“People like bits of what we do, then they don’t like bits… and the reality is that half of the band don’t like half of what we do”: Steeleye Span never stop taking risks

Maddy Prior
(Image credit: Future)

Steeleye Span released their 23rd album, Dodgy Bastards, in 2016. The following year – with yet another line-up change behind them – lead singer Maddy Prior told Prog how the band made change work for them.

If you want to convey the notion of something stretching as widely and imaginatively as it can from end to end, and of a group that have done just that over a remarkable lifetime of 47 years, Span’s the word you’re looking for.

Dodgy Bastards is the latest instalment in the time-honoured electric folk narrative of Steeleye Span, and it’s every bit as entertaining as its title. The album is the latest example of how they go backwards to go forwards, and of their expertise in using the deep-rooted song tradition of the British Isles to their advantage. The album is so 1880s, it’s positively 2017.

“We were at a point where we needed to do something a bit different,” says frontwoman and (almost) constant band member Maddy Prior. “Sometimes you do want to step a little bit outside. The knack is to not step so far that you lose any contact with your base, creatively. Bands are very nuanced about that. They sort of know where their work works. So the art is moving that nuanced idea just to the edges of where it still connects and not letting it fly off at a crazy tangent. A band like ours, everybody’s got different ideas. Everybody’s in a different band.”

The notion that all six members of the revamped Steeleye line-up have fingers in other pies is a common folk precept. As a reminder, no sooner had the band finished an extensive UK tour throughout October than Prior was ending 2016 on the road with her long-time friends in the Carnival Band, for her Carols And Capers With Maddy Prior shows.

Back at base, meanwhile, things could hardly be more prolific. Dodgy Bastards is the 23rd studio album by Steeleye Span, and their sixth in a dozen years. It stands tall as the latest reimagining of their sound, following the fascinating detour they made to work with Sir Terry Pratchett, sadly since departed, on a splendid musical adaptation of his Discworld novel Wintersmith.

But Steeleye have always been a band for whom shuffling the creative pack is not merely an option, but an essential. The new work sees them continuing to use more flavours from the rock world, notably with the guitars of Julian Littman and Andrew ‘Spud’ Sinclair, even venturing an entirely user-friendly rap segment, to which we’ll return. There are also some lead vocals by another recent recruit, violinist Jessie May Smart, in a line‑up underpinned by Span stalwarts Prior, Rick Kemp and Liam Genockey.

The personnel changes were partly visited upon them by the post-Wintersmith departure of Peter Knight and the sad death, last April, of Pete Zorn. But the new blood is welcome. “They bring vitality, apart from anything else,” laughs Prior. “But also they bring different experiences of music, and of life.

“It’s a brilliant gig because people are interested in what we do, and in music, that’s a very big issue. A lot of people are playing music that people aren’t actually interested in, and what we do is important to me and to them. So all of us are finding a way through, because traditional music is our bedrock – English music, overlaid with other influences. That’s kind of how it works.”

With their innate sense of which colours fit the band’s creative canvas, Steeleye’s new album is set to the texts (some original, some their own adaptations) of 19th-century American scholar and ballad collector Francis James Childs. Therein lies the title of a record offering time-burnished tales of murder, incest, anguished spirits and honour killings. The lyrics may be among the best page‑turners you’ll hear all year.

“I have sung an awful lot of these songs,” says Prior. “But having said that, because we collate a lot and write, there are massive numbers of ballads, and ballads are just the bees’ knees. They’re there to reimagine all the time, because they’re great teaching stories.

“[The track] Dodgy Bastards came first,” she explains of the album’s chronology. “But then you start to realise that every song in the tradition has got dodgy bastards in it! Even the nicest songs seem to have this quality in them, which was kind of interesting to work with and realise. Huge amounts of stories are about the dark side, as if you watch television at all, you know they are.”

Right there, of course, is the link between the past and the present that makes progressive folk music right on the contemporary button. “That’s right,” Prior agrees. “The thing about the ballads is people behave exactly the same now – it’s just different frocks and a different transport system, that’s all. People really do do the same stuff. Like [the track] Cruel Brother, people do kill their sisters, and there are honour killings. It still happens.”

The album’s core, its marvellously spirited relevance, goes to the very essence of folk in its truest sense: music of the people. “What was that great strapline for the News Of The World?” says Prior. “‘All human life is here.’ That’s the same for folk music.

“I have a connection to these songs that comes from 50 years of working with them, and they are very precious pieces of material, and then they are very powerful. They’re like steel. You can do anything with them, but they will bounce back into their shape.”

Prior assigns the productivity of Steeleye’s latter years to the very fact that, from their origins with Ashley Hutchings in his post-Fairport Convention days of 1969, the group have been laudably adaptable.

