An appreciation of taste
Magnificence is a matter of taste. This is equally true of food and music; no matter how nourishing, the desirability always comes down to personal discretion. For the connoisseur it is also a question of provenance, preparation and presentation. If music be the food of rapture, the Strawbs provide unparalleled nutrition.
The Strawbs’ supply of sustenance is organic produce in every sense. The band is a species with an unbroken – though not undamaged – vine running right back to 1963. The sound evolved from natural folk origins, its flavours being continuously enhanced by cross-fertilisation, grafting and pruning. Throughout its six-decades of cultivation there has been a consistency of quality and guarantee of originality rarely matched by rival crops.
Some Strawbs harvests have been more fruitful than others, and the catalogue is not without casualties and occasional bruised specimens, but there have been exquisite exemplars too, and taken as a whole the consignment has a splendour to outshine all competitors – if this kind of culture is to your taste.
The yield is organic in an ethereal aspect also. It grows directly from the deepest roots of human experience, the entangled natural twines of the anthropological and the pastoral, the spiritual and the carnal, the aesthetic and the corporeal. There’s mysticism and cynicism, awe and analysis, admiration and admission, devotion and divorce, the unfathomable and the explained. All this is accompanied by a soundscape that flows with penetratingly potent harmonic forces expertly harvested and properly served.
What are the particular ingredients that make the Strawbs so special? Before attempting a further examination, the uninitiated may need some brief context.
To the or not to the
The attribution of the definite article is a frequently questioned aspect of the band. Some of the highest authorities declare the etiquette is not to attach it- i.e. Strawbs not The Strawbs – but I always have, so I mostly will.
The name is not – directly – derived from the fruit, but from an area of West London: Strawberry Hill. It was there that schoolfriends Dave Cousins and Tony Hooper first started singing together, and in an echo of the fifties and sixties trend in American folk groups such as The Rocky Mountain Boys and The Foggy Mountain Boys, coined the name The Strawberry Hill Boys. This became colloquially contracted as their reputation expanded and thus the Strawbs were branded.
Cousins has remained at the helm continuously except for a tiny hiatus in 1980 when he quit and the band completed a couple of contracted of gigs without him. It was at his instigation that the group subsequently reformed and recommenced playing, touring and recording. He is the wise hand on the tiller, the creative navigator, and by far the largest contributor of material.
The Strawbs never attained mass appeal, which for this fan is part of the attraction. The underground following germinated in the folk clubs of the 1960s and they gained superior momentum by hitting the folk renaissance and post-flower power zeitgeist at the very end of that decade. The integration of a precautious keyboard player by the name of Rick Wakeman, along with a visionary rhythm section of Richard Hudson and John Ford, helped to propel the group into the realms of folk-rock. Wakeman didn’t last long, all too soon saying yes to Yes.
Strawbs survived that abdication, recruited Blue Weaver to finger the keys, and came back all the stronger. The next album Grave New World came wrapped in the world’s first triple gatefold sleeve. Brandishing William Blake’s painting Glad Day on the front, the album sold 94,000 copies in the UK alone and was described by one critic as ‘the Sergeant Pepper of folk-rock’.
After adding guitar maestro Dave Lambert, they leaned even more heavily on the loud pedal pushing their folky foundations towards something much weightier. They struck a serendipitous chord with their most famous – and least typical – track triggering questions in the UK parliament in early 1973 due to the political ambiguities of the lyrics. Part of the Union peaked at number two in the UK singles chart, as did Bursting at the Seams, in the corresponding albums chart. The sing-along single undoubtedly contributed to that peak elevation, but it also ironically brought about complete disunity in the ranks, and the Strawbs’ seams did indeed disastrously burst.
The reformation, though not as successful in terms of sales in the UK, was just as proficient in turning out quality material. Up stepped John Hawken once of Renaissance, Rod Coombs of Stealers Wheel, and Chas Cronk who had played bass in Rick Wakeman’s band. The Hero and Heroine album frequently features favourably in the ‘best of’ rankings for progressive rock records. ‘Prog rock’ is sometimes seen as a pejorative label, and it is one not eschewed by the band, but nor is it a great fit in terms of creating an accurate impression of their musical genre. The Strawbs have never gone in for relentless guitar dominance, or indulgent solo improvisations (except in some live shows) and their material is invariably much more melodic, formally crafted, and judiciously diverse than the chief proponents of the prog badge. The poetic prowess of the lyrics is also significantly superior to that of even the most successful prog rock bands.
‘Gothic Rock’ is a term proffered by Dave Cousins as the most fitting descriptor of the Strawbs’ output. The 1974 album Ghosts is, perhaps, the most typical of exponent of that mood. This album, along with its two predecessors generated a healthy degree of interest in the band in the North American continent just as their impact was starting to wane in the UK. A couple of label changes and several line-up modifications kept their fortunes afloat through the remaining years of the decade, but such is the nature of popular music, that the democracy of disco, the pungency of punk, and the keyboard fetishes of eighties new wave, pushed the Strawbs’ pressings deeper and deeper into the record racks.
