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Steeleye Span


With only the FAIRPORT CONVENTION more durable and pivotal, the Span are Brit-folk’s most endearing band, having been around for over half a century.
Founded in St. Albans in 1969, they took their ye-olde moniker from the name of a Lincolnshire wagoner. It’d be bass player Ashley Hutchings (straight from the aforementioned FAIRPORTs) that was chief conspirator, recruiting Irish folk trio SWEENEY’S MEN, though only one of them, guitarist/vocalist Terry Woods, stayed the course; he in turn enlisted his wife, Gay Woods, on vocals and concertina. Their two most prominent figures, minstrel TIM HART and singer MADDY PRIOR, were last through the rehearsal door, having already been part of a traditional duo on two LPs, `Folk Songs Of Old England’ (1968) and `Folk Songs Of Old England, Vol.2′ (1969). Steeped in vocal heritage (much like The WATERSONS and PETER BELLAMY), many musicologists will recognise ye olde ballads such as `Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy’, `Bruton Town’ and `Who’s The Fool Now’ from the first of these, and `My Son John’, `Bay Of Biscay’ and `Copshawholme Fair’ from their second. Many of the songs featured have become subsequent Steeleye staples, while others you’ll find in the repertoire of nearly every folk act.
Under the direction of manager/producer Sandy Robertson, STEELEYE SPAN signed to R.C.A. Records and recorded a debut album, HARK! THE VILLAGE WAIT (1970) {*6}. The record comprised largely of traditional re-workings like `The Blacksmith’, `The Blackleg Miner’, `One Night As I Lay On My Bed’, `Twa Corbies’ and the band’s take on the aforementioned `Copshawholme Fair’. This set laid down a blueprint for the distinctive folk-rock hybrid which the group fashioned through the early to mid 70’s.
By the time sessions had begun on a follow-up, Terry and Gay had taken off to form The WOODS BAND; their replacements came in the shape of fiddler Peter Knight and the much-heralded singer/guitarist MARTIN CARTHY (the progenitor of the ever-impressive Carthy folk dynasty). The resulting PLEASE TO SEE THE KING (1971) {*6} tracked the same traditional path as their debut, although there was one good group composition, `Female Drummer’. `The Blacksmith’ was shooed in as the opening tale, while choice cuts included `False Knight On The Road’, `Cold, Haily, Windy Night’ and the Maddy’s vocal workout on the delightful `Lovely On The Water’.
Coming shortly after another HART/PRIOR album (`Summer Solstice’) a flop a cappella single version of BUDDY HOLLY’s `Rave On’, the long-winded TEN MAN MOP OR MR. RESERVOIR BUTLER RIDES AGAIN (1971) {*5} saw STEELEYE SPAN expand their merry horizons by tossing the odd Celtic jig and reel into the melting pot, although it was down to `When I Was On Horseback’, `Marrowbones’ and `Captain Coulston’ to save the day. 1972 saw major personnel changes once again as CARTHY went solo and founder member Hutchings pursued a more purist folk vocation with The ALBION COUNTRY BAND (they’d already released a collaborative set with SHIRLEY COLLINS).
Rock scene veterans Bob Johnson (guitar) and Rick Kemp (bass) were recruited as replacements (as was manager Jo Lustig for Robertson), the new-look Span signing to Chrysalis Records for their 4th LP, BELOW THE SALT (1972) {*7}. Sourcing material was never a problem for the quintet, and this set was no exception, including dirges such as the Prior-pitched, a cappella `Rosebud In June’ and Latin/festive hit-to-be, `Gaudete’. Medieval and monastic, the latter song was the surprise Top 20 smash of Christmas 1973 (featuring on Top Of The Pops), while other high spots numbered `Saucy Sailor’, `Royal Forester’, `John Barleycorn’ and `Sheep-Crook And Black Dog’.
Both this set and 1973’s PARCEL OF ROGUES {*7} saw the band further stretching the boundaries of the folk-rock genre; the latter album reached the Top 30. Markedly more electric than previous sets, Parcel delivered some rousing, amp-bursting dirges such as `Robbery With Violins’ (an instrumental), `Alison Gross’, `One Misty Moisty Morning’, and Scots brews `Rogues In A Nation’ and the heaviest-ever `Cam Ye O’er Frae France’.
With new drummer Nigel Pegrum now on board, the band’s more rock-centric dynamics were endearing them to a more mainstream audience; JETHRO TULL’s Ian Anderson rock-fuelled production on their next set, NOW WE ARE SIX (1974) {*8}, garnering them a Top 20 spot. Equally fulfilling and nauseating, the album enjoyed respective high points from the classic one-that-got-away 45 `Thomas The Rhymer’, `Seven Hundred Elves’, `Two Magicians’, `Drink Down The Moon’ and `The Mooncoin Jig’, to low points `Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ (nursery rhyme), the old Teddy Bears nugget, `To Know Him Is To Love Him’ (starring DAVID BOWIE on sax solo!), and the title track.
