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- Genre: Folk, Rock, World, British Folk, Celtic Christmas, Celtic Rock, Celtic, Classic Rock, Folk Christmas, Folk Rock, Irish Folk
Steeleye Span are an English folk-rock band formed in 1969. Still active today, along with Fairport Convention, they are amongst the best known acts of the British folk revival, and were among the most commercially successful, thanks to their hit singles "Gaudete" and "All Around My Hat". They had three Top 40 albums; they achieved a certified gold record with sales of "All Around My Hat".
Throughout their history, Steeleye Span have seen many personnel changes but have maintained a strong continuity of tradition. Their typical album is a collection of mostly traditional songs with one or two instrumental tracks of jigs and/or reels added; the traditional songs often include some of the Child ballads. In their later albums there has been an increased tendency to include music written by the band members, but they have never got completely away from traditional music, which draws upon pan-British traditions.
The early years
Steeleye Span began in late 1969, when London-born bass player Ashley Hutchings departed Fairport Convention, the band he had co-founded in 1967. Fairport had been involved in a road accident in 1969 in which the drummer, Martin Lamble, was killed and other band members injured. They convalesced in a rented house near Winchester in Hampshire and worked on the album Liege & Lief. Despite the success of the album, Ashley Hutchings and the band's vocalist Sandy Denny left Fairport Convention.
In part, Hutchings departed because he wanted to pursue a different, more traditional, direction than the other members of Fairport did at that time. However, Fairport's co-founder, guitarist Simon Nicol, says in an interview on the band's website: "Whatever the upfront reasons about musical differences and wanting to concentrate on traditional material, I think the accident was the underlying reason why Ashley felt he couldn't continue with us."
Hutchings' new band was formed after he met established duo Tim Hart and Maddy Prior on the London folk club scene, and the initial line-up was completed by husband and wife team Terry Woods (formerly of Sweeney's Men, later of The Pogues) and Gay Woods. With two female singers, the original line-up was unusual for the time, and indeed, never performed live, as the Woods departed the band shortly after the release of the group's debut album, Hark! The Village Wait (1970). While recording the album, the five members were all living in the same house, an arrangement that produced considerable tensions particularly between Hart and Prior on the one hand and the Woods on the other. Gay and Terry were replaced by veteran folk musician Martin Carthy and fiddler Peter Knight in a longer-term line-up that toured small concert venues, and recorded two albums – Please to See the King (1971) and Ten Man Mop, or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again (1971). While the first album was traditionally performed – guitars, bass and with a guest drummer – Please to See the King was revolutionary in its hard electric sound and lack of drums.
The name Steeleye Span comes from a character in the traditional song Horkstow Grange (which they did not actually record until they released an album by that name in 1998). The song gives an account of a fight between John "Steeleye" Span and John Bowlin, neither of whom are proven to have been real people. Carthy gave Hart the idea to name the band after the song character. When the band discussed names, they decided to decide among the three suggestions "Middlemarch Wait", "Iyubidin's Wait", and "Steeleye Span". Although there were only five members in the band, six ballots appeared and "Steeleye Span" won out. Only in 1978 did Hart confess that he had voted twice. Terry Woods maintains that the members had agreed that if more than one person departed, the remaining members would select a new name, and he was upset that this did not happen when he and Gay Woods left the band. The liner notes for their first album include thanks to Carthy for the name suggestion.
A new direction
Shortly after the release of their third album, the band brought in manager Jo Lustig, who brought a more commercial sound to their recordings. At that time, traditionalists Carthy and Hutchings left the band to pursue purely folk projects. Their replacements were electric guitarist Bob Johnson and bass player Rick Kemp, who brought strong rock and blues influences to the sound.
Lustig signed them to the Chrysalis record label, for a deal that was to last for ten albums.
