Steeleye Span is a British electric folk band, formed in 1969 and remaining active today. Along with Fairport Convention they are amongst the best known acts of the British folk revival, and were among the most commercially successful, thanks to their hit singles Gaudete and All Around My Hat. They had 3 top 40 albums. They achieved a certified "gold" record with sales of "All Around My Hat".
Throughout its long history, Steeleye Span has seen a great many personnel changes but has maintained a strong continuity of tradition. Lead vocalist Maddy Prior was one of the main attractions of the band's music, being one of a handful of strong-but-melodically-voiced women in rock music in the 1970s (along with Sandy Denny, Renaissance's Annie Haslam, Jacqui McShee and Linda Thompson).
Their typical album is a collection of mostly traditional songs with one or two instrumental tracks of jigs and/or reels added in; the traditional songs often include some of the Child ballads. In their later albums there has been an increased tendency to include music written by the band members, but they have never got completely away from traditional music, which draws upon both the English and the Celtic traditions.
Steeleye Span is like a bus. It goes along, and people get on and get off it. Sometimes the bus goes along the route you want to go, and sometimes it turns off, so you get off.|||Maddy Prior
The Steeleye Span story began in late 1969 when London-born bass player Ashley Hutchings departed Fairport Convention, the band he had co-founded in 1967. Fairport had been involved in a road accident in 1969 in which the drummer, Martin Lamble, was killed and other band members injured. They convalesced in a rented house near Winchester in Hampshire and worked on the album Liege & Lief. Despite the success of the album, Ashley Hutchings and the band's vocalist Sandy Denny left Fairport Convention.
In part, Hutchings's departure was because he wanted to pursue a different, more traditional, direction than the other members of Fairport did at that time. However, Fairport's co-founder, guitarist Simon Nicol, says in an interview on the band's website : "Whatever the upfront reasons about musical differences and wanting to concentrate on traditional material, I think the accident was the underlying reason why Ashley felt he couldn't continue with us."
Hutchings' new band was formed after he met established duo Tim Hart and Maddy Prior on the London folk club scene, and the initial lineup was completed by husband and wife team Terry (formerly of Sweeney's Men, later of The Pogues) and Gay Woods. With two female singers, the original lineup was unusual for the time, and indeed, never performed live, as the Woodses departed the band shortly after the release of their debut album, Hark! The Village Wait (1970). While recording the album, the five members were all living in the same house, an arrangement that produced considerable tensions particularly between Hart and Prior on the one hand and the Woodses on the other. Gay and Terry were replaced by veteran folk musician Martin Carthy and fiddler Peter Knight in a longer-term lineup that toured small concert venues, and recorded two albums - Please to See the King (1971) and Ten Man Mop, or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again (1972). While the first album was traditionally performed - guitars, bass and with a guest drummer - Please to See the King was revolutionary in its hard electric sound and lack of drums.
Lustig signed them to the Chrysalis record label, for a deal that was to last for ten albums.
With the release of their fourth album, Below the Salt, later in 1972, the revised lineup had settled on a distinctive electrified rock sound, although they continued to play mostly arrangements of very traditional material, including songs dating back a hundred years or more. Even on the more commercial Parcel of Rogues (1973), the band had no permanent drummer, but in 1973 rock drummer Nigel Pegrum, who had previously recorded with Gnidrolog, The Small Faces and Uriah Heep, joined them, to harden up their sound (as well as occasionally playing flute).
Also that year, the single 'Gaudeté' from Below the Salt belatedly became a Christmas hit single, reaching number 14 in the UK Charts, although the a capella motet, sung entirely in Latin, cannot be considered representative of the band's music, nor the album from which it was taken. This proved to be their commercial breakthrough and saw them performing on Top of the Pops for the first time. They often include it as a concert encore. Their popularity was also helped by the fact that they often performed as an opening act for fellow Chrysalis artists Jethro Tull.
Appropriately enough, their sixth album (and sixth member Pegrum's first with the band) was entitled Now We Are Six. Produced by Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, the album includes the epic track 'Thomas the Rhymer', which has been a part of the live set ever since.
Although successful, the album is controversial among some fans for the inclusion of nursery rhymes sung by "The St. Eeleye School Choir" (band members singing in the style of children), and the cover "To Know Him is to Love Him", featuring a guest appearance from David Bowie on saxophone.
