“There was misinformation from fans and members. There was resentment and vindictiveness: people saying this new album isn’t the real Strawbs”: Dave Cousins on his band’s civil war

Former Strawbs lineup
The line-up before the breakup, as heard on 2021's Settlement (Image credit: Future)

Although he denies it’s the band’s farewell album, Strawbs’ mainman Dave Cousins has split fans and former bandmates with current release The Magic Of It All. Recorded in South Africa and bursting at the seams with local talent, it fondly looks back on the group’s colourful career but also brings in new musical flavours. Prog caught up with Cousins to find out what he thinks of those who’ve dismissed the record, and what the future really holds for the band.

“The Strawbs’ farewell album?” says Dave Cousins. “Who told you that?” The esteemed prog folk act’s sole constant since they formed in London in 1964, Cousins is referring to The Magic Of It All, the new LP he made in Cape Town, South Africa.

Flummoxed, Prog protests that the new record has been billed as the Strawbs’ swansong in online news stories. “Well, it bloody well shouldn’t have been!” he says. “Just because my body isn’t up to playing live any more, it doesn’t mean I won’t continue recording. I have every intention of doing so.”

Chatting from his home in Sandgate, near Folkestone in Kent, Cousins is admirably upbeat despite recent health trials including a major cancer op, stent replacements and a full knee replacement. He has plenty to say about The Magic Of It All’s content and the South African musicians who feature on it alongside fellow Strawbs Blue Weaver and John Ford. But Prog also feels duty bound to address ongoing controversies regarding who does and does not play upon the new LP, and why.

When news broke that absentees included long-timers Chas Cronk (bass) and Dave Lambert (lead guitar), plus Dave Bainbridge (keys and guitar since 2015) and Tony Fernandez (an intermittent occupant of the Strawbs drum stool since 1977), a ruckus broke out on Facebook. So what’s the story?

“There was misinformation from fans and band members,” asserts Cousins. “I found it deeply hurtful. There was resentment and vindictiveness: people saying this new album isn’t the real Strawbs. I won’t name names, but band members weren’t saying things directly, they were recruiting other people to say things for them, which made it even worse.

“For me, the continuity of the band has always been about the strength of the songs rather than individual players. Anyway, with Blue Weaver and John Ford on the new record, this is absolutely a Strawbs album.”

This acrimony hasn’t come from out of nowhere. With Blue Weaver producing, Cronk, Lambert, Bainbridge and Fernandez did all play on 2021’s Settlement, which followed on from 2019’s Strawbs 50th Anniversary Weekend in Lakewood, New Jersey. But even then, there was trouble at t’mill.

“The band didn’t like Settlement,” says Cousins. “I did. I thought it had a great flow, but the others were like [miffed voice], ‘Oh, this is Dave Cousins and friends, innit?’ Tony Fernandez [whose drum parts were replaced before the album’s release] wrote to me and said, ‘Is this some kind of April fool’s joke? This doesn’t sound like any Strawbs album I’ve ever heard.’ I thought, ‘What are you on about?’ Ultimately I had to decide what worked best for the songs, and when Settlement charted very high in the prog and folk charts, I was vindicated.”

While tensions circa Settlement must surely have been a factor in Cousins’ Strawbs plans thereafter, he says the current, rebooted line-up’s South African odyssey arose naturally. When his partner visited family in Cape Town, Cousins decided to join her. “But the airfare was expensive so I thought I’d try to play some shows while I was there,” he adds.

To Cousins’ surprise, he drew enthused crowds, South Africa’s love for the Strawbs clearly ongoing. This was the legacy of the band’s great popularity there in the early 70s when Strawbs classics Lay Down, Part Of The Union and New World chimed with those contesting the apartheid system’s Natives Resettlement Act, which aimed to remove Black residents from parts of Johannesburg.

Visiting South Africa for the first time, Cousins received something of a hero’s welcome and was also tickled to find a local Strawbs tribute act doing the rounds. It was after one of his own gigs, however, that documentary maker Niel van Deventer approached him with two propositions: could he make a film about the Strawbs? And would Cousins write a new Strawbs album and allow van Deventer fly-on-the-wall access, while recording it at the Academy of Sound Engineering in Cape Town?

For Cousins this was a no-brainer, especially as van Deventer’s sponsors could help finance the project. Why not make an album and a documentary simultaneously? It would further nourish the Strawbs’ story, plus input from talented local musicians would likely prove inspirational.

“Bassist Schalk Joubert had already played live with me in Cape Town and he was phenomenal,” says Cousins. “He brought in Mauritz Lotz, who is the guitarist in South Africa, then the wonderful drummer Kevin Gibson. I couldn’t believe the quality of what we were recording, and how quickly and easily we were able to do it.”

Working at the Academy of Sound Engineering while students sat in for work experience, The Magic Of It All’s players nailed fine Cousins newies such as Everybody Means Something To Someone, a standout exploring the lost art of letter-writing, and the plea for inclusivity and understanding that is choir- bolstered folk ballad Our World. “Migrants driven by climate change are leaving Africa for the rest of the world and there’s huge upheaval coming,” says Cousins of the latter, which he co-wrote with Strawb John Ford. “But this world belongs to all of us – that’s the point.”

