Main Index Page General Ratings Page Rock Chronology Page Song Search Page New Additions Message Board


[Work on the page in progress]

Class ?

Main Category: Celtic/Medieval
Also applicable: Folk Rock, Art Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Steeleye Span fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Steeleye Span fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

For reading convenience, please open the reader comments section in a parallel browser window.


Coming soon.



Year Of Release: 1971
Overall rating = 11

Electric Celtic/Anglo-Saxon folk, by guys (and gals) who truly understand what they're doing. The only problem is, it kinda grates after a while...


Track listing: 1) The Blacksmith; 2) Cold, Haily, Windy Night; 3) Jigs: Bryan O'Lynn - The Hag With The Money; 4) Prince Charlie Stuart; 5) Boys Of Bedlam; 6) False Knight On The Road; 7) The Lark In The Morning; 8) Female Drummer; 9) The King; 10) Lovely On The Water.

Yeah, just don't confuse them with Steely Dan - I know the band names are, as awkward as it is, structured quite alike, but the two hardly have anything in common. Anyway, the Steeleyes were quite huge in the Seventies, having scored several massive hits in Britain and always ranking as the equals, or, at least, second best to Fairport Convention as the nation's greatest folk-rock and Celtic-rock band, and Fairport Convention were no slouches themselves. The big difference was that Steeleye Span went for a much more 'authentic' program - for a large part of their career, none of the band's members actually wrote any songs. Instead, they preferred to scoop up genuine folk songs and medieval-tinged ballads and make their own arrangements. On the other hand, they relied far more on electric instruments than Fairport Convention ever did; that's not to say that Span's folk rock is really any more 'rocking' than Convention's, but at least that's a unique style of playing, and this, in turn, makes Steeleye Span a fairly impressive band well worth a page of its own. And I'll probably get around to building that page as soon as I get more albums. I promise. Now, on to the review.

1971 caught the band in a state of turbulence - actually, that's a bit of an excessive expression, since Steeleye's lineup was even less stable than that of Jethro Tull, and that's truly saying something. However, it was that year that also brought them their style: traditional ballads based on ringing, slightly distorted electric guitars, screeching violins and a complete lack of drums (yeah... well, they do have some kinky percussion, anyway). This time around, the lineup for their second album stabilized around Ashley Hutchings on the Boom Boom Bass, Maddy Prior on Awesome Astonishing Vocals, Tim Hart on Sweet Sweet Dulcimer, and two new members to replace the departing Terry and Gay Woods: Peter Knight on Screechy Screechy Violin and Martin Carthy on Slap Slap That Guitar (well, he also sings quite a lot).

Before I go any further, though, I must warn you: even if most of these songs are rather simple in structure and quite accessible, a whole album like that is not so easy to take. After all, traditional Anglo-Saxon ballads, good or bad, are mostly based on a limited number of chord progressions, rhythms and moods; and if you don't have an inborn passion for that style, Steeleye's 'classic period' albums will be even harder to chew than Fairport Convention. I say this because even me, who always goes crazy about medieval European stylizations, well, even me begins to feel somewhat fidgety near the middle of the record. Not to mention that, after all, this is Steeleye's first try in the genre, and they didn't yet know how to make the individual songs stand out from each other. I mean, is there any significant difference between 'The Blacksmith' and 'The Lark In The Morning', for instance, or 'Prince Charlie Stuart' and 'Female Drummer'? Okay, so there is a lot of difference between both pairs, but not enough to create specific, individualistic images of each song in my head. The first pair is just a couple of lovely slow ballads, and the second pair is just a couple of funny war songs. And that's how it is gonna stay, despite my being quite fond of all four numbers.

Of course, I do omit the factor of length and monotonousness; when you deal with British folk-rock, you have to close your eyes on that or you won't really go far with British folk-rock. You have to take it with teeth and fists clenched and steam coming out of the nosdrils, but maybe you'll get used in the end.

So let's just take it like that: the overall style of the record is beautiful, and when taken individually, each song is beautiful on its own merits, but there's also the... the AC/DC factor, you know what I mean. Then again, I can't really blame the band like I could blame the Young brothers, since they weren't really composing, but instead gathering 'popular beauties' from all corners of the land.

