The new band was in retrospect the '70s end- product of musical changes that had been going on for two decades. Back in the '50s, Lonnie Donegan and the skiffle movement inspired a whole generation to play guitar and make music of their own by showing them that popular song was not the sole preserve of remote show-biz crooners. Then from quite a different direction the traditionalists stressed that it was not enough to be singing Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songs but that young British singers should study their own folk heritage. Under the influence of Bert Lloyd, Ewan MacColl or Charles Parker (who was responsible for the highly influential Radio Ballads) folk clubs started to spring up all over Britain.
By the early '60s, a healthy British folk scene was already established. Then it was the turn of the rock scene to catch up. After the initial burst of wild '50s rock 'n' roll and safer High School style it was the '60s R & B boom that led to a mass popular movement in Britain. Blues bands were everywhere and those who had played blues in folk clubs could turn electric and join them. The rock scene really took off in the second half of the '60s and among all the brilliant or disastrous experiments and musical fusions the climate was becoming right for a marriage of folk and rock. The rockers may initially have been surprised at the idea and the traditionalists horrified but Steeleye would eventually win a huge following by bringing the two sides together.
Although later line-ups did combine equal folk and rock influences within the band the first Steeleye was predominantly folk-orientated.
The original idea says Tim, was to combine English and Irish material and to get traditional performers to present traditional material in a way that would be acceptable to rock audiences. Four of the first Steeleye line-up had their roots in the folk clubs and one was a dedicated convert to folk from the rock scene.
Maddy Prior and Tim Hart were the backbone of Steeleye and have been in the band throughout. Both are typical of the new generation that became fascinated with British folksong in the early '60s and both come from St, Albans where they started singing at the local folk club. Maddy had also earned herself a little money by acting as roadie and driving folk acts to concerts around the British clubs (a chance for her to meet some of the singers she admired). Among those to grace her Ford Anglia were the Reverend Gary Davis and the folk duo Sandy and Jeanie.
In between her travels and the solo bookings she started to pick up Maddy performed with Tim Hart who also sang and played acoustic guitar. It worked out so well that in December 1966, they decided to turn professional together. They avoided the songs that everyone else was singing and dug around in libraries and collections to popularise lesser-known songs.
They set out to conquer the British folk scene and two years later discovered that the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow on the folk scene wasn't that difficult to achieve. We were up with your Martin Carthys and Alex Campbells and there was nowhere else to go. You either became a folk intellectual or an alcoholic. Just to work around the clubs over and over again is totally boring so said Tim, who by the end of 1969 was obviously ready for Steeleye.
Ashley 'Tyger' Hutchings came into Steeleye from quite the opposite direction. Until the middle of 1969, he had been playing bass with that great and influential band from Muswell Hill, London - Fairport Convention. For a while the band played around the emergent London underground scene and were heavily influenced by American West Coast bands like the Byrds. In those days Tyger would wear high boots and granny glasses. Later, with the introduction of Sandy Denny and the folk scene's great fiddle-player Dave Swarbrick, the Fairports produced their classic folk-rock album Liege and Lief. For Tyger it meant a transformation of his musical ideas. From now on he wanted to concentrate solely on folk-rock and so he quit the Fairports.
At first Tyger was all set to join the Irish folk band Sweeney's Men. But before they started playing together two of the band left. The remaining two members were Gay and Terry Woods and they now needed to find a couple more musicians with whom they could start a new band. At the Keele Folk Festival during the summer of 1969, Tyger remembered a lengthy, all-night discussion on the pros and cons of folk-rock that had involved among others, Maddy Prior and Tim Hart. So he rang to see if they were interested in forming a group. The timing was just right - they were.
Steeleye Span started rehearsing in the last few weeks of the '60s, meeting either at Tyger's parents house in Muswell Hill or at Tim and Maddy's flat just down the road in Highgate. They met Sandy Roberton, a record producer who agreed to manage the new band and to produce their first album. He got them a recording deal with RCA and this brought in enough money for them to buy a PA system and have electric versions made of normally acoustic instruments such as dulcimers. They also bought a van, the almost obligatory Ford Transit.
In January 1970, they all went out of London for that time-honoured musical tradition of "getting it together in the country". They spent two months living in a house at the Wiltshire village of Berwick St, James just a few miles from Stonehenge.
The early days of Steeleye were to put it tactfully, not the most harmonious. To give one minor example, there was only a single-ring primus stove in the house and the band cooked in shifts because they seemed incapable of eating the same food. The Irish contingent allegedly preferred Guinness and cheese sandwiches, while the appalling English stuck out for coq-au-vin. A fact which may not seem worth reporting but a variety of problems like that were to eventually lead to major changes.
The band came back to London in March 1970 and headed for Sound Techniques, that cosy recording studio in Church Street, Chelsea where the first Steeleye Span album Hark! The Village Wait was recorded in a single week. Omens for the album looked good, just before recording for example Steeleye had beaten Fairport Convention 8-2 in a memorable football match, but while the album was being made, personality clashes within the band reached crisis point. By the final day of recording, Terry and Gay had found the situation intolerable and had returned to Ireland. As a result one track was never finished. The album was eventually released - one track short and with no real band to promote it - in July 1970.
Considering all the tension in the studio, it was surprising how well this first album turned out and ironic that it should have such a gentle mesmeric feel. Electric guitars, electric bass and dulcimers were used but the amplification was restrained and sparing even though drums were used on some tracks with Dave Mattacks and Jerry Conway doing the honours.
Tyger wrote the words to the first track 'A Calling-on Song' for which he adapted a sword-dance tune. Like most of the tracks it was mellow, pleasant and dominated by Maddy's exquisitely clear vocals sounding all the more pure in harmony with Gay. One of the more robust tracks was the version of the union song 'Blackleg Miner' sung by Tim and with Maddy making a surpriseappearance on 5-string banjo.
The album's release didn' t shatter the British music scene, but it was met with some acclaim. The International Times - IT - called it "the best record of its type I've ever heard and Friends said "every noise is a pleasant one". The Morning Star was not so sure. It reported "Tim Hart and Maddy Prior are teaming up with Tyger Hutchings to form a group called Steeleye Iron".
© Boyesen Enterprises Ltd 1978