But that is not all that Steeleye fans have got to look forward to this year - yet another dimension to the band is the permanent return to the fold of Gay Woods. She had not performed live with the band until last year on the 25th Anniversary Tour, although she actually sang on their first recording Hark The Village Wait, but the reunion was such a success that her vocals are now considered to be an integral part of the band's current musical make-up. She and Maddy will not only be treating audiences to their captivating vocal harmonies, but they will be adding their emotive vocals to the new and long awaited album Time which will be released on Park Records to coincide with upcoming British Tour in March. In April, Shanachie Records will release the first new Steeleye studio album in many years followed by a North American Tour in late August, early September.
Bio: 1969 was the year of Woodstock in America. In England Liege And Lief set the ball rolling for all these energies to combine. This was an album of traditional ballads sung by one of the most supple and emotive voices in Britain. Sandy Denny fronting Fairport inspired and infuriated us all. Driven by Ashley Hutchings discovery of the potency of the material and sustained by Richard Thompson's distinctive guitar they had founded a corner stone on which a movement came to be built.
It became apparent that members of Fairport considered this to be a one off album and didn't wish to limit themselves to this material.
Ashley in his passion for the music looked around for like minded musicians to continue with him what he'd begun. Terry and Gay Woods were an Irish couple. Terry had worked with Sweeneys Men, with Andy Irvine and Johnny Moynihan (later to play in the seminal band Planxty with Christy Moore and piper Liam O'Flynn). They were staying in the house Tim and I lived in North London so we were aware of the suggestions in the air. Eventually, much to our surprise, as I remember, we were asked to join Ashley, Terry and Gay. We agreed to a rehearsal at Tyger's house (as Ashley was then known due to his aggressive behavior on the football field. ``I spelt it with a `y' because I thought it was arty!!'' he later reflected). The rehearsal went well and it was decided to pursue the idea. RCA provided money for the equipment and Sandy Roberton was declared manager. We were off!
In those days the thing to do was ``get it together in the country''. So we duly hired a friend's house in Wiltshire and move in for three months. I have to say this is not the way to get to know people. Living cheek by jowl with complete strangers in the middle of nowhere is no guarantee of continued friendship. Despite the inevitable strains of two couples an a referee the music was surprisingly satisfying. There was room for lots of harmony and Gay and I enjoyed singing together while crocheting and embroidering, looking for all the world like two medieval ladies sewing silken seams. She taught me some Irish step and I taught her some clog dancing. We went into Sound Techniques Studio in Chelsea with Sandy as producer. It had been decided at some point that we would use drums on the album so Gerry Conway and Dave Mattacks shared the honors. It was the first time Tim and I had worked in a 'proper studio'. We had made two duo albums Folk Songs Of Old England Vol. 1 & 2 but these had been recorded on a four track machine and took as long to make as they take to play. Well, almost.
The first album was Hark! The Village Wait (a wait is a medieval town band). The tracks taken from that album are The Blacksmith and My Johnny Was A Shoemaker, that is an accappella (unaccompanied as the English so depreciatingly call it) track of Gay and myself. The material on that album is particular attractive, encompassing English and Irish songs, but unfortunately it never was to be performed live. The strains of the rehearsal time spilt over into the recording situation and we parted on fighting terms at the end of the sessions. Everyone was very disappointed and there was pressure obviously from those outside the band who had invested time and money into the project. Then Tim came up with a stunning suggestion: ``Why not ask Martin Carthy to join?''
Martin was the young singer of traditional songs. He was established even then as a master. We knew him well as a friend and in fact he had suggested the name Steeleye Span to Tim late one evening while staying at Tim's family home, The Vicarage in St. Albans. The name comes from a Lincolnshire ballad called Horkstow Grange and is a story of an argument between John Bowlin and Jon Span, whose nickname was Steeleye.
