I sense Autumn coming on
The mist has hung low all day
He senses autumn coming on, says my literary hero (yes – literary – hero) at the start. So true. The mighty track that opens the ninth album to be released with Dave Cousins at the tiller summons the fall season magnificently. It also heralds a work that was autumnal in its function. It took the remnants of what had gone before and regenerated them into new a flourishing. Despite that, it also marked the end of the days in high British sun. Success continued for the Strawbs, but subsequent growth was chiefly on foreign soil, and never again did the band touch the lofty edifices of the UK charts that they had experienced in previous years.
Throughout 2021 I’m reflecting on the first tranche of Strawbs albums (including Dave Cousins’ solo album Two Weeks Last Summer) in the order that they were released. The seventh album in this sequence, Bursting at the Seams peaked at number two in the UK charts, and a single from it reached the same altitude in the singles chart. That success triggered the pressing of a previously unreleased early album on a budget label. All Our Own Work was thus the eighth collection to hit the record racks but did so just as the Bursting line-up fractured. Only the two Daves – Cousins and Lambert – remained. They went to ground, recruited three new comrades and sprouted afresh the following year.
Out went the the hit-making duo of Richard Hudson and John Ford and in came Rod Coombes on drums, John Hawken on keyboards and Chas Cronk on bass.
Coombes is the most spiritual of Strawbs’ drummers. His playing is numinous in feel and mystically fluid in style. It inhabits like a ghost, empowers like a demon, charms like a nymph. The best Strawbs drummer of all? Possibly. The most Strawbs-like? Certainly.
Hawken brought a musical integrity comprising an intellectual robustness, melodic profundity and reasoned drama. He provided a fundamental plinth on which the band constructed their classically gothic sound.
Cronk began a long association with Cousins that has continued – with a break or two – to this day. It has been a most productive collaboration – typified by astute judgement in shaping a whole that is balanced and palatable yet distinct and incisive. His playing (guitar as well as bass) is similarly skilfully pitched – solid, secure and producing strong impact without any hint of being showy.
For many Hero and Heroine is the best Strawbs album. As explained in an earlier post, my choice will always be Bursting at the Seams, but Hero and Heroine will probably claim second place, just about pipping Grave New World. Guitarist Dave Lambert has commented that this is the collection over which he and Cousin’s had greatest control. As all the other contributors were new, they were less influential than they might otherwise have been. Hence it is the most coherent of all Strawbs albums. Regardless of who wrote which song, there is a tangible unity of musical texture, a tenacity of tone and an omnipresent mood – mysterious, insistent, forbidding, just like the autumn season often brings.
That seamlessness is evident in the original record, but it is even more noticeable in the 2011 re-recording: Hero and Heroine in Ascencia, in which the tracks are more continuously linked, so the album becomes something of a rock symphony.
Here’s a track by track guide of the 1974 vinyl pressing:
Autumn. A brilliantly evocative rendition of the season. This track went down a storm when premiered in the United States, and became sufficiently revered for the opening section (Heroine’s Theme by John Hawken) to get airplay even on some of the black radio stations – outlets not generally disposed to playing prog rock music.1 The final section (The Winter Long by Dave Cousins) is a popular choice for wedding celebrations.
Sad Young Man. Rod Coombes’ reflection on moving on. Urban lyrics successfully enveloped by the rural chills of the music.
Just Love. Great little Dave Lambert rocker. Energetic and catchy.
Shine on Silver Sun. A song documenting the emerging of a new friendship amid the disintegration of older associations. An emotional autumn overlaid with summer warmth and the promise of spring.
Once I sat upon a hill
To watch the world go by
My friend the young magician
Had forbidden me to cry
But I was the comedian
With the laughs in short supply.
Hero and Heroine. This is a heady, momentous narrative lamenting the cost of dependent devotion and the dangers of infatuation. A sailor is cast adrift on a life raft, then meets his heroine and his destiny.
Enticing Heroine, so calm
Took Hero firmly by the arm
Told him that she meant no harm
That she alone could save him
Midnight Sun. One of my absolute favourite Strawbs songs. A summer song on this most seasonal of albums, but the incongruity of sun in the depths of night is wonderfully echoed by the unexpected yet entirely appropriate percussion behind the acoustic guitar glow. The lyrics illuminate fragility and firmness, hope and despair, ends and beginnings.
I have seen the midnight sun shining
Watched her rays steadily dying
The candles are alight
I sit alone in mourning
I wonder is there death after life
Out in the Cold. Cousins’ most explicit song. Ambition, desperation, sex, age and astrology.
Round and Round. A bitter postcard to flower power.
Lay a Little Light on Me. Religion, self abuse, allegorical scripture and the hypocrisy of preached certainty.
Watch my hand
See it shakes
Trembling as my life blood bleeds
Offering their empty creeds
That have faith or substance
That change to suit the doubter
To satisfy his needs.
Cousin’s lament is capped by . . .
Dave Lambert’s Hero’s Theme which shovels the soil on the buried beliefs in a conclusion reminiscent of the magnificent riffs of Down by the Sea on the Bursting at the Seams album.
Perhaps the most progressive Strawbs album in the categorical sense of that word, the musical majesty of the work never overpowers the lyrical potency of the tracks, but as always with this band, the tunes are the trees, the lyrics the fruit. In each case they cling relentlessly to the architecture of the sound. The edifice seems stronger than ever, but also has a sense of defiant isolation.
In the context of the canon, Hero and Heroine symbolises the Strawbs surviving what could have been a fatal life-raft. Washed up on the shore, the sound takes root in the sacred ground again. The strong light is gone, but within and beneath the gothic arches, the vine grows on.
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, page 181
Forty years before I wrote Ice & lemon, the Hero & Heroine album inspired an imagined encounter that eventually surfaced as a hallucinated scene towards the end of the novel.
The water was turquoise and warm and saltless. The sand beneath was as white as sugar, the tangled foliage round the tiny lake was luscious green with tiger splashes of orange, red and deep brown. Creepers dangled. Birds of paradise flitted past flying from song to song. The sky was cloud free and a kindly sun kissed my face as I swam naked as the night I got married. Somewhere deep in the forest a sonorous note rang magically created by falling nature, timber on timber, and at that moment, as if launched by the sound, a raft drifted into view.