Absent friends Bob Johnson and Peter Knight may have returned to the fold, but the sound is new and unique. From the opening chords onward – crisp, smooth, and electric – you know that this is not your first-generation Steeleye album. And although Sails of Silver was originally slated to be a sort of triumphant return, the listening public did not respond well to the sound. The album was a commercial failure. And that’s truly a shame. Because artistically, it’s a distinct – and quite distinctive – success.
Mind you, my own introduction to the music of Steeleye Span began with Parcel of Rogues in the early ’70s. And by and large, that sound is what I really love about the band – a group whose first five albums may well have earned them rights to the title of Best Electro-Trad Group On Earth. After those five, for me it was mostly downhill. The less traditional their sound, the less interested I got.
So if you’d told me before 1980 that Sails of Silver was an album I’d come back to again and again; if you’d told me all those electric originals would ring in my ears for years, lingering and echoing, stuck firmly in my head from the time of my last hearing the original vinyl to my first getting hold of the eventual CD release; if you’d told me that, in fact, Sails of Silver was going to be one of my all-time favourite rock & roll albums … well, I’d’ve done my best to be polite. I’d have tried not to laugh in your face.
But the last laugh would have been on me. Lucky me.
Make no mistake, this is a rock & roll album. It sprouts out of deep traditional roots, without a doubt. And yet my impression, on the whole, is that you have to be pretty familiar with those roots in the first place in order to appreciate the fact. Even though nearly half the tracks on this CD bear the name of my favourite songwriter – the ubiquitous Trad. Arr. – there isn’t a one of them credited solely to him (or her, as the case might be) … and only a single song where that venerable creative spirit gets first billing. The traditional material here has been woven seamlessly into a metallic tapestry of original intention, a fabric that catches the wind and never stops moving.
If I tried to list my favourite songs off this album, I’d wind up with the complete track list from the original vinyl release. From the ironic cat-house innuendoes of “Senior Service” to the plaintive loss of “Gone to America” (“Married him in April; lost him in July”) … from the sweet purity and rich harmonies of “Marigold/Harvest Home” to the raucous, rueful pirate-movie fantasy of “Longbone” (“The only gold I’ve ever known / It all belonged to the giant Longbone”) … in fact, all the way from the woman finding a new kind of personal strength as she sails away from her false love, in the title track that opens the album, to the riddle-song verses that close it in “Tell Me Why”… there’s something to savour in each and every composition.
Even where the lyrics are not at their most profound – and a couple of the songs are thoroughly frivolous – the qualities of the music carry us along. The band is having a damned good time here, and they mean us to have one as well. Rick Kemp’s strong melodic bass lines balance Peter Knight’s tidy fiddling and the versatile guitars of Bob Johnson and Tim Hart – soaring, growling, and rhythmic by turns. The percussion of Nigel Pegrum adds drama and tension without drawing unnecessary attention to itself. The men’s voices are so well-balanced and true that it would take a female vocalist of Maddy Prior’s caliber to stand out, which she does. With the possible exceptions of Kemp and Pryor, there are no featured stars here. Everyone contributes something distinct and vital to the sound; everyone knows when to step back and play support while someone else takes the spotlight. (This is particularly rare in fiddle players – “rhythm violin” is something of an oxymoron in folk music – and yet there are several songs where Knight shows himself able to play a tasteful supporting role with admirable restraint.) Sails of Silver is an ensemble effort, a beautifully balanced musical team.
Individually and collectively, these 10 songs form a richly satisfying artistic whole, each juxtaposed neatly with its preceding and succeeding tracks, a constant reminder of just how smooth an album can sound when conceived as a complete anthology. Some of the credit here must go to veteran producer Gus Dudgeon, who had previously handled everyone from the Zombies and John Mayall to David Bowie and Elton John. Dudgeon’s albums always display a keen sense of where to stay simple and where to go lush with the production. And this album gives us some of each.
So … what don’t I like about this album? There are some weak points but for me, they were added after the fact. The CD release includes three live tracks, two of which are songs originally released on Now We Are Six, which (as it happens) was the first Steeleye album I ever decided I didn’t need to keep. There are a few pieces on it I’ve come to appreciate over the years, but all in all it still doesn’t impress me. I enjoy these live versions of the songs slightly more, but I rarely fail to stop the Sails of Silver CD with the conclusion of the original release.
The third bonus track is another live recording, celebrating the return of Gay Woods to the vocal line-up, reprising the arrangement of “My Johnny Was A Shoemaker” sung by Woods and Prior on the first album, Hark! The Village Wait. But this recording lacks the enthusiasm, the freshness and the precision of the 1970 studio recording. After the artistic unity of the original 1980 release, the extra tracks on this CD are no bonus. They’re an afterthought, a distraction; about as much bonus as a burr is a bonus under your saddle blanket.
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.
Listen to Sails of Silver as something to be appreciated in its own right, on its own merits. Six first-rate musicians trying something new, kicking off the traces of England’s soil, setting a course for new waters in a ship with sails that shimmer wincing-bright in the sunshine. Come on aboard. The wind is fair, and the water is fine.