It’s not many bands that can claim to have invented a whole musical genre, but that’s what Horslips are credited with. Without them we wouldn’t have Celtic Rock. Of course Fairport Convention had been rocking up jigs and reels for a few years before the Irish band released their debut single “Johnny’s Wedding” in 1971, but with their first album Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part in ’72, the first real Celtic Rock album came into being. Ireland was very much a backwater at the time, and the nearest 24-track studio was in the U.K. Adamant that they wanted to record at home, the band decided to bring in the Rolling Stones Mobile. At what must have been a great expense, they set up camp for a couple of weeks at Longfield House, a mansion in scenic County Tipperary. What they captured on tape is very much a band excited at the prospect of seeing how far they can push the limits of their collective imagination using fiddles, whistles mandolins, and pipes, along with drums, bass, electric guitars and all the usual instruments associated with the rock ‘n’ roll armoury.
Following the intro of a short trad tune, the album opens proper with “Hall of Mirrors,” a great rock song with a catchy chorus. They make great use of fair ground organ and some blistering guitar breaks curtsey of Johnny Fean. Psychedelia, Irish style! While the more traditional sounding tracks like “The Clergyman’s Lamentation,” “The Shamrock Shore” and “Flower Among Them All” rely on the folk melodies inherent in these tunes to carry them along, others such as “The Musical Priest” and “Ace and Deuce” see the band create interesting soundscapes using wah-wah mandolin, lots of phasing and much use of panning, even on the drums. With multi-instrumentalists Jim Lockhart (Flute, Tin whistle, Uillean Pipes, Keyboards) and Charles O Connor (Fiddle, Mandolin, Concertina) they have plenty of scope and use this eclectic collection to create an imaginative sound, which to this day seems fresh and exciting (with the odd exception). Songs like “Furniture” give a glimpse of what was to come on future releases. It’s a thoughtful ballad, with the traditional instrumentation sitting comfortably alongside bluesy electric guitar, and Eamon Carrs’ Ringo-influenced drumming. By taking a basic Irish folk tune, in this case ‘O Ro Se Do Bhaith Abhaile,’ and structuring an original rock song around it, the resulting track gives the wonderful feeling of being both contemporary and still sounding like it came from another time, long ago, mysterious and ancient.
A few tracks on the album sound a bit dated, but this is to be expected thirty years after the original release date. The old English sea-shanty “Dance to Yer Daddy” sounds twee, and one wonders why “An Breathach Ban” was ever committed to tape. Yet when they let rip on something like “Scalloway Ripoff,” which sounds like a mad Ceili band on acid, they’re more at home, complete with party (or pub) background noises. And if there’s some obvious Procul Harum influence on “The Musical Priest” one soon forgets as the mandolin soon takes over from Hammond organ and before long we’re into a three part jig, which in turn gives way to one of Feans’ raunchy, yet melodic, trademark guitar solos.
In their ten years together Horslips went on to release twelve albums of varying consistency. They became national heroes in Ireland and built up loyal fan-bases in the U.K., Canada and The U.S. In the U.K. they went on to have a Top 30 hit album with The Book of Invasions/A Celtic Symphony, and a few of their later albums made the Hot 100 in the States. Of course they were a major influence on countless bands that decided to blend folk and rock. And yes, they were way ahead of their time.
In the last couple of years their whole back catalogue has been re-mastered and re-released through Edsel/Demon, following years of substandard re-issues on Outlet, a Belfast based label. In 2000 the band won a much-publicized court-case to re-gain ownership of their back-catalogue, with U2 offering to pay court costs should they lose. Thankfully they didn’t lose, and were awarded over £1,000,000 Sterling in lost royalties. The subsequent re-issues are on Edsel, and like the original vinyl albums, are all packaged beautifully. A word of warning, avoid any of the inferior re-issues on Outlet that may still be out there, they look bad and sound crap. Happy To Meet is as good a starting point as any if your thinking of checking out this seminal band, and indeed this is one of their finer albums.