Strawbs bursts at the seams

By  Peter Lindblad

This 2009 tour poster includes new member Oliver Wakeman, who takes over for John Hawken on keyboards.

This 2009 tour poster includes new member Oliver Wakeman, who takes over for John Hawken on keyboards.
Willing to suffer the downpour of slings and arrows that was certain to rain down upon him, Dave Cousins made a bold decision to steer the good ship Strawbs in a new direction in the early ’70s.

There was bound to be a backlash, and nowhere did the recoil kick back harder than in the U.K.

Steeling his resolve, Cousins replaced departed guitarist and founding member Tony Hooper with Fire’s Dave Lambert, and just like that, the old Strawbs’ sound, rooted in English folk music, was transformed into something more … electric.

“Dave Cousins was convinced that if they were going to be a successful recording and live act in the U.S., Strawbs would need a more powerful approach,” says Lambert. “I was brought into the band to provide that power on electric guitar.”

With Lambert on board, Strawbs’ sonics packed a heavier wallop — thanks to Lambert’s chording — on its 1973 release Bursting At The Seams, an album that left some holdouts longing for the lithe acoustic sketchings of the band’s past.

“The public were divided on it; the folk purist fans didn’t appreciate the change, whereas we attracted a lot of new fans, who were drawn by our rockier approach,” says Lambert.

Many in Strawbs’ U.K. home decried Strawbs’ reinvention, and Bursting At The Seams did, ironically, lead the band to split apart at the seams. Taking their compositional prowess with them, drummer Richard Hudson and bassist John Ford left to start Hudson-Ford. Blue Weaver also departed.

For 1974’s Hero And Heroine, keyboardist John Hawken, drummer Rod Coombes and bassist Chas Cronk were brought onboard. And it was this lineup that returned to the studio in 2008 to record The Broken Hearted Bride.

Winds of change

For Lambert, the transition to Strawbs from the psychedelic maelstrom of Fire was seamless.

“If you listen to some of the earlier albums, Grave New World in particular, you can hear how easy it was for me to add power-chording; the parts are already there on keyboard and bass,” explains Lambert.

The thrust of force from Lambert’s guitar work helped propel Bursting At The Seams to #2 in the U.K., as the album dispensed two U.K. Top Ten hits, “Lay Down” and “Part Of The Union,” and one track, “Down By The Sea,” received solid airplay on U.S. radio. Cousins’ plan appeared to be working.

“We actually recorded ‘Part Of The Union’ before ‘Lay Down,’ our first hit single,” recalls Lambert. “Everybody we played it to was convinced it was a major hit record, but we held it back until after ‘Lay Down’ had been released because we felt that ‘Lay Down’ was more of a clear representation of the sound we were trying to achieve and the direction we were moving in.”

“Part Of The Union” was written by Ford and Hudson, and the lyrics addressed labor matters in Britain.

“There were a lot of heavy union issues in the U.K. at the time, and the public latched on to the record; it became a kind of anthem,” says Lambert.

Not everyone stood up and cheered for the new Strawbs. The old guard that had supported the band in the early days, when Strawbs was a bluegrass outfit that was slowly morphing into the more ambitious progressive-folk institution it would become, were confounded by Bursting At The Seams.

“Bursting At The Seams and the single ‘Part Of The Union’ introduced us to a whole new audience,” says Lambert. “In the public eye, we were now ‘pop stars,’ and I think a lot of people, particularly the long-standing fans, were very confused about which direction Strawbs was moving toward. We did play on the commercial side of that success, and for a short while, the live show was a bit of a cabaret. It was during the massive Bursting At The Seams U.K. tour that the cracks began to appear.”

That’s when tensions arose over creative control. According to Lambert, “John and Hud were brilliant writers of commercial rock-pop songs, and of course, they wanted to pursue that course after the success of ‘Part Of The Union.’ Dave Cousins and I were more interested in steering the band toward the 10-minute epic songs and the grander gothic sounds, which was where our hearts were.”

With the U.K. tour behind them, Strawbs turned its attention to North America. A long, successful tour hinted at big things for Strawbs, but behind the scenes, problems festered. It became apparent that the boil needed to be lanced.

“I tried everything I could do to get some kind of compromise by getting people to talk it through, but it had gone too far,” admits Lambert.

Of heroes and heroines

So Hudson and Ford left, gutting the core Strawbs lineup. They went on to record a number of records as a duo.

As for Lambert and Cousins, they regrouped and set about the task of rebuilding Strawbs.

“Dave and I took a bit of time off and started, very carefully, to hand-pick the new members to form an outfit that was aimed at the U.S./Canada concert market,” says Lambert. “We enlisted Rod Coombes from Stealers Wheel on drums, John Hawken from Renaissance on keyboards and Chas Cronk, a session player at the time, on bass.”

Watching from afar, Cronk had some knowledge of what was happening with Strawbs.

“My mother had actually worked in the same office with Dave Cousins’ mother for some years, and they used to chat about their sons’ musical prowess,” relates Cronk. “So I was well aware of the band as their popularity grew. Being also from west London and growing up on the musical circuit there, I knew of Dave Lambert and Fire. Having heard From The Witchwood and Grave New World, it seemed obvious that Dave would bring a more electric sound and feel to the band.”

