I should start off by emphasising that I have no special knowledge or experience of Steeleye Span. I've never met any of the band, I'm not part of any 'inner circle'. All I know is what I read on the backs of album covers and music books, and what I hear.
This is a personal view, a speculative history of the band, two parts discography, one part surmise. If I have made any errors I would love to have them pointed out so I can correct them.
Once upon a time in the folk world of the late sixties there were four folk duos: Tim Hart and Maddy Prior; Gay and Terry Woods; Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick; and Shirley and Dolly Collins.
This was a time when 'folk rock' was popular and the time of the 'progressive' movement. People were experimenting, looking for new ways to do things, mining the past to build a new future.
'Folk rock' was essentially an American genre*, its icons were Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, The Mamas and The Papas, etc.. Although Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel were heavily influenced by the music of the British folks clubs of the sixties, their musical style was rooted on the other side of the Atlantic.
Back in Britain some performers sought their own roots and found a different perspective, producing 'electric folk'.
To one used to today's climate of Balkanized musical genres it is difficult to appreciate the tolerance, indeed the thirst, for diversity that existed then. The same 'heavy' Harvest label that released Pink Floyd's Ummagumma saw nothing strange in recording The Albion Band or Morris On—they were after all pushing the boundaries. The Strawbs could be home to both Sandy Denny and Rick Wakeman. People were happy to listen to new music, new instruments, new cultures, new ways of doing things.
Meanwhile, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior had worked their way up to the top of the British folk circuit and decided that stagnation and alcoholism were all that awaited them there.
Gay and Terry Woods had come out of the Irish tradition and were looking for new directions. Terry had been in the influential Sweeney's Men with Andy Irvine and Johnny Moynihan until Andy went off to wander Eastern Europe.
Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick had achieved something approaching demigod status in the British folk world and had split up to pursue separate careers, (vowing never to play together as a duo again until The Spinners had broken up).
Shirley and Dolly were exploring the English Tradition, but Shirley had also made the landmark "Folk Roots–New Routes" album with guitarist Davey Graham, blending folk, blues, jazz and Eastern influences.
Enter Fairport Convention.
Fairport were a rock band that started out copying the US sound, with the obligatory Bob Dylan covers. Blessed with astonishing talent looking for a musical home they turned from the US sound towards their own roots with the album "Unhalfbricking", featuring Sandy Denny's version of the traditional song "A Sailor's Life", with Dave Swarbrick guesting on fiddle. Their next album moved the Rock-rooted Fairport squarely into the Folk camp with "Liege and Lief", usually considered the start of the English Electric Folk movement. Fairport's bassist and founder, Ashley "Tyger" Hutchings, had also married Shirley Collins, giving him a personal interest in British folk music.
Fairport now went through one of their regular (and frequent) reorganisations. Ashley Hutchings wanted to proceed further along the folk path, the rest of the band didn't, despite having added Dave Swarbrick as a permanent member. Ashley started looking around for others of a similar mind and one day (to quote Maddy Prior)
what it finally turned out was that Terry and Gay were there, and Tyger, and so we found ourselves sitting in Tyger's back room one day with Terry and Gay, who we'd never met before—I don't think—and himself, Tyger, me, and Tim. And we thought, “this is an unlikely setup if ever there was”, ‘cause two duos, and one odd man out, makes a strange format. But we said, “Oh well, we'll give it a go—why not? Nothing to loose as they say.”
And so, with Martin Carthy's support and encouragement (Tim described him as 'godfather' to the band), Steeleye Span was born.
A note on the name.
Gay & Terry wanted Iyubidan Waits, Tyger wanted Middlemarch Wait ("he was very much into Thomas Hardy at the time" according to Robin Denslow), Martin Carthy suggested Steeleye Span after a character in the song 'Horkstow Grange' and after a complicated vote, (which Tim later admitted he fixed), Steeleye Span they became.
The Golden Age
The first incarnation of the band consisted of two vocal duos from the folk tradition and an electric bassist with a rock background. They cut a single album without ever playing a live gig and then split due to "friction between the two duos". Basically, they all retired to a country house to make the album which was not, with hindsight, a terribly good idea, given the personalities involved.
