Beyond a Balcony

Horslips in their prime

You’d probably have to be of my generation, or a little bit older, to remember the Irish rock band Horslips, who were at their peak in the Seventies.
The band’s interest lay in infusing rock with traditional Irish music which, with differing degrees of success, they pursued throughout the decade, although in the Eighties, when they gave up the traditional side of things and opted for just generic rock, they rapidly lost their appeal and their audience.
I don’t remember how I first became aware of them, probably through their being written about in New Musical Express, though I did have a lot of time for their jaunty 1974 single, Dearg Doom, taken from their album The Tain, a concept set based on Irish traditional stories of a famous cattle-raid.
But I first became seriously interested in them in the early summer of 1976, when Piccadilly Radio began playing the single The Warm Sweet Breath of Love. A lovely, flowing song, underpinned by electric mandolin, the track came from Horslips’ most successful album, artisticly and commercially, The Book of Invasions.
Again, this was a concept album, based on traditional Irish legends, which were recorded as three semi-continuous ‘suites’, one occupying Side One of the album, the other two Side Two.
I bought the album and played it a lot, and whilst I moved it on many many years ago, I kept on tape (and later CD) half a dozen Horslips songs, most of them from this album.
But whilst I was at the height of my interest, the band were touring The Book of Invasions and I was able to get a ticket to see them live at Manchester’s Palace Theatre.
Now the Palace was never one of Manchester’s Premier Rock Venues. In the Seventies, the Free Trade Hall was still the boss venue for rock gigs in the City, with the ABC Cinema, Ardwick coming up on the rails and not far off renaming itself the Apollo, where its endearing scruffiness would make it the venue of choice for the next thirty-odd years.
The Palace, however, was what its name suggested: it was a Theatre. Horslips was the first time I ever went there, and, with the exception of the Flying Pickets, a completely different kettle of fish, I’ve only ever been back for plays and comedy sets from the likes of Dave Allen and Victoria Wood (not together, sadly – how cool would that have been?)
I don’t remember much of the gig, to be honest. Horslips were supported by the then-critically acclaimed London soul band, Moon, whilst their set was enjoyable, but was one of those sets you got in the Seventies when the band’s major concern seemed to be in reproducing as exactly as possible their studio sound, as opposed to putting any great passion into their playing.
They did play The Warm Sweet Breath of Love, of course, and if I remember correctly, they did it as the first part of the three-song suite it opened on the album, which was the best sequence of that record (but not the best track, which in my opinion was the gorgeous love song The Rocks Remain, whose closing verses still send a chill through me, thirty-seven years later).
In time, the gig came to its last song. The band retired, we sought encores in the usual manner and, after a decent delay, the band came back to pay another three tracks and then disappeared out the back again.
That, in normal circumstances, should have been that. But, for no apparent reason, the crowd were not satisfied, and demanded more. People drifted down to the front, in the stals, the circle and the balcony. It wasn’t the kind of frenzied rush that would characterise the kind of gigs I would be going to in the early Eighties, like the Undertones, but rather a middle class saunter down.
And we started shouting and chanting for ‘Moooore’, with that peculiarly bovine low that characterised the era. The management put the house lights on, and we kept on chanting. they lowered the safety curtain and we kept on chanting. It was all kind of fun, and a gentle test of wills, that we won after a quarter hour, when it became obvious that we just weren’t going to go without another track.
The curtain went up, the lights went down and the band came out, looking none too pleased about it, actually. They certainly hadn’t planned for any more as they didn’t have another song ready to play! Instead, they launched into this relatively nondescript Irish-rock instrumental, to which everyone happily danced.
I was down the front, to the (audience) right of the stage. People around me were turning round and looking up. Some were drawing their neighbours’ attention and pointing.
I was nosy, I admit it. I looked up myself, trying to work out what they were pointing at, but I couldn’t see anything that didn’t seem normal. Were they just pointing out people they recognised? I didn’t recognise anyone.
But they were still looking and pointing. I looked up again, wondering what I was missing. The whole balcony was down the front, dancing and swaying… Swaying.
At the front, in the middle, where the greatest concentration of people were crammed togeoether, the entire balcony was swaying up and down in rhythm. From side to side of the hall, up and down and up and down in time to the beat of the band. In the middle, the balcony base was rocking up and down by about a foot, or so I estimated.
It’s not the most unselfish thought I’ve ever had but my first reaction was, “Well, at least I’m far enough forward not to be under it if that comes down.” Charming, wasn’t I?
Needless to say, my attention to the ongoing encore was divided from that point, and I was forever turning back to marvel at the sight of this supposedly solid structure swaying up and down as if it were elastic. The band didn’t know, as the encore would have been cut short bloody quickly if they’d realised what was going on, but thankfully the instrumental ran out, and nobody started demanding any more, and we filed out politely and quietly. And safely.
That gig took place on a Sunday evening. In Monday night’s Manchester Evening News there was an announcement that the Palace Theatre balcony was closed until further notice for structural investigations.
Needless to say, that was a unique experience, and as I am no longer a somewhat naive 20 year old, if I were ever placed in that position again, I would not remain in that position any longer than it took me to calmly and sensibly get the hell out. Which I should have done that time that I was there.

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