ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK
written by Bob Woffinden,Charles Shaar Murray & Patrick Humphries
© New Musical Express
18 JUNE 1977
THE NEWS of the internal realignment of Steeleye Span has blighted the hopes of those who considered that the Spanners could become the first band to crack open the American market with material based on traditional English folk music.
There always was a dichotomy in the band between the folk and the rock axises, and it now seems that even at their most fluid they had done little more than paper over the cracks. The replacement of Bob Johnson (guitar, vocals) and Peter Knight (violin) with Martin Carthy (guitar, vocals) and John Kirkpatrick (accordion), both stalwarts of the traditional folk scene, suggests that the band will either abandon or at the least de-emphasise their rock orientation. Carthy confirmed as much when we spoke to him last week.
"I think it's going to be more folkie, closer to Ashley Hutchings' original vision of the band. I mean, if they'd wanted to continue as a rock band, they wouldn't have asked John and I to join. We both speak a folkie language and we'll be doing the sort of stuff John and I know best."
In turn, Johnson and Knight are both sorry that after their irrevocable decision to leave, the band should have immediately closed ranks and assured their own survival by looking to the past. Knight had been intending to play keyboards on future Steeleye dates, and the band could have drafted in a rock guitarist and a keyboard's player and stuck to their pioneering direction. Because while no-one would wish to underestimate the qualities of an album like "Please To See The King," equally it gives cause for little more than regret that they should apparently be retrogressing. Come back 1971, all is forgiven.
Nevertheless, it's difficult to ascertain entirely what will be the future direction of the band.
The reshuffle means that there isn't anyone in the band who can play the kind of no-bullshit rock and roll rifferama with which Johnson used to underpin the chord structures. This could create considerable reorientation problems for the band's decidedly rock and roll-based rhythm section of Rick Kemp (bass) and Nigel Pegrum (drums).
Certainly the reappearance of Carthy will make it necessary for Kemp and Pegrum to reassess both their approaches to their instruments and their musical role in the band.
In other ways, it's difficult to see how Carthy can fit in. He is a singularly inappropriate choice to fill one of the vacancies. It is an open secret that ever since he left for the first time in 1972, he has slagged the band virtually at every opportunity; "raucous" being one of his more polite descriptions of their post - "Parcel Of Rogues" music. There have already been rumours, for example, that he only rejoined on the understanding that he would under no circumstances sing "All Around My Hat" Though he didn't actually confirm this to us, he hardly denied it either.
"Well, I think you can take an educated guess at what I'll not be doing; but I don't want to be negative about it. I mean, it's a democratic process choosing what material we'll be playing. Everybody's going to be bending."
No doubt John Kirkpatrick will fit in to whatever structure the band do decide to adopt more easily than Carthy, since he already has considerable experience at playing both folk numbers and, with Richard and Linda Thompson, more rock-orientated material.
Johnson and Knight meanwhile say that whatever happens they will continue to work together and are now considering the ways in which they can utilise their new-found freedom. They have some regrets about leaving the band, particularly as in recent months they had written a considerable amount of fresh Steeleye material, which they will now give themselves the option of using.
Knight said, "I think that had the band remained in its previous form, in two years time some of our music could have been phenomenal."
They will now concentrate on helping to get their new project, "The King Of Elfland's Daughter" off the ground. It is something that has taken them over three years, because they have always tried to fit it in with Steeleye's activities. It is a concept album based on Lord Dunsany's fantasy- classic of the same name, and another of the reasons for the lengthy gestation period was that everything they wrote had to be cleared with the executors of Dunsany's will. The album features contributions from Frankie Miller, Mary Hopkin, Chris Farlowe and P. P. Arnold who happened to fly into England at the very moment they were looking for someone to take the part of the Witch. Christopher Lee acts as narrator. Not surprisingly, the album in toto probably cost as much as three times to make as a Steeleye album, hopefully it will attract spin-off ventures a stage play and an animated film being the most likely.
They considered that their time with Steeleye had been very valuable and exciting, and they now look forward to utilising their experience as independent songwriters/producers/arrangers/orchestrators. No-one who listens to "The King Of Elfland's Daughter" would doubt their abilities in these fields.
Steeleye, meantime, have found that the exigencies of rehearsals have forced them to cancel some dates in Ireland, but they will still be under taking their world tour, playing European dates in July, Australia in August and America in November and December Only after completing those gigs will they play British dates. They have plans to go into a studio in September to record an album for release on November 1. What it will sound like is, at the moment, anybody's guess.
© New Musical Express