Thursday, 30 August 2018

Billy Joel




"I told them, 'To hell with it. If I'm not going to Columbia University, I'm going to Columbia Records, and you don't need a high school diploma over there'" - Billy Joel

I became aware of Billy Joel in 1973, with his Piano Man single. It seemed, during that period, that a number of UK artists had an American "equivalent" - David Bowie had Lou Reed, The Stones/Mott The Hoople had The New York Dolls and Elton John had Billy Joel. He was very much perceived as the USA's Elton John, serving up piano-backed, thoughtful ballads with a touch of rock here and there.

Personally, I properly got into him with the "52nd Street" album in 1978, which inspired me to buy "The Stranger" too. Despite being preoccupied with punk and new wave at the time, this sharp, cool New Yorker appealed to me in the same way that Bruce Springsteen did. He was more than just a balladeer - he had a knack for an atmospheric lyric and he merged it with a tough, streetwise persona too. He had a knowledge of music history as well, reflected in many of his recordings. There was always a down to earth honesty about Joel, together with a bit of wit that made him and his music an attractive prospect. The best material comes from the 1974-1978 period, a time where he just personifies that whole New York Italian restaurant vibe.

Cold Spring Harbor (1971)

This was Billy Joel's debut album, a long-forgotten offering from 1971, a bit like Elton John's Empty Sky. It is worthy of attention more for its hints of potential as opposed to anything incredibly memorable. It's a nice little album, though, without digging up any trees.

What a beautiful song to start a recording career with, however - She's Got A Way is simply lovely. One of Joel's great romantic ballads. Yes, the production is a bit rudimentary, as is the slightly un-honed vocal delivery but there is no keeping this song down. 


The gently pleasant AOR sound of You Can Make Me Free is similarly a bit of a diamond in the raw. Once again Joel's voice is a bit dodgy, sounding weakly McCartney-esque and at a much higher pitch than it would be a few years later. There is potential there, though, mainly in the lyrics and melody. Joel manages to sound like both McCartney and Lennon right at the end of the song.


The album's second embryonic Joel classic is the upbeat liveliness of Everybody Loves You Now, which went on to be often played live. "Between you and me and the Staten Island ferry" was one of Joel's first big New York lines and the song also has a lovely, rubbery bass line along with its rollicking, rolling piano cadences. Why Judy Why is a slow acoustic and bass ballad with more echoes of McCartney. It sounds as if it should be on The White Album. Billy makes his piano keys tinkle and roll on the very early seventies-ish Falling Of The Rain. It sounds as if Joel is taking country, folky rock and giving it his own piano man touch. The piano is superb on this, I have to say. Turn Around is an Elton John-influenced piano ballad, once again full of typical Joel ear for a melody. You could really hear his potential here if not quite his execution. You Look So Good To Me is a jaunty little number and again there is a McCartney-esque carefree feeling to the song. 


Tomorrow Is Today is a lovely, sensitive piano ballad while Nocturne, a piano instrumental, shows Joel's classical training off well. The album closes with the quite ballad Got To Begin Again. The second half of the album was rather low key and Joel had yet to create the dramatic atmospheres and characterisation that would make many of his later songs so popular, but this was a gentle and warm beginning.


Piano Man (1973)

Like Elton John, to whom he was often compared, Billy Joel released a low-key first album and then on his second, laid down a bit of a marker. This, Joel’s sophomore effort, from 1973, has flown under the radar for a lot of people, including myself, which is to do it something of a disservice. There are four absolute Joel classics to be found in here, as well as a few underrated gems. 

Travellin’ Prayer is a deliciously shuffling number, featuring some catchy piano, lively drumming and rubbery bass parts and a sort of country meets Paul Simon feel about it. There is also some fine fiddle and barroom piano too. It is actually a very un-Billy Joel number. It even goes funky right at the end before some more hoedown fiddle finishes off one of Joel’s most unique songs. We are on more familiar ground with the now iconic Piano Man, a track that drips with Joel-esque lyrical snd melodic atmosphere. It is part German bierkeller singalong, part Elton John piano ballad, part Parisian accordion-backed sad song and I never tire of it. The chunky mid-pace piano-driven rock of Ain’t No Crime is very Elton John-influenced, with Joel sounding very like him on both the vocals and the clunky piano chops. Nice saxophone at the end too.


Next up is the absolutely gorgeous and beautifully romantic You’re My Home. It has a breezy country-ish acoustic finger-picking backing and an endearing vocal, together with a sumptuous bass line. It is one of my favourite Joel songs of all time. Another fine song is next in the grandiose Western pastiche of The Ballad Of Billy The Kid, which starts by detailing the story of the legendary outlaw before bringing it full circle with Joel describing himself. Musically it is full of mock classical, sweeping Western movie-style strings and some great piano. It really is good stuff. Worse Comes To Worst is a great little gem of a song, with a lilting, reggae-style beat and another Paul Simon vibe to it. It is a rarely mentioned song, but I love it. Stop In Nevada is an orchestrated very typically Joel number, featuring lots of melodic ups and downs, lots of strings and, country guitar and, of course, more infectious piano work. Tracks like these really are most underrated. If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You) is an unremarkable piano ballad that brings to mind the ‘filler’ tracks on The Stranger (Everybody Has A Dream) and also Meat Loaf’s Dead Ringer (More Than You Deserve and Everything Is Permitted). A similar vibe can be heard on Somewhere Along The Line, although this one has more of a melodic appeal.

If these last two tracks were a little underwhelming, the sane certainly cannot be said for the mighty take of suburban drug abuse that is Captain Jack. It is a big, multi-verse power ballad, full of hard-hitting pathos (if that is not too oxymoronic). You really feel the stultifying despair of the young man featured in the song and I have loved the song for its bristling atmosphere and characterisation for many years now. 


Joel does a stonking live version of the song on his Songs From The Attic album too. It is one of the great seventies drug songs and it brought Joel to many people’s attention as a songwriter who could come up with something very special. "Your sister's gone out, she's on a date, you just sit at home and masturbate". We've all been there, Billy. Weird cover though.


Streetlife Serenade (1974)
                     
Billy Joel was not quite the finished product here in 1974, but with each consecutive album release, the quality got better and better. This is another step along the way. 
Joel was in that “grandiose rock ballad” groove at this time, and the first two tracks, Streetlife Serenader with its strong piano, ballady vocals, pounding drums and the slightly funky Los Angelenos with its great drum sound are fine examples of that and lyrically strong too. Incidentally, both appear in good live versions on the live Songs In The Attic album. The Great Suburban Showdown is a typical Joel song in both lyrics and delivery, backed by a country-style steel guitar and delivered against a fetching melody. Nice organ break too. Roberta is a touching, rather unique song about a prostitute.

The standout track is, of course, The Entertainer, where Joel muses on how his latest album will end up in the discount bin “like another can of beans” and moans about his big hit Piano Man being cut down to 3.05 at the behest of the record company in search of a chart hit. Often a world-weary cynical side to many of Joel’s lyrics. Last Of The Big Time Spenders would not have sounded out of place on 1977’s The Stranger

The quirky Weekend Song sounds Elton John-Leon Russell-ish and Souvenir is a short, but evocative final vocal ending to what is an often overlooked album. A couple of instrumentals are on here too, leading one to wonder whether he was running a bit low on new songs, or maybe he just wanted to showcase his ivory tinkling skills and prove he was indeed a piano man. In reading up about the album, it was in fact true - he hadn’t had time to write any new material but the record company were pressurising him to get the album completed. Root Beer Rag is certainly a fun workout though. The Mexican Connection is less frantic, more melodic. Although there is no sign that this has been remastered like many of the subsequent albums, I have no problem with the sound. It sounds full and defined. Good enough for me.

Turnstiles (1976)

Arguably Billy Joel’s first great album, often unfairly overshadowed by the multi-million selling The Stranger. It felt on here that he had finally married all the disparate facets, both musically and lyrically, that appeared in patches on previous albums. This one hit the nail on the head. Joel was now beginning to forge an identity as an artist with a Springsteen-esque finger on the pulse of the streets of New York City which was partnered with an innate instinct for a melody and a killer lyric. He could give you moving, sensitive ballads yet he could also rock when necessary. He had returned to his native New York and wrote this album as a kind of celebration of his homecoming. You can really feel this and the result is a far more cohesive, expressive piece of work than its predecessor.

Billy had wanted to write a song for Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes. What a song it was too, he out-Spectored Phil Spector on the marvellous, uplifting, saxophone-heaven that is Say Goodbye To Hollywood. Despite Ronnie’s iconic voice, Joel’s version is even better. Joel had always loved The Beach Boys' Don't Worry Baby and this song is composed along the same lines, along with those of The Ronettes' Be My Baby. Joel liked to pay a bit of musical homage and he certainly did so here. There are two other great rock songs on here too, the closing, anthemic Miami 2017 (I've Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway) with its great New York-inspired lyrics and the mighty, piano-introduced Prelude/Angry Young Man, often used since as a worthy concert opener. Both of these show that what a great rock outfit Joel and his excellent band could be, at times.

The sensitive balladeer is found on the simply beautiful, short but sweet Summer, Highland Falls, one of my favourite Joel songs ever - “they say that these are not the best of times, but they’re the only times I’ve ever known”. It is chock full of gentle atmosphere. James is also a lovely, thoughtful, tender song to an old schoolfriend and I've Loved These Days is a slightly tongue-in-cheek mock celebratory but strangely yearning piece of nostalgia for the decadence of an era that has barely ended. The slightly Latin-influenced All I Wanna Do Is Dance echoes the same sentiments, with its question "why don't The Beatles get back together". Then, of course, there is the iconic New York State Of Mind. Forget Sinatra’s New York New York, this has to be the greatest of all NYC songs. Full to the brim with images of the Big Apple against its melodic piano backing and Joel’s soulful voice. One of his finest moments. Do not underestimate this album in comparison with others. It is up there among Joel’s best.

