What’s New for the 25th of June: Steeleye Span edition

The lie wasn’t meant to be believed. It was just social grease, intended to keep wheels turning. — Aliette de Bodard’s Fireheart Tiger

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This is Gary, as Iain and Reynard both seem to be busy elsewhere at the moment, perhaps cleaning up after the lovely Solstice bonfire, or perhaps nursing a, um, headache, following the same. I’m enjoying myself because all this past week we’ve had nothing but Steeleye Span playing here in the Pub via the Infinite Jukebox. It’s not something anyone did; the mystical machine just won’t play anything else this time of year! There’s something about this particular long-lived (albeit of a sporadic, off and on nature) British folk rock band that lends itself to the aura that surrounds the Summer Solstice. Well, maybe not their album centered around that other Solstice, the lovely Winter. And believe me, with so many years of musical output, both official releases and various compilations of, shall we say, unofficial footwear, it’s entirely possible to go the entire week without repeating a single track!

Anyway, that being the case, I felt it was as good a time as any for an all-Steeleye Span edition. Now, of course it’ll mostly consist of recorded music reviews, but the Archives also contain an interview, some concert reviews, a film and a book!

I’d be remiss to not lead off with the splendid Steeleye Span career overview that the well known folk musician from Chester, Peter Massey, wrote up for us back around the turn of the Millennium, which also drew a bit on his own personal experiences with and opinions about the band. Check that out first as it’ll give you a good idea of what’s in store, and then proceed on with this edition …

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Debbie Skolnik noted the Steeleye Span connection in her review of Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer. ‘Ellen Kushner has taken Child Ballad #37 (upon which Steeleye’s version is based) and thoroughly fleshed it out into a most enjoyable and fascinating read. In one of those odd coincidences in life (or maybe not so odd), the aforementioned Maddy Prior is quoted on the back cover of this paperback, saying, “A book to introduce those who know nothing of the ballads to their rich and deep content…and intrigue those already familiar with them.” I couldn’t agree with her more. Think of it, if you will, as your invitation to a most marvelous world you might not discover otherwise.’

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In the ’70s, Michael says, Steeleye regularly performed a Mummer’s Play in mid-set, and one was filmed as part of the Australian television show GTK. ‘The show’s film of the Steeleye Span Mummers Play was known to have existed but was feared lost, as much of the (Australian) ABC’s early programming was tragically and carelessly thrown away, wiped or literally used as road fill! No other video of the play has ever been mentioned. Luckily, the bulk of the GTK sessions were found unharmed a few years ago and have been appearing with some regularity on YouTube.’

Chuck Lipsig turned in a review of 1998’s Horkstow Grange, which was the group’s first without Maddy Prior. His verdict? ‘Maddy Prior may be gone, but it’s still Steeleye Span. Which is not to say Gay Woods has turned into a Maddy Prior clone; she has her own voice, much earthier than Prior’s ethereal instrument. Woods gets into the characters she is singing much more than Prior did.’

Debbie Skolnik wrote about the live compilation In Concert: The Collection, which featured two different lineups of Steeleye in a series of shows from the late ’80s and early ’90s. ‘No matter how many times you’ve listened to your old Steeleye Span recordings, you’ve never heard these songs like this before unless you were lucky enough to see the performances from which the songs on this CD were taken. If you love this band and especially if you were not able to see them perform live, go out and get a copy!’

Deborah was glad that the playing on 2013’s Dodgy Bastards was as tight as ever. ‘At the core of anything from Steeleye, though, are those vocals. Dodgy Bastards has them in almost perfect form: Maddy anchors almost every song, with the supporting vocals providing both a bed and a surround. The effect is crisp, clear and gorgeous. This is what I expect from Steeleye, and always have. They don’t disappoint here.’

Deborah also mused about Maddy Prior’s vocals and especially her dancing with Steeleye Span. ‘​So I don’t know when I first saw Maddy Prior dance. I don’t know whether it was before or after I heard the lyric to Ralph McTell’s song on the subject, “Maddy Dances.” Putting together his lyrics with the effect of her voice, I finally – all these years down the line – realised what set her voice apart, and matched it so perfectly to those flying feet.’