Forever confined to the connoisseur cages the Strawbs continued creating intermittently with momentum really being regained by the turn of the millennium. Touring in two formats – as a full electric line-up and as an acoustic trio – they carried on playing until a pandemic put paid to live gigs. They have in the forty years since the peak of their popularity, produced many more superb albums.
The punter’s punnet
So, what’s so good about Strawbs? One might ask the same question about Wimbledon’s favourite fruit. The answer might well be “Nothing. I hate them,” and we are back to taste. If their style is not your cup of cream, fair enough, but if your audible palette is sufficiently spacious to sample Strawbs, here are some thoughts that might further entice your appetite or enhance your appreciation.
A great song is surely one in which the totality of the impact of the words and music exceeds the sum of the separate parts. This happens in a significant proportion of Strawbs songs, and even when this cannot be claimed, one or other of the components often rings resonantly true. Magical melodies, atmospheric arrangements and meaningful lyrics abound. Sometimes the mix is more than sublime.
There are records with cuts that should have been humanely sterilised when first inflicted, but that is true of all great creatives, and where producers, managers and the market place make impatient demands there will always be misjudged material. On balance though, the Strawbs’ canon of work rarely misfires. When it hits home, it rebuilds the foundations.
It is the lyricism that ignites the Strawbs’ touch paper and the credit for that lies predominantly, though not exclusively, in the pen hand of Dave Cousins. He is a lyricist with a masterly command of the English language and an infinite capacity to apply instrumentation to verbal intention. It begins with vocabulary. Bob Garcia, director of artistic relations for A&M records, once told Cousins that he though the song Hanging in the Gallery was “the first and most likely the only time the word demise had been, or would be, used in a rock song”. Other select specimens to be found in Cousins’ songs include capricious, filigree, maelstrom, varicosed, quizzical, gaunt, spurned, welling, rose-tint, blue-black, half-share and carillons. His song-smithing forges phrases such as compromise of wedding bells; quicksand castles; the soldiers’ guns are never fired and the stag must needs a mate.
Every Strawbs song is distinctive and the collected works cover the whole compositional gamut from acapella to full orchestration. Logged chronologically the sound evolves from unplugged sixties strings to seventies excess stadium amplification, and eventually to more maturely balanced contemporary arrangements. Included along the way are some of the earliest synthesising keyboards, eastern instruments and tastefully subtle experimental recording techniques. The result is a cornucopia of evocation.
Mostly the music is the carrier wave of the emotional flavour and fundamental mood, but there are some compositions where an additional narrative or contextual illustration is expertly evoked. Compare, for example, the suggestion of the sea in its varying states as depicted hauntingly in Burning for Me, threateningly in Grace Darling (especially the 1980s versions), tempestuously in Down by the Sea, and brightly in Another Day. Sample also the mysterious middle-eastern ambience of Tell Me What You See in Me, the far-eastern feel of Dragonfly, and the exotic eroticism of Fingertips. There is no finer evocation of nostalgia for a few balmy sixties summer days than the title track of Cousin’s 1972 solo album Two Weeks Last Summer with its strangely distended fretless bass and bicycle bells, or of the heavy mists and tumbling canopy of the leaf fall in Autumn, or of the subterfuge and pleasure-pain of secret liaisons as is laid bare in The Familiarity of Old Lovers.
Ultimately, it is the subliminal sublime aesthetic that makes the Strawbs stand out. It is an essence diverse enough in flavour to be refreshingly seasonal but sufficiently intense to be permanently sustaining.
Where to start tasting
The Strawbs’ evolution is such that to sample the produce requires careful consideration by the novice as to where the first nibble should be taken. No single song is in any way representative of the range. You need at least half a dozen bites at the berries.
There are several compilations, though none that completely covers the whole array. The most comprehensive is the Taste of Strawbs box set but that’s one for the aficionado, comprising mostly non-standard versions of the tracks. If you like the softer, sixties, folksy feel the ones with Sandy Denny are a good bet. A Choice Selection of Strawbs is a great flag-waver for the seventies stuff, and Halcyon Days provides an even more comprehensive smorgasbord of the same period.
The studio albums (plus some live recordings) pan out into phases with blurred overlapping edges. The list below also includes Cousins’ recordings with other artists and, while these are not technically Strawbs albums they are without doubt of the same genus. The classifications are my own and are designed to help illustrate the style not to technically categorise.
Preserves Uncanned (earliest recordings eventually released 1990) Try tasting: All I Need is You; We’ll Meet Again Sometime.