“Early on in my career, I got involved in folk music and traditional music, but was not limited by that,” she observes. “It’s kind of circled round traditional music. The stunning tunes that there are in the tradition have been the most uplifting aspect of music for me. Not every traditional song is brilliant – there’s a lot of rubbish in there as well. But sometimes you can take songs that are less exciting and you can make them exciting.

“Martin Carthy is absolutely brilliant at that. You go through the songbooks and you go, ‘No… no… no…’ then suddenly you hear Martin singing it and you think, ‘Bugger!’ He just sees it and hears it. The hardest thing in the world is to reassess a song that you’ve dismissed. So the whole thing with folk music is just so fascinating.”

Dodgy Bastards features plenty of the group’s own adaptations, but much of it is founded on the lyrics collected by Child and the melodies, or parts of them, found later by American academic Bertrand Harris Bronson.

“We went into Child’s [collection] quite a lot,” says Prior, “because that’s a resource that is there. But he didn’t collect tunes. Bronson came along later, and we have used some Bronson tunes, but it was quite a long time afterwards, so a lot of the tunes had gone. And, unfortunately, it was a very important generation because it was when people stopped singing these songs.

“But Cecil Sharp went to America, to the Appalachians, and he collected 90-verse ballads there, because people were illiterate, and people remember things when they’re illiterate. When they become literate, they stop remembering things, because you don’t need to. If you have to remember, you will, and that’s how they were passed on. They say that aural transmission tends to be more accurate, in many ways.”

In keeping with such lyrical flexibility, Littman adds a rap to one of the songs on the album that’s long been part of the Steeleye catalogue, Boys Of Bedlam. “Julian kind of got into that, and it’s an interesting direction to go in,” says Prior. “It came from the fact that my son Alex [Kemp] did a rap on his album. Julian does more spoken word, and I thought it gave that song a dimension that it hadn’t had before.”

Cue outrage from Steeleye diehards? “I don’t think that sort of attitude really applies any more,” says Prior, “because people come and go with Steeleye. They like bits of what we do, then they don’t like bits. It’s been all the way through really, and the reality is that half of the band don’t like half of what we do, so it’s no surprise.

“If you’re going to be experimental at all, it’s not all going to be brilliant, and it’s not all going to work for everybody. But we accept that as part of what we do, and we try to make it work as best we can with what we have. And not stand still, either, because we don’t want to do what we’ve done before.”

In any case, there were probably those who reared up when Steeleye Span suddenly made the hit parade in 1973, with their unexpected and incongruous hit single Gaudete.

“Well, it was very bizarre,” Prior confesses. “To sing an a cappella Latin chant on Top Of The Pops was very weird. I think we were on with Noddy [Holder, Slade frontman], it was about that time.”

Memory serves Prior well. The band did indeed perform on the same December show that featured Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody, not to mention Mott The Hoople’s Roll Away The Stone.

“I’m really pleased we had that time and did that sort of stuff, but that’s only been a part of what we are. We still sing [the subsequent Top 5 UK hit] All Around My Hat because it’s the one song everybody knows. We’ve got such a massive repertoire now that people might only have one album, and the likelihood of us doing that album or anything off it is quite slim. But …Hat, even the band know that.”

That said, Steeleye have recently been recycling even earlier material on stage. “What we do is we lie them fallow for a while, then they green up,” says Prior. “If you keep singing songs over and over – …Hat’s slightly different because it’s a bit like an anthem – but any other song, I can sing it for so long, maybe a tour, possibly two, but then I have to put it away. Then when it comes back, it comes back with something different, because I’ve grown, the song’s grown, the world’s turned, things have changed and you see it differently.

“So you can bring songs back, the way we brought back All Things Are Quite Silent, and that’s off the very first Steeleye album [1970’s Hark! The Village Wait]. The great thing about traditional songs is you can completely rethink them because they’re so strong.”

The band plan to tour again late in 2017, by which time Prior fully expects them to be developing songs for what will become their 24th album. “There’s lots of different ways of coming at it, and reinventing it,” she muses, “especially when you’re deliberately trying to reinvent it as a rock genre, which is kind of what we set off to do, and what we’ve done.

“We’ve stretched the margins of that as far as…” she pauses to correct herself. “No, maybe not as far as we can. There’s further to go yet.”

Paul Sexton

Prog Magazine contributor Paul Sexton is a London-based journalist, broadcaster and author who started writing for the national UK music press while still at school in 1977. He has written for all of the British quality press, most regularly for The Times and Sunday Times, as well as for Radio Times, Billboard, Music Week and many others. Sexton has made countless documentaries and shows for BBC Radio 2 and inflight programming for such airlines as Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific. He contributes to Universal's uDiscoverMusic site and has compiled numerous sleeve notes for the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and other major artists. He is the author of Prince: A Portrait of the Artist in Memories & Memorabilia and, in rare moments away from music, supports his local Sutton United FC and, inexplicably, Crewe Alexandra FC.