Saturday, March 07, 2009

Shuffle : Dearg Doom

A guitar riff. Simple chords played in a repetitive melody, generally twinned with a sense of rhythmic drive. Popular culture and music fandom have conspired to create the Cult of the Riff. The riff has an aura, a place in rock mythology. Guitar solos are self-indulgent and aimed at technicians - the riff is more soulful in its primitive inarticulacy, more simply expressive, more satisfying. You get a guitarist with a knack for writing or playing a great riff, chances are he'll become a legend. The great riffs are unforgettable; and make a mockery of my opening description, dripping with swagger and aggression and rage and humour and lust as they invariably are. Most great riffs open the songs they drag into being, tearing a hole in the fabric of space and occupying it with sound.

This song contains, indeed, is built around one of the greatest riffs in all of rock and roll. However, I first encountered this riff in another song, and would later learn that it originated in yet another song entirely. In 1990, the Republic of Ireland football team had qualified for a World Cup for the first time in history with their progress to the Italia 90 tournament. The "Official" song for their campaign, released under the artist name "The Republic of Ireland Football Squad" (but put together by Larry Mullen from U2); was "Put 'Em Under Pressure", which combined quotes from Manager Jack Charlton, terrace chanting and a spectacular guitar riff in one frenetic, cringeworthy package. The riff was plainly far too good for the rest of the song. It came from "Dearg Doom" by Horslips.

Horslips were an Irish band whose heyday was in the 1970s. They adapted Irish folk music to rock ends more successfully than just about anyone else ever has. "Dearg Doom" comes from a 1973 album named "The Tain" which incorporates acoustic balladry in an old celtic style and fuses traditional jigs and reels with driving rock songs and snatches of pure folk instrumentation -uilleann pipes and bodhran drums, most obviously. Coming from 1973, "The Tain" is of course a concept album. It attempts to adapt the Irish epic myth Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), which tells the story of a cattle raid in the middle of a War between Ulster and Connaught. The hero of this story, and the greatest hero of Irish mythology alongside Fionn Mac Cumhaill (pronounced, yes: Finn McCool), is Cúchulainn.

Irish mythology is astonishingly rich and imaginitive, and Cúchulainn (pronounced Kooc'Hullen) is probably its most resonant figure. Echoes of the character recur throughout popular culture, from Robert E Howard's Conan of Cimmeria (Howard made much of his Irish roots, created a slew of Irish characters, and even took Conan's name from another figure from myth), and Pat Mills' 2000AD character Slaine, who is a blatant Cúchulainn analogue, to The Pogues' song "The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn" , and the Decemberists' "Tain" EP, through W.B. Yeats' dramas based on the myths themselves, and the Marvel comics version, who has featured in the Guardians of the Galaxy. Then there is Cúchulainn's given-name (he adopts Cúchulainn, meaning "Hound of Ulster" as a reparation for killing a wolfhound), which is Setanta, a name with special associations for UK sports fans.

As a little kid I loved the character. He stands comparison with any of the world's great mythic heros, from Robin Hood and King Arthur to Gilgamesh or Achilles. Despite the air of tragedy clinging to him which is a part of just about all Celtic mythology, he's a mans man, a fighter, possessor of the Gae Bolga, a spear fashioned from the bone of a sea monster which opens like an umbrella upon entering a body, its many barbs eviscerating its victim. He is also subject to warp-spasms, mid-battle physical seizures which render him a mindless, physically altered killing machine, and a deadly warrior. "Dearg Doom" seems to refer to this, it's title translating roughly as "Red Destroyer", though the use of the English word doom also suggests Dr. Doom, the Marvel villain, whose currency within hipster pop culture was never higher than in the early 70s.

Lyrically, its a love song with references to battles and violence: "You speak in whispers of the devils I have slain/By the fire of my silver Devil’s Blade/And still you dare to flaunt yourself at me/I don't want you, I don't need you/I don't love you, can't you see". and lines of pure kickass macho cool: "I'm a boy who was born blind to pain". The chorus is simple and ominous: "If you see me coming you had better/ Run, Run, Run/ From Dearg Doom". But the lyrics aren't what makes it so memorable. Theres that riff. It comes, inevitably, from a traditional standard, "O'Neills Cavalry" , but here its given steel and heft and a snarl by the electric guitars, and borne along on a great bassline and a storm of high-hat and cymbal.

I love how it starts, with the drummer yelling a count-in over a high-hat intro just before the guitar claws its way in. Then the bass bubbles up from the spaces between the other instruments. The vocals are laddishly harmonised at the end of each line, giving it a raucous, thuggish feel in keeping with the subject matter. I love the references to nature - black marble by the sea, the cold oak tree, hawks, the stars, the sun - and the way the solo kicks in what sounds like some sort of electric piano, then the explosion of pipe and fiddle and tin whistle at the climax, making it all somehow feverishly Irish and eccentric. But most of all I love that awesome riff, which deserves to be on Guitar Hero, which deserves to be legendary. Horslips never came close to even equalling it, never mind surpassing it.

Postscript: My Ma, improbably, went to School with the Drummer.

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Blogger Bearhunter said...

Wonderful post, fantastic song and the greatest riff ever. The first few bars of this are worth a thousand Laylas. And Johnny Fean, the guitarist is still playing it live too, to feverish applause in pubs around Ireland.

11:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dearg Doom takes it's riff and chorus direct from a traditional Irish tune called "O'Neills March". Horslips got into trouble at the time amongst the traditional players for playing a disrespectful "rocking version" of Irish traditional music. Funny how they are now praised for bringing Irish music to the wider world.

8:29 am  

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