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The Strawbs, originally the Strawberry Hill Boys, formed as a bluegrass group around 1964. Over the years they changed their style, but are best-remembered as a folk-rock group with occasional pop and prog-rock leanings; Rick Wakeman played keyboards with them until leaving in 1971 to join Yes. Led by singer, rhythm guitarist and banjo player Dave Cousins, whose vocals often sound rather Cat Stevens-like, they disbanded in 1980 but have reformed with various line-ups on an ad hoc basis, as both a full rock band and as an acoustic trio, from 1983 to date. This 2-CD compilation, released in 1997, covers their peak years on the A&M label between 1969 and 1975.
'Best of' compilations generally arrange all tracks in chronological order of recording or original release (pretty well the same thing). This doesn't, something I would have preferred. Whether the songs were sequenced by members of the group themselves, the record company, a fan club organisation or a combination of these, the booklet doesn't say. Because of that, I'll give the year of release for each track after the title below.
'Ghosts' (1969), one of five songs lasting between six and ten minutes, is on the prog-rock end of the spectrum. A multi-tracked, slightly classical-flavoured harpsichord intro fades in, before being joined by acoustic guitar, and gathers pace with a funky rhythm underpinned by organ and drums, with a scorching guitar solo five minutes in. Like the majority of tracks, it was written by Cousins, inspired by a nightmare he had while they were on the road in the USA, but in a hotel which overlooked a war memorial square and victory column which looked oddly like an English town. The room he was staying in had a lion's head bedspread and a grinning skull pendant light - all very ghostlike. Try this for a sample of the lyrics:
Damp with sweat, mouth is dry, twisted branches catch the eye
Beside your bed the angel stands, you cannot touch his withered hands
'On Growing Older' (1972), at barely two minutes easily the shortest track here, is a straightforward, acoustic guitar and drums-driven number enlivened by some attractive harmony vocals sung jointly by Cousins and the shortly-to-depart guitarist Tony Hooper.
'The Man who Called Himself Jesus' (1968) is an early single which was the first to attract significant airplay but no chart success. It's a mid-tempo number which was inspired by a story told to Cousins about a Copenhagen shop owner who had had a man on his premises claiming to be Jesus. The spoken intro is by then little-known actor Richard Wilson, later Victor Meldrew in 'One Foot In The Grave', plus John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin on bass and stalwart session musician Nicky Hopkins on piano.
'Stormy Down' (1973), with brisk piano and guitar, is a nod back to the group's early country and bluegrass days. It features a dramatic lyric about their regular journeys when going to and from Wales for gigs before the M4 was built, Stormy Down being an area of moorland over which Cousins saw a remarkable cloud formation one night.
'I Turned My Face Into The Wind' (1970) is a short, simple, doomy song Cousins wrote after a walk on the bleak Yorkshire moors near Barnsley. Slow, moody piano, cello and fiddle make this one of their more sombre, chilling moments.
'Queen Of Dreams' (1972) is one of the longer and more experimental pieces. An intro that sounds like an effects tape played backwards takes us into the song accompanied by dreamy instrumentation, after two verses of which we hear an electric dulcimer played with a steel pick fed through a fuzz box, followed by electronic effects like a helicopter taking off, then reverting to acoustic guitars and organ for a third verse, and finally a drum solo bouncing between both stereo channels. Parts reminded me of the Stones' '2000 Light Years From Home'.
'Witchwood' (1971) features Cousins and bassist John Ford singing together. There's a remarkable combination of instruments here, with Cousins' dulcimer and banjo, the latter sounding more like an ancient Chinese stringed instrument, creating an effect similar to the quasi-medieval tunes Jethro Tull produced in their early days.
For a change, 'Keep the Devil Outside' (1971), written by drummer Dave Hudson with Ford), features Hooper on lead vocals, a more down-to-earth folk/pop number, with an infectious chorus.
Written by Cousins about the troubles in Ulster, 'The Hangman and the Papist' (1971) is one of the most ambitious numbers here. He had been brought up (in England) as a Catholic, his brother and sister as Protestants, so he was qualified to comment. A church organ intro, slightly reminiscent of Jon Lord's work with early Deep Purple, is the prelude to Cousins' vocals, sounding like Alan Hull of Lindisfarne at his most passionate, with unexpected tempo changes and military-style drumming later on.
