For this edition of "The Facebook Interviews", I'm text chatting with DAVE COUSINS of Prog-Folk band THE STRAWBS. Dave's Witchwood Media has just reissued the influential 1967 sessions SANDY DENNY & THE STRAWBS -- "All Our Own Work" (the complete sessions remastered), and we'll be discussing the work of legendary UK folk-rock singer Sandy Denny (also of Fairport Convention fame), and all the latest doings with Dave's solo work and Prog-Folk band The Strawbs!
Among the best British progressive bands of the early '70s, the Strawbs differed from their more successful compatriots the Moody Blues, King Crimson, Pink Floyd principally in that their sound originated in English folk music, rather than rock. The late Sandy Denny remains the pre-eminent British folk-rock singer. In addition to recording several albums of her own, Denny was an integral force behind the best work of the most respected British folk-rock band of all, Fairport Convention. Words cannot fully evoke the haunting, spectral presence of her powerful and penetrating alto voice.
Ok folks, we're ready to start...thanks for joining us...and welcome to Dave Cousins! We're going to focus this chat somewhat on the brand new reissued the influential SANDY DENNY & THE STRAWBS -- "All Our Own Work" sessions from 1967...but there will time to pick some additional choice Strawbs-lore as well...
Dave, let's start out with a couple of warmup questions I Iike to use: What was your first single and/or album that you bought as a youth with your own money? And what was the first concert you attended?
That's tricky...I'll go with Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line" as first single. And Ken Colyer's skiffle group as first concert.
What song did you first hear on the radio that made you go: "wow, I want to do this?" Who would you consider your most influential performer at a formative stage?
Again, Lonnie Donegan..."Rock Island Line". I still think he was the greatest.
Most of your UK peers, in your wild youth, were busy devouring American blues and R&B records at their early influences. How did you and Tony Hooper end up with Bluegrass as your early inspiration? Likewise, Bill Stevenson asks: "How did you begin as the Strawberry Hill Boys performing Bluegrass music?"
I was "devouring" American Blues and R&B as well. I used to buy Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf records, plus, Leadbelly through Lonnie Donegan. Maybe I spoke too posh to sound like a Mississippi farm worker. I heard a record from the Newport Folk Festival with Flatt & Scruggs and decided that was for me. I slowed the record player down to half speed and worked out Earl Scruggs' licks. I met him at the Edmonton Folk Festival a few years back and told him. He was confused.
Ha ha! Tell us a bit about Strawberry Hill, in terms of inspiration for the band's name, was it no more or no less the name of the place you were from?
It is part of Twickenham, in West London. Tony and I went to school in Twickenham. I used to be behind the coats counter at Eel Pie Island along with a girl called Susie Shawn. She was the daughter of Ben Shawn, the famous American painter. She had a flat in Strawberry Hill where we rehearsed. Bluegrass bands had names like The Rocky Mountain Boys, etc. We thought Strawberry Hill Boys was a good pun.
So how did you evolve from Bluegrass to the more standard singer-songwriter folk we hear on the "All Our Own Work" demo sessions? And how did you and Sandy Denny first intersect at that point?
I started writing my own songs. The most obvious influence at first was the Beatles. Then I saw Bob Dylan at a BBC show recording, and was mightily impressed. I first met Sandy at the Troubadour in Earls Court in West London. She sang like an angel and I asked her to join the group. We rehearsed for six months before we recorded the sessions.
Was Peter, Paul & Mary also an influence at that stage? Or was there just a similar dynamic with the male-female counterpunch?
Far from an influence...The Mamas and the Papas were more hip. PPM came along later. I did a TV show in the UK with Mary Travers, as her guitar player. But the more interesting thing was that Paul Griffin was her Musical Director and he played on "Blonde on Blonde".
How did you end up in Copenhagen for the demo sessions in 1967 that make up "All Our Own Work"?
The demos were actually recorded in London at Cecil Sharp House, HQ of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. They were then taken to Denmark by a friend called Tom Browne who used to hold hands with Sandy in the cinema when they were 15. Karl Knudsen of Sonet heard them and signed us.
Why were the sessions not released at the time? Was it a matter of "shopping" them to no interest?