Gereg reviewed the CD release of 1980’s Sails of Silver, one of his favorites which he initially expected to dislike. ‘Sails of Silver isn’t the sound I expect from Steeleye. For long-time listeners, that can’t be emphasised strongly enough. Because if you go in expecting electric folk, you’ll be disappointed. This is rock with folk roots. And yet those roots run deep. So if you can wrap your imagination around the incongruous concept of a rock with roots, then this might be the album for you.’

Iain Nicholas Mackenzie was pretty enthusiastic about A Parcel of Steeleye Span. ‘This triple disc set contains the entirety of their first five albums for Chrysalis, from 1972’s Below The Salt to 1975’s All Around My Hat with Parcel of Rogues, Commoners Crown, and Now We Are Six being the recordings in between. This completely remastered collection has 46 tracks in all, including a number of very tasty bonus tracks.’

Lahri Bond reviewed two releases from the turn of the Millennium, Bedlam Born, and The Journey. Of the former, he says it is ‘… an album that hails the thankful rebirth of one of folk rock’s most celebrated bands.’ And of the latter, which was initially unavailable in the States, he notes, ‘This two CD set and lavishly illustrated accompanying booklet preserve the event in all its glory. The liner notes tell how the whole affair was miraculously pulled together and a group history is included in case you’re as confused as most.’

Swedish musician and writer Lars Nilsson wrote a number of Steeleye Span review over the years:

One key to Steeleye’s longevity may be the way the band is constantly delving into the unexpected. That was evident in their 2006 release Bloody Men, an offbeat two-disc set reviewed by Lars. ‘First of all I am a little puzzled by the choice of format. You get two CDs, yet it does not feel like a full double CD. The first one contains 10 songs, clocking in at just under 47 minutes. The second is a suite of songs about the Luddites, clocking in at 16 minutes.’

Lars also gives a track-by-track rundown of 2004’s They Called Her Babylon, heralded by their record company as a new classic. ‘Had this been released in the early 1970s it would have been a classic, but I would not put it above albums like Please to See the King, Below the Salt and Commoners Crown, but history will certainly rank it higher than All Around My Hat, Rocket Cottage, Sails of Silver and a few others.’

He also closely reviewed Steeleye’s Christmas album, 2004’s Winter. ‘In the sleeve notes Peter Knight writes: “I am so glad that Steeleye has at last recorded a Christmas album.” I share his joy, and I am sure you will too. If you are to buy a Christmas album this year this is the one. And even if you were not considering buying one, buy it anyway.’

And Lars also liked 2019’s Est’d 1969, which he paired with a review of Fairport Convention’s Shuffle and Go from 2020. ‘Steeleye Span base their repertoire on old folk songs. They love old ballads, though they rework both the lyrics and the music for them. There are four ballads here, all performed with the full power of drums, bass and electric guitars. “Old Matron” starts of with bouzouki and harmony vocals, but soon it turns heavy. Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) guests with some wild flute playing. Listen to the interludes with flute and bass in unison.’

Our man down under Michael Hunter, something of a Steeleye Span expert, has contributed a number of write-ups over the years:

Michael brought us word of a collector’s item, Steeleye Span & Maddy Prior’s A Rare Collection 1972-1996. ‘The basis of this release is two Australia-only releases from the early 1980s: a compilation called Recollections and a live album called On Tour (both released on Chrysalis and now deleted). This new set picks some of the choicest tracks from those LPs and adds more up-to-date rarities to provide a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining look at some of Steeleye’s more unusual moments.’

He had mixed feelings about 2009’s live CD/DVD set Live at a Distance. ‘Well, it’s Steeleye Span, they’ve been around for 40 years and they’re as popular as ever. When they play a delicate piece, it can be genuinely moving. When they rock out, it can be exhilarating. When they just coast along however, it’s OK but disappointing, and while there’s not an overwhelming amount of coasting altogether here, there’s a bit too much for comfort.’