Terry and Gay had disappeared, I think back to Ireland, and when Martin agreed to join it was decided that the band should compose the four of us, Martin, Ashley, Tim and myself. While rehearsing in the aforementioned vicarage we realized that we needed another instrumentalist. It was decided it should be a fiddle player. Martin had previously been working with Dave Swarbrick who had played on Liege And Lief and been seduced into Fairport. We had all independently heard Peter Knight play and decided to give him a try. He had worked round the clubs with Bob Johnson, a guitarist and singer, but also had a classical background which had been subsequently overlaid with a strong Irish influence. He had worked hard at the music and become known in all the Irish music pubs in London. Maybe it was the classical background that gave his playing the richness of tone and the Irish his fluidity, but for whatever reasons he suited us very well.
The band finally managed to play live. We played mainly in universities and colleges. Amplification was pretty primitive then. We had 400 watts of WEM PA which would have been adequate for the voices except that all the instruments including the fiddle were going through huge dual-showman Fender amps. Those who understand these things will realize that there is an imbalance here for a band that was essentially song and singing based. Monitor systems were unknown so it is hard to imagine what it really sounded like. But all bands were in the same boat so we accepted the situation and were mildly scornful of audiences that said they couldn't hear the words. We were always a loud band. Coming from totally acoustic and unamplified situations it was wonderful to make so much noise. And we didn't even have drums.
Full harmony was our specialty and Martin began introducing guitar riffs that reflected the use of the regulators on Irish pipes. We were strongly influenced at this time by Irish music. Paddy Tunney, Sarah Maken and Mary Doran are examples of traditional singers that had been recorded by Peter Kennedy for the BBC and copies of these were available in the listening room of the headquarters of the English Folk Song & Dance Society in Regent's Park. I spent many hours in there absorbing their styles and finding more songs in the library.
It was a challenging and experimental time. The glory of English and Irish music was there for us to play with and we enjoyed ourselves.
One day we approached to perform in a play at the Royal Court in Sloane Square. We hadn't done any acting before but we were assured it would be OK. We had been briefly involved in the music for a previous play called Pirates but Corunna was the start of a drama/music combination that would run and run. Ourselves plus fine actors (Brian Glover, Marc McManus, Jack Shepherd, Dave Hill and Juliet Ackroyd) were to enact the British army's retreat at Corunna in Spain under Wellington. The show was written by Keith Dewhurst and directed by Bill Bryden. We not only did a run at the Royal Court but toured it around the colleges, restaging its complexity every night since it was an early promenade performance that had no proscenium arch and involved acting among the audience. The material from the show appeared on both Please To See The King and the next album Ten Man Mop Or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again! Here we include Marrowbones where Martin sings with relish this story of marital strife.
From a situation that seemed to me going along in a very jolly fashion, out of the blue, Ashley declared he was leaving. Martin decided to go also and return to solo performing. I admit I was perplexed. But I'm not known for my perception in these matters and there undoubtedly were strains building up. Talk of touring America was uncomfortable for Ashley. He didn't want to fly, but I suspect the project had run its course for him.
We had reached another junction. The band had a strong cult following and Peter, Tim and I were interested in continuing. We co-opted Bob Johnson, Peter's erstwhile partner, and a bass player was suggested to us that had done lots of session works in Sound Techniques. That was Rick Kemp. He joined under the illusion that Martin was still in the band and only discovered he'd left on the first rehearsal.
It was a lucky choice. Although Bob had worked in the clubs and knew traditional music he had a background of rock & roll. He'd worked with Gary Glitter when he was Paul Raven. Rick had also worked in many different areas of music, starting by having won the England Skiffle Competition at the Cafe de Paris in London at the age of 12, and continuing through a career working with local bands in Hull, guitarist Mike Chapman and the varied session work in London, Rick and Bob developed the riffs and brought a punchier sound to the whole endeavor. Their rock backgrounds made it a true fusion of styles.
