Recommended Albums #30

Tir Na Nog: Strong in the Sun (1973)

For ears accustomed to contemporary pop music alone, this one’s a reach. But for the more adventurous ear, or for those who like 70’s Irish and English pop-folk, this is an album you should know about. As one reviewer put it: If you like it, you’ll love it.

Tir Na Nog are Sonny Condell and Leo O’Kelly, who met in Dublin in 1969. Discovering that they both had plans to relocate and give the more extensive London folk scene a go, they decided to form a duo. On their arrival in London, not only were they able almost immediately to line up a steady stream of gigs, but within a week their demo tapes earned them a contract from Chrysalis Records.

Their Celtic-rooted folk, with intricate guitar accompaniment and idiosyncratic lyrics made an immediate impression on folk and rock audiences alike; not only did they headline shows at colleges and London folk clubs, but they toured Europe in support of arena-filling acts such as Jethro Tull, Hawkwind, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Procol Harum, The Who, Cat Stevens, Roxy Music and Elton John.

Such was their reputation’s rise over two years and two albums that when it came time to record Strong in the Sun they were booked into Sound Techniques studio in London, where people like Paul McCartney and Wings worked, and much sought-after engineer Geoff Emerick, who’d worked on albums such as Sgt. Pepper and Revolver, was hired on to work with them.


Where their 1971 eponymous first album was filled with simply arranged, pastoral acoustic folk inspired by the Irish countryside, their second album, 1972’s A Tear and a Smile, found them moving slightly and subtly toward fuller arrangements and using a full drum kit for the first time. Strong in the Sun in 1973 completed the transition, and pushed the envelope of folk rock into full rock band territory. However, the album is not without a few sensitive acoustic moments that revisit the sound of the earlier work.

The album’s only non-original is a rather drastic reworking of Nick Drake’s ‘Free Ride’. Tir Na Nog were the only artists to cover Drake while he was still living. They were also perhaps the first to use what is now called “sampling”–the song ‘Cinema’ contains an instrumental bridge overlaid with a bit of audio from an old Henry Fonda Western.


The two held an art-over-commerce ethic throughout their major label run. Their first album did not see U.S. release because Chrysalis insisted they include Bob Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’, a concert favorite, on the record. Sonny and Leo refused and the label did not release the LP in the States as a result. When the record company suggested they include printed lyrics with their second album as was becoming customary at the time the two again stood their ground and refused on the principle that to do so separates music and lyrics, which they saw as inseparable. When Chrysalis executives heard demos of their third and final record, Strong in the Sun, they insisted Sonny and Leo start over and record the whole album again–new studio, new producer, new backing musicians. The pair went along and rerecorded the album, but it turned out to be the last time they chose to work for a major label.

Paul McCartney was said to be a big fan of Strong in the Sun. Knowing this, Sonny and Leo wanted to ask Paul to produce the next Tir Na Nog single, but it never happened. They’d had enough of a demanding touring schedule and of compromising with a major record label. Although they’d already begun writing material for a fourth album, they instead broke off from Chrysalis and went back to Ireland, leaving a legacy of three cult-favorite albums of progressive folk. Not many artists drop their record company and leave the major label world on their own terms. It’s a testament to the quality of the music that several reissue labels–Edsel, BGO and, most recently, Esoteric Recordings–have licensed it over the years, and all three of Tir Na Nog’s albums remain in print to this day.

Listen to: “The Wind Was High”

Listen to: “In the Morning”

Listen to: “Most Magical”

Listen to: “Teesside”

Listen to: “Strong in the Sun”

See also:

See also:

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Songs You May Have Missed #395 | Ed Cyphers

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