Great news! Four weeks ago (without telling me, the blighter...) Andy Irvine held a secret reunion of the 1968 line-up of Sweeney's Men - with Terry Woods and Johnny Moynihan - at a bar in Draperstown, a one-street place an hour's drive from where I live. It seems that this was a warm-up for a series of advertised Sweeney's Men dates in November (all in Ireland). Here is a little history, in vision and then in print:
The Legend Of Sweeney’s Men
‘The company did not cease, either walking or eating, from the delights of colloquy and harmonized talk contrapuntal in character nor did Sweeny desist for long from stave-music or from the recital of his misery in verse. On occasion an owl or an awkward beetle or a small coterie of hedgehogs would escort them for a part of the journey until the circumstances of their several destinations would divert them again into the wild treachery of the gloom… The travellers would sometimes tire of the drone of one another’s talk and join together in the meter of an old-fashioned song, filling their lungs with fly-thickened air and raising their voices above the sleeping trees. They sang ‘Home On The Range’ and the pick of the old cowboy airs, the evergreen favourites of the bunkhouse and the prairie; they joined together with a husky softness in the lilt of the old come-all-ye’s, the ageless minstrelsy of the native land, a sob in their voice as the last note died… When they suddenly arrived to find mid-day in a clearing, they wildly reproached each other with bitter words and groundless allegations of bastardy and low birth as they collected berries and haws into the hollows of their hats against the incidence of a late breakfast…’
Thus did Flann O’Brien describe the men of Sweeny [sic], a mad king of Irish myth, in his 1939 oddball classic At Swim Two Birds. Somewhere in Galway in June 1966 a trio of singular individuals, collectively characterising something similar to the melange of Joycean profundity and Wind-In-The-Willows whimsy in Flann’s tale, had decided to pick a name (his book being read at the time), pack up their troubles in an old Volkswagen van and spend the summer playing music around the wild west of Ireland. This was, in itself, an extremely odd thing to do in that time and place, but more seminal yet was to be the enduring influence of the group and its members – most notably Andy Irvine, Terry Woods, Johnny Moynihan, Paul Brady (for a day) and Henry McCullough. Largely unnoticed at the time, Sweeney’s Men would become the wellspring of the entire British folk-rock movement and the Irish revival of the 1970s. Their story has never been told, but as it happens O’Brien’s dream sequence on his travellers’ oneness with nature, passions for cowboy songs and Irish music, and tendency to acrimonious absurdity provides a summary of remarkable prescience.
‘There’s a timeline between The Clancy Brothers and The Pogues,’ says Bill Leader, who engineered both their albums, ‘and you could slap a lot of the Irish groups of that time somewhere along it. The Dubliners would be three quarters of the way there. But Sweeney’s Men didn’t seem to fall along that line, they were off to one side.’ Drawing uniquely from hillbilly music, the English folk revival and the then still cobwebbed Irish tradition, all glued together with bohemian zest, these were precisely the sort of people the conservative forces of Catholic Ireland were trying to hold at bay. So who were they? The originals were: Andy Irvine, a frustrated actor from London with a Woody Guthrie fixation; Johnny Moynihan, a college drop-out from Dublin; and Joe Dolan, a left-wing freedom fighter cunningly disguised as a second division showband guitarist from Galway. While Moynihan - ironically, as perhaps the most single-mindedly anti-commercial individual ever to remain tethered for longer than a weekend to a band of any description – would be the lone stalwart of every line-up, the tale really begins in 1959, at a union building in Soho, home to a virtual secret society known as the Ballads & Blues club. Grand Wizard was an earnest, ear-fingering socialist called Ewan MacColl.
Andy Irvine, born in St John’s Wood, London, to Scots/Irish parents in 1942, was a reticent but regular presence at the club – a veteran of guitar lessons with Julian Bream but turned on to a life in music through skiffle and already exploring its roots via Woody Guthrie (with whom he corresponded) and through Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, living in Notting Hill at the time, became a friend and mentor but by 1960 Irvine had followed another calling and joined the BBC Repertory Company.
Irvine’s mother and elder sister were both thespians and Andy had worked in radio as a child actor and, aged eight, had appeared in A Tale Of Five Cities - a Gina Lollobrigida film which he’s been trying vainly to find on video in recent years. But the BBC Rep was a backwater, a dead end: ‘Any actor would have told you, “If you want to further your career, get out of the Rep.” But it was a very easy job and I was making good money – maybe £150-£175 a week.’ An additional perk was hanging out in bars with poet and broadcaster Louis MacNeice and his cronies: ‘Of course, I’d have no idea what they were talking about but I’d be nodding my head, looking interested and I think Louis appreciated that!’
During the summer of 1962 Andy went on holiday to Dublin. An Irish actor friend brought Andy to a musical evening at the city’s oldest pub, the Brazen Head. It was a revelation: ‘A guy called Gerry Cairns took out his guitar and sang, and I took out my guitar out and sang – and this is actually the very beginning of where I am today. A number of other people who would remain on my horizons for the next few years, like Pearse MacAuliffe, were also there – and we were drawn to each other. We were the same age, singing the same kind of music.’ Andy returned to London, saw out his contract with the BBC and by March ’63 was back in Dublin. Pearse MacAuliffe had meanwhile inaugurated a fairly unique scene at the Coffee Kitchen in Molesworth Street – seemingly the first venue in what might be described as the Dublin folk underground.
‘I’ll never forget the first time I saw him,’ says Gay Woods (nee Corcoran), a fifteen-year-old later to marry future Sweeney Terry Woods. ‘He was sitting on the floor, actually in rags playing a guitar or a mandolin, and he was so dark and handsome that he looked like the ‘dark eyed sailor’ just returned from the sea.’
‘I was down the back,’ says Terry. ‘It was very dark and here was this guy playing guitar and harmonica. I couldn’t see anything but I could hear it – and weeks and weeks I spent after that trying to figure out how he did it, how he played the two at the same time! Was it balanced on a stick or something? I couldn’t figure it out. But Andy became a hero to me.’
Far from being modelled on the rapidly growing English folk club scene, the quietly creeping folkish activity in Dublin had, in Andy’s recollection, ‘more to do with people who went hill-walking – and architects…’
Two such architects were Johnny Moynihan and Eamonn O’Doherty, both crucial in the Sweeney saga and both regulars at O’Donoghue’s - a pub in Baggott Street that was unwittingly becoming the city’s fulcrum of folkish bohemia. Eamonn had just finished his degree while Moynihan – reputedly the first person to play a note in O’Donoghue’s, on a tin whistle that was swiftly trousered before the landlady could identify and eject the perpetrator - had repeated a year and still flunked it. Two years older than Andy, Johnny’s family were relatively well off and he would come into rentable property by the end of the decade. Although music has been his professional activity for nearly 40 years, it’s fair to say there has probably never been much of a financial imperative. Johnny Moynihan may be one of the most captivating and enigmatic musicians of his era, but he does what he wants to do and never does it in any one place for long. His mythical status is consequently in direct proportion to his availability and the paucity of his recordings. ‘One of the main factors in my disappearing,’ he once told me, ‘which is not complete by the way, contrary to popular belief, is that I never wanted to be part of a system which requires that your diary is booked up six months in advance.’ But in the sixties, at least, he was somehow kept on the path of making records and playing gigs long enough to establish a lifetime’s worth of reputation. Indeed, was there ever a time when Johnny Moynihan was not a legend?
