This is where it all began for me. This album spawned a life-long love and addiction, but it germinated far more than that. This was the mystical key. This was the ledger that unlocked the cauldron of creativity, this was the testament that told of the way to traverse the path through pain and pleasure, and navigate the sinews of the soul – and then express them. This was the echo chamber of angst, the concert hall of romance, the dance floor of desire, the staircase of guilt, the gallery of truth. It was the manual of how to meld memories into monuments, dreams into headstones, hopes into hymns.
Throughout 2021 I’m reflecting on the first tranche of Strawbs albums in the order that they were released. This instalment can’t be a truly critical analysis, because I’m far too biased for that, but it is an attempt to explain my appreciation of my most potent source of inspiration, elevation, contemplation and aesthetic awe.
Last month I took a slight deviation into band leader Dave Cousins’ solo album Two Weeks Last Summer. As intimated above, Bursting at the Seams does not put me back on course; it returns me to the start.
This was the first ‘serious’ album that I bought. I then worked outwards in the Strawbs’ canon, buying each subsequent release as soon as it was available, whilst also tracking backwards gathering the previous releases as funds allowed. They were ordered from Brady’s music store in the heart of Preston, close to the Guild Hall where my school friend Michael persuaded me to go with him to the gig on the Bursting at the Seams tour in February 1973. It changed my life. I bought the album the next day. So profound were these songs to me, that they unlocked something deep inside my psyche. From that moment onwards I would not consider any musical competitors as being comparable.
Such a judgement is intensely personal, and therefore generally invalid, but we must each be allowed our touchstone, our source of solace, of wonder, of wisdom.
From the band’s perspective the title of this record would prove very painfully prophetic. Such was the success of the album, and of one single taken from it, that they split. That was a fracture from which they never fully recovered. New personnel would be found, and a breakaway duo would enjoy some significant success in their own right, but the Strawbs lost crucial momentum, particularly in the UK, where they never again attained the same commercial success. Though artistically they sustained credence, they slipped from view just when they might have remained in sharp focus.
Because of the bitter memories, it is unlikely that Bursting at the Seams ranks high in the collective consciousness of its creators, but that’s a shame, because this is one of the finest assemblages of folk-rock songs, ranging from the magically esoteric to the thunderously epic. Cousins has described the Strawbs oeuvre as Gothic Rock, and this is the first album to truly explore that musical architecture.
Flying. As soon as I’d heard the opening six bars of this song I was smitten. This would be the band for me. It was like hearing the call of rare wild creature that I’d been aching to see. The start is a simple guitar trill heralding a finger-picked riff. The tone is mysterious yet confident, ominous yet joyful, and it introduces not only the song, but also the album, by its self-assured melancholy. The majority of Cousin’s compositions on the album spring out of the break-up of his first marriage and involvement with a re-ignited old flame, though I would not understand that detail for several decades until he revealed the background in his biography1 and book of lyrical commentaries.2 The factual circumstantial context is not needed to complete the cathartic experience of hearing the songs. Here is a romance, wrapped in a willow pattern, specific enough to be empathised with, vague enough to be transposed, and exactly what a sixteen-year-old sequentially working through unrequited amorous adventures needed.
Lady Fuchsia. A great Hudson / Ford composition inspired by the works of gothic writer and artist Mervyn Peake. The Gormenghast trilogy was trendy reading in the 1970s and this song fitted the pseudo-renaissance fashion as appropriately as nettles around a ruined castle.
Stormy Down. Should have been a single. It is much catchier and much easier to sing along to and dance to than Lay Down. (See below.) It’s a simple little rocker with a good humoured lyric offering a little light relief among the gloom of the other tracks on this side. One of three tracks on this album to contain down in the title. Stormy Down is a real place – a hill on the A48 in south Wales.
Down by the Sea. Favourite group, favourite album, favourite track. It’s as simple as that.
This was the song that chained me to the group for life. Critics will find flaws with it. The mix is such that you need printed lyrics (thankfully provided with the album) to make full sense of it, but for the teenage me this was rock heaven and hell rolled into one. The signature guitar and piano riff, so symbolic of the sea in tempestuous conditions, was created by blasting the amplified output of the former through the strings of the latter as they were played in unison. The sound is terribly gorgeous. The lyrics, heartfelt and gut-wrenching are revealing and concealing in equal parts. The melodrama is compulsive, the accompaniment overwhelming. The opening riff returns to close the number reinforced by full orchestration. The pinnacle.
