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Original members included Maddy Prior (born August 14, 1947, in Blackpool, UK), vocals; Ashley Hutchings (born January 1945, in London, UK), bass; Tim Hart (born January 9, 1948, in Lincoln, UK), guitar, vocals, dulcimer; Gay Woods, vocals, concertina; Terry Woods, guitar. Later members included Martin Carthy, guitar; Peter Knight, fiddle, mandolin, vocals; Rick Kemp (born November 15, 1941, Little Handford, UK), bass, vocals; Bob Johnson, lead guitar, vocals; Nigel Pegrum, drums. Addresses: Record company--Shanachie Entertainment, P.O. Box 284, Newton, New Jersey 07860.
Playing electrified, rock-and-roll versions of traditional folk songs, Steeleye Span became one of the most long-lasting of the British folk-rock bands that sprung up in the late 1960s. As Robin Denselow wrote of the group in the liner notes of The Steeleye Span Story: Original Masters, "Of all the excellent, varied bands in recent British rock history, they are the only one who have stuck with their original aim and ideal--to promote British traditional songs to mass audiences, while branching out as far as they could."
The genesis of Steeleye Span began with Tim Hart and Maddy Prior in 1967, who established their reputation as top performers of old folk songs and recorded three albums of traditional music. "Maddy's exquisite clean voice, Tim's harmonies and acoustic guitar playing quickly put the duo at the top of the folk club scene," noted Denselow. The group began to take shape when Tiger Hutchings, a bass player for the popular folk-group Fairport Convention, started scouting around to create a new band. He formed the core of Steeleye Span in 1969 with Hart, Prior, and the folk-singing couple of Gay and Terry Woods, who had previously performed with the Irish folk-rock group Sweeney's Men. Hart purportedly came up with the name of the group from a character in an old ballad called "Horkstow Grange."
Hutchings' goal with the new group was to perform traditional music with electric instruments. His aim was realized in 1970 with the release of the group's first album, Hark! the Village Wait. Electric instruments were used subtly on this debut LP, without excessive amplification, and no drummer was used. According to the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, the album was "expertly arranged and performed to encompass the rock-based perspective Hutchings helped create on the Fairport's Liege and Lief, while retaining the purity of the songs." On the All-Music Guide website, reviewer Bruce Eder added that "Prior's voice was never better than on this album" and that "This was probably the best singing edition of Steeleye Span...."
Soon after the album was released, the Woodses left to join the group Doctor Strangely Strange and were replaced by guitarist Martin Carthy and fiddle player Peter Knight. Terry Woods eventually ended up with the Pogues in the 1980s. Group solidarity began developing cracks while the group was performing in a play entitled Corunna that had been written for Steeleye Span by Keith Dewhurst. When the play was about to move to a larger London theater, Hutchings decided he didn't want to stay with it or tour America with the group. At this time the band was progressing to a louder, more rock-and-roll sound that strayed from Hutchings' plans, and he left the group to play with the more traditional- sounding Albion Country Band.
Disputes over Hutchings' replacement led to the defection of Carthy, resulting in a major change in the structure of the group. Hutchings and Carthy were replaced by Rick Kemp on bass and Bob Johnson on guitar, two musicians with extensive rock experience but who were largely unknown at the time. Kemp and Prior were married in 1979. Johnson had previously played in a folk due with Knight. "The blend of Bob and Rick's rock approach, with Tim, Maddy and Pete's folk style gave Steeleye its firm identify and sense of direction--and they sounded like a fully-fledged band, not just a collection of individuals playing together," claimed Denselow. This collection of personnel released two of the group's most highly regarded albums, Below the Salt in 1972 and Parcel of Rogues in 1973. Both albums featured a strong rock orientation and showed a wide range of musical styles.
"There's not a weak note here, and all of it has a harder, more muscular sound courtesy of Kemp and Johnson, matched to impeccable vocals and uniformly excellent material," said Eder about Below the Salt. This album's lineup featured Nigel Pegrum, the group's first drummer who had played with Gnidgrolog. It also contained "Gaudete," Steeleye Span's first song to make it onto the British charts. They had more hit singles with "Thomas the Rhymer" from 1974's Now We Are Six, which was produced by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, and the title track from All Around My Hat in 1975. Discussing "Thomas the Rhymer," Denselow wrote that the song "showed Steeleye mixing harmony and rock with even more energy and attack...." By this time the group was writing many of their own songs and settings to match traditional lyrics.
With the enlistment of new manager/producer Joe Lustig, the group secured a new recording arrangement with Chrysalis Records and became a major group on the international scene in the mid-1970s. "Between 1972 and 1976 they were the group that most extensively and logically explored the folk-rock formula...," claimed Dafydd Rees and Luke Crampton in the Encyclopedia of Rock Stars. Public acceptance of the group began to wane in the late 1970s when it began experimenting with reggae and heavier rock rhythms, according to Guinness.
After breaking up in 1978, the group reformed in 1980 and released Sails of Silver. Throughout the 1980s the group got together from time to time for reunion concerts and appearances at festivals, while Prior and Hart also pursued successful solo careers. Steeleye Span proved it was still a very viable group with its release of Time on the Shanachie label in 1996. On the Dirty Linen website, reviewer Steve Winick said that the album "shows them to be much like the Steeleye Span of the mid-1970s, committed to combining traditional music with rock and roll in powerful and interesting ways."
by Ed Decker
Steeleye Span's Career
Tyger Hutchings recruited Hart, Prior, and Gay and Terry Woods to form group, 1969; released first album, Hark! the Village Wait, 1970; guitarist Martin Carthy and fiddle player Peter Knight replaced the Woodses; group performed in Corunna, a play written for them; Hutchings and Carthy were replaced by Rick Kemp on bass and Bob Johnson on guitar; Kemp and Prior were married, 1979; released Below the Salt, an album with a stronger rock orientation, 1972 ; released first charting single, "Gaudete," 1972; Nigel Pegrum became first drummer with group, 1973; manager/prouder Sandy Robertson was replaced by Joe Lustig; signed major recording deal with Chrysalis Records; became major international group, mid 1970s; began experimenting with reggae and heavier rock rhythms, late 1970s; disbanded, 1978; reformed to release Sails of Silver, 1980; played occasionally for reunion concerts and festivals, 1980s--90s; released Time, 1996.
- Selective Works
- Albums Hark! the Village Wait, Shanachie, 1970.
- Please to See the King, Shanachie, 1971.
- Ten Man Top, Shanachie, 1971.
- Below the Salt, Shanachie, 1972.
- Parcel of Rogues, Shanachie, 1973.
- Now We Are Six, BGO, 1974.
- All Around My Hat, Shanachie, 1975.
- Live at Last, Chrysalis, 1978.
- Sails of Silver, Chrysalis, 1980.
- Tempted and Tried, Shanachie, 1989.
- Time, Shanachie, 1996.
- Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989, p. 1116.
- Larkin, Colin, editor, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 5, Guinness Publishing, 1995, p. 3953.
- Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Encyclopedia of Rock Stars, Dorling Kindersley, 1996, p. 420.
- Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, editors, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1995, pp. 948--949.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes of The Steeleye Span Story: Original Masters, a Chrysalis release, as well as the All-Music Guide, CD Universe, and Dirty Linen websites on the Internet.
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