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Steel versus

Steeleye Span
The Time Warp

By Charles Shaar Murray

New Musical Express

10 March 1973

Sound Techniques studios in Chelsea is not exactly the most luxurious of settings for musical activity. Boards, speakers and tape reels are scattered fairly haphazardly around a room which is furnished with a threadbare carpet, peeling walls and uncomplimentary graffiti about Dave Mattacks. Artists have to make their own coffee into the bargain. However, the sound's great - and that's why Steeleye Span have made all their albums there and were, at that point, engaged in mixing the new one. The beat goes on.

Tim Hart is sprawled across a chair by the mixing console. "Glitter?" he says "Not quite us. A straw in the hair and some dung on the boots, perhaps."I'm really feeling like a superstar today," he continues, indicating his purple velvet trousers and Disneyland T-shirt as his vocal on "bold poachers" blasts out of the king size speakers at the opposite wall.

The credits on Steeleye's albums read "produced by Steeleye Span and Jerry Boys", Jerry Boys is the band's engineer. He's a friendly, easy going fellow who rather resembles an unmade bed with a beard, but he sure produces the hell out of the music. He and the band operate as a five man one woman producing committee, and everything that gets done has to run the gauntlet of six people. It may take longer, But it works. For once the album is completed, everybody concerned has taken full responsibility for the finished product.

How many times have musicians complained that their life's work has been screwed up by a bad mix? You won't hear Steeleye saying that. The solution is simple: be there in the mix and keep doing it till you're happy with the results. Actually, Steeleye sessions are so crazed that it's amazing anything gets done at all, let alone anything as magical as the final result. Bob Johnson, Steeleye's ex-accountant lead guitarist and resident English gentleman, was in fine voice or voices. On that particular occasion it was Captain Kirk from "Star Trek" alternating with dizzying rapidity with selections from the "Goon Show", Bluebottle being a particular favourite. Yes, Fortescue, but is it art?

So the subject under discussion is a little toon called "Alison Gross", Tim used to sing it,but was ill at home during some of the sessions, so Bob took over, revealing a surprisingly attractive teenage voice. Despite the decision to remove the drum track (laid down by bassist Rick Kemp), it's pretty damn 'eavy, with lashings of guitar and bass and Peter Knight's fiddle producing noises more often associated with the likes of Jeff Beck. In fact, for a so-called traditional fiddle player, Mr Knight more often combines the functions of Marty Feldman and Jimmy Page.

So to the matter in hand. Every lick and phrase gets put under an aural microscope by six people (not to mention a writer and photographer who happened to be around at the time). A fiddle break gets phased, and then the main problem is the ending.

Tim Hart and Maddy Prior bop out for a meal, and the rest of the assembled company get down to business. It is decided that everything except the guitar will be cut out, and that said guitar will be tarted up with every electronic contrivance known to producerkind.

Bob, Rick, Pete and Jerry gather round the mixing desk. Somebody (reputedly Johnson of that ilk) mutters, "Beam me down, Scotty". The guitar chords are treated with gamma radiation and exposed to lasers of a particularly virulent nature. An Echo transplant is performed. The resultant sound is as shattering as anything Pete Townsend ever put his name to , and your stereo will undoubtedly crumble into smoking ruins when you hear it. This is not to be listened to by the timid faint-hearted, or by those with timid and/or feeble dispositions. I's 'eavy, innit?

Tim and Maddy edge through the door, halfway through the playback of the final mix. When that ending shivers through the speakers, Hart's jaw drops. "whaaaaast?"

Bear in mind that this is traditional music. Only what's happened is what, more than ever, the songs have been supercharged with the best that modern electric guitar and bass can offer.

Take my word for it that there are few bands who explore the resources of modern studios and instruments more constructively than Steeleye. Their devotion to traditional music never gets in the way of their commitment to modern electric rock - and vice versa.

Other tracks mixed at that session included "Bold Poachers", which features Peter Knight doing his celebrated imitation of a pedal steel guitar, and "Come Ye All Frae France", premiered in "Kidnapped", drastically slowed down from the stage version, and featuring Rick laying down a snare drum part.

