UNIVERSALISATION of STEELEYE SPAN
by BOB WOFFINDEN
© New Musical Express
13 NOV 1976
Sally Jean is dark, demure and very attractive. Though well-dressed, well-spoken and well-meaning, she is alas also well dull. For over two hours now she has been talking to/at Peter Knight and Rick Kemp about sea shanties and the well-being of traditional English folk-song here in Philadelphia.
Kemp and Knight finally clutch at the one escape route. They are late for an interview at WMMR, Philly's leading FM rock station. As Sally Jean waits outside the hotel to provide Cadillac transport to the interview, Kemp and Knight are making a clandestine forty-yard dash to freedom through the hotel's back exit.
Part of the essential emotional equipment of any performer is the ability to suffer fools, if not gladly, then at least politely. Steeleye Span do their utmost not to be discourteous. However, there are times when their sensibilities are strained to the limit. As you can imagine, the United States probably breeds fools and flatterers in greater profusion than almost anywhere else.
The incident is symbolic of two things. One, that Steeleye are now happier simply to be categorised (if you must perform such a redundant mental operation) as a rock band (they describe themselves in interview as a rock band who draw their material from traditional sources, deliberately avoiding the use of that much-misinterpreted word "folk"), and secondly that their patient wooing of the American public (this is their fifth tour in a little over four years) is at last beginning to pay dividends. Steeleye's stateside support has gone forth and multiplied, Why, when they gigged at the fashionable Los Angeles Roxy for four days, Ms. Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band checked in for two of them, and personalities as diverse as Joni Mitchell and Keith Moon also called to pay their respects.
That all boosters on Steeleye's rockets are now firing is not in doubt. Virtually every gig on the tour is sold out, and crowd reaction this time has been highly satisfactory. The band have more self-confidence now, with a major British hit single and album ("All Around My Hat") behind them, and for the first time they've been able to put their royalties to individual (rather than the band's) use. Previously they've invested their earnings from album sales and their other hit single ("Gaudete") in U.S. tours, which can be very demoralising. This time the tour pays for itself.
Bob Johnson, after a close inspection of the entrails of a freshly-slain chicken, confirms that the aspects are auspicious. "I would say that this is the first U.S. tour where you could start to feel that we were close to a breakthrough, Though we always got good audience reaction on our four previous tours, there was so little going on around us in terms of record company and management support that, even though we built up a reservoir of fans, it was a bit like pissing in the wind.
"This time it's very different; Chrysalis has just gone independent in the States, and we're the first of their acts touring here, so naturally they're working very hard on our behalf and the results have been quite phenomenal. We're getting air-play up and down the country, and the album is charting and doing well."
An illustration of the fact that band, record company and management were now all pulling simultaneously in the same direction was that while the band flew eastwards to Boston, their manager, Tony Secunda, remained in Los Angeles to sow the ground suddenly rendered fertile after the Spanners' successful concerts there.
UNDER THE plate glass wall of Dunfy's Parker House Hotel in Boston (where the menials are dressed in absurd gold-and-brown spats-and-jerkins Colonial uniform), Maddy Prior huddles despondently, partly to escape the chill early Winter winds, partly because her personal baggage went astray somewhere between Los Angeles and Boston. "We've nearly all lost something", said Kemp, "but equally we've all been given presents on this tour too." Nigel Pegrum, meanwhile, the least volatile member of the band, is still buoyant after discovering in L.A. the existence of a Gnidrolog Appreciation Society. The band, of which he was a member until its demise in 1973 had he believed, been struck down by the unkindest cut of all, after Melody Maker had dubbed them "the worst band in England". He hadn't realised they had ever acquired a reputation on the West Coast in their day, let alone One which had survived and flourished. He has plans still to work and record with the Goldring brothers, who formed the core of Gnidrolog: "If Steeleye folded tomorrow I'd work with them without hesitation, because they're just really talented people."
Both Boston and Philadelphia have strong English associations, and thus might be considered provident ground for Steeleye, that most English of bands. The Boston gig is held at the Berkeley Performance Center and kicks off (or rather, doesn't kick off) in bizarre fashion when the support act, a local singer/ guitarist named Mary Malone scuttles in terror at the unprecedented size and fervour of her audience. While she thus consigned herself to anonymity, a male replacement willingly sacrificed his fireside and his television ("It was Rockford Files- my favourite programme") to deliver one of the millennium's more impromptu sets and enjoys a brief moment in the spotlight.
