In April 1970, Steeleye were in a strange state of limbo. They were a band who had never given a live performance and who had already lost half their line-up. At the same time their first album was just coining out. Tyger, Maddy and Tim cast around for new members. There was one obvious candidate - an old friend who had rightly earned the reputation of being one of the best guitarists on the folk scene. Tim rang him up and he accepted.
That was Martin Carthy, who now has the honour of having joined Steeleye twice. Back in 1970, he already had a colourful ten-year professional history behind him. He had left school in 1959 and gone into the theatre, touring for nine months with a repertory company and ending up in Newcastle. After becoming fed up with that he settled for music. For a time he worked in the Elizabethan Room in Queensway London, dressed as a minstrel and singing to diners. He became involved in folk music and was rewarded with a two-year residency at one of London's most important '60s folk clubs. The Troubadour, where he met visiting American singers such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. He played with the 3 City 4, and became increasingly sought after as an accompanist and as a solo singer and guitarist. By this time his guitar technique and arrangements for traditional tunes had become increasingly complex and individual. For some time he had worked with fiddler Dave Swarbrick the duo recording some outstanding albums together. The partnership had broken up when Swarbrick joined Fairport Convention.
The new four-piece Steeleye rehearsed in Highgate for two months and then decided they needed another instrumentalist to give the band a more varied sound. In June Peter Knight, a little - known fiddle - player was asked to join. He had been working as an assistant in a shop selling musical instruments and was known to the others through his occasional appearances on the folk scene. He had worked in the clubs with a guitarist called Bob Johnson and had appeared on a television show with Maddy. His 'formative years' had been spent at the Royal Academy, learning classical violin and his "deformative years" drinking Guinness with Irish musicians in London pubs. Along the way he had become a demon fiddler but had never played electric before.
By July, Steeleye had been released from their RCA contract, negotiated a deal with B & C, and were ready for their first-ever public appearance. It took place on an ATV Birmingham television programme called Music Room. The band can't remember anything about it except that they performed in a studio next to the Crossroads set, which stank of dying privet hedges. They also remember the producer trying to take them to dinner at Birmingham's Midland Hotel, where all except a roadie were ejected for being unsuitably dressed!
The band's first performance in front of a live audience was a modest affair. They sang two songs at an unannounced appearance in the club tent at the Cambridge Folk Festival in August 1970. Even then they startled the folk enthusiasts, for they followed a traditional song with an unaccompanied harmony version of Buddy Holly's 'Rave On'. Tim,Maddy and Martin had worked this out as a joke to surprise Tyger, who took his folk songs very seriously, To their surprise he not only liked it but wanted it included in the band's repertoire.
On September 30, Steeleye gave their first proper concert at Salford University and were delighted at how well they were received by a non-folk audience. In October they had their first British tour mostly round British universities, but including a date at London's Cecil Sharp House, the traditionalist mecca. The band left the traditionalists aghast. They may have had no drummer at this stage but they played very loud. The man most responsible was none other than folk-guitar hero Martin Carthy, who had never played electric guitar before but insisted on playing his glittery blue Telecaster on notch ten i.e. as loud as it would go.
In between their now very electric interpretation of British folk songs, Steeleye developed other new skills. On stage the band found that they had to stop for long periods between songs so that they could re-tune. To keep audiences amused other diversions had to be found. The band were delighted to find that Peter could juggle, while Maddy pre-dated Pam Ayres with her ability to recite extremely silly poems which were written for her by Tim. As these were never recorded, here is a sample for the benefit of future cultural historians.
On the wild domain of the African plain
Lived a rare and quite unknown yak,
Who had baleful eyes, horns twice his size,
And a long woolly mane down his back.
Now this African yak with the long woolly back
Was subject to fainting and fits.
But if while in a trance you should kill him by chance
You should cut him up small into bits.
And if these are stewed, a love potion is brewed -
Once taken there's no turning back.
'Tis a love potion famed, and the best is thus named
The Afro-Dizzy- Yak.
Groans - and the guitarists had hopefully finished tuning by the time that was over. Maddy would then get the audience on their feet by dancing across the stage to the jigs. The tour went down well enough (The Times called Steeleye" agreeably scruffy ear-scratching people") but it was the release of the next album, Please To See The King that showed the folk and the rock worlds that Steeleye were a major force.
Steeleye took time over this album - it was recorded between the end of March and December, 1970 - and the hard work paid off. The intention was the same as before to perform folk songs using rock instruments to reach a rock audience - but this time there was greater experimentation. The songs were dressed up with elaborate formal arrangements as if they were treated with great respect, but some of the results were remarkable.'The Blacksmith' was done again ("because we felt it hadn't been done justice the first time around") and songs like 'False Knight On The Road' and 'Cold,Haily,Windy Night' were brought in from Martin's repertoire, They worked well and so did the more experimental tracks.
'Boys of Bedlam' started with an unaccompanied duet between Maddy and Martin given a weird sound as Martin sang into the back of a banjo. Bass and then a full band arrangement were gradually brought in against this. 'The King' was Steeleye's first excursion into unaccompanied harmony singing - one of the great attractions of the band in later years - while 'Female Drummer' showed Tyger breaking away from the formal mood of the The rest of the album, to dominate the song first with crashing, rock-style bass and then a successfully busy, buzzing bottom line. The best track on this refreshing, delightful album was the last song of all, 'Lovely On The Water'. A mesmeric, peaceful song, ideal for Maddy's voice, built around an uncanny almost Greek sounding melody line achieved by multitracking Peter's mandolin. With sturdy rhythm and a magnificent gradually developing arrangement, it stands as one of Steeleye's greatest achievements.
