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This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… later Horslips March 17, 2023

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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11 years ago, gulp, there was this This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… post on St. Patrick’s Day – a run-through of early Horslips. That was the period when, at least on record their output was most traditional music tinged. But as the 1970s lengthened their sound changed – inflected increasingly by a fairly muscular, if in its own way traditional, rock sound, verging on hard rock. So, 11 years later here’s the second part.

The original piece noted:

Of course all was to change utterly in terms of the context they operated in, but a year or two later, as punk, and then new wave, swept all aside. But they adapted to some degree and it’s perhaps difficult at this remove for many to appreciate how big they were (or even who they were) back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at least as a presence on the Irish music scene and further afield. Not that they ever quite made it as big as they should abroad, but they had a recognition that few enough other Irish groups did during that period. One more thought strikes, and that is that they were peculiarly adept at managing to represent mythic elements of – well, for want of a better word ‘Irishness’, look at the visual imagery they used on their albums, look at the blending of different musical forms, look at their song titles, ‘Man Who Built America’, ‘Guests of the Nation’, in a way that I can’t think of any single formation before them and precious few after.

And the music itself? Watching the live tracks in particular there’s a real sense of what a tight operation they were and why they managed to tough it out as late as 1980.

I find them a fascinating band –  perhaps in part because they were always a presence in my musical life from the very off. I think the second album purchased in the house of then contemporary music on vinyl was the compact K-Tel compilation of their songs released February 1981 (if Discogs is to be believed). Thankfully some cousins had a range of their records which they gifted on. And those being earlier records there was a sense of the group across its career.

So take Drive the Cold Winter Away, which is a fine album but sits as a sort of midpoint to their career, as the dividing line between the two sides of Horslips. What of the last four albums proper that they released? 

They’re certainly worth consideration because whatever else they could shape a tune. I’ve seen them time and again compared to Jethro Tull, a case of convergent evolution I’d have thought. But there’s this sense of them as a group at war with themselves and their own music. Did they want to be playing stripped down rock, traditional music, prog, a blend of all three and more or none of these things? Some of their work has the haziness of late 60s and early 70s US west coast rock or what became MOR. At other times there’s a crunch to the guitars that is distinctly hard rock. I can’t quite work out is Horslips in the later period a lesser group? It feels despite the west coast affectations like an increasingly more basic group, an odd transition from where they started out. And yet this process starts so well.

The Book of Invasions is near enough a pinnacle of their later period, the point where the traditional and the rock trappings worked near flawlessly together. There’s a nice depth to the sound, with layers of instrumentation other than the guitars and the bass and drums. And the lyrics oscillate between good and… not so good. That said some great moments and I can’t work out if King of Morning, Queen of Day is insufferably twee or simply genius. 

Aliens was always a curiosity, at least to me. Not an album I was ever overly familiar with and Speed the Plough would be the trackI know best. A further listen reveals a range of good to great tracks and still recognisably Horslips. A concept album about the Irish experience in the US in the 19th century. The airy percussion, vocals and echoed guitars on Stowaway are particularly intriguing, and New York Wakes rolls along.  That said what’s fascinating is how this release, from 1977 seems to be oblivious to other dynamics emerging in music during that period. I suppose at a stretch you could say there’s hints of pub rock and a certain sparseness to the guitars. But that’s a stretch. 

The Man Who Built America is a mix of the great and not so great. The fact that it too is a concept album about emigration from Ireland to the United States is puzzling. Didn’t they cover this ground already on Aliens? Whether the musical form adopted was quite the one to use – with electric guitars and rock structures to the fore, when had the group leaned even slightly more into their traditional side this would have been more cohesive (if perhaps a bit contrived) is an open question. Homesick certainly treads closely to knowing pastiche in that regard – clever, but telling. 

Short Stories, Tall Tales by contrast is a shambles. There’s some of the sparseness of new wave and power pop, but none of the punch and with but just one genuine classic on it – Guests of the Nation. Songs like Back in My Arms, The Life You Save or Rescue Me have a spark, but seem half-hearted, the latter in particular feels as if it is being channelled from Laurel Canyon ten years too late. And the faster numbers are so bloodless as to be immaterial (Ricochet Man is grim beyond words both lyrically and musically). 

