Wednesday, 24 October 2018

The Strawbs - Witchwood: The Very Best Of the Strawbs

As a glam-rock loving schoolboy in the seventies I hated The Strawbs and the boys who liked them. Their hippy/trippy/prog rock folky material was anathema to the glam majesty of Mott The Hoople, Roxy Music, T.Rex and David Bowie that floated my young boat. I was intrigued as to why these boys liked them, though, and now, all these years later, I find I can fully appreciate this inventive and appealing group. Their early material was in the folk vein, their post 1972 stuff crossing over into “prog rock”. They were actually quite unique in many ways.

“Where Is This Dream Of Your Youth” is a vibrant piece of hippy folkiness, with airs of The Beatles and Pink Floyd with some groovy bongos, man, and rocking bluesy piano. It is strangely enjoyable, despite sounding pretty dated. “Oh How She Changed” begins peacefully, plaintive and acoustic, but then breaks out into a muscular piece of rock, with more Beatles-style drums and dramatic string orchestration. As with the previous track, the songs are of their time, but they are still enjoyable, and the sound quality is excellent. “Witchwood” is a sumptuous piece of country/folk/rock, with some delicious Eastern-style guitar parts.

“Benedictus” was very much a folk rock singalong number with airs of Steeleye Span in its chorus and a killer guitar solo. “Heavy Disguise” has crystal clear acoustic guitar, some appealing brass soloing (French horn? or trumpet). It also sees the group getting political in their lyrics in a way they had not really done before. “New World” has a huge, slightly over-the-top orchestration over its acoustic and vocal foundation. The sound is slightly muffled on this song’s production. There are some more Beatles hints in the wild “Walrus” strings and the Starr-esque drumming. “Queen Of Dreams” is an intoxicating, beautifully psychedelic piece of pretentiousness, with lyrics about Queens, forests, mountains and pine needles. More Beatles sound effects abound and some great guitar too. In true prog rock style, the track undergoes a complete change of mood and pace half way through. This is what I hated at the time. Now, I have to say that I quite like it. It ends with heavy rock riffs and Deep Purple-style organ. It all sounds most spectacular.

“Lay Down” was a hit single and has considerable Lindisfarne influences in its upbeat country-ish rock melody and vocal delivery. The delightful, melodic “The Winter And The Summer”, with its “Led Zeppelin III” hints is one of my favourites. The Strawbs specialised in going full on rock half way through an acoustic number, and they do that here, most effectively. “The River” is a short, slightly overblown acoustic/strings number, enhanced by a great bass. The vocal is somewhat melodramatic in places, Pink Floyd “Dark Side Of The Moon” style. Just as it has got going it ends. “Down By The Sea” is a six-minute, riffy, solid rock piece that exemplifies the best of this often hard to categorise genre/period of music. It has some distinct pace/mood changes, of course.

“Part Of The Union” was actually The Strawbs' biggest hit and, to be honest, it is utterly incongruous and unrepresentative of the rest of their material. It is a political song about seventies trade union activity, sung from the point of view of a worker. I have never quite known whether it was sincere or a p***-take. Either way, despite my left-leaning personal politics, I have always hated it.

“Shine On Silver Sun” is another with Pink Floyd aspirations, for me, anyway. It was a minor hit as a follow up to “Part Of The Union”. It has a singalong chorus, but otherwise it is totally different to its predecessor and must have confused the singles buying market. “Round And Round” is a big, powerful rock number. I have to say, though, singer Dave Cousins’ nasal, slightly posh voice (his ‘o’ enunciations) have always irritated me slightly. These songs may have been better served by another singer (just wondering out loud). The spoken part in the middle is pretty pretentious. “Hero And Heroine” is pretty unlistenable, with another semi-spoken railing part. “Grace Darling” is a strange song from Cousins to his wife/lover, presumably called Grace, comparing her to Northumbrian heroine of the seas Grace Darling in being his saviour from the storm. A nice juxtaposition, but it doesn’t quite work for me. It has echoes of Ian Hunter in there somewhere.

The seven minute “Medley” is typical prog-rock indulgence and by the mid-seventies, from which it dates, it was starting to sound a bit out of time. As always, there are good points in it but this song cofirms that the best part of this album was definitely up to “Shine On Silver Sun”. The early seventies pastoralism of “Golden Salamander” and the Supertramp-ish “A Mind Of My Own”, from 1976 are ok in their own right but very behind the times at their point of release. Punk was here. That was effectively that for The Strawbs. They kept going, however, and are still realeasing albums, but the late sixties to 1973 were definitely their best years.


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