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Similar in some respects to LINDISFARNE, folk-rock act turned prog band STRAWBS had a relatively fruitful time in the first half of the 70s, and like their Northern counterparts still have a stake in the post-millennium revivalist music business.
Formed London, England in 1967 as the Strawberry Hill Boys by multi-instrumentalists Dave Cousins (a Leicester University student), former school-friend Tony Hooper and, last in, mandolin player Arthur Phillips, they initially traded in American-style bluegrass. With the addition of drummer Ken Gudmund, double-bassist Ron Chesterman and a youthful SANDY DENNY (vocals and acoustic guitar), the group shifted towards a more Brit-folk sound and recorded an album together in ’68. Released some five years later when the First Lady of Folk was a household name, ALL OUR OWN WORK {*7} was credited to SANDY DENNY & THE STRAWBS, a budget LP that was notable for an embryonic version of her `Who Knows Where The Time Goes’; she of course established herself with FAIRPORT CONVENTION.
In 1968, the core of main singer-songwriter Cousins, Hooper, Chesterman (and a few session men) signed to A&M Records, where the release of two 45s preceded their eponymous STRAWBS (1969) {*7}. Flirting between quasi-classical, post-psych prog (think PROCOL HARUM or The MOODY BLUES) and Baroque electric-folk (fuse The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND with CAT STEVENS), the album was a hotchpotch of directions, too many for a discerning audience. The beautiful `Oh How She Changed’ and `That Which Once Was Mine’ and the orchestral-backed `Or Am I Dreaming’ all seemed miles away from the adventurous `The Man Who Called Himself Jesus’, `Tell Me What You See In Me’ and `Where Is This Dream Of Your Youth?’; finale `The Battle’ probably planted the seed for Genesis – who knows?
With the addition of cellist Claire Deniz, sophomore set DRAGONFLY (1970) {*5} short-changed many who’d come on board for a flutter previously, the ambitious Cousins this time opting for a mediocre medieval/minstrel-folk approach. On occasions the album displayed sheer grace through songs such as `Josephine (For Better Or Worse)’, `I Turned My Face Into The Wind’ and the 10-minute `The Vision Of The Lady Of The Lake’.
Without Ron and Claire, STRAWBS subsequently pursued a new direction with the addition of ex-VELVET OPERA rhythm section Richard Hudson and John Ford, while another star in the making, classically-trained pianist Rick Wakeman, also joined, this impetus now taking the band closer to electric prog-rock than ever before.
Recorded live in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (July 1970), Just a collection of ANTIQUES AND CURIOS (1970) {*6} alienated some of their more traditional fans, but the set did take the band into the UK Top 30 for the first time. Showcased by the 12-minute `The Antique Suite’ (and lengthy keys-led revamps of `The Vision…’ and `Where Is The Dream…’), Cousins and co. also make way for solo Wakeman on classical boogie `Temperament Of Mind’ and the lilting intro to `Song Of A Sad Little Girl’.
FROM THE WITCHWOOD (1971) {*6} carried on in much the same vein, Wakeman’s inherent keyboard wizardry overpowering the once acoustic-led STRAWBS of old, especially on opening salvo `A Glimpse Of Heaven’. There were moments of halcyon days gone by, the `Witchwood’ track for one, a pleasant if not mind-blowing three minutes; that accolade went to the Genesis-like `Sheep’ (`The Hangman And The Papist’ came a close second). `Thirty Days’, meanwhile, recalled The BEATLES from their mid-60s period. Understandably, Wakeman was feeling increasingly constricted by the band’s conflicting musical directions, and he duly decamped to fledgling, keyboard-led prog legends YES.
Former AMEN CORNER man Blue Weaver took his vacant stool for the acclaimed GRAVE NEW WORLD (1972) {*8}, an album which surprisingly failed to spawn a hit single despite its near-Top 10 success – though not for the want of trying, as they say. The glory-be and almost hymnal one-that-got-away, `Benedictus’, another Cousins choice cut `New World’, Ford’s JETHRO TULL-esque `Heavy Disguise’ and Hudson’s `Is It Today, Lord?’, come out on top.
Without a flicker of singles chart action since their prestigious conception, STRAWBS then had two massive hits in the space of a few months, the Top 20 `Lay Down’ and Top 3 `Part Of The Union’, the latter protest-pastiche penned by Hudson & Ford. Both featuring on parent album, BURSTING AT THE SEAMS (1973) {*8}, the band had the most creative and commercially successful long-player of their career. STRAWBS were at their tightest here, Cousins at his most grandiose on the string-tastic `Down By The Sea’, Ford and Hudson harmonious on `Lady Fuchsia’, while the triumvirate combined their resources for `Tears And Pavan’; newbie Lambert (in for outgoing Hooper) contributed `The Winter And The Summer’.
Internal tensions reached a head during an ill-fated US tour which led to the departure of three-fifths of the band: HUDSON-FORD splintered into an initially successful pop-rock duo and had a few hits including Top 10 debut `Pick Up The Pieces’ and Top 20 follow-up, `Burn Baby Burn’.