And let me concentrate on what I consider the best numbers on the record. Particularly beautiful on here is the closing track, 'Lovely On The Water', with some really breathtaking chord changes in Maddy Prior's vocal melody and the most distinguished guitar parts on the album. The guys don't really care that much for soloing, but 'Lovely On The Water' comes closer than anything else to a guitar solo, with a wonderful interplay between the ringing rhythm guitar and the 'vibrating' solo guitar, while Ashley keeps pounding away on the ominous bass. It's so drastically depressing you almost want to die... until the fascinating vocals come back again and kinda salvage you.

But my favourite song is still the hilarious 'False Knight On The Road', with Hart and Carthy taking turns to sing these enthralling lines representing a dialogue between the devil-temptator (False Knight) and the innocent boy: "'As I wish you were in younder tree,'' says the false knight on the road 'A ladder under me,' says the wee boy and still he stood 'The ladder it'll break,' says the false knight on the road 'And you will surely fall,' says the wee boy and still he stood". "Still he stood", by the way, means that the boy gives all the correct answers to the False Knight's questions and is thus able to save his soul. Beautiful - lightweight, for sure, but that only makes the song stand out more in the general context of the album.

All the other songs have their moments, too: 'Cold, Haily, Windy Night' has more of that amazing guitar interplay, the 'Jigs' part is captivating with its authentic energy, 'Boys Of Bedlam' is just as creepy as its title would suggest (oh yeah, it's the real Bedlam that we deal with), and 'Female Drummer', well, forget what I said about that one not being distinctive. It almost rocks - the rhythm guitar bashes out a real power-chord rhythm, at least, before the vocals come in and things become a bit more generic. Never mind, though. The song's still good.

And did I mention that Maddy Prior has one of rock's best female vocals yet? Probably yes, but I'll just say it again. Not quite up there with Annie Haslam, since she doesn't have such a mighty range; but sure up there with Sandy Denny and maybe even better. Perhaps the main problem on this record is that they don't let her take lead vocals as often as I'd wish to, only on about half of the album. She is certainly able to make even the most dull song come alive.



Year Of Release: 1972
Overall rating = 12

A Celtic masterpiece, displaying all the subtleties of the genre without overreaching.


Track listing: 1) Spotted Cow; 2) Rosebud In June; 3) Jigs: The Bride's Favorite - Tansey's Fancy; 4) Sheep-Crook And Black Dog; 5) Royal Forester; 6) King Henry; 7) Gaudete; 8) John Barleycorn; 9) Saucy Sailor.

Steeleye Span Mark III falls in place on here - both Ashley Hutchings and Martin Carthy are gone, replaced by Rick Kemp on bass and Bob Johnson on guitar. Now this certainly affects the band's sound in many ways, but the most important result is that much of the music now sounds less deep and does not pound on your brains so relentlessly. After all, remember that the earlier music was very much based on Ashley's grim, pounding basslines, and McCarthy's thick electric jangle; this provided a lush 'wall-of-sound' effect that was quite unique and unprecedented, but it was also a bit hard to take when applied to a whole row of songs, one after another. Took a lot of time to get used to - imagine that, when you could have spent all that time reading some Hustler!

Hey, I'm not lamenting; I'm just finding an excuse for getting away with two of the band's most vital members. Anyway, their replacements are quite solid as well, if not as remarkable on their instruments. As a result, Below The Salt relies far more heavily on acoustic than its predecessors, but it's still a 'folk-rock', not pure 'folk' album: the electric lines in 'Spotted Cow', 'Royal Forester' and 'King Henry' are unforgettable no matter what.

Maddy Prior and Tim Hart now mostly take the reins in their hands; Maddy is featured ever more prominently on the record, and that's a good thing; even more interesting, the album spawned their first minor hit in 'Gaudete', and oh what a hit it was. Probably the only song by a 'rock' band on Earth that's sung completely and entirely in Latin; a hymn taken from the Piae Cantiones, it's not exactly beautiful - well, at least, it's not any more beautiful than just about any solid religious hymn ever written. But you gotta remember that these dudes aren't really church singers, and the way they pull off that accapella singing is stunning. And they managed to put this in the charts? A Latin carol? Not even under the 'gospel' section? This is at least amusing, even if you hate that kind of music.