I tried to get a UK release but by the time something was worked out, Joe Boyd had persuaded Sandy to join Fairport instead. I was disappointed, but we remained good friends. Now when I listen to the album, I think there were two or three hit singles on it. Who knows what might have been...
The sessions finally surfaced in 1973 on budget label Pickwick...how did that come about? Those pressings on Pickwick were always of such awful sound quality and durability...!
Strawbs became bigger than Fairport in the early 1970s and Karl Knudsen decided to capitalise on it. It was six years after they were recorded. No-one quite knew where the album came from. Pickwick licensed the album. Budget label, budget sleeve (!!!). I hope we've improved on it.
The sessions also came out on Ryko at one point, which was an improvement, but an obvious question: why did it take so many years (decades!) to remaster and reissue the entire sessions properly, as you've finally done?
Ryko licensed the tracks from Karl Knudsen. Karl had fallen out with our management. I had packed in music and gone into the radio business. When it came out, I had a letter from Karl asking if I was interested in buying his folk catalogue. Then Karl died and the record fell into limbo. I was in Copenhagen 18 months ago and called in at the Storyville Records office and opened negotiations. It was like pulling teeth, but we got there.
The sound of the reissue is fabulous! Walk us through a bit of the alchemy working from original 2-track tapes...I assume much credit must go to your producer, and some to technology...something about "Parametric EQ"? Likewise, Philip Ward asks: "Dave, great to have "All Our Own Work" out on CD at last and sounding so much better than in did on vinyl. Did you have to do a lot of work with the tapes? I heard the original recording was made on pretty basic equipment."
I went to see Chris Tsangarides at his studio just three miles from where I live. He's best known as a metal producer -- Anvil, Gary Moore, Thin Lizzie, Concrete Blonde, Tragically Hip...He understood the project and applied his parametric equaliser that enabled him to select Sandy's voice, Tony's and mine almost as though it was a multi-track recording. He's got the best ears of any engineer I've ever worked with. Chris was a tape operator on "Bursting at The Seams" when we recorded at Morgan Studios in London.
He's also produced with excellent results many of the recent Strawbs and Dave Cousins solo albums...how do you and the "metal guy" come to such an intuitive understanding?
He was a fan all those years ago and learned some of the tricks we used. He told me that he shocked Jackson Browne by putting a guitar amp under a grand piano, with the piano player playing a riff at the same time as the guitar player. The piano was miked from above. I reminded him that Strawbs first used that trick when we recorded "Down By The Sea" when he was in the studio. To be fair, he likes the soft side of music as much as metal. He's just recorded me reading my lyrics for my book "Secrets, Stories and Songs" that will be released in a month. He says that recording spoken word is more difficult than a lead guitar!
Before we stray too far from the "All Our Own Work" reissue...there are two very decent songs of yours released on this for the first time, notably "Indian Summer"...you've been holding those out on us for 40 years! ;-)
There are several more songs yet to be heard. I was self-conscious about "Indian Summer". It's not politically correct nowadays in this loony country of ours.
Excellent, a "Facebook Interview" exclusive, he he. Just when and how will we be hearing these "several more songs"?
No idea!!! The lyrics for them are in the book.
The sessions for the reissue contained the first recording of Sandy's signature tune "Who Knows Where the Time Goes." I wouldn't argue that it's the definitive version...I believe she invested it with more depth and gravitas with Fairport...but it's certainly an important watermark. How do you rate it?
When we were rehearsing I asked Sandy if she had any songs. She sang "Who Knows" and we were stunned. I couldn't think of anything to add to it. I think our version is far better than the Fairport version and it has the original lyrics...
You've been a constant and faithful champion of Sandy for over 40 years. You've written several songs in direct tribute and memory of her...when you introduce "Ringing Down the Years" in a live setting, one still hears the pain of her passing in your voice...
I think of her a lot. She was a good friend. Difficult, awkward, determined... but there was a vulnerability about her. I know what caused it, and I'm going to write an autobiography next year which will answer some of the questions.
You know what caused what? The vulnerability?
Yes. That's as far as I want to go.
If you had to describe with words the beauty and magnetism of Sandy's singing to someone on a desert island who had never heard her and had no access to hearing her, what would you say?