The Stranger (1977)

Taking much of the New York-themed atmosphere from the previous Turnstiles, this was a wonderful collection of New York Italian and also very clear Long Island-inspired piano-led rock songs, with organ, saxophone and drums to the fore. You feel you are at a table with a red check tablecloth and waiting for your pasta arrabiata. This image, of course, is helped no end by the album’s centrepiece, the magnificent story-telling narrative song Scenes From An Italian Restaurant with its Long Island characters Brenda & Eddie and many musical mood swings. From piano balladry to rocking saxophone and back again. Marvellous. Joel’s A Day In The Life. It also has that extended, street poetry cinematic drama of Bruce Springsteen's Jungleland

Those New York-greater New York references abound in much of this album - either directly as in Long Island's Sullivan Street neighbourhood or in it’s characters - Antony, Mama Leone, Mr. Cacciatore, Brenda & Eddie, Virginia. Even Joel’s whistling at the beginning and end of the title track and the end of the album (a repeated coda to the album) is like the whistling of a waiter clearing the tables after lunch. Somehow I see this as a “New York in daytime album” as opposed to an evening one. Maybe that’s just how I visualise it. Lunch time in Little Italy, or maybe in a quiet Long Island local trattoria. Thinking about, it, maybe the latter. while Turnstiles had been a New York album, this can be seen very much as a suburban one from the Island.                           

Highlights are the vibrant. evocative opener Movin' Out (Antony's Song), based around Antony's Long Island neighbourhood and his dreams of getting away for a more exciting life, The Stranger, the afore-mentioned Scenes From An Italian Restaurant, the thoroughly beautiful Vienna, written after a visit to Austria, and the celebratory rock 'n' roll of Only The Good Die Young. Joel had an ability throughout his career of changing the atmosphere from song to song yet still retaining an over-riding feel to an album. The Catholic guilt and ebullient lust of Only The Good Die Young is followed by the tender sensitivity of She's Always A Woman.

The standard chart-friendly romance of Just The Way You Are (covered successfully by Barry White) is not out of place (although Joel always thought it was - he never really liked the song, apparently), neither is the beautiful, yearning She's Always A Woman
However, Get It Right The First Time seems a little superfluous, slightly lacking the sheer chutzpah of all that preceded it. This slight dip in quality at the album's end is continued on the final track, which is a strange inclusion, an old track from 1971 called Everybody Has A Dream. There was no real need for this one in my opinion. It sits a bit oddly with the others, although it is redeemed by the piano and whistling reprise of The Stranger at the end. It is quite strange with this album, though, in that because I am so familiar with it, and it is so good, that I find I can't write so much about it. I have written almost as much about The Nylon Curtain, for example, yet that is a vastly inferior album, for me. The live material on CD 2 of the deluxe edition is excellent, both in sound and musical quality. The album is remastered perfectly too. Highly recommended. Amazingly, Columbia Records would have dropped Joel had this album not sold. They needn't have worried. It sold by the bucketful.

52nd Street (1978)

Released in 1978, at the height of punk, following on from the phenomenal worldwide success of the previous year’s The Stranger, this was also a top seller. Joel’s mix of New York street tales against a piano and jazzy brass backing tapped in to the tastes of those for whom punk never happened. I was a punk in 1978, but I still liked this. It seemed to garner all-round respect in the same way that Bruce Springsteen did. It certainly did for me and others, if not necessarily from the music media. Yes, Joel was known by some as a balladeer, but he could also rock, and he knew how to summon up the atmosphere of the city streets. New York is the ultimate city for such street romance and on this album Joel moves back from the Long Island vignettes of The Stranger firmly into the big city. The album is absolutely dripping with Big Apple ambience. Furthermore, while I felt in some ways The Stranger was a daytime album, this is very much one for after the cars have turned their headlights on (to paraphrase Joel in Until The Night). 
                                   
It was the lead-off single, the catchy, radio-friendly My Life that helped to popularise the album, but it was by no means the standout track. That honour, for me, lay with the Phil Spector meets Bruce Springsteen and The Righteous Brothers on the mighty Until The Night. It has a great atmosphere and a killer chorus, with a superb build up from the verses to those dramatic chorus parts. The bit where Joel sings "as the cars turn their headlights on.." always gives me a bit of a tingle. It is a bit of an overlooked Joel classic, rarely played in concert or on the radio. Also impressive is the Latin-flavoured groove of Rosalinda's Eyes (written by Joel for his mother) and the upbeat, soulful tones of Half A Mile Away and the atmospheric New York bar-room piano jazz of Zanzibar. The latter is just so evocative of New York after dark - street lights, car lights, bars, people. It also owes a pretty big legacy to Steely Dan circa Katy Lied and The Royal Scam. Joel's lyrics are not impenetrable and oblique, however, they concern waitresses, Muhammad Ali and his old man's car. It may sound Steely Dan-esque but it is proper working class everyday ambience enhanced by Joel's knack for a dramatic delivery. Check out that jazzy trumpet solo too.

Stiletto is a suitably pointed little number, both lyrically and musically, with Joel having a pop at a prickly girlfriend backed by some loose jazzy piano breaks, while Honesty is just a typical Joel heartfelt but periodically dramatic ballad of the sort he always had in him and Big Shot sees Joel in New York Italian mode, putting down someone who has got above his-herself - “you got the Dom Perignon in your hand and the spoon up your nose”. Joel’s songs, while often thought to be just romantic, often betray a hard, street-wise edge. He often puts down the wealthy drug-addled indulgent culture. The jazzy, piano-driven 52nd Street is a short, almost half-song to finish off this assured album and leaves you wanting more, not that one's appetite hasn't been sated, however. This was the last of three truly excellent Joel albums, maybe his best three. They certainly nailed his reputation for years to come. His arena-filling popularity started here.

Glass Houses (1980)
                              
By 1980, Billy Joel had, by putting out three excellent albums, gained record sales and was now getting good concert attendances. Convincing critical kudos, however, was still eluding him and he was now considered a somewhat safe, mainstream artist suitable for playing at low volume on wine bars or hairdressers’ salons. He had garnered a certain amount of respect, but he found that the punks and the new wavers were considered far more credible than him, something that apparently infuriated him and his one-time amateur boxer’s fighting spikiness came to the fore on this, his most edgy and “rock” album.

A fair few artists channelled their inner punk-new wave traits around this time - The Rolling Stones, Queen, Elton John, Ian Hunter to name a few and Joel seemed to be wanting to prove that he too could do edgy, short, sharp rock and new wavey nostalgic pastiches. He left behind the Springsteen-esque street scenes and characters of the earlier albums too. The approach here was more minimalist, both musically and lyrically. Oddly, though, in the same period, previously punk groups like The Ramones, The Jam and The Clash were desperately trying to diversify and show just how “un-punk” they could be.

A glass smashing sound introduces the jangly Beatles-Byrds-style riff of the infectious rock of You May Be Right. “I walked through Bedford Stuy alone” proclaims a pugnacious Joel, referring to Brooklyn’s dodgy (now gentrified, apparently) Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood. This track has always been a favourite of mine. Its pounding drums and blues harmonica ending makes it one of Joel’s rockingest numbers to date. This sound is continued on the new wave thump of Sometimes A Fantasy. If a group like The Police or The Knack had done this, it would have been hailed as a great single. Like many new wave bands, Joel had an ear for a melody developed from way back and this stood him in good stead as he launched his own brand of power pop.

The old McCartney-esque balladeer instincts haven’t left him completely, however, and they are used here to the max on the breezy, tuneful Don’t Ask Me Why
The big hit from the album was the infectious, singalong It’s Still Rock’n’Roll To Me. Again, many new wave acts were releasing retrospective material like this and being hailed for it. Look, Joel was a songsmith and a melodian. He didn’t need to prove anything and he duly got a big hit with this. His concept of punk-new wave was still so beautifully hook-laden, though, that however more ostensibly aggressive the album was, the very skills and talents that had got him this far were still apparent. You can’t keep a good songwriter down.

A personal favourite has always been the melodramatic, ABBA-esque All For Leyna (listen to that Ulvaeus-influenced piano intro). it is a punchy but tuneful piece of melodious but spiky rock. It was a minor hit and deservedly so. 
I Don’t Want To Be Alone is a deceptively appealing number with real hints of Joe Jackson’s 1979-80 material in it, for me. It has a vaguely white reggae groove to it with a sumptuous bass line too. It is possibly the most new wave number on the album. Sleeping With The Television On has some nice guitar riffs, big drums and yet again, some killer hooks. Once more, there is something Joe Jackson-ish here. All very thin tie and sharp suits. C’Etait Toi (You Were The One) changes the mood as Joel sings at times in French over a jaunty French cafĂ© accordion-driven backing. Nothing angry or confrontational about this. The riffiness returns on the next one with the chunky rock of Close To The Borderline which has Joel sounded ever so slightly like Robert Plant in places. The album closes with the laid-back McCartney-style strains of Through The Long NightSo, yes, he may have been clad in a leather jacket on the front cover, smashing a glass window, and a new wave thin tie and blazer on the back but Joel didn’t really prove himself a punk. He was far too fond of a melody and a killer couplet for that. His efforts to prove a point resulted in a highly enjoyable album, nevertheless.

The Nylon Curtain (1982)
  
After two critically-acclaimed albums in The Stranger and 52nd Street, the somewhat patchy Glass Houses in 1980 began something of a fallow period for Billy Joel. This album, from 1982, was, in my opinion, his most inaccessible, introspective album. 

Over 35 years on, and I still can’t really get into it. That is also acknowledging that it contains two bona fide Joel classics in Allentown, about the declining US steel industry, and the monumental, evocative Goodnight Saigon, about the horrors of the Vietnam War. This track sits completely at variance with the rest of the album, however. I am really not sure what it is doing there. I find the other tracks very up and down, to be honest. Laura is a cynical, almost miserable John Lennon-esque tirade against a former lover; Pressure is a lot better, a synthesiser dominated (but in a good way) pounding, insistent number. She's Right On Time is a Beatles-ish (certainly the chorus) acceptable number, but it is nowhere near the standard of earlier material. Not at all. Nevertheless, I quite like it. A Room Of Our Own just seems a lazy rocker. Again, it sounds like filler from a mid 1970s Wings album, which people would forgive because it was Paul McCartney. The middle bit (about a tin of sardines) is such a Lennon plagiarism, both musically and lyrically it is untrue. 

