In part one, Dave Cousins celebrated Strawbs’ on-going US tour with some words about the current band, recent music, and the astonishing revision of their 1974 Hero and Heroine album that lies at the heart of their live set.
But now it’s time to look back at the fifty years that led up to this tour….
Spin Cycle: You mentioned last time how and why you changed your name to Strawbs, but even as the earlier Strawberry Hill Boys you were making a splash.
Dave Cousins: We did an incredible number of BBC radio shows; we were probably the first folk group ever to pass a BBC audition to get on the radio, so we were doing programs like Saturday Club… our first program had the Beatles, Brian Poole & the Tremeloes, the Chris Barber Jazz Band and the Strawberry Hill Boys.
SC: Weren’t you also involved in radio from the other side of the microphone at this time?
DC: I was working at the time with a guy named Tom Browne…. I’d met him in Denmark on a solo tour, the only one I ever did at that time, and he produced a folk program for Danish Radio. He phoned me up and said look, they want me to do a program from London about pop music, I don’t know anything about it, do you?” I said yeah a bit, I gave him some phone numbers and suddenly I became the producer of a series called the London News on Danish radio, that ran for about six years. We were working out of the HQ of Radio One, so I got to know all the DJs and that became incredibly valuable for us later on.
SC: All of which stood you in good stead when you asked Sandy Denny to join the band.
DC: One evening I went down to a folk club in west London called the Troubadour, in Earls Court, and saw Sandy playing. I still remember to this day, she was wearing a long white dress, a white straw tat and she was playing a Gibson Hummingbird, guitar and after she had finished her set, I went up to her, introduced myself and out of the blue asked her do you want to join a group?
She asked who, and I said Strawbs, because we were pretty well known by then, and Sandy said ‘hmm, yeah alright.’
So we went round to rehearsals, and I’d started writting all these new songs which we hadn’t done anything with, so we sang them with her and it was absolute magic. The three of us - Sandy, Tony Hooper and I - harmonized beautifully, we took turns with lead vocals, and we made some demos at Cecil Sharp House, and then thought what are we going to do with it?
SC: You sent them to Denmark….
DC: Tom Browne took our demo to Karl Knudson at Sonet Records, who called us up and asked would we make an album for him? So we all signed the contacts, got on the boat, went over to Denmark, and went into the studio, which was a working cinema, to record an album.
We made the album during the day between midday and 5.30, then they closed the studio and opened the cinema, and we went off to Tivoli Gardens and sang at a small club there. We sang in there every night for a week.
We finished the album, I dreamed up a title, All Our Own Work, and Sandy got down on her knees on the pavement, drew caricatures of us all and that became the sleeve for our album. Then I brought my acetate back to London, and it took us three months to find someone who wanted to release the record… by which time Sandy had gone off and joined Fairport Convention.
SC: And the album’s been coming out on different labels ever since. I still think fondly of my early 70s copy, on the budget-priced Hallmark label.
DC: Don’t! What they did, they cut the pictures of us out from the original color photo, and put that ghastly pink cover on it. We’ve out it out on our own label now, it’s called All Our Own Work - the Complete Sessions, and it includes every track we recorded, different versions, and bonus tracks as well.
It is absolutely stunning; I live in a town called Deal, and there’s a recording studio about three miles from my house run by Chris Tsangarides, the heavy metal producer, so he remastered it for me and it sounds staggering. That record sells over and over again, through Amazon and the stores, it’s our biggest seller.
SC: Whenever Strawbs are mentioned, people do seem to gravitate towards the line-up changes - Sandy, Rick Wakeman, Blue Weaver, Hudson Ford and so on. But you’ve actually been very lucky with personnel changes, in that Strawbs have always had that good, firm nucleus.
DC: We’ve got the same front people as we had from 1973, and you don’t get that very often. That’s guitar, bass and me, and all three of us sing, and we’ve had reviews that say we’re better than Crosby Stills & Nash at their peak. Another reviewer said the entire Styx catalog was nicked from us.
SC: What do you think of these bands who obviously listened to a lot of Strawbs as they were starting out?
DC: Well, it’s very flattering. There’s a lovely little group up in Canada called the Once, who’ve recorded “Sail Away to the Sea,” and it’s gorgeous. It’s the opening track to their first album, I think, and it sounds absolutely fabulous.