It's her phrasing that can go from a whisper to a roar in a sentence or word, even. She should have become one of the all time greats, but lost it. A tragedy.
Uncut magazine counted the album among its top 10 "Lost Classics"...there is no doubt it was one of the earliest British folk rock sessions...but it must be difficult to rate its actual influence, with it only coming to light in 1973? Thoughts?
Quite right. It was, in my opinion, the first British folk rock album, although some might say folk pop. It predated Fairport's first album with Judy Dyble, and Sandy didn't record with Fairport until a year after that. We would have had a couple of hits under our belt by then! I always had my eye on the charts.
Cinnie Morgan asks: "I can't remember the chronology regarding Sandy's exit from the Strawbs and her joining Fairport. Could you comment on that? Was her changeover related to the different approaches to music that Strawbs and Fairport had?"
Joe Boyd was influential in Sandy moving to Fairport. Joe was anti-Strawbs and always has been. He saw the golden opportunity for Fairport and took it. There was little I could do about it. Sandy was scared of the pop world and preferred the safety blanket of the folk world. We were both right. Strawbs sold more records in the US and Canada, and probably in the UK, but Fairport have the credibility of not "selling out". Fairport have regenerated themselves with their Cropredy Festival over the years.
Like the early Strawbs, Fairport Convention also began with American folk influences in their formative days...at what point did the UK bands realize that they could look back to their own native folk traditions for fusion influence, rather than overseas? And who would you say was the first or most influential in that Eureka! moment?
Fairport's first influences were West Coast rock like Jefferson Airplane moving on to Bob Dylan. Strawbs' first influences were derived from the Harry Smith collection as heard though Susie Shawn. I got my guitar tunings from banjo tunings, and that's what made us sound individual. Strawbs were not at all influenced by English folk music other than modal harmonies. Beatles and Searchers were more important. Fairport took English folk songs, amplified it, and copied the tradition in their songs. I wrote our material from a totally different perspective.
The last Strawbs album, "Dancing to the Devil's Beat" represented your 40th Anniversary album! That must "blow a gasket" somewhat, thinking back on that extensive a career and catalogue...
I'm getting ready for the 80th! We're coming to US and Canada in September/October...
[At this point, we adjourned the live portion of the session, and completed the interview and remaining questions "offline". Here are these bonus questions and Dave's responses...]
"Classic rock" has become such a tired and meaningless description...I saw something on your web site that I loved, referring to the Strawbs as a "Heritage Band"...that seems so much more true and apt somehow...
Heritage Band sums up Strawbs far better than a Classic Rock Band. There's too much pretension in the word "classic" as though new rock is not up to scratch!
Like many "heritage" performers, there are songs in the Strawbs canon that must, pretty well, be performed every night. Has there ever been a moment, over the course of 40 years, where you've thought with dread at having to play a certain number live once again? Have you ever said to yourself "if I have to hear the closing guitar solo of Autumn one more time, I'll..." or some such?
We can never play "Part of the Union". I enjoy singing all the songs on stage. However, I do have a problem with bringing a new member into the band. If I have to rehearse "Lay Down" again I'll scream Aaarrgghhhhh!
There must be some kind of magic that "works" about being in The Strawbs, as almost all the members have returned to the fold at various times over the years!
It's like a family. Sometimes you have a tiff, but in the end you kiss and make up.
What has it been like to work with two generations of Wakemans over your time?
It's been wonderful and rewarding. They all bring something different to the party. In fact we're the only band that has had three Wakemans on tour. Adam Wakeman did just one show with Yes, but a tour with Strawbs. In fact, I mailed Adam Wakeman the other day. He wants to play with us again but is committed to Ozzy Osborne until the end of the year. His brother Oliver is tied up with Yes until the end of the year. Rick and I have an idea about doing another Hummingbird album. It's time that constrains us all!
Reggie D'Antonio Shuster asks: "Dave, your collaborations with Rick Wakeman, both live and in the studio, have been very special. Do you think you'll be collaborating again and is there any chance you two would tour the U.S. together? I'm sure all of the U.S. fans would love to see you together...."
