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Brief Encounters: 5 The Beginning

By Eamonn Keyes

Brief EncountersSo, having taken you on some of my little Encounters, where did it all start?

It was the start of 1972. I’d encountered a new band from Ireland, and they were doing something different. It became known as Celtic Rock, and Horslips were that band. It was a fusion of what we called ‘diddly-dee’ (or traditional music) in Ireland- and a commercial form of Prog Rock, and it was a heady mix.

The band started to play in Belfast, and the gigs became prone to outbreaks of spontaneous dancing……by men. This was the sort of thing that would usually have priests denouncing it from the pulpit, citing the ruin of Ireland and threatening excommunication, but they were dancing a bit too. Probably.

So, my 15 -year-old mind and body were gripped by the mania, and I eventually met the band with some schoolfriends backstage and became utterly lost to them.

After school on Friday we would hitch-hike to Dublin to see their gigs there. Let’s ignore the fact that Dublin was a hundred miles away, we were broke, and Northern Ireland was in chaos, with internment in place and the Bloody Sunday shootings had happened just a few weeks beforehand, with sectarian murders and kidnappings happening nightly.

Nevertheless, off we’d go, and we’d meet up with the band, who took to me because, like Liam Neeson in ‘Taken’, I had a very particular set of skills. I could sew. When you’re a band on permanent tour, wearing crushed velvet loon trousers with 24-inch flared bottoms and platform shoes, the inevitable mishap on the way to the stage occurs, and the flared bottoms soon resemble a moulting bison. I was proficient at securing the tatters and wayward hems, and so, before a gig, I became a seamster to the stars.

Being quite young, I’d then spend the gig hiding underneath keyboard player Jim Lockhart’s massive organ, which was really nothing to be concerned about, as it protected me from the crush at the front of the stage. Occasionally I’d venture out and sit at the feet of Declan Sinnott, (now Christy Moore’s tour guitarist), and suffer his strange toothless grin for a while before creeping back to the safety of Jim.

Heady days, with the release of their first single ‘Johnny’s Wedding’ imminent.

The band were to headline the Wexford Music Festival, and I headed down with my friend John from school, a funny camp theatrical type who became a TV producer.

We met the band in Dublin, and drove down in their van, arriving backstage at the Wexford Opera House, which was rammed completely solid with bodies.

We followed the band in and entered the magical world of the Backstage Party.

Exotic creatures wafted around, all tie-dyed silk and Paisley patterned, wine glasses of Blue Nun in hand, surrounded by equally exotic smoke. It was all that I had ever imagined and more. And there, holding court among these creatures, was Donovan.

On the other side of the room, I noticed the form of Noel Redding, previously bass player to a certain Jimi Hendrix-more of Noel in a later Encounter, and in a crowd of enraptured admirers, that had to be Marianne Faithful with a very thin Keith Richards. I sat in stunned silence, drinking it all in, and the show passed by in a blur. I remember a compere going out after a couple of numbers, beseeching the crowd in the balcony to stop stamping their feet, as the plaster was falling on the heads of those seated underneath, and the balcony itself was visibly rising and falling, men dancing everywhere to the detriment of Holy Ireland.

After the show the crowds were waiting outside, and the band rushed to the van, being mobbed all the way, and they quickly drove off.

Leaving us behind.

Not only was it a hundred miles back to Belfast from Dublin. It was also a hundred miles from Wexford just to get to Dublin first. And there we were, with enough money for a train ticket to Dublin, but nothing else, and as the train left in about 9 hours, we now had a night to get through without any food or money. To cap it all off, it was snowing, freezing, and I was wearing a t shirt and a denim jacket. And tennis shoes.

We tried sleeping in doorways, but they were still freezing and very wet. I found a phone booth with smashed window sections, sat on a plastic bag, and tried to block the holes with two gate fold album sleeves I had with me to try to keep the wind out. It was truly miserable. I was wet, chilled to the bone and couldn’t feel my feet. Eventually we got up and wandered through the town, just to try to warm up. A chip-shop was open but had raised prices to exorbitant levels with a ridiculous minimum order. We watched as a frustrated hungry hippy put a bin through the window when they wouldn’t serve him. Later a group broke into a disused church and burned pews to keep warm before police arrived and arrested them.

Daylight dawned eventually, and we crawled shivering onto a train, arriving three hours later in Dublin, where John’s sister fed us and sent us on our way home, paying for train tickets to Belfast in pity.

We returned with a story to tell, and the memory of that backstage encounter took root and dragged me towards music. I couldn’t play, but I loved basking in that reflected glory of those who could. Those people who had helped the 1960s become a generational landmark that still echoes through popular culture.

I was hooked, and I probably still am.

Horslips Eamonn Keyes

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