The album, "Hark! The Village Wait" is an interesting effort. Where Fairport's album was a rock band learning to play folk, this is (mainly) folk musicians gently electrifying folk. It seems to have shaken the British folk world at the time.
The phrase "due to friction between the two duos" lends itself to interesting speculation. Where would Gay & Terry have taken the band? The track "The Blacksmith" shows an obvious debt to the Woods's Irish roots (cf. Planxty's version). On the next album , without the Woods, we got to hear a quite different version: slower, sparser and darker.
Tyger may have started the band, but after Gay & Terry departed it began to be Tim Hart's band.
With Gay & Terry gone replacements were sought. The band added the then unknown fiddle player and multi-instrumentalist Peter Knight. The other addition though shocked the folk world. Martin Carthy abandoned his solo career to join the band: one of the world's best acoustic guitarists took up a Telecaster.
The first album of the new lineup reached deeper into the English folk tradition, reinterpreting the songs to use the power of electric instruments. The different version of "The Blacksmith" is one example. However, band members were still pursuing independent careers and the Tim Hart and Maddy Prior album from the same era, "Summer Solstice" has quite another interpretation of "False Knight On The Road", showing another possible path the band might have taken.
It is interesting to compare the Steeleye Span albums of this period with the 'individual' albums: "Summer Solstice" by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior and "Shearwater" by Martin Carthy.
Carthy's album remains 'straight' folk: acoustic guitar and vocals. The Steeleye Span albums are electric folk: folk songs with electric instruments as accompaniment. In some ways, a retreat even further from some of the rockier roots of "Hark! The Village Wait". "Summer Solstice" seems at first to be midway between, with 'folkier' instruments, however the songs are more modified than at first appears. This is not simply folk music with electric guitars, but new music based on folk music, a theme that began to work its way through subsequent Steeleye Span albums and which is still evolving in the latest lineup.
At this stage Martin, and Tim & Maddy were still doing a lot of solo work (cf. "Summer Solstice" and "Shearwater") and when the band came together on stage they still appeared more as a group of individuals than as a unit. Martin's electric guitar style also led to some very odd sound balances in live performances—he played VERY LOUDLY. The band now started to improve their live act. Where Steeleye Span mark I had never played before a live audience, now mark II set out to develop a lively and elaborate stage act. They also experimented with drama, appearing in a play Corunna by Keith Dewhurst at the Royal Court.
At this point there was an interesting contrast between Tyger and the rest of the band. Tyger, who came from a rock background, was now a born again folkie, quite insistent upon the 'purity' of folk music. The other members, from a folk background, were prepared to experiment with any musical forms to get the results they wanted. The single "Rave On" was recorded as a joke on Tyger, who actually quite liked it, but it was still never released on a 'mainstream' Steeleye Span album. Martin Carthy had this to say about the purity of folk music:
The period with Steeleye was tremendous fun and was a great eye opener. By the time I left at the end of 1971, I had come to understand that folk music could withstand anything that I, or anyone else equally well-intentioned could do to it. The sort of mix-up that occurred when the folk and rock worlds met is the sort of mix-up that has always gone on in folk culture. It is utterly ridiculous to try to keep folk music pure because it has never been pure; it is a mish-mash. The idea of their being a folk pedigree is a joke, (neither is it true that the best necessarily survives). Above all, the thing to remember about folk music is that its sturdiness comes from the very diversity of its roots.
More friction. The others wanted to tour the USA (opening for Jethro Tull), Tyger wanted to stay and do more drama, which the others thought was becoming a distraction. (However, Bob Woffenden says that Tyger thought the band was being side-tracked by the drama). Tim & Maddy wanted everyone to concentrate solely on the band. So, Tyger left. Now, Tim and Martin quarrelled about his replacement. Tim wanted another bass player, Martin another multi-instrumentalist like Peter. It's easy to see why Martin thought this way. His acoustic guitar style provides all the rhythm as well as the melody and like Chuck Berry he doesn't feel the lack of a bass player. Tim thought differently (and more clearly, in hindsight) and after a couple of gigs with bass player Rick Kemp he was in, but Martin was also out. Searching for a replacement for him they recruited an old mate of Peter's, electric guitarist Bob Johnson.
