept album The Book of invasions – A Celtic Symphony and the trio of emigration-themed records: AliensThe Man Who Built America and their final album, Short Stories Tall Tales.

Horslips was the first local heroic rock band that took Celtic legends into the UK album charts and made a serious dent in the American college scene. If Irish music places The Dubliners as ‘Godfathers’ then Celtic Rock ought to bestow a similar accolade upon Horslips’ shoulders. Ask any Irish American Celtic rock outfit, from Black 47 to The Prodigals to O’Malley’s March and Young Dubliners, who got them hooked on this Celtic rock game in the first instance, and the name of Horslips is there in the forefront. They are that important in the combined Irish Folk and Rock stories, both at home and with the Irish American Diaspora.

For all their groundbreaking achievements, Horslips’ legacy hasn’t really as yet been properly recognised. On their dissolution, their back catalogue was sold off and repackaged time and again without the band’s consent. While the music still sounded great and the memories grew, the legend took some time to re-establish itself. For Horslips themselves, their post-band lives saw them working mostly on ‘Civvies Street’, but unlike many outfits that spilt up, they retained their initial friendships. Charles O’Connor returned to fashion design, relocated to Whitby in North Yorkshire and opened an antique shop. He also recorded a wonderful solo instrumental set, ‘Angel on the Mantelpiece’, produced Northern Irish Celtic rockers More Power to Your Elbow and also recorded on albums by local artists based in the Whitby area. Jim Lockhart’s radio and production work with RTE gained him a considerable reputation, while Eamon Carr’s journalistic career saw him working with The Evening Herald. Barry Devlin became a filmmaker and screenplay writer and also produced the 1980s heavy rock trio Mama’s Boys. In 1983 he recorded a solo album, Breaking Star Codes, a song cycle based on zodiac signs. Johnny Fean is the sole full-time musician who traded on the Horslips back-pages intermittently while also recording with Dublin folk band Chisel on their 1985 Eamon Carr produced Honest Work album and recording ‘The Last Bandits in Town’ with Nikki Sudden and Simon Carmody, another great lost late-1980s effort. Eamon Carr and Johnny Fean had combined their talents in the post-Horslips punk / pop outfit Zen Alligators and later with O’Connor formed The Host, cutting Tryal, a concept album based on the story of Bridget Cleary, who was burned as a witch in County Tipperary in the late 1840s.

But since they disbanded in 1980, Horslips as a group has been out of circulation, except for a court action that led to them regaining the rights to their back catalogue. Since then, they began an extensive series of proper re-issues, licensing their recordings to Demon Records, and Horslips’ presence has notably increased on the domestic front.

Early in 2004, a memorabilia exhibition ‘The History of Horslips — An Exhibition’ held in Derry’s Orchard Gallery saw them reunite and play a 20-minute acoustic set to rapturous applause. This was followed in Summer 2004 by a trip to Grouse Lodge studios, where they cut the 15 tracks featured on Roll Back. Released in November 2004 in Ireland with little trumpeting or high street town crying, Roll Back, was the first new Horslips album in over 25 years.

The deliberately low-key arrival suits a band that is returning to the public eye at their own pace. Roll Back is not necessarily a nostalgia exercise, nor is it a re-cut ‘greatest hits’ effort. It offers, as the sticker says, ’15 re-recorded classics’ but doesn’t fall into the trap of re-recording the greatest hits in the same manner as the originals. In fact what it does is offer ‘alternative’ arrangements of some of the best-known excerpts from the Horslips back catalogue. Here the arrangements are purely acoustic and take the songs on journeys new to the listener but close to the band’s heart. For a longtime, fan this is as much a treasure chest as it is a testing ground as to how the new versions compare with the recordings they know.