Cronk had many connections, due to his work as a session musician. One of those was legendary keyboardist Rick Wakeman.

“Rick and I met in a music shop in South Ealing,” says Cronk. “He was still in music college and was playing with a couple of function bands. I went to see him play and was, needless to say, blown away — his playing was brilliant and unique.”

Cronk wasn’t idle. He’d been playing around with a number of bands, and increasingly, he’d been working on original material. The songs Cronk submitted to publishers caught the ear of producer Denny Cordell, who signed Cronk to Writer’s Workshop, the publishing arm of the Regal Zonophone record label. Cronk was in good company.

“They already had bands like Procol Harum, The Move, T Rex and had just signed the then-unknown Joe Cocker,” says Cronk. “True to his word, Denny Cordell gave us down time in places like Olympic studios to record demos and emerging projects. I was asked one day to get a keyboard player in for a recording project. I got Rick in to play his first session — a single for Jimmy Thomas, a singer from the Ike & Tina Turner Revenue. Denny Cordell’s assistant produced the session and was none other than Tony Visconti.”

As session players, both Wakeman and Cronk were in high demand, and Wakeman often booked Cronk to play bass on various recordings and film scores. That’s how Cronk met Lambert.

Later, Wakeman invited Cronk to play on a few tracks on Wakeman’s 1973 solo effort, Six Wives Of Henry VII, a progressive-rock touchstone if there ever was one. Cousins played banjo on one of the tracks, with Lambert contributing guitar to the piece.

“The three of us met again, along with Alan White on drums, for Rick’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ broadcast, and it was shortly after that that I got a call asking if I’d like to audition for Strawbs,” says Cronk.

With the new lineup intact, Strawbs reconvened for rehearsals in Devon. Then came the 1974 album Hero And Heroine, a much darker affair than anything Strawbs had done previously, would be the group’s warning shot across the bow.

With vast swaths of Mellotron — which Hawken contributed greatly to — and big guitars, Hero And Heroine retains the classic romanticism of Cousins’ best work.

“The band evolved very organically in a way — a real blending of the skills and influences of the new lineup, and everyone had a lot of input into the songs, arrangements and overall sound.”

As democratic as it was, the inner workings of the new cast led to alterations in its sound, as did the introduction of the Mini Moog.

“There were only a few in the country at the time, and I had just been using one on a project when I joined Strawbs,” says Cronk. “We used it on the album, and it became the signature sound on the ‘Autumn’ intro, ‘Round And Round’ and other tracks.”

Critics in the U.K. treated Hero And Heroine harshly, with New Musical Express savaging the record, perhaps setting public opinion firmly against it. Cronk and company weren’t surprised.

“[There was] disappointment maybe, but I think the critical tide had turned against the name Strawbs in the U.K.,” says Cronk.

And that would continue with the 1975 followup Ghosts, an album that seemed cursed from the start. Troubles with customs led to the impoundment of the band’s equipment for 10 days. A long touring schedule had taken its toll, and then Cousins collapsed and was taken to a London clinic to recover. Still, as problematic as the making of Ghosts was, it just might be the best distillation of the two sides of Strawbs — including the lyrical acoustic-folk personality and its more grandiose rock epics.

“I think the essence of Strawbs has always been about that blend of acoustic and electric, though the balance may vary between albums,” says Cronk. “Even Hero And Heroine contained some distinctly acoustic tracks.”

Experimenting with all kinds of wonderfully strange new effects, Strawbs unleashed a title track intro to Ghosts of bells, acoustic guitar and harpsichord that stands as one of the group’s finest moments. It set the tone for the haunting “Starshine/Angel Wine” and the sweeping epic “Life Auction.” But it was “Lemon Pie” that was supposed to be the hit.

“To be honest, we thought Hero And Heroine would be very difficult to follow up,” says Lambert. “I think because of of that we concentrated our efforts on writing and playing to the very best of our combined strength [on Ghosts]. Hero And Heroine and Ghosts are two albums that we’re immensely proud of; they define Strawbs, if you like.”

Ghosts and its successor, Nomadness, had stronger sales in the U.S. than in the U.K. But, with punk riding roughshed over anything progressive or folk inspired, Strawbs did not capture the flag in America. Personnel changes — including the loss of Coombes — dogged the band, and Strawbs left its label, A&M. Two more albums for the Oyster label disappointed, as did an Arista release, 1978’s poorly received Deadlines.

“Deadlines was a frustrating album to make because of technical problems,” says Cronk. “Some of the multi-tracks got damaged, and a lot of what we had recorded in Dublin had to be re-recorded in London, and it just never felt the same.”

By the end of the 1970s, Strawbs, at least this incarnation, had come to the end of the road. Evidently, however, the band had unfinished business, with the Hero And Heroine lineup bringing forth the triumphant The Broken Hearted Bride in 2008.

Strawbs will be touring the U.K. through May, with U.S. dates in June and July. Strawbs’ 40th anniversary celebrations in Twickenham take place Sept. 12-13, 2009

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