"Halcyon Days" is a very welcome release, offering an opportunity to sample the riches of the Strawbs back catalogue in CD format. Those involved in choosing the tracks have done a nice job, selecting a range of material from the full range of the Strawbs' A&M history.
Fans with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Strawbs will of course NEVER be satisfied with just 2CDs worth: there will always be one or two tracks which should never have been overlooked - not much there for me from "Dragonfly" or "Ghosts" - but completists like me will only be satisfied when the original albums themselves have all been released in CD format, along with bonus tracks and outtakes, of which a reasonable number are already known to exist. (Who knows how many more lurk within the A&M vaults: from "Witchwood" outtakes (the band reputedly recorded three times as much material as needed) to the full version of the July 1970 Queen Elizabeth Hall concert, of which "Antiques and Curios" represents only SOME of the new songs!
Nice touches, for me, are the inclusion of the Strawbs UK singles B-sides, the copies of which I have are have inevitably been treated with less care and respect than proper albums receive. Sad gaps here are the 1970 single "Forever" and Rod Coombes' "Changes Arranges", the B-side to "Grace Darling". However, the full version of "Why and Wherefore" is a treat, and, particularly for me, a new studio full band uptempo version (not the version from Dave Cousins' solo album as the sleeve notes suggest) of "We'll Meet Again Sometime" with Tony Hooper taking lead vocals as he used to in the late 60s/early 70s. Don't get me wrong - I love the Cousins version - but it's great to have an unheralded rarity spring out from nowhere as I listened through.
Hopefully, sales of "Halcyon Days" will justify the long overdue release of original Strawbs' albums, Dave's lovely solo "Two Weeks Last Summer" and the A&M Hudson Ford material. The website will shortly be setting up an online form for you to vote for which albums you would like to see committed to CD so that we can pass this information on to A&M to try and encourage them to do so. Watch the contents page for further details.
The rest of this page pulls together some background to each of the songs included on "Halcyon Days". The information was gathered from music press clippings (thanks to Dave Passmore, Hud and Anil Prasad for sending me stuff to add to my own clippings archive) and various sleeve notes (mostly by John Tobler - thans John!) through the years. On top of that, Dave Cousins' introductions to the songs when performed live are frequently extremely informative. Hope you enjoy the CD - let me know what you make of it.
The Ghosts album proved troublesome in the making. During the sessions, Cousins collapsed, suffering from physical and mental exhaustion and was told to take a few weeks off, which he did, escaping to the south of France. On Choice Selection, Cousins recalled:
"We made it at the Manor, and I ended up in the London Clinic having a lumbar puncture to test whether I had a brain tumour, but I was actually suffering from overwork and strain. The vocals for the album were done just after I came out of hospital, and I had to lie down on the studio floor, sit up and sing a line, then lie down again."
According to the Cousins-written A&M promotional material for the album, the track "Ghosts" was written, unusually, on the road in Indianapolis, rather than in Cousins' beloved West country. From his hotel window he could see the War Memorial square and it victory column - it looked more like a provincial English town than anything else he had seen in the US. The room had a lion's head bedspread and a grinning skull pendant light, all of which contributed to the nightmare which followed.
Anne Pancella has contributed some information about Indianapolis and has just sent me some postcards and stuff about this - see the Stories page for her comments.
"On Growing Older" appeared on Grave New World, though few may have recognised that the song was rescued from Cousins' back pocket, and was at least 4 or 5 years old. A version appears on the rare Strawberry Sampler, with only a slight change in lyric - "pate de foie" in 1971 instead of "foie de gras" in the late 60s.
A jolly acoustic number with Cousins/Hooper harmonies at probably their high point, this was recorded, according to Tony Hooper, at Morgan Studios, the last track of an otherwise very unproductive session, the rest of which was wiped.
An early Cousins classic. The version from the first album, complete with spoken word lead in by Victor Meldrew actor Richard Wilson. Released as the band's second single in November 1968, it features various heavy friends such as John Paul Jones on bass and Nicky Hopkins on piano. The US mix of the single emphasised the rock backing, bringing up the electric guitar: this is the UK mix which is a bit more restrained.
