The ‘first’ Strawbs album
The cover of the first A&M Strawbs album released in 1969 is the most incongruous of them all. It bears no emblematic link to the band or any of the tracks. It has not stood the test of time, perhaps because the only possible justification for it was to appeal to the consumer zeitgeist. This was the era in which the popular music aficionados were still coming down from the hippie high of flower power. Floral ties and Scandinavian salad bowls were all the rage. There can be no other explanation. Maybe it fits after all? The album is something of an audible salad.
As explained in a previous post, Savouring Strawbs, it wasn’t the first album by the group to be recorded, but it was the first to be released. The songs range from the poetic to the exotic. They complement each other but are individual in flavour. Some are reminiscent of the Tolkienesque pipe-smoke of the late sixties’ folk clubs; others herald musical adventures yet to come.
Here are songs ‘banned’ by the BBC, Middle Eastern musical madness, an ode for the bullied, another for the aged, a chess analogy of civil rights conflicts, and numerous couplets de coeur.
Tracking the tracks:
The Man Who Called Himself Jesus. Released as a single but restricted to late-night listeners only by the BBC following some complaints, it failed to chart but rattled a few rood screens. It was inspired by an anecdote songwriter Dave Cousins heard regarding a man who walked into a shop and claimed to be the incarnation of the second coming of Christ. Would that person be believed he pondered? The spoken intro was by an actor called Richard Wilson, who would later find fame in the UK as Victor Meldrew in the sitcom One Foot in the Grave, wherein his catchphrase was “I don’t believe it!”
That Which Once Was Mine. This track has always been a personal favourite. It is a pristine marriage of poetry and melody. Contains the word capricious.
All the Little Ladies. A Cousins / Hooper collaboration, which, according to Secrets Stories Songs, the former thinks the latter probably wrote the words. A lament of geriatric loneliness.
Pieces of 79 and 15. Another Cousins / Hooper collaboration. A song based on Hooper’s recollections of accommodation.
Tell Me What You See in Me. This one is also a personal favourite. There are other versions of this song available. The archive varieties from the pre-A&M period and the one the 1980s Virgin album Ringing Down the Years have their fascinations, but none are as delectable as this recording. The decision to get ‘Nosrati and his Arab Friends’ to enhance the arrangement realised a rhythmic aromatic flying carpet.
Oh How She Changed. The first real hint of what judicious orchestration could do to a Strawbs song. Infatuation, approbation, abdication.
Or am I Dreaming? Not sure, but hey man, pass me the reefer, and read me a chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Where is This Dream of Your Youth? Right here, imagining the waste of time wasted. A wise musing on what we might, with the benefit of hindsight, call mindfulness. Make the most of what you’ve got while you still have it.
Poor Jimmy Wilson. In Secrets Stories Songs, Cousins confesses that this is a mixture of experience and empathy. Once mimed to on TV by David Bowie.
Where Am I? / I’ll Show You Where to Sleep. Next to Frodo in both cases.
The Battle. Rooks, bishops, kings, queens and all-too-disposable pawns. A medieval game of chess with casualties, but the contemporary parallels are painfully black and white.
Half a century on, the album stands as a period piece, a fine example of the musical cusp of the sixties and seventies. Contemporary folk was leaving home and setting out towards much rockier territory. It has left behind the finger-in-the-ear, barley wine-fuelled harmonies, in favour of fingers on the frets, hearts on the sleeve, and heads in the clouds. There’s pertinence and prophesy, and more than a hint of the soul-searching ahead.
The album was produced by Gus Dudgeon with input from Tony Visconti, both of whom went on to very considerable mixing-desk heights, the former notably with Elton John, the latter with David Bowie; and many others in each case.
More background to the above and all the lyrics can be found on the STRAWBS OFFICIAL WEBSITE.
 D. Cousins, Secrets, Stories, Songs. Witchwood Media Ltd, 2010, page 45
The music and lyrics of the Strawbs have been the single greatest influence on my own creativity.
In particular they inspired a fantasy tribute entitled Strawberry Gothic.
Tell Me What You See In Me was one of the inspirations for a short story called The Bedouin.
Both of these stories can be found in The Atheist’s Prayer Book.
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