"Get that bum out of here" was the first historic phrase spoken by a member of the great American public to a member of Steeleye Span. The date wasNovember '72, and the place a roadside diner outside Syracuse, New York. Rick Kemp immediately retaliated by offering to buy it. The manager's aide was heard whispering to him "careful bud, some of these bums have got money these days".
So started a historic tour in which Steeleye backed Procol Harum."We must have really nauseated them", says Maddy, "being our first time there we were one bundle of enthusiasm and comment on America. They'd done about 13 tours there already". On the dramatic side the tour was memorable for the terrifying driving of manager Jo Lustig. After he had hit two estate cars in a hotel lot, driven straight across six lanes of traffic to over-shoot a gas-station (and yell at the attendant) the band started getting worried. And when he stopped in the fast lane of a big freeway to ask the way, they really got worried.
Musically there were fewer problems. The band had just 35-40 minutes on stage and decided to play jigs and reels "and all the up material". It got the crowd dancing, which didn't always amuse Procol who preferred a more reflective, listening audience but slowly Steeleye built up interest in their apparently alien music. Maddy danced, amazed the Americans by wearing petticoats, and the rock audiences - usually stoned out of their skulls on qualudes and Boone's Apple Wine - found they liked the results. At New York's large and shabby Academy Of Music the band were warned not to expect any reaction from the audience because they were so wrecked. But this was Steeleye's first gig ever in New York and they were determined to play a flat-out set. Maddy danced right out into the audience and to the applause of everyone, the crowd not only moved but got to its collective feet and danced. A New York reviewer summed it up with a headline " Steeleye Do The Impossible"
In Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia the band also played in the clubs - not folk clubs, but small fashionable rock clubs where an audience of around 300 sit at tables and expect good music. The Los Angeles clubs in particular are the main breaking ground for new artists - even Elton John had started there. In LA, at the Ash Grove, Steeleye decided to show off the full range of their material, not just the fast jigs. They were half-way through singing one of their 'unaccompanied songs' (as they called them), when a group at the back started shouting 'that's acapella', which confused Steeleye, as they didn't know what that meant, or whether they were being praised or insulted. Later they found out about acapella. Acappella' was Italian for 'in the church', and so 'unaccompanied'. Those yelling it out enthusiastically at the Ash Grove were The Persuasions, the leading black acapella experts. By the end of the tour, Steeleye were 190 in the American charts.
In April '73 they were back again, "It was probably the worst-planned tour that any band has ever done", says Tim, "Well, at that stage we were prepared to do anything", says Maddy, "I was the first to complain, but at least you feel human when the smooth-running machine of a tour breaks down". Break down this one certainly did. The band arrived not knowing where they were going to play after the first fortnight and found they had some strange itineries. One week they gave five shows in two nights in Philadelphia, then drove to Greenvale New York for a show then flew to San Francisco for two shows at the massive Winterland, then flew straight back to New York just in time to dash to Carnegie Hall and scramble on stage to open for Blood, Sweat and Tears, with no time for a sound-check. Next day they found that they had been booked to play in Sioux Falls, Montana half-way back across the continent. On the way there, Maddy and Rick became ill through exhaustion so the band played truant and ended up in a hotel in Denver. So much for the joys of the road.
On one level it was all disastrous, but on another level it was very educational. At Winterland, Steeleye had performed alongside Sha Na Na, an experience Tim describes as "a total revelation", Maddy says "it gave us a whole new vision of the world - after watching them we could leap around on stage". In Denver, Steeleye saw another side of the rock 'n' roll world. They were supporting the Beach Boys and benefited from their colleagues' back stage tantrums. The Beach Boys' dressing room had been filled with exotic sea-food, turkey, salad and strawberries but they decided it was not macrobiotic enough and threw it out - to Steeleye next door, unsurprisingly this turned out to be the most outstanding concert in the tour for the two bands made a sensational double bill.
Next month Steeleye were back again playing "absolutely massive" venues with Jethro Tull including 5 nights at the enormous LA Forum. It was here that American Tull freaks staggering to their seats rushed off in terror when Steeleye came on in cassocks, bathed in blue light, singing the eerie 'Lyke Wake Dirge'.
Steeleye had been warned by other bands that Jethro were nicknamed Jethro Dull because they were so sober and hard-working while on tour. But at Lincoln, Nebraska the combined Steeleye-Tull forces celebrated the end of a concert by moving a ten-foot high statue of a surfer from a car-park into a hotel swimming-pool. They then attempted to launch his 9-foot surf-board from a first-floor window into the pool, and missed. At the time the band thought they were being outrageous and very original. Status Quo hearing of the incident a little later, crushed them with "oh yeah, you did that one too did you?"
Next year, in the summer of '74, Steeleye were back yet again. This time they were performing the mummers' play, which was even taken to New Central Park, where Steeleye were headlining (though advertised as John Sebastian). Even the police patrolling the crowds danced to the jigs. Later at their New York hotel, Rick met a man in a bar who was dressed as a ballerina. He was invited along to meet Bonnie Raitt, Kate McGarrigle and John Hammond at Steeleye's party but he ruined things by biting a large lump out of Rick's chest, A little later, the band were to top the bill at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium with Roger McGuinn as their opening act - which surely made up for a lot.
The last tour in October '76, was the most hectic of all. In eleven days Steeleye played 22 shows including performances at smart clubs like New York's Bottom Line and San Francisco's The Boardinghouse. In San Francisco the staff of Rolling Stone went overboard for the band and a staff directive was issued that all writers should get to The Boardinghouse to see them .
At the end of it all Steeleye never became a best-selling album band in the States (any more than Linda Ronstadt has been over here) and the various promotional tours there were to cost the band a great deal of money, "It was supposed to be an investment" says Maddy, "but I wouldn't have missed it for anything". At the end of it all Steeleye had far more than just a dedicated cult following.
© Boyesen Enterprises Ltd 1978