Rehanging the Gallery

A wander through Nomadness

When I told singer-songwriter Dave Cousins that Nomadness was one of my favourite albums he cringed. It had been recorded at a difficult time. The Strawbs’ popularity was waning, even on the far side of the Atlantic where it had recently burgeoned. They had parted company with keyboard player John Hawken and with him went the dominance of the Mellotron and its associated Gothic theatricality. To Cousins, and others, Nomadness is a collection of songs rather than a coherently crafted assembly. Whilst that may be true, I can’t agree that it lacks coherence. Certainly the tracks are more diverse, but they are not dissimilar and there is an arching tonality vaulted over it; a very tangible ghost of a Gothic shell.

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 eleventh, Nomadness is one I always associate with November and that month in 1975 in particular. I was at University in Manchester while my girlfriend was forty miles away in Preston. Each weekend I drove home to see her. Each Sunday night the drive back would be to the sound of this album on a portable cassette player wedged beneath the dashboard of my battered, three-wheeled Bond mini (see You only Bond thrice).

It was much later, in the 1990s, that I told Cousins of my affection for the album. At the time the Strawbs were touring with Lindisfarne. I saw them twice on that tour, in Manchester and at Preston Guild Hall, the venue where I had first become a fan way back in 1973. Strawbs played the first set at each gig. I don’t dislike Lindisfarne, but I much preferred to sacrifice their half of the concert in order to spend time with the Strawbs in the bar. That’s where Cousins cemented the notion of the honest poet. Strawbs do not solicit undue admiration. They are always approachable and unpretentious.

Is it the painter or the picture

Hanging in the gallery?

Admired by countless thousands

Who attempt to read the secrets

Of his vision of his very soul.

Dave Cousins, Hanging in the Gallery

One track on Nomadness underlines the importance of the performer’s humility and the need for the fan’s courtesy. Hanging in the Gallery is a portrait of the songwriter’s integrity. Who is is that we pay to see? The protagonists of the songs, or the real humans that we have no right to know so intimately. Is there a difference? Or is that difference one that must disappear as a consequence of the exhibition of the created work?

Nomadness does not have the epic feel of the previous three albums but it does retain the linguistic splendour and musical innovation that they featured. It contains strong contributions from all four core members including a couple of Cousins’ most meaningful creations. Hanging in the Gallery resides near the top of his lyrical achievements, as does The Golden Salamander. So Shall Our Love Die lives on a similar plane where the ambivalent lyrical sentiments are wrapped in a silken arrangement.

Recordings of numerous songs are called albums because in the early days of pressing records the technology was such that several discs were needed to hold long works, such as a symphony. The packaging would thus need to have several sleeves, just like a photographic album might have. Nomadness is not a collection of movements, it is a briefcase for an apothecary of the soul. Every potion has potency. Each has a distinct flavour, but the taste is consistent.

Here’s a track by track guide of the 1975 vinyl pressing:

Side One

To Be Free. A great upbeat opening. Part folk tale, part political pondering.

Little Sleepy. Dave Lambert’s locomotion in high steam. Gets you there, no question.

The Golden Salamander. One of Cousins’ more convoluted songs lyrically speaking. Passages in his books help to unravel most of its mysterious weave. There may be more ciphers that real-life counterparts here. It derives from a time when he returned from being on tour and discovered that a relationship had not weathered his absence as devotedly as might have been hoped.

Absent Friend (How I Need You). This is a much older song than the album but it sits well here. Ashtray blues, vivid imagery, weary desperation.

Back on the Farm. Innuendo rides again on the back of this jaunty agricultural shanty. Trawl deeper though, and net tangled wreckage.

Is it the sculptor or the sculpture

Standing in the gallery?

Touched by fleeting strangers

Who desire to feel the strength of hands

That realised a form of life.

Side Two

So Shall Our Love Die? A really lovely song. Candles and velvet and ribbons. The west wind returns. (Cousins’ favourite meteorological orientation.) It is the wind of change. The nostalgia is sweet, the ambience warm, the forecast grim.

Tokyo Rosie. The mood lifts with the Golden Salamander back in the boat in Japan. (The west wind is here again, or rather still there from the previous song.) Cousins’ giggle in the second chorus might be explained by Rick Wakeman’s nude keyboard contribution. Demented, but true. 1

A Mind of My Own. Lyrically distinctive, the arrangement really makes the song suit the company it is in. The sense of displacement, longing, social unease and the critical political are curt but Coombe’s writing, Lambert’s singing and the wail of session contributor Tommy Eyre’s synthesiser conjure a bleak elegy that sounds very much at home.

Is it the actor or the drama

Playing to the gallery?

Heard in every corner

Of the theatre of cruelty

That masks the humour in his speech.

Hanging in the Gallery. The most profound poetry often resides in the simplest expression. The question, says Shakespeare, is ‘to be or not to be’: six single-syllable words. This is Cousins’ take on the value of the artist, and he too, asks it plainly. Is it the painter or the picture? The singer or his likeness? Both, or neither? This is a hymn to the ethical aesthetic. Timeless and urgent, it should be made an anthem for sanity amid the false-god worshippers of the contemporary, where the creator is so often seen as superior to the work.

The Promised Land. In the next album Cousins and Cronk will reach a new peak of collaboration, and this song is evidence of why that can work. It sounds like it may have been written by the former but was actually penned by the latter. It ties (probably unwittingly) the strands of many of the previous tracks together and so the voyages we have embarked upon reach a shore. The journey is not over.

In summary

Nomadness enables the band to wander from their previous style into its next manifestation. It is not that different. The imagery is slightly rearranged. The gallery has been re-hung.

This disc provide an audible salad. There are canapés to create chills, sauces to titillate, sandwiches to satisfy, sweets to make you smile and drinks to make you think. The components may be distinct but the oeuvre is convincingly concordant. The courses come from the same kitchen. All the chefs are skilful. But is it the chef or the dish that you consume?

Is it the singer or his likeness

Hanging in the gallery?

Or is it but his conscience,

Insecurity, and loneliness,

When destiny becomes at last

The cause of his demise?

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 191

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