Like many of their counterparts in 1967, the Strawbs began as a folk-rock unit, grounded in traditional English music. Unlike the others, Dave Cousins and an ever-changing lineup morphed into a premier progressive rock band. While groups like Fairport Convention and Pentangle stuck to their roots, the Strawbs added keyboards and expanded their sound. “The music,” writes Polly Vedder in MusicHound Rock, “ranges from a consciously ancient sound to straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll—variously intimate, folky or grand.” Cousins’ song-writing and vocals provided a constant thread throughout the band’s career as the Strawbs created progressive rock milestones like Grave New World and Bursting at the Seams.
Dave Cousins and Tony Hooper met in West London at school in the late 1950s. United by their love of skiffle music (jazz or folk played on non-traditional instruments, such as jugs and washboards), they formed a jug band called Gin Bottle Four. Successively, they joined forces with mandolin player Arthur Philips and bassist Ron Chesterman, dubbing themselves the Strawberry Hill Boys. Playing locally, the band became affectionately known as the “Strawbs,” and by 1967, joined with folksinger Sandy Denny to cut an album. Though Denny remained with the band only a short time, and All Our Own Work went unreleased until 1973, the Strawbs acquired a contract with A&M Records in Los Angeles in 1968. The label released “Oh How She Changed” and “Or Am I Dreaming” as a single in June of 1968, while the band worked with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and pianist Nicky Hopkins to record their debut. A&M disliked the results, however, and asked the band to return to the studio. While the cost of recording the Strawbs proved excessive, critics and fans responded positively to its release in June of 1969.
Cello player Claire Deniz joined the band in August, and the Strawbs returned to the studio to record their sophomore effort. While tracks like the epic “Vision of the Lady of the Lake” proved strong, Dragonfly’s (1970) arrangements, featuring cello and overdubbed keyboards, seemed an unhappy marriage between folk and rock. Cousins and Hooper decided to regroup, adding drummer Richard Hudson, bassist John Ford, and most importantly, keyboardist Rick Wakeman. The band released the live album Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios in 1970, and toured to try out new material for their next studio effort.
They began working on the new album in February and March of 1971, and although the sessions began well, disagreements broke out concerning what material to include. While many reviewers saw From the Witch-wood (1971) as a transitional effort, it was clear that the band was moving toward a more progressive sound. The Strawbs were also reaching larger audiences, and played the “The Hangman and the Papist” on Top of the Pops. Their success was dampened, however, when Wakeman opted to leave the band and join Yes.
When Blue Weaver, formerly of Amen Corner, stepped in as the keyboard player in August of 1971, the Strawbs entered their strongest period. The band rehearsed, recorded, and released “Benedictus” as a single, and returned to the studio again at the end of 1971. The song cycle of Grave New World proved to be one of the band’s most ambitious achievements. “Singer/songwriter Dave Cousin (sic) finds a space somewhere between Bob Dylan and John Bunyan, Hudson and Ford come up with some superb hooks, and the electric sound is powerful and majestic,” wrote Bruce Eder in All Music Guide. Released in 1972, Grave New World became the band’s first album to chart in the United States. The band’s decision to abandon folk, however, alienated founder Hooper and by the end of the group’s 1972 American tour, guitarist Dave Lambert replaced him.
When the Strawbs returned to the studio at the end of 1972, internal dissent extended the recording sessions for three months. Hudson and Ford, who wrote together, fought to have their songs included on the new album. These struggles centered on Cousins’—who many viewed as the band’s leader—attempt to weed out material that wasn’t right for the “Strawbs” sound. Despite such friction, Bursting at the Seams (1973) became the band’s most popular album to date, reaching number two on the British charts. “Part of the Union” and “Lay Down” became top-ten hits in the United Kingdom, while “Down By the Sea” received adio play in the United States. The band returned to the road to promote the album, playing 52 dates in the United Kingdom before leaving for the States. “For a
For the Record…
Members include Ron Chesterman (group member, 1967-69), bass; Rod Coombes (joined group, 1974), bass; Dave Cousins, vocals, guitar; Chas Cronk (joined group, 1974), bass; Claire Deniz (group member, 1969), cello; Sandy Denny (left group, 1968), vocals; John Ford (group member, 1970-73), drums; John Hawken (joined group, 1974), keyboards; Tony Hooper (left group, 1972), guitar; Richard Hudson (group member, 1970-73), drums; Dave Lambert (joined group, 1972), guitar; Rick Wakeman (group member, 1970-71), keyboards; Blue Weaver (group member, 1971-73), keyboards.
