Rock Flashback: Steeleye Span

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(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

In America, folksingers tended to be lone troubadours with guitars in hand. English folkies often formed bands. Two of the best-known were [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Fairport Convention[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Steeleye Span[/lastfm]. We noticed that Steeleye Span’s bassist, [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Rick Kemp[/lastfm], turned 70 this week, so we thought it was time to explore that band’s career.

When Steeleye Span was formed in 1970, they were firmly committed to acoustic folk, and attracted one member of[lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Fairport Convention[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Ashley Hutchings[/lastfm], who had grown displeased with Fairport’s move away from acoustic sounds. Prominent English folk guitarist [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Martin Carthy[/lastfm] joined for the group’s second album.

The band’s goal had been to make folk more accessible and less esoteric, but that process didn’t begin in earnest until after both Hutchings and Carthy had departed the band. It was at this point that Kemp joined — and once the band added a drummer in 1973, their most commercial period was underway. They began turning traditional songs into rock numbers.

Steeleye Span

In 1974, they released their best-selling album, All Around My Hat. Another 1974 album, Now We Are Six, contains the crunchy “Thomas the Rhymer” and includes a guest spot by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]David Bowie[/lastfm] playing the saxophone. It was was produced by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Ian Anderson[/lastfm] of [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Jethro Tull[/lastfm]; the band returned the favor by opening for Tull on some mid-’70s tours. In 1978, they charted for the second time in the States with Storm Force Ten, after Martin Carthy had rejoined the band.

The group announced a breakup in 1978, although some members have periodically reconvened to record together. The constants on most albums in the last 20 years have been original lead singer [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Maddy Prior[/lastfm] and Kemp, who have been married since the 1970s. Their most recent album was released in 2009.

If you know anything by Steeleye Span, it’s probably the hit single “All Around My Hat.” It sounds like a traditional folk song, but it’s a band original.

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