The parallels between the two bands are numerous: both updated traditional British folk material with rock arrangements, both featured an excellent female lead singer (Sandy Denny for Fairport, Maddy Prior for Steeleye Span), both frequently employed multi-part harmonies, and both mixed original and traditional songs.
Although Fairport were more innovative in their early days, Steeleye Span were arguably the more interesting band after 1970, when personnel changes had gutted the original Fairport line-up.
Steeleye Span, too, would undergo numerous personnel changes even at their peak. Prior was the constant factor that gave the group something of a recognisable identity at all phases of their journey.
One thing that differentiated Steeleye Span from their counterparts was that Fairport came to traditional folk from a rock background, whereas Steeleye Span travelled in the opposite direction.
The original line-up, formed around the beginning of 1970, included guitarist Terry Wood, who had been in a traditional Irish folk group called Sweeney’s Men (with Andy Irvine). The supple-voiced Prior had been in a folk duo with guitarist Tim Hart.
The impetus for Steeleye Span’s formation, ironically, came from ex-Fairport Convention bassist Ashley Hutchings. Hutchings wanted to keep pursuing the traditional folk direction ploughed by Fairport on the 1969 album Liege and Lief and left Fairport to joined forces with Prior, Hart, Terry Woods, and Gay Woods (Terry’s wife) to anchor the first incarnation of Steeleye Span.
This line-up only lasted for one album (Hark The Village Wait) with the Woods’ leaving for Dr Strangely Strange (Terry Woods would eventually resurface with The Pogues in the 1980s). He was replaced by Martin Carthy – one of the most respected guitarists on the English folk circuit, and the person who had first suggested the name “Steeleye Span”.
While Steeleye Span played folk music, they had no aversion to playing it loud, and this version of the band proved that it was possible to create an energetic ruckus without a drummer – as evidenced on their second album, Please To See The King.
The next LP, Ten Man Mop or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again was disappointing in comparison. It perfectly demonstrated the theory that the more the attention you pay to the packaging, the less stimulating the contents inside are likely to be anyway, the strains of the line-up were beginning to tell.
Both Hutchings and Carthy – by far the most famous members of the group – left around the end of 1971. This sort of defection would have crippled most acts. Yet Steeleye Span not only persevered but entered their most commercially successful phase.
Bob Johnson was induced to forsake a lucrative accountancy career to join as lead guitarist. Johnson had worked years earlier with people like P J Proby and Paul Raven – later to become (in)famous as Gary Glitter.
Tim Hart was once quoted as saying that the group wanted to “put traditional music back into current musical language and to make folk music less esoteric.” They were aided in doing so by new bassist Rick Kemp, who became Maddy Prior’s husband.
These changes were significant – Johnson and Kemp became the first members of the band to have had regular training as rock musicians, and by the time they put together the fourth album, Below The Salt (1972), it was already evident that bigger things were beginning to happen.
In 1973, they finally added drums to the band, becoming a true folk rock act after years of ramping up. Now We Are Six, the title of their next album, referred to the addition of drummer Nigel Pegrum, and the fact that it was their sixth album.
One asset to Steeleye Span’s unusual durability (in the face of the revolving door of players) was their open-minded approach to contemporary influences. They covered oldies by Buddy Holly, The Four Seasons, and Phil Spector – and they did it well.
David Bowie and Peter Sellers made cameo appearances on their albums in the mid-70s. They occasionally acted in plays (in which they also musically performed as a group). They covered Brecht-Weill songs.
Steeleye Span finally had a British chart hit in 1974 with the Christmas song Gaudette. In 1975, they had a huge (by folk-rock standards) smash with All Around My Hat, which reached the UK Top Five.
In the US they were consigned to cult status – like Fairport Convention. They picked up some airplay on open-minded FM stations but got their widest Stateside exposure as an opening act during a Jethro Tull tour.
The onslaught of punk and new wave weakened any prospects for continued chart success at home. In 1977, they took on more traditional elements with the return of Martin Carthy, and the addition of John Kirkpatrick on accordion, but they finally split the following year. Not for good, however.
In a final parallel with Fairport Convention, they decided to periodically reunite while pursuing their own projects. Other studio albums appeared, and the group sometimes performed at festivals or even toured, though with enough irregularity to make it confusing to determine whether they were “together” again.
A devoted following makes it possible for them to be received warmly by cult audiences whenever the mood suits them to play live again. Carthy has enjoyed the most notable solo career of the Steeleye Span alumni, continuing to command great respect among British folk listeners.
Maddy Prior’s most notable outside endeavour has been her duo recordings with fellow British folk singer June Tabor.
Tim Hart died of lung cancer on 24 December 2009 at La Gomera in the Canary Islands.
Guitar, mandolin, vocals
Guitar, banjo, dulcimer, vocals
Vocals, concertina, bodhran
Violin, vocals, keyboards, guitar