Then there is the Run For Your Life similarity. In trying to sound like Lennon and McCartney, Billy just seems to have lost his mojo here. Some people seem quite happy with his channelling his “inner Beatles”, however, it must be said. Why, he even sported a McCartney Let It Be style beard too. Surprises just gets nowhere for me. Again, there are tinges of The Beatles in it. I can’t really explain why this album just can't reach me. I am at a loss really. I own every Billy Joel album and can listen to them all every now and again and enjoy them. Not this one. I will continue to plough through it for the sake of this review. Scandinavian Skies is Joel’s Revolution 9 (comparatively - considering his previous material). It is a pretentious, discordant mishmash of God knows what. Bizarre lyrics based loosely around a tour to Sweden. Lennon impersonations, Walrus orchestration, funny background noises, classical stylings. My oh my, it is truly awful. Unlistenable (at times). I realise, of course, that this is just my personal opinion. Some people love this and feel it is one of his most adventurous, ground-breaking compositions. Probably the best thing to do is download it and see what you think. Many would completely disagree with me. Funnily enough, I find sometimes it strangely compelling and find myself listening to it every now and again. Maybe that is its strength. Therein is the quandary within this album.

Even some pleasant saxophone cannot save the moribund Where's The Orchestra. Sorry, this album just doesn't do it for me. Some see it as Joel's Sgt Pepper. Joel himself says it is the best thing he ever did. Who am I to argue? Give it a chance, I guess. Every couple of years I do. I refuse to completely write it off. Maybe someday the penny will drop. Oh, and the remastered sound is truly fantastic. Big, full and punchy. Pressure sounds particularly impressive.

An Innocent Man (1983)

After 1982's somewhat controversial and questionably patchy release in The Nylon Curtain, where Billy Joel tried, with varying results, to channel his inner John Lennon, he was back, two years later, trying to evoke the vibe of the doo-wop era of the late 50s-early 60s, in particular Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons.
                
It was a far more commercially successful and accessible album than its often introspective, angry and, at times, plain weird predecessor. Kicking off with the upbeat and harmonious Stax-y Easy Money, we then get a real Joel classic in the sad yearnings of An Innocent Man, with is beautiful vocal. The Longest Time is one of the most "doo-wop" of the tracks, great harmonies abound and a killer chorus, while This Night sees Joel stealing a riff from Beethoven, so to speak, for the chorus. Tell Her About It is a more down and dirty, slightly blues-influenced upbeat rocker.

Uptown Girl sees Joel in full rich girl-poor guy mode and doing his best Frankie Valli falsetto. Unsurprisingly, it was a huge number one hit. Below is a still from the accompanying garage-set video. Yes, I know, it has a certain ludicrous look to it. Look at those expressions! Careless Talk is a fifties-influenced slower rock 'n' roll number, while Christie Lee goes into full saxophone-driven rock 'n' roll. Leave A Tender Moment Alone is a romantic "slowie" with an appealing harmonica solo from guest blower Toots Thielemans.

The album ends with one of its most attractive songs in Keeping The Faith - an evocative throwback to the fifties Joel grew up in with all sorts of contemporary cultural references thrown in. Yes, The Nylon Curtain takes much longer to get into, but this album is far more instant, and, consequently a bit more disposable. A bit like Born In The USA, Brothers In Arms or Thriller. I have to admit I listen to other Billy Joel albums a lot more. Not to denigrate it, though, it is a good one.

The Bridge (1986)
                                 
Like its title suggests, this is something of a bridging album for Billy Joel, after the huge commercial success of An Innocent Man and its multiple hit singles from two years earlier and Storm Front from three years later. It has great memories of 1986 for me.

Joel produced a much less commercial album here and in many ways it is the better for it. It is a pretty credible effort, to be fair. There is no obvious hit single on here, although the riffy rocker that was A Matter Of Trust was a middling hit. There are two wonderful, sweeping romantic numbers on the album - the lovely, evocative This Is The Time with its instant build up chorus and Temptation, a number that sees Joel's deep, alluring and melodic voice on top form. He just has such a way of producing a real, catchy hook to a song that maybe slow in its build up but has that tuneful drama in its chorus. Both of these have that to the max. Running On Ice is a frantic, piano-driven rocker to kick things off with another glorious hook. All good stuff. This is actually one of my favourite Billy Joel albums.

Billy doesn't neglect his beloved jazzy blues either and his duet with Ray Charles on Baby Grand is bluesy, soulful and pretty magnificent, to be honest. Big Man On Mulberry Street (pictured here from the turn of the 20th century) has Billy revisiting his old New York haunts, something which guarantees and atmospheric song. It merges big band punch, jazzy vocals, brass riffs and a New York urban soundscape. An impressive cornerstone of the album. Modern Woman is an upbeat, slightly cynical, slightly witty take on strong contemporary women who give the singer the runaround, while the slightly staccato, shuffling Code Of Silence features Cyndi Lauper on vocals with Joel. 
Getting Closer is another of those slow songs with a killer hook on its refrain. Joel was just the master of those sort of instantly recognisable songs at the time. I prefer this album to An Innocent Man. Another good one.

Storm Front (1989)
        
Three years after The Bridge, 1989’s Storm Front was probably Billy Joel’s last decent album. Indeed, the patchy River Of Dreams was the only subsequent release before his muse deserted him and he seemed to go into semi-retirement and undertake to occasional tour and no more.

This album featured quite a few rock tracks - the heavy-ish chugging opener, That's Not Her Style; the pop rock of I Go To Extremes; the horn-driven soulful rock of When In Rome; the rock ballad Shameless and the powerful, clunky Storm Front. All very upbeat, on the whole, and energetic. Then, of course, there is the unique and extremely appealing We Didn't Start The Fire, featuring name checks from the fifties onwards of politicians, singers, cultural figures and mentions of various notable incidents. All of this over a frantic rock beat. A classic hit single and a track Billy Joel will long be remembered for. I have friends who are not Joel fans in any way, yet they love that song.

The archetypal Joel melodic, attractive, meaningful ballads included here are the tremendously evocative Leningrad - about a US-Russian friendship during the bleak cold war years - and the haunting The Downeaster Alexa, a moving song about the fishing industry. There is also And So It Goes, a quiet, piano-driven ballad that closes the album and State Of Grace, a mid-paced musical and enjoyable number with an addictive hook, the sort of song that Billy Joel has done so well over the years. Overall, a highly competent album. The musicianship is high quality as indeed in the sound on this latest remastering.

River Of Dreams (1993)
           
In 1993 Billy Joel suddenly called a halt on his recording-songwriting career. He still occasionally tours, singing his material from 1972-1993, but since 1993 he has not released an album. He seemed to suddenly lose interest and also his muse. Fair enough, if he felt he hadn't got it in him, or hadn't got the desire then that was a fine, honest decision on his part.

This was an album that subsequently didn't get much of my attention, which is probably a bit of a shame, as it is not a bad album at all and a fair swansong. 
No Man's Land is a crashing rock number to open with, with a bit of an Elvis Costello & The Attractions keyboard-drum sound, particularly at the beginning. It is a lyrically cynical song about big business and high-level corruption. The Great Wall Of China is a shuffling, powerful number, pretty typical of Joel's later material, full of power and purpose and appealing vocal delivery. Once again, the lyrics are realist and questioning. There is some great guitar soloing half way through from veteran Danny Kortchmar and Joel's voice is commanding and melodic throughout. It is a bit of a hidden Joel classic.

Blonde Over Blue has an attractive drum rhythm and another world-weary lyric. Joel's vocal is good, as are the synthesiser backing passages. Its appeal is not as instant as much of his earlier material, but a few listens and it gets there. 
A Minor Variation is a muscular, slow-paced but strong bluesy thumper of a number. It features a vibrant horn section. Joel could always deliver a bluesy vocal and he does just that here. Shades Of Grey is an ebullient, infectious song with Joel sounding committed and enthusiastic, as he sings two men's parts as they address each other. All About Soul is one of the last Joel classics which features an absolutely killer, uplifting chorus that makes one remember just what a great artist Billy Joel was, what an ear for a tune he had and what a great voice too. I talk about him in the past tense because his career is now in the past, even though he is alive and well at 70 in 2019. Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel) is a tender piano ballad to one of his three daughters. Sometimes songs like this can be quite mawkish (John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart are all guilty), but I have to say that this one is quite delightful.

The final Joel classic is to be found in the doo-wop glory of The River Of Dreams and its addictive harmonies behind Joel's falsetto vocal. He cuts loose on the piano too - like the true piano man he is. The clip below shows him, backed by a large gospel choir, delivering a great performance of the song at the Grammy awards. 
Two Thousand Years is a big, grandiose, anthemic ballad. There is something Elton John-ish about it. The final track is a sad but musically uplifting one in Famous Last Words. "These are the last words I have to say..." sings Billy over an attractive rhythm and piano melody. This is a really good song and a fine one for Billy Joel to bow out on. Hey Billy - thanks, man.

Steeleye Span



"Steeleye Span is like a bus. It goes along, and people get on and get off it. Sometimes the bus goes along the route you want to go, and sometimes it turns off, so you get off" - Maddy Prior 

Hark! The Village Wait (1970)


This was the first album from Steeleye Span, and the only one to feature Ashley HutchingsTerry and Gay WoodsMaddy Prior and Tim Hart. It was an album that showed their desire to merge folk music with rock instrumentation.

A-Calling On Song is a brief a capella introduction to what we are about to hear, “so now you’ve heard our intention, we’ll play on to the beat of the drum”, they sing, and, duly summoned, a powerful drum begins The Blacksmith. It is a suitably powerful narrative ballad of pledged love and we are introduced for the first time to the crystal clear medieval-sounding voice of the marvellous Maddy Prior. This is a strong, confident song to begin with and the quality is continued with the evocative Fisherman’s Wife. Although the band have yet to go “full electric”, they certainly are not just acoustic guitar and fiddles. Drums are liberally employed as is bass guitar. It is still folk music, though, but played with these two essentially rock instruments backing it. Electric guitar does appear too, to great effect, at times.

Blackleg Miner is an early Steeleye Span classic. Tim Hart is on lead vocals on this biting condemnation of a miner breaking a strike. It is backed by a thumping drum and cutting guitar sound. Maddy Prior returns for the solid, muscular, bassy The Dark-Eyed Sailor and she is joined, as she is on many tracks on this album, by Gay Woods, who would return many years later to replace Prior when she left the group for a while. A harmonium adds an attractive backing to this one too. The song is rather reminiscent of some of the material Pentangle did around the same time. Copshawholme Fair has some psychedelic-sounding electric guitar like something by The Velvet Underground. and some appealing, melodic mandolin parts. Prior’s voice soars confidently over both, however. She contributes similarly, with Woods, on the harmonious All Things Are Quite SilentThe Hills Of Greenmore is a mid-pace, male vocal, solidly rock number with some excellent rock drumming.

