If you missed the Horslips the first time around — they disbanded in 1980 after 10 years together — here’s a chance to hear a small piece of their ground-breaking work. Horslips Greatest Hits is probably a good introduction to this Dublin roots-rock band, but at only 40 minutes and with a mere 12 tracks gleaned from just a few albums, it offers an awfully skimpy history. The liner notes are virtually nonexistent, an underwhelming three sentences. There is no indication of which albums these songs originally appeared on. The tunes aren’t laid out in any logical order — certainly not chronological or based on the band’s musical development. Indeed the song order seems random and disjointed, a mindless cut and paste job.
Their double album from 1976, Horslips Live, would probably be a better choice for the new listener. That album, and all the band’s recordings, initially recorded on their own Oats label, are now available in CD format. The band did not own the rights to their music when they parted ways, and Horslips Greatest Hits is just the most recent of compilation albums on at least four different labels. On the positive side, this is a well-mastered CD with what are certainly among the Horslips’ most popular songs.
By way of quick history, the band formed in 1970 as a modestly rocked-out “trad” band, mixing traditional tunes and instrumentation with a tasteful rock foundation. They really were the Irish pioneers of folk rock. After a few years they started moving towards popular rock, dropping the banjos and fiddles and the Celtic tune structure. They recorded a couple albums with themes based on Irish mythology and then a couple more based on Irish emigration/immigration with a more American rock sound. They were very popular in their day, releasing numerous singles and playing in stadiums. They retain a deservedly loyal base of hardcore fans even now. The music remains fresh and brash.
From the early folk rock years, there are several tracks from their first albums: “Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part” and “Tain.” “Tain” refers to an ancient Celtic conflict over a bull. This was a pretty kicky period, but clearly Celtic-based in tunes and instruments. Traditional instrumentals prevailed and several tunes were often joined into a single piece. Even the odd song, like “Dearg Doom,” had a traditional tune stuck on the end. It was grand stuff for its day.
“King of the Fairies” was a mainstay for the Horslips: a jaunty set dance combining synthesizer drums, and guitar with fiddle, banjo and tin whistle. This is the sole track from the 1974 LP, Dancehall Sweethearts. A couple years later (1976) came The Book Of Invasions – A Celtic Symphony 1976. By then the band had gone pop-rock, losing most of its Irish musical roots. A quarter of Greatest Hits comes from that album: “Trouble With A Capital T,” “Sword Of Light” and “The Power And The Glory.” The latter song reminds me of Boston: hook-driven and repetitious. All quite weird for a “three movement” concept album based on 12th century accounts of the colonization of Ireland. The rest of this compilations consists of — at most — a single song from each of their 1977 through 1980 albums.
(Erin Records, 1999)