For someone new to the Horslips repertoire, the impression is formulated from what they hear without the baggage or benefit of history. However, for the moment let’s look at Roll Back from a band historian’s viewpoint. The voices have undergone a change; Johnny Fean sings with a greater authority than of yore while Barry Devlin’s vocals have attained a rougher sandpaper quality, particularly on ‘Guests of The Nation’ and ‘Wrath of The Rain’, while Charles O’Connor sounds exactly as he did in 1979. The instrumental playing is as tight and elegant as ever with O’Connor and Fean laying down a basic acoustic guitar rhythm, Barry Devlin supplying bass, Jim Lockhart on keyboards and low whistle and Eamon Carr’s drums and percussion locking things in place. Supple fillings on mandolin, fiddle, banjo, tenor guitar and slide guitar add to the stripped-down feel of the proceedings. Acoustic playing allows one to savour the quiet authority that these delicate and often unheralded flourishes add to the sound. Lockhart’s low whistle on ‘Cuchuallain’s Lament’ stands out, while Feane’s slide guitar purrs contentedly behind ‘Faster than the Hound’ and O’Connor contributes baroque violin leads on ‘The Man Who Built America’ and concertina fills to ‘Mad Pat’. Fean’s slide guitar and O’Connor’s mandolin send a ghostly shiver through ‘Blind Man’ while special guest Ashling Drury Byrne’s cello on ‘Furniture’ and ‘Cuchulainn’s Lament’ adds a depth of texture completely unachieved before.

They also play instrumental tunes again with O’Connor and Fean featured on tenor guitars – Johnny’s handling of ‘Ace and Deuce’ is pure pleasure, while Charles’s intricate nuances of ‘Huish The Cat’ and his closing epic handling of ‘My Love Is In America’ complete with adept bottleneck slide proves that his idiosyncratic touch is still intact.

While Roll Back demands some time and listening to reveal itself and to find its feet with the new settings of sacred texts of sorts, the bonus live DVD is emotionally gripping as well as a musical treat. Recorded at ‘The History of Horslips — An Exhibition’ held in Derry’s Orchard Gallery on March 20, 2004, it finds them on stage for the first time since 1980. The sight of Jim Lockhart, Charles O’Connor, Johnny Fean, Barry Devlin and Eamon Carr back on stage together again is an emotional occasion as witnessed by the captive audience. For the longtime fan it’s a thrilling glimpse of the impossible becoming possible, but if Planxty can do it…? While musically raw and seemingly off-the-cuff, the live set shows the Horslips alchemy in action. Especially poignant is ‘Furniture’ with the massed crowd singing the lyrics along with Devlin and Lockhart’s distinctive Jethro Tull-ish intro to ‘Trouble (With a capital T)’ — this sends shivers down spines and reawakens long-cherished memories.

Roll Back, while being completely unlike any previous electric Horslips album stylistically, recalls the stripped-down approach of their glorious Christmas album Drive the Cold Winter Away. While that record was traditional in form and source material, the acoustic arrangements were highly ornate and almost sounded contemporary. Here the material is contemporary with traditional roots, styles, and storylines, and the instrumentation is basically acoustic and the performances stripped down. But here is where the difference lies — the spirit of the recording is not to revitalise a traditional repertoire but a mostly self-penned one.

While some long-term fans may find that re-recording material first cut in the halcyon days of 1973-78 interfering with a precious legacy, Horslips have the right to retread their steps and revise their back-catalogue more than most, because it’s their own work and their own legacy.

For Horslips, Roll Back is both a nostalgic trip and voyage of discovery. For the old fans it will be curious to hear what settings of these classics they prefer. New fans will lap this up as a vital record of a seminal Irish Celtic rock band whose reputation is strictly word-of-mouth until now and they can see what the fuss was about.

Definitely one of the quietest comebacks ever attempted, Roll Back finds Horslips re-inventing themselves and shining up their back-catalogue with a fresh coat of interpretative ingenuity. I for one can’t wait to see them attempt this live, should they ever decide to do so! On the evidence of Roll Back, Horslips are back and the Celtic rock crown has another main contender, this time from the Irish original of the species.

(Horslips, 2004)



I'm the Pub Manager for the Green Man Pub which is located at the KInrowan Estate. I'm married to Ingrid, our Steward who's also the Estate Buyer. If I'm off duty and in a mood for a drink, it'll be a single malt, either Irish or Scottish, no water or ice, or possibly an Estate ale or cider. I'm a concertina player, and unlike my wife who has a fine singing voice, I do not have anything of a singing voice anyone want to hear!

More Posts