Now comprising Cousins, Lambert, and newbies Chas Cronk (bass), ex-STEALERS WHEEL drummer Rod Coombes and pianist John Hawken (from a handful of acts including RENAISSANCE and The NASHVILLE TEENS), STRAWBS made their comeback of sorts with HERO AND HEROINE (1974) {*7}. Opening with the lush, MOODY BLUES-ish `Autumn’ suite, the set was a breakaway from their ambiguous folk-rock confines, although sadly only `Shine On Silver Sun’, `Round And Round’ and the GENESIS-like title track came up trumps.
Compelling enough for a growing US audience to garnish it with a Top 50 entry (their only one), GHOSTS (1974) {*7} was arguably the last STRAWBS album to create a stir, however moderate it was. Abandoning folk-rock once again (bar a few subtle acoustic and harpsichord touches), the record was highlighted by the single `Lemon Pie’, `The Life Auction’, `Grace Darling’ and the opening title track suite; Cronk’s hauntingly ethereal `Starshine – Angel Wine’ was also worthy of note.
Trimmed to a quartet (Hawken departed), the schizoid and chameleon-like NOMADNESS (1975) {*6} was a bit of a potpourri of a record: once again Cousins sounded every bit the clone of PETER GABRIEL on opener `To Be Free’ (and `Absent Friends (How I Need You)’), while Lambert’s `Little Sleepy’ was The WHO incarnate – was the latter any relation to manager Kit Lambert? Cousins and Co even had some spare studio space for guest WAKEMAN (at least his harpsichord part) on kooky cue `Tokyo Rosie’, somewhat relegated by Coombes’ `A Mind Of My Own’ and Cronk’s finale piece `The Promised Land’.
Substantially more mainstream than its predecessors, DEEP CUTS (1976) {*4}, found the group (now on Polydor’s offshoot Oyster label) clutching at straws, epitomised by the limp and sappy `I Only Want My Love To Grow In You’, `Hard, Hard Winter’ and `So Close And Yet So Far Away’; check it out only for `Beside The Rio Grande’.
BURNING FOR YOU (1977) {*3} and DEADLINES (1978) {*3} – the latter with an extended line-up (drummer Tony Fernandez and prior guests John Mealing and Robert Kirby on keys, but no Coombes – did little or nothing to resurrect past glories, in fact, the latter’s title suggested their time was up.
Meanwhile, a re-formed STRAWBS, featuring Cousins, Hooper and Hudson with a cast of new faces, released the lacklustre DON’T SAY GOODBYE (1987) {*3}, a slick, forgettable effort that (apart from say `Big Brother’ or `Let It Rain’), plummeted the band even further down the popularity stakes.
STRAWBS reconvened for the umpteenth time on the concert set THE COMPLETE STRAWBS (2000) {*5}, their inaugural delivery for Cousins’ Witchwood imprint. As Acoustic STRAWBS (Cousins, Lambert and Willoughby), they produced the embroidered BAROQUE & ROLL (2002) {*6}, while STRAWBS proper (with varying personnel from the past and present) carried off a series of new releases: BLUE ANGEL (2003) {*4} was their first studio set since 1991’s RINGING DOWN THE YEARS {*4}. Fans and observers alike were treated to a STRAWBS of old via DEJA FOU (2004) {*5}, concert reunion LIVE AT NEARFEST 2004 (2005) {*6}, live-in-the-studio PAINTED SKY (2005) {*6}, Strawbs Acoustic’s return FULL BLOOM – LIVE AT NATURAL SOUND (2008) {*5}, THE BROKEN HEARTED BRIDE (2008) {*6}, DANCING TO THE DEVIL’S BEAT (2009) {*6} and a re-vamp of HERO & HEROINE In Ascencia (2011) {*6}.
STRAWBS, meanwhile; that is Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk, Tony Fernandez (or short-stop Adam Falkner) and keyboardist Adam Wakeman (the replacement for John Young), felt that giving a chance to all-comers to revisit newly arranged songs by the band was worth inspection on patchwork and sketchy, “Prognostic” (2014). The repeat prescription diagnosis received one of apathy and alienation from true fans, although on closer inspection, `Heartbreak Hill’ and `Deep In The Darkest Night’ were worthy pieces; note that a half-hour of “Archive Prog” was just what it said on the tin. Ultimately, it can’t count as a new original album.
When Adam Wakeman took flight (superseded by co-scribe Dave Bainbridge from IONA), STRAWBS looked to be steadying the ship again for 2017’s THE FERRYMAN’S CURSE {*7}. Issued on Esoteric Antenna (an offshoot of Cherry Red Records), the album was decidedly pastel-folk-prog; a religious and melancholy Cousins was effective on `The Nails From The Hands Of Christ’, `The Song Of Infinite Sadness’, and the title track.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/GRD-GFD // rev-up MCS Jul2012-Sep2018

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