But if you think about it, Strawbs have had the best keyboard line-up of any band ever, including Yes. We’ve had Rick Wakeman, Blue Weaver, John Hawkin, Andy Richards… Don Airey was with us for a year, then Adam Wakeman, Oliver Wakeman, and now we’ve got Dave Bainbridge who people … their jaws are going to drop because he’s as good as any of them. We’re bringing out a DVD of Strawbs’ 40th anniversary performance and it’ll have four keyboard players 0n it - Rick and Oliver, Andy and Blue Weaver. And I think people will be very interested to see the difference in styles.
SC: Aside from the albums, which always sold respectably, you also enjoyed a run of hit singles in the UK in the early 1970s… “Lay Down,” “Shine On Silver Sun” and, most notoriously, Hudson and John Ford’s “Part of the Union” - which you once described as the death of the original Strawbs.
DC: It was. That was the killer for the band in the UK. That was the one record that everybody remembers over here; it was a novelty song, it was a rip off of Woody Guthrie’s “Union Made,” and we got slaughtered for that in the press.
SC: You must have suspected that would happen, though? It was such a… “different”… kind of song for you.
DC: Well it wouldn’t have been on the album if I had’t wanted to put it on. The thing was, Hud and John recorded it as a demo; I heard the demo and I knew it was a hit record. They wanted to put it out under the name The Brothers, with the union connection, and I thought “well if they do that, that’s the end of Strawbs.” because they’ll have the hit and we won’t. So we’ll stick it on the album, not realizing that it was going to come out as the second single, after “Lay Down,” and, once that happened, the band completely lost its direction.
In the UK, we were a college band, we came up through that circuit, and we had an enormous amount of respect. That single just killed us off.
SC: And the line-up shattered anyway.
DC: I got fired by the band! We were in LA at the end of the tour, our manager took me to the Whiskey, and told me “the band have decided they’re going to carry on without you.”
So the next day, I worked out what percentage of the records I owned in terms of songwriting, went back to the hotel and there was the management and the rest of the band in the pool, with champagne on a tray, and glasses, pushing it to one another.
I went insane… I kicked all the potted plants that were around the pool into the water, and all of the deck furniture. They all got out of the pool and I carried on with the name of Strawbs. The band split in two. Blue Weaver went off to join the BeeGees, and Hudson Ford went off to become Hudson Ford….
SC: And had a couple more hits.
DC: They went on to do what they wanted, which was to write short pop songs. As John Ford told me; “I don’t want to play that ‘Down By The Sea’ anymore. It’s bloody boring.” That was the difference of opinion, they didn’t like my long songs, and that was why I recorded “Blue Angel,” which is one of our perennial favorites now, on a solo album, because John didn’t want to know. That song, had it come out on a Strawbs album, would have been the biggest Strawbs record ever.
But they got what they wanted, they had hit singles in the UK; we carried on and had hit albums in the USA.
SC: Do you ever play “Part of the Union” today?
DC: We’ve played it once. We went to the town where the last coal mine closed, and they were so anxious we played it as an encore, and they all sang along with it and I thought “should we do this every night?” But I thought no, you lose your integrity.
SC: Ghosts and Hero and Heroine really were the high water mark for the band, but after that things started to fizzle… or so it seemed from the outside. You talk a lot about this period in your autobiography, Exorcising Ghosts - management problems, illness, an ill-advised change of label and so on. And it feels like you knew things were at an end as well… so what did you do?
DC: I went back into the radio business for twenty years. I was managing director, or senior VP, of the companies I worked for, and I ended up as chairman of Radio Victory in Portsmouth, and I had a good time doing that.
I didn’t start playing again really, until the year 2000, and when we came back to playing again, I didn’t know whether anybody would even remember us. I was really astonished to find that they do.
Catch Strawbs on tour across the east coast this month.
Wed 18 May - AMP by Strathmore, N. Bethesda MD
Fri 20 May - Arcade Theater, St Charles IL
Sun 22 May - Turner Hall, Milwaukee MN
Tue 24 May - Music Box Supper Club, Cleveland OH
Wed 25 May - Lovin Cup, Rochester NY
Thu 26 May - Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton MA