"Pity them who see him suffer,
Pity poor old Steeleye Span;
John Bowlin's deeds they will be remembered;
Bowlin's deeds at Horkstow Grange"
So goes the lyric of the broadsheet ballad, 'Horkstow Grange' made more famous by english composer Percy Grainger, and, irrespective of what or who it applies to, from this comes the name of the UK's 2nd best known folk-rock originators. I think many will be aware of venerable stalwarts, Fairport Convention, if only through these posts, but almost always held in the same breath, if not regard were/are Steeleye Span.
Indeed they have a shared history, the one seguing from the other, with occasional tendrils propagating back and forth, as they derive from the same founding member, one Ashley Hutchings.
Having pulled Fairport together in 1967, inventing a british folk-rock soon thereafter with 'Liege and Lief', he promptly left. The folk-rock of Fairport wasn't pure enough. Too much rock. This didn't mean a return to unaccompanied ploughboys singing to sparse instrumentation, or not entirely. Hutchings still wanted electricity, just a greater otherwise traditional purity. So he hooked up initially with two existing singer partnerships, Tim Rice and Maddy Prior, and Gay and Terry Woods. This was 1969 and it was Steeleye Span.This short-lived line-up produced but one album, before the Woods departed, being replaced by Martin Carthy, iconic even then, erstwhile duo partner with Fairport's Dave Swarbrick. Fiddle player Peter Knight was drafted in alongside, this, my favourite version lasting all of 2 albums, including the magisterial 'Please To See The King.'
As seemed normal with bands at that time, change came as routine, Carthy and Hutchings both then leaving, Hutchings moving on to a varied career of founding further bands, usually with 'Albion' in their name. Carthy returned to the folk clubs and an ever enhancing reputation, solo and with his wife and their family. Steeleye, like Fairport ahead of them, on the loss of their founding father, decided to make a go of it, going from strength to strength. recruiting Bob Johnson on guitar and Rick Kemp on bass. This line up even produced a UK (christmas) hit single in 'Gaudete.' With robust management, they also attracted guest musicians such as David Bowie and comedian Peter Sellars, the latter on ukulele. Not bad for a folk band. (Actually it was.....) They even added a drummer by their 6th recording, hitherto having been avowedly against, give or take the occasional guest right back on their initial outing.
Along the way they endeavoured a wider appeal, invoking 'Wombles' producer, Mike Batt, giving them a 2nd hit, 'All Around My Hat', so one more than "rivals" Fairport. Not their finest moment, perhaps, in terms of authenticity, but tell that to their bankers. Knight and Johnson, leaving not so long after, left the rest in a pickle, Martin Carthy rejoining in order to fulfil contractual obligations, along with accordion maestro, John Kirkpatrick. This was destined not to last, and the band more or less fell into disarray, even when Knight and Johnson returned. Hart, then Nigel Pegrum, the drummer left, with Kemp hors de combat due to a shoulder injury. Confused?
New musicians joined, but not until their 25th reunion gig was the die cast for a more solid future. Now with Tim Harries on bass and Liam Genockey on drums, Gay Wood rejoined, the band temporarily again having 2 female leads. But not for long, as Prior, the focus for so long, promptly left. Surely this was the end, but the band limped on. Since then Woods has left again, Kemp has rejoined, left and joined again, Johnson has retired hurt, being replaced by Ken Nicol, himself then leaving after a few years. Stalwart Peter Knight finally left, in, now, 2013, yet still the band plays on, now a core of Prior, Kemp, Genockey and whoever else is currently depping. With 22 past and present members, over 23 albums it is hard to keep up. Yet somehow there remains a signature sound, usually centred around muscular guitar chords, soaring fiddle and the unmistakeable vocal of Ms Prior.