The attempts at humour continued on Commoners Crown (1975), which included Peter Sellers playing electric ukelele on the final track, "New York Girls". Their seventh album also included the epic ballad "Long Lankin" and novelty instrumental "Bach Goes To Limerick".
The album had a polished, commercial sound, and perfectly captured the flavour of the mid-1970s. Other well-known tracks on the album included "Black Jack Davey" (sampled by rappers Goldie Lookin Chain on their track '"The Maggot") and the rocky "Hard Times of Old England".
This time on Top of the Pops Steeleye performed a lively dance on the stage, with Maddy Prior flouncing around in a long dress with wide sleeves. At this point in their career the band indulged in picturesque clothes, much to the disapproval of the pop press.
But while All Around My Hat was the height of the band's commercial success, the good times were not to last very long. Despite touring almost every year since 1975, they have not had another hit single, nor any success in the album chart since the late 1970s.
The follow-up album Rocket Cottage (1976), also produced by Batt, proved to be a flop, despite having much in common musically with its immediate predecessor.
The opening track, 'London' was penned by Rick Kemp in response to a request from the record label that Kemp describes as "we'll have another one of those, please" and released as a single. The song failed to make the UK Charts at all, in complete contrast to 'All Around My Hat', despite having much in common with its predecessor - a 6/8 time signature, upbeat tempo, solo verses and full harmony chorus.
'Rocket Cottage' also included experimental tracks 'Fighting for Strangers' (with sparse vocals singing concurrently in a variety of keys) and, on the final track, excerpts of studio banter between the band members and a seemingly impromptu rendition of 'Camptown Races', in which Maddy gets the lyrics wrong.
But while their 9th album was one of their most interesting and varied, the advent of punk saw the mainstream market turning away from electric folk almost overnight, heralding a downturn in commercial fortunes for the band.
Thanks to their connection with Mike Batt, band members appeared in Womble costumes on Top of the Pops, performing the Wombles hit "Remember you're a Womble".
It has been widely reported that Peter Knight and Bob Johnson left the band to work on another project together, The King of Elfland's Daughter. The actual situation was more complex. Chrysalis records agreed to allow Knight and Johnson to work on "King" only as a way to persuade the duo to continue working with Steeleye. Since the record company had no interest in "King" for its own sake, it made no effort to market the album. Chrysalis' ploy failed, however, and Knight and Johnson quit.
Their departure left a significant hole in the band. For the 1977 album Storm Force Ten, early member Martin Carthy rejoined on guitar. When he originally joined the band for its second album, Carthy had tried to persuade the others to bring John Kirkpatrick on board, but the band had chosen Knight instead. This time, Carthy's suggestion was accepted, and Kirkpatrick's accordion replaced Knight's fiddle, which gave the recording a very different texture from the Steeleye sound of previous years. Kirkpatrick's one-man morris dances quickly became one of the highlights of the band's show. This line-up also recorded their first album outside of the studio, Live at Last, before a "split" at the end of the decade that proved to be short-lived. But Carthy and Kirkpatrick had only intended to play with the band for a few months and had no interest in a longer association with the band.
The band were contractually obliged to record a final album for the Chrysalis label, and with Carthy and Kirkpatrick not wanting to rejoin the re-formed band, the door was open for Knight and Johnson to return in 1980. The album Sails of Silver saw the band moving away from traditional material to a greater focus on self-penned songs, many with historical or pseudo-folk themes. Sails was not a commercial success, in part because Chrysalis chose not to promote the album aggressively, but also because many fans felt uncomfortable with the band's new direction in its choice of material. The failure of the album left Hart unhappy enough that he decided to give up commercial music entirely, in favour of a reclusive life overseas.
After Sails of Silver there were to be no new albums for several years, and Steeleye became a part-time touring band. The other members spent much of their time and energy working on their various other projects, and the band went into a fitful hibernation.
In 1981 Isla St Clair presented a series of four television programmes called "The Song and The Story", about the history of some folk songs, which won the Prix Jeunesse. Isla sang the songs, and The Maddy Prior Band did the backing instrumentals.
