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Book review: ‘All Around My Hat – The Steeleye Span Story’ by John Van Der Kiste

In spite of the title and the very period-looking cover from the band’s mid -70s heyday ‘All Around My Hat’ is a very thoroughly researched, if somewhat concise, history of folk rock legends Steeleye Span that covers the band’s entire history from its formation at the tail-end of the 60s to the present day. Timed to coincide with Steeleye Span’s fiftieth anniversary it charts the story of the band through its many line-up fluctuations, extensive touring and recording history and the numerous challenges and opportunities that were thrown at its members along the way .

Although key stages of the band’s history were already pretty familiar to me (the band’s formative years and heyday period are covered extensively in Rob Young’s excellent ‘Electric Eden’, for example) there are other eras that I knew far less about. I definitely learnt a good deal about the band, particularly around the years when Gay Woods (who appeared with her husband Terry on the very first album) returned in the mid 90s and the subsequent intra-band tensions that arose and ultimately led to Maddy Prior’s departure, albeit a temporary one. There were even a couple of gigs where neither Woods nor Prior were with the band and remaining members Peter Knight and Tim Harries had to cast around for a temporary lead singer and temporary drummer to fulfil existing tour commitments.

And the title? Named after the band’s bestselling single John Van Der Kiste’s book very much demonstrates that rather than Top 20 hits and going on Top of The Pops being a weird fluke, getting folk music out of tiny folk clubs and on to big stages was always very much a driving vision for founder member Tim Hart. Even in the early days of his career, as one half of a duo with Maddy Prior, he felt the folk scene needed a shot of glamour, publicity and marketing.

Some of the key players past and present (Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Martin Carthy et al) are interviewed for the book but other insights are taken from pre-existing interviews previously published elsewhere (including, for that matter an interview I did with Julian Littman for the Get Ready To Rock website).

Intelligent, well-researched and well-written, even though a good deal of the material comes from secondary sources Van Der Kiste does a fine job in pulling the various threads together and producing this timely history of a ground-breaking and much-loved band.

Published by Fonthill Media 5th December 2019

https://www.fonthill.media/products/all-around-my-hat-the-steeleye-span-story

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Related posts:

Interview with Maddy Prior

Interview with Julian Littman

Review: Steeleye Span at Hastings 2019

Review: Steeleye Span at Ashford 2019

Review: Steeleye Span at Hastings 2017

Review: Steeleye Span, London 2015

Review: Steeleye Span at New Forest Folk Festival 2014

 

Book review: ‘Seasons of Change – Busking England’ by Tom Kitching

When the EU referendum result didn’t go quite the way I wanted it my reaction was to consume excess amounts of alcohol and spend the next few weeks swearing at every news bulletin that came on. Fiddle player, Tom Kitching, however took a different and altogether more constructive approach. Realising that he didn’t know England half as well as thought he did, Kitching resolves to travel around the country, busking wherever he goes and writing a blog of his experiences. The blog eventually became this book. An accompanying album of tunes (reviewed here) was also recently released.

My initial assumption about a travelogue written by a folk musician is that it would be very much led by the music. We’d get a short history to a particular folk song or tune, some background info about how it was linked to a particular area and then a few modern-day observations of the place today to bring us up to date. But the book is not like that at all. Although busking is the focus of the trips, and the means by which he pays for his meals and accommodation each day, the book is ostensibly about people.

Some of the places he visits I know extremely well: Hastings where I live now, Deptford where I spent twenty-odd years and Hull where I spent some time in the 80s and where my partner’s parents still live – and I found his observations to be thoughtful and convincing. Other places he visits I am far less familiar with like Easington Colliery, West Bromwich and Bradford, the latter providing one of the most touching scenes in the book as a black family, some Asian kids and some white kids all start dancing in the street to Kitching’s fiddle-playing, the adults all chatting and shaking hands with one another. “If I’d been able to guarantee this sort of result to the arts council before I’d set off on my project I’d be arriving here in a solid gold Rolls Royce,” he notes.

