The double-page frontispiece of this new coffee table-style Horslips biography is a wonderful collage of sample gig tickets, which will detain you before you open the book at all. Observe the fact that Rush, as testified by one of those ticket stubs, shared equal billing with Horslips in 1979 at a New York gig. Now that's some indication of pretty serious status for the men who were trying to build America at the time, as a hard-driving rock band, seven years or so after their birth as a traditional/rock fusion act in the swirling mists of a new Celtic dawn.
Many of the Celtic curlicues had been ironed out, but the traditional instinct was still at the heart of things in 1979, as they made their way around the US, from Palm Springs to New York's famed Bottom Line. What fun they must have had in America, although by the end of their second American tour that year, tensions were gleaned by one Barry Mead. Mead was on the road with the band and sensed the imminent first break-up, as it were, which occurred in 1980.
But, to all our surprises, they began the returning – if one can so put it – over two decades afterwards, with various tentative gestures, including an album of re-recorded favourites called Roll Back, and a TV gig on Other Voices. The excitement culminated with their triumphant repositioning in the marketplace, with sell-out Dublin and Belfast concerts at the close of 2009. Horslips were back with a vengeance after what singer and bassist Barry Devlin calls their "29-year fag break".
Among the fans who came to hear them that December were two celebrated Northern poets, the late Seamus Heaney and, still very much with us, Paul Muldoon, a fan since his teenage years. The delirium of those early Horslips gigs, when Muldoon was a lad, is difficult to convey. There was that strange frisson generated by this new use of traditional Irish music, something so vastly different from the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners, Sweeney's Men, céilí bands, what we had known heretofore. There was something spooky and ethereal about songs like Hall of Mirrors and Furniture, but there was Bacchanalian exuberance in The High Reel, Dearg Doom and Johnny's Wedding.
Horslips brought 17-year-old teens to some other place, some strange nirvana of their imaginations. If Jethro Tull, their natural forefathers, had come to the Festival Hall in Gorey instead in the summer of 1973, it would not have been the same thing. Although it may sound clichéd, Horslips found something in Irish music that made us think about it in a different way.
But the aforementioned Paul Muldoon nailed the drama of a Horslips gig, as part of his contribution to a book entitled The Show I'll Never Forget, in which writers recalled their most memorable concert-going experience. The quote is reproduced in the new book. "There was a howling that came close to Pandemonium in its strictest sense," wrote Muldoon. "Any moment there'd be a great disclosure. Some revelation was at hand. We'd see if Horslips were indeed 'gods or real folk'. Yes… one by one they came on stage, each with a following spot. Just as we expected... gods."
Yet, as many of us know, when you got to meet them backstage, or in the hotel lounge across the street, Horslips were friendly, warm guys - not lofty divinities at all. But the band's personal charm never precluded the fact that they became Celtic gods when they walked on to stages all around the country in the summer of 1973 and for years afterwards.