‘He had this aura,’ says Andy. ‘People thought he was kind of heroic – he was recognised as being one of his kind. I remember meeting him very vividly: myself and Pearse were returning from a fleadh in County Limerick in April ’63. I was on my motorbike and somebody said, “Here’s Johnny Moynihan,” and Johnny was ushered up to me almost as if it was an epic encounter – “Mr Moynihan, I presume?” I don’t know why that should have been! So Johnny introduced himself in this gruff, macho way that he always had and said, “Where you going now?” to which I explained that Pearse had to get back to Dublin for work the next day. It was freezing cold and I had no gloves. So he gave me a pair of socks.’ Reminded of the incident, Moynihan’s response was to wonder had the socks been on his feet. Apparently not.
The summers of ’63 – ’65 were routinely spent by Irvine, Moynihan, O’Doherty and their friends travelling to fleadhs up and down the country. Organised by an austere cultural institution called Comhaltas and occuring at weekends in places that one seemed to locate largely by word of mouth, the purpose of these events was to find winners at county, provincial and then national levels in competitions on traditional instruments. ‘There always seemed to be people on bandstands giving speeches in Irish as well,’ says Andy. ‘But none of this was of any interest to us. We’d be on the streets busking or at pub sessions listening to the likes of Willie Clancy or Felix Doran – being in awe. You’d know you’d hit the motherlode. And there was a touch of the old Woody Guthrie about it. It wasn’t easy to travel about in bohemian fashion in those days, and there weren’t many tourists around. We were frowned upon – even by the very musicians we adored. They didn’t know what to make of us: people wore suits, they had their dinner on the table when it was presented by their mothers or their wives and they went to mass on Sunday. We didn’t do any of these things. We slept in hay barns!’
During the summer of ’63 Andy had been sharing a particularly happening pad in Mackie’s Place, Dublin, with nascent Dubliners’ main man Ronnie Drew and various others. ‘I shared a room there with a girl,’ say Andy. ‘This was a big deal: how much more bohemian could one get in Dublin in 1963 than sharing a room with a girl?’ Around August ’63 Ronnie got married, the after-wedding booze-up was back at the flat and the whole scene collapsed: ‘Somebody pulled a knife and the police were called,’ says Andy. ‘The next day I went down to a fleadh in Kilrush, arriving back a few days later to find that we’d all been thrown out and my belongings had been floundering in the street ever since. Some of the stuff had been rescued but not, unfortunately, Woody’s shirt which had been given to me by Jack Elliott. We all dispersed and I was very lucky to get a flat – directly opposite O’Donoghue’s!’
With Luke Kelly bringing in political and contemporary material from Ewan MacColl’s circle and Ronnie Drew fronting his unique brand of earthy Dublin street songs, The Dubliners were just beginning to come together – but almost didn’t. Having saved a few quid from his BBC work, Andy was probably the only person Ronnie knew who could save him from skipping the country: ‘Towards the end of 1963 he was bankrupt - penniless, in debt, serious romantic problems... I lent him £150 to clear his debts. I probably changed the entire course of Irish history there! The trouble was, pretty soon – pretty immediately – The Dubliners became popular, and there was a big rift between Moynihan and Ronnie for years. Johnny felt Ronnie was a good guy until Ronnie suddenly started making records and becoming famous. I remember being mistaken for Johnny once and being nearly beaten to a pulp by this man who was convinced I’d been going around badmouthing Ronnie. “You been saying things about Ronnie? I’ll beat the shite out of you!” – And I’m going, “What are you talking about? Ronnie’s a friend of mine!” Ronnie came down the stairs, completely pissed, mumbling something about being stabbed in the back. Thankfully he was in a fit enough state to establish my credentials but it was only later I managed to find out what on earth this was all about.’
Ironically, Ronnie had actually given Moynihan his first mandolin – one of two instruments, along with the Greek bouzouki (debuting in summer ’66) which Moynihan effectively introduced to Irish traditional music – defining, along with Irvine (who had been playing mandolin since 1960), their styles and tunings: ‘That was one of the things that either bound us together or set us apart,’ says Andy. ‘There was this very archaic form of accompaniment on early hillbilly records from the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, which was one of our bibles, where the singer would accompany himself merely on the fiddle, playing a break after each verse. We were much taken by that. I think Johnny and I might well have been the first people in terms of Irish music who accompanied themselves on mandolin, tuning it GDAD. It was Johnny’s idea and it was entirely original in my experience.’
The interweaving of multi-stringed instruments would be just one of the factors that would make Sweeney’s Men unprecedented but curiously it was to be a guitarist, Joe Dolan, who was to bring the group together. Dolan, a brash, loud, pathologically unreliable, beer-swilling veteran of a second league showband, The Swingtime Aces from Galway, was another O’Donoghue’s regular. By the end of the year, with ad hoc gigs at summer fleadhs already under their belts, Dolan, Irvine and yet another erstwhile architect, Kevin Carroll, became The Liffeysiders – a group that managed only a promotional photo-session cum booze-up at the Guinness brewery and a stillborn trip to Israel. Moynihan, reputedly ‘chilled’ at the involvement of Carroll – not a man of much musical integrity - was keeping his distance.
The Israel adventure began in January ’65, the trio heading first to London with the intention of earning enough cash to proceed. In a manner which Irvine describes as exasperatingly typical of the man, Dolan simply made a few quid working at the Hudson Bay Trading Company and went on without them. Kevin took a job with an architect while Andy signed on at Wandsworth Gasworks. Realising after one particularly wild night at The Troubadour with Anne Briggs – a stunningly enigmatic singer from Nottingham whom he had simply met on the street – that there was no shift suitable to his lifestyle, Andy quit and muddled through thereafter on odd BBC jobs, casual labouring and a loyal girlfriend, Muriel Geraghty, who was gainfully employed as a temporary secretary. As Terry Woods would find with his own similarly temping girlfriend, Gay, this was a crucial sustaining element in the progress of Irish folk pioneers.
Appearing at a London concert with her in May ’65, The Dubliners noticed a similarity in spirit between Anne Briggs and Johnny Moynihan, back in Dublin, and suggested she get in touch. Within a few weeks a freewheeling relationship that would last the course of the Sweeney adventure was set in motion. They were two of a kind. Meanwhile, Kevin Carroll had inconveniently met a woman he wanted to marry. Israel slipped out of view. Andy embraced the British folk scene, hanging out with the likes of The Watersons, Bert Jansch and The Young Tradition. Notwithstanding another bumbling foray around Europe with Dolan in September (or rather, trailing after Dolan only to find the crucial rendezvous appointment a blow-out), he was still in London a year later: ‘By that time it seemed half of Dublin was living there – and all drinking at Finches in Notting Hill Gate.’