1 (1) CRY OF LOVE, Jimi Hendrix, Track
2 (2) THE YES ALBUM, Yes, Atlantic
3 (4) FOURTH, Soft Machine, CBS
4 (3) PEARL, Janis Joplin. CBS
5 (5) AFTER THE GOLD RUSH, Neil Young, Reprise
6 (7) SPLIT. Groundhogs, Liberty
7 (10) PLEASE TO SEE THE KING, Steeleye Span, Charisma
8 (6) JOHN LENNON/PLASTIC ONO BAND, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Apple
9 (8) ALL THINGS MUST PASS, George Harrison, Apple
10 (21) DELIVERlN', Poco, CBS
11 (29) AQUALUNG, Jethro Tull, lsland
12 (12) ELTON JOHN, Elton John, DJM
13 (13) TUMBLEWEED CONNECTION, Elton John, DJM
14 (14) WHALES AND NIGHTINGALES, Judy Collins, Eiektra
15 (15) RING OF HANDS, Argent, CBS
The album was released in March 1971, to ecstatic reviews - it was the Melody Maker folk album of the year and apparently went straight into the charts. "Apparently", because unfortunately there were no charts around - those responsible for compiling them had gone on strike. The Virgin Record shops had a chart of their own though and according to their sales the album reached No. 7, at a time when Jimi Hendrix's 'Cry Of Love' was at No. 1.
By the time the album came out the band were already reaching a brand new audience, for they were on a major British tour with Jethro Tull. Steeleye were the opening act and on each show they had just forty minutes in which to impress a rock audience impatient for the arrival of Ian Anderson and Tull. It was no easy task, but the band managed remarkably well - so well in fact that they were invited to support the Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse, (something Steeleye were unable to do alas, because of prior commitments).
Touring with Tull also gave Steeleye their first experience in rock hysteria. At the Empire, Edinburgh, the band were beseiged by fans who came crawling up the drainpipes looking for Tull. Just a little later in the summer of 1971, Steeleye were involved in a riot of their own.
They had agreed to appear in a special television show in which they would play alongside their only folk-rock rivals, Fairport Convention, on Ainsdale Beach, just north of Liverpool. As the performance was being given just for television, it had been arranged that a token crowd of about 200 should come along as the audience. Unfortunately a Liverpool newspaper got the story totally wrong and announced that there was to be a free festival.
The result was utter chao 5,000 people turned up.The two bands stayed around for a while to play for the crowds when the recording was over and then - as more and more people kept arriving - the man operating the generator brought proceedings to an abrupt halt by driving the generator van away. It was then that the gallant Ainsdale police, all three of them, arrived to tell of another 5,000 people boarding trains in Liverpool. The resulting 10,000 furious fans first demolished the empty stage, then promptly set fire to it.
The rest of that summer was a little more peaceful. The band played at the Loughborough Folk Festival, where they took part in another heated debate on the merits or evils of electric folk. They later made their first official appearance at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Between these two events, they played at one of the most successful and entertaining British festivals of the '70s - the Lincoln Festival of 24 July 1971, This was held in the country with the stage built outside an old manor house on a gloriousily hot English summer afternoon.
The psychedelic phase was over, singer - songwriters and folk-rockers were coming into their own and the best of both - from America as well as Britain turned up at Lincoln. The only hint of trouble came from the Byrds, who arrived to find they were supposed to be playing an "acoustic set", much against their wishes. After they had watched Steeleye get the massive crowd leaping around to their reels and jigs, the Byrds decided that they would have to be amplified too. So they blasted off with a most decidedly amplified 'Hey Mr Spaceman'. The Lincoln show ended incidentally with an emotional reunion between Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick - each now recognised as a major artist now that they were playing in famous bands.
In September, Steeleye were back in the studio to record their next album, Ten Man Mop - so called because there were ten people shown on the cover - five Victorian portraits and five members of Steeleye. This was, frankly, a little disappointing because it contained several tracks that seemed slow and lifeless after Please To See The King. But the album had its moments - not all of them intentional. Producer Sandy Roberton brought his dog, a Yorkshire terrier called Marcus into the studio. The band nicknamed the poor hound "the mechanised rat", "the mobile scrubbing brush" and "the clockwork mop". The dog's revenge can be heard towards the end of 'Four Nights Drunk'. Perfectly on the beat there's a loud yelp from the control-room. On a more musical note the album was notable for Tyger's rocking bass work on the jigs and reels. "Status Quo should have been influenced by that,"said Rick Kemp admiringly when he listened again to his predecessor six years later.
In the autumn of 1971, Steeleye had their first headlining British tour, lasting over a month. The band remember it by an in-joke, which consisted of singing 'As Long As He Needs Me' in their van at different speeds and in different keys, whenever they came to a town centre. During the tour Tyger decided to leave. He didn't want to carry on with the stage play, Corunna, (see Chapter 5) and he wanted to play more English and less Irish music. A more important reason was probably that he had just married the folk singer Shirley Collins and wanted to be involved in musical projects with her.
At the end of the tour Martin Carthy announced that he too, was leaving. Despite the coming split, the British tour itself ended with a bang. At the final concert at the Winter Gardens, Bournemouth one of the road crew put an explosive in a dustbin behind the stage to let off during the last song. Which would have been quite amusing - but the lid shot off with such force that it went straight through the ceiling.
Steeleye Mk 2 died in December 1971, leaving a single - 'Rave On' - just released.
© Boyesen Enterprises Ltd 1978