My Johnny Was A Shoemaker is a short a capella. Lowlands Of Holland is the most conventional, rock-style song on the album, with a typical rock drum pattern and rock bass guitar. It is an evocative, lengthy narrative ballad with a seafaring theme. It is a most atmospheric and powerful song, augmented by some excellent guitar and fiddle. 
Twa Corbies (pictured) is another short, largely vocal number, with a bit of percussion and bass. One Night As I Lay On My Bed is a mandolin-driven strong number, once again with some solid drums. Incidentally, the “wait” in the title is not referring to “waiting”, but to a group of village musicians called a “wait”. “Hark”, meaning “listen” - “listen to the village band”, basically. Overall, this was a most impressive debut, and many of the songs went on to be played by the band for many years, demonstrating the strength of the material.

Please To See The King (1971)

For their second offering, Steeleye Span continued playing folk music with concessions to electric rock. The rock drums of their debut album, Hark! The Village Wait were no longer present here (which was a shame) and the very distinctive harsh electric guitar sound was to the fore. This is a far bleaker album than its predecessor. Very much a dense, cold wintry album, for me. It does have considerable atmosphere, nevertheless.
                                 
The songs are again all traditional. The band’s hearts are still very much set in the past, but using contemporary electric backing. The Blacksmith (re-worked from the first album, completely differently) is a stark, vocal ballad sung against a cutting, industrial solo electric guitar. A bit of bass comes in half way through, but it is largely Maddy Prior’s strong, dominating voice plus a few vocal harmonies. The tale is one of unrequited, frustrated love. 

The bleakness expressed in the title of Cold, Haily, Windy Night is reflected in another clunking, solid guitar sound, backed by some effective fiddle (violinist Peter Knight had now joined the band). This song is a male-female duet. The starkness of sound had been fine on these first two atmospheric songs, but it doesn’t quite work when applied to the instrumental Jigs Medley that is up next, rendering them a bit too harsh and comparatively lifeless. The jigs as performed on subsequent albums were much better, with Peter Knight given far more license to improvise. These here suffer from a slightly dull sound.

Prince Charlie Stuart (pictured) is a melodically sung lament from the Jacobean times, with the guitar sounding skirling, like bagpipes. Maddy Prior’s soaring voice is excellent on this one. 
The Boys Of Bedlam is a fiddle-driven, male vocal real ale pub folk song. It has an excellent bass solo part in the middle. The male voices continue on the slighty irritating False Knight On The Road with its vocals sung so quickly as to almost render them incomprehensible. The fiddle and electric guitar backing is atmospheric, however. Maddy Prior is back for the fetching, harmonious The Lark In The Morning which once again features some killer guitar and fiddle, laying down the basis of the group’s sound for the next few years (three more albums). Female Drummer has a classic Steeleye guitar riff, the like of which they would recycle many more times. Maddy Prior sings of a tale, as the title suggests, of a young girl who became a drummer in the army, dressing up as a boy in order to do so, until she was betrayed. This theme is also expressed on Pentangle's A Maid That's Deep In Love, about a girl who went to sea dressed as a man.

The King is one of those short, a capella, multi-voice songs they had come to specialise in. Lovely On the Water is my favourite song from the album, a haunting, beautiful vocal from Maddy Prior over a slightly Eastern-sounding solo guitar. The closer, a bizarre cover of Buddy Holly’s Rave On with annoying staccato, stuttering parts on the vocal, is completely incongruous and superfluous. They would do this sort of thing again, however, notably on Now We Are Six. Overall, I prefer the previous album, but this one is not without its sombre appeal.


Ten Man Mop, Or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again (1971)

Again eschewing drums after using them on their debut album, but not on their second, Steeleye Span served up some more traditional folk songs backed mainly by the jarring electric guitar, bass and assorted string instruments. The album is very much in the vein of the previous album, Please To See The King, but it is slighter lighter in tone and less bleak. Despite the electric guitar, it is one of the group’s purest folk albums. There really isn’t much “rock” to be found at all, certainly not in comparison to Hark! The Village Wait.                    
Gower Wassail has all the group’s members taking turns on lead vocals over what was by now fast becoming a trademark, sightly menacing guitar. The song is a classic example of Steeleye’s use of electric guitar to back folk songs. When reviewing the previous album, I criticised the Jigs medley for having a bit of a sombre tone to it. This is not the case here - the jigs are delivered in true lively, jaunty and exhilarating style. Fiddle, mandolin, finger-picking guitar are all featured and a rousing time is had by all. More of your best ale please, Landlord. Four Nights Drunk is a male vocal condemnation of a drunken man sung in traditional folk style over a solo fiddle backing. The fiddle is excellent but the vocal a little irritating. The song ends with an impressive “jig” instrumental part that is the song’s best bit, by far.

When I Was On Horseback sees the first solo outing for the fine voice of Maddy Prior, singing an Irish lament against a bassy, violin and guitar backing. The song is a mounrnful one, and last six minutes, but it is evocative and full of haunting atmosphere. 
Marrowbones is one of the album’s most essential folk songs, with a “farra-de-diddle-la-de-lay” refrain sung lustily over a folky fiddle backing. The mysterious Captain Coulston has an intoxicating bass and electric guitar intro and an eerily appealing vocal from Maddy Prior. The Reels that come next are delightfully played, once again lively and refreshing. Wee Weaver is a plaintive Prior vocal-violin lament and is another piece of pure folk. Skewball is a finger-picking backed number about horse racing. This one is very traditional folk as well, another one with heavy Irish influences. It has some seriously heavy electric guitar interjections too. General Taylor is sung by all the group a capellaThis album is probably Steeleye Span’s most essentially folk album, with the fewest electric stylings or enhancements, more vocals, more fiddle, more traditional inflections to the songs. The “folk songs played with a rock backing” concept that was so impressive on their debut album was in danger of becoming a bit forgotten here.

Below The Salt (1972)

After three albums experimenting to greater and lesser extents with “electric folk” and changing members, this was Steeleye Span’s first album with what would be, for many, one of their most memorable line-ups. Martin Carthy and Ashley Hutchings had left and Rick Kemp (bass) and Bob Johnson (guitar) had joined Tim HartPeter Knight and Maddy Prior. Despite the continued lack of drums, the sound now had a much more full, polished tone and, in many ways, this is the group’s first great album. Steeleye Span were fast becoming the UK’s foremost folk/rock band, leaving groups like Fairport Convention’s latest incarnation as well as Fotheringay, Pentangle and The Strawbs in their wake.
                            
Spotted Cow is a jaunty, electric riff-driven Maddy Prior vocal song, with a full, impressive sound. Prior’s voice is crystal clear, as indeed it is on the rousing, hymnal, a capella Rosebud In June. the group all sing harmoniously together, as if in church, but they sing of when “a lad takes his lass on the green, green grass…”. There has always been an earthy, lusty side to Steeleye Span. The by now obligatory Jigs (Medley) is an excellent one - lively, uplifting and well played with a variety of instrumentation and a clear, bassy, stereo sound (particularly when compared to the dense sound of the jigs on Please To See The King). The sound is now harder, more warm, solid and muscular. This is exemplified on the powerful, changeable Sheepcrook And Black Dog. The guitar is superb on here, less harsh than on previous albums and Prior’s voice is stunningly versatile. 

Royal Forester is another Prior-led classic piece of Steeleye folk, augmented by some excellent bass, guitar and fiddle. The harsh, bleak sound of Please To See The King and the ale-quaffing pure folk of Ten Map Mop had been refined considerably on here and the rock potential of Hark! The Village Wait was being explored again.

King Henry is without doubt, the first true Steeleye Span classic. A seven minute narrative tale with all members contributing vocals, wonderful varied instrumentation and changes of pace. It has a truly fantastic sound quality too. Peter Knight’s violin is superb thoughout. 
The quality continues on the male vocal-led John Barleycorn. Maddy Prior is back on vocals for the beguiling Saucy Sailor, which ends this all too short and excellent album. Definitely one of Steeleye Span’s finest offerings. The heart and soul of electric traditional folk. Also included is the Latin seasonal a capella incantation, Gaudete, which gave the band their unlikely first hit single.

Parcel Of Rogues (1973)
                    
Perhaps, more than any other of their many albums, this is Steeleye Span's quintessential "electric folk" offering. The traditional folk songs and intricate vocal harmonies of their first few albums were now augmented by a searing, sharp, cleaving electric guitar and, on a couple of tracks, a full drum kit was now used, as opposed to the occasional single drum. The guitar is amplified considerably and adds an incisive loudness to the often quiet folk songs, maybe helping to express one of the album's theme - the Thomas Hardy-esque one of social change from the old and traditional to the new. The electric guitar, of course, represented the new. There is no throwaway indulgent "filler" on this album, as on a couple of their later works. Quality folk rock all the way, similar to Fairport Convention's Liege And Lief.
         

The opener, One Misty Moisty Morning, sees new use of electric guitar knows no bounds on this track, even wah-wah is used above Maddy Prior's soaring folk voice. It is a narrative, rousing folk song backed by the afore-mentioned guitar, plus bass and some razor-sharp acoustic guitars. Alison Gross is an amusing but dark tale of a young man pressurised by an ugly old witch into "relations". He refuses and she turns him via spell, into a worm. A powerful electric guitar riff adds to the tension of the song. The Bold Poachers begins in a more understated, male voice style, backed with acoustic guitar and the gentle, lilting bass, this song also ends with some pedal steel guitar parts as it fades out. The tale is, as the tale suggests, about a couple of poachers, a crime which was treated far more seriously in the 18th century, from whence the song dates. 

