Lehanan is Celtic Rock

Noted music critic Simon Jones (Folk Roots, First Hearing, Music Maker, etc.), supporter of the Celtic music revival & longtime friend of Lenahan, and previously, The Clan, has taken keyboard in hand in his first installment of "The History of Celtic Rock." -

PART I - CELTIC ROCK: The Truth, perhaps!

I suppose there's only so often a chap can explain that Celtic rock isn't always U2, Van Morrison or Thin Lizzy!

Firstly, lets look at Celtic. Greater minds than mine have earmarked the Celtic Nations & generally agreed they include Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man, Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia in Spain. You can disagree if you want to, but I'm sticking to my guns & if you want to make something of it, I advise you check out the excellent Rough Guide to World Music, distributed by Penguin and about $27 to you my American friends.

Secondly, rock - another very broad church - essentially an American invention that began when white people playing rhythm and blues in the 50's mixed in country influences and it became rockabilly. By the 60's. when the music had grown up, the term rock came to be universally applied. Stylistically, rock usually includes guitars, bass & drums, a formula most variations on the theme still adopt.

So far so good. The Byrds formed out of the American folk revival and, along with others, typified a style called "folk rock." A model picked up & adapted around the globe in ensuing years when bands quite rightly wanted to sing with their natural voice & create their own national folk rock hybrid. Folk-rock is often confused and interchanged with Celtic rock, though the two aren't necessarily the same thing. Nor is electric folk, another tag that often gets slung around.

So logically, Celtic rock is rock music based on what's found in Celtic countries. Logically, but not always that easy, since not all musicians who came to define the style were Celtic, not remotely of Celtic descent or working in a Celtic country!

Then there's the dispute about who actually began it and when! Some will tell you it was realistically Fairport Convention in 1969, then on moral grounds, how about a Dublin band Horslips in 1972 - at least they were in Ireland. You could argue Irish band Sweeny's Men beat them all by plugging in their guitars in 1968. Ashley Hutchings, who founded Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Albion Band, has a song which chronicles the period. Called "Wings," it reflects the early days of trying to play an endemic rock. Rightly or wrongly, most musicians searching for a national identity looked at folk music for that character.

But, this is where I throw cold water on the whole party, because there is a strong body of evidence that none of these illustrious names were the first to play Celtic music with guitars, bass, drums and amplifiers. The real roots of Celtic rock may in fact lie in the remote highlands and islands of Scotland as far back as the early 1960's. The Gaelic populations of the furthest Celtic regions have always maintained a sense of identity far stronger than any other part of Ireland & the British Isles. This was achieved in many ways, not the least through the common bond of language & a sense of community - the latter reinforced by the small-scale dances held in the village hall every weekend at which everybody, regardless of age, turned out for an evenings entertainment. Originally folk tunes and age old dance melodies would have dominated, but as times change, so do the bands.

During 1963 the British pop charts were full of instrumental beat groups, the most famous examples being The Shadows, who backed Cliff Richards, though other bands like The Tornadoes had hits, too. A whole generation of youngsters grew up wanting to be Hank Marvin & play a twangy Stratocaster. (In fact, Ashley Hutchings as recently as 1995 cut an album full of instrumentals from the period played by famous folk-rockers including Richard Thompson, "Twangin" & Traddin.") Anyway, as new styles entered rock 'n' roll, so groups shuffled their repertoire and image to suit demand.

So it was that many of the bands playing remote Scottish dances changed their name to The Cherokees, The Apaches, The Satellites or some such, and bashed out hits of the time. But the numbers they played had to be as flexible as their audiences, so it wasn't unknown for the lead guitarist to be string bending "Telstar" one minute & the next leave off his guitar for a squeeze box and begin pumping out reels or strathspeys for the older inhabitants to cut a rug. Behind him, the rest of the band didn't stop just because he was playing a folk tune, rather they shovelled in & took the melody home in grand fashion. According to those who were there, this could happen six or seven times a gig, and they always finished with a jig anyway!

If this happened in Scotland, there's no real reason to doubt that it happened in Ireland either. It could have happened in lots of other places as well, it was just so common place nobody really thought it worth mentioning until the whole British electric folk bubble blew up big & people like me started philosophizing about endemic rock music.

Should you want to find out more, then I suggest a field trip to the north of Scotland to interview the participants at those long gone dances, or you could try to dig out a copy of Folk Review April 1977, a long gone periodical which contained an article on this obscure branch of Celtic rock. Looking at it logically, the field trip to Scotland might be easier!

But that was how it was. Meantime over the ocean, Roger McGuinn formed a group called The Byrds and unknowingly kick-started the imagination of a bunch of scruffy herberts living in the north of London. But that as they say, is another story.

SIMON JONES. Folk Roots.

History of Celtic Rock Vol. II


Last Update: 11/29/2005
Web Author: POW-R-PC