'Benedictus' (1971) is one of the hymn-like tunes which was a speciality of theirs. Featuring dulcimer from Blue Weaver (ex-Amen Corner, later Mott The Hoople), who had just replaced Wakeman, this was a single but failed to chart.
'Golden Salamander' (1975) is an attractive Eastern-style tune backed by electric dulcimer and guitar, and later on multi-tracked vocals, similar to the sound 10cc would soon make their trademark with 'I'm Not In Love' multi-tracked vocals.
'Tokyo Rosie' (1975), is quite funky - but why shouldn't they record a disco (almost) track if they wanted to. It was built around a riff on electric harpsichord, played by Wakeman who had returned for a guest appearance. Rumour has it that he played it naked - hence Cousins' nearly breaking down in laughter at one stage while singing. There's some pretty feisty lead guitar as well.
'Hero And Heroine' (1974) was a much-played yet unsuccessful single at the time, and surely one of their most commercial numbers. With enigmatic lyrics which could be about a love affair gone sour or about drugs, it goes through a couple of tempo changes, veering between some fierce power chords on guitar and organ, countryish guitar, and snatches of vocals reminiscent of the unaccompanied passages in Fleetwood Mac's 'Oh Well'.
Following that is a song from splinter group Hudson Ford, the drummer (who then switched to guitar) and bassist formed in 1973 after their musical differences with Cousins came to a head. 'Pick Up The Pieces' (1973), thought to be partly about their splitting from the original band, is a snappy, bouncy pop-rock number with excellent harmony vocals and slide guitar.
At last we reach their first-ever hit. The classic 'Lay Down' (1972), based loosely on the 23rd Psalm, is one of those marvellous anthemic numbers that sounds part prog-rocker, part-hymn, yet was still commercial enough to reach No. 12 in the chart. The back cover says this is the single version, but not so; this is the full (and superior) album version with about 30 seconds more lead guitar before the final choruses. Cousins admits to being quite a spiritual person, and this touches a chord in me - I can't hear enough of it, not least that sublime choral effect behind the last verse. Following this is the B-side, 'Ciggy Barlust (Backside)' (1972), originally called 'C B And The Whales From Venus' - obviously a send-up of David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust - amusing, but little more than a novelty.
'Out In The Cold/Round And Round' (1974), two tracks which segue into one another, are mid-tempo numbers strong on keyboards and harmonica, again rather reminiscent of Lindisfarne. Lastly, 'Oh, How She Changed' (1968) is their first single, a slow, dramatic song soaked in vocal harmonies, which gave some indication of what was to follow.
The six-minute epic 'The Battle' (1969) reeks of atmosphere; you can almost see armed cavalry charging across the plain as you hear this. The drama builds up from gentle acoustic guitar at the start, with organ, drums and brass all coming in to lend colour to the impassioned lyrics. Subtle tempo changes and wind effects at the end make this one of the standout numbers. It segues effectively into 'Grace Darling' (1974), a sadly-neglected single which tells the story of the lighthouse keeper's daughter and heroine of the north-east, a true story. I particularly love the church organ and choral backing vocals on this one.
'Blue Angel' (1972), the longest track at nearly ten minutes, is a Cousins song from his solo album 'Two Weeks Last Summer', on which he is joined by Deep Purple's Roger Glover, Wakeman, Jon Hiseman and guitarist Miller Anderson. An ambitious piece in three parts, its arrangement and poetic lyrics will sound beautiful to some, possibly pretentious and very dated to others. I'm in two minds myself.
By contrast, 'Here it Comes' (1972) is a short, infectious and chugging, percussion-heavy track recorded as a single in an unsuccessful attempt to crack the charts, and Hooper's last before he left. The song, or rather chorus, is rather too repetitive, but the organ work is superb.
'The Shepherd's Song' (1971) is another what you might call a folk-cum-experimental song. Opening softly with just acoustic guitar behind the vocals, it gathers pace with what was Wakeman's first use of mellotron creating an atmospheric sound, plus what sounds like a Mexican brass arrangement.
'We'll Meet Again Sometime' (1972) features Hooper on lead vocal, with the rest joining in, is one of the most commercial tracks. With electric guitar, organ and cello backing, it has elements of their folk sound plus the more poppy style favoured by late 1960s groups like the Small Faces and even early Status Quo.
'Martin Luther King's Dream' (1971) written long before it was recorded, was inspired by King's last speech. With soft organ and folksy vocal harmonies, it's effectively simple, with appropriately thoughtful lyrics.
