This 1972 recording belongs alongside Shakespeare’s most enchanting play and one of the twentieth century’s most respected literary works and more than holds its own in comparison. Wittingly or otherwise, it stands on the shoulders of two giants and, like them, offers us a leg-up to see society in a new light.
Climb High upon my shoulders
I will show you the worldDave Cousins. Queen of Dreams
It might seem preposterous to compare 1970s folk rock to the seventeenth century’s most successful poet, but this record in its time was appreciated by a much greater multitude than the those who attended the productions of the former in his, as a consequence of population explosion and technology supernova.
The argument is not about audience size, but aesthetic relevance. Grave New World held a mirror up to our natures and showed us a society that was bountiful and hypocritical, kind and cruel, delectable and uncomfortable. The mirror used was a distorting device and hence showed us a dystopia in the same spirit as Shakespare’s The Tempest and Huxley’s Brave New Word.
Where the paths of wisdom lead . . .
The title was a pun on the Aldus Huxley dystopian novel Brave New World, which although published some forty years earlier, was still a popular and well-known book which drew on real-world observations to question social and political trends by showing their possible consequences. Huxley lifted its title from Shakespeare.
O wonder!Miranda. The Tempest Act 5, Scene
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!
Shakespeare’s most magical, mysterious and musical play was one of his final works, and for his time presented what, to the Jacobeans, must have been a world as close to dystopian as they might see depicted. It showed an island governed by an exiled magician who had tamed spirts and could command the elements. It was also a place infused with sound.
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,Caliban. The Tempest Act 3, Scene 2
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
Whether it was a conscious decision or not, Strawbs’ 1972 release built on that twin dystopia, to give us a glimpse of our own world through ethically-tinted spectacles. One objective of fictional dystopia is to offer a hope of readdressing the hypocritical myopia in the real world. This album does that, putting duplicitous morality to the fire, ripping the finery off the self-righteous and unmasking the two-faced flag-bearers of bigotry.
Chronologically, Grave New World is the first contender for the greatest Strawbs album. At the time of its release in 1972 it undoubtedly was that, but some of its successors must also vie for the accolade. With this album the band reached new heights of innovation, of artistry and of lyricism. It was born on the rebound of losing their most prodigious talent – keyboard maestro Rick Wakeman – to rival rockers Yes, but they more than shrugged off that loss. This is a collection of earth-shattering chords beneath heart-rendering ballads and thought-quaking anthems. It was enveloped in the world’s first triple gatefold sleeve that featured William Blake’s painting Glad Day (or The Dance of Albion) on the front, sold 94,000 copies in the UK alone and was described by one critic as ‘the Sergeant Pepper of folk-rock’.
Blue Weaver, who had fingered the keys with Amen Corner amongst others, had the unenviable task of filling Wakeman’s organ pedals but he was, if anything, an even snugger fit. His virtuosity was less flamboyant and hence more integrated. Meanwhile the rhythm section of Richard Hudson and John Ford, ostensibly at least, had found sufficient common ground with founder and leader Dave Cousins, to produce a folk-rock psalter that looked, sounded and reverberated as a cross between a high church hymnal and a devil-worshippers spell book.
The choirboy vocals of Tony Hooper still echoed through the rafters, though this would be his last studio supper with the band.
Grave New World was designed as a concept album metaphorically chronicling the journey from birth to death. Not all the songs clearly fit into that concept but there is real coherence of tone, purpose and meaning. There’s a strong sense of progeny. The ambience generated is the love child of English pastoral aesthetic and Christian theology, midwifed by the archangel zeitgeist.
Some of the songs found their way into a short film shown in cinemas and made using visual techniques that look clumsy by today’s standards, but were breaking new ground. It’s worth watching, if only for some of the costumes.
The record was produced by Tom Allom and members of the band. The product sounds sacred.
Tracking the tracks:
Benedictus. A classic Strawbs track that was also released as a single. This song was a direct reaction by Cousins to the departure of Wakeman and he attributes its somewhat mysterious divination to the Chinese I Ching book of changes. It is in the tradition of Catholic and high church litanies but the focus is on the human and the natural rather than the mythical supernatural. The instrumental break, which sounds like an electric guitar, is actually an electric-acoustic dulcimer played through a fuzz box.
Hey Little Man … Thursday’s Child. First of a two-part wistful musing on life’s journey. Thursday’s child has far to go.
Queen of Dreams. One of my favourite Strawbs tracks because of the way the lyrics link with its musical machinations. The instrumental sections have many weird and wonderful components – chords played backwards, dampened drums, distorted guitar etc. My father was a milkman, and – this might be my imagination – but I swear that if you listen very, very carefully, just as the dreamy sequence ends (at about 3mins 5 secs), you can hear, deep in the background, the rubbery squeak of milk bottles heralding the morning delivery. It’s probably nothing of the sort, but hey, that’s what it does for this Thursday’s child.
Heavy Disguise. A truly great John Ford song, perhaps his finest. This track fits seamlessly into this album having all the lyrical richness of its companions. It is political, ethical, perceptive and provocative and has a totally sincere mock renaissance ambience that distances itself from the contemporary and hence strongly illuminates it.
New World. The title track. This is another of several Cousins’ songs reacting to the worsening sectarian disputes in Northern Ireland, and broadening out to condemn violence across the globe. It is much more condemning than the benevolence of Benedictus, but it is not without redemption, and the vitriol is aimed more generally at the instigators of misplaced collaboration than at individual culpability.
Hey Little Man … Wednesday’s Child. Second of a two-part wistful musing on life’s journey. Wednesday’s child is full of woe.
The Flower and the Young Man. An audible artefact to grace a tasteful shelf. This song is a museum piece that sits so suitably in the setting of the album. It speaks of 1972, but also of 1572. It’s a twentieth-century folk song that could have been sung at any time during the previous millennium and not have sounded out of place.
Tomorrow. Cousin’s reply to Wakeman’s rebuke. The hatchet is long buried; the wound produced one of the heaviest Strawbs sounds so far. Musically speaking, hitting back provides the harbinger of future thumping. The weightier tones are on the way.
On Growing Older. The prescience of relative youth.
Ah Me, Ah My. The final Toy Hooper song to feature on a Strawbs studio album, and one that was already gathering dust before being included. It’s an affectionate tribute to the popular music acts of earlier decades and arranged with awfully good aplomb. It was greatly appreciated by some of my drama classes when I added actions to the lyrics and we used it as a warm-up number.
Is it Today lord? Richard Hudson’s hymn brings the album back to its quasi-religious roots. The sitar and tablas take us to the east and we reopen the tombs of western spirituality.
The Journey’s End. The life log edges towards the black hole in the centre of the vinyl. The sentiment is still firmly rooted in the Christian holy ground but, we are leaving it, and new, heavier and more haunting experiences await.
Grave New World is a soul-nourishing companion. A contemporary playing of it feels less anachronistic that some of the other Strawbs albums from the seventies. It has a period feel but it is less distinguishable than the folksier earlier pressings or the later progressive output and hence it resides as might a recently discovered antiquarian book that was ahead of its time.
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, which can be found in:
 D. Cousins, Secrets, Stories, Songs. Witchwood Media Ltd, 2010, page 110
 D. Cousins, Exorcising Ghosts, Witchwood Media Ltd, 2014, page 148
 D. Cousins, Secrets, Stories, Songs. Witchwood Media Ltd, 2010, page 104
 D. Ibid. page 103
 D. Cousins, Exorcising Ghosts, Witchwood Media Ltd, 2014, page 157