Eamonn O’Doherty, however, had set up some gigs for himself and Andy in Copenhagen beginning at Easter, ‘with Eamonn on flute and a passable attempt at guitar,’ says Andy. ‘Looking back it feels like we were there for months, but it can only have been six weeks.’ Mid-May, a letter arrived from Dolan: they had gigs for the whole summer in Galway, at the Enda Hotel. A third man, Jimmy English, would play fiddle and Johnny Moynihan – working for an architect in nearby Roscommon – would join them at weekends. Bliss seemed guaranteed; once again, Dolan cocked it up.
‘Joe got into a row with the owner,’ says Moynihan, ‘I think it was immorality – over-nighting with a girl, which was frowned upon. [Andy recalls that, true to form, Joe simply didn’t turn up for the show one night.] So the whole gig collapsed and Andy was desolated. This great summer we were going to have was in ashes but I said, “Well, it doesn’t have to be – we could actually form a group and go on the road.” And if we didn’t get gigs we could busk and maybe the busking would get us some gigs and we could have Eamonn as the manager…’
It all came to pass. ‘There’s a time in your life when your innocence equals your needs and you’re on top of the world,’ says Andy. ‘That was that summer.’ Joe knew a bloke with a pub in Killarney called The Laurels who, in Eamonn’s words, had the reputation of a man ‘who would put up with anything in his bar – and at that stage Sweeney’s Men were anything.’ Back in Dublin Eamonn organised a photo-session with a uniform of waistcoats and black trousers and made calls to pubs and hotels. Gigs miraculously appeared – Annie Briggs turned up at some as did Gay and Terry, trying the same unmapped route as a duo. And already hangers-on had attached themselves to the bandwagon (literally, Johnny’s ramshackle VW which doubled as sleeping accommodation) including a German beatnik known as ‘Troll’ and one Seamus who, when once asked had he slept okay, replied, ‘Fine thanks, but I had to get up once for a bit of a rest’.
‘The speed at which they were able to get stuff together onstage astounded me,’ says Eamonn, who recalls not one rehearsal. ‘I knew Dolan’s professional ability with chords and so on, but the other two were amazing.’ By mid-August however, at Puck Fair in Killorgan, the initial contacts were exhausted. ‘Things were going so ropily there that everyone was busking,’ says Eamonn, ‘including myself and Barbara, my wife!’ Joe Dolan had one more idea: an old friend from Galway called Des Kelly, who just happened to be leader of the second biggest showband in the country – and playing in town that very night.
The showband craze was at its peak in 1966, with literally hundreds of mohair-suited, brass-sectioned ensembles of young men pumping out UK pop covers, fifties rock’n’roll and the entire Jim Reeves repertoire to packed, alcohol-free dancehalls all over the country, six nights a week. A unique cultural phenomenon, which would lead ultimately to Daniel O’Donnell and a weird vestige of waltz-time accordion-and-drum machine acts abounding in rural Ireland to this day, Des Kelly’s Capitol Showband were second only to Brendan ‘Hucklebuck’ Bowyer’s Royal and were making huge money. Kelly had a double share ‘which only meant I spent twice as much as everyone else!’ Perhaps he could use his contacts to manage Sweeney’s Men? Checking out the boys during a midnight interval in his own band’s set, Kelly was stunned. He’d been actively interested in Irish folk music since hearing the Clancy Brothers in America in ’62, but this was something new: ‘It hit me like a sledgehammer,’ he says, ‘because everyone else was playing three-chord stuff – and out of tune three-chord stuff at that – but there was order in this, it was a breath of fresh air.
Johnny and Andy’s relationship, personal and musical, was the key to the Sweeney magic: ‘It was a delicate balance of respect, rivalry and affection,’ says Anne Briggs. ‘It was a high-wire act based on precision and timing and only they knew the choreography. Offstage they seemed to form up into a sort of psychological safety net in case one or the other came tumbling down.’
In crude terms, Andy admired Johnny, Johnny admired Andy and Joe, while Des Kelly was a friend of Joe’s ‘and that,’ says Johnny, inherently dubious about marketing the band or, heaven forbid, having a diary full of promotional commitments, ‘was good enough for me.’
‘I never thought, “There’s money in these guys, I’m going to get some of it”,’ says Kelly. ‘It was just the music, and for some reason Andy and I became very close – I loved his integrity. Like the rest of them he probably had me down as a bourgeois bollox at the time – they were full of that kind of talk - but Andy could never work up enough venom to be annoyed about it!’
Back in Dublin, while the Sweeney’s survived with odd gigs at the Neptune Rowing Club and a diet of free soup at O’Donoghue’s, Kelly arranged for new photos, press coverage, a singles deal with Pye Records, and introduced striped shirts (and later polka dot efforts straight from the States – one of which Moynihan was reputedly still wearing well into the seventies) and moreover did his best to find out where they were actually living: ‘The only place I could ever contact them was O’Donoghue’s! But they were eventually all in a squat in Ellis Quay. I remember being there late at night with a load of drink and various substances going around, and there was no light in the place – bodies everywhere, music everywhere and a lot of strange noises coming from dark corners of the room. I remember bringing my wife there once. She thought she was in hell!’
Des kept the wolf from their door with a series of session fees for surreptitious work on three Capitol Showband singles. Their Eurovision-winning singer Butch Moore having just left to go solo, a damage-limitation wheeze had every other member of the Capitol fronting a single a month, one of which, ‘The Black Velvet Band,’ became one of the biggest sellers in Irish chart history – a No 1 for eight weeks. By May ’67 it was rubbing shoulders with a bona fide Sweeney’s Men single: out of nowhere, ‘Old Maid In The Garret’, a rumbustious old music-hall number reworked by Andy with Des adding electric bass, hit No 6. Bizarrely, Sweeney’s Men were now stars. There had already been a foray into Glasgow – memorable for Irvine unwittingly singing a Jack Elliott number set to the tune of a well-known Protestant song at a gig in the wrong part of town – and at least one Irish TV appearance, courtesy of Kelly’s contacts. But now, when the offers were rolling in, Dolan was rolling out.
‘This was a group nobody had heard of and all of a sudden they were Top 10,’ says Kelly. ‘It was unheard of. And of course I was all excited and rang Joe – at O’Donoghue’s - and he said, “Hold on Des, we’re a bit late…” I said, “What the hell are you talking about?” “There’s a war on: I’ve got to go to Israel.” And I’m saying, “But Joe, you’re in the charts, now’s the time to go and make a few quid for yourselves…” – “Ah, Des,” he said, “this thing is bigger than you or me or Sweeney’s Men: I’ve gotta go.” And on top of that, aside from Joe splitting the group up to go to Israel, I found myself having to buy various rubbishy paintings from him to finance it! But I suppose as far as I was concerned it was a love affair, both with the music and themselves. They were free spirits. I was strapped into the rules of the showband industry – these fellows were doing exactly what they liked, when they liked and I loved that. I’d have joined them myself if I thought it would make enough money – and if I was allowed!’
