Evidently the inspiration was Savernake Forest which is probably the most ancient forest in Britain. The name Witchwood was spotted on a bungalow in Weston-super-Mare and the two intertwined to provide the title for the fourth Strawbs album. It was the first fully fledged folk-rock compilation by the band. The signs had been there with the live Antiques and Curios recording but this was the first time the band went into the studio with a wholly integrated rhythm section including a full drum kit. The songs are more sophisticated musically, and the keyboard wizardry of Rick Wakeman hits new heights. The compositions of Richard Hudson and John Ford added a fresh dimension, entirely complementary to those of long-standing frontman Dave Cousins. There were ‘endless arguments’, however, about which tracks should be included. Witchwood bound them together, but cracks emerged. Spells were cast, troubles brewed.
It’s a collection that reveals the subliminal preoccupations of the record buying youth amid the expanding liberations of 1971. Al-fresco sex, sectarian hate, folksy fables, post-churchgoing Christianity, and fervent philosophy line up, scatter and reform. Things are moving here. There is still the idyllic charm and classical discipline of Dragonfly and the ecclesiastic rock tones evident in Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios, but the eastern influences are absent and, despite the disagreements, there’s a unity here. It’s English pastoral with a punch.
There are no Tony Hooper songs in this compilation, but his angelic tones add impeccable tunefulness and contribute to a thicker vocal weave than hitherto, as there are now four vocalists in the five-horse harness.
This is the album in which Strawbs solidify into a solid folk-rock band. It won’t last. This is Wakeman’s only studio album as part of the line-up, and Hudson-Ford will go too, but thankfully not until another two pressings have been made. Strawbs were on the build-up to their greatest prominence in UK popular music. This album sets out the stall. It was cut from witchwood and magically propagated.
The producer, once again, was the talented Tony Visconti.
Tracking the tracks:
A Glimpse of Heaven. A Cousins classic. It echoes the early days of the band when there were deliberate attempts to create the oxymoron that is the contemporary folk song. This one conjures the rural majesty of the English landscape via lovely lyrics and a highly accomplished arrangement.
Witchwood. The title track. Atmospheric, enchanting and encroaching. Rick Wakeman plays clarinet, which was his second instrument at the Royal College of Music.
Thirty Days. The firstJohn Ford composition to feature in the band’s output. He is the master breeder of ear-worms fastened by articulate lyrical threads to worthy moral thoughts.
The Hangman and the Papist. The first of several songs reacting to the worsening sectarian disputes in Northern Ireland. It was provoked by the scenes of violence that erupted in Belfast not long after the band had played there so joyfully. The ludicrous nature of the slaughter was so blatant in the eyes of songwriter Dave Cousins because he had been brought up a Catholic, while his brother was nurtured as a Protestant. That relationship provides the core plot device in this protest ballad. The song is also notorious for Rick Wakeman’s wielding of a paint roller to depress the organ keys during the rendition recorded for Top of the Pops. The indiscretion caused hostility between singer and organist. In keeping with the polemic of the lyric, Cousins forgave him.
Sheep. Another protest song, this time there are resonances with the civil rights troubles in the United States, a topic that also featured on the previous album. This is another song that showcases Rick Wakeman’s virtuosity.
Canon Dale. Richard Hudson’s lyrical pseudo-monastic folk-hymn.
The Shepherd’s Song. Sex and sheep.
In Amongst the Roses. This is quaint almost to the point of being twee, but remains on the charming safe ground due to the poetry of the lyrics and the understated musical arrangement. It resides in the far back corner of my favourites box. It feels like it shouldn’t be in there, but I couldn’t take it out. It is an endearing elicitation of chocolate box childhood set against the simple profundity sometimes evoked by observing innocence.
I’ll Carry on Beside You. Anthemic and, with hindsight, a little philosophically naïve, but a nice singalong song for the all too beautiful people who bought the album when they, and it, were young.
From the Witchwood is a mesmeric musical forest. It is of its time but has enough validity to stand contemporary playing. Sadly, there are songs on here that still need singing for the worst of reasons, but joyfully there are others that can be sung because they are stunningly delightful.
More background to the above and all the lyrics can be found on the STRAWBS OFFICIAL WEBSITE.
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, and the title track had a hand in a painful story called Planted. Both can be found in:
The title track also sowed the seeds of Splinter which is located in
the Papercuts collection of stories.
 D Wooding, Rick Wakeman the Caped Crusader, Robert Hale, 1978, page 64.
 Ibid page 59.