The session breaks up around three, for the simple reason that all concerned are too tired to see straight. Farewells are said, and assignations are made for the noble town of Bristol some days hence.

If you're sitting on the railings in front of the choir seats at Bristol's Colston Hall, it's a straight line to the right-hand corner on the left block of back stalls. Paul Brown, assistant to Steeleye's ebullient manger Jo Lustig, is slumped in a seat. The theatre is silent but for the activities of the band's roadies: Chris, prince of plugs, and "Gordoon", master of the mixer. It's geometrically really good. Alain Resnais would have loved it.

The band filter in in small groups. Rick Kemp arrives first, dumps his bass on the stage and vanishes. Tim and Maddy are next, in roaring, bopping good spirits, and they decide to run through "Bold Poachers" by themselves. As photographer Joe Stevens and I leave to explore Bristol the sound is still reverberating through the corridors.

An hour later, Tim and Maddy have gone, but Rick, Peter and Bob are there. "Let's play some rock," mutters Peter, setting pick to mandolin, and he and Rick roar through some blues shuffles before Bob joins in. Showtime, and traditional singer Nic Jones is on. Tim, Peter and I watch the set from behind the mixing panel. Jones is possibly the most imitated traditional singer since Martin Carthy. He plays a short, relaxed mainly low-keyed set that draws mainly from from his slower-paced material. It's intensely enjoyable.

Then Steeleye are on, leaping straight into "Misty Moisty Morning" from the upcoming "Parcel Of Rogues" album (released March 30 on Chrysalis, if you're interested).

America has changed the band in that they're more confident, more extrovert. Their current stage manner could almost be called arrogant if it wasn't so patently good-natured. What it's basically about is that the band are now sure of what they're doing, and sure of it's acceptance. So their attack is harder.

Maddy Prior's stage presence is now extraordinary. Seeing her singing "Come Ye All Frae France" on stage, you'd never think of her as a quite, well-brought-up young lady who wouldn't even say "kittle hoosie" to a goosie. She moves like an 18th century courtesan who's just take an intensive course in modern dance, and her singing is full of a defiance and pride that I've never before heard from her.

In a way, Steeleye put you into a strange kind of time-warp situation. Imagine a quiet pastoral scene somewhere in the 1740s. Suddenly, a strange shimmering can be seen atop a nearby hillside. Fzzap! And Steeleye Span suddenly take shape in the mist, fender amps, wah-wah pedals, distortion units and all.

They're dressed midway between that time and this one, and they're playing the music of the past reinforced with all the technology of the present. In the past, they'd be accepted as friendly visitors from the future, and now they're accepted as electric time travellers. David Bowie understands what they're doing, and he digs it.

At this gig they can do no wrong, Gaudete" is, as ever, a show-stopper, as are Peter's jigs and reels and Bob, rock and Pete's excursions into ragtime. Bob, as well, is really coming out of his shell on stage. Pete has always been the master of the manically zany introduction, but Bob's coming up fast behind him. Even Rick, who normally just concentrates on playing outasite bass, consented to speak to the audience.

"This sponge," he said, indicating the lump of foam-rubber stuck under the strings of his bass, "costs about tuppence. The bass cost around three hundred quid. The trouble is, it's useless without the sponge."

For the encore, they did their special version of "Rag Doll". For a so-called folk group, they have a tremendous knowledge of and affection for rock oldies. They sound exactly like the Four Seasons, and Maddy's a hell of a lot prettier than Frankie Vallie. They bid a final farewell to a standing ovation with a country number called "Pour Me Another Cup Of Coffee", ("Truck Drivin' Man").

At the end of the month, they're off for their return visit to the states - at four times their previous bread. "Parcel Of Rogues" already has advance orders of around the 10,000 mark, and it looks like more and more people are letting Steeleye into their lives. Join them - It's the happiest sound you're ever going to hear in your live.

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