Sandy and the Strawbs (Originally All Our Own Work recorded in 1967 and released on vinyl in 1973) There are other similarly titled compilations featuring Sandy Denny available on CD and cassette. See the bands official website – details below. Try tasting: Who Knows Where the Time Goes; On My Way; Sail Away to the Sea.
Strawbs (1969) Try tasting: That Which Once Was Mine; Tell Me What You See in Me; Oh How She Changed.
Dragonfly (1970) Try tasting: Dragonfly; Another Day.
Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios (Live 1970) Try tasting: Martin Luther King’s Dream; Where is this Dream of Your Youth?
From the Witchwood (1971) Try tasting: Witchwood; The Hangman and the Papist.
Grave New World (1972) Try tasting: New World; Queen of Dreams; Heavy Disguise.
Two Weeks Last Summer (Dave Cousins solo 1972) Try tasting: Two Weeks Last Summer; Blue Angel.
Bursting at the Seams (1973) Try tasting: Down by the Sea; Flying; The Winter and the Summer.
Hero and Heroine (1974) (see also 2011 version below) Try tasting: Autumn; Hero& Heroine; Midnight Sun.
Ghosts (1974) Try tasting: Ghosts, Starshine/Angel Wine; Don’t Try to Change Me.
Nomadness (1975) Try tasting: Hanging in the Gallery; So Shall Our Love Die.
Deep Cuts (1976) Try tasting: I Only Want My Love to Grow in You; Simple Visions.
Burning for You (1977) Try tasting: Burning for Me; Cut Like a Diamond.
Deadlines (1978) Try tasting: No Return; The Last Resort; Deadly Nightshade.
Heartbreak Hill (recorded 1978 but not released until 1995) Try tasting: Something for Nothing; We can Make it Together.
Old School Songs (Dave Cousins and Brian Willoughby 1979) Try tasting: I’ve Been My Own Worst Friend; A Song for Me.
Don’t Say Goodbye (1987) Try tasting: Something for Nothing; Evergreen; Tina Dei Fada.
Ringing Down the Years (1991) Try tasting: Ringing Down the Years; Grace Darling
Greatest Hits Live (1993) Try tasting: Grace Darling; The River/Down by the Sea; Hero & Heroine.
The Bridge (Dave Cousins and Brian Willoughby 1994) (Very rare!) Try tasting: You Never Needed Water; Do You Remember?
Barque and Roll (Acoustic Strawbs 2001) Try tasting: Evergreen; Ghosts; Down by the Sea.
Hummingbird (Dave Cousins and Rick Wakeman 2002) Try tasting: The Young Pretender; Higher Germanie
Blue Angel (2003) Try tasting: Blue Angel; Sealed with a Traitor’s Kiss.
Deja Fou (2004) Try tasting: Cold Steel; Sunday Morning.
High Seas (Dave Cousins and Conny Conrad 2005) Try tasting: The Call to Action; Deep in the Darkest Night; The Moon and the Stars.
The Boy in the Sailor Suit (Dave Cousins solo 2007) Try tasting: Calling Out My Name; Wish You Were Here; Hellfire Blues
Secret Paths (Dave Cousins solo 2008) Try tasting: Ways and Means; Hanging in the Gallery
The Broken Hearted Bride (2008) Try tasting: Through Aphrodite’s Eyes; Shadowland.
Duochrome (Dave Cousins solo 2008) Try tasting: Ways and Means; The Shepherd’s Song.
Dancing to the Devil’s Beat (2009) Try tasting: Copenhagen; The Man Who Would Never Leave Grimsby.
Hero and Heroine in Ascencia (2011- a rerecording of the 1974 prog-rock album – see above.)
Moving Pictures (Dave Cousins solo 2015) Try tasting: Plainsong; Canada.
The Ferryman’s Curse (2017) Try tasting: The Familiarity of Old Lovers; Bats and Swallows
This is by no means an exhaustive list of Strawbs recordings. There are various compilations and spin-offs from down the decades.
See the full catalogue on the STRAWBS OFFICIAL WEBSITE where, among other things, you can read the complete lyrics.
Top five tasting tips:
Down by the Sea (Bursting at the Seams 1973)
Blue Angel (Two Weeks Last Summer 1972)
Grace Darling (Ringing Down the Years 1991 or Greatest Hits Live 1993)
Ghosts (Ghosts 1974)
Autumn (Hero & Heroine 1974)
The music of the Strawbs is the single greatest influence on all my creative endeavours.
 D. Cousins, Exorcising Ghosts, Witchwood Media Ltd, 2014, page 58
 Ibid. page 148
 Ibid. page 170
 Dave Cousins’ commentary on the Live at Chiswick House DVD, Witchwood Media 2002
 D. Cousins, Secrets, Stories, Songs. Witchwood Media Ltd, 2010, page 184
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