With the release of their fourth album, Below the Salt, later in 1972, the revised line-up had settled on a distinctive electrified rock sound, although they continued to play mostly arrangements of very traditional material, including songs dating back a hundred years or more. Even on the more commercial Parcel of Rogues (1973), the band had no permanent drummer, but in 1973 rock drummer Nigel Pegrum, who had previously recorded with Gnidrolog, The Small Faces and Uriah Heep, joined them, to harden up their sound (as well as occasionally playing flute and oboe).
Also that year, the single "Gaudete" from Below the Salt belatedly became a Christmas hit single, reaching number 14 in the UK Singles Chart, although this a cappella piece, taken from the late renaissance song collection Piae Cantiones from Finland and sung entirely in Latin, cannot be considered representative of the band's music, nor the album from which it was taken. This proved to be their commercial breakthrough and saw them performing on Top of the Pops for the first time. They often include it as a concert encore. Their popularity was also helped by the fact that they often performed as an opening act for fellow Chrysalis artists Jethro Tull.
Appropriately enough, their sixth album (and sixth member Pegrum's first with the band) was entitled Now We Are Six. Produced by Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, the album includes the epic track "Thomas the Rhymer", which has been a part of the live set ever since. Although successful, the album is controversial among some fans for the inclusion of nursery rhymes sung by "The St. Eeleye School Choir" (band members singing in the style of children), and the cover "To Know Him Is to Love Him", featuring a guest appearance from David Bowie on saxophone.
The attempts at humour continued on Commoners Crown (1975), which included Peter Sellers playing electric ukulele on the final track, "New York Girls". Their seventh album also included the epic ballad "Long Lankin" and novelty instrumental "Bach Goes To Limerick".
The Mike Batt era
With their star now conspicuously ascendant, the band brought in producer Mike Batt (best known for his musical association with the Wombles and, more recently, Katie Melua) to work on their eighth album, All Around My Hat, and their biggest success would come with the release of the title track as a single – it reached number 5 in the UK Charts in late 1975. Other well-known tracks on the album included "Black Jack Davy" (sampled by rappers Goldie Lookin Chain on their track "The Maggot") and the rocky "Hard Times of Old England". But while All Around My Hat was the height of the band's commercial success, the good times were not to last long. Despite touring almost every year since 1975, they have not had another hit single, nor any success in the album chart since the late 1970s.
The follow-up album Rocket Cottage (1976), also produced by Batt, proved to be a commercial flop, despite having much in common musically with its immediate predecessor. The opening track, "London", was penned by Rick Kemp as a follow-up to "All Around My Hat", in response to a request from the record label that Kemp describes as "we'll have another one of those, please", and released as a single. The song failed to make the UK Chart, in complete contrast to "All Around My Hat", despite having much in common with its predecessor – a 12/8 time signature, upbeat tempo, solo verses and full harmony chorus. Rocket Cottage also included experimental tracks "Fighting for Strangers" (with sparse vocals singing concurrently in a variety of keys) and, on the final track, excerpts of studio banter between the band members and a seemingly impromptu rendition of "Camptown Races", in which Prior gets the lyrics wrong.
But while their seventh album, Commoners Crown, was one of their most interesting and varied, including the epic "Long Lankin", the advent of punk saw the mainstream market turning away from electric folk almost overnight, heralding a downturn in commercial fortunes for the band. However, as a thank you to their committed fans (and also to possibly to garner some publicity for their underperforming album), Steeleye Span showered attendees of a November 1976 concert in London, England, with the then-equivalent of US$13,600 in British pound notes. The unannounced idea was Maddy Prior's, and—remarkably—no-one was injured in the rush to grab the falling bills. Indeed, contemporary press reports indicated that it took some time for the crowd to even realise what was happening. Thanks to their connection with Mike Batt, band members appeared in Womble costumes on Top of the Pops, performing the Wombles hit "Superwomble".