As Cousins notes on the sleeve of Halcyon Days, the song tells the story of what it might be like if Jesus came back in modern times i.e. nobody would believe him. The song was inspired by a story told to Cousins about a Copenhagen shop owner who had actually had a guy come into his shop claiming to be Jesus.
"Stormy Down" is a hardy perennial in the live set, where Cousins explains that it was written about the journey the band frequently had to undertake when travelling to and from Wales for gigs before the M4 was built. Stormy Down was a moor over which the old road travelled, and on one particularly stormy night, Cousins caught sight of a chance cloud formation and wrote the song as a result. At the time, it seemed to be a source of conflict with the other members of the band - at one time Cousins felt the others had just gone through the motions on the song, it was in and out before anyone noticed it. In hindsight, with Lambert's careful guitar phrasing interspersed between Cousins' vocal lines, and the others joining in on the chorus, the simplicity of the bass and drums was just right, and it remains one of Cousins' most perfectly realised pop songs, and could well have done well as a single (though no doubt a "cloud that looked like God the Father" would have raised hackles at the Beeb!).
A song first included in an early version on the Strawberry Sampler, and subsequently on Dragonfly, Cousins commented in the fanzine Jamming:
"'I Turned My Face Into The Wind' was written after a walk on a very bleak moor in Yorkshire, I think it was near Barnsley. The song reflected my state of mind at the time .. it's not a favourite of mine."
Whereas the Sampler version is guitar-based, Cousins played the track on piano when it was recorded for Dragonfly, and Claire Deniz' cello reinforces the atmosphere of sheer misery.
"Queen Of Dreams" introduced new sounds to the Strawbs' repertoire: after the first two verses, an electric dulcimer played with a steel, put through a fuzz box and then treated via some electronic wizardry, produced sound effects reminiscent of a helicopter taking off , then back to Cousins and Hooper's acoustic guitars for a third verse. The track finished with an extended drum solo from Hudson, which meandered nicely between the stereo speakers.
"Witchwood" features the unusual vocal combination of Dave and John Ford, with Dave creating an unusual texture of sound by playing both dulcimer and banjo, the latter capoed very high up to sound like a sort of ancient Chinese stringed instrument rather than the folk-style banjo. The song was the first Cousins had written on guitar and then transposed to dulcimer.
A Hudson Ford-penned number with Tony Hooper taking the lead vocals, and Wakeman keyboards, "Let's Keep The Devil Outside" was rescued from the B-side of the withdrawn "Witchwood" single and appeared as the B-side of "Benedictus" in the UK. (In Japan "Let's Keep The Devil Outside" was released as the A-side with "Tomorrow" as the B-side).
"Hangman" was the first track they recorded for the From The Witchwood sessions, and it was recorded almost live in the studio. Written by Cousins in response to the worsening troubles in Northern Ireland, it has become a perennial feature in the live set, remaining, sadly, as relevant in 1997 as it was then. In April 1971, Cousins explained that the idea had come to him when the very first news bulletins came across from Belfast, but it wasn't until October 1970 that he found the right circumstances to draw the song out - and then the whole thing was written in a day. The song relates to Cousins' own family background: he was brought up a Catholic, his brother and sister as Protestants.
The first offering from the version of the Strawbs containing Blue Weaver was the track "Benedictus", a dulcimer-based, almost hymn-like song, recorded in October 1971 and released as a single in November to whet fans' appetite for the album Grave New World to follow. "Benedictus" is still a very popular Strawbs number which resurfaced for the 1993 tour, despite, as Dave Lambert recalled when he joined the band, it being "a bastard to get to know".
In late '74, in an interview in ZigZag, Cousins forewarned that his musical style was lightening away from the Hero and Heroine period: "... for instance I've gone back to dulcimer, come up with a couple of old dulcimer tunes and written meandering lyrics to go with a very Eastern style tune."
That track was "The Golden Salamander", which, set against a background of dulcimer guitar and vocals, is one of the outstanding tracks an album which confused and disappointed US fans, though which is enjoyable nonetheless. Opening with a gentle duet between Cousins on electric dulcimer and Lambert on electric guitar, the sound soon swells with tastefully understated 10CC-style "I'm Not In Love" multi-tracked vocals.
What the hell the lyrics are all about is anyone's guess!!