These were indeed halcyon days for STEELEYE SPAN, the group now fully-fledged members of folk-rock’s fraternity – as COMMONERS CROWN (1975) {*6} would reflect. Still substantially traditional in song choice (`Long Lankin’, `Elf Call’ and `Little Sir Hugh’ among the best on show), this set would also serve up the classical-meets-Celtic jig, `Bach Goes To Limerick’ and `New York Girls’, augmented by Peter Sellers on ukulele.
It was 1975’s Mike Batt-produced ALL AROUND MY HAT {*5}, however, that became the record most people associate with STEELEYE SPAN, both the album and the group-penned Top 5 title track cementing the band’s name in the public consciousness. Stripped back to the basics (bar `The Wife Of Ushers Well’), pop-Womble Batt and band updated many a fine trad tune, illustrated by `Black Jack Davey’, `Hard Times Of Old England’ and `Cadwith Anthem’.
Ironically, just as the band and folk-rock itself reached their commercial peak, the Span once again suffered artistically, the somewhat disappointing ROCKET COTTAGE (1976) {*5} – also produced by Batt – a little stale in comparison to their earlier efforts. In no uncertain terms, their adaptations of `Sir James The Rose’, the single `London’ and `Sligo Maid’ didn’t live with previous ye-olde Span nuggets.
When key members Bob Johnson & Peter Knight left to ultimately form their own prog-folk duo (for a one-off concept LP, `The King Of Elfland’s Daughter’, 1977), Steeleye looked lost and disorientated. Even the return of CARTHY (and the inspired installation of John Kirkpatrick) for STORM FORCE TEN (1977) {*5} couldn’t remedy matters and at a time when the Sex Pistols and the Clash were rock’s newest kingpins, STEELEYE SPAN faded fast. Tracks such as their interpretations of Bertolt Brecht’s `Black Freighter’ (lifted from “The Threepenny Opera”) and `The Wife Of The Soldier’ did little to inspire any but their oldest folk fogeys, although the 8-minute `The Victory’ was nice enough. The band officially split in May ‘78 and leaving behind a farewell 45 (a version of FRANKIE VALLI & THE FOUR SEASONS’ `Rag Doll’) and a mistimed concert set, LIVE AT LAST {*4}, interesting for their 15-minute detour on `Montrose’.
Two years previously, MADDY PRIOR and fellow queen of trad-folk, JUNE TABOR, collaborated on the “Silly Sisters” set. The magical MADDY PRIOR subsequently branched out on her lonesome (albeit with the help of hubby Kemp), releasing two solo sets in a short space of time, the self-penned `Woman In The Wings’ (1978) and `Changing Winds’ (1978). She would go on to deliver a further two long-players in the early half of the 80s.
While the various members went on to further achievements in the folk scene, there were occasional STEELEYE SPAN reformations over the coming years, most significantly in 1980 (with Johnson & Knight restored to join Prior, Hart and Kemp), for the Gus Dudgeon-produced SAILS OF SILVER {*5}. A landmark set, in that it was their first wholly group-written/arranged LP, it nevertheless contained shanty-folk-like fare such as the title track, `Gone To America’ and `My Love’.
Appropriately-titled BACK IN LINE (1986) {*4} reconvened the group for comeback number two, another set to experiment with songs by Johnson (the pop-fuelled `Edward’ and `Lady Diamond’), Kemp (`Peace On The Border’) and a funky re-take of their olde trad number, `Blackleg Miner’. In the days when The POGUES, The MEN THEY COULDN’T HANG and The WATERBOYS were riding high above the old folk faction, the album floundered by the riverside.
Comeback number three (Tim Harries had superseded Hart), TEMPTED AND TRIED (1989) {*6} was a return to form of sorts, a near-perfect pop-folk album resting on the laurels of their handpicked Johnson-arranged trad cues like `Jack Hall’ (another execution tale), the single `Padstow’ and `The Cruel Mother’, plus Knight’s pieces `Seagull’, `The Fox’ and poor man’s CLANNAD-like `Following Me’.
Always around on the live circuit, STEELEYE SPAN (with drummer Liam Genockey and the returning Gay) inaugurated an uncharacteristically prolific spell in the second half of the 90s with TIME (1996) {*4}, a solid if forgettable studio album of largely traditional material which seemed to sum up the achievements of the band’s latter-day incarnations. Although the lush harmonies of Prior and Woods are welcomed back, the rather ambitious arrangements of `The Prickly Bush’, `The Water Is Wide’ and `The Cutty Wren’ don’t stand the test of time.
Despite the absence of stalwart Maddy, HORKSTOW GRANGE (1998) {*5} carried on regardless, Gay Woods now taking the lead on some fine tunes such as her `Bonny Irish Boy’, Jonny Patterson’s `The Old Turf Fire’ and traditional fare like `The Parting Glass’; Johnson’s `Lord Randall’ was notable for its DYLANesque “Hard Rain” similarities.
