Recommended Albums #47

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Steeleye Span: All Around My Hat (1975)

First, a point of clarification: The similarity in name to American jazz rock band Steely Dan is purely coincidental. British folk rockers Steeleye Span, who formed three years earlier in 1969, took their name from a character in an English folk song, “Horkstow Grange”–a song they oddly never got around to recording until 1998.

Unfortunately Steeleye Span’s finest album was blighted with what is unquestionably their worst album cover, especially given the fact that their previous record, Commoner’s Crown, was graced by a stunner of a cover featuring an exquisite sculpture of a crown comprised of hundreds of tiny human figures.

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If the cover of All Around My Hat was also artistic it was so in a more abstract way. As the CD reissue’s liner notes insufficiently explain, the idea was that the album’s cover “…was designed to be viewed through three small holes cut in the inner sleeve which had to be held at a particular angle, or something like that, but it simply didn’t work, and looks as if the group were photographed in distorting mirrors at a fairground.” Okay then. Enough about the cover I think.

Steeleye Span were one of two main progenitors of 70’s British folk rock, with the other being Fairport Convention. Fairport, initially at least, had a bit more of a diversity of influences: they covered artists such as Dylan and Joni Mitchell on early albums. They also boasted a more distinguished pedigree in that their early lineup included immortal songbird (and ex-Strawb) Sandy Denny as well as a fast-emerging legend in teenage guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson.

But while the consensus seems to be that Fairport were the more influential and “important” band, Steeleye Span’s music more often hewed close to traditional English folk song, and made for more consistently enjoyable listening. And where Fairport lost steam very early on as key members departed, Span’s work arced upward both artistically and commercially over their first eight albums, culminating with 1975’s high water mark, All Around My Hat.

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There was never any confusing Steeleye Span’s–or indeed Fairport’s–intentions. As Richard Thompson explained in a recent interview in Prog magazine, “Prog rock was usually more classical-influenced–these were people who studied classical music and took it into the rock arena, with a harmonically intricate style. With Fairport, we couldn’t think of anything more radical to do than electrifying British roots music.”

This electrification of the country’s indigenous music had a parallel of course to what Dylan and The Band had been doing in America. And in England, Fairport and Steeleye Span weren’t the only artists of the time delving into collections of centuries-old murder ballads and presenting them to a new generation. Artists such as Bert Jansch and Pentangle did the same. But there was a sharp divide between the relative purism of those coffeehouse acoustic acts and the full-on electrification of Steeleye Span’s true folk/rock hybrid. The band re-worked ancient material in ways that people raised on contemporary rock music would find appealing. They augmented rock music’s traditional guitar/bass/drum sound with appropriately folksy mandolins, fiddles, accordions, recorders and the like for a bit of period flavor. But they were a rock band–one who could win over arena-sized crowds on tours supporting acts such as Jethro Tull.

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If modernizing was indeed compromising, well–the band’s ascension from the coffeehouses to the arenas proved the validity of their instincts.

Steeleye Span were titans of a pioneering genre, and incalculably influential. Without the bands who first “plugged in” to modernize music of antiquity in England, it’s difficult to say if Ireland’s Pogues would even have come into being in the mid-80’s, which means no one to pave the way for bands like Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys and others today.

And they did so much more than plug in: effects pedals, stereo panning, Genesis-like instrument doubling, even avant-garde experimentation were part of their kitchen-sink approach (one of their songs features a chorus sung in two keys simultaneously, for example). And the ace up their sleeve was the multipart harmonies that make a capella breaks–and entire songs–highlights of their albums, and a band trademark (see “Cadgwith Anthem” below). These “folks” carried a big toolbox to work.

All Around My Hat charted for five months in the UK, peaking in the top ten and even spawning a top 5 hit single with its title track. Respected producer Mike Batt and engineer Geoff Emerick (a name familiar to Beatles fans) not only achieved a sound superior to that of the band’s previous work, but created at appropriate times a dramatic tension befitting the weighty bearing of the centuries-old lyrics.

It’s straightaway apparent from the first bars of “Black Jack Davey”, when a heavily-reverbed backbeat is augmented by castanets and shivering strings to set a stirring scene. Then the voice of the queen of British folk herself, Maddy Prior, alternates with band harmonies in the chorus of a song that perfectly sums up the band’s template. If you don’t like this song, you need listen no further.

But if you do, a rich trove of similar pleasures awaits.

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Listen to: “Black Jack Davey”

 

Listen to: “All Around My Hat”

 

Listen to: “The Wife of Usher’s Well”

 

Listen to: “Gamble Gold (Robin Hood)”

 

Listen to: “Cadgwith Anthem”

 

Listen to: “Hard Times of Old England”

 

Listen to: “Bachelor’s Hall”

 

See also: https://edcyphers.com/2012/10/18/songs-you-may-have-missed-200/

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rose
    May 09, 2013 @ 22:47:53

    Great blog, and even better music, (no offense). The only thing I would disagree with is the statement implying that if you don’t like the first song, skip the rest. I say, give the rest a chance. If nothing else, you should appreciate the awesome melodies, harmonies, lyrics, various instruments…. sheer talent! In other words if you appreciate incredible music, you should appreciate at least one of these songs, even if it isn’t what you’d pick for a road trip!
    Ed, thanks for the introduction. Love this group!

    Reply

  2. Ed Cyphers
    May 09, 2013 @ 23:50:39

    The pleasure is entirely mine anytime someone else “gets” a band like this and I had any part in it. There are actually lots of us Span fans out there, it’s just that we’re kind of…”out there”. These bands don’t earn enough print from mainstream outlets.

    Thanks for reading.

    Reply

  3. Trackback: Recommended Albums #53 | Ed Cyphers

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