While fury gathers around you, provoking you to hate
Remember what I told you, don't heed the dangled bait
The second Top 20 single from Hudson-Ford, 'Burn Baby Burn' (1974), written after the group had been to the industrial heart of Canada, is a cheery, singalong pop-rock tune that might seem rather at odds with the environmental message of the lyrics, probably some years ahead of its time. Ironically, Hudson-Ford (and their new band) proved more successful chartwise than the rest of The Strawbs. The latter's only single following the split to make the Top 40, Cousins' 'Shine on Silver Sun' (1973), is a gentle, very appealing tune driven by some attractive keyboards and a huge-sounding anthemic chorus.
'Why And Wherefore' (1973) is also uncharacteristically poppy for the group. With a guitar intro reminiscent of The Monkees' 'Last Train to Clarksville', it's an up-tempo, almost funky tune that finishes off with plenty of rousing boogie piano and slide guitar, reminiscent of The Move's rousing 'Brontosaurus'.
The final track here, and last Top 40 hit for Hudson-Ford, 'Floating in the Wind' (1974) is a slowish, dreamy song soaked in very atmospheric synthesiser which builds up towards the end. Hudson-Ford made three brilliant, very underrated (in my view) albums between 1973 and 1975, all begging for a decent reissue on CD, if anyone in high places is reading this.
'Absent Friend' (1975), is one of the lesser songs here for me. With its slow dreamy guitar it's OK, but nothing special. It's eclipsed by what follows - the greatest chart triumph, the controversial 'Part of the Union' (1973), which peaked at No. 2, was a Hudson-Ford composition on which Ford took lead vocal. Based on an old Woody Guthrie number, 'Union Maid', and released during a stormy period of government and management/trade union confrontation, you can analyse the lyrics and still not be sure whether it's taking the mickey out of one side or the other. A jaunty singalong chorus and rousing pub piano instrumental break, it horrified purists who thought the band was selling out. Even today, some fans describe it as 'wretched', though personally I love it.
'Will Ye Go?' (1973) is an old folk song by Francis McPeake, based on the old traditional 'Wild Mountain Thyme', sometimes known as 'Purple Heather'. This is classic folk club stuff, with the group's vocal harmonies and gentle harmonica driving it gently along.
'The River' and 'Down by the Sea' (both 1973) flow (excuse pun) into one another. The former, inspired by a walk along the sea wall at Dover, is a slow burner that rises to a crescendo with help from a 30-piece orchestra and a dramatic end, followed by a similarly ambient epic (if that's not a contradiction), with more thoughtful lyrics and mellotron. Finally 'Tell Me What You See in Me' (1991) is a re-recording of a song from their debut album of 1969. It's a kind of folk ballad but with interesting instrumentation that calls to mind some of the 1980s AOR acts like Asia and Foreigner. The band is nothing if not eclectic.
Topped and tailed by a striking front cover with a photograph of a kingfisher beneath the group's strawberried logo, and a colour profile pic of Cousins on the back, the 12pp booklet contains three photos of different line-ups, a detailed essay on the band by journalist John Tobler, and a source discography. But the track listing and credits, all crammed on to the back cover and printed in yellow on brown, could have been clearer for those of us with less than perfect eyesight.
Some of this is a slightly acquired taste, but it represents the best work of a group who had a very unusual sound, went through many changes, and were staggering in the variety of styles they embraced. With 148 minutes playing time, it's a generous selection. I'd say I love at least 80% of it, and despite the occasional so-so number, anything less than five stars would be pretty mean.
The Amazon page has a 'preview all tracks' facility.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 On Growing Older
3 The Man Who Called Himself Jesus
4 Stormy Dawn
5 I Turned My face Into The Wind
6 Queen Of Dreams
8 Keep The Devil Outside
9 The Hangman And The Papist
11 Golden Salamander
12 Tokyo Rose
13 Hero And Heroine
14 Pick Up The Peices
15 Lay Down
16 Ciggy Barlust
17 Out In The Cold
18 Round And Round
19 How She Changed
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 The Battle
2 Grace Darling
3 Blue Angel
4 Here It Comes
5 The Shepherds Song
6 We'll Meet Again Sometime
7 Martin Luther King's Dream
8 Burn Baby Burn
9 Shine On Silver Sun
10 Why and Wherefore
11 Floating In The Wind
12 Absent Friend
13 Part Of The Union
14 Will Ye Go
15 The River
16 Down By The Sea
17 Tell You What You See In Me