Thursday, 30 August 2018

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

THE EARLY YEARS (1970-1973)



HARK! THE VILLAGE WAIT (1970)


A-Calling On Song/The Blacksmith/Fisherman's Wife/The Blackleg Miner/The Dark-Eyed Sailor/Copshawholme Fair/All Things Are Quite Silent/The Hills Of Greenmore/My Johnny Was A Shoemaker/The Lowlands Of Holland/Twa Corbies/One Night As I Lay On My Bed   

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 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 atmopsheric 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)


The Blacksmith/Cold, Haily, Windy Night/Jigs Medley/Prince Charlie Stuart/The Boys Of Bedlam/False Knight On The Road/The Lark In The Morning/Female Drummer/The King/Lovely On The Water/Rave On         

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)


Gower Wassail/Jigs Medley/Four Nights Drunk/When I Was On Horseback/Marrowbones/Captain Coulston/Reels/Wee Weaver/Skewball/General Taylor         

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 capella.

This 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)


Spotted Cow/Rosebud In June/Jigs (Medley)/Sheepcrook & Black Dog/Royal Forester/King Henry/Gaudete/John Barleycorn/Saucy Sailor     

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.



PARCEL OF ROGUES (1973)


One Misty Moisty Morning/Alison Gross/The Bold Poachers/The Ups And Downs/Robbery With Violins/The Wee Wee Man/The Weaver And The Factory Maid/Rogues In A Nation/Cam Ye O'er Frae France/Hares On The Mountain/Bonny Moorhen                    

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.



THE ELECTRIC YEARS (1974-1976)



NOW WE ARE SIX (1974)


Seven Hundred Elves/Drink Down The Moon/Now We Are Six/Thomas The Rhymer/The Mooncoin Jig/Edwin/Long A-Growing/Two Magicians/Twinkle Twinkle Little Star/To Know Him Is To Love Him    

This is album 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.

NOW WE ARE SIX AGAIN (2012)


"Now We Are Six" tracks/Seven Hundred Elves/Drink Down The Moon/Cuckoo's Nest/Now We Are Six/Thomas The Rhymer/The Mooncoin Jig/Edwin/Long A-Growing/Two Magicians/Twinkle Twinkle Little Star/To Know Him Is To Love Him

Recorded live in 2012

This is a live recording of Steeleye Span's 1974 folk rock album Now We Are Six. The songs are performed in a solid, muscular fashion, with a nice bassy, depth of sound. Rick Kemp's bass is melodic and dominant, Maddy Prior's vocals mature and strong, Peter Knight's violin sublime as always and Liam Genockey's drums match Nigel Pegrum's original rock sound from 1974. It is taken from one concert, I believe, which had the full 1974 album as its first half, followed by a second set of extra material. All the songs are included on this double CD.

The two openers are classics from Steeleye's newly-enhanced 1974 punchy folk rock sound - the solidly rocking Seven Hundred Elves and the upbeat but beguiling Drink Down The Moon/Cuckoo's NestNow We Are Six was a bit of a throwaway track on the original album but it is given new life here, with a haunting Maddy Prior vocal. The iconic Thomas The Rhymer is an absolute triumph, full of atmosphere, powerful rock passages and evocative folky parts. This is a most difficult song to play live, I should imagine, and the group deliver it fantastically. Check out Peter Knight's violin - beautiful. Maddy Prior's vocals throughout the song are peerless.

The Mooncoin Jig is as the title suggests, a traditional instrumental jig. It is performed here with considerable "oomph" and vitality, the drums pushing it on, energetically. Edwin is a narrative rock and violin chugger of a song, sung on lead by Peter Knight 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. Once more, Knight's violin is stunning.

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 Knight, of course.

Where the original album went wrong was with the two positively dreadful songs that ended it - the bizarre cover of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with the group putting on childrens' voices and a perplexing cover of The Teddy BearsTo Know Him Is To Love Him. The former is improved somewhat here by Knight's magnificent violin soloing. Similarly, the latter is much better than the original, with good vocals and excellent saxophone. It is still totally incongruous, however.