Group formed in England, 1967; recorded All Our Own Work with Sandy Denny, 1968; released Strawbs, 1969; recorded From the Witchwood, 1971; recorded Grave New World, 1972; released Bursting at the Seams, 1973; regrouped with keyboardist John Hawken, bassist Chas Cronk, and drummer Rod Coombes, 1974; released Hero and Heroine, 1974; Ghosts, 1975; and Nomadness, 1976; signed with Arista Records, recorded Deadlines, 1978; disbanded, 1980; reunited, 1980s-1990s.
Addresses: Record company —A&M Records, 2220 Colorado Ave. Santa Monica, CA 90404, (310) 208-6547.
few brief months in 1973,” wrote Simon Evans in the Birmingham Post, “The Strawbs seemed poised for major transatlantic success….”
“It was all too good to last,” Eder wrote in All Music Guide, “and it didn’t.” Tensions evident during the Bursting at the Seams sessions reappeared during the grueling tour schedule. The band quit speaking to one another and split into camps. Eventually Ford and Hudson left to form their own group while Weaver returned to studio work. “I wanted to do my long epics and they wanted to do their pop songs…,” Cousins summarized to Anil Prasad of Innerviews online. “But it was a tragedy we fell apart, because the best album to this day for overall sound quality and inventiveness is Bursting at the Seams.”
Cousins and Lambert held auditions and built a new Strawbs’ lineup with keyboardist John Hawken, drummer Rod Coombes, and bassist Chas Cronk. The band embarked on short tours in Europe and the States, fine-tuning their material before returning to Copenhagen to record a new album. Though English critics and fans disliked the harder rock of Hero and Heroine (1974), the album sold well in America, leading the band to ignore the British market in favor of several American tours. After Hawken left the band in 1975, the Strawbs continued as a four-piece unit. Recorded with a variety of guests including keyboardist Wakeman, 1975’s Nomadness became the band’s last album for A&M.
While the Strawbs remained together for several more years, style changes continued to confuse the fan base. “That was perhaps our failing,” Richard Hudson recalled to Evans, “because we played all different types of music it was hard to classify us and people became confused over exactly what we were.” Cousins became exhausted, extending the recording of Ghosts in 1975, and both Deep Cuts (1976) and Burning for You (1977) were poorly distributed by the Oyster label. The Strawbs also faced another problem: progressive rock seemed old hat after the Sex Pistols burst upon the British music scene.
The Strawbs recorded two albums for Arista, but only Deadlines (1978) was released. After attempting to record another album for Elton John’s record label in 1980, Cousins announced he was leaving the band. The band reformed in 1983 to play the Cambridge Folk Festival and released a concert retrospective in 1993 titled Greatest Hits Live ! The Strawbs continued to tour after 1993. “These last few years are certainly the happiest I’ve had with the band,” Hudson told Evans in 1999, “and we want to keep going for as long as we can.”
Strawbs, A&M, 1969.
Dragonfly, A&M, 1970.
Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios, A&M, 1970.
From the Witchwood, A&M, 1971.
Grave New World, A&M, 1972.
Bursting at the Seams, A&M, 1973.
Hero and Heroine, A&M, 1974.
Ghost, A&M, 1975.
Nomadness, A&M, 1975.
Deep Cuts, A&M, 1976.
Burning for You, A&M, 1977.
Halcyon Days (compilation), A&M, 1997.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
Birmingham Post, May 3, 1999, p. 13.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 2, 2002).
“Further Down the Road,” Innerviews, http://www.innerviews.org/home.htm (February 7, 2002).
“History,” Strawbs Web, http://www.strawbpage.ndirect.co.uk/index7.htm (February 4, 2002).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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