He visits well-off villages and impoverished towns and is often insightful in his observations on failed regeneration schemes and deepening political neglect, yet at the same time pragmatically optimistic about how things could be different. There is some meanness from some of the people he comes across along the way, particularly in attitudes to those who are homeless and (along with buskers) are also trying to eke out an income on the streets. Overall, however, there’s a huge amount of warmth and some lovely conversations that are recounted.

Even if you have zero interest in folk music or fiddle-playing ‘Seasons of Change – Busking England’ is a fascinating and compelling read.

Published by Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd – 2020

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Related posts:

Tom Kitching – Seasons of Change – album review

Pilgrims’ Way – Stand and Deliver 

Gavin Davenport & Tom Kitching at Warwick Folk Festival

 

 

Book review: ‘On Track: Hawkwind – every album, every song’ by Duncan Harris

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

‘Hawkwind – every album, every song’ is another volume in Sonicbond’s ‘On Track’ series, this time taking on the Herculean task of documenting the prolific adventures of Dave Brock’s gang of space rockers in the recording studio over the past five decades.

Author, Duncan Harris, takes us on an album-by-album, track-by-track tour of every Hawkwind studio album, from the folk, busky and “startlingly melodic but totally unrepresentative ‘Hurry On Sundown’ (the opening track on the band’s eponymous 1970 debut) through to ‘The Fantasy of Faldum’ (the “sprawling, acoustic rock-based finale” of their most recent 2019 album ‘All Aboard The Skylark’).

Harris is never short of an opinion on any of Hawkwind’s vast output and his pithy one-paragraph assessments take us through the highs (‘Master Of The Universe’ from 1971′s ‘In Search Of Space’ is “the jewel” “the definitive Hawkwind song”) and the lows (‘Turner Point’ from 1982′s ‘Choose Your Masques’ is “by universal common consent… the worst piece of so-called music ever officially released under the name Hawkwind”).

The publication, of course, includes Harris’s take on the actual hit single ‘Silver Machine’ (“once the swirling fluttering synthesisers are removed, turns out to be somewhat bland rock and roll more suited to the 1950s than the 1970s”) as well as ‘Quark, Strangeness and Charm’ “the hit single that never was but should have been” (“a bouncy new wave tune that suggests Squeeze were avid listeners”).

Besides all the officially-released studio albums, Harris also includes a handful of essential live albums and a couple of albums from Hawkwind spin-off projects, giving us a grand total of thirty-two albums being pored over.

The book is also a hive of information about the band’s ever-fluctuating personnel and shifting musical direction.

Rather than simply giving us a standard intro piece to each album, as other authors in the series have done, Harris also groups the albums into eras representing different phases in the band’s evolutionary history. This allows for some additional context-setting over a defined period rather than each album simply being looked at as a momentary snapshot in time.

Accordingly, we get the Dawn of The Hawks era covering the early days, The Day of The Hawks era covering the Lemmy period as well as later phases such as the band went through new wave of heavy metal influenced and techno-dance influenced stages, for example.

A fascinating well-researched book written by someone who, although you definitely won’t agree with him on everything, clearly has an unquenchable passion for the band and a detailed knowledge of its history. While Harris’s book has not filled me with a desire to seek out every Hawkwind album ever recorded I certainly came away with renewed respect and genuine affection for this most remarkable of bands.

Published: Sonicbond Publishing 26th March 2020

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Related reviews:

Book review: ‘On Track: Fairport Convention – every album, every song’ by Kevan Furbank

Hawkwind at The Old Market, Hove 2014

Book review: ‘On Track: Fairport Convention – every album, every song’ by Kevan Furbank

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

The ‘On Track’ series by publishers Sonic Bond provides an album by album, track by track overview of a number of artists. The latest in the series to get this treatment are British folk-rock legends Fairport Convention. Author, Kevan Furbank, takes us on a fascinating journey through each of the band’s thirty studio album’s, from 1968’s self-titled debut to this year’s Shuffle and Go.