Elsewhere, All Along The Bay, penned by Cousins and producer/keyboardist Weaver, mentions Cape Town’s indigenous jazz music form Ghoema, and also details some of the Strawbs’ South African adventures. But what of the chief Strawbs’ old bandmates? Were they invited to contribute?

Cousins doesn’t want to go into specifics, but Cronk and Lambert did contribute to an early version of album track Wiser Now. “It’s a special and particularly poignant song,” he says, “but when they sent me their parts... well, what can I say? I’d heard it all before, so when the opportunity arose to record with different people in South Africa I jumped at it, and out came a version that was extraordinarily different and very creative.”

Prog approached both Cronk and Bainbridge for comment, but their responses didn’t shed much light on the subject. Bainbridge said that, although he would like to provide some “balance” he’d hold fire for now. Cronk, too, was in two minds about giving his side of the story. “I certainly wouldn’t want to get involved in a ‘band at war’ kind of angle,” he wrote in an email, politely declining to comment further.

Returning to Wiser Now and its poignancy, Prog wonders if Cronk and Lambert might have read meaning into its lyrics and taken umbrage? ‘Nowadays/It’s ever clear/ Friendships that I once held dear/Fade away and disappear/I’m wiser now,’ sings Cousins in sepia-tinted, oh-so-English tones. “No,” says Cousins. “That verse hadn’t been written at that point.”

Yet those lyrics are certainly poignant in the light of current frictions... “I know, but it wasn’t intentional,” Cousins adds, before veering off elsewhere. “That song is partly about me being a late starter as a songwriter, and there’s also a reference to Bob Dylan’s Simple Twist Of Fate. I was in the audience when he played a BBC TV show in 1965 [at the Beeb’s Shepherd’s Bush studios – the film footage was later erased]. I’ll never forget it; he was mesmerising.”

Whatever the rights and wrongs of politics chez Strawbs in 2023, one thing is clear:  Cousins will continue following his muse wherever it takes him. He won’t stop making music, but he’s definitely stepping down from live performance. Indeed, by the time you read this, he will have taken his final bow at 2023’s Cropredy Festival alongside “Strawbs past and present” (though not, pointedly, alongside Cronk, Lambert, Bainbridge or Fernandez).

Cronk and Lambert declined to appear at Cropredy for reasons Cousins won’t discuss, while US resident Bainbridge was sidelined because, as of March 2023, he was still awaiting the Green Card that would allow him to travel, and arrangements progressed without him. Regarding Portugal resident Fernandez, Cousins says his playing the Cropredy adieu would have involved intensive rehearsals, that he – Cousins – would have been unable to undertake due to his incurable myelodysplastic syndrome.

“My doctor’s advice is that, if I contract any kind of infection, I should go straight to accident and emergency,” he says. “I can’t rehearse for long periods in enclosed spaces. Also, a certain other Strawbs member has a perpetual cough, so that wasn’t going to work, either.”

Does Prog sense that Cousins feels some former Strawbs have not been supportive regarding his illness? “Yes, but that didn’t influence any decisions I made,” he replies soberly. It was pragmatism, he explains, that drove his Strawbs team selection for Cropredy: the line-up comprising himself, Weaver and the already rehearsed South Africans. “Oh, and [guitarist] Brian Willoughby, too. He was a Strawb for a long, long time, you know. People tend to forget that Dave Lambert left the band for 20 years...”

Ultimately, Cousins’ ongoing focus is The Magic Of It All – and the new album’s title track celebrates all that he has experienced with the Strawbs. It’s a travelogue, and a love letter to music, but it also details the odd wrong turn. “When I sing ‘We should have banked a goldmine/But then the bank went bust’ it’s a reference to management pulling the plug on us financially circa Heartbreak Hill,” he says. “We’d got waylaid making pop, but Heartbreak... would have put us back on top,” he adds of the Strawbs album that was recorded in 1978, but only released in 1995.

Codification is king for Cousins. He writes his life into his songs, and the playful new track The Lady Of The Night – its title appears to be a red herring – is billed as a light-hearted letter to Strawbs fans. “I won’t give too much away,” he says with a laugh, “but various Strawbs members are written into it. What I can tell you is that the ‘antiquated strummer’ it mentions is me.”

Meanwhile, Niel van Deventer’s The Magic Of It All documentary will arrive later this year. The release format has yet to be finalised, but it will include footage from Cropredy 2023 alongside the making-of-the- album content. “We’re also doing new interviews with [former Strawb] Rick Wakeman and loads of others,’’ says Cousins. “It’s going to be terrific. I can’t wait to see it!”

The chief Strawb takes stock, thinking how best to sign off. “You know, there are literally hundreds of couples who have used the end section of our trilogy Autumn [The Winter Long, from 1974’s Hero And Heroine] as their wedding music. It’s been a wonderful ride; it really has.”

James McNair

James McNair grew up in East Kilbride, Scotland, lived and worked in London for 30 years, and now resides in Whitley Bay, where life is less glamorous, but also cheaper and more breathable. He has written for Classic Rock, Prog, Mojo, Q, Planet Rock, The Independent, The Idler, The Times, and The Telegraph, among other outlets. His first foray into print was a review of Yum Yum Thai restaurant in Stoke Newington, and in many ways it’s been downhill ever since. His favourite Prog bands are Focus and Pavlov’s Dog and he only ever sits down to write atop a Persian rug gifted to him by a former ELP roadie.