Rory Gallagher was a musician of a kind that the world no longer produces. He was of the generation where the guitar was the main weapon of choice for destroying the deeply entrenched social mores of the older generation. It represented the new world, much different to today. Furthermore, Gallagher was a virtuoso in every sense of the word.
Although he passed away in 1995 only aged only 47, the Cork native earned legions of fans, particularly in the guitar world. Up there with Bert Jansch and Django Reinhardt, he occupies the space of your favourite guitarist’s favourite guitarist. Technically gifted and a disciple of the blues, this reading from Richard Barnett in Guitarworld sums up the unwavering style that the late Gallagher espoused: “While fashions waxed and waned elsewhere, Rory stayed loyal to his roots”.
Closely associated with the Fender Stratocaster and the minor Pentatonic scales, Gallagher’s measure as a guitarist could quite easily have put in him a smoky bar in the deep south of America, the likes of which the Blues Brothers frequented rather than the pastoral idyll of southwestern Ireland.
But then again, like with Bert Jansch in relation to his native Scotland, the emerald isle coloured Gallagher as a musician and man. A heavy drinker but brilliant folk guitarist, Gallagher’s music has an edge of Celtic mysticism inherent to it, augmented by his smouldering voice. His music is like walking along a foggy Irish pier in the early hours of the morning after more than enough jars.
His early influences included skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan and then some of rock’s rudimentary greats, including Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. In a BBC interview in 1991, he revealed that his greatest influence was the unmistakable Muddy Waters. In fact, Bert Jansch and Lonnie Donegan collaborated with Gallagher’s brother, Donal, in 2003 for the posthumous collection of acoustic tracks, Wheels Within Wheels.
A traditional musician, Gallagher learnt his craft, experimenting with other musicians in his native Cork. Alongside the guitar, by his mid-teens, he had grasped the slide guitar, alto saxophone, bass, mandolin and banjo to varying degrees of skill.
After playing in the Irish showbands of the day, Gallagher formed the R&B power trio, Taste, in 1966. The band toured extensively and played regularly at London’s iconic Marquee Club. The band broke up in 1970 but not before they could support the pioneering psychedelic rock trio, Cream, during their Royal Albert Hall farewell concert, and then tour with Eric Clapton’s post-Cream supergroup, Blind Faith, across North America.
However, it was after Taste that Gallagher would make his true imprint on music. In Taste, he was Ireland and Britain’s best-kept secret as a musician, but after 1970, when he embarked on his prolific solo career, he would garner all the plaudits he deserved. Alongside Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy, he is also credited with opening up the mainstream’s eyes to the brilliant musicians Ireland had to offer. In this respect, he was one of the first international artists Ireland had ever seen.
Across his 14 solo albums, Gallagher would come into his own. Starting with 1971’s Rory Gallagher, and ending with 1990’s Fresh Evidence, he electrified audiences worldwide. Gallagher would even get the opportunity to play with some of his heroes during the 1970s, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Lonnie Donegan and even Muddy Waters.
Other iconic guitarists counted among his fans are Johnny Marr, Alex Lifeson, Slash, Janick Gers and Brian May, to name but a few. The latter even credits Gallagher with informing his own sound. In 2009 he explained: “So these couple of kids come up, who’s me and my mate, and say ‘How do you get your sound Mr Gallagher?’ and he sits and tells us. So I owe Rory Gallagher my sound.”
The Queen guitarist revealed that the sound of the iconic Vox AC30 amplifier that he is closely associated with was actually first used by Gallagher. It was this element of the Irishman’s sound, coupled with his use of the Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster unit, that influenced the Queen guitarist to select these pieces of equipment to colour his own signature sound.
In April 2014, as Gallagher’s custom ‘JS Berlin Legend’ Patrick Eggle guitar was being auctioned off, the BBC gave a perfect ode to his testament. The description read: “Eric Clapton credited him with ‘getting me back into the blues’. The Rolling Stones wanted him to replace Mick Taylor, and when Jimi Hendrix was asked how it felt to be the world’s greatest guitarist, he is reported to have said: “I don’t know, go ask Rory Gallagher.”
This got us thinking, what are the six best tracks by Rory Gallagher? Join us as we list them. However, a word of forewarning for the purists, we haven’t included covers.
Rory Gallagher’s six best songs
‘A Million Miles Away’ – 1973
Where else but to start than with Gallagher’s most well known and best-loved track? It starts off with the clean frills. As Gallagher emotively bends the strings of his strat, throwing in some harmonic pinches for good measure, the song takes on a bluesy life. Although, the line: “The old bartender is as high as a steeple” sets the precedent that this is no ordinary blues number. It was 1973, after all.
