on 15 December 2013
For many teenagers of Irish decent, growing up in British cities such as Birmingham in the 1970s, as I did, was a fair distance away culturally, environmentally, economically and socially, from that experienced by our parents ( in my case both were from the West coast of Ireland). We remember the ceilidh records they played in the house when we were kids, as their way of connecting with their past in a new urban setting; the shindigs; the smoke-filled rooms where adults partook of something they called 'having the craic'; and it is surprising just how much we subliminally absorbed of all that, without really knowing it on an emotional level.
It is this explanation anyway, that I offer for the exhilarating experience I had when seeing Horslips play for the first time at Barbarellas club in Birmingham around 1977. Their music connected with me on an emotional level in a way that was utterly authentic, aligned, contemporaneous, exciting ( I had gotten into rock music as most teenagers had) and, moreover, uniquely special because if its Irishness. Celtic rock was its name, and it lived up to it.
This was their "Book of Invasions" tour, which I still think was the band at its finest, although I saw them several times in the years that followed, up until their split in 1980. I was also fortunate to see them play at the 02 in Dublin in 2009, at the height of their come-back period, and I can say without any hesitation it was the finest gig I have ever had the pleasure of being at.
So it goes without saying, then, that I am a wee bit precious about this band, as they have been so much a part of my youth and subsequent middle youth too! Or, to put it another way, from where I am coming from, anyone writing a book about this band had better make it a good one. Fortunately, Mark Cunningham's biography more than delivers on that requirement.
Visually, the range of material he has unearthed is quite staggering, from the numerous photos of the band taken at their various stages in the timeline of their existence, which the book is constructed around, to copies of gig tickets, handwritten song drafts, posters, long-forgotten magazine articles, and more. His presentation of them ( and indeed of the book as a whole) is quite superb, befitting a former editor of an international music production journal. The narrative is also lively, authentic (he has let the band members do most of the talking, as well as those close to them such as former producers, roadies, and other gigging buddies) and seamless, his weaving of their reminiscences into a cohernt and pacy read being a key strength of the work.
This approach elicits from band members an often frank and occasionally intimate assessment of their history and legacy, as well as several humorous recollections of past misdemeanours (or wrongly interpreted ones).The chronological (rather than thematic) narrative also enhances the reader's sense of the band's musically creative (and visually stylistic) evolution: at various times being influenced by Psychedelia, Glam Rock, "Americana" and New Wave, whilst, for the most part, retaining distinctly Irish influences in their musical compositions.
We get to know the individual band members too, including their musical and artistic influences and their distinctive contributions to the band's creative outputs. Horslips was always a band in the true sense of the term; a creative, collective of shared individual talents rather than any one individual dominating the others, and, until the last 12 months of their first incarnation, this served them well. By the end of the 1970s, however, with the rock and pop music scene rapidly changing in ways that became increasingly difficult for the band to navigate or accommodate (they never quite knew which way to go), a split became inevitable, and the descriptions of what that meant for band members on an emotional level are quite moving.
But, as we know, after a monumental effort by loyal Horslips fans during most of the first decade of the 21st Century, to get them to "Come Back" as the fans' website was called( not least so that we could all enjoy reliving our youth with them), they finally succumbed, and their performances have since been as good as ever. These events are brought to life in Mark's narrative in a way that is genuinely moving and indeed uplifting.
One is also constantly reminded of the aesthetic originality of their music, and enlightened on the influences that brought that about. There is less, however, on their significance as a social phenomenon and cultural change agent in a rapidly transforming Ireland during the 1970s, than is covered in Maurice Linnane's excellent documentary, "Return of the Dancehall Sweethearts". As such, these two accounts complement one another in so many ways, and both are therefore unreservedly recommended.