The late 1970s and early 1980s
While they would never regain the commercial success of All Around My Hat, Steeleye remained popular among electric folk fans, and generally respected within the music industry. It has been widely reported that Peter Knight and Bob Johnson left the band to work on another project together, The King of Elfland's Daughter. The actual situation was more complex. Chrysalis Records agreed to allow Knight and Johnson to work on "King" only as a way to persuade the duo to continue working with Steeleye. Since the record company had no interest in "King" for its own sake, it made no effort to market the album. Chrysalis' ploy failed, however, and Knight and Johnson quit.
Their departure left a significant hole in the band. For the 1977 album Storm Force Ten, early member Martin Carthy rejoined on guitar. When he originally joined the band for their second album, Carthy had tried to persuade the others to bring John Kirkpatrick on board, but the band had chosen Knight instead. This time, Carthy's suggestion was accepted, and Kirkpatrick's accordion replaced Knight's fiddle, which gave the recording a very different texture from the Steeleye sound of previous years. Kirkpatrick's one-man morris dances quickly became one of the highlights of the band's show. This line-up also recorded their first album outside of the studio, Live at Last, before a "split" at the end of the decade that proved to be short-lived. But Carthy and Kirkpatrick had only intended to play with the band for a few months and had no interest in a longer association.
During 1977 and some time thereafter, Nigel Pegrum and Rick Kemp created a "porno punk" band called The Pork Dukes, using pseudonyms. The Pork Dukes released several albums and singles over the years.
The band were contractually obliged to record a final album for the Chrysalis label, and with Carthy and Kirkpatrick not wanting to rejoin the re-formed band, the door was open for Knight and Johnson to return in 1980. The album Sails of Silver saw the band moving away from traditional material to a greater focus on self-penned songs, many with historical or pseudo-folk themes. Sails was not a commercial success, in part because Chrysalis chose not to promote the album aggressively, but also because many fans felt uncomfortable with the band's new direction in its choice of material. The failure of the album left Hart unhappy enough that he decided to leave the band and give up commercial music entirely, in favour of a reclusive life overseas.
After Sails of Silver there were to be no new albums for several years, and Steeleye became a part-time touring band. The other members spent much of their time and energy working on their various other projects, and the band went into a fitful hibernation. "Sails of Silver" was used as a theme song for the science fiction literary show "Hour of The Wolf" on NYC radio station WBAI 99.5FM since the 1980s. This introduced many younger US listeners to the band.
In 1981 Isla St Clair presented a series of four television programmes called "The Song and The Story", about the history of some folk songs, which won the Prix Jeunesse. St Clair sang the songs, and The Maddy Prior Band did the backing instrumentals.
The wilderness years
For much of the 1980s, the members of the band tended to focus on outside projects of various sorts. Johnson opened a restaurant and then studied for a degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. Pegrum ran a music studio. Prior and Kemp devoted much energy to their own band (The Maddy Prior Band; see Maddy Prior (solo albums)), recording 4 albums, and also had children together. The result was that the band's output dropped sharply, producing only three albums over the space of ten years (including a concert album), although the band continued touring.
After a quiet spell, the group's 12th studio album (and first without Tim Hart) Back in Line was released on the Flutterby label in 1986. With no "relaunch" as such, the band retained a low profile, although they caused some controversy when they played the song "Blackleg Miner" in Nottingham. The song originates from Northumberland in the early 20th century, but had been revived because of the 1984-5 strike. The Nottinghamshire coalfield had generally opposed the strike and tensions remained high when the song was performed in 1986.
In 1989, two long-term members departed. One was bassist Rick Kemp, who needed to recover from a serious shoulder injury, exacerbated by playing bass on stage. His eventual replacement (after two tours, each with a different bassist) was Tim Harries, who was brought in less than two weeks before the band was scheduled to start a tour. A friend of Pegrum's, Harries was a self-taught rock bassist, as well as a classically trained pianist and double bassist. With Harries on board, Steeleye released Tempted and Tried (1989), an album that formed the basis for their live set for many years to come.
