Steeleye Span - Good Times Of Old England: Steeleye Span 1972-1983 (Chrysalis)

Steeleye Span – Good Times Of Old England: Steeleye Span 1972-1983 (Chrysalis)

It’s weird, to think now, that when I was growing up, first as all as a kid in 1970s’ Wellingborough, and then as a teenager in the 1980s, folk music was a real ‘no-go’ zone, often lambasted by the trendy music press and people I knew, as the most ‘uncool’ of genres.

This fabulous 12 CD boxset comprising Steeleye Span‘s recorded output between 1972-1980 (plus 4 live discs) ought to redress the balance somewhat. Sure, Fairport Convention tend to get the plaudits for making folk music their own, and bringing it to the attention of a wider public, not without good reason, but these remarkable albums really ought to be celebrated just as fervently. Sometimes, they are quite jaw-dropping.

But Steeleye Span, for those who were paying attention, were not just a folk band. At least not after the first three albums. The first in this particular set, and the fourth in the group’s discography, was 1972’s Below The Salt. With the arrival of Bob Johnson and Rick Kemp into the ranks, Steeleye Span would incorporate elements of prog rock, psychedelic stoner rock and even shades of funk into their sound.

The most prog-like number was undoubtedly the album’s centrepiece, ‘King Henry‘, conjuring images of the royal court and the tale of “a ghostly changeling who makes heavy demands on him before conveniently turning him into ‘the fairest maid that ever was seen‘.” It’s both fascinating and a little creepy and its seven minute length feels like about three at most. Containing some energetic jigs, the earthily spiritual ‘Sheep-Crook And Black Dog‘ in which Maddy Prior seems to embody the soul of Jefferson Airplane‘s Grace Slick, a superb reading of ‘John Barleycorn Must Die‘ and the exquisite ‘Saucy Sailor‘, Prior’s vocal irresistible here, Below The Salt was a work of genius. But astonishingly, they bettered it with the follow up, 1973’s ‘Parcel Of Rogues‘.

A concept album of sorts, partly inspired by the band’s own theatrical project of Robert Louis Stevenson‘s 1886 novel Kidnapped, both using the Scottish Jacobite movement of the 17th and 18th century as its backdrop. What could have backfired and been seen as the height of pretentiousness is instead delivered with just the right amount of humour and chutzpah to escape such levels of accusation. ‘One Misty Moisty Morning‘ kicks off the album pleasantly with a traditional, wistful folk song, but it’s the second track here that stops you in your tracks.

Alison Gross‘, whose first known recording was way back in 1783, is given a glorious makeover, a tale of unrequited love whose narrator is the object of the titular character’s desires: “Alison Gross, she must be…the ugliest witch in the North Country.” Steeleye Span imbued the number with a rockier bent and chose to end it at the point the witch transforms the narrator into “an ugly worm” which gives it a more macabre timbre as befits much of the band’s work at the time: a kind of black comedy, if you will entertain such a notion.

Anyway, you know what? If I keep going through ALL of these albums, this review will be used as evidence definition for TL;DR in the Oxford English Internetspeak dictionary. Plus it won’t be finished for 3 weeks and I’m already late enough with it!

Besides, all you actually need to know is that this is a stupendously good boxset with some stunning, diverse albums from within the folk universe, accompanied with a fascinatingly informative booklet and a beautifully decorated box. Just buy it, OK?

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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.