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In the 1950s rock and roll was created through the mixing of already existing styles – soul, country and blues. More so blues, as Muddy Waters told on ‘The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock And Roll’. These styles were inherited from other countries through migrants, the only truly American music, believe it or not, is jazz. Trailblazers like Miles Davis and Frank Zappa fused this jazz sound with rock and roll music in the experimental 60s. This, in turn, created a hybrid sound. Consider all of this in the context of Irish music.
Inherently Irish music is steeped in traditional sounds. The fiddle alone can be traced back to the eighth century, the harp to the tenth, and for hundreds of years this form of music has existed.
In the 60s, traditional Irish musicians fused their style with rock, creating a sound which became purely original to this country. Indeed this is what became known, for better or worse, as Celtic Rock. Of course, international bands were already fusing different styles as the progressive rock movement erupted and it was not long before Irish bands were placed under the same banner.
Following, are 5 legendary Irish albums, highlighting artists who fused elements of traditional music with rock and outside influences. There are other examples, but an in-depth look into these five shows the brilliance of the sound, and explains what separates Irish music from the rest.
#1. Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (1968)
Sometimes you hear a sound flowing from the speakers that draws you into another world, one where you are rapt with every beautiful melody and each syllable sung.
Astral Weeks certainly commands attention in this manner. Not a rock album in the modern sense of the word, although the heart of the album pumps the blood of rock music tinged with Celtic folk and jazz.
Van Morrison, at a mere 23 years of age, was breaking ground, building a body of work that many would spend entire careers aspiring to. Others sought to capture the inner peace Van Morrison had found so young.
As you listen to Astral Weeks play, it’s as if an impressionistic pendulum is swinging before your eyes, steady and hypnotic. The realisation of music’s power, in the presence of incomprehensible talent, is both relentless and inspiring. Upon release, the album was largely ignored, hammered by some critics. This only served to reinforce it as a cult record very quickly, attaining status akin to The Velvet Underground & Nico.
With no ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ style hit, the departure from that sound to Astral Weeks no doubt scared his newly acquired record company Warner Brothers. However, the spark of creativity was clearly evident throughout the album.
Though it has become a stoner music Mecca, the adventure Morrison conjured on Astral Weeks was completely his own quest. Though the record’s two sides are sometimes misinterpreted as conceptual work, it is merely a separation of themes, like chapters of a book.
Astral Weeks grew into its status, now held on high by everyone from filmmakers to musicians.
#2. Thin Lizzy – Vagabonds Of The Western World (1973)
At the start of 1973, Thin Lizzy were a runner in the starting blocks, about to take off at speed. On the back of their first breakthrough hit, a rock/traditional arrangement of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, the band had built a steady following. Seeking to capitalise on this newfound audience, their next album would be make or break.
Vagabonds Of The Western World arrived in September 1973. This sonically-driven album showcased Phil Lynott’s confidence and maturity as both a songwriter and performer. An artist who may have been lost in the wilderness had finally found his direction.
Vagabonds became known as a turning point in the career of both Thin Lizzy and Phil Lynott. It acts as a signpost, marking the band’s musical path and making this the group’s most important release. The tracks themselves are a mesh of raw bottleneck blues and psychedelic rock, anchored respectfully in an Irish landscape. At times, the venomous delivery from Lynott giving each song a unique sound.
In semi-autobiographical track ‘The Rocker’, every syllable oozes with the passion of a man hungry to prove himself:
“I am your main man if you’re looking for trouble
I take no lip no one’s tougher than me”
This is the very moment the legend was born, Phil Lynott the singer became Phil Lynott the rock star, ready to bring his audience on a sweaty adventure into the stratosphere of international acclaim. The success of the album lies in the consistency of the tracks. The speeding train steadily runs, never veering off into unexpected territory.
#3. Horslips – The Táin (1973)
A career highlight for the group, Horslips dared to go conceptual with The Táin. The album is steeped in Irish mysticism, based on the folklore tale the Táin Bó Cúailnge and the legend of Cú Chulainn. In a nutshell, Queen Maeve sends her army to steal a bull and Cú Chulainn stands in her way.