After a quiet spell, the group's 12th studio album (and first without Tim Hart) Back in Line was released on the Flutterby label in 1986. With no "relaunch" as such, the band retained a low profile, although they caused some controversy when they played the song "Blackleg Miner" in Nottingham. The song originates from Northumberland in the early 20th century, but had been revived due to the 1984-5 strike. The Nottinghamshire coalfield had generally opposed the strike and tensions remained high when the song was performed in 1986.
In 1989, two long-term members departed the band. One was bassist Rick Kemp, who needed to recover from a serious shoulder injury, exacerbated by playing bass on stage. His eventual replacement (after two tours, each with a different bassist) was Tim Harries, who was brought in less than two weeks before the band was scheduled to start a tour. A friend of Pegrum's, Harries was a self-taught rock bassist, as well as a classically trained pianist and double bassist. With Harries on board, Steeleye released Tempted and Tried (1989), an album that formed the basis for their live set for many years to come.
Not long after recording Tempted, drummer Nigel Pegrum emigrated to Australia for personal relationship reasons. He was replaced by eccentric drummer Liam Genockey of Gillan, easily identified by his long, plaited beard. He and Knight were simultaneously members of "Moiré Music", a free-jazz band with a classical flavor, led by Trevor Watts. Unlike Pegrum, who employed a traditional rock drumming style, Genockey favoured a more varied drumming style, influenced by both Irish and African drumming, in which he hit, brushed, and rubbed the various surfaces of his drums and cymbals, creating a more varied range of sounds. Consequently, when the band embarked on their 20th Anniversary Tour, they did so with a totally new rhythm section.
Both Harries and Genockey were interested in experimenting with the band's sound, and they helped re-energize the other members' interest in Steeleye. The band began reworking some of their earlier material, seeking new approaches to traditional favourites. For example, Johnson experimented with an arrangement of "Tam Lin" that involved a heavy Bulgarian influence, inspired by Eastern European versions of the Tam Lin legend. In 1992, the band released Tonight's the Night...Live, which demonstrates some of this new energy and direction. The band continued to tour the UK every year, and frequently toured overseas as well.
A by-product of this gig was founding vocalist Gay Woods rejoining the band fulltime, partly because Prior was experiencing vocal problems, and for a while Steeleye toured with two female singers, and released the album Time 1996, their first new studio album in seven years.
There were doubts over the future of the band when Maddy Prior announced her departure in 1997, but Steeleye continued in a more productive vein than for many years, with Woods as lead singer, releasing Horkstow Grange (1998), and then Bedlam Born (2000). Fans of Steeleye's "rock" element felt that Horkstow Grange was too quiet and folk-oriented, while fans of the band's "folk" element complained that Bedlam Born was too rock-heavy. Woods received considerable criticism from fans, many of whom did not realize that she was one of the founding members and who compared her singing style unfavorably to Prior's. There was also disagreement among the band about what material to perform; Woods advocated for performing old favourites such as "All Around My Hat" and "Alison Gross", while Johnson favored a set that emphasized their newer material.
Liam Genockey had also left the band by 1998, and on these albums the drum kit was manned by Dave Mattacks.
Reported difficulties among band members saw a split during the recording of Bedlam Born. Woods reportedly was uncomfortable with the financial arrangements of the band. Health problems forced Johnson into retirement, and for a while the band consisted of just Peter Knight and Tim Harries, plus various guest musicians as they fulfilled live commitments. Rick Kemp then returned to the line-up, during a time when their future seemed uncertain, while Harries was not keen to continue his role.
But Bob Johnson's health prevented him from playing live shortly before the 2002 comeback tour, and he was replaced at the eleventh hour on guitar by Ken Nicol, formerly of the Albion Band. Nicol had been talking with Rick Kemp about forming a band when Kemp invited him to play for the tour.
With Nicol on board, the band released the album They Called Her Babylon early in 2004, and extensively toured the UK, Europe and Australia, and their relatively prolific output continued with the release of the Christmas album 'Winter' later the same year, as the band ended a busy year of touring with a gala performance in London's Palladium theatre.
In 2005 Steeleye Span were awarded the Good Tradition Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, while a recent book, Electric Folk by Britta Sweers (2005), devotes much space to the band.
The band carried out a UK tour in April and May 2006, followed by dates in Europe and an appearance at the 2006 Cropredy Festival. They were the final act on Cropredy's first night. They started with "Bonny Black Hare" and finished with "All Around My Hat" with backing vocals from the Cropredy Crowd. The full play list is at Crop Log 2006 The tour was supported by a live album and DVD of their 2004 tour.