Bob brought with him also a particular interest in the big ballads. He was drawn to the ancient and vivid texts that Frances James Child had collected and over the years he's presented us with some of the most challenging and satisfying material. King Henry was the first of many. He also brought in Gaudete, an accappella Latin chant that was destined to be our first chart success.
With this new line up we got new management (Jo Lustig) and a new record company, Chrysalis. We were the first band they signed that they didn't manage. They were a small but potent company and we signed a deal for ten albums in five years (an album every six months). Looking back I can see how ridiculous that was. Also it shows how quickly we recorded them, three weeks per album. It is not unusual for bands to spend six months or more now, but this put pressure on us to provide material at a rate that would be unthinkable today. Luckily the tradition is large and we were already familiar with a lot of it, so songs were there.
John Barleycorn is a type of riddle song about the making of beer, which perplexed me as a child, and is sung here by Tim. He wrote some poetic and perceptive sleeve notes for the album Below The Salt
Our stage shows were always exciting and energetic and with the new line up plus the influence of the general flamboyance of the 70s, we moved towards more dramatic presentation. We were let loose.
One facet of the show, which developed early, was the ``encore''. We felt that the show was the show and we liked to do something completely different at the end. Rave On sung accappella we'd done with Martin and we continued this tradition with much costume changes and putting on wigs to perform Rock And Roll Encores. This aspect of our lives we considered for stage only but later they crept on to vinyl, but the joke element was missing and they tended to confuse those not familiar with our stage approach.
At this time we were again recruited by the theatrical division. They were staging a version of Kidnapped, the Robert Louis Stevenson book set in The Jacobite troubles. The Jacobite repertoire contains some of the strongest and most moving material in Britain. It has an attack unknown in the South. We went to Scotland, to the Lyceum at Edinburgh, and joined up with Keith and Bill again to fuse theatre and tradition once more. Out of that production we acquired the material for Parcel Of Rogues. This title is taken from a scathing ballad written by Burns about the vagaries of politicians and vested interest. Cam Ye O'er Frae France was a bitter song about the loss of the Scottish identity under English rule. They are songs that speak for all time on the plight of the oppressed, but they speak with indomitable spirit.
Bill and Keith plus Ashley went on to continue this line of work at the Cottesloe Theatre on the South Bank with Lark Rise, The World Turned Upside Down and The Mysteries, where the actors developed the style of promenade that has become so popular.
Parcel of Rogues saw the use of drums reappear. Rick was frustrated by being solely responsible for holding the rhythm together. He was used to drums. I'd never worked with them so I couldn't see the problem. It would be a bold move for us, but songs like Alison Gross were starting to demand a stronger approach. The tempestuous Robbery With Violins, a duet with Peter and Rick really going for it, seemed to set the seal. We were set to tour America with Jethro Tull where we were to play huge stadiums. We decided on a drummer. Nigel Pegrum was not only a solid drummer but also a flute player. This combination was perfect. He was patient and hardworking taking on the demanding job of making sense of all the different points of view thrown at him. We wanted the music supported, not pinned down. A hard task. And like all experiments some worked better than others. I remember a reggae Spotted Cow seemed outrageous then, but now would be quite acceptable.
Touring America to any English band must be a revelation. Americans are spontaneous and make great audiences. They freed us from more constraints. It has been a long road losing those English inhibitions. Five nights at the LA forum with Jethro Tull, 18,000 seats. We were opening our set with the Lyke Wake Dirge, a grim piece of music from Yorkshire concerning purgatory and we all dressed in dramatic mummers ribbons with tall hats. The effect was stunning. Five gaunt figures in line across the front of the stage, lit from below casting huge shadows, intoning this insistent dirge alarmed some members of the audience whose reality was already tampered with by 70s substances. It was most satisfying.
After the tour with Jethro we recorded appropriately Now We Are Six. Ian Anderson came in as `production consultant' and it was recorded at Morgan Studios with Robin Black as engineer. Thomas The Rhymer was the ballad Bob brought in. A mythical story of fairies and other world journeys.
