By the mid-'80s, a certain set of tendencies in rock bands from the British Isles had become distinctive enough to be called a trend. These bands drew vaguely on Celtic folk, but in a vaguely post-punk setting. They were “passionate” and “intimate” but on a bombastic stadium scale. They were kind of arty, kind of intellectual, but polished for FM radio.
The lyrics were overstuffed with elemental imagery: storms, bridges, fields, valleys, the sea. As critics described these bands, the rhythms were “martial”, the mood was “moody”, and the atmosphere was “atmospheric”. The style initially dripped indie cred, but its definitive practitioner swelled into the biggest band in the world (and one of the most annoying, smarmy, and self-important).
Nobody ever gave this mini-genre a name that stuck. One of the bands just threw up their hands and called it “the Big Music”. I’m calling it “Epic Celtic Rock” even though, I know, some of the bands are English and hence not Celts. You can’t say all of this stuff has aged well (especially the haircuts LOL), and some of you will find it downright embarrassing. But if you’re looking for some St. Patrick’s Day accompaniment that doesn’t sound like leprechauns (or, worse, the Dropkick Murphys), queue up this playlist (also on YouTube and Spotify) and march over the bridge, through the valley, and across the fields to the sea.
Big Country - “Fields of Fire (400 Miles)” (1983)
To my tender young American ears, the mock-bagpipe guitar line and marching rhythms of “In a Big Country” were a stirring Top 40 novelty. But while it may have been the only Big Country song I knew, singer/guitarist Stuart Adamson’s Scottish players filled their debut with similar rousers like this one, then carried on pretty much up until Adamson’s alcoholism and depression got the better of him, ending in his suicide in 2001. Just don’t call him a one-hit wonder: not only did Big Country record a lot of other strong stuff, but Adamson started in one of the founding bands of this subgenre, the Skids, who we’ll hear from later.
U2 - “Gloria” (1981)
Let’s just get this out of the way early. When we talk about this music, we’re talking first and foremost about U2. They were neither the first nor the last band to combine big guitars, Celtic melodies, and postpunk textures, but there’s no denying they were the band who brought it all together into a template that made it A Thing. Everything haters hated later was there from the beginning - OK, mainly just Bono’s pretentious lyrics, and pretentious voice, and pretentious posturing - but if you squint with your ears, you can imagine a moment when “Gloria” would have sounded intriguing and weird.
The Alarm - “Sixty Eight Guns” (1983)
These ludicrously coiffed Welsh hopefuls mixed some more rocking influences into the stew - mainly Bruce Springsteen and the Clash - and made a career out of it. OK, look, it’s pretty cheesy in a juvenile boys-adventure kind of way (and the title is missing a hyphen!), but I personally find the hookiness of stuff like “Sixty Eight Guns” much more satisfying than all the echoey atmosphere dealt in by other like-minded bands.
Hothouse Flowers - “Eyes Wide Open” (1990)
These brainy Irish dudes looked like contenders during that weird minute around the turn of the '80s to the ‘90s, when all kinds of worldbeaty stuff was nibbling around the edges of the charts. Turned out their biggest hit was a cover of “I Can See Clearly Now”, but they also played uncredited on the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” and, weirdest of all, recorded a few songs with Def Leppard as the Acoustic Hippies from Hell. Frontman Liam Ó Maonlaí has become a wandering worldbeat minstrel, playing his bodhrán (an Irish drum) with musicians in places like Rajasthan and Mali.
Cactus World News - “The Bridge” (1985)
No idea why these Dubliners’ propulsive debut single didn’t lead to a longer career, especially considering it was produced by Bono and released by U2’s label, Mother Records. Maybe the desert associations of “Cactus” were a mood mismatch for their windswept, cloudy sound - although that didn’t seem to hurt The Joshua Tree.
