One of the significant movements in popular music from the mid 60’s onwards was a move way from the American roots of rock. Rock and Roll was formed from an almighty mash up of blues (black) and country (white) and white boys discovering black music has powered music to this day.
Now I feel the need to make this clear, If I had to choose between American music and British music I would pick the USA every time, it just sounds better full stop (period?). On the other hand music which draws on a European tradition is frequently more interesting.
The 70’s marked a time when it looked like we might actually leave the USA altogether, some of the really good stuff had no resemblance to soul or blues or rock and roll. There was prog for a start which was more likely to look to Bach than BB King and from Europe there were bands like Neu and Kraftwerk who you suspected had never heard of Elvis Presley.
Back in blighty our sense of confusion led to an brief emergence of our oldest indigenous music Folk.
Fairport Convention had pointed the way by accidently discovering folk. Their first three albums are great as they have more in common with Jefferson Airplane or the Band than anything folky. With Leige and Leif (which was intended as an experiment) they went fully folk and in doing so set the template for not only their own career but that of anyone who wanted to try ‘folk rock’.
Fairport were never really a successful band though, to this day they can inspire hundreds of middle aged people to stand in a muddy field but their records have never been big sellers.
Ashley Hutchings bass player and prime mover left the band around the turn of the decade, reportedly because he wanted to move in an even more folk direction. After a bit of time wasting with another nascent folk band Mr Fox he linked up with established folk club duo Tim Hart and Maddy Prior and husband and wife team Gay and Terry Woods to form the only chart Folk Rock band Steeleye Span.
Its always been a bit of a mystery to me why Hutchings picked the Woods for his English music project as they were Irish. The group set themselves up in a cottage and practised and argued until they were ready to record an album and then split.
The Woods were out (Terry resurfaced in The Pogues) but they had one record Hark! The Village Wait, no live performances and a couple of iconic photos which might have been taken in 1870 rather than 1970.
The Wood were replaced by Peter Knight on fiddle and folk stalwart Martin Carthy who bought a nice new blue Fender Telecaster for the occasion.
On Hark! The Village Wait their sound was traditional Folk Rock aided by the presence of guest drummers (the pool of folk rock drummers was pretty small in those days, Dave Mattacks, Gerry Conway and later Nigel Pergum). Ironically with the new musicians the band became folkier but more intense. Peter Knight was able to provide ominous drones or standard jiggery as the occasion demanded. Tim Hart played instruments I had never heard of before, Hutchings played bass in a unique and aggressive style,Carthy mainly played guitar and sang and Prior had the clearest most distinctive folk voice anyone might want to hear.
They survived on the standard polytechnic gigs as well as some of the better paying folk clubs and the odd festival..They also attracted media attention just because of their unusualness and because Folk was considered a bit more ‘clever’ than Rock. I vaguely remember a documentary of the band from around this time with the band lugging bass cabs into studios and tuning violas. Non of this seems to exist so the only clip we have is this one.
The band recorded two LP’s Please to see the King and the wonderfully named Ten Man Mop or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again. They were starting to make an impression beyond the folk clubs and the Guardian Art’s page. At the end of 1971 they recorded their version of the Buddy Holly hit Rave On using English Folk harmonies.
Unfortunately at this point both Hutchins and Carthy quit. Their replacements were Rick Kemp and Bob Johnson. Superficially this was exciting news as these were rock players which meant that the folk rock fusion was about to heat up. I first heard the band via their Xmas hit Gaudete. This was around the time they got their first proper drummer Nigel Pegrum another rock guy. Gaudete was was from their most recent album, a renaissance chant with no instruments at all, I loved it!
For me though this was the end for the band, they had brought in a new hot shot manager Jo Lustig who soon had them playing with the big boys. David Bowie played Sax on their next album. Womble Mick Batt became their producer and suddenly here they are on Top of the Pops playing the traditional song in the style of Status Quo.
And so here is Folk Rock’s biggest hit. Nigel Pegrum has had his hair permed,Rick Kemp unable to afford a hair transplant has opted for the big hat and Tim Hart has traded in his dulcimer for a telecaster.
Here was a band attempting to move with the times but looking a bit unconvincing, of course it looked even more hollow with Punk and New Wave knocking on the door.Here is folk and rock crudely welded together. You can see the join
Today Steeleye don’t have to prove anything, as long as Maddy can sing they will exist,members could the 18 or 80 the audience don’t have to care about that shit anymore, the band sound better than ever and everyone will have a good night out and still be home at a sensible time.