We travelled around the Balkans, flitting from Istanbul to Bulgaria, on to Romania and back again to Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. I was much taken with the music, especially in Bulgaria and Macedonia and after an experience with a musician in the east of Bulgaria, I bought a Kaval and a Gajda. Never did learn to play them though!
We lived out of rucksacks like this for about six months and as the winter approached, we retreated first to Ljubljana and then to Denmark, where I was able to get some gigs in the clubs that remembered me from a few years before. We went home to Dublin briefly for Joe Dolan’s wedding and stayed long enough to get married ourselves before heading back down to Romania and doing the whole thing again.
When we returned in late 1969, many things had changed. I was keen to get back into Sweeney’s Men but it was on its last legs and Johnny and Terry were barely speaking to each other. Even O’Donoghue’s was no longer the central place it had been. I felt like a fish out of water, having been on the road for so long. Slattery’s of Capel Street was now the pub where it all happened. There were gigs there, upstairs and down, every night. I remember I played all the clubs there one week, about nine gigs. I had this huge guitar –‘Peter’ it was called - It was far too big for any case and I had to wrap it up in a curtain and haul it around on the bus.
I’d known Donal Lunny from the days he was in the Emmett folk group - nearly moved into a flat he was in once - and about this time we found ourselves thrown together at an Irish-Soviet friendship get together. We rehearsed two songs for two minutes and played them for the guests. I can’t recall if it was a success but I was very much impressed with Donal’s musicianship. We started to play together and began to get gigs, opening for bigger bands at the Exam Hall in Trinity College and suchlike. This was the best music I’d played since the early days with Johnny Moynihan.
We started a club — In Slattery’s — called The Mug’s Gig. Ronnie Drew was our first guest. They were good times but they were to get even better.
Christy Moore had become a big attraction on the British folk scene. He had gone over during the Irish Bank Strike of 1967 and I would meet him sometimes when I was doing a tour there. Bill Leader had asked him to make an album and Christy said he wanted to do it in Ireland. He asked Donal and myself, Liam O’Flynn, Kevin Conneff and a few more if we would go down to his sister and brother-in-law’s house in Prosperous, County Kildare and help him make the record. We rehearsed in my flat in Donnybrook and then went and recorded Prosperous.
Christy began to come home from England more and more often and play with us at the Mug’s Gig which was now upstairs in Slatts, a big advance on downstairs! It was such a success that we employed Morgan-the-Packer to meet the patrons at the door and smilingly, jam them in! One day, Christy came home to stay.
He asked us if we were interested in forming a band, based on the Prosperous album which was doing very well. I didn’t really think that Liam would be into it. He was very much the traditional musician and I wasn’t sure that he’d want to throw his pipes into the ring with a bunch of guitars, bouzoukis and mandolins.
I was wrong. Planxty was born.
We used to meet with Des Kelly -- who once again was way into being the manager -- down in Kennedy’s pub in Westland Row. That was an exciting time. Ideas, thoughts and plans were hatched and we made a single for Des’ label, Ruby records. Three Drunken Maidens which I had learnt from Tim Hart and Maddy Pryor.
Next we retired to the old Metropole in O’Connell Street to rehearse with a PA. It didn’t take us too long to put together a repertoire. Liam would bring the tunes, Christy and I would bring the songs and Donal would knit it all together. We discovered sweet combinations of sound. Like the day we discovered—on Sweet Thames flow softly—that uillean pipes and harmonica went well indeed together. The mandolin/bouzouki interplay that Johnny Moynihan and I had developed in Sweeney’s Men was taken a step further with Donal’s more robust style. Soon we heard that we had been asked to play support to Donovan and his Irish band who were preparing to tour the country. We had a couple of try-outs in front of the students at Newbridge College. Went well enough, nothing special.
The tour started in Galway, in the old Hangar Ballroom, a large dancehall. When we got there, I was amazed and a bit terrified by all the microphones and banks of spotlights. I’d never seen anything like it. I can’t remember if we got a soundcheck or not. Probably not. We were not in the habit of having such things! The soundman paid scant attention to us. He set the controls and went out for a smoke. We took the stage to polite applause. The audience had come to see Donovan.
I was too terrified to realise how the thing was going for the first 20 minutes. We played Raggle Taggle Gypsies, Arthur MacBride, When first unto this country and Sí bheag Sí mhór. I concentrated all my attention on singing the right words and playing the right notes. Gradually I relaxed a little. I couldn’t see the audience behind the banks of lighting but at the end of every piece, it seemed to me that some kind of a riot was breaking out.
We who had played the dreaded dancehalls were not unaccustomed to fights breaking out. I looked at the others in fear and bewilderment. They appeared to be smiling broad smiles and looked like they were about to get hysterical. I slowly realised that it was not a riot or a fight but a large crowd of people who were discovering something they had not expected to discover that night.
The audience was going wild wild wild … about us!
When we finished and left the stage, the audience went bananas. I never experienced anything like the adrenalin rush that overtook me. We were standing backstage screaming with hysterical laughter. Des Kelly, bless his heart, was as happy as we were and he produced a bottle of vodka. I had to be stopped from glugging the whole bottle in one gulp.