To Know Him Is To Love Him was another track and was given added vigor by inclusion of David Bowie on saxophone. Rick had known David and Mick Ronson in Hull and asked through a friend if he would come and play. He duly obliged and we passed an interesting afternoon watching David and Ian gently sparring.
In 1975 we recorded Commoners Crown. Its cover was a delicate and detailed sculpture of human models making up a crown. Robin Black produced it along with the band. Long Lankin is the classic from this album. A ballad enunciating the perils of exclusion. People pushed to the outer edges and disenfranchised will respond with violence. It is a lesson that has never been learnt.
While sitting over lunch we were discussing what we need to sparkle up the track New York Girls. Ukulele would be good someone said. Anyone got one? Anybody know someone who can play one? Peter Sellers plays it says Bob. Pause. Eyes meet, why not? We could ask. He could only say no. So we spent another interesting afternoon with a rather diffident Peter Sellers. I don't think he'd ever been asked to play on a session before and was apprehensive about the whole affair until he realized we were delighted to have him there. He loosened up as time went by and finally finished by adding, unprompted, some 'goon' voices. We were ecstatic.
The album All Around My Hat was the peak of our commercial success. Tim had had one of his brilliant ideas and suggested Mike Batt as producer. We laughed because we had only seen the Wombles, a children's story about creatures who collected litter on Wimbledon Common, as a novelty item. Tim had bought the albums and realized the great talent and creativity that had gone in their making. Beautiful melodies, light and humorous lyrics and sound arrangements all done by Mike Batt. He was perfect. He gave us our heads and watched perplexed as we did our Steeleye thing. He recorded it all impeccably then added a small amount of arrangement where appropriate, so tasteful. Black Jack Davy is an old song of the power of lust, and Hard Times Of Old England seemed an appropriate song for what was the beginning of the long recession.
The album sleeve was designed by a school friend of Tims, John O'Connor, and he was working on anamorphic projection which was used since the 17th Century. It was a style used for salacious and seditious material for example in the case of for Bonnie Prince Charlie where they devised a way of drawing a picture round 360 degrees or distorting a picture so that it didn't look like one, but when you stood a bottle of claret on it Prince Charlie appeared in the bottle. Somehow the idea seemed to go awry when applied to our sleeve and the result was rather odd caricatures. A nice idea at the time.
The single All Around My Hat took us into the charts and onto Top Of The Pops again. We had previously appeared carrying candles rather limply for Gaudete. This time everyone was dancing. It was a crazy time and I remember laughing a great deal. A time of hysteria.
Rocket Cottage was again produced by Mike and Fighting For Strangers, a track put together by him, is to my mind way ahead of time. A moving mood piece with unusual juxtaposition of melodies and keys. London is a nineteenth Century broadside of wigs and dandys set to music by Rick. This album did not achieve the same popularity as All Around My Hat.
The famous bands of the time were starting to put on massive shows with lighting rigs and sophisticated PA systems, they had a polished and expensive style and young people increasingly with less money and less places to play `live' to learn their trade, responded as people have always done when faced with a frustrating and unsolvable dilemma. They moved the goal posts. Suddenly long glossy hair, tanned svelte torsos and flashy guitar technique were rejected. The shaved head, safety pins and workman boots established themselves as new reference points. Punk was here.
Steeleye was only ever marginally affected by wider trends. We have always tended to plough our own furrow with our own indefinable and unspoken laws.