Now, only Tim & Maddy remained of the original lineup and Tim seemed to be at the helm.
The new members brought experience with electric instruments to the band, but more than just that. Having lost one innovative bass player they found in Rick an even better match to their style. In Bob they gained another lead vocalist whose bloodthirsty preferences in ballads led to many of their finest songs.
Their first album brought all the new skills together into sharp focus. "Below The Salt" was for a long time my favourite album and is even now first among equals. While it doesn't have a standout track to match "Lovely on the Water", or the later "Thomas The Rhymer" or "Long Lankin" it nevertheless is such a balanced and lovely album that I still adore it. It also provided Steeleye with their first Top Twenty single ("Gaudete") and a concert standard ("Saucy Sailor")
The lineup was almost perfect, but it was missing something. The band had no drummer. They had produced five albums without a permanent drummer so the lack was obviously not that acute—in fact "Alison Gross" off "Parcel of Rogues" earns the distinction of being a sizzling heavy metal piece completely without drums! Still, the lack was there. Rick in particular felt the strain of being solely responsible for the rhythm section.
Nigel was a drummer who also played flute and oboe. In any other band this might seem a bizarre combination but it fitted Steeleye Span perfectly. The band was now complete.
The first album with the new six piece lineup was punningly entitled "Now We Are Six". (It was also the band's sixth album.) A remarkably eclectic album, it ranges from rock synthesisers to nursery rhymes, plus David Bowie playing Alto Sax on "To Know Him Is To Love Him", all produced by Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson!
This lineup was the most successful, and the longest lasting. They had a succession of successful albums and tours, with "All Around My Hat" released as a single making it into the top ten at number 3*. They were a folk band inhabiting the rock world. Once, in typical late 1970's exuberance, they decided to show their appreciation of their fans by returning their ticket money—by dropping it into the crowd at the end of the concert! After the resultant meleé they were sternly told not to do it again!
The dynamics of the band were interesting. Most bands have a lead singer, Steeleye Span had four. Maddy, Bob, Tim and Rick all sang lead on some songs, backup on others or just sat out a track. While Maddy doesn't (generally) play any instrument and only sings, she is not 'just' a lead singer: some of Maddy's finest singing is the harmony she weaves around the others.
More recently, Pete Knight has also moved to lead vocals, back then he contributed to the harmony arrangements, which he was mainly responsible for working out.
Bob Johnson was a rock musician who had followed the roots of rock back to the Blues and his namesake, Robert Johnson, and then, beyond, to the dark roots of folk music! In Steeleye Span he found the vehicle for his dream. Many of the band's finest songs are Bob's.
Layers. Many of their best songs have layers of sound. As you peel back the lead vocals and lead guitar you find the rhythm section of Knight/Kemp/Pegrum doing amazing things beneath. Keep peeling and like as not there is a Tim Hart riff buried at the h(e)art of the tune. "Long Lankin" and "Saucy Sailor" are good examples of this.
All seemed fine, the band was exploring new waters with "Rocket Cottage" when Pete & Bob decided to create an album based on Lord Dunsany's fantasy "The King of Elfland's Daughter". The rest of the band took umbrage at this and expelled Pete & Bob. One can only speculate what else might have been going on under the surface to provoke this rather extreme reaction. Maddy's recollections seem to indicate a combination of exhaustion and 'towering egos'. Basically, the band were fed up and ready for any excuse to break up.
The band was now minus two of its members (a non-viable situation for the gestalt that was Steeleye Span) with obligations to meet. Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick were persuaded to fill the gap, strictly on the understanding that it was a temporary situation (rumour has it that Martin also insisted that he didn't play any songs off "All Around My Hat").
The next album "Storm Force Ten" (their tenth album and a reference to the stormy events preceding it) shows a return to strong harmony singing but is a somewhat unsatisfactory album. The band is not really 'together'.
The next album though! "Live At Last" was their final album but their first live album (strangely enough for such a strong performance band.) It shows the band in sizzling form and makes you ache for what might have been had this lineup continued. Alas, the band broke up after the final concert and went their separate ways. Steeleye Span was no more.