The album is progressive, yet bound to the inherited traditional values of an organic sound. In some ways, what every Irish rocker was waiting for – homegrown music that had its roots firmly in Ireland’s soil, whilst holding up on the international stage.
The instrumental opener, ‘Setanta/Maeve’s Court’, sets the scene perfectly, a showcase of drums, guitar and organ effects. In ‘Charolais’, there is a centrepiece of astonishing, gliding sounds, both electric and organic. Those who were not partial to traditional music began to embrace it a bit more readily after hearing this record.
By ‘Dearg Doom’, Horslips are in top gear, exceeding contemporaries such as Jethro Tull and Fairport Convention:
“My love is colder than black marble by the sea.
My heart is older than the cold oak tree.
I am the flash of silver in the sun.
When you see me coming you had better
Run, run, run”.
Digging deeper, there are gems like ‘Faster Than The Hound’, a song which could fit nicely on any great 70s album. A technical high point, the band’s musicianship is the key component here.
Horslips weren’t pretentious with their exploration of folklore, they simply wished to incorporate a traditional sound as they pushed rock’s boundaries. The result is a legendary Irish album.
#4. The Pogues – Rum, Sodomy & The Lash (1985)
The incomprehensible slur of Shane MacGowan’s voice only serves his attempt to inject punk values into traditional Irish music. MacGowan is a rare talent, often threatening to collapse under the weight of his own genius. This is evident from the start of his Pogues career, a career which blazed brightly and still influences to this day.
Fiery drinking music, in the glorious rapture of a dying breed, bursts forward from every syllable MacGowan hurls. Rum, Sodomy & The Lash became the pinnacle of what The Pogues have tried to accomplish over the years – love songs through the haze of alcohol, the depression of life in a passionate plea to be heard, everyday heroes against a traditional backdrop.
A simpler explanation is that Rum, Sodomy & The Lash is ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ on steroids. From the soft mandolin opening of ‘The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn’, the record launches into an attack heralding the real arrival of The Pogues.
It is no surprise that this country produces songwriters such as MacGowan, following the likes of W.B Yeats, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.
MacGowan may be drowning in a sea of excess like many others before him, but the shining lyrical brilliance reaches the surface all the same.
#5. The Chieftains – The Long Black Veil (1995)
The Chieftains immediately conjure visions of traditional Irish music, exceptionally performed. While that is true, you also have to dig deeper to fully appreciate their contribution to rock music. The decades-long adventure of their career reached its peak with 1995 release The Long Black Veil.
As stylistic crossovers go, this album is in a league of its own. The opener, ‘Mo Ghile Mear’, delivered in Irish by Sting and Anúna, is an eighteenth century song treating Ireland as a lost love. Sting is almost unrecognisable as the track opens, his voice clearer during the English passages.
Sinead O’Connor features twice, on ‘The Foggy Dew’ and the blissful ‘She Moved Through The Fair’. The latter is a stunning version, with a riveting performance by O’Connor on one of her finest recordings. Two guitar-slingers pop up, Mark Knopfler on ‘Lily Of The West’ and Ry Cooder on both ‘Coast Of Malabar’ and ‘Dunmore Lassies’. The ease with which the pair embrace the traditional Irish sound really shows its universal appeal.
Van Morrison’s bluesy performance of his own song, ‘Have I Told You Lately’, even surpasses the original release. Whilst Tom Jones performs on ‘The Tennessee Waltz/Mazurka’, recorded at Frank Zappa’s studio in Los Angeles shortly before his death.
Before the album ends there is one last audio feast for the senses – The Rolling Stones and The Chieftains go head-to-head on ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’. Here, both bands sound as if they are really enjoying themselves. The shouts from band members, especially Keith Richards during that long, improvised closing, highlight the raucous energy of the track.
The Chieftains were fearless in choosing their musical direction and their stack of Grammy awards attests to this.