10 Essential Irish Rockers
From the Northern Ireland counties to the southern cities of the Republic, Ireland has been – and continues to be – home to some of the world's best known and most-beloved musicians.
With a diverse cast of voices and music, Ireland's contributions to rock and roll have expanded the boundaries of the genre. Artists have acted as a force for change and forward thinking, while providing a record of tradition. Songwriters have delivered uniquely Irish narratives, though rich with universal themes and the human experience.
In the spirit of St. Patrick's Day, here are 10 essential Irish rockers.
Released in 1964 as the b-side to "Baby, Please Don't Go" (itself a smoldering cover of the Big Joe Williams' song), the Van Morrison–penned "Gloria" became a garage-rock classic, with artists such as the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Patti Smith later covering it. Its three chords, speak-sing vocal delivery and indelible "G-L-O-R-I-A" chorus inspired legions of budding musicians and, along with "Here Comes the Night," gave the Belfast group among its first tastes of success.
Innovators steeped in tradition, Horslips emerged at the dawn of the 70s as a hard-rocking, prog-leaning, concept-album embracing band firmly rooted in the jigs, acoustic balladry, reels and instrumentation of their homeland's music. Based in Dublin, the Celtic rockers' "Dearg Doom" appeared on their 1973 album, The Táin, named for the Irish myth Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) and its hero Cúchulainn. The song's lyrics are rife with battle imagery built solidly around one of rock and roll's great riffs. The track ends with an explosive mix of typical rock and roll instrumentation alongside uilleann pipes, fiddle and tin whistle.
A blistering 11-plus minute blues-based showcase, Rory Gallagher's "Walk on Hot Coals" was among the highlights of his monumental live album, Irish Tour '74. Born in County Donegal and raised in Cork, Gallagher emerged as one of the most talented guitarists of his day. Beyond the inspired playing heard on the album was bravery: Gallagher and his band played at Belfast's Ulster Hall on the tour during one of the city's most violent periods – a time when most musicians refused to play there. The show was among those mined to compile Irish Tour and is captured in the film of the same name.
With charismatic frontman, Dublin son, singer and songwriter Phil Lynott spinning a raucous yarn with tales of how "The drink will flow and blood will spill" complemented by Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson's electrifying dual-lead guitar parts, "The Boys are Back in Town" remains one of rock and roll's great anthems. Released on 1976's Jailbreak album, the song can still be regularly heard everywhere from stadiums to movies to barroom jukeboxes.
Famed English DJ John Peel counted the Undertones' 1978 single "Teenage Kicks" among his favorite tracks of all time. In fact, when the influential Peel passed in 2004, lyrics from "Teenage Kicks" were included on his tombstone: "Teenage dreams, so hard to beat." Formed in Derry in Northern Ireland, the Undertones embraced a punk/new wave sound, though with their own signature brand of humor and lilt that played in bright contrast to the troubles that surrounded them at home. Clocking in under three minutes, with a catchy hook, chugging guitars and lead singer Feargal Sharkey's unmistakable voice, "Teenage Kicks" is a blast of adolescent anxiety.
A long opening riff gives way to a rousing punk bash with SLF's singer Jake Burns barking the lyrics more like a drill sergeant than a vocalist. Released in 1979, the song's aesthetic is fitting, reflecting on the tumultuous everyday life in Northern Ireland amid warring IRA and Unionist factions. "Take a look where you're livin' / You got the Army on your street / And the RUC dog of repression / Is barking at your feet / Is this the kind of place you wanna live?" Such lyrics captured the frustration and despondency of the time, but also projected the notion of seeking out "an Alternative Ulster" for oneself rather than simply crying out against those in power.
An epic cut from Morrison's 1979 release Into the Music, "And the Healing has Begun" wonderfully encapsulated the singers' soul-searching spirituality and had many echoes of the introspective – if idiosyncratic – soundscapes of 1968's Astral Weeks, to wit "Cyprus Avenue." Morrison's emoting finds an ideal foil in the arrangement's prominent, lively viola.
The Pogues channeled legendary hell raiser and hoarse-throated frontman Shane MacGowan's Irish heritage and the musical stylings and instruments of Ireland into a feral, original and punk-infused whirlwind. Released in 1988, If I Should Fall From Grace with God's title track took MacGowan's howling and gift for colorful language (in this case, a poetic recounting of historic oppression and religious conflict affecting the Irish; "This land was always ours / Was the proud land of our fathers / It belongs to us and them / Not to any of the others") and married it to an uptempo number whose melody is guided along by a host of trad instruments, accordion and banjo among them.
Not long after the four lads from Dublin changed their name from Feedback to The Hype to U2 in the late 70s, they were releasing their debut album Boy in 1980. "I Will Follow" was the album's lead track and became an underground, college radio sensation, introducing fans worldwide to singer Bono's impassioned vocal style, The Edge's singular guitar licks, Adam Clayton's driving basslines and Larry Mullen's frenetic drumming. Decades later, it remains a staple of the group's live show.
Dublin-born Sinéad O'Connor helped set a new standard for women in rock. Her deeply personal lyrics, shaved head, deliberately unflattering clothing and unwavering, outspoken – often controversial – convictions helped further assert herself as a female artist, soundly distancing herself from any stereotypical trappings of the genre. While her stirring cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" gets much of the attention from 1990's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, "The Emperor's New Clothes" stands out as a driving rock groove that churns with O'Connor's confessional lyrics delivered in her uniquely powerful yet tender way.