Steeleye Span Biography

The roots of this pivotal English folk rock unit lay in several ill-fated rehearsals between Ashley Hutchings (26 January 1945, Southgate, Middlesex, England; bass, ex-Fairport Convention), Irish trio Sweeney’s Men - Terry Woods (b. 4 December 1947, Dublin, Eire; vocals, guitar, mandolin), Johnny Moynihan (vocals/fiddle) and Andy Irvine (vocals/mandolin) - and Woods’ wife Gay (b. Gabriel Corcoran, 1948, Eire; vocals, concertina, autoharp). When Moynihan and Irvine subsequently retracted, the remaining musicians were joined by Tim Hart (b. 9 January 1948, Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England; vocals, guitar, dulcimer, harmonium) and Maddy Prior (b. 14 August 1947, Blackpool, Lancashire, England; vocals), two well-known figures in folk circles. Taking their name from a Lincolnshire wagoner celebrated in the traditional song ‘Horkstow Grange’, Steeleye Span began extensive rehearsals before recording the excellent Hark! The Village Wait . This 1970 set comprised traditional material, expertly arranged and performed to encompass the rock-based perspective Hutchings helped create on Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief, while retaining the purity of the songs.

The Woods then left to pursue their own career (as Gay And Terry Woods) and were replaced by Martin Carthy (b. 21 May 1941, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England; vocals/guitar) and Peter Knight (b. 27 May 1947, London, England; vocals/fiddle) for Please To See The King (1971) and Ten Man Mop, Or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again (1972). This particular line-up toured extensively, but the departure of Hutchings for the purist Albion Country Band signalled a dramatic realignment in the Steeleye camp. Carthy resumed his solo career when conflict arose over the extent of change and two musicians of a rock-based persuasion - Bob Johnson (b. 18 March 1944, England; guitar) and Rick Kemp (b. 15 November 1941, Little Hanford, Dorset, England; bass) - were brought in. The quintet also left manager/producer Sandy Robertson for the higher-profile of Jo Lustig, who secured the group’s new recording contract with Chrysalis Records.

Both Below The Salt (1972) and Parcel Of Rogues (1973) displayed an electric content and tight dynamics, while the punningly-entitled Now We Are Six (1974), which was produced by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and had David Bowie playing saxophone on ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, emphasized the terse drumming of newcomer Nigel Pegrum (b. 22 January 1949, England). The group enjoyed two hit singles with ‘Gaudete’ (1973) and ‘All Around My Hat’ (1975), the latter of which reached the UK Top 5 and was produced by Mike Batt. On Commoner’s Crown (1975) the group recruited actor/comedian Peter Sellers to play ukulele on ‘New York Girls’. However, the charm of their early work was gradually eroding and although the soaring harmonies remained as strong as ever, experiments with reggae and heavier rock rhythms alienated rather than attracted prospective audiences. The group was ‘rested’ following the disappointing Rocket Cottage (1976), but reconvened the following year for Storm Force Ten. However, Knight and Johnson were otherwise employed and this line-up was completed by John Kirkpatrick (b. 8 August 1947, Chiswick, London, England; accordion) and the prodigal Martin Carthy.

Although their formal disbanding was announced in March 1978, Steeleye Span was subsequently resurrected, although Hart left for good in 1984. Prior continued to lead a line-up featuring Kemp, Pegrum, Knight and Johnson, with Tim Harries (b. 1959, England; bass) replacing Kemp on 1989’s Tempted And Tried and Liam Genockey (b. 12 August 1948, Dublin, Eire; drums) replacing Pegrum on the tour to support the album. On 2 September 1995, a reunion of all the members in their 25-year history (except Terry Woods) assembled for a War Child charity concert. The results were subsequently released on The Journey. The following year’s Time featured Prior, Johnson, Knight, Genockey, Harries, and from the very beginning, Gay Woods.

Prior announced she was finally leaving the band in July 1997, and with Genockey also departing it was left to Gay Woods, Knight, Johnson, Harries and guest Dave Mattacks to record the following year’s Horkstow Grange. Mattacks was replaced by Gerry Conway for the band’s subsequent 30th anniversary tour, but returned to play on 2000’s Bedlam Born. Gay Woods and Harries left the following year, while health issues forced Bob Johnson into retirement. The latter did feature on Present: The Very Best Of Steeleye Span (2002), which comprised new recordings of some of the band’s most famous tracks. Kemp, Prior and Genockey also returned to help out and stayed on for They Called For Babylon in 2004, with Knight and new guitarist Ken Nicol rounding out the line-up. This line-up continued to work together over the next few years, completing two new studio albums.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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