But it's not 'Gaudete' that makes me rate the album so high. And it's not 'Sheepcrook And Blackdog', and not the traditional pair of jigs, and not even the pretty, but inessential version of 'John Barleycorn'. These are all good songs, but they don't really qualify. There are four absolute Celtic rock masterpieces on the album, and each of them adds at least one point to the rating. So 'scuse me, I'll just rant a lil' bit. In order of personal preference.

'Spotted Cow' is not particularly amazing in any, well, in any particular sense, but I adore how all the little bits come in so flawlessly. The vocal melody - so catchy, so fluent, so pretty and with that heart-wrecking chord change on the fourth line of each verse. The duet between Maddy and Tim. The nice acoustic. The ominous distorted electric notes heralding the beginning of each verse. And the naive romantic lyrics about... well, essentially it's about screwing, but you know they used to sing about it nicely those days. And no, don't worry, it's not about screwing cows.

'Saucy Sailor', as far as I know, is one of Maddy's favourites - I would have probably missed the song's charm if I hadn't read about it and hadn't returned back to the song in order to appreciate it some more. It's the album closing number, and, just like 'Lovely On The Water' off Please To See The King, it's dedicated to the subject of sea, sailors and the eternal 'love vs. money' subject. A perfect choice to lead us out of the enchanted Steeleye world, it's not even the main melody of the song itself that's so beautiful, but the extended coda featuring Peter Knight on some funny keyboard device (hey, it's not a vibrophone, isn't it?) and some obscure chanting done by Tim.

'King Henry', then, is Steeleye Span's magnum opus. At seven minutes, it's one of their longest tracks, and while I do feel that extending the tune reeks a little of artificialness, they do it masterfully. The song itself is marvelous, about King Henry's relations with a 'grisly ghost' that I still can't quite understand: he feeds it with his horses and hawks, he lays it in his bed, yet he refuses to sleep with it, and in the morning he finds out that the ghost has transformed into a beautiful lady. Reward? Whatever. The song shuffles on thoughtfully, alternating vocal sections with an electric guitar solo, a violin solo and yet one more electric guitar solo towards the end. It's all energetic and powerful, and keeps the listener intrigued - if you ain't read the lyrics sheet beforehand, you'll be fascinated.

And now for the grand prize... my favourite number. 'Royal Forester'. Screwing again, damn those obscene Scots. But what about that melody? They play fast and tight, with screeching fiddles and violins in the background while Rick Kemp pumps out a steady bassline. In fact, it's gripping me right now and right away as I put it on... hell, essentially it's just a jig, only with vocals overdubbed this time. But it's not a friendly lightweight jig, it's a disturbing jig with nasty-sounding violins and stuff, and a vocal melody that's supposed to eulogize the royal forester, but instead puts an aura of fear and suspicion around him. Well, serve him well; he should have known better than to rape a mysterious lady (the track is subtitled "the aboriculturist meets superwoman". Makes you wanna grin, doesn't it?)

As all Steeleye Span albums are supposed to, chances are that Below The Salt will grow on you and not vice versa. Diehard folk lovers will scream about the immense profundity and deep hidden sense of these songs; screw 'em, there's none (remember the liner notes to Bob Dylan's World Gone Wrong where he tried to unsuccessfully market himself as a philologist working on ethnic material? A big put-on, that's what it was). But in the end, that's what makes them all the more fascinating: these are living songs about living people (and just a few undead ones), and Steeleye Span do a terrific job in making them work in a semi-rocking arrangement. I mean, folk music will hardly ever move me to tears - that's what experienced singer-songwriters are for; but the 'authentic feel' on here is so omnipresent that I have no choice but to take off my hat.

Except that I don't have a hat, but I don't think that'll really interest anyone. What the hell, go buy Below The Salt instead of listening to me and my insane rants. This is, without a doubt, the way our friends the Scots and our friends the Middle Englishmen would have performed these songs had they access to the electric guitar somewhere around the 16th century. Unfortunately, stocks were kinda low in those times...


Return to the main index page