The British folk revival of the mid- to late-1960s yielded many memorable artists, but few as enduring as Steeleye Span. The group, still going strong today, notched a quartet of top 40 albums and a couple of bona fide hit singles while remaining true to their traditional roots. Cherry Red’s Cherry Tree imprint has recently revisited the band with a 3-CD set containing all three of their albums with founding member Ashley Hutchings plus a small clutch of bonus tracks. All Things Are Quite Silent: Complete Recordings 1970-71 presents the LPs Hark! The Village Wait, Please to See the King, and Ten Man Mop or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again in one compact, clamshell package.
Hutchings, formerly of Fairport Convention, had departed that seminal group over creative differences; he wanted to continue pursuing traditional music while his bandmates were interested in other musical avenues. The duo of Maddy Prior and Tim Hart, and the husband-and-wife Terry and Gay Woods joined Hutchings in the group that became Steeleye Span. Sessions for their first album – and, as it turned out, the only album with this line-up – began in March 1970, with Fotheringay’s Gerry Conway and Fairport’s Dave Mattacks joining them on drums. The band only took a week to record Hark! The Village Wait, with the word “wait” referring to a medieval musician or, more likely, a group of musicians who would herald Christmas with their playing. Other than the introductory “A Calling-On Song” penned by Hutchings in traditional style, none of the songs were original – in keeping with Hutchings’ original vision. Traditional material was transformed into vibrant folk-rock with diverse musical flourishes; one song even featured the sound of tap dancing! But the sessions weren’t happy, and the group vowed to disband even before RCA released the album in June 1970. The group had splintered back into their original formations: Prior and Hart on one side, the Woodses on another, and Hutchings in the middle.
With the Woodses having relocated to Ireland, Prior and Hart regrouped with Hutchings. Hart approached the already-legendary acoustic guitarist Martin Carthy about joining a new line-up. Having clicked with Hutchings, Carthy agreed. Trained musician Peter Knight, on violin and mandolin among other instruments, rounded out Steeleye Span Mk. II. In addition to performing live for the first time, the new Steeleye Span entered the studio for a new album. As with the first Steeleye LP, manager Sandy Roberton was the producer. The sound was, naturally, different. Knight brought a baroque edge, while vocally, a female singer was out and replaced by a male singer. Drums were also absent from Please to See the King, released in March 1971 on the B&C label, and the overall sound was considerably heavier. Carthy had been known for his acoustic picking, but took to the electric guitar with a vengeance, bringing his sheer musicality to the harsher, more aggressive instrument. As if to underscore the fact that this was a new band, Steeleye revisited “The Blacksmith” from Hark! in a completely new arrangement. The sound clicked, with Hutchings anchoring the tracks on bass, Carthy adding tough electric licks, Knight on fiddle, Hart on electric dulcimer, and Prior on various percussion instruments. Some of the tracks on Please to See the King would be heard onstage when Steeleye Span were invited to perform in an experimental, touring musical production entitled Corunna.
Songs from Corunna would be featured, too, on the band’s third album – the one with the unwieldy title of and Ten Man Mop or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again. (In between, Steeleye would release a most unexpected single – a novelty version of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” recorded on a lark. It’s included here among the bonus material in three distinctive versions.) Recorded in September 1971 and issued in December on Pegasus Records, Ten Man Mop continued in the vein of its predecessor, drawing on both British and Irish folk standards; in the latter category came “Skewball,” written about a British racehorse and later adapted as “Stewball” (and still later as the basis of the melody for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” In addition to the jigs, most associated with Irish dance, the album also included reels, a dance of Scottish origin closely linked to British folk fiddle tradition. But Hutchings was disinterested in his friends’ increasing fascination with the Irish material, feeling there was still plenty to mine in Great Britain’s own songbook. Also unwilling to travel to America when the band was pursuing tour dates there, Hutchings departed the group he founded before the release of Ten Man Mop. (The original album was issued in a lavish gatefold sleeve, unfortunately not replicated here.) Hutchings would go on to form The Albion Band, making his musical affiliations quite clear. Martin Carthy followed Hutchings out of the band, disagreeing with the decision to bring bassist Rick Kemp in. (Rather than getting a new bassist, Carthy hoped to take Steeleye in a new direction altogether.) Despite the revolving door of personnel, the band pressed on. After a couple of sabbaticals, Maddy Prior still leads the band today.
Each album is housed in a mini-LP replica jacket. The 32-page booklet features a comprehensive essay penned by David Wells with fascinating recollections from Maddy Prior, Ashley Hutchings, Martin Carthy, Tim Hart (who died in 2009), and other participants. The original liner notes are also reprinted. In addition to “Rave On,” the bonus material also includes the Ten Man Mop outtake “General Taylor,” first issued in 1972. The BBC tracks issued on previous CD releases of these albums, however, have not been carried over onto this otherwise one-stop-shopping package for the Ashley Hutchings years. There is no remastering credit for these titles, but sound is consistent throughout.
All Things Are Quite Silent: Complete Recordings 1970-71 is a fine and fascinating snapshot of one of the early days of one of the most significant bands to come out of Britain’s sixties folk boom. It’s available now at the links below from Cherry Red’s Cherry Tree Records imprint!
CD 1: Hark! The Village Wait (RCA (U.K.) LP SF 8113, 1970)
- A Calling-On Song
- The Blacksmith
- Fisherman’s Wife
- Blackleg Miner
- Dark-Eyed Sailor
- Copshawholme Fair
- All Things Are Quite Silent
- The Hills of Greenmore
- My Johnny Was a Shoemaker
- Lowlands of Holland
- Two Corbies
- One Night as I Lay on My Bed
CD 2: Please to See the King (B&C LP CAS 1029, 1971)
- The Blacksmith
- Cold, Haily, Windy Night
- Jigs: Bryan O’Lynn/The Hag with the Money
- Prince Charlie Stuart
- Boys of Bedlam
- False Knight on the Road
- The Lark in the Morning
- Female Drummer
- The King
- Lovely on the Water
CD 3: Ten Man Mop or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again (Pegasus LP PEG 9, 1971) plus bonus tracks
- Gower Wassail
- Jigs: Paddy Clancey’s Jig/Willie Clancy’s Fancy
- Four Nights Drunk
- When I Was on Horseback
- Captain Coulston
- Reels: Dowd’s Favourite/ £10 Float/The Morning Dew
- Wee Weaver
- General Taylor (Album outtake first issued on Individually & Collectively, Charisma LP CS5, 1972)
- Rave On (‘Fake Scratch’ Single) (B&C single CB 164, 1971)
- Rave On (Alternative Version No. 1)
- Rave On (Alternative Version No. 2)