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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2003/01/23
by Mike Gruenberg

Strawbs

One of my great joys of writing this column is knowing that I have introduced and educated a younger generation on musical rock history while at the same time bringing back some memories to those of us who lived through the 60’s and 70’s rock scene. Conversations about bands and rock stars can occur sometimes in the most unlikely of places. For example, I recently made my regularly scheduled visit to my dentist. He is a delightful gentleman whose professional skills are extraordinary, but his taste in music simply does not match mine. He plays the type of syrupy muzak that only sounds good to me when it is drowned out by the sound of his drill. A number of years ago, he brought his son, Brian into the business. This young dentist and I have had many conversations about music and best of all, he has allowed me to wear headphones while he diligently works on my aging teeth.
On a recent visit to my dentists’ office, Brian and I engaged in a lengthy discussion on "Prog Rock" bands from the 70’s. Normally, I would have prolonged the conversation just to delay getting into the dentists’ chair and withstanding the drills of horror, but we truly had a spirited conversation. We actually substituted the "music du jour" on the office CD player with a selection of Prog Rock tunes I had with me. We thought our choice of music was a clear improvement over the disco flavored tunes being heard. Unfortunately, we were overruled and as such, continued our discussions. He spoke of Genesis, Rush and Yes. I spoke about ELP, Hawkwind and my all-time favorite, Strawbs.
The Strawbs represent everything that is associated with a talented group. Their early songs were bluegrass influenced. Later, they were able to successfully move to more amplified Prog Rock music. They had incredibly gifted musicians, some of whom went on to greater fame with other groups. The producers chosen to oversee the recording of their albums were excellent. Their albums were successful in England and the U.S. and yet, mention of their name is usually met with less than a knowing glance.
Similar to many young musicians growing up in the 50’s in England, Dave Cousins was influenced by the skiffle music made popular by Lonnie Donegan. Dave met Tony Hooper and they formed a group called The Gin Bottle Four. They played a lot of folk and bluegrass tunes. By 1964, the foursome became a trio and they performed regularly around the London folk club circuit calling themselves the Strawberry Hill Boys naming themselves after the Strawberry Hill section in southwest London where they rehearsed.
By the late 60’s, the group became known as the Strawbs and Dave Cousins was a highly regarded folk guitarist in London. As a result, Dave was invited to play on recording sessions with people like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Clancy Brothers and Arlo Guthrie to name just a few. At this time, the folk scene in London was at its height, which made Dave and the group very popular. In April of 1968, they signed a record deal with A&M Records Their first album, simply called Strawbs was produced by Gus Dudgeon, who later went on to produce some of Elton John’s best and most memorable albums. Among the session musicians used were Nicky Hopkins, Ray Cooper, John Paul Jones and Alan Parker. The second album released was called Dragonfly, which was produced by Tony Visconti, who later went on to produce records for David Bowie.
One of my favorite Strawbs songs came from the first album released in May 1969, written by Dave Cousins called The Man Who Called Himself Jesus. Released as a single in November, 1968 it recounts a true story of a man who goes into a shop in Copenhagen and announces that he if Jesus and refuses to leave. It is a brilliant song and truly indicative of the style and substance of the Strawbs at this time of their career.
Tony Visconti went on to produce a third, live album Just A Collection of Antiques & Curios – Live at Queen Elizabeth Hall that featured new keyboard phenomenon, Rick Wakeman. By bringing in Wakeman, the group transformed themselves from folk/bluegrass to a much fuller, progressive rock sound. Rick stayed with the band for a little over a year and as a result the band enjoyed a new sound and more fame, but less harmony amongst the group members. Wakeman left the Strawbs to join Yes. A studio album, Witchwood was released that included Rick Wakeman. He only appeared on the Live and Witchwood albums.
Grave New World released in January 1972 is considered to be the best album from the group. In true Prog Rock fashion, it speaks of a man’s life from cradle to grave. Dave Cousins was concerned with the continuing Irish/English conflict at this time and used the album to make some political statements as well. The album sold well and was the first Strawbs album to enter the U.S. charts.
In January, 1973 the album Bursting at the Seams was released. My favorite Strawbs song Part of the Union was on that offering. It speaks of the men whose allegiance and love for the union is undying. They speak with reverence and enthusiasm for the union that protects them from the evil management. You can feel the gritty flavor of a union hall meeting when you hear this song. This song reached # 2 in the British charts and became the best selling single for the group.
Unfortunately, success on the charts did not translate well to keeping the group together. Internal problems caused the group members to go their separate ways. New members came and went with Dave Cousins being the only constant. Dave continued the vision and recorded solo albums and toured extensively. In May 2000, a reunited Strawbs played at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, 30 years after they first appeared there with Rick Wakeman.
Dave Cousins began a journey that continues today. He lives the dream through the good and the bad. A&M Records has released an album that chronicles the highlights of the Strawbs recordings for the label. It’s called The Very Best of the Strawbs: Halcyon Days, The A&M Years. This double CD set is worth acquiring just to see how the group progressed over the years and how their styles of music changed. It’s also worth it to get to hear Part of the Union.

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