Reviving Deadlines

The most extraordinary aspect of the Deadlines album is the cover. It’s not the arresting image that makes it exceptional, but the fact that the action depicted in the picture is not artificially composed. It really is a shot of a man in a telephone kiosk filled with water. The booth was a specially strengthened glass structure and the occupant is a stuntman.1

Despite its impact, it is not one of my favoured Strawbs covers. It doesn’t project the feel of the band or the songs within it. It is simply a visual pun on the album title, though the image of a person possibly thrashing out his final movements would prove to be prophetic. I do like the album, however, and was relieved to hear it when it was first released in February 1978, as I felt it was much more Strawbs-like than the previous pressing.

Throughout 2021 and into the first couple of months of 2022 I’ve been reflecting on the first tranche of Strawbs albums (including Dave Cousins’ solo album Two Weeks Last Summer) in the order that they were released. Deadlines, somewhat ironically, brings that process to an end.

The band had changed label again (this time to Arista) and while they did record another album after this one, it would not see the light of day for several years. Hence Deadlines marked the end of a ten-year recording journey. Founder Dave Cousins tossed his plectrums into the bottom drawer and moved – very successfully – into managing independent radio stations.

Although it was recorded just a few months after Burning for You, this album sounded much more like classic Strawbs with real vigour in the music and venom in the lyrics. Inexplicably, despite changing labels, the band retained the same producer – Jeffrey Lesser – who had presided over the uncomfortable recording dynamic that had marred the Burning sessions. Thankfully, there is much less of a leaning to middle-of-the-road mediocrity here and the Strawbs’ poetic insight and melodic style bloomed distinctively once more.

After five albums Rod Coombes, the band’s most ethereal and inventive percussionist, had vacated the drum stool. His place was taken by ‘thunder fists’ Tony Fernandez, a strong and positive-minded stretched-skin pugilist. He provided a solid percussive spine but without the decorative subtlety of his predecessor. The trio of continuing members shared the song writing. Cousins penned three himself and collaborated on the other six.

Deadlines is a very decent Strawbs album, harping back to the gothic-folk overtones of the mid-seventies recordings but with a more coarsely-woven cloak. The band seem to know they are no longer pioneers but still hold value as purveyors of maturing progressive rock. The main music market had diverged away, however. Guitar bands had had their heyday and the synthesised New Romantics were rattling their frills. It was the end of the line for the Strawbs, though reports of their terminal passing would prove to be premature.

Dave Cousins sings the opening number (Lay Down) at Salford University on March 10th 1978 as part of the tour to promote Deadlines.

Here’s a track by track guide of the 1978 vinyl pressing:

Side One

No Return. Not the most joyful lyric – the poet presages the end of a relationship – but the tempo is uplifting and suggests the regrets can be overcome. It is a good opening number and great when played live.

Joey and Me. This song was inspired by one of the ubiquitous paperbacks of the decade, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.2 Really good road song.

Sealed with a Traitor’s Kiss. Cousin’s long overdue apology to his first wife. Biblical imagery intertwines with references to earlier tracks and heartfelt regret. It is sincere and moving.

I Don’ Want To Talk About it. Contrastingly, this one doesn’t quite hang together. It’s deeply enigmatic in places but was perhaps compiled before the pain had fully gestated.

The Last Resort. This was written in the sometime celebrated English seaside resort of Grange-over-Sands. Make of that what you will. There is a sense of Cousins giving one more throw of the dice to see what happens. What might have happened didn’t, but one album later it did. I remember wondering if I should be worried when I first heard this track. Was I about to lose my hero? No, yes, and no.

Inside the Deadlines gatefold cover

Side Two

Time and Life. Inspired by two coffee table magazines, the result is atmospheric, philosophical and though-provoking.

New Beginnings. A Cousins / Lambert collaboration. Released as a single, perhaps in the hope of living up to its title. It didn’t.

Deadly Nightshade. This is another exemplarily moody Strawbs composition. An excellent blend of lyric and music, it harpsichords back to Folk-rock heydays, and is carried aloft on Prog-rock bat-chords. The result is Mervyn Peake meets Bram Stoker amid the mist-plagued streets of Bohemia.

Words of Wisdom. Fate decreed that this track would close more than the album. It’s a good one to deliver the farewell from the band. Here too, there is a sense of typical Strawbs. Wise words indeed, and mysterious music. Three short verses and just sixty-three words. Sometimes less is more; sometimes it is everything.

In summary

Just as the Strawbs had successfully reconnected their musical modus operandi, circumstance would cut the wires. Deadlines is not their finest album but it is a long way from their worst. The songs are worthy and well-executed. The overall mood has the classical gothic ambience of their halcyon days and is infused with the coarse power that promises more adventures still to be shared.

Deadlines provokes the feel of a long-abandoned mansion. There may be spirits here worth contacting. Those that used to occupy still have things to say. They may talk of time and life and unclimbed mountain ranges. They are ghosts from the witchwood still burning for you. The ashtray’s flowing over, and the phone’s left off the hook.

So that’s it. I’ve laid down my thoughts on my favourite band’s formative decade. You can read them all by scrolling back through the previous fourteen months of posts. A much broader appreciation can be found in Savouring Strawbs posted in September 2020.

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 211

2 D. Cousins, Secrets, Stories, Songs. Witchwood Media Ltd, 2010, page 220

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