Life Goes On
Tim Hart and Maddy Prior
Tim and Maddy pursued separate solo careers. Maddy's first album was backed by Jethro Tull (uncredited) and showed she had promise as a lyricist but needed work as a tune writer.
Tim's rather strange solo effort showed the opposite skills. Its best moments are the traditional "Come To My Window", and Maddy solemnly intoning "Shoo-wop-d-waddy-waddy" in the background of one track.
They decided to give it one last go, but one can't help feel that their hearts aren't in it. "Sails Of Silver" shows them writing their own songs, without much success. (This statement is not quite fair. A lot of their 'traditional' material had considerable help. "Sails Of Silver" is more an attempt to shift the focus of the songwriting.) The album lacks direction. The band had got over the stresses that had broken them up but didn't seem to know where to go next. The musicianship is there but the magic isn't.
Steeleye Span now really did decide it call it a day. The group didn't disband so much as take time off to pursue other interests, like having a life—Rick & Maddy to raise a family, Tim to retire to a dessert island. The band, minus Tim, still toured but without Tim it was pretty much just a revival band.
The next three 'marks' are named according to the albums produced, but some other personnel were tried on tours, and the band seems to have been a part-time thing over the next few years, with Peter exploring his musical interests in America, Bob getting a University degree, Rick and Maddy raising their family and in general the band members getting on with their lives.
1986 saw the release of "Back In Line" with Vince Cross on synthesiser but not seeming an integral part of the band. The band, particularly Pete Knight, were getting better at writing their own material and the mix of traditional inspired material is better, but the band still lacked direction.
Exit Rick Kemp (he suffered an accident which made it painful to play bass), to be replaced with the energetic Tim Harries. Nigel Pegrum had had enough too and made his final outing on "Tempted And Tried" before taking off to Australia.
Martin Ditchum also plays percussion.
The album shows a return to form. Not as adventurous as a Tim Hart album, but lively and listenable. The band sounds tight once more and their own compositions don't sound out of place. Not glory days maybe, but more than just revival.
At this point the band existed mainly to tour, resulting in a tight performance orientated group. Liam Genocky was now on drums and he and Tim Harries form a powerhouse rhythm section. The performances were great but the magic was not—quite—there. Maddy and Pete continued to do solo work.
The "Tonight's the Night" album captures their performance and shows that they can write their own material when they need to (at last).
Liam and Tim provided new energy and a new sense of direction, the rest of the band were not quite ready though.
A note on Tim's departure
Up to "Sails of Silver" the band had always been 'progressive', experimenting with possibilities. Furthermore, the experiments had all been successful. Now Tim Hart in particular felt he had had enough—he had a wife and children that he wanted to spend time with, and he decided it was time to move on to something else. He made a solo album and an album of nursery rhymes, then did some producing, then became seriously ill. On recovering he decided to retire to one of the smaller Canary islands and become a goat farmer.
It's tempting to ascribe the band's state to a lack of Tim, but the rest were also 'taking it easy'. After a while the band did reform as a more relaxed unit, with the members learning other skills such as songwriting.
Also, times and fashions change, and Steeleye Span were not the in thing. The polarisation of genres had begun and the band's forays to the progressive edge that had led to them becoming what they were did not find favour with the old fans who wanted merely more of the same, while to the new generation Steeleye Span were dinosaurs to be swept away by the purifying fire of punk.
Neil Young said that it's better to burn out than rust, but musicians don't tend to do either (including of course, Neil Young himself). The frenzy might not be there, but nothing could keep the band (individually and collectively) from being, and growing, albeit slowly.
In 1995 it was decided to have a grand 25 year reunion concert with every member of the band present. They almost managed it. Tim was dragged off his island retreat and Nigel from Australia. Only Terry Woods was absent. By all accounts the magic returned in abundance—I only wish I could have been there. In the aftermath, although Tim did not return, another old spanner did.
Gay Woods, last seen in mark I, returned to a revitalised band. The balance is different, the dynamics altered, but the band once more toured a new studio album . The mix of original and traditional songs is now right, the musicianship and verve abound, and once more the songs explore new ground. Gay seemed to be the extra thing they needed to make them excited about being Steeleye Span again.