Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"A Parcel of Steeleye Span: Their First Five Chrysalis Albums 1972-1975" (3.5*)

Well, here’s the third strand of Hughesy’s rediscovery of English folk-rock I was interested in way back in the dim distant past. As with many of these things, we’re in hit and miss territory here, and Steeleye’s fourth album (Below the Salt, the first of the Chrysalis connection) was the first of their material I knowingly ran across.

Of the three, Fairport Convention was, predictably the starting point, and the Shirley & Dolly Collins (as reviewed here) was something that had impinged on the consciousness without being listened to at the time.

The figure that runs through all three, of course, is Ashley Hutchings, originally the bass player with Fairport and subsequently married to Shirley Collins and, in between, founder of Steeleye Span.

To Hutchings, who’d played a major role in putting the Liege and Lief Fairport material together, things came down to a matter of traditional versus original material, and with Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick contributing original material in the lead up to Full House, Hutchings went off looking for an environment where he could pursue an all traditional agenda. There may, as Fairport cofounder Simon Nicol suggested in an interview on the band’s website, have been some ongoing issues from the road accident that preceded Liege and Lief, but a glance at the track listings for the first three albums recorded by his new project suggests an almost totally traditional agenda.

That environment came in the form of Steeleye Span, with an initial lineup of Hutchings, London folk club duo Tim Hart and Maddy Prior and husband and wife Terry and Gay Woods. That lineup didn’t last, and after recording Hark! The Village Wait in 1970 split without performing live, largely due to tensions between the two couples. Terry and Gay left, veteran folkie Martin Carthy and fiddler Peter Knight came on board and off they went on the concert circuit, recording Please to See the King and Ten Man Mop, or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again along the way.

A change of management saw a push towards a more commercial sound, and that, in a nutshell, was the signal for Hutchings and Carthy to depart for more purist pastures (Hutchings in league with Shirley Collins) and their replacements (guitarist Bob Johnson and bass player Rick Kemp) brought more mainstream rock and blues influences to a band in the process of changing record companies as well.

Which brings us to Below the Salt, the first of ten albums recorded for Chrysalis, and the template for much of what followed. While the material was entirely traditional, the arrangements were steadily drifting towards the rock end of the spectrum with nudge nudge tales of milkmaids and gentle swains disappearing in search of lost cattle, a couple of lively jigs and reels and the odd familiar title (in this case John Barleycorn) among songs about sailors, foresters, shepherds and close encounters of the sorcerous jiggy jiggy kind (King Henry).

Maddy Prior took the majority of the vocal leads, Tim Hart made an impressive foil in the vocal department, Knight’s fiddle and Johnson’s guitar worked neatly in not-quite traditional but close enough to satisfy everyone but the most diehard purists tandem and the result was a template that worked well enough. Below the Salt sold better than the previous efforts (at least that’s my recollection) and delivered an unlikely seasonal hit in the form of Gaudete around Christmas 1973. That a cappella rendition of a medieval Finnish tune sung in Latin wasn’t quite the same as the album track, and only climbed as far as #14 in the UK Singles Chart, but was enough to indicate the presence of a degree of commercial viability.

If you’re not inclined to fork out the $25.99 for the five album package, the alternative for those who want a bit of this in their collection without going the whole hog lies in the fifth Steeleye Span album, Parcel of Rogues. If you need an indication of its place in the Steeleye Span catalogue, Hughesy would point you towards the Parcel of bit reappearing in the title of the current collection, and again in Another Parcel of Steeleye Span (Chrysalis albums #6-#10).

It’s more or less the same template as used on Below the Salt with the sound rocked up a notch right from the first notes of One Misty Moisty Morning. Bright, sharp and played with prog rock precision, Alison Gross worked the recurring witchcraft theme, and while Tim Hart’s lament for three brothers in The Bold Poachers slows things down a notch the nudge nudge bit rears its head again in The Ups and Downs, with a visit to the apple grove to tie up the girl’s garter. Fol de rol diddle ol-dey indeed.