Horslips, the Belfast Gigs, their live swansong was an odd note to bow out on. There was a real power to the tracks on the album and that hard rock edge had even heavied up a fraction more. It was almost a caricature of the group, but one that had a rough honesty in so far as pointing to the distance they had travelled and where they had arrived.  

After they broke up a range of solo and side projects, none of which really caught fire. I’ve got to admit a real love of the Zen Alligators singles – retro, even at the time, but catchy as all hell and IEL covered them on a This Weekend here. Carr’s HotWire label was an important part of the Irish musical landscape for quite a while. The occasional reunion, a lavish printed history which is, if you’ve the slightest interest in Irish music is a key text. In 2020 myself and a friend had tickets to go see them play in Dublin. The gig would have been St. Patrick’s Weekend, so it’s only what, exactly three years ago. But then there was this virus and you know the rest. The gigs were cancelled, never to be rescheduled. Instead they put out some interesting archival and other materials. I never saw them live and am sorry about that at this remove. There’s a fair few Irish bands over the years I’d have happily swapped out standing through their gigs to see Horslips. 

Having listened all week to these albums I’ve come away more impressed than I expected. There’s the songs themselves, but also the little touches here and there, instrumentally, vocally, in the arrangements an execution. They were a great band.

Enjoy and Happy St. Patrick’s Day Weekend…

Trouble (With A Capital T)

King of Morning, Queen of Day

Speed the Plough


Stowaway

Homesick

Loneliness

The Man Who Built America


Guests of the Nation

Shakin’ All Over (from the Belfast Gigs)

Comments»

1. alanmyler - March 20, 2023

An excellent band for sure. Like yourself I was gutted that the Paddy’s Day gig never happened, so unfortunately I’ve never seen them play live, despite being a regular listener to their albums over more than four decades now. The Man Who Built America was my introduction to them, suggested by a schoolmate who was a big fan, and despite him being otherwise into Deep Purple and AC/DC while I was into U2 and The Clash, well he convinced me to give them a try, and I never looked back. Actually we both liked The Jam also so maybe the musical distance wasn’t quite as wide as it might look.

So yes, a great album I would say. Some really strong tracks and it holds together well as a concept album. The next album I got of theirs was The Book Of Invasions and at that stage I was completely hooked. It is a fantastic piece of work from start to finish, possibly their best, though my own favourite is Drive The Cold Winter Away which is absolutely less rocky than any of their other works. And then Aliens, a strange album, almost like a prototype of The Man Who Built America in theme and much weaker musically, but haunting, and a very grim reminder of how emigration was their on the horizon of all of our lives in that period, waiting on us to finish school or college, or whatever. I sometimes wonder of there are Polish or Latvian concept albums about emigration to Ireland in the 2000s that have that same layer of sadness throughout?

And yes, that last studio album, what an awful way to finish the band. They’d run out of creative steam at that point unfortunately.

I read somewhere once that Jim Lockhart and I think it was Barry Devlin that were being interviewed by a US music journalist and Barry was saying how they wanted to achieve a sound like Boston, and Jim was taken aback by that, said nothing, but realised the band’s days were probably numbered at that stage! Musical differences.

There’s a Horslips tribute band doing the rounds, Sword Of Light, so I’ll have to check them out sometime, seeing as I never got to see the originals.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - March 20, 2023

Completely agree with your rundown through the albums – Aliens is strange. Not great, but… some really interesting songs on it. They are definitely melancholy albums.

That’s a great anecdote re Devlin and Lockhart. They really did have very different visions. Boston! Wow. No, just no.

BTW, just on the Jam as a connection, listening to the Zen Alligators from (ahem) acquired files, they had a mod angle going on too. There’s a grittiness to them.

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2. banjoagbeanjoe - March 20, 2023

Early stuff was all I really knew. We had vinyl copies of the Táin and Happy to Meet Sorry to Part at home. Great records, both. In those halcyon days when I had the time and the space and the concentration levels to go into a room, put on an LP and listen to it.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - March 20, 2023

Make the time and space, enjoy the music!

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