Steeleye themselves played particularly well. The sound was excellent, and the audience response heartening: another satisfactory gig. After which it was back to the hotel for night-caps, and up early next morning to catch an early flight to Philadelphia.
No-one knows how hard you work on the road in the States unless they come with you for six weeks and see what you go through," says Johnson. The almost-daily flights are the biggest headache. "The more flying I've done, the more frightened I've got. I used to down so much booze before a flight that not only did it cost me a fortune, but also I was inevitably ill when I got off the other end, which was very worrying when you have to go out and play the same evening. Now I just take 30 milligrams of Valium and have a couple of Scotches; I need that much because the adrenaline produced by my fear is so great."
All the platitudes add up, It is a tough, bruising existence, and few of the apparent advantages of travel are there for the taking. Steeleye tour with four assistants, who serve to inoculate them to a certain extent from the hassles of life on the road, but there are always burdens that cannot be delegated -the drudgery of the sound-check, the lengthy, tedious wait in what is often a postage-stamp dressing-room.
Philadelphia is typical of all. Pegrum points out that the stage door of the theatre, one of the few parts of a foreign city a band comes into contact with, could as easily be that of the Birmingham Odeon. However, there is an added grievance here. The promoter originally booked in the band for two consecutive dates, but during the sound-check, Steeleye learn that there is to be only the one concert. The second show had been cancelled earlier in an act of rash cautiousness ; no-one, of course, had deemed it necessary to inform the band, who have particular reason to rue this. For even if they did not have enough support to play two nights in Philadelphia (and the crowd's reaction later in the evening suggested otherwise) they know they could have sold out their Boston concert four times over. And tours as lengthy and tightly- orchestrated as this do not leave opportunity to fit in alternative dates at short notice. The other side of the coin, of course, is that they suddenly have a very welcome day off.
In any case, a gig in Philadelphia has its compensations. The Tower Theatre is one of America's more prestigious venues; it was here, for example, that Bowie recorded "David Live". Acts booked for later that same week are Jackson Browne with Orleans, and Stephen Stills with Joan Armatrading. The theatre has an impressive array of hanging draperies, with a wall of ropes to operate them. They could remake Phantom of The Opera here.
The audience are fiercely pro-Steeleye. Extra seats have been placed in the orchestra pit- (its alright if you don't mind tilting your head back 180 degrees). "You see" one of the ardent crowd explained, "people in Philadelphia speak through their noses, and therefore sing through their noses, and therefore the ability to sing traditional English folk-song comes naturally to them," This perhaps the one American city where Steeleye will encounter a clutch of folk puritans.
The support act is Andy Pratt. He fittingly provides the ultimate contrast to last night's last minute arrangement, and brings sharply into focus the amazing discrepancies in the rock business. For no support act can ever have been better prepared, equipped and financed. His record company, Nemperor, are obviously expecting Great Things-not that they're likely to be disappointed. Pratt, on piano, used a backing group of guitar, bass, drums and electric keyboards, who were so thoroughly sophisticated and perfectly attuned to each other, one imagined them to have been in secret rehearsal for months, Pratt jerked and twisted like a bad cartoon animation, or a sedentary Joe Cocker if you like, His songs lack individual character, but that matters little, since the overall sound is impressively fluent. Kemp declared they were the best rock band he's seen in ages.
THE SPANNERS' set is well-rehearsed, and illustrates the fact that they're a musically - interdependent unit, While Maddy handles most lead vocals, others are distributed between Hart, Johnson and Kemp. Though the band have abandoned nearly all their extracurricular activities (the Mummers Play, other thespian routines, and also stage costume), that's only to allow them to concentrate on the music. The band have laced their keen melodic sense with an ever more vigorous drive and aggression founded on Pegrum's ineffably fine drumming, and the remorseless attack of Rick Kemp's bass. Even though the band are playing less loudly than on their last tour, Johnson's guitar is still just as fierce. The abiding impression is of the band's set being superbly constructed; each song has a clarity and a forcefulness you'd expect from a topflight rock band, The lasting memory is simply of an exciting, exhilarating performance, and the rapturous and emotionally-charged applause at the end.