Each entry begins with a factual summary of personnel, recording information and release dates, followed by a brief potted history the album’s genesis and the band’s fortunes at the time it was recorded. That is then followed by Furbank’s review of each track. Having read a fair few books on folk-rock, Fairport and some of their leading personnel, most of the history was familiar to me. However, Furbank really comes into his own with his pithy and usually very insightful track by track reviews. And what he’s superb at doing is capturing the familiar styles of different Fairport personnel as well as some of the band’s most used external songwriters. ‘Tale In Hard Time’ one of Richard Thompson’s early songs on 1969’s What We Did On Our Holiday, for example, is thus introduced as “another of Richard’s gloomy/jaunty songs, an upbeat rhythmic number with slit-your-wrists lyrics” beautifully summing up a whole canon of classic Thompson output.

Furbank is also meticulous at pointing out where the band have returned to a song, as they have done on frequent occasions, and making comparisons with the earlier versions – or highlighting where the band have returned to a similar lyrical theme or musical arrangement in a different song. So if, like me, you were thinking I’m sure they’ve recycled that Eddie Cochran riff for one of those fifties rock n roll – meets trad folk song mash-ups just once too often, this book will tell you exactly which song and which album they tried it on first and where (perhaps unwisely) they thought it was a good idea to try it again.

I read the book over a single weekend, often playing the relevant albums as I turned the pages. I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s critical insights even if I did not always agree them. For those familiar with Fairport Convention’s history this will be a fascinating sit-down read, as well as a really useful reference for the future. However, if you are a Fairport fan looking to learn more this shouldn’t be the first book you read on the band. Start with Clinton Heylin’s ‘What We Did Instead Of Holidays’ or Mark Eden’s ‘Electric Eden’ or the band’s own authorised biography first and you will enjoy what this book has to offer all the more.

Published 26 March 2020 by Sonic Bond

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Related reviews:

Fairport Convention at Bexhill 2020

Fairport Convention at Cropredy 2017

Album review – Fairport Convention ‘Come All Ye: The First Ten Years’

Fairport Convention – 50th anniversary gig at Union Chapel 2017

Fairport Convention at Cropredy 2014

Fairport Convention at Union Chapel 2014

Iain Matthews in Etchingham 2016

Album review – Fairport Convention ‘What We Did On Our Saturday’

Album review – Ashley Hutchings ‘From Psychedelia to Sonnets’

Album review – Ashley Hutchings ‘Twangin’ ‘n’ a-Traddin’ Revisited’

Album review – Sandy Denny ‘I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Acoustic Sandy Denny’

Fotheringay at Under the Bridge, London 2015

Fotheringay at Great British Folk Festival 2015

Richard Thompson at Royal Festival Hall 2015

Richard Thompson at Folk By The Oak 2014

Album review – Richard Thompson ‘Acoustic Classics’

Judy Dyble at WM Jazz at The o2

Albion Christmas Band at Kings Place 16/12/14

Book review: ‘Roots, Radicals & Rockers – How Skiffle Changed the World’ by Billy Bragg

For far too long the 50s skiffle boom was seen as a context-free curio and a bit of a novelty rather than as a vital component of Britain’s rock ‘n’ roll history. To be honest that was never my understanding. My dad had been a huge Lonnie Donegan fan before gravitating to the world of rock. I remember being ill in bed with measles aged 6 or 7 and him bringing his record player up so I’d have something to listen to in bed. This would have been around 1972/73. He obviously wasn’t going to trust me with his latest Stones album but I do remember playing a stack of Lonnie Donegan 45s that he brought up to me. My dad retained a lifelong affection for Donegan and even as a kid it was drilled into me that this man had been a huge inspiration to many of today’s rock stars.

Billy Bragg’s book basically sets out, in meticulously-researched detail what my dad tried to impress upon me while I was still at primary school. No stone is left unturned in exploring the roots of the movement, both in terms of how it emerged out of Britain’s post-war trad-jazz scene to how the songs that inspired the British skiffle boom themselves originated. He takes right back to America’s blues and folk scenes, tracing back songs like ‘Rock Island Line’ through a myriad of permutations in what is a really fascinating and inspiring read. The word skiffle originally emerged from piano-based music found at urban rent-parties in the States in the 20s and how it came to be used by the guitar, tea-chest, and washboard ensembles of late 50s Britain was largely a matter of chance as this new musical movement was grasping around for a name.

