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Celtic Fingers – An Appreciation Of Johnny Fean.

May 21, 2023

Johnny Fean Horslips guitarist left us in late April. Simon Jones looks back in tribute.

 

It was in a pitch black university hall that the music began, it got louder as the bass and drums started their slow rise and thunder, keyboards soaked in mist and atmosphere wound round the walls and away up into the roof space, a weird electric fiddle scraped a familiar riff across the beat, then sharp as a knife a guitar line cut through it all to join in “Toss The Feathers” a reel from the greenest corners of the Emerald Isle.The keyboards slipped into the melody, the whole band ripped through something called “Sword Of Light.” This was my first experience of live Horslips and it was intoxicating.

On that tour the band were promoting the second in a trilogy of albums which examined different aspects of Irish history ” Aliens,” however large chunks of the set were still given over to excerpts from the first, ” The Book Of Invasions,” and that was the source of particular delight as Horslips chopped and changed the recorded order with gleeful abandon. Carr, Devlin, O’ Connor, Lockhart and Fean had found the gold at one end of the rainbow. What do I mean by that? Simple, they’d found a way to make the old music of their homeland relevant and given it contemporary clothing. The stiff, strict rules around how you treated Irish traditional music had been thrown out of the window and a young generation was finding a new way of appreciating their roots. Or to put it another way Horslips took jigs and reels and shoved them kicking and screaming into the back beat, in an instant they’d birthed Celtic rock. Now the band were building on that foundation.

Johnny Fean was their guitarist, he wasn’t on board from the genesis but joined when two other lead players Declan Sinnot and Gus Guest moved on in quick succession. However Johnny was exactly what Horslips needed. They’d struck gold, they knew it, his reputation preceded him as he played skillful, lead guitar with classic country/blues rock trio – Jeremiah Henry. I once sat with Charles O’Connor who told me the long story of how they’d sought him out, as the band only had a rough idea of where Johnny lived, Charles paid around £35 for a return taxi fare from Dublin to Shannon, where rumour had it Fean was to be found. Charles located the family but Johnny was away for the summer learning Irish dance tunes with Ted Furey and other traditional players down in Lisdoonvarna. On his return at first he thought family and friends were puling his leg when they told him Horslips wanted to hear from him. The band had released two singles, but with recording sessions for an album looming, needed a reliable string bender, they’d created a national  buzz with their experimental fusion music and they sold out most gigs they played anywhere in Ireland. Fortunately Charles had the presence of mind to leave a phone number which Johnny called a few days later, he was summoned to Dublin and wound up at Jim Lockhart’s flat where the pair of them jammed continually with piano and guitar. By the evening Barry Devlin and Horslips manager Michael Deeny called by and informally Johnny was asked to join the band. They’d lit the blue touch paper.

It’s hard to impress on you just how much Johnny Fean’s blistering guitar gave to Horslips. Here was a man who loved the edgier brand of rock’n’roll yet had purchased an acoustic guitar so he could learn the delicate classical fingering of Bach’s ” Bouree,” who’d channel Jimi Hendrix with all that psych wigging out in a moment whilst being equally enthused by age old trad melodies, there was little his fingers could not summon. ” Johnny was the vital ingredient, he was in for the long haul,” Charles ruefully commented to biographer Mark Cunningham in band history ” Short Stories, Tall Tales.”

Fean came into his own when Horslips were planning their second long player, based on the myth “The Cattle Raid Of Cooley,” the track ” Derag Doom,” had as its backdrop the old melody ” O’Neill’s Cavalry,” which once the guitar of John Fean was applied took on a whole new life, a raucous, sonorous jigging refrain which drove the tune firmly into contemporary form. It’s by far and away Horslips best known track even charting in Germany, it’s been sampled, remixed and churned around endlessly, going as far to be adopted for the Irish football team’s World Cup anthem during Italia ’90. This was the first real validation of Horslips approach, evidence if any were needed of their potential and flexibility. Johnny had invented a whole new guitar style, of which he proved again and again he was the master. Others took the idea but fell by the wayside as mere copyists. Future Horslips albums saw further examples of his individuality and technique.

Johnny Fean, the man in the middle. 

As the band progessed rockwards so Fean’s guitar became central to their schemes and wiles, yet he wasn’t all about volume and canonade, as ” Exiles” from “Aliens” proves, the Gaelic air “Fill, Fill A Ruin O” is used as a gentle glide that Fean conjures on his favoured 1960 Gibson Sunburst that accentuates the soft, flowing melody whilst mixing in part of the tune “Carrickfergus” as well. Equally crafted  “Ghosts” from the same album shows off Johnny’s vocal chops as well as the way the band adapted traditional tunes as a counterpoint to the main song, in this case ‘”An Chuilfhionn.”

The band decided to split at the end of the 70s,their final live single, a cover of “Shakin’ All Over,” originally by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates featured yer man heavily proving his abilities as a straight, nail it down guitarist who could rock, his performance capturing the energy fizzing round the band at the time and the intensity of feeling which ruled the gig.

All including Johnny did other things in various combinations, Fean and Carr formed the Zen Alligators then with O’Connor recorded the very Horslips like ” Tryal,” under the name Host. The Johnny Fean Band which featured Steve Travers gave Johnny another outlet and perhaps predictibly they’d throw in the odd Horslips number which let Mr. Fean cut loose, there’s proof on YouTube if you care to seek carefully.

It was a dispute about ownership of their music and its presentation which brought Horslips back. They won the case, reissued all their back catalogue through Demon Records, played acoustically at an exhibition which celebrated their career, for the first time in 24 years and so could hardly turn down the chance presented to them to play proper stadium gigs in Dublin and Belfast. Which they duly did to everyone’s delight.  Thus reconstitued, rarely did a year pass without gigs of some kind. First to drop out was Eamon Carr, the band carried on on with Johnny’s brother Ray on drums. They became a festival draw, I witnessed the revived band at Cropredy where they raised the temperature by about twenty or thirty degrees with a blistering set. Charles O’Connor was next to step down, Devlin, Lockhart and Fean still flew the flag relying increasingly on Johnny’s guitar work to be a major feature of the set.

Whilst never releasing any new material in their second life, Horslips did issue acoustic resets and live albums, particularly recommended is the concert with The Ulster Orchestra which shows off the elegance of their music and how well it adapts to classical overtones and strings which decorate and flourish around the Celtic themes and melodies. Johnny Fean’s guitar is ever present and as integral as ever.

Latterly Johnny Fean was missing from Horslips post Covid gigs, it was just Devlin and Lockheart with handpicked chums along for the ride, but all things come full circle and in November 2022 Horslips played their last show. At the same time all members had contributed to a massive career defining box set aptly named “More Than You Can Chew.”  On April 28th Johnny Fean passed away at his home, he was 71. Horslips announced it on social media and the web with great sadness, “His immeasurable talent won him countless supporters throughout the years. We remain his biggest fans. He devoted his life to music and we’ll be forever thankful that he did.” Tributes have since burgeoned on line. In Ireland he was a legend.

Johnny Fean was to twist a phrase a musician you don’t meet every day.  Somewhere he’s still going to be playing idiosyncratic guitar with that distinctive Celtic echo. You should play his music often to remind you of his legacy.

 

 

 

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