Not long after recording Tempted, drummer Nigel Pegrum emigrated to Australia for personal relationship reasons. He was replaced by eccentric drummer Liam Genockey of Gillan, easily identified by his long, plaited beard. He and Knight were simultaneously members of "Moiré Music", a free-jazz band with a classical flavour, led by Trevor Watts. Unlike Pegrum, who employed a traditional rock drumming style, Genockey favoured a more varied drumming style, influenced by both Irish and African drumming, in which he hit, brushed, and rubbed the various surfaces of his drums and cymbals, creating a more varied range of sounds. Consequently, when the band embarked on their 20th Anniversary Tour, they did so with a totally new rhythm section.
Both Harries and Genockey were interested in experimenting with the band's sound, and they helped re-energise the other members' interest in Steeleye. The band began reworking some of their earlier material, seeking new approaches to traditional favourites. For example, Johnson experimented with an arrangement of "Tam Lin" that involved a heavy Bulgarian influence, inspired by Eastern European versions of the Tam Lin legend. In 1992, the band released Tonight's the Night...Live, which demonstrates some of this new energy and direction. The band continued to tour the UK every year, and frequently toured overseas as well.
Maddy 'leaves the bus'
In 1995, almost all the past and present members of the band reunited for a concert to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the band (which would later be released as The Journey). The only former members not present were founding member Terry Woods, Mark Williamson, and Chris Staines.
A by-product of this gig was founding vocalist Gay Woods rejoining the band full-time, partly because Prior was experiencing vocal problems, and for a while Steeleye toured with two female singers, and released the album Time 1996, their first new studio album in seven years.
There were doubts over the future of the band when Prior announced her departure in 1997, but Steeleye continued in a more productive vein than for many years, with Woods as lead singer, releasing Horkstow Grange (1998), and then Bedlam Born (2000). Fans of Steeleye's "rock" element felt that Horkstow Grange was too quiet and folk-oriented, while fans of the band's "folk" element complained that Bedlam Born was too rock-heavy. Woods received considerable criticism from fans, many of whom did not realise that she was one of the founding members and who compared her singing style unfavourably to Prior's. There was also disagreement among the band about what material to perform; Woods advocated performing old favourites such as "All Around My Hat" and "Alison Gross", while Johnson favoured a set that emphasised their newer material.
Liam Genockey had also left the band in 1997, and on these albums the drum kit was manned by Dave Mattacks, who was not an official member of the band.
Breakup and comeback
Reported difficulties among band members saw a split during the recording of Bedlam Born. Woods reportedly was uncomfortable with the financial arrangements of the band, health problems forced Johnson into retirement, and drummer Dave Mattacks' period as an unofficial member came to an end during this time.
For a while the band consisted of just Peter Knight and Tim Harries, plus various guest musicians, as they fulfilled live commitments. Rick Kemp resumed playing with the band at some of these gigs, with Harries switching to lead guitar. This was an uncertain time for the future of the band, and when Harries announced he was not keen to continue his role, even the willingness of Kemp to return to the line-up full-time was not enough to prevent what was effectively a break-up.
In 2002, Steeleye Span reformed with a "classic" line-up (including Prior), bringing an end to the uncertainty of the previous couple of years. Knight hosted a poll on his website, asking the band's fans which Steeleye songs they would most want to see the band re-record. Armed with the results, Knight persuaded Prior and Genocky to rejoin, coaxed Johnson out of a health-induced retirement, and along with Kemp and Knight, they released Present—The Very Best of Steeleye Span (2002), a 2-disc set of new recordings of the songs.
But Bob Johnson's health prevented him from playing live shortly before the 2002 comeback tour, and he was replaced at the eleventh hour on guitar by Ken Nicol, formerly of the Albion Band. Nicol had been talking with Rick Kemp about forming a band when Kemp invited him to play for the tour.
Return to form / The Ken Nicol years
With Nicol, the band released the album They Called Her Babylon early in 2004, and extensively toured the UK, Europe and Australia, and their relatively prolific output continued with the release of the Christmas album 'Winter' later the same year, as the band ended a busy year of touring with a gala performance in London's Palladium theatre. In 2005 Steeleye Span were awarded the Good Tradition Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, while the 2005 book, Electric Folk by Britta Sweers devotes much space to the band.
