Steeleye Span & Maddy Prior’s A Rare Collection 1972-1996

Cover art for A Rare CollectionRaven Records is a label set up by Australian rock historian Glenn A. Baker. Although he has been collecting and compiling recordings for over 25 years, it was in the late Eighties that he won the BBC competition “Rock Brain Of The Universe.” Usually, being called “Rock Brain” may not sound complimentary, but in this case it was to denote his extraordinary knowledge of things musical. Raven was set up to release compilations of diverse musical styles, and Baker’s clout is such that he can get permission from as many different labels as necessary to compile authoritative overviews of an artist’s work. Late in 1998, the Fairport Convention compilation Fiddlestix was put together in such a way, and now the focus shifts to Steeleye Span.

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. If you’re looking for a “Greatest Hits” album, this isn’t it. But to fill in the gaps and discover some performances you may not have known existed, this album is sure to satisfy.

The twenty tracks are a mix of never-before-released songs, different mixes, unusual edits, songs from solo and collaborative albums and so on. Yet, it comes across as a pretty cohesive album in its own right. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily “sound” like a compilation. All the tracks flow together well, and the musical quality is as high as anyone who knows Steeleye Span will expect.

Highlights include the live tracks. From On Tour (Adelaide, 1982), comes one of the more moving versions of “I Live Not Where I Love.” The very rare Peter Knight song “I Have A Wish” is a welcome inclusion, a fun a cappella song with its chorus of “Folk-rock, punk beat, boogie-woogie reggae with a barbershop harmony!” Recorded at the same gig but left off the original LP is a storming version of “The Royal Forester.” From Perth in 1984 comes the “Autumn To Spring Medley,” which combines “Marigold/Harvest Home” with the previously unreleased song “The Spring Will Bring Us Together.” The captivating “Betsy Bell & Mary Gray” comes from a 1986 English show.

Elsewhere, we find the UK single B-side version of “Lanercost” (to my ears, better than the Back In Line recording), the full-length version of “Thomas The Rhymer,” “Boars Head Carol” (a single from the late 70s line-up which featured Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick and never before released on CD), and a couple of Australia-only single edits. “Elf Call” and “Montrose” were only released as 45s in Australia and were specially edited versions never released anywhere else. The latter track in particular is interesting to hear, as the original version (on Live At Last) ran for around fifteen minutes, whereas the single goes for just under four!

Some of the more fun inclusions are the band’s version of “Rag Doll” from 1972 with Hal Blaine on drums; the theme song to late-80s UK children’s TV show “Stookie” performed by Maddy Prior, and the closing track — “Status Quo” with Prior guesting on backing vocals, on “All Around My Hat.” This 1996 recording is actually more pop than the boogie one might expect, and it is intriguing to hear the lyrical change “She’s a false deluded young girl/Let her go, farewell she.” It’s also an entertaining way to finish a most worthwhile album.

The cover notes are written by the band’s ex-drummer, Nigel Pegrum, and contain a few choice memories of his 17 years in Steeleye, while co-compiler Warren Barnett provides the informative track details. With over 75 minutes of rare and wonderful music, it’s safe to say this is — as the reviewing cliché has it — an essential purchase for Steeleye Span fans.

(Raven, 1999)