Bragg paints a vivid picture of the stultifying drabness of the immediate post-war years and what the advent of both American rock ‘n’ roll and American-inspired British skiffle represented in terms of colour, excitement and youthful rebellion. Parallels between the birth of skiffle in the UK and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the US at around the same time continue to be made and the styles of music that influenced both. Indeed, in the same month Elvis Presley was recording his breakthrough song That’s Alright, Lonnie Donegan was recording his breakthrough song Rock Island Line.

While the skiffle boom soon died out, Bragg devotes a considerable chunk of the final part of his book examining its legacy: from the bands that evolved out of skiffle outfits such as The Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers and The Who to individual musicians who first cut their teeth playing in home-grown skiffle bands such as Dave Davies, Rod Stewart and Ian Hunter. He also illustrates how skiffle played a part in fermenting the British folk revival of the early 60s as many aspiring musicians began to look at their own country’s traditional roots, not just those of the States.

The book is not perfect. When he discusses the English folk revival he is in danger of stereotyping the Edwardian folk collectors like Cecil Sharp while painting the second generation revivalists like A,L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl as knights in shining armour. The reality is both generations made a major contribution and both had significant flaws, something that most studies acknowledge these days. Nevertheless, Roots, Radicals & Rockers is an extremely well-researched and well-referenced book and Bragg’s affection for the DIY anyone-can-do-it approach of skiffle is as for a very similar DIY youth movement that came along some twenty years that Bragg himself played a part in.

First published in 2017

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Book review: ‘Look Wot They Dun! – The ultimate guide to UK glam rock on TV in the 70s’ by Peter Checksfield

Rather than another biography giving an overview of the various glam acts of the 1970s ‘Look Wot They Dun’ is basically an encyclopedic directory that methodically lists all the TV appearances of numerous bands associated with the glam era throughout the 70s. Fifty different acts are covered in all, with the appearances for each in turn listed chronologically.

As much as I am fascinated by this era and as much as I will always love bands like Sweet and Slade and T. Rex, I must admit when I first picked up this book I wasn’t sure whether there would be enough in it to sustain my interest across a whopping 286 pages. However, I soon began to get engrossed, reading some of the fascinating little snippets and insights that accompany many of the entries. In one of his earliest TV appearances, Elton John, for example, is wearing “a horrible outfit of faded blue jeans, a long-sleeved orange T-shirt and a sleeveless striped cardigan” prior to the emergence of the flamboyantly-dressed larger-than-life character of later appearances. The Sweet’s Andy Scott had a run of appearances on Opportunity Knocks in late 1966 in an outfit called The Silverstone Set, we learn, several years before finding fame with the glam rockers. And Mud’s first TV appearance, back in 1968, is on the Basil Brush Show while David Essex’s first appears some two years earlier on the Five O’clock Club.

Indeed, although the book is presented in catalogue format and lacks an explicit overarching narrative there are, nevertheless, obvious patterns that begin to emerge across a significant number of bands. First we see tentative appearances on scratchy black and white shows during the 60s beat boom (Marc Bolan and David Bowie/Jones on Ready Steady Go, the aforementioned Andy Scott on Opportunity Knocks etc.) Then we fast-forward a few years and see those same people bedecked in glitter and glam hamming it up on Top Of The Pops in the period 1971-1973. Then by around 1974 we mostly see the glam bands to start putting away the bacofoil and the glitter and opting for a more conventional rock star jeans-and-leather jacket or cool-white-suit look. Then, finally, in many of the cases we see the number of entries for TV appearances steadily declining as the second half of the seventies draws to a close.

Though I would have welcomed a bit more by way of narrative thread, the book nevertheless provides a fascinating insight into how one of the most visual musical genres of the twentieth century projected itself on to our TV screens. And as an invaluable reference tool I’m sure ‘Look Wot They Dun’ will be something I’ll be going back to again and again.

Published: February 2019

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Book review: ‘Uncommon People – The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars’ by David Hepworth

From Little Richard through to Kurt Cobain (taking in the likes of Brian Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks and assorted others along the way) David Hepworth’s book is a fascinating collection of pen portraits of rock stars at key moments in post-war popular culture.

