UNREMITTING MAIN FORCE:
STEELEYE'S HARVEST HOME
By Angus MacKinnon
İNew Musical Express
2 Oct 1976
For every purist they leave clucking his or her disapproval in the folk clubs Steeleye Span must gain three score and ten new followers. Good for them.
It's difficult to sympathise with the hard-line traditionalists rejection of Steeleye as from the outset the group have been at pains to handle their source material with due respect and reverence.
Why bicker petulantly at musicians who are in effect re-introducing traditional song to an audience as numerically sizeable as that enjoyed by the broadsheet balladeers in eighteenth century London? Such attitudes only stir up the black bile of professional jealousies. Better to let be and instead consider whether Steeleye are aesthetically successful within their own terms of reference.
Now that Fairport Convention have run their course. Steeleye have become the most influential proponents of electric folk in the land. Which isn't to discount the valuable achievements of Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings. But Steeleye continue to interpret exclusively traditional song structures and texts, whereas Thompson and Denny write their own material - even though this often acknowledges its debt to older forms - and Hutchings' Albion Dance Band is (unsurprisingly) more concerned with dance, whether English Morris or European courtly legacies.
Steeleye's gradual evolution towards becoming what amounts to a rock and roll band playing traditional material has and, on record at least, not entirely untroubled. Back in 1969 Fairport had originally approached 'Liege and Lief' as a one-off project. They'd dabbled with traditional elements before, but never so wholeheartedly. The outcome fragmented them - and not for the last time. Hutchings left to form Steeleye, wanting to concentrate entirely on traditional song.
The first album, 'Hark The Village Wait', featured drums before he abandoned them for 'Please To See The King' and 'Ten Man Mop'. Whereupon Hutchings and Martin Carthy departed, the line-up has since remained a constant, with drummer Nigel Pegrum arriving for 'Now We Are Six'.
In contrast to Fairport, Steeleye's interpretations had long remained almost conservative (or conservationist?). Tentative steps in the direction of formulating a more rock-orientated sound were taken with songs like 'Alison Gross' on 'Parcel Of Rogues', courtesy of Bob Johnson's visceral guitar chording and Rick Kemp's sinuous bass.
But 'six' crossed the Rubycon. It all but drowned midstream, with only 'Seven Hundred Elves' and 'Thomas The Rhymer' remaining above water. Steeleye themselves hadn't miscalculated - their rhythmic dynamics were brutally efficient - but Ian Anderson was evidently the wrong 'guest' producer. 'Commoners Crown' made up most handsomely for its aberrant predecessor, with the gory 'Long Lankin,' setting new standards - a mournful air and abrasive rock arrangement confidently harnessed to the same wagon. This time the production (by the group and engineer Robin Black) seemed satisfactory.
Steeleye thought otherwise and for 'All Around My Hat,' acquired the professional services of Womblemeister Mike Batt. The results of this collaboration left me unimpressed. All the brooding sonority of 'Crown' was jettisoned and, with the best of intentions I'm sure, the group's rhythm section affected a jolly 6/8 romp through most of the songs, Now 6/8 is fine for Wombling, but in Steeleye's instance the signature rang horribly false, a sort of bumpkin bop parody. Both Kemp and Pegrum found themselves menacled within its narrow confines. The title cut was duly released as a single and sold with gay abandon.
Perhaps Steeleye needed to make an irresistibly commercial album. If so, then they brought it off to the tune of 280,0000 in sales. 'Hat' appears in retrospect to have been an understandable move; the recording industry. (sadly) demands continual injections of capital. However, although Batt has been retained as producer, Steeleye have resisted temptations to stage a rerun performance for 'Rocket Cottage.'
Don't let the current single deter you. An otherwise tongue-in-cheek paean to the metropolis dubious delights, 'London' is the only item to bumble merrily along in dread 6/8. It does so harmlessly enough despite an overlong fade; it's the obvious single and is disposable alongside the rest of the set.
Furthermore the as-I-was-going-to-market seduction routine have never struck me as being a very enthralling aspect of traditional balladry. It's nowhere in evidence here; instead Steeleye have chosen several suitably mysterious, often unnerving cases for treatment.
There's 'Orfeo', a variation of the Greek Orphcus and Eurydice myth, only in this version the musician succeeds in rescuing his lady from her captor, the greenwood Faerie King, with out incident.
I'm warming towards the gently unobtrusive strings and woodwind Batt has slipped under the song's brisk, loping trot (unless of course it's Peter Knight and Pegrum multitracked ) ; his production certainly affords the utmost deference to Maddy Prior's many and wondrous voices. The group's attention to detailed arrangement has rarely been more comprehensive, Decorative harp and mandolin embellish the melody. Knight adds a bright fiddle reel in postscript.
'The Brown Girl' is more sinister. Another stock Situation; girl is refused by loved one who marry another; girl declines to forgive him and ignores his subsequent recalcitrance. But Steeleye's rendition is consummately acute. Prior sings with provocative sensuality, the middle - eight is grimly tense, the chorus uneasily light-hearted as the heroine declares her intention of dancing on her mans grave for a year and a day. The paradoxical Juxtaposition of musical mood and lyrical sense is really effective; Johnson later adds a characteristically brief solo.
The organisational problems posed by reiterative verse are neatly bypassed in 'Twelve Witches' and the lengthy 'Sir James The Rose', both sung by Johnson. Group instrumentation is constantly rebalanced and Kemp only confirms his rare melodic gift. Thc text of 'Witches' abounds in supernatural imagery but it's Sir James' that transpires to be Steeleye's most full-blooded realisation to date. A young Scottish heir kills a squire, hides out, is hunted down, his heart removed, jammed onto a spear shaft and presented to his wife. Once again Johnson's muscular, clotted-rich chording is predominant as Pegrum slaps cowbell and cymbals. Unremitting main force, and Knight's break is gloriously vindictive. (But who laid the lyric sheet? It's all over the place.)
Elsewhere Steeleye diversify is a 'Bosnian Hornpipes' is a short acapella vocal piece, masterfully scored.
'Fighting For Strangers' relates, the unfortunate effects of army recruitment. Apart from Knight's sporadic interjections the song is carried by a shuffling drum beat and assorted percussive effects, an evocation of military equipment jangling uncomfortably on a conscript's back. Prior sings the chorus to a tune more usually associated with Bunyan's 'To Be A Pilgrim' (a nice touch) and Tim Hart takes the event-packed verses. 'Strangers' is resigned insistently despairing.
There's the obligatory jig in 'Sligo Maid' with mandolin. venomous guitar and brash drums all cavorting rather after the fashion of Horslips.
Which leaves two live-in the studio forays. A light-hearted snippet from 'Camptown Races' is an innocuous doo-dah forgery from the American deep south With an abrupt change of mood this slides airily into 'The Drunkard', a measured lament with Prior (as always) faultlessly pitched over brush drums and dulcimer.
And that's your lot, 'Rocket Cottage' is Steeleye's most consistent recording since 'Parcel of Rogues'. Commercial success rarely results in further experimentation so it's most reassuring to see that the group has deviated from statutory practice.
*Click here to see the cover & track listing.