What became known as the Six Day War had just begun. Legend has it the Dolan, kingpin of the Galway Popular Front, arrived on the seventh day. Sweeney’s Men were in crisis. There were only two possible candidates to fill the gap: Paul Brady or Terry Woods. Brady, on a scholarship to college in Dublin, had been keyboarding in various beat groups around town and scrupulously avoiding lectures for three years. He’d also been discovering first American and then Irish folk music via Leadbelly and in June 1967 had just joined, as guitarist, The Johnstons – a clean-cut folk trio who had already enjoyed a couple of Irish chart singles. ‘I always thought Sweeney’s Men were extremely cool,’ says Brady. ‘They were unique – there was nothing like them in Ireland.’ Brady, who would later work more fully with both Andy and Johnny in trad supergroup Planxty in 1975, pleaded loyalty to The Johnstons but stepped in for an immediate booking in Limerick:
‘I had to wear the striped shirt and waistcoat!’ he says. ‘I was impressed with Andy Irvine from the word go, but Johnny was one of the most eccentric men I’ve ever met. There was an awful lot of tuning, and Johnny wouldn’t be the best tuner in the world. It would take him forever.’ (Stories about Moynihan’s endless tuning become more surreal as time goes on: a stint with De Dannan in 1976 included a live Irish TV appearance wherein Johnny spends the entirety of the song tuning his mandolin; Des Kelly, running a pub years later, invited Johnny to play – he arrived at the advertised start time with twelve instruments, none of them tuned.).
Terry Woods was now the only option, but everyone had doubts: yes, he was on the same wavelength musically, evangelical about pre-war mountain music and someone they had often jammed with, but Terry was a driven individual. These days, having survived the ravages of The Pogues and various other career traumas before, Woods is an almost serene fellow, spending much of the nineties managing rock bands in Dublin and only recently returning to playing music himself. As to his character in the sixties, the fact that various Sweeney associates prefer to go off the record when his name is mentioned should suffice. Sensing more problems than rewards, even mild-mannered Des Kelly – coincidentally on the cusp of an illness which also spelt the end for his own performing career - quietly drifted away (albeit returning, on Andy’s request, to manage Planxty in the seventies). ‘We were shotgunned into it,’ says Johnny. ‘‘Better the devil you know’ was a phrase I remember being used at the time.’ But the classic line-up was born.
Several years younger than Johnny and Andy, Terry was a product of the brutal Christian Brothers education regime: ‘Their attitude was “all things Irish are wonderful and everything else is shit”. And hillbilly music was my reaction against that. As a young kid I spent a great deal of time at the movies – and cowboy pictures were a favourite. When I picked up an instrument it was a very natural thing for me to play American music – and American old-time music.’
Somehow Terry – a shoe-salesman by trade - had built up a collection of Carter Family recordings, unavailable in Ireland at the time, and had been the driving force behind a duo with himself and his shy girlfriend Gay. By summer ’66, as Gay recalls, ‘Terry got it into his head that we could make a living at music.’ Lots of people were taking to the road with similar dreams at that time but few had the focused ambition of Terry Woods. After a whirlwind of performing activity, including a period in Glasgow, partying with Billy Connolly and his crowd, Gay was emotionally drained and split from Terry – musically and otherwise. He was thus free to join Sweeney’s Men. As he admits now, he would have done so regardless:
‘I wanted to play in a successful situation,’ says Terry. ‘I always loved Moynihan and Irvine’s music, I loved the way they played together. But when Gay quit I couldn’t understand it, frankly. She wasn’t as fired up as I was. It’s funny, when I meet Gay now – and I don’t meet her very often – she is fired up about the music thing. It’s such a pity that she wasn’t as focused then because if ever a voice deserved success in those days it was hers.’ Incredibly, neither Gay – who was soon back with Terry as a couple – nor Anne Briggs, who both travelled with the group along with Andy’s partner Muriel, never sang with them. As far as Gay is concerned, ‘I was never asked!’
‘Initially Johnny wanted me to play exactly like Joe,’ says Terry. ‘But I wasn’t interested in playing like Joe Dolan; I wanted to play like me. I brought a twelve-string into the group so we all had double stringed instruments. It was a very interesting sound.’
A tour of London-Irish ballrooms coincided with the release of the Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’, and in November a second Sweeney’s Men single was recorded, at Eamonn Andrews’ studios in Dublin, called ‘The Waxie’s Dargle’. Another Top 10 hit, this one was notable in having a call and response chorus added to traditional verses, with a surreal ‘Lazy Sunday’-esque play-out of authentic bar-room chatter, while the B-side, ‘Old Woman In Cotton’, was a Pat Carroll poem with an Andy Irvine tune – his first composition. Things were progressing. (In 1970 Dublin’s answer to the Incredible String Band, Dr Strangely Strange, doffed a cap by slipping ‘The Waxies Dargle’ chorus into their even more whimsical ‘Donnybrook Fair’, taking homage a stage further on their 1971 album, Heavy Petting, in having both Moynihan and Irvine play on it. Woods, curiously, did not record with the Strangelies but did briefly join up, along with Gay, as a touring member around that time). By now, as Gay recalls, ‘they were stars – they could walk down Grafton Street and be mobbed. And there were all these groupie types, these country’n’western tarts, they met down the country. I learned a lot about women.’
Aside from hotels and lounges, the group were also playing lucrative but hellish interval spots at showband gigs in ballrooms holding literally thousands of people, often roaring and shouting. The Johnstons were doing likewise: ‘Sweeney’s Men and The Johnstons went through a period where we would do even two spots a night – twenty minutes at a dance in Limerick, then drive on to Ennis and do another. Having a record in the charts we’d probably get paid more than the bloody band that was playing all night. But the sound was appalling. I mean, more often than not we just stepped up in front of two open-head Shure microphones. No monitors and no mics for the instruments, we just held them up as high as we could – which is where that whole folk style of playing guitar up around your neck comes from! How the people in the hall heard us I’ve no idea.’ Sometimes even the group couldn’t hear themselves: ‘I sang ‘Old Maid In The Garrett’ in all twelve keys down in Wexford one night,’ says Andy. ‘It sends me into a cold sweat just thinking about it.’
By now Sweeney’s Men were also regularly selling out headlining concerts at Dublin’s Liberty Hall. An album was the next step. Brit-folk mover and shaker Anthea Joseph - whose boyfriend frequented O’Donoghue’s - oiled the wheels with Nat Joseph (no relation) at Transatlantic, who had already broken The Dubliners in the UK, if ill-advisedly allowing them to slip to a rival label for their 1967 UK hit single ‘Seven Drunken Nights’. Sweeney’s Men, and indeed The Johnstons (who both signed to Transatlantic in early ’68), were now being managed by Roddy Hickson and Gerry McDonagh – two hipsters who had apparently met through being the only people in Dublin with Levi jeans and who had simply fancied the idea of managing bands. ‘We thought we could have a bit of craic with them,’ says Johnny, and he was right.
