There’s something so telling about today’s tracks. Everything about Steeleye Span signify the bloated culmination of English folk-rock as most people know it. So spectacularly dense in its concentration of Englishness that the songs I chose from them today both contain everything most people hate about the genre and everything that people justifiably stand in awe by. Amplifying the traditional end beyonds its seams, immersing itself unrepentantly in the theatrical aspect of the past — a spiritual cousin to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust-era music, itself an unrepentant deification of ole time Rock n’ Roll — the music released by Steeleye Span in this short bit of time, 1972-73, imagined folk-rock as this lifestyle you can get lost in.
|Steeleye Span – 1973|
In hindsight, after English folk-rock, as we know it, imploded around 1973, the two-fer Below the Salt and Parcel of Rogues became one of the last remaining folk-rock Blue Giants to rove our musical universe. Oscillating wildly from either an unapologetically heavy sound or an unapologetically faithful traditional recreation, their music sounded like a farmer using modern tools to hoe that same field exactly like in the past. In sight, dressed in Medieval garb, and sounds, invoking Spinal Tap at their Stonehenge worst, they were a hard group to completely buy into if you weren’t into their type of Merriment. All this, makes you think that I’m slagging them off, for once I’m not. Its this final bit of stubborn backwardness that worked to their advantage. Its easy to dismiss folk-rock like this when it doesn’t stick the landing, but when it does all you can do is tip your hat and enjoy it. As much as their music reminds you of the IMAX version of Liege and Lief, something about the way the whole spectacle sounds, works. In a way, though that became their pigeonhole.
Now, removed from the influence of Ashley Hutchings and Martin Carthy, and far removed from the headache inducing bad vibes Terry and Gay Woods had brought with during Hark! The Village Wait, Tim and Maddy were free to overindulge in all the traditional music they couldn’t, in such a way, before. Below the Salt completely dispensed, ‘cept for a track or two, with drums, and Parcel of Rogues itself having songs they originally meant to soundtrack a play for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped had no original tracks, only traditionals. Not that this matter, in this brief time they found a way to make an acapella Latin hymnal song called “Gaudette” chart in the English pop charts. It was a weird and unstable time for English folk-rock. One that wouldn’t be sustainable, as other genres were evolving, this style was dying off.
In a way, such tracks like Below the Salt‘s “King Henry”, “Sheep-Crook and Black Dog”, and Parcel of Rogues‘ “The Weaver and the Factory Maid“, or “Cam Ye O’er Frae France” as brilliant as Maddy’s vocals were, and they were immensely brilliant, and as awesome the droning fuzzed-out guitar and violin interplay was, and it was f’ing brilliant, what they were presenting was the logical conclusion to this style. Where else can you take this specific type of neo-folk music? From its denouement one can see how important it was that other genres rolling into its fabric could be. When you breathe new life into a fading genre, you’re bound to hear some harrowing last gasps as these. More from 1973, tomorrow though…
Bonus track, an in memoriam for folk-rock — playing at their own wake in a way — Steeleye Span’s performance of Electric Folk at the BBC in 1974. Interesting fashion (Maddy in a maid’s dress, band playing in a castle) and sound abounds!…