Sunday, April 13, 2008

On First Listening to Horslips, 1978.

Lee Templeton at Come Back Horslips and a related small media empire of informative and celebratory endeavors on this 1970s Irish electric folk-rock band asked me, to connect with her own reconstruction of the band's 1978 American tour, to share any memories I had about the scene for music
in Los Angeles at that time. Perhaps I'm the only one on the current CBH network outside of the five players and their roadies who might have any "native" knowledge of my hometown at the time, yet I admit that my own recollections remain limited.

I would have been still in high school then, ending my junior or beginning my senior year. One of my classmates, born in Co. Durham, brought back '45s from the Pistols and a copy of "New Musical Express" recounting the rise of punk. Word of mouth or a stolen glance at a newsstand's magazine's spate of monthly reviews: that was about it for publicity as far as it reached me. Furthermore, I knew nobody as interested in critically listening to, and analyzing, music as I was, or at least as open to eclectic styles. I wished I could play; those classmates kept to themselves.

The radio had many rock stations back then in L.A., but only one played regularly what one day would be called logically if dully "alternative." Concerts weren't an option. Even punk, curious as I was personally, acted itself out in distant suburban dives and skanky bars faraway. It too depended on the California tyranny of the auto, disaffected postures of its carefully displayed dishevelled denizens notwithstanding. They'd likely have borrowed mean ol' daddy's wheels, but these were not offered to me. With no car, little opportunity or tolerance for what nightlife a shy teen could attain, and obviously underaged even by more liberal 70s alcohol laws, I'm no regaler of any clubbing short stories or backstage tall tales. My first "real" concert did not happen until the following year, when the Clash played the Santa Monica Civic. I bummed a ride. My hearing has never been able to withstand amplification, so I rarely attend-- and cannot truly enjoy-- rock concerts.

So, what can I tell you? Better to re-create the isolation that a bookish rock geek sustained thirty years ago. I'd read about Horslips well before I heard them, first in (NME editors) Nick Kent and Bob Woffinden's "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock," bought in 1977 for all of $7.95. Completed in May 1976: so, it's an indelible visual and textual artifact from the Anglo-American scene immediately before punk broke, or was hyped, by the same NME! Skimming it now, I find each page frozen still in my photographic memory. I pore over what now looks like a hodgepodge of grainy publicity shots, oddly chosen LP covers, and concert snaps. At the time, however, before video and when you'd never see reproductions of album art outside of the record store and its posters, this brought the hedonistic representation of the corporate rock world into my distant hands.

Three out of many of its pictures that remained in my mind: the cover of Carly Simon's "Playing Possum" (could have been named "Playing Pussy" with that come-on); a Barrett & Gilmour-era publicity photo of Pink Floyd that taught me "saturnine;" a caption under the LP sleeve for "Red Rose Speedway": "Wings' second album; too bad there was only room for McCartney in the cover shot." This in true "High Fidelity" form segues indirectly, as I learned many years later, closer to Horslips, for indeed this LP had a veteran of the folk and especially blues-rock Northern network, Henry McCullough join Wings. John Kelly in his semi-fictional novel "Sophisticated Boom-Boom" tells of his mother watching Wings on tv and casually remarking that she knew him-- he grew up on her street. The teen (Kelly's five years younger than me) was gobsmacked that his mum could have such a brush with (pre?-post-) Beatles-levels of fame. Such is Irish three-degrees-of-separation, as many of us have found out.

Like Kelly, I acquired a small melange of disparate rock records. I painstakingly saved up on a weekly allowance and later a minimum-wage summer job. Although I never cottoned to blues and avoided jazz, and while my folk interests developed unlike Kelly's at a considerable remove from the sources, I did share his timeframe when it came to the music. Although he was more precocious or I was more laggard. We began listening seriously around the glam era, when the hippie come-down thanks to, well, groups like Wings, softened the edgy acid and agitation of the Sixties into a mellower, pot-hazed mood enhancer. As Macca influenced so many others, into a pop-friendly acceptance that led musicians in the 1970s to embrace older traditions that their immediate rabble-rousing predecessors, while they may well have grown up on the same tunes, had not been able to openly admire then due to their street cred.

Same effect for the punk scene, when it became trés un-cool to credit such art- or prog-tainted bands as Horslips. British folk-rock, as with Fairport and Steeleye, still flourished when Kent & Woffinden published their tome. But, even a year later when I would have read their text, the market for such medleys of Celtic lore and British tales with electrified beats and glossier production had plummeted. I've written about this in my recent article that cites Pat McCabe's "The Dead School" with its hapless protagonist Malachy, whose rise and fall, I argue, follows that over the Seventies for Horslips, the band he admires and whose tatterdemain and hirsute look he cannot give up by the time the Clash dominate the trends of the Picadilly boutiques and the assaults on late-decade London airwaves.

