Originally released at the beginning of 1971, this folk-rock classic was the first record to be made by the second line-up of Steeleye Span, then consisting of Martin Carthy (guitar, vocals) Maddy Prior (vocals), Tim Hart (guitar, dulcimer, vocals), Peter Knight (violin, mandolin, vocals) and Ashley Hutchings (bass, vocals). In some senses, it was an experimental record, in that there was no drummer (although Maddy played a mean set of spoons here and there), and that Martin Carthy made his debut on electric guitar – his fingerpicking style produced a different sound from that of other guitarists.
I was fortunate enough to see this line-up of Steeleye Span in March 1971, for the princely sum of 45 pence. In those days, a concert ticket was very much cheaper than a record, which is why I never purchased this record when it first came out. At the time, the hot debate was which band was better: Steeleye or Fairport. In my opinion, there was no question, as it wasn’t possible to compare the two groups. Fairport played electric folk-rock music, whereas Steeleye played traditional folk music electrified. Fairport had a much more conventional sound (even in March 1971, riding on the crest of Full House and leading up to Angel Delight) than this lineup of Steeleye ever did (although this changed in later line-ups).
Virtually every track on this disk is a classic. “The Blacksmith” opens the proceedings in fine style, with Maddy singing to a trademark Carthy accompaniment. This is a different arrangement to the one on the first Steeleye record Hark! The Village Wait, which was rockier and more conventional. The album closes with “Lovely On The Water,” with its staccato guitar riff and Shadows-like middle section. In between are eight songs, including “Prince Charlie Stuart,” “Boys of Bedlam,” and “The Lark In The Morning.” All of the songs are played and sung well, and most have stood the test of time, which is not surprising as the songs are all traditional and were written many years before they were recorded.
The only thing that can be faulted with this record is the balance: apart from the two above-mentioned songs, the vocals (especially Martin Carthy’s) could be louder, whereas certain instruments (primarily the electric dulcimer played by Tim Hart) could have been quieter. Peter Knight is also a victim of bad mixing, most of his playing being relegated to a low volume. This is a shame, as only a little work would be needed to correct this problem, although it may well be that this release (labelled 1990) was made from a vinyl copy, without access to the master tapes.
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. It is instructive to compare “Boys Of Bedlam” as presented here with the version that Maddy has been singing in the past few years to see exactly what inheritance this record has left.