This has always been one of my favourite tracks, and the news from the Halcyon Days sleeve notes that Rick Wakeman guested "naked" on electric harpsichord probably accounts for Cousins' otherwise unaccountable giggles during the second chorus. The song is built round a little harpsichord riff which repeats just before the chorus, and Lambert contributes an couple of excellent lead guitar breaks whenever there is a gap in the music.
One of the best known Strawbs songs, a standard in the live set pretty much since it appeared on the album of the same title in 1974. Classic Cousins acoustic guitar (Cousins had just bought his first Ovation electro-acoustic around then) with Hawken mellotron and keyboards, it was released as a single to coincide with the album in the UK. With hindsight, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if "Hero" could have been the follow-up single to "Part Of The Union" - it has far more power and dynamic than "Shine On Silver Sun" and might have charted more readily (though it has to be conceded that the song's subject matter would have frightened off the timid BBC).
It is a parable about hard drugs, though Cousins has conceded that it was written on two levels and can be seen as a song about a love affair gone wrong and represents a pretty bleak period in Cousins' personal life:
"I'd never take heroin because I've known people who have. But I have known despair, total despair .... you can only write about total despair if you've known it ... It's the same as ... when I was criticised by papers like International Times and Friendz for writing about the beauties of the countryside ... if you're living in Notting Hill Gate you don't know about these things. All you see are the slums of London.... Now I'm writing about total sorrow, in depth from personal experience. And people who haven't experienced total sorrow can't really understand what I'm talking about."
A reply in the questions and answers section of Melody Maker sheds some light on the unusual piano sound on the track. The backing track was slowed to half speed and Hawken played the music towards the bass end of the piano - then the track is played at normal speed, giving the effect of astonishingly fast piano playing.
After the split in July 1973, both of the halves of the band that had been the most successful line-up of the Strawbs to date were keen to get back into the studio: they knew how fickle the UK singles market could be. A single "Pick Up The Pieces" and an album Nickelodeon were quickly recorded by Hudson and Ford; Cousins confirmed later in an interview that the songs on that first album were the songs he didn't feel particularly fitted in with the Strawbs sound - however it did mean that Hud and John had enough material to get something out quickly. They were supported by various players - particularly guitarist Micky Keen, keyboard player Chris Parren, who were later to be mainstays of the Hudson-Ford band. Hudson had decided to move from behind the drumkit to the front line, brushing up his guitar work. Veteran sessions man Gerry Conway provided the rhythm for the album, and Rick Wakeman popped up to provide keyboards on a couple of tracks.
In fact, Hud confirms that the central riff to "Pick Up The Pieces" was around as early as the Witchwood sessions. He had played the riff, without words as yet, to Dave Cousins, who had thought it too rock-oriented for the band at that point.
This is supposed to be the single version of the song, which is slightly shorter. For the album version, the chorus is played twice each time it occurs rather than once. However, it sounds as though this is actually the album version despite the assertion on the sleeve notes to the contrary.
An odd spoof track about David Bowie (who used to visit Cousins' Arts Lab back in Hounslow in the old days) with mildly offensive lyrics, which was credited to Ciggy Barlust and the Whales From Venus.
"Out In The Cold" includes some uncredited harmonica played by Mozzy from Colin Scot's band according to response from Dave Lambert to a question in Melody Maker. That track leads into the chilling "Round and Round", Cousins' barbed commentary on the failure of so-called flower power to change the world. In the NME Cousins explained:
"I'm writing more openly and frankly than I have done before. But this style tends to upset people who can't identify with this bluntness. ....When I sing 'I drew the blade across my wrist' it's not just being dramatic... I felt very suicidal. I was scraping paint off a window with a razor blade and I actually started to draw it across my wrist just to see how it did feel. I ended up nicking the skin and a little blood came out. I suddenly thought: 'Well I don't want to die at the moment.'"
With a recording contract signed and sealed with A&M in mid 1968, the Strawbs were ready to go into the studio. First of all, however, the two tracks they recorded in order to get Polydor interested were released by A&M as a single. "Oh How She Changed" b/w "Or Am I Dreaming" was released as AMS 725 on June 21, 1968 according to the date on UK promo copies.
