Planxty - Biography

By Scott Feemster

Planxty was an Irish folk band that was an amalgamation of various leading lights on the modern Irish traditional music scene during the 1970's, and the way in which they played and presented themselves and their music changed the face of Irish and Celtic folk music for all the years to come. Though most of their activity was in the 70's, they have continued to work together in different combinations and have occasionally reunited under the Planxty banner in the years since.


            After recording his first album Paddy On The Road (Mercury) with mostly English session musicians in 1969, Irish singer/songwriter Christy Moore decided that , for his next album, he wanted to get back to basics, and decided to gather some Irish folk musicians together whom he had befriended and played with to record an album in a no-frills situation. Moore convinced his producer Bill Leader to bring his mobile recording equipment to his sister Anne's house in the small village of Prosperous, in County Kildare, and Moore and the musicians set up in the basement of the house to record. Moore had gathered together a core band consisting of his old school buddy Donal Lunny, an accomplished guitar and bouzouki player, London-born child actor turned multi-instrumental troubadour Andy Irvine, who had earlier been in the highly influential Irish folk group Sweeney's Men, and was then playing in a duo with Lunny, and renowned piper Liam O'Flynn, who had studied and played with such notable Irish traditional musicians such as Willie Clancy and Seamus Ennis. While the line-up looked good on paper, the sparks the four musicians generated while recording Moore's album Prosperous (Tara)(1972) proved to be more than what even they had expected. Realizing that they now had a group but lacking a name, they at first settled on the name CLAD, but soon changed it to Planxty. Planxty was a coded term used by the Irish harp player Turlough O'Carolan as a tribute to a particular, usually historically important, person in pre-Irish Republic days, as a replacement for their first name. ( This way tribute could be made to martyrs or important people without arising the suspicions of the British overlords). It has been said that the word “Planxty” is actually derived from a slang pronunciation of the Gaelic Irish word “Slainte”, a tribute roughly translated as meaning “Good Health”.


            At around the same time as Prosperous was being recorded, the four were asked to open for British psychedelic folk star Donovan on his Irish tour of 1971, and the reaction of the Irish crowds seeing a group of young Irish musicians playing traditional music with the fire, energy and inventiveness of rock bands was overwhelming. Things got so loud with the crowd at a particular date on the tour, that Irvine, not being able to see the crowd because of the glare of the lights, thought the band was going over badly and that the audience was on the verge of rioting. In fact, they were rapturous and nearly didn't let the band leave the stage for Donovan. After the tour, the band quickly got back to work and recorded the single “The Cliffs of Doneen”, and were soon signed to a contract with Polydor Records. Planxty released their first official album, self titled Planxty, (though often referred to by fans as The Black Album), in 1973. Their high energy and remarkable instrumental interplay was intact, and the album was a hit in Ireland, and went on to be considered a classic in Celtic music circles. Planxty got the band noticed outside of Ireland as well, and the group built up a large following in Great Britain and mainland Europe, and garnered a cult following in the U.S. and Canada. The album featured many songs that would go on to be considered crucial Celtic numbers, including “Merrily Kissed The Quaker”, “The Blacksmith”, and “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”.


            The group wasted no time in returning to the studio, and released their second album, The Well Below The Valley (Polydor/Shanachie), the same year as their debut was released, 1973. The album was a mixture of the band's rollicking dance tunes, fine musicianship, soulful ballads and flair for storytelling. The album was also interesting in that it featured two songs with the same name, “As I Roved Out”, one a wartime love lament written and sung by Irvine, the other a bouncy dance tune, driven by bouzouki and tin whistle, written by Moore. By the time of their next album, 1974's Cold Blow And The Rainy Night, Lunny had left the band to go on and found his own label, Mulligan, and to found another band that would prove influential, The Bothy Band. (Lunny actually did contribute instrumentally to the album and helped produce it). With Lunny's departure, Irvine's old Sweeney's Men bandmate Johnny Moynihan joined the band, contributing his distinctive bouzouki playing. Even with a new member, the album was another high-water mark for the band, and it and the band's first two albums are often pointed to as indisputable essential listening for fans of Celtic music.


            By 1975, Moore decided that he wanted to return to his solo career, and was briefly replaced by singer/songwriter Paul Brady, but in the same year, the band decided to call it a day. Though the band had only existed for about 3 years, they burned brightly and produced three excellent albums. In the next few years, Moore continued on with his solo career, Lunny played with The Bothy Band and became more involved with production work, O'Flynn sat in with many of Ireland's famous musicians, and Irvine and Brady formed a well-thought-of duo. By the end of the decade, the band members paths crossed again, and the original line-up of Moore, Lunny, O'Flynn and Irvine reformed with a fifth member added, flute player Matt Molloy, who had played in The Bothy Band with Lunny, and went on to become a member of The Chieftans. The four plus one picked up where they had left off and released the album After The Break (Tara) in 1979. The album featured many of the same traits that had endeared the band to their audiences years before, but also added some subtle differences, including a Bulgarian dance tune “Smeceno Horo”, brought to the band by Irvine, that became a live favorite. The group toured extensively around Europe, and on returning, decided to keep on with the band while also paying attention to their solo careers and outside interests. The core group of five added guests including keyboardist Bill Whelan, (who would go on to fame later as the creator of Riverdance), fiddler Tony Linnane and keyboardist/conductor Noel Hill to record their next album, The Woman I Loved So Well (Tara)(1980). Though the album lacked some of the fire of some of their earlier efforts, the more intricate arrangements and instrumentation added to the depth of what the band was capable of. It wouldn't be until 1983 that the band reconvened to produce the album Words & Music (Shanachie), this time with guests Whelan, bassist Eoghan O'Neill  and the twin fiddles of James Kelly and Nollaig Casey. Again, even with guests and more ambitious arrangements, the songs seemed weighted down and didn't seem to carry the same spark as their earlier albums. During the time between The Woman... and Words & Music, Moore and Lunny had formed the more electric-guitar based band Moving Hearts, and it seemed more of their energy and focus was devoted to that band. Not long after the release of Words & Music, Planxty broke up again, seemingly for the last time.


            In the time after the split, the members of Planxty kept busy with their individual careers, lives and family life, with Moore in particular cutting back his performances and recording dates due to serious health problems. Not much was thought of getting Planxty back together again until a documentary on the band was produced in 2003. The documentary aired on Irish television and included testimony from several generations of fans and fellow musicians on the impact the band had on Irish music. The film served as inspiration to the four founding members of the band, and the quartet got together and found that they still possessed much of the old fire that they had in years past. Moore, Lunny, Irvine and O'Flynn booked a low-key performance in late 2003 at the Royal Spa Hotel in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, near where they had been rehearsing. Though they only performed for around 200 people, the reception was rapturous and the band decided that they would continue playing live and book some more shows. Planxty performed in 2004 in County Clare again, as well as Dublin and Belfast. A live CD and DVD documenting the performances, titled Live 2004 (Sony), was released in 2004. A biography of the band was also written and published in 2006 by noted Irish journalist and broadcaster Leagues O'Toole, titled The Humours Of Planxty.

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