The Strawbs

TrackAlbum
AutumnHero And Heroine
Blue AngelHalcyon Days
Down By The SeaBursting At The Seams
GhostsGhosts
A Glimpse Of HeavenAcoustic Gold
The Hangman And The PapistFrom The Witchwood
Hero And HeroineHero And Heroine
Lay DownBursting At The Seams
Little SleepyNomadness
Song Of A Sad Little GirlJust A Collection Of Antiques And Curios

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Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

The band was originally known as The Strawberry Hill Boys from Strawberry Hill, an area of Twickenham in Middlesex and formed by Dave Cousins in 1964, primarily as a bluegrass group. In the early days, The Strawbs (as they became) played with Sandy Denny and their repertoire soon shifted to favour their own, and mainly Dave Cousins’, material. While in Denmark in 1967, The Strawbs with Sandy Denny recorded 13 songs for a proposed first album. The album was forgotten until 10 tracks were issued on Pickwick Hallmark in the UK in the mid-1970s and subsequently the entire recordings became available as a CD, All Our Own Work. The album is notable for being the first known recording of Sandy’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes with the opening line, Across the purple sky. Sandy Denny left to join Fairport Convention. Later, Rick Wakeman joined The Strawbs on keyboards to augment Richard Hudson who had joined on drums and John Ford on bass. The Strawbs moved from a folky to a more rock style.

Here is Dave Cousins’ tribute to Sandy Denny Ringing Down The Years. I’m cheating here because this is an 11th track!

Cousins has one of the most distinctive voices in popular music and my ten selections are drawn from my favourite Strawbs tracks rather than any attempt to show the depth or breadth of their output down the years. Other songs that missed the cut were Don’t Try And Change Me, Grace Darling, Heavy Disguise and To Be Free.

The Strawbs went through their fair share of personnel changes and a number of styles but always produced some fine music. Apart from the singles Lay Down (included here) and Part Of The Union (not included), my first real exposure to The Strawbs was a double album compilation that belonged to a friend of my brother which then inspired me to explore their albums.

Dave Cousins wrote songs that contained a number of themes within a single song and Autumn is one of those. The song opens the album Hero And Heroine which has a recurrent theme throughout the album although cannot be described as a concept album.

Blue Angel was one of those songs that hit me in the eyes on first hearing and I’ve listened to it regularly ever since. I like the way it builds from a gentle acoustic almost folky opening into a full blown 1970s prog-rock track – and I don’t mean that in any pejorative way. Dave Cousins draws you in and takes you to exactly the places he intends with a very florid lyric. Blue Angel first appeared on a Cousins’ solo album, Two Weeks Last Summer (1972) and is the title track of The Strawbs 2002 album; the version selected here is on Halcyon Days compilation.

Down By The Sea is simply a fine piece of rock music and I don’t think it tries to be anything else, from the opening and then recurrent arpeggio to the overblown strings and brass at the end. You also have Dave Cousins using the range of his voice from the gentle whisper to the full rock shriek.

Ghosts is another ‘multi-part’ song that sweeps you along with the story and the soundscapes.

A Glimpse Of Heaven was inspired by the Dorset countryside and coastline where Cousins lived for a while but as a listener, you can apply it to your own favourite corner of the world. This is a later alternative acoustic version of the song that originally appeared on From The Witchwood.

Also from From The Witchwood, The Hangman And The Papist, featuring Rick Wakeman on keyboards, was Dave Cousins’ take on the situation as it was in Northern Ireland at the time, using the allegory of a medieval kingdom. The song is infamous for an appearance on Top of the Pops when Rick Wakeman mimed his keyboard part with a paint roller (see above clip).

Hero And Heroine was used for a long time to open Strawbs live sets, albeit played at 1½ times the recorded speed.

Lay Down was The Strawbs’ greatest hit and simply a great pop/rock song and Little Sleepy is a great little rock track that could have been written by Pete Townshend.

Song Of A Sad Little Girl opens with a virtuoso piano solo from Wakeman and then describes the sleepless night that most parents have had while their child fights a fever, only to wake the following morning right as rain (as the saying goes).

The Strawbs is a band I have returned to time and again over the years, I have a whole raft of their albums but these are the tracks that I choose to listen to most often.

The Strawbs website

The Strawbs biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #98

1 Comment

  1. Merric Davidson
    Oct 17, 2013

    Gotta love the Strawbs. First encountered them in small folk clubs (they had their own) and in concert in the late 60s, and I’d like to add five tracks to Ian’s pick and place these in the Strawbs music bank echoing with the fine harmonies of Dave Cousins & Tony Hooper. The Man Who Called Himself Jesus is the first thing I can remember about them from those dingy clubs, the calling card song, and it’s only now that I discover that the spoken intro is by the great Richard Wilson. Things you find out these days! Think I’m right in remembering that Strawbs gigs back then closed with the epic chess game meisterwork, The Battle, so that’s going in even though the recording on the 1969 album Strawbs (where both these tracks are to be found) would be improved by today’s standards, despite Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti at the helm. Great floral tie cover artwork too! I Turned My Face Into The Wind from the next album Dragonfly still sounds as good as it did over forty years ago. I’d also add a couple of favourites in addition to Ian’s choices on From The Witchwood (1971), In Amongst The Roses is beautiful and Witchwood is commanding. Finally, I’d like to thank Ian for bringing perspective to the long career and many styles of this band.

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