The Ups And Downs is a harmonious very "folky" song. Less electric attack on this one. More acoustic. Great vocal harmonies from the whole group and a traditional "reel" style backing and "foddle de diddle" lyrics. Ideal for ale swilling and country dancing. It also mentions the town I grew up in - Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. Robbery With Violins is an exciting, lively Irish jig-style instrumental (indeed, it is better known as "The Bank Of Ireland" and is used in the film "Titanic") that shows off violin virtuoso Peter Knight's skills after an almost funky wah-wah intro. Unfortunately a little too short. Just as you are enjoying it, it ends. For The Wee Wee Man full drums are utilised. Excellent male voice harmonies, catchy chorus and a pounding beat and the now ubiquitous electric guitar chopping away. An Appalachian dulcimer is used here too, to great effect near the end. 

The Weaver And The Factory Maid is one of the album's purest folk songs, acoustically instrumented, largely more highly impressive violin, its tale reflects the tension between industry and country. Maddy Prior's vocal is both clear and mournful. Overdubbing is used so that her voice appears out of three channels, as if three women are singing. A single drum is added to some parts of the song to great effect. Rogues In A Nation has a stunning, moving a capella vocal introduction, backed again by one drum. There is some excellent guitar-violin interplay at the end too. The lyrics are an adaptation of Robert Burns' poem denouncing the 1707 Act Of Union between England and Scotland.

Cam Ye O'er Frae France is the album's rollicking highpoint, with Maddy Prior singing in Borders dialect about George 1 and his mistress - "riding on a goosie" in somewhat saucy terms against a crashing electric and sharp acoustic backing and a full drum sound, often in military marching style. As the album comes to a close, the last two tracks are perhaps the most "folky" and, indeed, the most beautiful. On Hares On The Mountain, overdubbing is used so that Peter Knight's two mandolins, recorders and harmonium are heard together, resulting in a most melodious outcome. Bob Johnson contributes a sad sounding vocal on this one too. 
Bonny Moorhen is another lovely track that sees Maddy Prior on great vocal form, again. Crystal clear, knife through butter acoustic guitars ring like a bell behind Prior's haunting vocal and a lovely, deep bass guitar underpinning the song too.

Now We Are Six (1974)

This is an album that marks even more of a sea change for Steeleye Span. Having produced a true electric folk rock classic in the previous year's Parcel Of Rogues they now went into full rock band mode by adding rock drummer Nigel Pegrum to their five members, hence the title borrowed from A.A. Milne's Winnie The Pooh. It is a "curate's egg" of an album (good in parts, as the phrase supposedly means, but I have never understood why). There is some truly excellent material on here, but there also a few examples of indulgent drivel, possibly the result of some inebriated time in the studio, or possibly just a gross misjudgement (the group have admitted to both, I believe). So, the album gets halfway to being the full on folk rock album it set out to be. The follow-up, Commoner's Crown, did the job far more effectively, but the good stuff on this album cannot be ignored.
                 
Seven Hundred Elves is a good start. A fast paced, full band backed slightly unnerving tale of woodland elves coming from out of the woods to take their revenge on the callous farmer who chopped down the trees in the wood, destroying their habitat. Drink Down The Moon/Cuckoo starts as a slow, beautiful ballad highlighting Maddy Prior's voice and ends as an upbeat, violin jig with lyrics about the cuckoo and its proclivities for squatting in other birds' nests. Now We Are Six is the first of two unforgivable songs where the band, inexplicably, put on high child-like voices and try to sound a children's choir. They just about get away with it on this one, as it is not a bad song, but only just. 

Thomas The Rhymer. Now, that's more like it - a true Steeleye Span classic. Adapting the folk legend of "Thomas The Rhymer", a Scottish Borders character from a village called Earlston (where he is commemorated to this day) who has dalliances with the Queen of Elfland. The song undergoes many changes in pace and ambience. Some slow, haunting build up lead in and out of the heavy electric guitar riff of the rousing "harp and carp, come along with me" chorus and we get to hear Nigel Pegrum's true value on the drums for the first time. Then it is back to the insistent build up to the final chorus, with Maddy Prior on fine form - "don't you see yon bonny, bonny road....". Great stuff.

The Mooncoin Jig is a fiddle and mandolin dominated and highly appealing instrumental, Irish-style jig. Enjoyable, as these jigs always are. 
Edwin is a narrative rock and violin chugger of a song, sung on lead by Rick Kemp concerning, it would seem, the killing of a young man, Edwin, by the parents of his young lover and the grief of the young girl, Emma, for her lost love. A seriously heavy guitar riff right at the end, hinting at the band's new direction. Long A-Growing is a sad tale, sung beautifully by Maddy Prior of a young man who wishes to grow to win his maiden's love, he does indeed grow, marries, has a child, then dies at eighteen. A tragic tale, as many of these traditional folk tales are. The lively Two Magicians is a traditional, very "folky" song with a tongue-twisting chorus and a tale of a young girl who doesn't fancy the idea of losing her maidenhead to a grubby, dusty blacksmith and ends up becoming a nun. Some killer violin from Peter Knight too.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is the other big "children's voices" mistake. Unlistenable. What were they thinking? They have since admitted the same thing. 
To Know Him Is To Love Him is a strange ending to what could have been a corker of an album. A cover of The Teddy BearsPhil Spector-produced late 50s hit, featuring, surprisingly, David Bowie on saxophone. Despite that, it's not great, to be honest.

Commoners' Crown (1975)
                 
The second of Steeleye Span’s fully-fledged electric folk albums and the last before new producer Mike Batt would help them achieve chart success. After Now We Are Six, with its occasional lapse into poor quality indulgence, this was, thankfully, a far more well-rounded and credible album. Immaculately played, a wonderful mix of heavy guitar riffs, strong drums and folky fiddle parts and, of course, Maddy Prior’s almost medieval voice, the songs on this album are strong and often tragic, as many of these traditional folk ballads were.

Little Sir Hugh is about the murder of a young boy and the frightening tale of Long Lankin involves the murder (and possible rape) of a housewife on her own in her house by a mysterious visitor. It is a truly unnerving song. These songs, grisly as they are, are the album’s highlights.

There is also the customary fiddle reel, this time based upon a pice by Bach entitled Bach Goes To Limerick, which merges Bach’s music with an Irish country reel. 
Demon Lover is a harmonious, catchy and tuneful Irish-sounding song, but to this day I have no idea what it is about and the same applies to the perplexing Elf Call. The latter has a great drum and guitar sound though. Dogs And Ferrets is an appealing slice of traditional ale-swilling English country folk. Sung a capella It lifts the mood somewhat after the morbid Long Lankin. As indeed does the intriguing, lilting folk air of Galtee Farmer, backed by an insistent, throbbing electric guitar. Weary Cutters is an Irish-sourced a capella folk ballad, faultlessly sung by Prior and New York Girls is a rousing bar-room folk song based in New York, presumably sung there by immigrants from Ireland in the late 18th/early 19th century. It suddenly finishes for some reason. 

All Around My Hat (1975)
                           
This was Steeleye Span’s long-waited Mike Batt-produced shot at the big time. Trying for a more commercial, chart-friendly style of folk-rock, Batt encouraged them to up the volume on the electric guitars and drums and they certainly do that on some truly excellent tracks - the haunting tale of female unfaithfulness that is Black Jack Davy, the rousing and exhilarating fast fiddle plus electric guitar rock of Hard Times Of Old England and, of course, the only real hit single they ever had (not including the Christmas novelty Gaudete) in the rumbustuous singalong fun of All Around My Hat.

Cadgwith Anthem is a beautiful a Capella, with a lovely brass part at the end, that sees the band returning to their true folk roots, as indeed does the instrumental Sum WavesThe Wife Of Usher's Well is a beautifully melodious (with all vocalists taking roles), but sad tale of a wife who loses all three of her sons, presumably in some overseas conflict. Gamble Gold (Robin Hood) is pleasant enough, though - harmonious vocals and a great drum sound. Dance With Me is another tuneful romp based, apparently, on a Scandinavian folk song, while Bachelors' Hall has an air of grandiose mystery about it, plus some killer guitar and violin, particularly at the end.

One listen to Maddy Prior’s voice soaring along with the band as the rock kicks in on Hard Times Of Old England (scene pictured below) is just such a pleasure. Along with The Wife Of Usher’s Well, with Peter Knight’s stunning violin work, two of the band’s finest moments. Furthermore you still can’t beat Maddy’s vocal on All Around My Hat.

Rocket Cottage (1976)

Along with its predecessor, this is possibly Steeleye Span’s finest example of commercial folk rock. Once again produced by Mike Batt of Wombles “fame” (indeed, a little known fact is that several members of Steeleye Span were the musicians behind The Wombles, even donning Womble costumes to appear on “Top Of The Pops” as the furry litter picker-uppers), the album perfectly blended traditional British folk songs with a rousing electric guitar and pounding drum sound. Then, of course, as always, there was vocalist Maddy Prior’s excellent folk voice.

The album is perhaps the band's most rock-influenced album, with very prominent guitars and a strong rhythm section. Some found it too overpowering, though. Certainly, the folk purists among the band’s following were not too happy with the album, seeing it as a commercial sell-out. As it was, it didn’t sell well, as punk was starting to be the order of the day by its release. The previous album had sold well, however, maybe this one just came out at the wrong time.                                

Standout tracks, for me, however, are the afore-mentioned evocative narrative Sir James The Rose (pictured), and the adaptation of the hymn To Be A Pilgrim - the haunting Fighting For StrangersLondon is a fine, vocally harmonious opener and the beguiling Orfeo/Nathan's Reel sees the band even getting a little funky at times with a bit of wah-wah guitar. The Bosnian Hornpipes is a short a capella bit of vocal fun. The Twelve Witches is a nod to a more folky, vocal-dominated past and The Brown Girl is an understated classic, actually. It even has a semi-funky, soulful bit in the middle. The wah-wah comes out again for the upbeat, vibrant Irish-influenced instrumental, Sligo Maid and funky guitar blends with traditional Irish fiddle. Top drumming from Nigel Pegrum on this one too.

The final track, The Drunkard, sees the band begin it with an impromptu version of Camptown Races which singer Maddy Prior admits was done at a time of high drunkenness. Eventually, she pulls a superb vocal performance out of her hat, somehow. Put the best tracks from this and the previous album together and you would have a great album.One sensed that band were at something of a crossroads at this point. Indeed, unhappy with having to go along with this overly commercial approach, though, members Peter Knight and Bob Johnson left the band. I have to say I feel they were overreacting a bit. It is still a decidedly folky album in parts. Knight would return several years later, however.