With a new sense of purpose and a stable line-up now consisting of Prior, Nicol, Kemp, Knight and Genockey, the band carried out a UK tour in April and May 2006, followed by dates in Europe and an appearance at the 2006 Cropredy Festival. They were the final act on Cropredy's first night. They started with "Bonny Black Hare" and finished with "All Around My Hat" with backing vocals from the Cropredy Crowd. The full play list is at Crop Log 2006. The tour was supported by a live album and DVD of their 2004 tour.
In November 2006, Steeleye released their studio album Bloody Men. Their Autumn/Winter tour started on 24 November 2006 in Basingstoke and ran until just before Christmas. They headlined at their namesake festival, Spanfest 2007 at Kentwell Hall, Suffolk from 27–29 July 2007, and returned for Spanfest 2008. However, as Kentwell Hall declined to hold the festival again, it was held at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire. A UK tour took place between 17 April and 16 May 2008.
For their 40th anniversary tour in 2009, Pete Zorn joined the line-up on bass, as Rick Kemp was unwell. Kemp and Zorn both toured with the band for the winter tour that year, with Zorn playing guitar, and Kemp announced that he would be retiring at the end of the tour – a decision he later reversed, as usual.
A live double CD and DVD set entitled 'Live at a Distance' was released in April 2009 by Park Records, and their new studio album entitled Cogs, Wheels & Lovers was released on 26 October 2009. Several tracks from this album featured in the sets of the autumn tour.
Founding member Tim Hart died on 24 December 2009 at his home in La Gomera on the Canary Islands at the age of 61, after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
In June 2010 Ken Nicol announced that he was leaving Steeleye, and the band reassembled for a Spring 2011 tour with Julian Littman joining the line-up as guitarist, replacing Nicol. Multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn also continued to play with the band, making them a six-piece for the first time in many years.
In 2011 they released 'Now we are Six again', a live double album based on their set at the time, which included full performances of all the songs on their 1974 'Now we are Six' album.
Wintersmith and beyond
In October 2013, the band released their 22nd studio album, Wintersmith, containing original songs based on the writings of Terry Pratchett. This was followed by a Winter tour of the UK. This album marked a return to form and media attention as the album reached number 77 in the official UK Album chart, had tracks played on Radio 2 and led to various radio and TV interviews for Terry Pratchett and Maddy Prior as they promoted the album.
In November 2013, Peter Knight announced that he would be leaving Steeleye Span at the end of 2013. He was replaced by Jessie May Smart. The band have continued to tour regularly and recorded four new tracks for the 2014 Wintersmith 'Deluxe' Album. In the summer of 2015 they toured North America with a reduced line up consisting of Prior, Littman, Smart, Genockey and for the first time Maddy's son Alex Kemp on Bass, replacing his father Rick. An Autumn tour of the UK followed with Rick Kemp back in the line up along with Andrew 'Spud' Sinclair replacing Pete Zorn. The tour included new material and the band made reference to going back into the studio in January 2016 to record a new album.
Examples of collaborations
Prior sang backing vocals on the title track of Jethro Tull's 1976 album Too Old To Rock and Roll, Too Young To Die. Ray Fisher's rare 1972 album Bonny Birdy includes one track with the High Level Ranters, one with Steeleye Span, and one with Martin Carthy.
Until the 1990s, Steeleye often toured as part of double bill, supporting Status Quo, or featuring support from artists such as Rock salt & nails and The Rankin Family. When Steeleye Span supported Status Quo on tour in 1996, the latter had just issued their version of "All Around My Hat" as a single, and for their encore Prior joined them on stage to sing it with them. Status Quo's single is credited to "Status Quo with Maddy Prior from Steeleye Span" and reached number 47 in the charts.