If you’re not inclined to fork out the $25.99 for the five album package, the alternative for those who want a bit of this in their collection without going the whole hog lies in the fifth Steeleye Span album, Parcel of Rogues. If you need an indication of its place in the Steeleye Span catalogue, Hughesy would point you towards the Parcel of bit reappearing in the title of the current collection, and again in Another Parcel of Steeleye Span (Chrysalis albums #6-#10).

It’s more or less the same template as used on Below the Salt with the sound rocked up a notch right from the first notes of One Misty Moisty Morning. Bright, sharp and played with prog rock precision, Alison Gross worked the recurring witchcraft theme, and while Tim Hart’s lament for three brothers in The Bold Poachers slows things down a notch the nudge nudge bit rears its head again in The Ups and Downs, with a visit to the apple grove to tie up the girl’s garter. Fol de rol diddle ol-dey indeed.

The jigs and reels quotient is filled by Robbery With Violins, there’s a bit of the rural wizardry in The Wee Wee Man and the Industrial Revolution rears its ugly head in The Weaver and the Factory Maid before the album’s one-two highlight in the Jacobite era  Rogues In A Nation (that’s where the Parcel bit comes from) and Cam Ye O'er Frae France. Hares on the Mountain winds things up rather charmingly, and, as previously stated, if you’re not up for the $25.99 for the six albums but want some Steeleye in the playlist, the album will set you back $16.90 on iTunes.

Parcel of Rogues might have been the musical high point as fat as Hughesy’s concerned, but the commercial success path was headed firmly upwards, with Steeleye holding down a regular opening gig for Jethro Tull (Ian Anderson got to sit in the producer’s chair for Now We Are Six) and a recording formula that worked pretty well. They’d also recruited a regular drummer (Nigel Pegrum, ex-Gnidrolog, Small Faces and Uriah Heep) and with a six piece outfit recording album #6, Now We Are Six was always going to be an appropriate title. 

Unfortunately, for me, this was where the wheels started to fall off. While the sound was a continuation of elements that had gone before, and there were a couple of tracks that matched the preceding albums (Thomas the Rhymer for starters), nursery rhymes sung by The St. Eeleye School Choir, and To Know Him Is to Love Him, complete with David Bowie on saxophone were definitely tracks I could have happily done without after an initial listen just to see what they were like.  Oh, and Bowie’s sax work definitely indicates his day job was absolutely safe.

The downwards trend continued with Commoners Crown, which worked well enough apart from the presence of Peter Sellers on electric ukelele and Goon Show voices for New York Girls and the Mike Batt (The Wombles) production All Around My Hat. As happens so often, however, mileages vary when it comes to Hughesy’s ratings and commercial success.  

While the album sailed as high as #7 in the British album charts and the title track, released as a single, hit #5, repeated listens in the course of putting this together suggests that Steeleye Span material that hits the Top 1500 Most Played in my iTunes will be from the earlier, more interesting, stage of the band’s evolution.

The problem, as far as I can see, is that while there’s plenty of traditional material out there, and only so many folk fans who’ll buy multiple renditions of the same material by different singers. Sure, you could have Maddy Prior working the same seam of traditional material as Sandy Denny and, say, Anne Briggs or Shirley Collins and have a small coterie of devotees dutifully buying everything but once you head towards the mass market and someone else has done that one it’s increasingly a case of hands off unless you can throw something different (like Peter Sellars on electric ukulele) into the mix. 

On top of that, when you’re increasingly headed towards a rock audience, you’re going to rework the on stage repertoire accordingly, which may account for the presence of To Know Him Is To Love Him, though an examination of a few set lists from American shows reveals a distinct lack of the old Teddy Bears single.

Still, for the price and the quantity of material here I’m glad I wandered down this particular road of reminiscence, and it’s interesting to compare and contrast what’s on offer here with contemporary efforts from Fairport Convention and Shirley Collins...

Track listing

© Ian Hughes 2012