But as to what we got: First, I must comment on Doug's mention of the Pukka Orchestra connection. For me, this group was a truly delightful precursor to some of the major Canadian acts of the late 80s and 90s, such as Crashtest Dummies and Barenaked Ladies. They were melodic, witty, and sarcastic. A couple of my favorites to this day (I have one LP) are "Cherry Beach Express" and "Your Secret Is Safe With Me". What is masterful about the Strawbs version is that it does not even attempt to imitate the original, which was a lazy acoustic affair, but instead rocks in a comfortable way and utliizes a couple of timely hooks that stick. I once played this CD while a friend was over and she was singing along by the two minute mark, likewise with "Tell Me What You See In Me".
"The King" is quintissential Cousins and perpetuates the hymn motif - great contributions by Cathy Le Surf are added. We can't tell who is in the lead at times. I love the ending very joyous and I'm not even Christian. "Forever Ocean Blue" starts well but is ultimately less than it could have been. "Grace Darling" is a powerful version in a new style and Tell me what you see in me is almost unrecognizable from its roots, but somehow does not move me. I kind of like "Afraid To Let You Go", not as bluesy or raunchy as some of the material that this Cousins-less Strawbs assemblage performed back at the Diamond in 1987, but subdued and subtle in deference to the style that people have come to know from Strawbs.
The title track is a highly emotional number, IMO best experienced in the full band format presented here. The Strawbs have always been masters at arranging sweet songs like this, the gentle lead guitar, the string like keyboards, the voice of Cousins pared of its live raspiness to deliver a textured production that is more like a musical repast than anything. In particular, Willougby's lead between the last verse and the final line tends to send shivers down my spine. I think someone mentioned that the notes seem to cry. It is perhaps Willoughby's most perfectly realized moment yet committed to disk.
The album closes with a few filler-like pieces. Listening to Dave Cousins rail about women has never been my favourite pastime. The last cut shows some promise early but delivers mostly drudgery later. An inauspicious ending to a recording that I would place in the middle of the pack of Strawbs material give or take.
Time to review Ringing Down The Years, one of the Strawbs later efforts. For me, this album existed for one purpose - the title track. All the rest was filler. Excellent filler, though, as I shall express later.
Oddly enough, I started listening to this around the time of my grandmother's death. When she lived with us in Toronto (she passed away in PEI), we used to sing old Irish and Scottish songs together. When I heard the words "As every word you ever sang came ringing down the years", it took on a special meaning. The song is certainly poignant enough for the memorial I ended up using it for. I played the song to some members of my family, who found it quite appropriate. My sister especially found it very beautiful, as she had never heard it before.
One song on the album had a very strange story to it. Many moons ago, two guys joined a band called Yes. They were collectively known as the Buggles. My interest in them became piqued, and I found myself wanting to hear them. My sister had a recording of a song of theirs called "Video Killed the Radio Star", a song so bland it made plain porridge look exciting. However, my sister did not have the version by the Buggles, she had a version by a Canadian band called the Pukka Orchestra. Curiosity overcame me, and I listened to it, as well selected other pieces by them that my sister felt I would be interested in. Most of it has faded into deserved obscurity, but there was one or two songs that I thought showed some potential. There was a song there that failed to catch my attention in any way, shape or form, and I ignored it. It was called "Might As Well Be On Mars". I only noticed it for the fact that I agreed so readily with it in terms of their music.
Some years later, when Ringing was released, I heard this song again, and knew I had heard it somewhere before. My family then became quite concerned as I walked about the house saying "Naw, couldn't be!", without any explanation. Finally I came to accept this, although it wasn't easy. Canada has had some wonderful bands and artists in our history. Why did the Strawbs pick the Pukka Orchestra? Not that they did a bad job of it; in fact, they improved it 100%! Mind you, the Strawbs could have moaned it in a drunken stupor and it would have improved it.
As for the rest of the songs, I absolutely loved, adored, and was passionately in love with "Forever Ocean Blue", a passion that has lasted to this day. "The King" is delightful, as are all the others. However, I never really liked "Afraid to Let You Go" too much.
I love listening to this one, and it certainly is easy to listen to. It may not have been the ground-breaking masterpiece that their earlier works were, but it certainly proved their power has not diminished over the years. During the difficult days I've experienced lately, this album has proven to be a real comfort. Thank God for the Strawbs. Doug.
A while back Don Rodgers, who used to work with A&M Canada explained to me the inclusion of the Pukka Orchestra track, which was done for a wholly commercial reason:
"We also put out Ringing Down The Years on Virgin which featured the single in Canada "Might As Well Be On Mars", written by two Canadian songwriters.