"Oh How She Changed" was essentially a pop song, an ideal first single, albeit influenced by the Young Tradition's harmonies, which Cousins and Hooper admired. The release of the single started to get the Strawbs noticed. It was a minor hit in Australia, but "that was about the only place it sold", remarked Cousins wryly in a later interview. Back in the UK, the band played on a Southern TV show with Tony Blackburn, who at that time was a singer rather than a DJ and the single was David Symonds' record of the week.
This was one of the earliest of the Cousins epics, nearly released as a single (an ad appeared in ZigZag) but presumably ruled out owing to its length.
This track released as a UK single in November 1974 to coincide with the album release in the UK backed by Rod Coombes' non-album track "Changes Arranges". It was described by A&M in their marketing bumf as "a big hit for Christmas". Cousins had come across the story of Darling, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper in the north east of England, who, lived alone with her father in his lighthouse. At the time, Cousins also confessed that the song had a dual purpose - to be both an elegy to Grace Darling and a way of saying thank you to a present day rescuer.
The song begins in the chapel of Charterhouse School, with the choir and choirmaster of West Wycombe church, arranged by Robert Kirby. Cousins' guitar and vocals sometimes seems a little swamped in the wash of organ and choral refrain, and the song was later revamped for the Ringing Down The Years album to give more prominence to the acoustic guitar riff and to make room for a powerful lead guitar part for Brian Willoughby. It remains a frequently performed song today.
With a view to their growing Canadian army of fans, they recorded a version of "Grace" in French - "Cherie Je T'aime", which was released in Canada only. The lyrics surfaced again in Cousins long-delayed 1993 poetry book, "The Bruising Of Hearts, The Losing Of Races".
Cousins' tour de force from his solo album became a regular for the Cousins and Willoughby duo. However, at the time it was written, though Cousins felt that it was "among the best songs I've written, and I wanted to do the song on stage" the other members of the band at the time didn't want to do it, so the song only joined the Strawbs repertoire for the 1993 Silver Anniversary tour. On this track Cousins is supported by Deep Purple's Roger Glover, Rick Wakeman, Jon Hiseman and guitarist Miller Anderson.
I regard the track as one of Cousins greatest compositions, and it alone would justify the album's re-release on CD which is long overdue.
In the middle of the early 1972 tour, the Strawbs slipped away to Morgan Studios to record the non-album track "Here It Comes", which was rush-released as a single in April 1972, backed with "Tomorrow" from the Grave New World album. It was to be Hooper's last recording with the band and a harbinger of things to come - an out and out pop song, based on a chugging rhythm with Cousins and co. singing "Here it comes, love, love" for all they were worth. The announcements made much of the fact that the song was the "first track recorded primarily as a single and will not be featured on any of the group's future albums."
The single garnered quite good reviews: "Neat Latin rhythm here .. suggests a hit single ... a persistent little production." "Backing predominantly percussive, with the occasional insertion what I can only describe as sort of squelchy organ." "... nice and melodic and has a nice feel about it, especially Blue Weaver's organ break, that makes me think in terms of the charts..."
This song was at one time a Cousins solo live favourite, which apparently features the first use of mellotron by Wakeman, and which, as Cousins revealed in the Sounds Talk In in January 1972, had taken "ages to write because I'm very concerned with getting the lyrics down absolutely perfectly" rather than seeking the impact, aggression and emotion of the other, more speedily written numbers.
This is the real surprise of the compilation - a hitherto wholly unknown rarity!
This song, which goes back some considerable time in the Strawbs history, used to be a standard in the early Strawbs set, with Tony Hooper belting out the lead vocal. An early demo version of this sort of treatment was released on Preserves Uncanned in 1991. The July 1970 concert at the QEH which launched Rick Wakeman on the world opened with this song, by now a firm favourite with longtime Strawbs fans: the instrumental break was reprised and extended in the closing number of the concert "Where Is This Dream Of Your Youth". This version nearly saw the light of day as the B-side to the withdrawn single from the From The Witchwood album, but was pulled at the last minutes after promotional and a very few real copies had been pressed and distributed.
Dave Cousins re-recorded the song for his solo album Two Weeks Last Summer as a two guitar duet with slide guitarist Miller Anderson (a foretaste of his future acoustic collaboration with the nimble fingered Brian Willoughby). This version was recorded in the open air, in the grounds of the newly opened Manor studios, complete with birdsong and passing traffic noise to add extra atmosphere. It is this version that was expected, even by John Tobler who wrote the extensive sleeve notes. " But this is not the case ...