Sinéad O’Connor - “Mandinka” (1987)
Another Irish '80s phenomenon whose fame (and infamy) soon overshadowed her music, O’Connor didn’t always rock, but when she did, she did it with martial earworms like this. Her emotional range remains astonishing, all these tabloid stories later. Internet chatters seem to think “Mandinka” is about child marriage or ritual genital mutilation, but lyrical clarity isn’t a requirement for this subgenre.
Thin Lizzy - “Emerald” (1976)
Ireland’s greatest rock band of the '70s tended to nod to their roots with urban tales of brawling knockabouts. But here Phil Lynott rallies the troops “to overthrow the overlords”, spurred on by a Celt guitar line that the Edge and Stuart Adamson were listening closely to.
New Model Army - “The Hunt” (1986)
These venomous Englishmen cut their teeth in the anarcho-punk scene, which promptly turned on them when they signed to major label EMI. But in sonic terms, at least, they stayed pretty militant even on their second EMI album, The Ghost of Cain, whose big single was an anti-American-imperialism screed called “51st State”. Musically, I’ll take the dense, galloping opening track, with the band’s trademark acrobatic bass.
The Waterboys - “Sleek White Schooner” (1985)
“The Big Music” was the phrase coined by Mike Scott, the only constant Waterboy throughout the years. And early on, at least, he and his Scottish-Irish combo weren’t kidding, piling horns and synths onto the usual blazing guitars, thick bass, and driving drums of the style. Soon after releasing this song on the band’s third album, This is The Sea, Scott would follow his artistic compass into full-on retro-nautical mode, trading the guitars and horns for Celtic acoustic instruments, calling his next album Fisherman’s Blues, and even dressing like an old fisherman.
Stiff Little Fingers - “Bits of Kids” (1982)
Belfast’s finest punks and one of my favourite bands, by 1982 Stiff Little Fingers had evolved into a cracking guitar-pop band with the occasional dash of Irish flavor. Scratchy-voiced polemicist Jake Burns had likewise grown into a thoughtful, sensitive songwriter with an affecting wail/croon. The outstanding “Bits of Kids” reminds all these younger bands who inspired their punk side in their first place. I saw Stiff Little Fingers live a couple of weeks ago, and while I normally avoid reunited versions of great bands, they brought all the power and charm of their glory days.
Horslips - “Dearg Doom” (1973)
Back even further in the mists of time were these Dublin jig ‘n’ reelers, whose life work was to combine Irish traditions with post-Zeppelin riffs for epic prog rock concept albums based on Celtic mythology. Honestly, aside from the occasional concise party jam like “Dearg Doom”, most of it sounds pretty ridiculously corny to me, but if Celtic prog seems intriguing to you, get thee to Horslips.
The Levellers - “Battle of the Beanfield” (1990)
The Levellers rose from the same English crusty-punk, travelling-folk milieu as New Model Army, just a decade later, when it had grown into a more visible presence, gathering for massive free festivals every summer. Indeed, “Battle of the Beanfield” is about police violence against a caravan of peace activists at the 1985 Stonehenge Free Festival, making it the second-best rock song about Stonehenge (fear not, Spinal Tap, yours is forever #1).
The Cranberries - “How” (1993)
The Cranberries followed U2 and Sinéad O’Connor to the top of the global pop charts with a breathy, lighter variation on epic Celtic rock. The late Dolores O’Riordan’s banshee yodel on “Zombie” became so ubiquitous it was the subject of a million wise-guy college-dorm parodies, including by the ultimate dorm dork, Andy Bernard on The Office. So here’s a less familiar song where you can hear her vocal acrobatics without prejudice.
The Skids - “Into the Valley” (1979)
Give the Skids credit for being the first to go full-on Celtic punk, and for doing it with great songs like “The Saints are Coming” and this stone-cold classic, still a rouser in the football terraces of their native Scotland. Frontman Richard Jobson drifted off into poetry, filmmaking, and TV presenting. Guitarist Stuart Adamson marched onward into Big Country, where our journey began and, now, ends.
Jason Toon’s frustrated ambition to be a Rhino Records compilation compiler finds its outlet in many other past playlists: