There’s this game doing the rounds on Facebook about people naming their ten favourite albums. The viral nature of the game is exposed with the second half of the rules. With each album you must tag a friend to do the same. In theory each person playing the game spawns ten more. Unsurprisingly sooner or later a friend nominated me to do it but it’s not something I use Facebook for so I ignored the request (possibly a feeble attempt to stick it to Zuckerberg, but there you go).
Nonetheless I couldn’t get the question out of my mind. Love of music is so personal and so changing listing a top 10 seemed an impossible task. But I am a sucker for a good list and I felt I had to give it a go. A top 10 is hard, though I have an all-time favourite album and that will make the list in due course. I also have favourite artists and bands (Bowie and Radiohead) but which albums to choose from them? I’ve scribbled down a provisional top 10 but that may change as I get through it.
You can all relax, however. I’m not nominating anyone else to do the same. You don’t need my permission.
1. Dancehall Sweethearts, Horslips
My memories of Ireland in the 1970s, like the TV of the time, are in black and white. The country was grim, poor, and inward looking – still gradually emerging from fog of war in the 1920s that kept the nation looking awkwardly back into its history rather than into the future for inspiration. By the mid 1970s most of the De Valera generation that dominated Ireland since those war times were finally dead and although war was still front of mind of those in the north of the island, the Republic of Ireland was slowly finding its feet, albeit at a time when the world was reeling with the effect of the Oil Shock. The sixties zeitgeist had left a small mark on conservative Catholic consciousness. Art was always an Irish stronghold. The great literary figures of Joyce, Shaw, Yeats and others had long lampooned Irish hypocrisies but left the masses cold. What could inspire as well as teach was Irish music.
Traditional music always had a place in Irish culture but in his short lifetime Sean O’Riada was in the vanguard of a new experiment placing Irish music firmly in the world canon leaning on other folk cultures such as middle Europe. Traditional music exploded in Dublin in the 1960s as younger artists began to see the possibilities of merging trad, folk and other new genres. Planxty (some of whose members will also appear later in my list) were a pivotal band bringing traditional music bang up to date with alternative arrangements and instruments and provocative ideas to go with older songs.
The band Horslips founded almost by accident in 1972 as a straightforward Irish rock band. But several of its members such as Jim Lockhart were university-educated and had studied O’Riada. Their first singles mixed rock and trad and had good radio airplay and their debut album “Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part” with its Gaelic motifs and octagonal cover was full of traditional airs that pretty much invented a new genre “celtic rock”.
Their second album a year later The Táin took that idea one step further – a concept album based on the early Irish legend of Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), about a war between Ulster and Connacht over a prize bull. The album featured what would become their signature track Dearg Doom and was a critical and commercial success in Ireland, though with limited exposure elsewhere due to its presumably esoteric subject matter.
It was this matter of how to sell Horslips in 1974 that convinced record company RCA (which marketed its material outside Ireland) to come up with the cliched rock band cover photo for Dancehall Sweethearts. Suspicious of matters celtic, they wanted Horslips to be seen as firmly in the 1970s rock canon. But the material remained stubbornly Irish. The title of their third album spoke to the Irish musical tradition of large country dancehalls where “showbands” (such as one my own father performed in) dominated in front of large audiences with their Irish interpretation of pop and country classics. The dancehalls were dying off by 1974 as the showbands lost their lure (and were put almost out of business by the nasty business of war as the Miami Showband Killings showed a year later).
Horslips were “nighttown boys” who played in dancehalls but were sweethearts of a different nature. Despite the cliched Spinal Tap cover, they were constantly reinventing, this time adding splashes of brass and blues to their Irish melodies. There was another concept too this one riffing to the great 18th century blind harper, Turlough O’ Carolan and the word “blind” featured in two song titles. They also played homage to the Beatles when they performed their traditional instrumental King of the Fairies on the roof of the Baggot St Bank of Ireland in Dublin. The album was a vision of a new Ireland proud of its past but reaching out experimentally to a confident future.
Horslips made three more albums in this new genre peaking with the Book of Invasions in 1976 (widely considered their best record) before becoming more mainstream rock as they tried to make it big in America. Those later albums were not as good and they eventually broke up around 1980.
I was 10 when Dancehall Sweethearts came out and first came across the album probably a year or two later alongside the Book of Invasions in the record collection of older cousins. Maybe it was because prog rock was my thing at the time I was hooked more by the rock-like cover of Sweethearts. But it didn’t take long to get into the music. Nighttown Boy was a cracking opener but I was transfixed from the moment I heard the haunting choir singing Fear a Bhata as the opening to the Carolanesque The Blind Can’t Lead the Blind.
This was a new Ireland, haunting the consciousness of all who call – or once called – her home.
Well you can move to Boston
Take a job in a small hotel.
But that won’t be the answer
You’ll still hear St. Patrick’s Bell
Even now in far away northern Australia, I still hear St. Patrick’s Bell whenever I listen to Horslips.