The jigs and reels quotient is filled by Robbery With Violins, there’s a bit of the rural wizardry in The Wee Wee Man and the Industrial Revolution rears its ugly head in The Weaver and the Factory Maid before the album’s one-two highlight in the Jacobite era  Rogues In A Nation (that’s where the Parcel bit comes from) and Cam Ye O'er Frae France. Hares on the Mountain winds things up rather charmingly, and, as previously stated, if you’re not up for the $25.99 for the six albums but want some Steeleye in the playlist, the album will set you back $16.90 on iTunes.

Parcel of Rogues might have been the musical high point as fat as Hughesy’s concerned, but the commercial success path was headed firmly upwards, with Steeleye holding down a regular opening gig for Jethro Tull (Ian Anderson got to sit in the producer’s chair for Now We Are Six) and a recording formula that worked pretty well. They’d also recruited a regular drummer (Nigel Pegrum, ex-Gnidrolog, Small Faces and Uriah Heep) and with a six piece outfit recording album #6, Now We Are Six was always going to be an appropriate title.

Unfortunately, for me, this was where the wheels started to fall off. While the sound was a continuation of elements that had gone before, and there were a couple of tracks that matched the preceding albums (Thomas the Rhymer for starters), nursery rhymes sung by The St. Eeleye School Choir, and To Know Him Is to Love Him, complete with David Bowie on saxophone were definitely tracks I could have happily done without after an initial listen just to see what they were like.

Oh, and Bowie’s sax work definitely indicates his day job was absolutely safe.

The downwards trend continued with Commoners Crown, which worked well enough apart from the presence of Peter Sellers on electric ukelele and Goon Show voices for New York Girls and the Mike Batt (The Wombles) production All Around My Hat.  As happens so often, however, mileages vary when it comes to Hughesy’s ratings and commercial success.

While the album sailed as high as #7 in the British album charts and the title track, released as a single, hit #5, repeated listens in the course of putting this together suggests that Steeleye Span material that hits the Top 1500 Most Played in my iTunes will be from the earlier, more interesting, stage of the band’s evolution.

The problem, as far as I can see, is that while there’s plenty of traditional material out there, and only so many folk fans who’ll buy multiple renditions of the same material by different singers. Sure, you could have Maddy Prior working the same seam of traditional material as Sandy Denny and, say, Anne Briggs or Shirley Collins and have a small coterie of devotees dutifully buying everything but once you head towards the mass market and someone else has done that one it’s increasingly a case of hands off unless you can throw something different (like Peter Sellars on electric ukulele) into the mix.

On top of that, when you’re increasingly headed towards a rock audience, you’re going to rework the on stage repertoire accordingly, which may account for the presence of To Know Him Is To Love Him, though an examination of a few set lists from American shows reveals a distinct lack of the old Teddy Bears single.

Still, for the price and the quantity of material here I’m glad I wandered down this particular road of reminiscence, and it’s interesting to compare and contrast what’s on offer here with contemporary efforts from Fairport Convention and Shirley Collins...

Disc 1:
Below the Salt 
Spotted Cow
Rosebud In June
Jigs (Medley)
Sheepcrook And Black Dog
Royal Forester
King Henry
John Barleycorn
Saucy Sailor
Gaudete (Single Version)
The Holly And The Ivy 

Parcel of Rogues 
One Misty Moisty Morning
Alison Gross
The Bold Poachers
The Ups and Downs
Robbery With Violins

Disc 2:
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 

Now We Are Six 
Seven Hundred Elves
Drink Down The Moon
Now We Are Six
Thomas The Rhymer
The Mooncoin Jig
Two Magicians
Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
To Know Him Is To Love Him
The Wife Of Ushers Well (Live At The Rainbow)

Disc 3:
Commoners Crown 
Little Sir Hugh
Bach Goes To Limerick
Long Lankin
Dogs And Ferrets
Galtee Farmer
Demon Lover
Elf Call
Weary Cutters
New York Girls

All Around My Hat
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
Batchelors Hall

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