The version on "Halcyon Days" is a pretty complete studio version recorded with Tony Hooper on lead vocals as before, but with fairly heavy electric guitar, organ and cello backing. It follows the tempo of the old late 60s early 70s versions rather than the more relaxed approach on the solo. It is hitherto unreleased.
This is in fact one of the fabled Witchwood session outtakes! Tony Hooper recalls recording the song at Air Studios.
This was a song which the Strawbs had had around since earlier folkier days (and of which an early version subsequently appeared on Preserves Uncanned). The song was inspired by the last speech of the American civil rights leader. Cousins was later invited to perform the song in front of King's widow at a rally in London.
Apparently, there was at one point a possibility that Cliff Richard might record this track as a single - Hooper knew Cliff Richard through a member of the Settlers, with whom Hooper shared a London flat. However as far as is known, nothing came of this - anyone know different ... ?
To coincide with the release of their debut album Nickelodeon in the US, this single was released in February 1974. The US version of the album includes the track, replacing the more thoughtful number "Solitude" which appears on the UK version. It reached number 15 in the UK charts.
The song is apparently inspired by the trip the Strawbs made to the industrial heart of Canada, to promote Bursting At The Seams which is documented in the Stories page with an entry from Colin MacDonald, then an A&M staffer in Canada. A photo survives on the inside of the Classic Strawbs album released in Canada (them in the foreground, a huge smokestack belching smoke in the background - Colin had the smoke airbrushed in in the design studio by the way).
After the split, the Strawbs were also keen to put something out in order to keep the name in front of the record buying public whilst the process of reforming the band took place in deepest Devon. According to Cousins, in contrast to the 300 hours of studio time taken to record the Bursting At The Seams album, the single "Shine On Silver Sun" took only four and a half hours to record and mix:
"The backtrack was put down in an hour and a half in three takes. The vocal track took an hour - interesting that, as Chas Cronk's harmonies are much higher than any the Strawbs have had since Sandy Denny split years ago - there were a couple of overdubs and then the track was mixed."
One of those overdubs was Hawken's mellotron, added to the last verse. Producer Tom Allom as saying "I don't think I've ever seen the Strawbs work so hard". Shine On was the fourth track they recorded in their session in Island Studios in late July/early August 1973, and this was only their third day in the studios - contrast this with the work rate for the previous album of about a track per week.
Candidates for the single had been either "Shine On Silver Sun" or "When You Need A Hole To Crawl In" (the latter lost the toss and surfaced first as the B-side to "The Winter Long" and then on Ghosts). "Shine On Silver Sun" was released it in the same month as "Pick Up The Pieces" (initially scheduled for August 31 release, it was held up for a week as A&M weren't able to cut enough copies to meet advance orders). Reviews were mixed: "a tepid piece of droning nausea, that must represent some kind of low point for the Strawbs" (he didn't like it!); elsewhere, "another power packed product from the Strawbs ... the lyrics are simple and the hook line comes frequently enough to stick. Oh yes we shall soon see the jolly little form of Mr. Cousins bopping around on TOTP I think." (he did like it!).
Sadly for the new-look Strawbs, "Shine On" only reached number 34, despite lots of airplay - particularly from Alan Freeman - and a Top Of The Pops appearance.
The B-side of "Shine On Silver Sun" was non-album track "And Wherefore", which after a couple of verses from Cousins, runs into a rousing piano workout for Hawken and the band. The track was originally intended as the closing part of a three part song "Why And Wherefore", following an old Cousins song "Why" dating back to the 60s (a version appears on Preserves) and a middle section. The full version of the song appears in full on "Halcyon Days", and a live version can be found on bootleg CD "In Search Of The Heroine" as a substitute for "Hero And Heroine" when John Hawken's Mellotron packed up on a live radio show.
However, those of you with a battered copy of the "Shine On" single shouldn't go throwing it away just yet - the version of "And Wherefore" on the back of that single is a different take entirely (rather than an edit of the longer song as previously supposed). The Halcyon Days version has Cousins and Lambert sharing the vocals on the And Wherefore section, which rather longer, and lacks the harmonica solo, but with a guitar solo instead!!