Extra live tracks/Just As The Tide/Let Her Go Down/Edward/Two Constant Lovers/Prince Charlie Stuart/Cam Ye O'er Frae France/Creeping Jane/Cold Haily Windy Night/Bonny Black Hare/All Around My Hat/Gaudete

The remaining part of the concert is equally impressive. Highlights are the rousing Just As The Tide, the delightfully bawdy Bonny Black Hare, the narrative rock of Edward, the tragic, heartbreaking seafaring tale Let Her Go Down and the traditional folk of Cam Ye O'er Frae France, with its deliberately jarring rock guitar. The drums on an untempo version of Cold Haily Windy Night are infectious and Creeping Jane is deliciously toe-tapping (it is the tale of a racehorse by the way). For those who like to hear "the hits", the gig ends with the obligatory All Around My Hat and the Latin seasonal vocal chant of Gaudete.

This is a highly recommended live album from a band who remain timeless.

Pictured is one of the many paintings of the Thomas The Rhymer tale.



COMMONERS' CROWN (1975)


Little Sir Hugh/Bach Goes To Limerick/Long Lankin/Dogs And Ferrets/Galtee Farmer/Demon Lover/Elf Call/Weary Cutters/New York Girls         
                      
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)


Black Jack Davy/Hard Times Of Old England/Cadgwith Anthem/Sum Waves/The Wife of Ushers Well/Gamble Gold/Robin Hood/All Around My Hat/Dance With Me/Bachelors Hall   
                               
Steeleye Span’s 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 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)


London/The Bosnian Hornpipes/Orfeo/Nathan's Reel/The Twelve Witches/The Brown Girl/Fighting For Strangers/Sligo Maid/Sir James The Rose/The Drunkard          

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 below), and the adaptation of the hymn To Be A Pilgrim - the haunting Fighting For StrangersLondon is a fine, vocally harmonious opener and Orfeo sees the band even getting a little funky at times with a bit of wah-wah guitar. 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.



THE LATER YEARS (1986-2016)



BACK IN LINE (1986)


Edward/Isabel/Lady Diamond/Canon By Telemann/Peace On The Border/Blackleg Miner/White Man/Lanercost/Scarecrow/Take My Heart         

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 Telemann.

Peace 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.

HORKSTOW GRANGE (1998)


The Old Turf Fire/The Tricks Of London/Horkstow Grange/Lord Randall/Erin/Queen Mary/Hunsden House/Bonny Birdy/Bonny Irish Boy/I Wish That I Never Was Wed/Australia/One True Love/The Parting Glass               

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)


Well Done, Liar!/Who Told The Butcher/John Of Ditchford/I See His Blood Upon The Rose/Black Swan/The Beggar/Poor Old Soldier/Arbour/There Was A Wealthy Merchant/Beyond The Dreaming Place/We Poor Labouring Men/The Connemara Cradle Song/Stephen/The White Cliffs Of Dover       

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 Drummer. The 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 Elves.

Gay 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 below 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.



WINTER (2004)


The First Nowell/Down In Yon Forest/Unconquered Son/Chanticleer/Bright Morning Star/Winter/See Amid The Winters Snow/Mistletoe Bough/Sing We The Virgin Mary/Today In Bethlehem/Blow Your Trumpet Gabriel/Hark The Herald Angels Sing/Good King Wenceslas/In The Bleak Midwinter 

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)


Bonny Black Hare/The Story Of The Scullion King/The Dreamer And The Widow/Lord Elgin/Three Sisters/The 1st House in Connaught/Cold, Haily Windy Night/Whummil Bore/Demon In The Well/Lord Gregory/Nedd Ludd 1/Nedd Ludd 2/Nedd Ludd 3/Nedd Ludd 4/Nedd Ludd 5  

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, 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)


Gallant Frigate Amphitrate/Locks and Bolts/Creeping Jane/Just As The Tide/Ranzo/The Machiner's Song/Our Captain Cried/Two Constant Lovers/Madam Will You Walk/The Unquiet Grave/Thornaby Woods/The Great Silkie Of Sule Skerry    
                        
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 at the bottom) 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)


Overture/The Dark Morris Song/Wintersmith/You/The Good Witch/Band Of Teachers/The Wee Free Men/Hiver/Fire & Ice/The Making Of A Man/Crown Of Ice/First Dance/The Dark Morris Tune/The Summer Lady/Ancient Eyes/We Shall Wear Midnight 

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 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)


Cruel Brother/All Things Are Quite Silent/Johnnie Armstrong/Boys Of Bedlam/Brown Robin's Confession/Two Sisters/Cromwell's Skull/Dodgy Bastards/Gulliver Gentle And Rosemary/The Gardener/Bad Bones/The Lofty Tall Ship/Shallow Brown     

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.



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