‘Pye didn’t want to let us go,’ says Terry, ‘they wanted us to keep doing singles. I’ll always remember sitting in [MD] John Woods’ office and he rang down to his secretary and said, “Can you bring up Sweeney’s Men’s contract?” We were all there I think. The secretary rang back, “I can’t find it, I’ll keep looking…” Twenty minutes of small talk later and he rings down again, pretty agitated. She still can’t find it. And Roddy says, “John, lets stop shilly-shallying – the reason she can’t find the contract is because its here…” He pulls it out of his inside pocket - and it had never been signed.’
With Bill Leader producing, the legendary Sweeney’s Men LP was cut at Livingstone Studios in Barnet, with the group fitting in a concert at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls and their first BBC radio session (for My Kind Of Folk) beforehand: ‘It was made on pint bottles of stout and, God help us,’ says Terry, ‘Johnny’s father [a doctor] gave Johnny a load of dexedrine to keep us awake – and we did it in 36 hours straight. I came back with Andy on the Wednesday and I remember the two of us were sitting in an air terminal – and Andy couldn’t shut up, his eyes wouldn’t close and his mouth wouldn’t stop! And we sat there for hours waiting for the plane to come home, because I was getting married on the Saturday – 18 May 1968.’
Andy was best man and the wedding, of course, was a riot. Days later Andy played his farewell gig at Liberty Hall – a symbolic event, with one line-up playing the first half in uniforms and another coming on in far-out threads for the second. Andy, prompted by a childhood fascination with Magyar postage stamps and The Beatles’ recent India trip - but also determined not to conform to anyone else’s bandwagon - was off to the Balkans with Muriel: ‘Sweeney’s Men were successful enough that I had saved some astonishing figure like £383 and that was, believe it or not, enough for us to live in Eastern Europe for eighteen months.’ They would return briefly in early ’69 for Joe Dolan’s wedding and their own, but this was a seminal period in Andy’s artistic journey: he would return with four songs of striking, quasi-mystical character, inspired by the experience, which would eventually trickle out onto the three Planxty albums and his duo album with Paul Brady in the early seventies, while the time-signatures and modes of the region continue to inform his work. Unwittingly, and unrewarded, he would prove a crucial source of ideas for Bill Whelan’s financially phenomenal Riverdance empire in the 1990s.
Andy’s replacement was Ireland’s hottest electric guitarist, Henry McCullough: ‘I’ll never forget it,’ says Gay Woods, ‘I didn’t quite know what was happening but I just thought it was the most exciting thing ever. I saw one man walk off and Henry McCullough walking on, with his long hair, his fringed jacket and his red guitar – it was great. And then I was at the Cambridge Folk Festival gig as well, when they were booed off for ‘going electric’. Thank goodness I witnessed those two moments. They were brilliant.’
Lasting just over two months, this is the most enigmatic of all the line-ups: Henry, a Northern showband veteran who had stormed Dublin in ’67 with his psychedelic soul group The People – subsequently taken on and renamed Eire Apparent by Chas Chandler - had just been booted off a US Jimi Hendrix tour for drug possession. Having previously enjoyed a mutual appreciation vibe with Moynihan (the latter being remarkably catholic in his musical activities, even appearing the following year on the first Skid Row single, ‘New Faces, Old Places’, with Phil Lynott and Gary Moore) Henry somehow slipped into Sweeney’s Men. Nobody recalls quite how, but the time for fusion was right – it was just the group’s audience who didn’t know it:
‘I remember one gig in Mayo where they practically threw us out of the town,’ says Henry, ‘throwing coins and shouting “sell-out”. But the electric guitar would only have been used on certain numbers – mostly as a drone, creating an undercurrent like the uilleann pipes, with a bit of a blues feel, while somebody else was playing the melody, which was most likely traditional. It was to try and intertwine the whole lot. It wasn’t gratuitous – there was certainly work put into it. There was a lot of songwriting going on as well. It was incredibly exciting. By this time even people’s style of dress – particularly Johnny’s – had changed. It was becoming very hippy-ish.’
‘He had a flat off Pembroke Street by then,’ says Terry, ‘and you’d go to rehearse and Johnny would be there in a loin cloth with a ferret skin hanging down from his belt. He’d run over this ferret and had actually got out of the car, put the ferret in the boot, taken it home - and probably eaten it for all I know – and had made the ferret skin into a tin whistle case, like something you’d keep arrows in!’
The biggest frustration for this potentially awesome fusion direction was the primitive nature of the amplification available, but the legend lives on in its tantalising unattainablity: a BBC radio session (Country Meets Folk) and an Irish TV show (Twenty Minutes Of Sweeney’s Men) were the only recordings – both erased. Eamon Carr, future brains behind seventies Celtic rock gods Horslips, and already a McCullough disciple, witnessed the latter: ‘I remember at the time being astonished,’ he says, ‘and wishing I had a tape recorder. It became a bit of a legend, and I never met an awful lot of people who actually saw it. There had always been this suggestion of possibilities with Sweeney’s Men. When Terry stepped in they began to look a bit more interesting. But McCullough was just astonishing. I ranked Henry then on a par with Clapton, Page and Beck. Rory Gallagher was around too but at that stage he wasn’t holding a candle to McCullough. I still believe he was never given his due.’
Certainly, he was given short shrift by a strangely unsympathetic audience (who had no problems in welcoming the new English-centric fusions of the Pentangle on the same bill) at what became his swansong at the Cambridge Folk Festival in July ’68. Bill Leader remembers it well: ‘They shuffled onto the stage and somebody went, “One, two, three, four, five…” and they all started with magic cohesion. Why five and why in such an a-rhythmic way? It was quite brilliant.’
Other musicians on the bill, like Roy Harper – whose band McCullough would join in the seventies – were full of praise. Paul Brady was also there: ‘I still feel disappointed that nothing more happened with that line-up because it was a genuine, bold attempt to do something that was new and hadn’t been done before out of a series of influences. It was in keeping with the hippy mood of the times – in the direction of The Incredible String Band. But I just didn’t see that it had what might have been necessary from a commercial point of view.’
Yet, as McCullough recalls, ‘We were beginning to get a handle on what we’d set out to do.’ The group, perhaps unfortunately, were staying at London’s Madison Hotel, along with various other acts including Joe Cocker. Someone told Henry that Joe needed a guitarist and feet became itchy: ‘I think it was the attraction of playing in a band again with a drummer and a bass player,’ says Henry. ‘I suppose it was selfish on my part. Sweeney’s Men hadn’t got to that stage – with time I think it would have done.’ There was no ill feeling: ‘I’d never heard of Joe Cocker,’ says Moynihan, ‘but when I heard ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ [just released, with Jimmy Page on guitar] I thought anyone would be mad not to take a job with him if they had the chance.’