He was too drunk, too destitute, and too demolished as he cried into his pints, but Horslips, as the campaign for "The Man Who Built America" that I reproduce above in its red and black graphics and determinedly New Wave design seeks to convey, sought to keep up with the airwaves and boutiques. Unlike Malachy, the tresses of all five band members were shorn--even Johnny Fean's--and they adapted (art student Charles O'Connor being in the vanguard much earlier, more pub-rock by even 1975) a harder production and a slicker sound. More radio-friendly, but I admit I never heard them played on the radio even on KROQ, which around '78 had found its niche in L.A. as the station championing Devo, Blondie, Talking Heads, the Pistols, and the newest rarities that only three or four import shops in our metropolis carried.

On pg. 111, the entry for Horslips in Kent & Woffinden lists the LPs to date, but ends at "The Unfortunate Cup of Tea." The five paragraphs dutifully summarize the discography and trajectory of the band. After the triumph of the "Táin," the editors concur with what had been the judgment of many critics (if not fans on such sites as CBH): "However, the band have not yet succeeded in building on this remarkably successful opening to their career, possibly because they have abandoned their Celtic music influences in favour of a rock-based approach." This sort of journalism must have goaded the band, and I'm sure the next edition of the book would have acclaimed the next LP "Book of Invasions" as a return to splendid form.

Until the summer of 1980, however, I never found that LP-- in the import section of Tower Records. And that took a two-hour bus ride. Probably the only place in L.A. that would have carried it. On its sleeve and that for TMWBA I learned my first words beyond "Erin go bragh" in Irish; BoI's liner notes by Eamon Carr explain the three ancient modes of storytelling, while the quoting of Máirtín Ó Direáin's verse captured the theme of exile that unified the band's latest concept LP. As I played it later in my college dorm, another student bounded into my room excitedly. He astonished me with the news of how he'd seen the band on TV, on a late-night appearance perhaps. I wonder if any CBHers can trace that allusion! Until that classmate, nobody I met ever heard of them; until I found CBH on the Net, this sonic lacuna gaped for nearly twenty-five years. Speaking of exile.

I'm not sure how I would have known about the release of TMWBA. Perhaps I had seen a mention in "Trouser Press," or had flipped through the miscellaneous "H" at the only store a bike ride from my house, the chain Music Plus. The promo copy, being from a band with the majority as admen, artists, and poets themselves, also cleverly reminds the reader that before Radar, Stiff, or Chiswick, true DIY pioneers could be found among the quintet. They kept control, in proto-punk form, of their product all the way up to its delivery to the conglomerate that packed it up, dutifully and deftly, to ship out to me thousands of miles away. So, they too tried to stay true to their own countercultural roots, despite-- as so many of their peers then and now-- having to nod to the idols of the marketplace in order to sway the Yankee masses.

Their big-label distribution deal, as the text I reproduced takes pains to explain, allowed them a chance to finally get their records out to the American hinterlands where I lived-- if all of fifteen miles from Hollywood. There they hoped, under the rather unlikely match of producer (Blood, Sweat & Tears) Steve Katz, to nail down "those silver bars" into that big West Coast production sound "that's gonna take 'em to the stars" that Barry Devlin and Jim Lockhart admired. And, on that same left coast, I finally found my first, if not their first, Horslips LP.

Here's a snap from Lee's archive of a billboard on the Sunset Strip, at Kings Rd., suitably, for the medieval-themed arrival of the band with the equivalent of their name in lights. Minutes away from the famed import racks of Tower Records. The tattoo parlor may now be a burlesque house if it's on the south side facing the lights over West Hollywood. The taller building may be today either the garish hipster hotel The Mondrian or just another dull concrete & glass media conglomerate's fortress.

Promo for Horslips TMWBA: Weasy 8 Archives ca. 1978

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

Lee Templeton posted this today on the Come Back Horslips site.

Message: Fionnchú - if you are lurking - I can now cite an older source for the myth that the Horslips "name is borrowed from a legendary 11th century Celtic warrior."

(This story takes us back to last summer, when Fionnchú was delivering not one, but two, scholarly papers on the subject of Horslips and he asked how this 'legend' got started. I replied in a way that suggested that perhaps Fionnchú dreamed up this particular part of the myth himself as I'd never heard the like before. Then, when reading up the various American articles, I discovered the reference in the 1979 San Francisco Bay Guardian review. Figuring such nonsense was exactly what Aquarian-aging reporters of rainbow-tunnel land would dream up: I sent a note over to Donegal via Los Angeles and Mrs. Fionnchú. But now, even San Francisco is off the hook as I have now found the definitive source of this bit of hokum.)

DJM Records/Polygram advertisement promoting TMWBA (a la the Sunset Strip billboard) brazenly uses the Celtic warrior story as promotion of the band's roots in the past.

It now seems very reasonable to me that you might have seen this ad back in the day.