Steeleye Mk.3 died no dramatic death but just faded away. At the beginning of '77 the band collectively decided to take six months off - they all needed a long rest after the years of almost non-stop touring and recording. Maddy disappeared to the Lake District, Tim stayed with his wife in Norway and Nigel concentrated on his record label Plant Life. Bob Johnson and Peter Knight took the opportunity to finally record a project they had been working on for years. This was The King of Elfland's Daughter a concept work with songs written around incidents in the classic pre-Tolkein fantasy novel by Lord Dunsany. The album included performances from Alexis Korner, Frankie Miller and Mary Hopkin.
In May, when Steeleye got together again to discuss future plans, Bob and Peter announced they were leaving, Four days later, Maddy rang Martin Carthy and asked if he would consider re-joining the band. He agreed, and suggested the new line-up should include Jim Kirkpatrick (whom - ironically - he had suggested as a band member back in December '71). So in came two of the most distinguished instrumentalists from the 'seventies folk scene'. Since leaving Steeleye the first time, Martin had played in one of the many Albion Country Band line-ups (alongside John Kirkpatrick) had sung with The Watersons (one of whom he married) and had continued to build up his reputation as the finest guitarist and one of the best traditional singers,on the folk scene. John Kirkpatrick was widely recognised as the country's leading button accordion player and an authority on traditional dance. Among his various activities on the folk scene he had given concerts with his wife Sue Harris and recorded the Plain Capers album with Tyger Hutchings.
Martin and John joined the band on the understanding that the association was likely to be a temporary one. They were brought in to help Steeleye fulfill existing commitments including a world tour that never actually happened and - as Rick puts it - "to come in for six months or so to see the band off on the right note". They had only cancelled their solo work until the end of March '78, and it was agreed that they would return to their careers on the folk scene after that. As Maddy puts it "if you want to do other things you've got to leave the band and everyone had now got themselves other things to do. We are all from different musical backgrounds and our ideas and ways of life vary. For instance, Martin and John are more family and home-orientated than some of us".
Steeleye Mk.4 was not expected to last for much more than six months, but everyone was agreed that those should be six good months. In fact the arrangement has worked out better than anyone had hoped. "Musically, it's been incredible" says Maddy, "it's not an unhappy ending for these few months have been so enjoyable". For Rick who after all had originally joined Steeleye to play with Martin Carthy, "this has been even better than the old band to play with. I knew that playing with Martin would be an experience and that he was good - but I didn't realise quite how good".
The new band first got together in June'77, and spent two months rehearsing in north London. Then they launched out on a warm-up tour round Britain deliberately playing in smaller towns like Taunton, Oxford or Hull. Martin found he was happy to be back on electric guitar which he was soon to be playing more inventively than ever and John's accordion and concertina made an interesting successful replacement for Peter's fiddle. Rather than just being 'replacement members' Martin and John changed the mood and feel of the band and soon emerged as dominant stage personalities. John's solo morris dance quickly became an almost - guaranteed show - stopper.
At the beginning of September'77 the band went to Holland to record Storm Force Ten. The album was finished in a remarkably short time because the band had already worked out the songs and arrangements and recorded them almost like a live set with little over-dubbing. Martin suggested the two Brecht songs, 'The Wife Of The Soldier' and 'The Black Freighter' and also contributed the bleak but haunting story of prison life, 'Treadmill Song'. The outstanding track of all was 'The Victory', which dealt with the miseries of war by mixing a personal story of press-ganging and death with a sturdy, heroic theme. The arrangement was worked out by Maddy and Rick.
The album was released in November '77, as the band were on an extensive European tour covering six countries in four weeks. On a train between Kiel and Heidelburg they worked out the Christmas single, 'The Bear's Head Carol', which was recorded in Amsterdam ten days later. Back in Britain the band give the first-ever Steeleye concerts in Northern Ireland. They had avoided going there before "through paranoia", and in Belfast were rewarded with what Tim describes as "the best reaction that any Steeleye line-up has ever had, anywhere". By the time the band came on for their second encore the crowd were on their feet, applauding. "So we just had to stand there on stage for a good five minutes before the clapping eased off enough for another song".
On December 10, Steeleye were in London's Trafalgar Square, singing at an Amnesty rally in aid of political prisoners. A week later the newline-up made their London debut at Hammersmith Odeon. After all the changes there was some fear that the critical and all-important London audience might disapprove of the new band. No-one needed to have worried. The hall was sold out and the band were on great form. Martin and John performed and acted as confidently and easily as if they had been in the band for the full eight years. Martin's guitar work was particularly impressive and he combined his fluent solos with aggressively crashing chords. John's accordion and concertina blended remarkably well with the heavily-amplified rhythm section and his one-man morris dance won him a standing ovation. The band was more solemn than before (at least for the first half) but was more musically adventurous, mysteriously louder, more spontaneous and casually rough at the edges.
After a show like that, Steeleye's followers must have been confused and shocked by the events of January '78. The band announced that the lengthy British tour in February and March '78 would be their last. As Maddy put it, "after March Steeleye is no longer a working unit" though it was stressed that the band could still come together in the future for special one-off concerts. The split was not really as unexpected as it seemed because Martin and John had only intended to be with the band for a few months. Everyone in the band knew that Steeleye Mk.4 could not last too long and plans had already been made for future careers. Martin and John were going back to the folk scene to continue where they had never left off. Maddy was ready to start a solo career and the rest of the band were expected to continue making their mark on the British music scene through management, production or recording.
Just before the last British tour Maddy said "this band has been incredible and we want to see it off on the right note. We want this tour to be really enjoyable". After all the 100-month career of the most successful folk-rock band of all was quite something to celebrate.
© Boyesen Enterprises Ltd.