Roddy Hickson panicked and told the Melody Maker Sweeney’s Men were finished. Sweeney’s Men disagreed, (too) swiftly recruiting one Al O’Donnell – a popular Dublin based solo artiste with a sweet tenor voice and a penchant for lengthy Scottish ballads. In other words, wholly unsuitable. ‘It was a non-event,’ says Terry, to whose chagrin Al insisted on billing the new act ‘Sweeney’s Men and Al O’Donnell’. Moynihan, never one to willingly deprecate a fellow artiste, could not circumnavigate the word ‘bland’ in his recollection of the man they call ‘the forgotten Sweeney’. As Gay Woods puts it, ‘Al had a very organised home life and that wasn’t a thing to have in Sweeney’s Men’. And she would know.
Amidst all this uncertainty, the LP – trailered by a single, ‘Sullivan’s John’, which did nothing - had finally slipped out. Capturing the dustbowl-Celtic-hillbilly magic of the classic line-up it would be a blueprint for every British and Irish progressive folk act of note for years to come. ‘Willie O’Winsbury’ alone, the source of Fairport Convention’s ‘Farewell Farewell’ and now a standard in itself, had been serendipitously created by Irvine through accidentally cross-referring unrelated words and tune in a folksong manuscript, while other songs and tunes on the album would be subsequently plundered and revamped by the likes of Pentangle and Horslips. By the time the next UK tour arrived, in November ’68, Sweeney’s Men were a doomed-from-day-one duo of Woods and Moynihan. ‘Terry and Johnny are both eccentrics,’ says Gay, ‘but they are two opposites – it was impossible for them to co-operate.’
There were nevertheless gigs looming, now mostly in England: ‘I think it was becoming too queer for Ireland,’ says Gay. The left-field shift was matched by gigs in increasingly progressive venues like Mothers in Birmingham and Les Cousins in Soho, supported by the likes of John Martyn and Bridget St John: ‘We did a gig with Al Stewart and David Bowie in Les Cousins,’ says Terry. ‘And I always remember Bowie and Stewart up the back talking about which of them was the better guitar player – such a load of bullshit!’
Roddy Hickson had by now emmigrated to Sweden, but Gerry McDonagh continued nominal management from Dublin, with NEMS and then Blackhill Enterprises handling bookings in England. It was a well-oiled machine, of sorts, which rumbled on a year longer than it had any right to. Johnny was now living in a caravan with Anne Briggs in Sussex while Terry – not knowing where on earth Johnny was between gigs – was sharing a flat with Melody Maker writer Tony Wilson in London. There was another LP to deliver, and this time the sessions dragged on, periodically, over six months. Andy, observing one in March ’69 on his way back to the forests of Romania, recalls the lack of empathy as painfully obvious.
Andy's song 'Autumn Gold', one of several wistful gems written about his time in the Balkans in 1968-69:
‘We had decided, I think,’ says Moynihan, ‘to make a ‘contemporary’ album. If I had had more songs then it wouldn’t have seemed unbalanced but Terry was writing a lot. Some of his stuff I hadn’t learnt and was unlikely to so he ended up doing it solo.’
By summer ’69, an album finally in the can, Terry and Johnny could stand each other no longer. Terry drifted back to Dublin, playing in Phil Lynott’s pre-Thin Lizzy band, Orphanage, and protecting sixteen-year-old guitar hero Gary Moore from his Skid Row fuhrer Brush Shiels: ‘Terry was very, very good to me,’ says Moore. ‘Brush used to be a bit of a bastard sometimes but Terry would always give him such a bollocking if he upset me. He always stood up for me, and not many people did with Brush. I used to hang around with Sweeney’s Men, when it was Terry and Johnny, and played with them, separately I think, in Slattery’s pub in Dublin. Henry had left by the time I got to Dublin but people kept talking about him and he became this kind of legend to me – I didn’t actually meet him until he was in Wings.’
Johnny, meanwhile, was making his way to Ljubjana to visit Andy. ‘When I came back,’ says Johnny, ‘I hadn’t met Terry Woods for a long time. For some reason we decided to meet up and play a few numbers to see would we take up where we left off. Because I hadn’t seen him for such a long time or played in that way the novelty of it was so pleasing that we decided to go on together - which was a bad mistake.’
A tour was booked for October/November. By September Andy Irvine had arrived in London, joining Sweeney’s Men at The Peelers folk club on October 11 for one last hurrah, aware that anything more permanent was not an option: ‘I remember the very phrase,’ says Andy. ‘I said, “Johnny, what are the chances of getting back into the band?” and Johnny said, “Well Andy, even if Beethoven wanted to join the band it wouldn’t work – there isn’t any band”!’
Anne Briggs' 1971 recording of Johnny Moynihan's 'Standing On The Shore', from 1969's 'The Tracks Of Sweeney':
The Tracks Of Sweeney, issued to little fanfare in December 1969, was still the fascinating afterglow of a great experiment. Some tracks were indeed solo but Moynihan’s dreamlike ‘Standing On The Shore’ – a dope-sozzled folkish equivalent to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ - and triple-tracked, polyrhythmic trad arrangement ‘The Pipe On The Hob’ were extraordinary, as were Terry’s achingly evocative ‘Dreams’ and thoroughly cosmic ‘Brain Jam’. These, and two songs actually written by Henry McCullough (a third from this period later appearing on Anne Briggs 1971 LP The Time Has Come), reveal in glowing embers the lost fire of the mythic McCullough era. Johnny is less sentimental: ‘When we heard the thing we wanted to remix it and they wouldn’t let us. I remember a particularly crushing phone call from a call box somewhere in England, myself and Terry, talking to Nat Joseph and getting nowhere: “We have this tape, now fuck off.”’
Bowing out a fortnight before its release, once again at The Peelers, on 22 November, must have seemed a suitable revenge. But the tale has a truly bizarre coda: Ashley Hutchings, godfather of British folk-rock, had just left the critically and commercially successful Fairport Convention. His plan? To join Sweeney’s Men.
Returning to London from a gig in Birmingham in the early hours of 12 May 1969, Fairport Convention’s van had crashed on the M1 leaving their drummer, Martin Lamble, and lead guitarist Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklin, dead and others in varying states of physical and emotional trauma. Recuperating through swiftly filling the drum vacancy and retreating to a country house to work on their next album, Liege & Lief - a ground-breaking and thoroughly fulfilled fusion of rock with English traditional music - the driving force was bass player Ashley ‘Tyger’ Hutchings.
During the same period Hutchings was meeting up regularly with Terry Woods for Sunday football matches behind the Prince Of Wales Feathers in London. One thing would lead to another: ‘Terry I liked enormously,’ says Ashley, ‘he became a good friend and he was a different kind of friend o the Fairport people. He was a bit a of a ‘scamping blade’, a breath of fresh air. Andy and Johnny I hardly knew but admired them both, and Andy in particular.’