Storm Force Ten (1977)


After the (comparative) success of Rocket Cottage, Steeleye Span released this follow-up directly into the maelstrom of punk. It was duly overlooked and has remained so. That is a bit of a shame because it is not a bad album at all. 


Steeleye stalwarts Bob Johnson and Peter Knight had left after the previous album and one-time member Martin Carthy re-joined the band, briefly, along with accordionist John Kirkpatrick. The latter's distinctive sound replaced the fiddle (the first time a Steeleye album did not feature that instrument), although Carthy's chunky guitar ensured that the folk rock from the previous three years remained. The accordion makes for a slightly different sound on this album, and it fits the nautical theme of several of the songs. I like its use, I have to say - it is breezy and lively. 


The album included two Bertolt Brecht covers in the haunting The Wife Of The Solider and The Black Freighter, the latter of which would seem ideally suited both to the group and the general sea-faring vibe of the album. The energetic melody of Seventeen Come Sunday recalls the jigs of the early days, albeit driven along by Kirkpatrick's lusty accordion while The Treadmill Song is an industrial revolution tale of workers' hardships. Some Rival and the enjoyable Awake, Awake are both classic Steeleye electric folk rock ballads and the album's high point is the lengthy narrative of press-ganging into the navy and service with Nelson of The VictoryThe a capella Sweep, Chimney Sweep is perfectly harmonious, although I always prefer the songs with instrumentation.

This was an end of and era release and after this, the band split for a while but the one constant on the album and in the band thus far was the versatile voice of Maddy Prior, who had the ability to be haunting, serious, uplifting, frisky, saucy and severe as to the demands of the song.


Sails Of Silver (1980)


For this "treading water" album, three years later, Carthy and Kirkpatrick were replaced by - guess who? Johnson and Knight. Steeleye's members' musical chairs continued. This is another comparatively overlooked and underrated album that is not at all bad, containing a couple of classics on it too. It was the first album to feature songs written by the band as opposed to adaptations of traditional ballads, although they are written very much in that style. 


The two standouts are the sad tale of emigration in Gone To America, which features a soaring Maddy Prior vocal, and the moving, evocative shipwreck narrative of Let Her Go Down, a song written by Knight after he had spent his time away from the band as a commercial fisherman off the coast of Hastings. Sails Of Silver is a catchy, riffy folk rocker in typical Steeleye style while My Love is a Peter Knight-led romantic ballad. Barnet Fair is an infectious and melodic singalong number that just lifts the spirits. None of this material is "1980" at all but who cares? Steeleye were never ones to follow musical trends. Senior Service follows on from Barnet Fair in similar riff-driven and poppy fashion. It has another irresistible, lusty chorus. Where Are They Now is also a rousing Prior-dominated ballad in the Gone To America style. Longbone actually does have a slight new wave feel in its jaunty beat (only just, though). 


Steeleye always liked a traditional hymn and they give us one here as the ballad Marigold morphs into a fine rendition of Harvest Home. This subtly appealing and at times most energising album ends with the tuneful and once more uplifting Tell Me Why. These mid-period Steeleye albums never quite got the credit they deserved, many seeming to have reservations about the fact that they didn't fit in with contemporary musical trends. As I said earlier - since when did that matter? The band would disappear for a while after this, however, returning six years later with a new line up. 

Back In Line (1986)

       
This is an almost forgotten album from Steeleye Span's "wilderness years" in the 1980s. It is a bit of a shame that nobody has ever bothered about it much, because it contains some good material. I really quite like this album. It doesn't get as many listenings as it deserves, I must admit. Each time I listen to it, however, I like it more and more. It has a polished, solid guitar and violin-driven rock sound to it and some punchy drums. The sound quality is excellent.


Edward is a brooding but melodic and catchy number to kick the album off, featuring Bob Johnson on vocals, unusually. Steeleye Span have started playing the song again live in recent years.

Isabel is about the imprisonment in an outdoor cage (pictured, left) of Isabella Macduff, paramour of Robert The Bruce of Scotland. It is a rousing, stately-sounding folk rock ballad with a stirring vocal from Maddy Prior, and some evocative violin from the always impressive Peter Knight. It is a marvellously atmospheric and touching song. Lady Diamond is an upbeat, lively rock number, about a young lad in service falling for a lady, once again featuring some excellent violin from Peter Knight. His skills are well and truly brought to the fore on the classical violin instrumental Canon By TelemannPeace On The Border as with Edward (possibly), IsabelTake My Heart and Lanercost concerns the medieval Scottish Wars of Independence. It is another uplifting number. Blackleg Miner is a slightly funky live re-working of the band's song from the early seventies, featuring on their debut album Hark! The Village Wait in 1970. It is a 19th century Northumbrian song about the 1844 miners strike. It is controversial for threatening death on those "blacklegs" who broke the strike and worked. 

White Man is a condemnation of colonialism and slavery. It has vague hints of South African township music about it. Covering various different events and issues in history, this is one of Steeleye Span's most overtly political albums. Lanercost refers to a North Cumbrian village and priory from which the malevolent Edward 1 attempted to subdue the Scots. It is a haunting, classically-influenced number. It utilises the Kyrie Eleison, a Christian liturgy. Scarecrow jumps several hundred years forward to the English Civil War and is an appealing, lively song (despite its grim subject matter) about The Battle Of Cropredy BridgeTake My Heart sees us return to Robert The Bruce and his request that his heart be buried in The Holy Land. In fact, his heart was buried at Melrose Abbey, also according to his instructions, apparently. This is a seriously underrated Steeleye Span album. I am not quite sure why it has never particularly found favour, even amongst followers of the group. For me, it contains some well-delivered, rocking and historically interesting songs. Don't dismiss the album as easily as you may be tempted to do.

Tempted And Tried (1989)


After the lukewarm reception afforded to the surprisingly good Back In Line, three years earlier, a seemingly-revitalised Steeleye Span produced an album that gained more critical praise and has gone down as being one of their better offerings from this transitional period. It reverted to using traditional songs once more amongst a few written by the groups and it included some lively instrumental reels for the first time for a while (since Rocket Cottage I believe). Peter Knight's contribution is once again absolutely sumptuous on here and there is a nice mixture between the haunting, tragic and joyful in the album's songs, both musically and lyrically. 


Jack Hall is an energetic number to open with, with a catchy chorus and some great vocals from all involved. It has a nice mandolin backing it as well and a killer rubbery bass line. Two Butchers has Peter Knight and new member Tim Harries on vocals and is another rousing song, packed with the sort of historical-bucolic-pastoral narrative that the band always did so well. It is good to hear Knight's fiddle so dominant too.


Maddy Prior leads proceedings on the gloriously uplifting and thumping Padstow which evokes May festivals and all sorts of summer-is-a-coming jubilation. Then we get the Reels - The First House In Connaught and Sailor's Bonnet. You can never have too much of Steeleye's jigs and reels, can you? It goes without saying that Knight's fiddle is on top form but we also get some fine Irish-style bodhran-ish rhythmic percussion. Both of the reels are great, particularly the first one. Betsy Bell & Mary Gray is a sombre, mournful and dark ballad about two women trying to avoid catching the plague but who caught it from a lad who gave them food. The usual Child Ballad tragic fare. Peter Knight's marvellous violin adds to the atmosphere, tremendously.


The gloom is lifted by the jaunty Shaking Of The Sheets - although it is a "danse macabre" whose origins lay in 13th century Italy when it was danced to rid towns of the plague. It is given a Morris Dance feel here. Searching For Lambs is a gorgeously evocative and moody slower number with a really atmospheric backing (especially the keyboards), another superb violin solo and a fine Maddy Prior vocal. I love this one. Peter Knight's Seagull is a fun romp with vague South African undertones to it. The Cruel Mother is a stark piece of guitar-driven rock. Following Me is a band-penned number about a stalker - sticking with the unnerving subject matter, then, which is no surprise. The album ends with the deliciously riffy, rocky The Fox, about the cunning of the pursued animal. Let's hope he gets away, eh?


Time (1996)


Seven more years had passed before the group's next album and, on this one we saw the vocally-suffering at the time Maddy Prior asking old friend and early band member Gay Woods to come back and help out. Woods had a different and lively voice that worked well with the group, for me. I like this a lot and also and the two subsequent albums that she would appear on. 


The Prickly Bush is a fine, riffy opener on which Woods and Prior combine perfectly. Lyrically it once more concerns hanging and trying to avoid it, a common topic for many of these 18th-early 19th century ballads. The two combine effectively again on the also impressive and enjoyable The Old Maid In The GarrettHarvest Of The Moon has a melody that puts me in mind of Billy Bragg's There Is Power In A Union (Battle Cry Of Freedom). 


There is a Celtic feel that Woods (who was Irish) had brought to proceedings and this continues as she takes lead vocals on the haunting Underneath Her Apron, which incidentally was where the song's subject kept her secretly-born baby. Peter Knight's violin on this and its predecessor is (yet again) wonderful. Cutty Wren is also very mysterious and sombre, featuring some excellent drums-percussion. Woods uses her bodhran to great effect. Go From My Window furthers the understated, brooding feel of some of the album with its mournful tone. Check out the Knopfler-esque mid-song guitar too. The eight minutes-plus of The Elf Knight ploughs a similar furrow and includes male and female vocals in tandem. It also has some fine rock parts in it, and has it got some great violin? Of course it has. It continues too, on the simply sumptuous intro to the much-covered The Water Is Wide and we are treated to another outstanding mid-song guitar solo from Bob Johnson. It has a real Irish feel to it here.


The chunky rock of You Will Burn is unnerving in the threats contained in its gruesome lyrics - "we will purify your soul in the fire...." and Corbies has a moribund darkness to it as well. The Song Will Remain is a beautiful, moving Peter Knight song to close with - he had a knack with them. This was an album packed full of seriously moving music - especially that lovely crying violin - and a real Celtic influence. Great stuff indeed.