"Floating In The Wind", released in May 1974 as a taster for Hudson Ford's second album Free Spirit reached number 34 in the UK charts. The Strawbs reformed in 1983 and John Ford was with te reformed band until 1985. During that period, "Floating In The Wind" and "Heavy Disguise" featured from time to time as a Hud, John and Chris Parren slot in the middle of the Strawbs live set.
This appears on Nomadness, a fairly faithful bluesy treatment of a song which also appears on the Preserves Uncanned 2CD in an early version as "How I Need You".
"Part Of The Union", released on 4 January 1973, was the Strawbs' biggest, though an uncharacteristic, hit. It entered the UK charts on 27 January 1973 at number 19 and stayed in the charts for 11 weeks, rising to number three the following week and then peaking at number two for two weeks, held off the number one position by Sweet's "Blockbuster". By the time that Chinn-Chapman composition had run out of steam, to be replaced by Slade's "Cum On Feel The Noize", which came straight in at number one, the Strawbs were on the way down again. Dealing with the UK's then constant labour relations problems, the song caused a good deal of controversy, with the chairman of the Monday Club (a right wing grouping of Conservative politicians) raising questions in the Houses of Parliament about the song..
It had originally been recorded by Hudson, Ford, Weaver and Lambert, whilst Cousins was making his solo LP. The intention had been to release it under the name "The Brothers"; in the end it was included on the album in a re-recorded version with a new honky-tonk piano break from Weaver. Hud explained:
"When it came to doing Bursting At The Seams, we were really short of material, and although we had never considered 'Part of the Union' to be Strawbs material, in the end we had to put it on the album because we were so hard up for songs. ... We completely re-recorded it and it came out quite a bit different from our version."
The Record Collector article features a photograph of the acetate of the original version, but fails to provide even a guesstimate of value. If a copy still exists and is available, then that is the sort of material which should be rescued from obscurity and transferred to CD (hint!)
"Part of the Union" single was backed with what was thought to be a traditional song "Wild Mountain Thyme", here entitled "Will You Go" (it was in fact written by Francis McPeake). Over Blue Weaver's accordion playing, it was vintage folky Strawbs, and was wasted as a single B-side. It became a Strawbs live favourite to close the set - a sort of "Goodnight Irene" song - and many of the live photos of the time feature various of the Strawbs, clustered around Weaver on the accordion, singing the raucous chorus.
Stuart Douglas (folk-singer Alex Campbell's nephew) knew the Strawbs fairly well in those days and recalls:
"I heard them play "Will Ye Go" in Glasgow in the early seventies. I had dinner with Alex that night and told him the band had played it. The song was apparently written for Alex by Francis McPeake. Alex apparently went on to popularize the song. I got the impression that Francis never got any credit for writing this great song and lived on the streets in Belfast."
Though mellotron was much in evidence on the rest of the Bursting At The Seams album, for "Down By The Sea", the Strawbs used a 30-piece orchestra, conducted by Robert Kirby to provide the orchestral backing for the song. Cousins on the background to the song:
"The song was very much tied up with my crumbling marriage, but it was actually written walking along the sea wall with this mountainous sea in Dover."
"The River", a bleak Cousins classic, contained explicitly sexual lyrics - a long way from the sort of allegory adopted in earlier Cousins songs (though even back in 1970, Cousins was capable of using the word "nipples" in the song "Fingertips" and performing it at the QEH). The song is performed over acoustic guitar and muted guitar from Lambert, and on Bursting At The Seams, it would have benefited greatly from being followed by the epic "Down By The Sea" (as is inevitably the case in Strawbs gigs to this day).
Cousins has said of the Bursting at the Seams album:
"I've had a lot of personal changes myself recently and this has affected my style of writing amazingly. My songs totally reflect me, the way I feel ... my songs before were secretive - almost deliberately secretive - I didn't want people to know what they were about. If they read deeply enough into them they could find out what they were about, but now I'm saying in two or three words what took many words before. It's really a whole reappraisal I suppose. ... The music [is] much heavier, it's much more intense, it's much more emotional."
This is the 1991 re-recorded version which appeared on the Ringing Down The Years CD, released only in Canada on the Virgin label, which [was] re-issued by Road Goes On Forever as a 2CD with Don't Say Goodbye in 1998.