The Liege & Lief material was debuted in style with a Festival Hall concert on 24 September 1969, notable for Nick Drake being the warm-up act. A couple of weeks later, having in the interim finally met Ashley Hutchings and judged him (immortalised in a diary entry, along with Hutchings’ ravings on the genius of The Band’s second album) ‘a good straight bloke – a bit shy, but dead honest’, Andy attended another Fairport event, at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls: ‘I went with Paul Brady and we sat next to [noted folklorist] Bert Lloyd,’ says Andy. And therein lies a tale: somehow Andy had received word in the deep forests of Romania that he was being sought out to join Fairport Convention. If that initial mooting was unpursued, by whichever party, it was but a preamble to the kind of bizarrely convoluted situation the resolving (or ruthlessly clipped summation) of which now earns Pete Frame his reputation.
Terry Woods' 'Dreams' from 'The Tracks Of Sweeney':
Having clearly tapped into a potentially rich seam with Liege & Lief, Ashley wanted to pursue that direction, while Fairport’s recently added vocalist Sandy Denny had only just escaped from the folk clubs and wanted less, not more, of that repertoire, electric arrangements or otherwise. Sandy left during November, with Hutchings departing only days later.
‘So much of that period is a haze for me,’ says Hutchings. ‘I had a delayed reaction to the crash which eventually caused a kind of a nervous breakdown, towards the end of the year. The crash happened; we never discussed it, we gritted our teeth and got on with reforming - and we never grieved together. Some people have told me, and they’re probably right, that Richard’s still grieving. It was a very strange few months: getting out of hospital, reforming Fairport, Liege & Lief, mixing with the Irish guys, getting Steeleye together…’
The name Steeleye Span would be suggested to Ashley by Martin Carthy (who had himself turned down an offer to join Fairport Convention prior to Liege & Lief), drawn from an unpleasant character in a particularly obscure traditional song. But the concept of a new band had been floating around through conversations with Terry Woods for some time, certainly before Sweeney’s Men finally expired. ‘Our ideas were very similar,’ says Terry. ‘We anticipated a band from Ireland and England that would have a similar feel to The Byrds and would use traditional elements and bring it forward – because nobody was doing that at that point in time, nobody.’
In truth it was the first album line-up of Sweeney’s Men that Ashley wanted to reconstitute as the core of such a group: Irvine, Woods and Moynihan. Tantalising mention of a ‘three week rehearsal group’ in Pete Frame’s Fairport Family Tree is a masterful precis of a deeply complex, compact period. Only one full meeting/rehearsal is generally recalled by those involved but there were seemingly three. An initial get-together at Hutchings’ parents’ house with Ashley, Johnny and Terry – presumably before Irvine’s return from Europe - was marked by Gay’s arrival from Dublin. Soon after (as Irvine was apparently still not present) was a meeting with Nat Joseph at Transatlantic: ‘Ashley, Terry and myself were in there and Gay was outside,’ says Moynihan, revealing Mrs Woods to be perhaps not yet entirely embraced into the new project (indeed, he also recalls another female singer being mooted at the meeting). Irvine’s diary reveals Transatlantic to have offered a £2000 advance, Harvest countering with £3000.
A full-scale rehearsal was arranged – with Gay seemingly now on board - though a misunderstanding meant Hutchings failed to show. The date was rescheduled to 10 November but by now Moynihan was experiencing what he describes as ‘heebeegeebees at the prospect of spending any more time with Terry Woods’. Irvine’s diary records ‘some nice music’ but ‘an air of gloom’ around the Moynihan/Woods issue. ‘As my diary puts it,’ says Irvine, ‘“Tyger and Terry tried hard to push us in with their enthusiasm”. I was definitely ‘on’ for it but only if Johnny agreed. Apparently I played ‘Autumn Gold’ which Tyger said was “a minor masterpiece”!’ The song, one of Andy’s exquisite ‘Balkan quartet’ would finally surface on his LP with Paul Brady in 1976 and Hutchings’ judgement was not wrong – even if he was hopelessly biased: ‘To be honest, Andy could have sung the alphabet and I would have drooled. I thought he was wonderful.’
A couple of days later Moynihan confirmed to first Andy then Tyger that he was out – citing publicly (not wishing to air his antipathy to Woods) that he simply wasn’t convinced by electric folk. Loyal to his friend, though disappointed, Andy also confirmed his withdrawal. Things now became a little desperate: ‘Tyger was upset,’ says Andy, ‘and talked about going back into Fairport Convention with Terry and Gay. He wasn’t able to do this in the end because Fairport considered seven people too many. He said that my name had been suggested as a replacement for Sandy and asked if I would join. I said, “More or less certainly, ‘No’”. I felt I couldn’t walk into a well-established group, let alone into Sandy’s shoes.’ Intriguingly, Irvine’s diary reports that the folk club duo Tim Hart & Maddy Prior – who were coincidentally living in the same building as Irvine (who was dossing at a friend’s place) while all this was going on – were following developments with more than casual interest.
‘All of a sudden we were a trio,’ says Gay. ‘I thought that would be it but Ashley wanted to get someone else in - still trying to replace Johnny and Andy, instead of just saying, “Well, maybe this is sufficient”.’ Hutchings’ bridges with Fairport now certainly burnt, Robin & Barry Dransfield, on the cusp of releasing their career-defining Rout Of The Blues, were approached for the ever-changing new group and came down to jam, as did Bob & Carole Pegg – future mainstays of electric trad oddities Mr Fox – but none committed to joining. ‘A lot of people had a really healthy income from folk clubs in those days,’ says Gay. ‘So then Tim Hart & Maddy Prior were approached…’
‘They said yes,’ says Terry, ‘but the proviso was that they had X amount of gigs themselves and they wanted to continue to do those gigs while we were rehearsing. We were naïve enough to say yes. In retrospect we should have copped that Tim is very much a manipulator and he was never going to do anything that didn’t create a winning situation for him and/or Maddy – I don’t know whether she was as strong a part of that as he was.’
A further problem was where Terry and Gay would live: ‘I signed on to an agency to start temping because otherwise where was the money going to come from?’ says Gay. ‘But we were staying at various people’s houses, sleeping on floors. I blame Terry for that still, though we were all still very young.’ Sometimes hard to picture in these epic tales, but all the participants were indeed only in their early twenties. The housing crisis was solved, in an ultimately disastrous step, by Gay and Terry moving into a spare room at a house in Archway where Tim and Maddy were renting a flat. With Irvine having presumably left the soap opera for Dublin, it was Johnny Moynihan who was now staying with the friend in the same building. He consequently became involved in just about the only non-controversial aspect of the whole period:
‘We had a great football match,’ says Terry, ‘Steeleye Span versus Fairport Convention, near where they lived, near Braintree. We got our team together at the Whittington Arms in Archway and drove out in this beautiful Steeleye van with the Irish flag flying out. I remember Dave Swarbrick got the ball and he was coming down towards me - I stopped the ball with my foot, Swarbrick’s foot was behind it and he shot past and came down on his nose! We hammered them: six-nil.’