As the support band, we couldn’t just go back on the stage and do an encore and Des went off to ask Donovan if it was okay.
He could hardly have said no.
The audience was still clapping and screaming like people gone completely mad. I forget what the encore was but afterwards it was very hard for Donovan and his band to make much impact.
That night the audience discovered something they had subconsciously been waiting for --- and we were the right people in the right place at the right time!
That first 18 months with Planxty was a wonderful time. We quickly became big news in Ireland. We were surely one of the first acoustic bands to employ a Soundman—and we had the best in Nicky Ryan.
I had a hurdy-gurdy made for me which was also an Irish first and we travelled through Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales in a big white Transit van, equipped with aeroplane seats.
We bought a fine PA and for the first time in our lives, began to make something like real money. I was the treasurer—I still am. I remember handing Christy a wad of notes and he looked at me in amazement,
Des came into my house one day, chortling and rubbing his hands.
"We’ve got a recording contract. Guess how much it’s for?!"
"£30,000", he shrieked.
I think we were all pretty amazed that such a sum of money existed—and was to be ours.
It was quickly revealed that this sum was for six albums to be recorded over three years. £5,000 per album, out of which we had to pay all the recording costs. We never saw more than a few hundred quid in three years and in the event, recorded only three of the projected six albums.
In our innocence, we thought we had signed with Polydor—a big recording company in those days—but we soon found out that we hadn’t. We had signed with the Coulter-Martin production company, which was to lease the albums to Polydor under its own contract.
Nobody really looked at the Royalty percentage, which was low. I suppose at that time we didn’t care much about the money, we were a youngish band and we were on a roll. In my later years, it has served as a salutory lesson and was the beginning of my disaffection with record companies and the music ’business’ in general.
Suffice it to say that the Planxty recordings made in those first three years have sold a few million LPs, CDs and Cassettes and that the Band has never received more than a pittance in royalties. We made the music and "they" made the money …
But…we were not thinking like that then! We toured all over Ireland, England and Scotland, playing good music, enjoying our newfound popularity. Life was one big buzz and we were having a ball.
We worked hard those first eighteen months. Our first album was recorded in London in September 1972 with Phil Coulter in the producer’s chair. I think it would be true to say that he had a pretty easy week. We had arranged the music, played it in over the summer and knew exactly what we wanted. The album came out just before Christmas and was a smash hit.
We embarked on a long Polydor promotional tour of Britain with a Jazz Rock band called Iguana that Polydor was also trying to promote. It was a hard grind for expenses.
By the time June 1973 came, we were ready for our next album which was to be recorded in Kent. This one was much harder: we were already beginning to realise how difficult it is to be on the road continuously and find and rehearse new material.
We played the Cambridge Folk Festival that year. Liam was sick and couldn’t travel but Donal, Christy and I felt fairly confident without him and played one of our concerts with Rene Werneer, the fiddle player from Alan Stivell’s band who knew a lot of our material.
We played some great concerts in England, opening for Steeleye Span. I remember one of these in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Christy, Nicky and I were upstairs in the dressing room after our set, when we heard a breathless Donal running up the stairs, unable to control himself .He burst into the room, screaming with laughter:
"Liam’s on the stage, dancing with Maddy"
We ran down and watched the usually reserved Liam cavorting about the stage with Maddy Pryor. He winked at us as he waltzed by. It was a great moment!
We toured Germany and Brittany and were then hit by a bombshell.
Donal announced that he was leaving to start a band with Shaun Davey and James Morris. We were thunderstruck but had to accept the situation.
We had a meeting in my flat in Donnybrook and decided to ask Johnny Moynihan if he would take Donal’s place. Donal had agreed to stay on till October.
The last gig I remember Donal playing was in Edinburgh and it was one of the best ever. I believe that was with Steeleye as well.
We took some time off for rehearsal and quickly realised that the band would have a very different sound with Johnny. Donal was a much more robust player. Johnny was a very lyrical musician but his music was never based on chords. I suppose you could say that Johnny tried to maintain elements of the Irish Tradition in his bouzouki playing. Whatever the band gained from having another singer and tin whistle player it lost a lot of its engine room when Donal left.
We were still working as hard as ever and we didn’t get round to rehearsing the material for the third album till the summer of 1974. We used to drive out to Rush on the north coast of County Dublin and rehearse in Johnny’s father’s summer house there.
I felt that we needed to bring Donal back for the recording and he was amenable.
We recorded the third album Cold Blow and the Rainy Night in London, during a very warm August, with Phil Coulter producing as usual.
It was a fairly trying time. I think everyone was getting a bit tired of the whole thing. Still a few great tracks were recorded. Johnny’s P stands for Paddy will always be a favourite of mine and though I had a heavy cold , singing it, I love the sound of the flute organ we had hired on The Green Fields of Canada. Donal had had to go home by this time and Phil Coulter played it, although I don’t think he’s credited in the notes.
Shortly after this, Christy handed in his notice.