I’m not sure I completely buy his central thesis that the mystique-destroying power of the internet, changing tastes in popular music and a music industry that has transformed beyond recognition means we’ll never have anything approaching the slightly preposterous, larger-than-life, self-obsessed personality of the bona fide rock star ever again. Assuming the future of rock ‘n’ roll is one as a niche genre rather than a mass-market genre, surely we’re still going to see the odd flamboyant, charismatic, guitar-wielding eccentric who craves recognition and manages to make some sort of name for themselves, even if they are no longer driving mythological Rolls Royce’s into swimming pools or chucking TVs out of hotel room windows?

Even if you’re more optimistic about the future of rock ‘n’ roll than the author, there is plenty to keep the rock music fan totally engrossed in this book. Did you know the joys of anal sex provided the original inspiration for the lyrics to Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti or that Dave Clarke of the Dave Clarke Five was the one who was sitting with Freddie Mercury on the day he died? Uncommon People has certainly encouraged me to seek out a few more biographies of some of these exotic creatures we called rock stars.

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Left politics and music events – the 1980s and now

With all the twists and turns in the build-up to the Labour Live event (problems with tickets sales, problems with attracting headliners, rows with the brewery over whether crowd numbers would justify draft beer at the bar etc. etc.) it got me reflecting on Daniel Rachel’s book about the coming together of music and left politics back in the late 70s/early-mid 80s. His book ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ covers the era of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone, Red Wedge etc – which I reviewed last year, saying:

“In terms of how well popular music and political activism can mix the main message I came away with from this book is that it can be a great force for change on particular issues at particular moments in time (Rock Against Racism, Free Nelson Mandela) but it all starts to get a bit complicated and a bit messy when you try and combine it with party politics and a long-term programme (Red Wedge).”

Looking back to these movements in the 1980s though it’s clear from the book how much more the artists were in the driving seat back then, compared to the politicians. If you are announcing a date for a festival and you’ve given far more thought to the speaking slots for the party leader and the shadow chancellor than you have to the headline music acts, it’s reasonable to predict you are likely to run into a fair few problems along the way – even if, one way or another, you manage to get a fairly reasonable crowd in the end.

Book Review: ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ by Daniel Rachel

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Book review: ‘The Industry of Human Happiness’ by James Hall

The early days of the recorded music industry were a cut-throat affair: rival technologies, competing phonograph and gramophone companies and a complete absence of such legal and business niceties like copyright agreements and recording contracts. An ideal setting for a novel, therefore. ‘The Industry of Human Happiness’ is set in late Victorian London and takes the reader on a journey through vicious beatings, gruesome murders, family feuds and unspeakable treachery. It follows the lives of Italian emigrants Max Cadenza and his cousin Rusty as they set up The London Gramophone Corporation to capitalise on the potential of this new technology.

Music journalist, James Hall’s debut novel, ‘The Industry of Human Happiness’ is meticulously researched and very effectively captures the flavour of both the fledgling record industry, and the revolutionary impact it would come to have on cultural life, as well as the seedy but exhilarating world of London’s West End in the late nineteenth century. The plot remains fast-moving and engaging and in spite of some epic betrayals there is a reconciliation of sorts at the end, both dramatically and historically. Recommended.

Published: May 2018 by Lightning Books Ltd

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Book Review: ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ by Daniel Rachel

‘The music and politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge’

For someone like me who has long had a burning passion for both music and a range of progressive causes ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ was an interesting read. It is written as an ‘oral history’ which means that you don’t necessarily want to read it continuously for hours on end, given it is just one long succession of quotes from key players rather than being wrapped up into an overarching narrative and analysis. Nevertheless, it is an absolutely fascinating read. It covers the period from the late 70s to around 1990 with insights into the Rock Against Racism movement, the bands brought together under the 2 Tone label and finally the Red Wedge initiative which worked to try and build support for Labour in the run-up 1987 General Election.

In terms of how well popular music and political activism can mix the main message I came away with from this book is that it can be a great force for change on particular issues at particular moments in time (Rock Against Racism, Free Nelson Mandela) but it all starts to get a bit complicated and a bit messy when you try and combine it with party politics and a long-term programme (Red Wedge). There are real parallels here with John Harris’s ‘The Last Party’ which covers Britpop’s flirtation with New Labour a decade later.

Published 2016 Picador

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http://danielrachel.com/