Canadian radio must play at least 30% Canadian content, which is made up of four parts. It is known as M.A.P.L. or "maple", as it is referred to in Canada. M=music, A-artist, P=producer, l=lyrics. To qualify as cancon, a song must have at least two of those four parts. As an example, Canadian songwriter Marc Jordan wrote a song which Rod Stewart covered. Because the M+L (music & lyrics) were written by a Canadian, the song qualified as cancon, thus Rod Stewart is "Canadian". Because Bryan Adams, who is Canadian, co-writes with non-Canadians, and records his music overseas with a non-Canadian producer, is not Canadian, (but remember, Rod Stewart is because he is singing a song written wholly by a Canadian).
Because a song is cancon (Canadian content), radio can play it more easily because they have to play at least 30% Canadian content. If the song was not cancon, they would rather play the latest Phil Collins or whomever track, than a track by the Strawbs. That is why the band recorded "Might As Well Be On Mars". The track was written by two Canadians, and released on their own album as Pukka Orchestra which was released on Virgin Records Canada, during the time when Doug Chappell was the president of Virgin Canada. Since Doug was a close friend of Dave Cousins and the Strawbs, he got them to record the single because it was cancon and would help the band get on the air in Canada. Doug also helped produce the Classic Strawbs album which was only released in Canada."
It amused me to realise that Rod Stewart could be more "Canadian" than Bryan Adams. Another strange day over the hill ....
A few thoughts about Ringing Down The Years. I must start with the confession that it's an album I haven't really played as much as I should have done, but this is partly because the title track is such a cracker, and therefore tends to get played on its own! It really is one of the most poignant songs I have heard for a number of years, and IMO by far the best track on any of the recent recordings. Dave's distress and grief really shine through on this version, better than any of the other recordings I've heard on the song. This is especially true on the dramatic bridge, the verse ending "Georgia on my mind!" and the final lead guitar passage. It's a lovely track to listen to if I'm feeling a bit down myself, when it reliably brings tears to my eyes. Brian's lead guitar is superb and for me it's one of the finest examples of his playing. And of course a fantastic tribute to Sandy Denny.
Absolutely correct about the title track, I also find it full of hooks that keep it lodged in the memory for days after playing. The song's structure is so good. I tend to think of Dave Cousins as lyrics first, melody a close second, but then he contradicts me on so many songs. S'pose that's talent for you - and as a struggling strummer myself, I envy him even more.
And Brian's intro is perfect. I'm a great fan of his acoustic work, but here, I think the spaces between the notes are timed to perfection. Also the 'crying' notes he plays with the volume 'pot'- pure nectar.
Ringing Down The Years is the best song on the CD in my opinion. I was dissapointed by it when I bought it and i thought that although it had some good songs like "Forever Ocean Blue" it sounded like what could be played on a "light rock" station. The songs were too mellow and polished sounding. "So Afraid To Let You Go" sounded more like something Eric Clapton would put out right down to his stylings. I can't say much positive about this CD and I like the version of "Ringing Down the Years" better off Georgia On Our Mind or Complete Strawbs.
For me "The King" and "Might As Well Be On Mars" are the the high points of Ringing Down The Years. I heard "Might" on the radio, not knowing that the Strawbs had a new release. I knew it was done by the Pukka Orchestra ... but hey! Wait a minute, I recognise that voice! The DJ on the radio was Don Burnz, and he said "A new song from the Strawbs is like a visit from an old friend". So true.
I also love "The King", which happens to be one of my favourite Strawbs songs. Curiously, I thought it was going to be everybody's favourite when the time for review of Ringing Down The Years came, but...
As for the rest of the album, I like any version of the title track, but not so "Grace Darling", which I think is a bit overlong. On the other hand, this is my favourite version of "Tell Me What You See In Me". I also enjoy a lot "Forever Ocean Blue", which plays for me like a mirror of "Let it Rain" (don't ask me why, but remember I first listened to both records in their double CD re-issue). The rest of the album doesn't say much to me, but itīs pleasant to listen to.
Actually, I rather like "Might As Well Be On Mars". It is typical of Dave Cousins to give his all to even the least promising of material. And "Might As Well Be on Mars" isn't so bad lyrically. "I Might As Well Be Eating Mars" might be better.............. oh no, Marianne Faithfull and Mick have already got that covered.
The album as a whole is a return to form after the rather iffy Don't Say Goodbye. The new version of "Grace Darling" is particularly welcome, paving the way for the superb rendition on Greatest Hits Live. "The King" is a bit too overtly religious for my taste, but beautifully done nonetheless.