Featuring some of Gallagher’s most iconic licks, ‘A Million Miles Away’ is one of the best examples of his quality as a guitarist and songwriter.
It contains some of his most clinical blues-esque lyrics, including: “I fell hook, line and sinker, Lost my captain and my crew.”
However, the song’s chorus is the standout moment. A rumbling and cacophonous noise, it brings the song to a spine-tingling crescendo. Featuring the narcotic chorus: “I’m a million miles away, A million miles away, I’m sailing like a driftwood on a windy bay, On a windy bay”, one can imagine a bar fight unfolding in slow-motion as the end of the track plays out. Rumbling bass, unhinged brass, the end of ‘A Million Miles Away’ sounds more like Roxy Music songs of the era such as ‘Ladytron’ or ‘Re-Make/R-Model’ than a Rory Gallagher piece.
‘Philby’ – 1979
For those of you with a keen interest in British politics or the Cold War, the name Philby may ring a bell. The man who gives name and subject matter to this 1979 classic was none other than Kim Philby, Britain’s most infamous Soviet Double Agent.
Taken from his album Top Priority, this hard-rocking number, featuring Gallagher’s dirty, fuzzy guitar, also contains one of his most concise solos ever put to wax. However, this is no guitar solo. In a weird juxtaposition to the monochrome subject matter, Gallagher transports us to India with his incredible electric sitar solo. In a sense, Gallagher shows himself to be the progenitor of psych-rock band’s who would go on to pick up the instrument in later years, such as Kikagaku Moyo.
‘Bad Penny’- 1979
Another track from Gallagher’s 1979 offering, Top Priority, ‘Bad Penny’ is possibly Gallagher’s most instantly recognisable riff. It is so ’70s we love it.
Featuring every classic Gallagher hallmark, such as his gutsy vocals, searing guitar tone and big chorus, “Well, like a bad penny you have turned up again, You’re in my sights, there’s a mist on my lens.” This entry is one of Gallagher’s most enduring earworms.
‘I Fall Apart’ – 1971
An earlier Gallagher number, taken from his eponymous 1971 debut, ‘I Fall Apart’ is without a doubt one of his best moments. Showing flecks of his British folk heroes such as Bert Jansch and Richard Thompson, it is tinged with jazz and has more in common with the music of the 1960s than the ’70s. In one of his more melancholic moments, Gallagher sings: “Like a cat that’s playing with a ball of twine/ That you call my heart/ Oh, but, baby, is it so hard/ To tell the two apart?/And so slowly you unwind me/Till I fall apart”.
The song breaks into one of Gallagher’s most interesting guitar moves, a melodic, yet speedy solo. You can hear how Gallagher influenced the indie musicians of the future with his use of fast tremolo strumming in tandem with the emotive chord progression.
‘Tattoo’d Lady’ – 1973
The first track from his 1973 album, Tattoo, starts off as a laid-back vibe before breaking into a Rolling Stones-esque rhythm in the chorus. ‘Tattoo’d Lady’ sees Gallagher toy with dynamics, which really adds to the song’s sonic effect. Again, it features all of his trademark elements, husky voice, wailing guitar and all.
It sees Gallagher show audiences that he was certainly well versed in the blues. We get some classic blues licks, and it sounds as if Gallagher is playing the haunting solo specifically for the mysterious woman from whom the song gets its name.
‘I’m Not Awake Yet’- 1971
Taken from Gallagher’s second album Deuce, ‘I’m Not Awake Yet’ is one of his more traditional tunes. Just like the album, the song features folk and jazz elements, with an overtly Celtic sound. It is a hypnotic piece that unfolds into a jam, as if we’re sat in a pub in Cork watching the band show their stuff.
Gallagher’s vocals take more of a back seat on this one, as the music does the talking. It is worth noting that the bass line is brilliant, it has a rumbling, psychedelic edge to it, that could quite easily have been a Grateful Dead or 13th Floor Elevators move. The opening lyric: “I’m not awake yet, I haven’t opened my eyes” also adds to this trippy feel.
Commenting on the effect Deuce had on him as a whole, in 1997, Johnny Marr said, “There was one day when I was playing along with the Deuce album which was a complete turning point for me as a guitar player”.
A plinky, complex outing on the guitar, this entry is an underrated classic.