from Jamming 1
This interview took place with Heather Malcolm in Darkest Hampshire, 10th May 1991
Tony was born on 14th September 1943 in Eastry in Kent. He comes from a musical family, his grandfather was a musician and had his own Old Tyme Dance Band (Tony wrote "Ah Me, Ah My " on Grave New World to commemorate him). His first public appearance was in Shaw's "Arms and the Man" while still at school. In a lengthy review, the local paper described him as "an outstanding actor".
The earliest band in which Tony was involved was the Gin Bottle Four, which brought about the first public appearance of the Cousins / Hooper partnership. They played folk, jazz and skiffle music. Tony's friendship with Dave Cousins, which started in junior school, continued throughout their college days. Tony remembers Dave coming to visit him one evening shortly after finishing college. He told Tony to get his guitar out of the attic and come with him to Strawberry Hill. There he was introduced to Arthur Philips, a mandolin player, and the Strawberry Hill Boys were formed, although not actually named until their first performance. Tony sang lead vocals and played acoustic guitar, Dave played 5 string banjo, and Arthur played mandolin. They were probably the first Bluegrass band in the UK.
Tony remembers an occasion when Arthur, in a moment of alcohol - induced rashness, claimed that his Landrover was capable of driving out to a small island in the Thames and back again. The bet was accepted, and Arthur, Tony and Dave set off. Unfortunately, Arthur forgot to engage four-wheel drive, and the car stuck fast in the less than fragrant Thames mud. The coast guards were called, and a buoy was moored over the by now submerged vehicle. A crane was required for the retrieval operation, but after some unpleasant cleaning up, the Landrover was able to return to service as the band transport.
Tony and Dave began to include more and more of their own music in their sets. Tony can remember the exact moment when they decided to leave Hill-billy music behind. He and Dave were singing close harmony in southern American accents when they came to the words
"There's a rabbit on a log, and I aint got my dog"
They burst into uncontrollable laughter, and the moonshine music bit the dust.
By 1968, the third member of the band had changed a few times, and both Ron Chesterman and Sandy Denny had joined Tony and Dave.The Strawbs, as they were known by then, were signed to Sonnet records in Denmark. Unfortunately the deal eventually fell through because the record, (which re-appeared in 1974 as "All Our Own Work") could not then be placed in the UK. Sandy got fed up with waiting for success and left to join Fairport Convention, and the Strawbs went on to sign for A&M.
During the "Witchwood" period of the band, it was decided that each member should establish his own music publishing company. Tony decided to call his "Cube Music", and got as far as registering the name. Then Essex music, who had decided to start a new company by the same name, and had gone to the length of having all the stationary printed, discovered the co-incidence. They were the source of the first profit for Tony's new company, Ashkorma music (named after his Burmese cat, Ashkorma Sukari Minette).
Tony stayed in the band until August 1972. He left because of musical differences, and he expanded on the background behind the traumatic events.
"I felt that we were the best at what we did. The early albums were capable and commercially successful, Grave New World was particularly good, and I believed that there was room to develop along those lines. But there was pressure to succeed in America, and that entailed a move towards rock. I considered that to move in that direction would be to move into competition with many bands who were very good at what they did. In any case, I felt that we should have continued to work on the niche we had built for ourselves in Europe, and wait for America to catch up."
After leaving, Tony recorded a few songs with a solo career in mind, but A&M were not interested, and the idea slipped by as he pursued a career in record production. When the record company he worked for folded, he moved from London to Hampshire to work in the Electronics Industry.
His absence from the music industry was complete. From time to time, he was approached by Dave to get the band together again. A reunion with Sandy Denny was mooted, but the event was made impossible by her tragic, untimely death. Tony didn't pick up a guitar again until he got a call from Rick Wakeman, who was doing a series on Channel 4 with Tony Ashton called Gas Tank. Tony took part in the series, and his appearance attracted the attention of the Cambridge Folk Festival organisers, who asked the band to reform and appear at the festival. The line up was Tony, Dave, Richard Hudson, Blue Weaver, John Ford and Brian Willoughby. Tony remembers taking a week off work to rehearse, and having to soak his fingertips in surgical spirit to harden the skin so he could play the guitar again. Other gigs and a few tours followed, and the band settled down into its present line-up.
In addition to his Strawbs duties, Tony is a book editor for Macmillan, and was recently commissioned to produce outlines for books for 8 to 14 year olds on genetics, electricity and surgery. Would he be happier the leave his name on a book or on an album?
"A book, because it is very difficult to pin down exactly what contribution you have made to the album, but with a book, well, its all me!"
I asked Tony to define the purpose of music.
"Music has a multiplicity of purposes, not just to divert, but to to engage your attention emotionally and intellectually. Music without words can go straight to your soul somehow, and when you can combine the emotion of the music with powerful words, you can produce something with great influence, whether its a love song or a song with with a social dimension. Music should stir you intellectually and physically."
I asked Tony for an example of a Strawbs song which lives up to this ideal.
"All The Little Ladies" is one of the finest things we've done for me because it encapsulates the functions of both poetry and music, which is what a song should be, I think. It makes you sympathetic to the subject and the view point from which it is written, whether you agree with it or not."
The modern-day Strawbs performance is usually a mixture of serious music and some very unserious larking about, so does he take the music as seriously as he used to?
"Oh yes, we may have a snigger now and then, but you can't help taking the music seriously. A lot of Dave's stuff is very poetic, and he's always been able to write a good tune. Even when he moved on to write rock songs, and his melodic lines were diluted by the need to write a riff against which a lead guitar could operate, his talent and personality still came through, and that in itself is an achievement ."
Being a professional musician is never an easy path to follow, and Tony has some ambivalent feelings about his time in the industry:
"One of the greatest pleasures in my life was being involved with the music business, but it is a very anti-social business because you are never there to keep up with friends outside the industry. It has always been a regret of mine that I let those friendships lapse."
Some memories stand out. The happy ones, like being given a bottle of champagne by Paul McCartney, and the less cheerful ones - like the first heart attack suffered by Rick Wakeman. As to Tony's future, he has a few song ideas stored up, has had his multi-track tape recorder updated, and has a keyboard set up. All he needs now is the time.
I asked about the future of the band, I was particularly concerned about the small audience at the Worksop gig.
"We are thinking about involving an agent to book more gigs. I certainly don't think the band will fold because of small audiences we all still enjoy it so much - the largest audience I've ever played to is about 200,000, the smallest is three, and two of those were dancing! "