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Steeleye Span

Aside from Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span was the most successful and enduring British folk-rock band. The parallels between the bands are numerous: both updated traditional British folk material with rock arrangements, both featured an excellent female lead singer (Sandy Denny for Fairport, Maddy Prior for Steeleye Span), both frequently employed multi-part harmonies, and both mixed original and traditional songs. Although Fairport was more innovative in its early days, Steeleye Span was arguably the more interesting band after 1970, when personnel changes had gutted the original Fairport lineup. Steeleye Span, too, would undergo numerous personnel changes even at their peak. Prior was the constant factor that gave the group something of a recognizable identity at all phases of their journey.

One thing that differentiated Steeleye Span from their counterparts was that Fairport came to traditional folk from a rock background, whereas Steeleye traveled in the opposite direction. The original lineup, formed around the beginning of 1970, included guitarist Terry Wood, who had been in a traditional Irish folk group called Sweeney's Men (with Andy Irvine). The supple-voiced Prior had been in a folk duo with guitarist Tim Hart. The impetus for Steeleye Span's formation, ironically, came from ex-Fairport Convention bassist Ashley Hutchings. Hutchings wanted to keep pursuing the traditional folk direction ploughed by Fairport on the 1969 album Liege and Lief, and left Fairport to joined forces with Prior, Hart, Terry Woods, and Gay Woods (Terry's wife) to anchor the first incarnation of Steeleye Span.

This lineup only lasted for one album, with the Woods leaving for Doctor Strangely Strange; Terry Woods would eventually resurface with the Pogues in the 1980s. He was replaced by Martin Carthy, one of the most respected guitarists on the English folk circuit. Carthy's abdication of acoustic folk for electric (if drum-less) folk-rock apparently caused much consternation within the purist English folk community, a kerfuffle that is hard to understand (at least from an American perspective), given that Dylan had already successfully fought that battle in the mid-'60s. While Steeleye Span played folk music, they had no aversion to playing it loud, and this version of the band proved that it was possible to create an energetic ruckus without a drummer.

Both Hutchings and Carthy, by far the most famous members of the group, left around the end of 1971. This sort of defection would have crippled most acts. Yet Steeleye Span not only persevered, but entered their most commercially successful phase. Tim Hart was once quoted as saying that the group wanted to "put traditional music back into current musical language -- to make folk music less esoteric." They were aided in doing so by new bassist Rick Kemp, who became Maddy Prior's husband. In 1973, they finally added drums to the band, becoming a true folk-rock act after years of ramping up.

One asset to Steeleye Span's unusual durability (in the face of the revolving door of players) was their open-minded approach to contemporary influences. They covered oldies (and well) by Buddy Holly, the Four Seasons, and Phil Spector. David Bowie and Peter Sellers made cameo appearances on their albums in the mid-'70s. They occasionally acted in plays (in which they also musically performed as a group). They covered Brecht-Weill songs. Some of their work was produced by Mike Batt, whose primary previous credentials was as the mastermind of the Wombles, a British kiddie rock group.

Steeleye Span finally had a British chart hit in 1974 with the Christmas song "Gaudette." In 1975, they had a huge (by folk-rock standards) smash with "All Around My Hat," which reached the U.K. Top Five. In the United States, they (like Fairport) were consigned to cult status. They picked up some airplay on open-minded FM stations, but got their widest Stateside exposure as an opening act during a Jethro Tull tour. The onslaught of punk and new wave weakened any prospects for continued chart success at home. In 1977, they took on more traditional elements with the return of Martin Carthy, and the addition of John Kirkpatrick on accordion, but they finally split the following year.

Not for good, however. In a final parallel with Fairport Convention, they decided to periodically reunite while pursuing their own projects. Other studio albums appeared, and the group sometimes performed at festivals or even toured, though with enough irregularity to make it confusing to determine whether they were "together" again. A devoted following makes it possible for them to be received warmly by cult audiences whenever the mood suits them to play live again. Carthy has enjoyed the most notable solo career of the Steeleye Span alumni, continuing to command great respect among British folk listeners. Maddy Prior's most notable outside endeavor has been her duo recordings with fellow British folk singer June Tabor. Tim Hart released a handful of notable solo outings as well, before retiring to La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, where he passed away after a long battle with cancer in 2009. ~ Richie Unterberger, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

Comments

michael.newb e r y
@carmelpegru m Absolutely! And not JUST a drummer either.
To Judy and hclausen1: Great show indeed! To carmelpegrum : Love listening to Nigel!
Just saying:
In 1973, they finally added drums to the band, becoming a true folk-rock act after years of ramping up.

I think my husband's name, Nigel Pegrum deserves a mention as their first drummer who played with Steeleye for 17 years, before coming to live in Australia, where he has been very successful in the recording industry as engineer/pro d u c e r .

We enjoy many wonderful memories of Steeleye days.
Cheers,

ps really loving Pandora

sarawat1207
Loved their Pleased to see the King album. Incredible songs!
cmyers3402
LONDON might be my favorite! Again, enjoyable-fu n .
cmyers3402
Truly enjoyable and fun music
cmyers3402
Love their Minstrel sound - great melodies and harmonies, nice instruments.
55hermit
loved now we are six
to steve and judy , that was a great show. 1973 manzano high.
to Steve.....I cant believe it! I was at that concert in ABQ!
Have loved them from the first time I heard Parcel of Rogues. Could you add Tonight's the Night Live?
clamasaur
Steve, I also was introduced and seduced by Steeleye Span as the opening act to the Passion Play tour in Los Angeles, that same year. And yes, I was hooked ever since. Absolutely in love with Maddy Prior's voice. She makes some amazing music with June Tabor too, as the "Silly Sisters"
The very first band I ever saw in concert. They opened for Jethro Tull (the Passion Play tour) here in Albuquerque 8 July 1973. I've loved them ever since. They started the show by slowly walking out on stage in robes, looking like monks, singing "Gaudete". I'd never been to a concert, had no idea what to expect, and they hooked me instantly.
listening to king henry im recalling shrubbery superb stuff.
You are making me cry....Dale. . . . b e c a u s e it was such an ideal time....
Listening to these songs, as from the sheer joy of listeing,put s me back in the glorious days of the 60's when I truly believed that life would bring peace, love and happiness. Like Proust's madeline and tea I am instantly transported to the backyard of my college house and the arms of my girl friend in her peasant top and flowing skirt. Ah youth why is it wasted on the young.
Please add their album "Please to See the King" as well -- thanks!
ackerbex3
Love the Original Masters - some of the other albums Pandora plays have different recordings; these are the ones I was 1st introduced to, and I like them much better. The blend of traditional British Isles folk with driving electric underpinning s is 2nd to none.
many a fine day and nights listening to this group.If you like this group get their imported records great songs done in an old fashion way. Great music to do your thing by...whateve r your thing is...!
I'm an old folkie and Rock & Roller and i've gotta say that thier live concerts in the mid-late 70's were awesome! Some of the best live music I've seen!!

Ric Wasley
Musican/Auth o r
philip426
This grup, seems to me, to be quite the best lot I haveheard in years and years...and I find that I missed their primary period of production. Not to worry, for I shall have their CDs and, like Ms. Hogan, hey merit *applause*!
*Applause* Steeleye is amazing. All I have to say.
...and look, I'm the first to comment. Who woulda thunkit?

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