Maybe it was these other pressures, but more likely the hectic touring/recording/rehearsing schedule that finally took its toll. Exhaustion and towering egos are a bad combination. Our desire for variety, though Lord knows we'd had plenty, spurred a dispute that ended with Bob and Pete leaving the band to work in a project dear to their hearts, that of the King Of Elfland's Daughter which was finally made and incorporated the talents of Mary Hopkin, Frankie Miller, Chris Farlowe and even Hammer Horror star Christopher Lee. I had recorded Silly Sisters with the June Tabor and was starting work on a solo project. Rick, Tim and Nigel all had outside music business interest. There was of course work still outstanding to be done and we were assured by the management that it would be bad news to cancel. We debated and Tim again leapt into the breach by suggesting Martin, again he comes into the band on a regular basis, but doesn't take his coat off. This time he brought the lovable and talented John Kirkpatrick with him and for the next 18 months and two albums Storm Force Ten and Live At Last! we had a completely different sound. A song I had loved for years and Martin encouraged me to sing was Berthold Brecht's The Black Freighter, a stark gritty song of anticipated revenge. Rick again supplied us with The Victory, a lyric about Lord Nelson that he put to music and features the harmonics that were so strong in that line up.
The live album was recorded on our `farewell tour'. Every band should do a farewell tour preferably like us in mid-career. It was wonderful. We took 15 minutes of Montrose, written by Rick about one of his favorite Scottish characters on the road and in this collection we have the driving The False Knight On The Road, with Martin singing, about a little boy who meets the devil on the road.
After all the hooha of us splitting up, there occurred the phenomena that has become so familiar. Having had a year or so apart, suddenly the reasons we couldn't stand each other had faded away and the reasons we had worked together through so much re-established themselves.
Chrysalis asked us to record another album and when we got together we decided it would be fun to tour. I went through the recording process pregnant with my first child. Sails Of Silver was produced by Gus Dudgeon who has worked so well with Elton John. His input was greater than any previous producer and this gives a more accessible album in may ways. Peter wrote two particular beautiful songs at this time, Let Her Go Down and Gone To America and Tim wrote Sails Of Silver and My Love, but the band didn't settle so easily.
Tim left in 1982 and it was some years before we recorded Back In Line. But here is a track that was taped live onto cassette at Nottingham Theatre Royal during the miners strike and as song that has been an interesting historical set piece suddenly became a passionate and powerful cry, driven by Rick's bass and Nigel's drums. Lady Diamond was another of Bob's gory ballads of class, love and cruelty.
Another change when Rick left. It took three tries to replace him (he is my husband), one tour with Mark Williamson, one with Chris Stains and we finally settled on Tim Harries, a player of great flexibility and knowledge who had worked in Bill Brufords Earth Works amongst others.
Tempted And Tried came in 1989 and here are two of Peter's songs, The Fox about a town fox and Following Me about late night feelings of threat on the streets. This album was produced by Peter, Bob and John Etchells the engineer.
But all was still not well and Nigel too departed and his place was taken by Liam Genockey of Gillan, Paul Brady, Moire Music etc.
With this line up now steady for four years the band seems now again to have found its energy. During the 80's our lives were full of distractions and confusions. Peter spent time on his instrument and became involved in improvisation and matured considerably in his playing. But it was a long road. Bob became involved in opening a restaurant and went to university and obtained a degree in Psychology. Nigel had run a studio, Rick and I had toured with our own band, recorded four albums and were raising a family.
As we moved into the 90's we rediscovered the music that had brought us together in the first place and we were able to approach it with a maturity and confidence that had been absent for a while. Liam and Tim brought fresh enthusiasm and reminded us of the enjoyment this music gives us all.
The two last tracks are taken from the latest album which was recorded `live'. The colossal ballad of Tam Lin, again courtesy of Bob, is a story of sex, commitment and loss and the cracking piece of earthly traditional custom from Cornwall, Padstow, from the May festivities of the fishing village of that name.
Steeleye has always had energy and love of the music it plays. As Tim Hart said `these songs have a longevity that defies logic - there's no reason why they should have lasted all these years, but they have and they have beautiful melodies and although the lyrics are about strange things they have a flow to them and feel that people identify with.'
It has been a wonderful experience being in Steeleye Span all these years, through the ups and the downs and I'm pleased to say it looks set for sometime to come, as far as any of us can ever know ...
Maddy Prior with John Tobler and Lynda Morrison