He documented a couple of late ’70s records from the lineup that included Martin Carthy on guitar and John Kirkpatrick on accordion, the studio album Storm Force Ten and Live At Last, released just before the band called it quits for a while. ‘Recorded at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth just days before the final split in 1978, the live representation of this lineup shows further diversity in their repertoire, and the presence of an obviously enthusiastic audience helps prevent any perceived malaise in performance that some may see in the studio album.’

He gave a thoughtful review of their 1996 record Time, which presaged nearly a decade of constant lineup shifts in the band. ‘Taken on its own terms though, it’s easy to categorise this as one of Steeleye Span’s best efforts in their long career. Lyrics and song explanations are included in the booklet, for those of us who like to understand the meaning and rationale behind a song. Musically and thematically, the CD can be seen as not just one of the better illustrations of the band’s work but as a fine example of electric folk generally, for anyone needing an initiation.’

Michael was upbeat about Wintersmith, the band’s project undertaken with humorous fantasy author Terry Pratchett, himself no stranger to our pages. ‘Steeleye for their part have released one of the best albums of their near-45 year career, and one that fits into that oeuvre while sounding rather different to much of their previous discography.  It’s still folk-rock of course, with a pleasing emphasis on the rock side – but it’s quite an intense sound in many places in terms of playing, and certainly production.’

Michael also interviewed Maddy Prior during a solo tour of Australia, in which she touched briefly on Steeleye and talked a lot about traditional music and the way it changes. ‘It’s never been pure, it’s always taken from anywhere. It’s like if you listen to any of the Top Twenty in any year, there’s the most ridiculous combinations of songs. You think, “that wasn’t around at the same time as that,” some crass novelty piece and some wonderful song that soars and rages, and loads of stuff you’ve forgotten that’s just rubbish. Well, traditional music’s like that. It’s all there. There’s novelty, there’s rubbish, it really does reflect people. The tradition has no taste whatever, you know.’

In his review of Please to See the King No’am pointed out an important distinction between Steeleye and Fairport Convention. Fairport plays electric folk-rock, while Steeleye plays traditional folk music, electrified. ‘I would recommend this disk to anyone who is interested in traditional English music. Although this and its sibling Ten Map Mop were landmark records, I think that very little of their experimental sound has percolated through to any of the Steeleye line-ups, or to any other group of the British folk-rock genre.’

Peter Massey took in a 2002 Steeleye show in Southport, Lancashire, on the tour that provided material for their “best-of” record Present. ‘Every one of the thousand or so that were in the audience must have returned home feeling they had been very well entertained. One of the nicer touches of the concert was the appearance of Rose Kemp, daughter of Rick and Maddy who is only 17, but already showing promise as a fine singer – she is clearly being groomed for the ‘family business’. The teaming up of her voice with Maddy’s sounded excellent when she joined the band on stage to sing the chorus to a couple of numbers.’

Steve reviewed the double album Present: The Very Best of Steeleye Span with the tracks selected by fans via online poll. ‘All in all, as an older fan, it’s worth having just for the improved production values and new arrangements of some tracks – and the sentimental value, of course. Those new to Steeleye Span have a ready made collection here, too, which is always a good selling point.’

One of our earliest reviews of Steeleye came from guest writer Tony Wighton, who covered the band’s engagement at the Trinity Theatre and Arts Centre in Tunbridge Wells in October 1998, when the band were touring behind their latest release Horkstow Grange. ‘If I was going to make any criticism of the evening it would be that I would have liked to have heard more of the new album, and maybe a few more really old classics from years gone by, but I am nitpicking really. It was an excellent gig and a relief to know that Steeleye Span, despite a major upheaval, have lived to tell the tale, and here’s wishing them every success for a good few years to come.’

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Reynard has a good find, the 40th Anniversary Souvenir Tour Guide from the band’s 2009 tour. ‘This Steeleye Span souvenir tour guide follows the format for pretty much every such publication over the past fifty or so years; a high gloss print job with lots of photographs and text covering the band. This one differs from the usual such offering by being a retrospective look at the band instead of focusing on the latest release which most of these publications rightfully do.’

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The Horkstow Grange album gets mixed reviews but as Chuck pointed out in his review, the arrangement of the title song is superb. We don’t have a live version available, so here’s the official version.


Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.
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