Boosted by the full-time inclusion of drummer Dave Mattacks (from FAIRPORT CONVENTION), BEDLAM BORN (2000) {*6} was a considerably stronger and more cohesive collection, its strident rock-centricity conjuring up the spirit of the original British folk-rock explosion without being overtly nostalgic. With bassist Harries afforded a larger slice of the songs (`John Ditchford’, `Black Swan’, etc.), with Woods, Knight and Johnson taking up the slack alongside a number of traditional ballads (the haunting `Stephen’ for one), the set is slightly marred by its misty finale of `The White Cliffs Of Dover’.
Blighted by further post-millennium personnel changes (including the illness of Johnson) and several mediocre live (and reunion) albums, it was great to see the return of Prior in 2002, albeit on the misguidedly titled, PRESENT – THE VERY BEST OF STEELEYE SPAN (2002) {*5}, actually re-recordings of past glories and their take on `Lyke Wake Dirge’. Maddy’s return proper (next to stalwarts Kemp, Knight, Genockey and newbie Ken Nicol) came courtesy of studio recording THEY CALLED HER BABYLON (2004) {*6}, an all-round group endeavour that was traditionally-flavoured without the usual aid of CECIL SHARP.
Offset by a festive WINTER (2004) {*4} set from the Span – very like PRIOR’s Xmas records, the gritty BLOODY MEN (2006) {*7} was the group’s best since their 70s heyday. Now a quartet without Liam, the album kicked off with the folk-rawking `Bonny Black Hare’ (harder than the FAIRPORT version), while there was also space for `Cold, Haily, Windy Night’ and a slow-core reading of `Lord Gregory’; note that a bonus CD featured Kemp’s 5-piece mini-suite known as `Ned Ludd’.
Prior to Maddy’s reunification with the ‘Span, she delivered a plethora of solo albums.
The mighty STEELEYE SPAN (now without Kemp, who recently retired late ’09 due to ill-health), having released their twenty-first studio album, COGS, WHEELS AND LOVERS {*6}, will sadly miss the legend that was past member Tim Hart, who died of lung cancer on 24th December, 2009, at his Canary Islands home of La Gomera.
Just as the original set’s producer was embarking on a “Thick As A Brick Mk.II” follow-up, STEELEYE SPAN went in concert mode for the double-CD package of NOW WE ARE SIX AGAIN (2011) {*7}. A little diluted over the years, Maddy and Co showed they could still hack it live, and for buffs of their “best of” other tunes, the sextet came up with re-treads of `Just As The Tide’, `All Around My Hat’ and `Gaudete’.
In much the same mould of another old nugget, `Thomas The Rhymer’, `Dance The Dark Morris’ was one of the prog-folk highlights on 2013’s WINTERSMITH {*7}. In collaboration with the sadly-missed fantasy novelist Sir Terry Pratchett (who passed to the other side a few years on), the concept was one of an eternal winter. The Discworld wordsmith came into his own on `The Good Witch’, whilst `You’ featured the Northumbrian pipes of the wonderful KATHRYN TICKELL.
Not content with relying on merely reunion concerts (and live sets) to boost their income, the creative and concept-fuelled STEELEYE SPAN harked back to their village of rogues on DODGY BASTARDS (2016) {*8}. It drew on the works of scholar Francis James Child and his worthy stories of murder, incest and other skulduggery from 19th century Britain. Having sadly lost Zorn, who died on 19 April 2016, respective replacements for the guitarist and the outgoing Peter Knight were found in Andrew “Spud” Sinclair and Jessie May Smart. On one end of the musical spectrum was the emotional `All Things Are Quite Silent’, a lilting lament in stark contrast to the other, the opening rouser `Cruel Brother’. Maddy or Rick took the bulk of the vocal parts (the latter on the astonishing `Johnnie Armstrong’), but it was violinist Smart that excelled, SANDY DENNY-esque on `Brown Robyn’s Confession’: she a possible contender to Maddy’s crown. Clocking up a total of 10 minutes, the anchor pieste de resistance that proved Maddy P was still queen bee was the hair-raising medley of `The Lofty Tall Ship’ and `Shallow Brown’.
Fifty years on from STEELEYE SPAN’s incarnation, their aptly-named EST’D 1969 (2019) {*7} kept up their challenge against esteemed rivals FAIRPORT CONVENTION for folk-rock’s crown. Despite the absence of Rick Kemp (replaced by Roger Carey and BELLOWHEAD’s multi-instrumentalist Benji Kirkpatrick), the album also conjured up some magical flute from former cohort and producer IAN ANDERSON, who performed on one of four fresh compositions, `Old Matron’. And once again drawing from an ever-ceasing source of traditional pieces from yesteryear (and beyond), no one could question the charm of `The Boy And The Mantle (Three Tests Of Chastity) – showcasing singer Sophie Yates – and `Cruel Ship’s Carpenter’. Alongside their own `Harvest’, `Roadways’ and – twinned with the bold and bawdy `My Husband’s Got No Courage In Him’ – `Domestic’, the electrifying septet covered DAVE GOULDER’s `The January Man’ and Rose Kemp’s a cappella `Reclaimed’.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/GRD/GFD // rev-up MCS Aug2012-Jul2019

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