The current line-up consists of Maddy Prior (vocals), Ken Nicol (guitar, vocals), Rick Kemp (bass, vocals), Peter Knight (violin, piano, vocals), and Liam Genockey (drums and percussion), and draws on past and current Steeleye Span repertoire. They usually play to theatres and arts centres but they also perform at festivals. They headlined at their namesake festival, Spanfest 2007 at Kentwell Hall, Suffolk from 27-29 July 2007, and returned for Spanfest 2008 However, as Kentwell Hall declined to hold the festival again, it was held at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire. A UK tour took place between 17 April and 16 May 2008.
A new studio album is expected in 2009 to mark the band's 40th anniversary celebrations.
When they supported Status Quo on tour in 1996, the latter had just issued their version of "Hat" as a single, and for their encore Maddy joined them on stage to sing it with them. Status Quo's single is credited to "Status Quo with Maddy Prior from Steeleye Span" and reached number 47 in the charts.Maddy also sang backing vocals on the title track of Jethro Tull's 1976 album "Too Old To Rock and Roll, Too Young To Die". Ray Fisher's rare 1972 album Bonny Birdy includes one track with the High Level Ranters, one with Steeleye Span, and one with Martin Carthy.
In 1995 Steeleye recorded "The Golden Vanity" for the Time album, but it did not appear on it. It was released on the anthology The Best of British Folk Rock. Similarly they recorded "General Taylor" for Ten Man Mop but the song didn't appear on it. It resurfaced on the compilation album Individually and Collectively instead. It was also included in another compilation The Lark in The Morning (2006). "Bonny Moorhen" was recorded at the time of the "Parcel of Rogues" session. Its only appearance on disc was the compilation album Original Masters. The song "Somewhere in London", recorded for Back in Line (1986) was released instead as a B-side single, but returned to its proper place "Back in Line" when the album was reissued in 1991.
Steeleye Span 2: Tim Hart, Maddy Prior, Ashley Hutchings, Martin Carthy, Peter Knight
Steeleye Span 3: Tim Hart, Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Bob Johnson, Rick Kemp
Steeleye Span 4: Tim Hart, Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Bob Johnson, Rick Kemp, Nigel Pegrum
Steeleye Span 5: Tim Hart, Maddy Prior, Rick Kemp, Nigel Pegrum, Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick
Steeleye Span 6: Tim Hart, Maddy Prior, Rick Kemp, Nigel Pegrum, Peter Knight, Bob Johnson
Steeleye Span 7: Maddy Prior, Rick Kemp, Nigel Pegrum, Peter Knight, Bob Johnson
Steeleye Span 7.1: Maddy Prior, Nigel Pegrum, Peter Knight, Bob Johnson, Mark Williamson
Steeleye Span 7.2: Maddy Prior, Nigel Pegrum, Peter Knight, Bob Johnson, Chris Staines
Steeleye Span 8: Maddy Prior, Nigel Pegrum, Peter Knight, Bob Johnson, Tim Harries
Steeleye Span 9: Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Bob Johnson, Tim Harries, Liam Genockey
Steeleye Span 10: Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Bob Johnson, Tim Harries, Liam Genockey, Gay Woods, Ashley Hutchings, Martin Carthy, Rick Kemp, Nigel Pegrum, John Kirkpatrick, Michael Gregory, Tim Hart
Steeleye Span 11: Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Bob Johnson, Tim Harries, Liam Genockey, Gay Woods
Steeleye Span 12: Peter Knight, Bob Johnson, Tim Harries, Gay Woods
Steeleye Span 12.1: Peter Knight, Bob Johnson, Gay Woods, Rick Kemp
Steeleye Span 12.2: Peter Knight, Tim Harries, Rick Kemp, Terl Bryant
Steeleye Span 13: Peter Knight, Rick Kemp, Maddy Prior, Bob Johnson, Liam Genockey
Steeleye Span 13.1: Peter Knight, Rick Kemp, Maddy Prior, Liam Genockey, Ken Nicol
Steeleye Span 14: Peter Knight, Rick Kemp, Maddy Prior, Liam Genockey, Ken Nicol
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