Horkstow Grange (1998)
      
This album is notable for Steeleye Span, as it the first the recorded without taliswomanic vocalist Maddy Prior (she would return a few albums later). Here she is replaced by Gay Woods, who had appeared on their 1970 debut Hark! The Village Wait. Guitarist Bob Johnson and violinist Peter Knight are still there, though. The album has some drums on a few of the tracks, but it is far more of a folk album, as opposed to a rock one. It also has a strong Irish influence in places (Gay Woods is Irish). It is an album of folky, mournful lamenting and quite an appealing one for it

The Old Turf Fire is an Irish-sounding folk song with a typical solid Steeleye rock backing and the ubiquituous impressive violin from Peter Knight. The Tricks Of London is jaunty and re-works the traditional London Bridge Is Falling Down song. Horkstow Grange tells the tale of “Steeleye Span”, a folkloric character from whom the band were named. It is amazing it took them so long to cover this. It is largely a vocal only track, with just a bit of subtle string backing.

Lord Randall is a traditional ballad from which Bob Dylan got his inspiration for A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. It is a solid, upbeat rock number here. 
Erin is an almost anthemic traditional Irish song with a simply beautiful Peter Knight violin solo in it. Queen Mary/Hunsden House is slightly in the same vein, sung beautifully over an appealing, plucked string backing. Gay Woods’ vocal on this whole album is strong, clear and captivating, which is impessive considering she had not sung for quite a while before this unlikely return. Bonny Birdy is a male vocal traditional folk number, it is a lively one, with Woods playing the bodhran as backing. Bonny Irish Boy continues the Irish folk theme with a haunting ballad. I Wish That I Was Never Wed is a young woman’s lament about her marriage. It is a lively Irish sounding song (although I don’t think it is). 

Australia is a traditional folk number about a man being sent to Australia for petty theft. It is an often sung theme and it is done here, movingly, against a subtle acoustic folk backing. One True Love features Tim Harries on lead vocals for the first time on a melodic but plaintive love song. The Parting Glass is pretty much Woods singing solo on another ethereal mournful Irish song. Many followers of Steeleye Span were not happy with her being on lead vocals for this album. Personally, I haven’t got a problem with it. She is a different singer to Maddy Prior, the material on here is slightly different, therefore, for me, it becomes an interesting album. It is also quite a moving one in places.

Bedlam Born (2000)

After the Irish-influenced, more pure folk of 1998’s Horkstow Grange, the second “non Maddy Prior” album was completely different. It employed guest dummer Dave Mattacks far more on drums for a full, powerful rock sound. It is possibly the group’s heaviest album.
         
The opener, Well Done Liar! has Span sounding like The Rolling Stones on one of the punchiest, riffiest, rockiest tracks they ever recorded. It also has a great Peter Knight violin solo. Who Told The Butcher features Knight’s evocative, moving voice on lead (something they should have done more). It is a sad but uplifting song with an infectious chorus. I love everything about this song. John Of Ditchford has a strikingly heavy introductory guitar riff. It is a harrowing true tale of a 14th century murder. The backing is superb, crashing, searing guitar and pounding drums. I like folky Span but I also like rocky Span, so it suits me fine. Many who had complained the previous album was “too folky” were now bleating that the album was “too rock”. Folk music fans, eh? Some of the pickiest around.

I See His Blood Upon The Rose has Gay Woods (pictured below) on vocals (something she only does on five on the album’s fourteen tracks). It is an explicitly religious song, with a slow, dignified and incredibly thumping, heavy, portentous backing. Even Maddy Prior’s staunchest fans cannot deny that Woods’ voice is truly outstanding on this song. Peter Knight’s violin half way through is mysteriously beautiful. Incidentally, I met the incredibly talented Knight a few years ago. I thanked him for the fact that his music had given me forty years of pleasure. He wasn’t particularly interested. Why should he be, of course, but meeting one’s heroes can sometimes be underwhelming.

Black Swan is a beautiful, classically-influenced short instrumental interlude. The heavy vibe is back with the industrial riffs of The Beggar. As well as being muscular and hard-hitting, the sound quality on this album is superb. Peter Knight’s incredibly moving voice is back for the heartbreaking Poor Old Soldier. No-one does these sort of songs better than him. Just lovely. His haunting violin backs the odd, short spoken-word Arbour, whose thumping single drum backing is actually too resonant. There Was A Wealthy Merchant is a slow, rock ballad telling another emotive tale. The theme of a young girl dressing up as a man to follow her lover to sea has been explored before, by Pentangle on A Maid That’s Deep In Love and Steeleye on Female DrummerThe haunting Beyond The Dreaming Place has a great vocal from Woods and a searing buzzy guitar throughout. 

We Poor Labouring Men is a beautifully heavy song, with a huge rumbling bass line. It “borrows” the verse melody from the mid-seventies’ Seven Hundred ElvesGay Woods is once again outstanding on the captivating The Connemara Cradle Song. Knight’s violin is just top notch too. Stephen is a song about a boy in Bethlehem at the time Herod massacred children. It is a powerful song. White Cliffs of Dover is an experimental re-working of the classic Vera Lynn song, semi-spoken by Woods, against a sonorous industrial-sounding synthesiser backing, like something off David Bowie’s “Heroes”I think this is a superb album. One of the group’s best, harking back to those great folk-rock mid-seventies albums. Yes, Gay Woods is not Maddy Prior, but she has her own strengths. Both of the vocalists as suited to Steeleye Span’s songs, for me, anyway. I enjoy listening to them both. In many ways, I find Woods the more powerful of the two, with better enunciation on occasions. Not something easy to say, given Prior’s iconic status. Anyway, that is another debate. This is a highly recommended album. I wonder who the farm labourers were on the picture above and how they would feel to know that very pose would end up captured forever and end up on things like this. No doubt they would find it totally incomprehensible.

They Called Her Babylon (2004)


It was now 2004 and Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp returned to the band, four years after their previous release and a full eight years since Prior had recorded with them. The Gay Woods albums had been good ones, it has to be said, but there was certainly a comforting feeling to be gained from Maddy’s return. The critics dusted down all their "return to form" quotes.

A regularly visited subject was that of forced emigration and we are told here of those transported to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) for committing small or spurious crimes. It is delivered in archetypal fiddle-driven chunky and energetic Steeleye style. The solidity continues on the muscularly riffy Samain. Peter Knight takes lead vocals over a catchy and insistent rock backing. 


Heir Of Linne is a typical haunting but strong Maddy Prior-Peter Knight dominated ballad. Bride's Farewell is a quiet and melodic, beguiling number while Babylon is the album's big narrative tale - detailing Charlotte, Countess Of Derby's redoubtable defence of her home (Lathom House in Lancashire) for four months during the English Civil War in 1644. It is enhanced by some seriously impressive violin and guitar, mid-song. Mantle Of Green is a delicate Prior vocal, beautiful violin and acoustic guitar love ballad and Bede's Death Song is a brief, forty second medieval semi-chant. Diversus And Lazarus is deliciously riffy, as so many of the band's songs are, also, all the band's vocalists combine to great effect. Peter Knight's always sumptuous violin  is simply wonderful on the Celtic instrumental Si Begh Si Mohr


Steeleye have always loved a gruesome ballad and they serve one up here in the tale of Child Owlet, dreadfully executed for a supposed dalliance with a noble lady. What's The Life Of A Man? is a powerful, almost rock ballad to end with, lit up by a stadium rock guitar solo too. Always versatile.


Winter (2004)

This is a truly wonderful Christmas-winter album as Christmas goes electric folk rock. The UK's finest electric folk rockers lend their experienced hands and voices to this appealing collection of carols, traditional winter songs and a couple of their own seasonal compositions. Some of the material on here are among my favourite Christmas numbers of all time, and the album gets a rousing  play in my house in the period December 19th to the 25th. I find it hard to believe that anyone could not enjoy some of the songs on here. It is simply joyful in places. Traditional folk festive fare at its finest.

                             
Top of the bill, for me, are the barnstorming folk rock versions of The First Nowell (given the traditional spelling, of course) and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, which are given the full All Around My Hat rocking treatment. 

Good King Wenceslas is delivered at a breakneck pace, full of almost punky guitar riffs, as if The Ramones are in the studio with them. In the Bleak Midwinter is just glorious, with Maddy Prior's crystal clear voice at its haunting best, accompanied by Peter Knight's evocative violin. See, Amid The Winter's Snow is awarded a lusty, hymnal delivery that just raises the spirits upon hearing. It is one of my favourite winter hymns. The remaining material are mainly traditional folk songs with a winter relevance, along with the negro spiritual Blow Your Trumpet Gabriel, the first time the group have explored that particular genre. All the album has a fine late winter's afternoon ambience to it, but those folk rock carols are just majestic. Highly recommended. Forget your Michael BublĂ© or Rod Stewart roasting their chestnuts on an open fire, put this on for half an hour.

Bloody Men (2006)

After thirty-six years of releasing high quality folk-rock, Steeleye Span proved that they could still do it with this vibrant and confident double album. The line-up was Maddy PriorRick KempPeter KnightKen Nicol and drummer Liam Genocky.
                                                    
The album kicks off with the delightfully bawdy Bonny Black Hare, which is something a young girl says can be found “under my apron”. It is full of saucy double entendres, is sung by Maddy Prior in suitably lascivious fashion ad Peter Knight plays his violin to make it sound like an electric guitar, wild and screechy. It is an excellent track, full of verve and vitality. The Story Of The Scullion King is a male vocal song written by the group, but very much in the style of the traditional ballads they had been singing for all those years. Quite what it is about is difficult to decipher. It is historical, as to be expected, but quite what incident it is describing I am unclear about. It has a rock, as opposed to folk, beat to it. The next track, The Dreamer And The Widow, is a tender ballad with Maddy Prior on lead vocal singing over a gentle acoustic guitar and violin backing. She sweetly leads on Lord Elgin as well, a melodic catchy, almost AOR-sounding band-penned tune. Once again, Peter Knight’s violin backing is sumptuous as is the lead guitar. This is a very appealing song, they seem to have discovered the knack of writing songs that sound like traditional songs, yet have a contemporary, commercial feel to them.

Three Sisters is a delightful, thoroughly infectious, upbeat number, with all members singing harmoniously over a riffy backing. I love this one. The 1st House In Connaught is a jaunty Irish jig, with Knight’s violin to the fore. Steeleye have often re-worked previously recorded songs, this jig is re-worked from 1989’s Tempted And Tried and next they do it again with Cold, Haily, Windy Night from 1971’s Please To See The King, which is given a pulsating rock makeover compared to the bleak original rendering of it. 

