|Straws – 1975 Ghosts album cover photo session.|
Let’s get out of 1975, and start floating through the decade. It has to be that way. This is the year too many other musical movements (Punk, New Wave, Arena Rock etc.) had started to change everything culturally that English people now tuned to. Making it so, that if there was a specific folk genre for an English band, would they even want to exist in it anymore? There will always be one, of course, but at this time its one that would relegate you to pastiche and not being at the head of new musical vanguard. If you’re going to make some kind of memorable neo-folk music, you’re most likely doing it from a different genre altogether. Dave Cousins from Strawbs was smart enough to notice this. The track of the day, their song “Ghosts” from the album of the same name, presents this shift.
We remember Dave Cousins right? The lead singer/leader of Strawbs who discovered and let Sandy Denny have her first crack at stardom? Yes, that Dave Cousins. A rambler of a musician, his voice which sounds eerily similar to Peter Gabriel (though Dave would argue its backwards!), lent his band to many wickedly smart changes in style all in service of a progressive lightly folk, and heavily rock sound. In their day, it wouldn’t be hard to see them headline or open for bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, Bee Gees, Fairport Convention and many more. They followed a path similar to another band Procol Harum, a path where they knew how talented of musicians they were and faced massive difficulty trying to not sound like pompous twits. They could create gigantic epics like their other English brethren but they’d rather use a smaller span of time to go all out.
By the time they released Ghosts, they had gone through a run of five or so genuinely brilliant prog albums. Albums like From the Witchwood whose positively dreamy “A Glimpse of Heaven” could make any non-prog fan fall in love with the style, psych sunshine pop masterpieces like “Flying” from 1973’s Bursting at the Seams, that album itself with tracks like anti-union goofs like “Part of the Union” or the soft-rock of “Lady Fuschia” leaving many fans wondering if the band was trying to sell out. Only to be answered thunderously back with 1974’s truly sinister overcorrection of an album Hero and Heroine full of just bleak prog anthems like the “Autumn” suite and their minor hit single “Shine on Silver Sun”. Most of the fans didn’t know this then, but the band itself was barely finding ways to stay afloat together something only hinted at in the album title.
|Ghosts album cover.|
That’s where 1975 came in and saved the Strawbs. Just hear how massively romantic the intro to Ghosts is only to shift into this heavy progressive folk juggernaut only to comeback into a phased out Neo-Romantic mood. Somehow tapping into some of that communal English pastoral spirit that moved them when they were young, now recording in Richard Branson’s the Manor townhome/studio (site of Mike Oldfield’s first foray in recuperating his own folk side), they put together an album just bursting with vitality. Trading in most of their electric guitar past for a panoramic acoustic sound, they just nail a symphonic sound with scarcely an orchestra around. Dave himself lays down some of his most strident vocals he could muster.
The album itself shows some resolute heart at a time when English customs impounded most of their equipment for days on end after coming back from a desperately long tour of the states. This time was especially important to Dave. Using it as a means of convalescing, having already collapsed on stage prior to the recording of this album, he uses the album to exercise some ghosts (due to old band members quitting and personal problems). The original shot of the album cover was supposed to be a ghostly superimposed picture of this band over the young kid’s war memorial at Charterhouse displaying empathy with all the youthful innocence lost there. Hope, love, comfort, those were the more adult themes the Strawbs wanted to cover here. Forget about the realm of fantasy, they were real humans struggling with earthly matters. In a way, a song like “You and I (When We Were Young)” with its neo-classical accompaniment hints at what they were searching for. Using folk music as a reintroduction to the feelings he was desperately trying to reassess, he creates a beautiful concise elegiac ode to owning up to wanting to feel such things. As the album closes afterward with all sorts of uplifting glorious everyman folk songs, one wonders what took them this long? Sometimes, it seems, you gotta forge your own homestead when the one you dreamt about is far gone. Anyway, 1976 and onwards should show how divergent creeks of neo-folk music flow through one decidedly English source. Will glide over those years shortly…
Bonus track, their remarkably prescient lipsynched performance of “Shine on Silver Sun” at Top of the Pops. Doesn’t this point to the direction they would take a year later?