Horslips Play Dunluce Castle on June 21
Ahead of their next concert, bassist Barry Devlin recalls an eventful career in traditional prog rock
Horslips’ reunion gig in Belfast’s Odyssey Arena in December 2009, their first fully-fledged gig for 29 years, was an almost overwhelmingly emotional occasion.
A massively excited, largely middle-aged, capacity crowd roared the band on ecstatically, but many were also teary-eyed, perhaps because the music, poignantly, reconnected them with their long lost youth, perhaps because they were reflecting on the cruelty of passing time.
Singer-bassist Barry Devlin caught something of that bittersweet quality when he dedicated the elegiac ‘Ghosts’ to all the fans who didn’t live to witness the reunion.
‘It was emotional for the band as well,’ admits Devlin. ‘On stage there isn’t much room for melancholy. You’re just surviving, going, “God, this is the first time I’ve played this tune live for 29 years, I hope I remember the words". But when we came to ‘Ghosts’, that was poignant and we talked about the people we’d lost and the fact that almost everybody there would have lost parents and so on.’
Only one member of the band, guitarist Johnny Fean, worked consistently as a professional musician during the long years of the band’s retirement. The effort involved, therefore, both as individuals and as a band, to get back into shape for the reunion must have been monumental.
‘We were full of apprehension, but it was surprisingly easy,’ says Devlin. ‘After the first rehearsal we went, “Oh, we can do this. This is what we did for 250 nights a year for ten years. We know how to do it".'
During this second phase of their career, Horslips have played several high profile arena gigs in Ireland and the legendary Cropredy Festival in England, venues vastly different from the Irish ballroom circuit on which they began their career in 1970.
At that stage the ballrooms were still dominated by showbands and audiences used to a middle-of-the-road repertoire were initially flummoxed by Horslips’ highly original blend of traditional folk and prog rock.
‘We cleared the halls in a minute,’ laughs Devlin. ‘But after our first two visits to a dancehall nobody who wanted to dance would be there. We pulled a completely different audience – largely young fellows who were slightly mad in the head.’
Horslips rapidly became massively successful in Ireland and went on to work extensively in Great Britain and the States. Somehow, however, they didn’t quite manage to replicate their Irish success and make that final step to becoming international superstars. ‘What we did was very Irish and I’m not sure it was that exportable,’ reflects Devlin.
‘And it didn’t help that throughout the 1970s in Britain the Provos were our support act. We were booked into Guildford three weeks after the Guildford bombing. We were booked into Birmingham two weeks after the Birmingham bombing. It’s hard to go on stage then and say, “Love us, we’re Irish”.'
In their original incarnation, Horslips were almost as noted for their over-the-top glam rock threads as for their music. Devlin remembers the band’s sartorial style with somewhat mixed emotions.
‘We’d have been looking at bands like Roxy Music and going, “Yeah, it would be fun to wear clothes like that",' he says. ‘Some, I think, looked pretty good but I wore a few naff outfits in my day. There was some degree of irony and post-modernism in the presentation. Or at least that’s my story.’
The band’s first album, Happy To Meet… Sorry To Part was released in 1972. Its innovative fusion of styles was hugely acclaimed but as the years went by the band became more of a straightforward guitar-rock band.
‘We weren’t a folk-rock band in the style of Fairport Convention,’ explains Devlin. ‘It was a different thing where we incorporated traditional tunes into original songs with original lyrics. But once we’d done 'The Tain'  we felt we had to move on.’
The band’s touring also impacted on their musical style. The sort of repertoire that blew people away in Irish ballrooms or concert halls simply didn’t work in American enormodomes. ‘We started to play arenas in the States and it was easier to play in a more straightforward way,’ agrees Devlin.
Contrary to what many fans believed, however, Devlin disagrees that towards the end of their career there was a tension in Horslips between members who wanted to retain a strong Irish traditional element in the music and others who wanted to focus purely on rock. He asserts that the tension in the band in the late 70s was more to do with how to respond to the challenge of punk rock.
‘We were nobbled by the same thing that nobbled a million bands, from the Who to Yes, that we were old and in the way. We had to figure out what to do about that. And what we did in the end was to disband. There was an element of thinking, “This is stuff that once was of a lot of interest and isn’t so much now".'
Some of Devlin’s happiest memories of his years in Horslips are of gigs in Belfast. During the bloodiest years of the Troubles the band’s frequent gigs in the city were thrillingly celebratory events.
‘Coming to Belfast was easy for me,’ insists the Ardboe-born, Dublin-based Devlin. ‘I’m from the North and still feel, “I’m home!” when I hear the accent. It’s only recently I’ve figured, I’m married to a girl from the Free State, I’ve three children who think they’re Dubliners, so I probably live there now.
‘So we sometimes get kudos for playing through the Troubles, but they loved to hear us in Belfast. It was a place I was familiar with and we had a lot of fun. It was always a great place to play.’
Horslips were legendarily meticulous about controlling their career, taking care of business in a way rare in popular music. And yet, after they split up, their records started appearing on CD in shockingly shoddy, ultra-cheapo editions. Only after a long legal battle did the band regain control of their music. But how could such a clued-in bunch have let those reputation-besmirching releases happen?
‘We were so ashamed of that,’ groans Devlin. ‘In the aftermath of splitting up we just took our eye off the ball. We had a feeling of desperate incompetence because we spent ten years fighting to make sure we retained control of everything and suddenly there’s a man who says he owns all the recordings with no royalties payable. So, “You’re not as smart as you think you are, Horslips".'
Devlin released one solo album after Horslips’ demise, Breaking Star Codes, in 1980. The album was unsuccessful, however, and Devlin left the music business. ‘It may be that music left me,’ he smiles.
‘I was probably never going to manage a solo career and I didn’t want to be back in a band. But I’d always had an interest in writing and I felt I might have fun working as a writer or director and I was lucky enough to direct a lot of videos for U2. And that led to work as a screenwriter.’
Indeed, Devlin subsequently wrote scripts for television programmes such as Ballykissangel and for feature films including A Man Of No Importance. He emphatically dispels any thought, however, that the cultured screenwriter of recent times might rather look down on the rocker of old.
‘Nothing beats playing in a rock band,’ he declares. ‘Nothing. Not ever, not under any circumstances. The most exciting things I’ve done in my life have been on stage with Horslips. It’s a fantastic thing to do.’
The band dabbled in a reunion in 2005 when they released Roll Back. On it they revisited some of their classic tracks, this time playing them acoustically. ‘The reason was we wanted to get back together but we hadn’t written anything new, because that muse sometimes deserts you,’ explains Devlin.
‘And also we were still asking the same questions as in 1980 about whether this music has any relevance. My own view is that Celtic rock – and, by the way, we never called it Celtic rock, that name was given to us – was a cul-de-sac. I kind of like it but it doesn’t exist anymore. It hasn’t had any lineal descendants.
'So we weren’t sure there was a reason for writing new material in that style. Whereas there were songs like ‘The Man Who Built America’ that had been written as acoustic, waltz-time pieces that we then squared up to make them for a rock band, and it seemed a nice idea to try them out as they had once been.’
And the precise reason for the band to launch their full-scale reunion in 2009? Devlin, tongue-in-cheek, reveals all: ‘[Keyboard player] Jim Lockhart has a great, statistically accurate analysis of reunion tours. Imagine a graph with a descending line, which is dwindling record royalties, and an ascending line, which is coke prices. Where those two lines meet is the exact date of the reunion.’
Horslips play Dunluce Castle, County Antrim on June 21.