None of which made any impact on the familial strife back at Archway: ‘I should just have gone home immediately,’ says Gay, ‘and I’m sorry I didn’t because from then on I was treated like a serf, by everybody, and it was horrible and my health suffered. But then eventually this nice couple downstairs who had a bungalow, in Wiltshire [at Winterbourne Stoke], offered that to us to rehearse. So we moved down there – it was January , it was snowing. But this became another hell. The bitterness started immediately – lines being drawn as to where everyone’s food began and ended and so on. And to this day that kind of spirit has not left that band. I think the moment they called it that name there was some psychic evil going around! It was awful, I hated every moment of it.’
‘I was aware of a division,’ says Ashley. ‘I’ll never know how deep it went because people didn’t open up to me. I remember niggly feelings and I remember, funnily enough – it makes me laugh – clashes in the kitchen with each couple cooking separately, with one oven. It was like two families trying to coexist – totally different styles of attitude and living.’
‘Ashley wasn’t well enough to take a stronger stance,’ says Terry. ‘He spent a lot of time in his room. We’d go for walks, play a little football round the back – but he was having all the legal stuff coming in to do with the crash, and he was suffering mentally with that.’
‘If I was presented with that situation now,’ says Hutchings, ‘I would handle it absolutely, totally differently. Things would get nipped in the bud before they festered but I was on medication at that time – in a little cocoon. Far from being me who was leader, it was Terry who was the driving force. The repertoire came together quickly, from three sources: from me, from Terry and Gay and from Tim and Maddy. If pushed, I’d say most came from the Woodses.’
Gay Woods sings 'Lowlands Of Holland' from the first Steeleye Span LP:
Colm O’Lochlain’s book of Irish street songs was a key source, with several songs from it being tried out that weren’t ultimately recorded. One song that would be recorded was ‘Dark-Eyed Sailor’, deriving from Andy Irvine and hinting at what might have been: ‘You could say that it was a mistake,’ says Hutchings, on Irvine’s declining to join. ‘Because if Andy and Terry and I had formed a band together I think it would have been a monster band and with Andy’s temperament – not as volatile as some of these other people – it could have settled down and been great.’
As it was, Terry’s customary drive was powering himself and the project along on creative energy alone. The mooted deal with Transatlantic somehow fell through, and he recalls endlessly traipsing the streets of London with Ashley looking for a record deal and being routinely turned down. Ashley, who recalls none of this, does put it in perspective: ‘Some people have to struggle to get deals over a period of years. We’re talking only four or five months here - from conception to destruction!’
A chance meeting with an old acquaintance of Ashley’s, Sandy Roberton, finally led to a deal with RCA. Roberton would produce the album, titled Hark! The Village Wait. ‘I remember getting a phone call one day,’ says Gay, ‘saying “You can give up the job, we have a deal”. I said, “Oh, great…” It wasn’t great at all!’
BBC radio session was recorded in March 1970, just prior to the album sessions. Things were going downhill fast: ‘It was during the sessions that it became impossible to work with Tim and Maddy,’ says Terry. ‘It got beyond music. It was exceptionally nasty – he was particularly nasty. After the falling out in the studio we – Gay and myself – went up to my sister who lived in Nottingham. We had an agreement that if any one or two of the five left that the name Steeleye Span would cease. But I think a week later we heard that Martin Carthy had joined the band. Worse than that there were threats, legal threats, issued to us – we wouldn’t get this, they’d take that – and we ended up signing stuff that we should never have signed. Not to the publishing, however – though, funny enough, I’ve never received any publishing royalties. Which they will be hearing about shortly anyway because I won’t be letting it rest – it’s long enough. But it was such a nasty way for such a great thing to end.’
As Maddy Prior views it all now: ‘The five of us rehearsed in the country for three months, made Hark! The Village Wait and promptly split – which is what happens if total strangers spend that amount of time together.’
Yet Steeleye Span did indeed continue, making two further albums with Hutchings on board and then becoming, as members came and went, to all intents and purposes Maddy Prior’s band. (A truly surreal coda, however, transpired in 1994 when Maddy had voice problems and Gay Woods was tempted out of retirement to save the day. Three albums later, early in 2001, she quit – once again citing acrimony and one-upmanship.) Gay and Terry licked their wounds for a while, working with ex-members of King Crimson and Dr Strangely Strange before forming the Woods Band and recording a sole, eponymous album for Decca in 1971 - a natural successor to Hark! The Village Wait and at last the realisation of Terry Woods’ musical vision for fusing the Irish tradition with ethnic American music and the power of rock. By the following year the Woods Band were floundering through business problems, with Gay and Terry retreating to rural Ireland (renting a cottage from Johnny Moynihan of all people). At the same time, Andy Irvine had just found his niche with Planxty – another approach to bringing Irish music to a youth market, which would see both Paul Brady and Johnny Moynihan joining in due course to make their mark on a band that continues to act as the revered template for the ongoing Celtic music explosion.
Johnny, Andy and Paul Brady: briefly together again in a 1974 line-up of Planxty:
Sweeney’s Men never entered the consciousness of these later generations, but they were the start of it all. Some deference was given, though, by The Pogues who recruited Terry Woods in the mid-eighties for a decade of life in the fast lane while a smattering of full or partial Sweeney reunions have taken place over the years: a disastrous Irish festival gig by Terry, Andy and Johnny in 1982 (though a fabulous tape of a warm up show in a nearby pub testifies to the original magic); a chaotic live RTE radio session and interview in 1986 with the legendary Terry, Johnny and Henry line-up, organised by former Led Zeppelin publicist and Sweeney’s devotee BP Fallon; Andy and Henry, uniquely, in Cork 1990; Andy and Johnny in Galway 2000 (forced into it through being on the same bill and national newspapers erroneously trumpeting a Sweeney reunion – but magical in its spontaneity, with Joe Dolan tantalisingly in the audience). Earlier that same year Henry and Johnny played a gig together in Ballycastle: it may prove to have been the final straw for Henry when Moynihan – in between interminable tuning-up – took a mobile phone call during the show. But of such things are legends made.
Postscript: A one-off Sweeney’s Men reunion (with Paul Brady reprising his role from 40 years previous as a last-minute stand-in for Joe Dolan) took place at the Fiddler’s Green Festival, Rostrevor, in 2007. I was there… And, in 2012, Johnny and Terry joined Andy at his two 70th birthday concerts at Dublin’s Vicar Street - professionally filmed for a TG4 documentary - for a bona fide ‘Sweeney’s Men’ section of the show. I was there too… And now it looks like the same trio have put their old differences aside to embark on an irish tour as Sweeney’s Men, in November 2013. Will I be there again? Of course!