The band still retain those numbers that have come to be unofficially regarded as their Greatest Hits ("Gaudete", "Cam Ye O'er Frae France", " All Around My Hat" and "Old Times Of Old England"), while also accommodating a large percentage of "Rocket Cottage". It's an album the band are particularly satisfied with. As Johnson says, "over the last two albums there seems to have been a better fusion of everybody's roles, so that we are all happier now, Everyone feels they have contributed something towards a song, "'Rocket Cottage' is good because we were very organised about it. Nigel, Rick, Tim and myself had a week without Maddy and Peter working totally on backing tracks. Consequently, the rhythm section parts are better played than On 'All Around My Hat' there's more life in them. I felt that where we had been stodgy before, we added a bit more ingenuity, and introduced more colourful rhythms. We just went right through a song to build up a dynamism, before we structured it and worked on the vocals. Otherwise, I don't think a song like 'Sir James The Rose' would have worked,"
Indeed, "Sir James The Rose" is probably the centrepiece of their act and, as Angus MacKinnon suggested in his review of the album, probably replaces , 'Thomas The Rhymer" as Steeleye's most powerful and epic work. It certainty has extraordinary force when performed live, though the American audience, not untypically, applauded loudest and longest those songs they immediately recognised, and "Gaudete" still delivered as dramatically as ever, won prolonged and fervent reception.
The performance left both band and audience breathless. After the one statutory encore, the Spanners returned to the seclusion of the dressing-room, and failed to hear the demands for encore No. 2, They didn't reappear - a tactical error,' methinks. There's a difference between leaving an audience wanting more, and leaving them feeling disappointed, cheated even. But Steeleye have often been more than generous with their sets, so perhaps this over-reaction is excusable.
Tactical errors, however, are rare indeed, Steeleye are on form, on song and on target, and determined to take this tide at its flood. "All Around My Hat" gave them the material and emotional wherewithal to mount a sustained challenge in the U.S. Johnson again: " 'Hat' gave us so much more confidence in what we were doing, and having substantial record royalties meant you could have a nice house, with a room to write in, and this just helps the stuff to get better, "I used to wander up and down Muswell Hill when I was trying to write, singing to myself and bumping into things, Now I live in a seventeenth-century stone mansion in the country, with a great big cedar tree in the front garden; I can let my mind run free, In a corny sort of way, it's the right kind of atmosphere for writing murder ballads,"
I learned that 'rocket Cottage' had been recorded outside the country - in Holland - for tax reasons; it suddenly seemed necessary to ask Johnson if there was any remote possibility of Steeleye, that most English of bands, ever becoming tax exiles. "I would hate that absolutely. At my present level I would rather live on what I get in the country I love than go anywhere else. Everything I do and think is based on England, If I lived on the West Coast how on earth could I think about elves and fairies and goblins and old English castles and churches? I used to spend months looking at brasses in old churches. I'm just steeped in old England, as a hobby.
"My love of England doesn't stem from a nationalistic/political point of view. But as a human being I feel a great kinship with my country; I like the climate, I like the way the change of the seasons is a very obvious thing, I like the way you can travel from north to south and see as much a change in scenery as you probably could going from the East to the West coast of America.
"But it's a tremendous problem if you've in a situation where you have a high earning power for two or three years, somebody says we're going to take 98% of this, you might think it's not on.
"So what do you do? Do you bring your kids up in this hamburger culture? No thank you very much.
"Money to me means a wife and family and their future and my future in a world which I find it hard to fit into. This has been the only part of my life where I've felt a free, individual human being, and where what I say has been accepted. Most other jobs would probably kill me mentally. "Perhaps I can make enough money to just keep my head above water. . . that's enough for me. I don't need the Rolls- Royce."
Nevertheless, the mere fact that this is a problem the members of the band have been wrestling with is an indication of their changed circumstances. Their increased status has helped them to get individual projects off the ground. While Kemp has been working with Michael Chapman, and Maddy with June Tabor, Knight and Johnson have been working on a musical adaptation of "The King Of Elfland's Daughter", a work by Lord Dunsany whose fantasy writing predated, and probably strongly influenced, Tolkein's (not to mention Lovecraft's). It is due to go into production in December.
Tim Hart is also able to indulge himself. He has a Pentax on call 24 hours a day and clicks away compulsively; before going to the States he gave an interview to Amateur Photographer. There are provisional plans for Steeleye to return to the States in March, should the sales of the album warrant it. The band are confident that it will. Johnson again, "I think that unbeknown to us we've been placing ourselves in a bracket, but at least it's not a folk bracket. It's the one-Mandy-one-Scotch L,A. moderation bracket.
"Nothing happens in a four-week tour, but all the way through I've felt this is the beginning of the big one. I can tell because I've had no time to go and get pissed in American bars. I've been doing interviews all day long."
© New Musical Express