Monday, 30 December 2019

Steeleye Span - The Early Years (1970-1973)



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The albums covered here are:-

Hark! The Village Wait (1970)
Please To See The King (1971)
Ten Man Mop, Or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again (1971)
Below The Salt (1972)
and Parcel Of Rogues (1973)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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HARK! THE VILLAGE WAIT (1970)

1. A-Calling On Song
2. The Blacksmith
3. Fisherman's Wife
4. The Blackleg Miner
5. The Dark-Eyed Sailor
6. Copshawholme Fair
7. All Things Are Quite Silent
8. The Hills Of Greenmore
9. My Johnny Was A Shoemaker
10. The Lowlands Of Holland
11. Twa Corbies
12. 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.



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PLEASE TO SEE THE KING (1971)

1. The Blacksmith
2. Cold, Haily, Windy Night
3. Jigs Medley
4. Prince Charlie Stuart
5. The Boys Of Bedlam
6. False Knight On The Road
7. The Lark In The Morning
8. Female Drummer
9. The King
10. Lovely On The Water
11. 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.



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TEN MAN MOP, OR Mr. RESERVOIR BUTLER RIDES AGAIN (1971)

1. Gower Wassail
2. Jigs Medley
3. Four Nights Drunk
4. When I Was On Horseback
5. Marrowbones
6. Captain Coulston
7. Reels
8. Wee Weaver
9. Skewball
10. 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.



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BELOW THE SALT (1972)

1. Spotted Cow
2. Rosebud In Une
3. Jigs (Medley)
4. Sheepcrook & Black Dog
5. Royal Forester
6. King Henry
7. Gaudete
8. John Barleycorn
9. 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.


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PARCEL OF ROGUES (1973)

1. One Misty Moisty Morning
2. Alison Gross
3. The Bold Poachers
4. The Ups And Downs
5. Robber With Violins
6. The Wee Wee Man
7. The Weaver And The Factory Maid
8. Rogues In A Nation
9. Cam Ye O'er Frae France
10. Hares On The Mountain
11. 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.



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