Back in the early seventies, Horslips was suddenly the name on everyone’s lips. So imagine the surprise when my brothers and I suddenly saw them listed in the entertainment section of our county newspaper The Anglo-Celt. In fact it came as such a surprise we decided to call the paper just to check. Upon hearing they were indeed coming to play The Ramor Ballroom, known locally as the Farmer’s Hall, all the best threads were taken out and aired… shirts with collars that could reach the tip of your shoulder and bell-bottoms that went out beyond the toes of your shoes.
I remember two things clearly from that gig. The first was the dust falling down from the ceiling over the stage and Charles looking up at it and laughing. The poor ol’ Farmer’s had never had to deal with something that powerful, that heavy. The second thing was Johnny running around the stage like a wild man! I’m only joking. He stood stock still; the only thing moving was his Adam’s apple and his fingers. Right from the get-go I envied his style. It looked like he had all the time in the world to put his solos together. He reminded me a little of Clapton in that regard.
I was an instant convert to his style of playing. The mission after that first gig was to travel and see them wherever we could. Now bear in mind, not every household had a car back then and guys who were willing to travel to other towns on a Saturday night were ever rarer. So the first thing you’d do when you went to your local (bar) was to see if there was someone who could be persuaded to bring a load of us. When we did manage to corner someone, we’d buy him a few pints as a thank you. I kid you not, that’s the way it was. I can report that we always made it there and back safely. It might have helped that there weren’t as many cars on the road then. Some nights you had to head off hitch-hiking and I made it every night bar one – when I had to sleep in a hay-shed in Ardee but that’s a story for another day.
Over the years I got to know all the lads well and had many a conversation with Johnny about music in general and guitars in particular. He was kind enough to sell me one of his Gibsons and I played that guitar with pride for many years. The fact that I was playing one of Johnny’s guitars certainly added to the cool factor around my hometown.
As many people have already attested, Johnny was not only one of the most stylish guitarists ever to come out of Ireland, he was also a quiet and gentle soul. That’s why one of my fondest memories is being in the US with the lads during The Man Who Built America tour. They’d played a great gig in Chicago – and Johnny and myself were excited to be in such a famous blues city – so several members of the band and crew headed off to a night club to have a few drinks and celebrate. Disco was big at the time and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” was a hit over there. One by one we all ended up on the dance floor… and eventually Johnny was persuaded to join us! No one could believe it… and strangely enough that’s the image that came to mind when I heard about his passing. Perhaps it’s because it was such a fun moment and he looked so happy!