Monday, 5 October 2020

Steeleye Span - Drink Down The Moon (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 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.


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.


 

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