Whummil Bore is a song about a servant lad looking through a bore-hole in the wall at The King’s daughter as her maids were dressing her. It is a beautifully sung song by Maddy Prior, and is actually rather a moving, sad lament about his adoration of her beauty as opposed to the creepy tale it may initially seem. Demon In The Well features some addictive blues guitar over a solid, punchy insistent drum sound. It is Steeleye doing a slow folk blues. Most impressive and muscularly powerful. Lord Gregory is a dignified slow rock ballad, with more great guitar and violin.

Disc 2 is a first for Steeleye Span - a five-part suite of songs about folkloric 18th century character Ned Ludd, from whom social protest group The Luddites took thier name. They objected to the mechanisation of traditional industries. Their gripe has been somewhat misinterpreted over the years. They feared the decline of traditional skills and the erosion of workers’ rights and subsequent poor treatment more than they objected to progress. While the songs are all connected, narratively, they also function well individually. The experiment works and is immaculately played, particularly by Peter Knight, as always. Check out the solo on Ned Ludd Part 3. The songs are all appealing and catchy and the suite is most enjoyable (educational too). In conclusion, this was a very impressive, immaculately played and sung album from a group who just never seem to get old.


Cogs, Wheels & Lovers (2009)
                      
This is another in the series of excellent albums that a revitalised Steeleye Span released in the early 2000s. As always, it sources traditional folk balladry for the background and lyrics of the songs. As with most of the latter-day Steeleye albums, it features a full rock backing.

Gallant Frigate Amphitrate (pictured below) starts the album with a huge thumping rock rhythm. It is a historical seafaring song with a typically atmospheric, confident vocal from Maddy Prior. Another evocative vocal leads the melodic Locks And BoltsPeter Knight's violin and Rick Kemp's subtly strong bass are impressive on here. Creeping Jane is a lively, rousing number about a racehorse. It utilises that rock beat that the group used on All Around My Hat and Hard Times Of Old England (and also on some Wombles singles for which the band were session musicians in the mid-seventies). Again, the violin is excellent. Just As The Tide is a catchy, mid-pace piece of folk rock with another lovely vocal. You just can't beat Peter Knight's violin. It enhances every track it appears on. Ranzo is a quirky, handclappy number with Knight joining Prior on vocals over what sounds like a mandolin backing. 

The Machiner's Song is a lively, folky number that grinds to a halt, like a machine, at the end. Our Captain Cried utilises the John Wesley hymn melody from He Who Would Valiant Be that they used on 1976's Fighting For Strangers. It is a moving song. As indeed is Two Constant Lovers, which features Peter Knight's tender, plaintive voice. It is a tragic song about a young man drowning. Madam Will You Walk features some rhythmic, pounding drums and an infectiously catchy vocal from Prior. The Unquiet Grave is a haunting song with the violin again playing a big part. Thornaby Woods is a gentle folk number with another fine vocal. After it comes a "hidden track" called The Great Silkie Of Sule Skerry, which is a traditional folk song from Shetland and Orkney. It is, as you would expect, very Celtic-sounding, featuring violin and vocal only. This is an eminently listenable album. I slightly prefer 2006's excellent Bloody Men, but this certainly worth one's time.

Wintersmith (2013)

Pretty much all of Steeleye Span's huge canon of material is derived in one way or another from historical sources - ballads, poems, early folk songs and so on. Not so here. This is an album of original work based on the late Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" novels. Now, I have to admit that I have no knowledge of Pratchett's work, nor interest in it. I am a long time fan of Steeleye Span, however. I love this album. The songs are all different, many of them captivating and atmospheric and some of them heartbreakingly sad.                         

Played to the usual high standard, the album is a joy from start to finish. Personal highlights for me are the upbeat Dark Morris Song which sets the atmosphere for the album and the haunting title track, Wintersmith, which introduces us to the character of the Wintersmith. The romantic You is beautiful and The Making Of A Man is a delight. Indeed, all the tracks are enjoyable. It is like reading a book. The Good Witch is surprisingly touching, and both Fire And Ice and Crown Of Ice are robust, vibrant songs. 

The album ends with violinist Peter Knight's tour de force, the emotional We Shall Wear Midnight which sees a character from the book asking the author Pratchett how he will go on to portray her, particularly, as it seems, he wasn't long for this world (as was the case). Truly moving. The best edition to go for is the two CD edition which contains some excellent bonus tracks not considered for the original album and a number of live cuts from the accompanying "Wintersmith Tour”.


Dodgy Bastards (2016)

This is an excellent folk rock album from the legendary Steeleye Span. It is the last before the retirement of long-standing member Rick Kemp, and includes new, young violinist Jessie May Smart in place of the wonderful Peter Knight. She performs impressively as well. The album is a return to the traditional folk ballad sources that has featured n all their many albums, save 2013's Terry Pratchett collaboration Wintersmith. Excellent as that album was it is good to have them back doing this traditionally-inspired material once more. Love the cover too.                 

The lengthy narrative of Cruel Brother begins with some harmonious a capella vocals before that typical Steeleye electric guitar-drum backing powers in and Maddy Prior's soaring voice takes over. This is solid, muscular Steeleye Span folk rock at its finest. Jessie May Smart's violin is excellent. All Things Are Quite Silent is a quiet, tender ballad with minimalist backing and a fine vocal from Prior.  Johnnie Armstrong is a punchy rousing rock number concerning the feuding, Border Reiver families of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders - The Armstrongs and The Elliots. It again features some impressive violin. At the bottom is a painting from Armstrong's time of him and his men.

Boys Of Bedlam first appeared on 1971's Please To See The King. Here is is given a makeover drenched in searing guitar feedback, and, would you believe - a rap! Yes, Julian Littman (I think) does a hip/hop-influenced, thumping vocal and deep bass break in the middle. Fair play to them for doing this. It is an energetic, storming track, full of verve and vibrancy. great drums sounds on it too, from the ever-reliable Liam Genocky. Great stuff. 
The melodic, haunting Brown Robin's Confession is, I believe, sung, sweetly, by Jessie Smart. She adds some fetching violin to the solid guitar and drum backing. Peter Knight's shoes were huge ones to fill, but you really don't notice the difference here, she is that good.

Two Sisters has a funky-ish guitar backing and a confident vocal from Prior and yet more wonderful violin. The melody has echoes of Mark Knopfler's Why Aye Man, vaguely, for me. It is another highly convincing track. Intoxicating from beginning to end. A beautifully evocative violin introduces the narrative Cromwell's Skull. Again, I think it is Littman and Rick Kemp on male vocals, and Prior comes in on the uplifting chorus parts. It is a tuneful, powerful number. It imagines Cromwell's skull reflecting on his life. It features some fine guitar work near the end of its eight and a half minutes. Time for a traditional Steeleye jig? We get one, in the frantic Dodgy Bastards, but it is seriously heavy, the madcap violin backed by some chunky guitar and pounding drums.

Gulliver Gentle And Rosemary is an exhilarating, effervescent rocker reminiscent of some of Steeleye's nineties-early 2000s material, such as appeared on Bloody Men and Cogs, Wheels And Lovers. It is catchy, upbeat and thoroughly uplifting. 
The brooding The Gardener has Prior on fine, beguiling vocal form. There really is some good material on this album. Bad Bones is another vaguely contemporary-sounding Julian Littman number with some wry lyrics and strong vocals. It features another "rap" piece in the middle too. It is ok, but it does sound a tiny bit incongruous alongside the other material on the album. The ten-minute The Lofty Tall Ship-Shallow Brown begins with a bleak, haunting vocal-violin-drum first part. Prior's vocal is powerful and gritty. The second part is a stately, moving sea shanty, Shallow Brown, featuring some killer guitar soloing and a violin that sounds as if Peter Knight has come back into the studio. Just beautiful. Although the album weighs in at a whopping seventy-two minutes and is certainly a monster of a work, full and heavy, packed full of atmosphere, musical brilliance and interesting lyrical tales. Most highly recommended.

Est’d 1969 (2020)

Fifty years after they formed, Steeleye Span return with more folky fare, led by the seemingly ageless doyenne Maddy Prior (although her voice now sounds unsurprisingly older). The instrumentation is, as always, immaculate, and the traditional narrative songs are as evocative as usual. The world is a better place with Steeleye Span in it.

Harvest treads a well-trod path through them rural greensward with a lengthy tale of 18th century agricultural hard times, delivered in typically robust Steeleye fashion. It is a bit uncohesive, however, not quite knowing where it is going in places. Old Matron features legendary Jethro Tull flautist Ian Anderson on a song that harks back to Steeleye’s early-mid seventies output. Anderson’s flute is instantly recognisable, of course. It is like something from Tull's Songs In The Wood album.


January Man is a slow, understated ballad featuring some lovely mid-song guitar. As I said, Maddy Prior’s voice is now older in timbre, but carries with it a relaxed, wise feel to it. The extremely talented Jessie May Smart supplies a fine violin solo too. It is a nice, gentle, undemonstrative song.


The band are full-on again on the solid sexual fidelity-themed bawdy shenanigans of The Boy And The Mantle (Three Tests Of Chastity), which features a vocal from Julian Littman. Mackerel Of The Sea is a sort of Alison Gross part two - telling of an unspeakably awful wife who turns her step-children into a worm and a mackerel. Charming. The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter is a familiar maritime narrative number, once again delivered in robust slow rock fashion, with some fine fiddle and lead guitar. Domestic is a staccato piece of rustic riffery that completely changes pace half way through. The second half of the song puts me in mind of Band Of Teachers from the Wintersmith album. Check out the wah-wah guitar near the end too. Incidentally, the first half is called John Hobbs and the second My Husband’s Got No Courage In Him.


Roadways is a bit un-Steeleye in its slightly country ballad feel. It contains another sumptuous violin part near the end. The closer, Reclaimed, is a song written by ex-band member Rick Kemp’s daughter Rose Kemp. It is an anthemic, unaccompanied song with a hymnal quality to it and it provides a fine postscript to a fine collection of songs and just maybe to this wonderful band’s career. 


If you like Steeleye Span, you are highly likely to enjoy these artists too (click on the image to read the reviews) :-

Pentangle
Fairport Convention
Albion Country Band