The River. When played live this song precedes the previous one, which makes perfect topographical sense. It’s position on the LP might have more to do with the technical limitations of vinyl than with curating niceties, but it works very well as a fade out of the first side. The title is a metaphor for marital love, and the lyrics entangle the end of one relationship with the intermittent rekindling of another.
Part of the Union. A deeply ironic title. This is the song that triggered the break-up of the band. It gained the highest chart ranking of any Strawbs single in the UK, selling over a quarter of a million discs and reaching number 2, (It was number one in Germany) confirming the hit-making potential of the Hudson / Ford partnership. It is probably one of the main reasons that the album also reached number 2, not especially because of the qualities of the song, but as a consequence of the additional exposure it generated for both the recording and the promotional tour. This is the most individually successful, but least typical, Strawbs song.
John Ford is a master-breeder of ear worms. He has a real talent for splicing musical and lyrical hooks. To my mind this track is not as good as some of his other work – Heavy Disguise, or Floating in the Wind, for example – but this song struck a contemporary chord in a unique way.
Ford has said that the song was not written as a union song, but became one.3 Regardless of the creative intent, the song was sufficiently ambiguous to be interpreted as either a criticism, or a celebration, of union power, just as the UK was enduring a particularly demanding phase brought about by industrial action. The single prompted questions in the UK Houses of Parliament, and made headlines in national broadsheets and also, I recall, in The Lancashire Evening Post.
I was present at a gig in Burnley, many years later, when John Ford, with tongue – almost – in cheek, introduced the number as ‘the song that made stars of the Strawbs’. He is both right and wrong. The previous album, Grave New World, sold 94 000 copies in the UK, which is some 16 000 more than this album, but there is no doubt that Part of the Union put the band in front of a much broader audience.
It was almost certainly the success of this single that convinced Richard Hudson and John Ford to go their own way. They subsequently had a number of hit singles but were less successful with album sales.
The splintering of the Strawbs was a tragic end to the best folk-rock ensemble of the time, and momentum lost would never be regained, but a different direction would emerge for the group following fresh recruitment.
Tears and Pavan. A pavan, or pavane, is a stately dance popular in Europe in the sixteenth century. It may have originated in Spain, but more likely in Italy, which is where the Strawbs were touring when this song was written. It is another document of the changing personal relationships tearing at Cousins’ emotions during the sojourn. John Ford provided the catchy pseudo-renaissance melody of the second part linked to the first by a delightful harpsichord bridge cantilevered by Blue Weaver.
The Winter and the Summer. My favourite Dave Lambert song of all. Lambert’s lyrics are less complex than Cousins’ but they can be just as evocative. It’s a stylishly constructed song with pleasing contrasts of pace, energy and texture.
Lay Down. What happens when you mix magic mushrooms with the 23rd Psalm.4 Green pastures, dirty streets and deep sorrow are blended into a homily set to a jaunty tune and lively guitar licks. The album version is longer, and hence better, than the single, containing a lush Dave Lambert guitar solo. The seven inch 45rpm pressing was my first ever Strawbs acquisition in the autumn of 1972, a purchase that helped to send it to number 12 in the UK charts.
Thank you. A charming novelty conclusion recorded in a primary school in Hounslow.
Bursting at the Seams can be regarded as the final folk-rock album by the Strawbs. It is transitional in many respects. It marks a major punctuation in personnel. The addition of Dave Lambert as a dedicated lead guitarist adds an extra dimension that will become a second spine. The overall sound of this record, whilst retaining the exquisite instrumentation associated with accomplished folk musicians, is heavily and majestically enhanced by the sombre gothic tones that will rise to dominance in the next album. It is lyrically intense and musically robust, but it is not without lighter contrasts in both words and melody. It is philosophically intriguing, romantically bruising, devilishly distracting, and so full of emotion that it might just fracture.
More background to the above and all the lyrics can be found on the STRAWBS OFFICIAL WEBSITE.
1 D. Cousins, Exorcising Ghosts, Witchwood Media Ltd, 2014
2 D. Cousins, Secrets, Stories, Songs. Witchwood Media Ltd, 2010
3 Interview, Strawbs Live in Concert, 2020, video.
4 D. Cousins, Secrets, Stories, Songs. Witchwood Media Ltd, 2010, page 141