I would love to, but we both have other commitments. Rick is touring with Jon Anderson soon. We have talked about doing shows in the UK and Italy but nothing came of it. North America is different it's the cost. If a promoter wanted to take a big risk we might do it as a duo. In the meantime you'll have to wait for the CD/DVD of me and Rick from the 40th Anniversary Show. It's the only time I've ever been able to watch myself and be entertained. The CD lasts 40 minutes the DVD lasts 1 hour 40 minutes! It should be available in October.
Paul T Bennethum asks: "I've been a fan since the early '70s and wanted to ask you if there is anybody that you've wanted to have as a member of the Strawbs and weren't able to, or anyone who you really miss playing alongside of who was once a member?"
I mailed David Lindley some years ago to suggest a joint tour. I didn't get a reply. However, I bumped into him at the Edmonton Folk Festival and reminded him. He certainly remembered and was apologetic. We had met before when I interviewed him after a show he did in the North east of England when I first went into radio. He was only too familiar with "Hero and Heroine" and couldn't get his head round the fact I was interviewing him. Maybe I'll suggest it to our agent.
I'm lucky that at the 40th, I got to play with most of the band again. I'd love to play with them all, but again...you'll have to wait for the DVDs.
What is it that dictates that it's the right time for a "Strawbs acoustic project," Strawbs electric project" or "David Cousins solo project"?
Touring. In September, we're playing in the USA as Acoustics. In October, we're playing in Canada performing the whole of "Hero and Heroine". I make solo albums when I've got a bunch of spare songs. The special one was "Secret Paths" that I recorded with Melvin Duffy because I think he's amazing. It's a pity you can't put a pedal steel under your arm and carry it on a plane.
"Secret Paths" featured the song "Canada"...quite a passionate love song in itself, I must say! As proud Canadian, I must ask about your bond with our fair land...
Canada was the first country abroad to pick up on Strawbs. In fact it was Montreal and Quebec to be more specific. We have always had a warm welcome. So much so that I filled out immigration papers back in the 1970s, until my girlfriend got cold feet about not being able to see her Mum very often.
What do you consider the advantages and disadvantages of being "the master of your own destiny" (or at least, catalogue) via Witchwood Media?
It's a joy to record as we feel the need. We don't have the muscle of the majors when it comes to advertising and publicity.
You mentioned perhaps tackling an autobiography next year, but you'll have something else published well ahead of that. Give us some details about the imminent "Secrets, Stories & Songs"...
It's my collected lyrics, approaching 250 songs with explanation about how, why and where they were written. It has my tunings tabulated which were derived from banjo tunings. It has a spoken word CD with me reading some of them. It's out in July.
And to finish, some remaining guest questions...Reggie D'Antonio Shuster asks: "Dave, can you talk a little about Tony Hooper's role in the making of 'All Our Own Work'. I've always been a fan of his songs."
Tony was more the lead singer than me in those days. I concentrated on banjo! The harmonies with Sandy are exceptional to my ears. It's a shame I don't see much of Tony these days.
Alison Henderson asks: "Dave, was there a particular concept behind "Grave New World"? There was also a film which came out of the same name just after the album was release which contained some stark film footage of World War One, so was there a peace/pacifist message underpinning it?"
The album is a young man's journey through life. After the benediction, he sets out on his journey. He falls in love with the Flower. He encounters violence in the streets. Looks for salvation. In the end, he finds it when the signpost turns to point him to his final destination.
The song "New World" came out of Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland. The film took the message further from the streets of Ireland, to loss of life on an incalculable scale in WWI, to famine in Africa. The message is "May you rest in your grave new world".
Chris Newman asks: "(Dave, I'm John Hawken's cousin...last caught up with you & the Strawbs at the Brooke In Southampton...you kindly gave me a short interview for Spotlight Radio at the time). I would love to hear a favorite outstanding, outrageous, or funny anecdote you've had on the road over the years!"
Being on the road with John Hawken. Seeing him in Speedo trunks on the beach, flexing his muscles to the young girls, carefully putting his spectacles into their case in his shoes, plunging into the sea, swimming crawl with the style of an Olympic champion...until he swam straight into a shark. I've never seen anyone swim so fast!
Cinnie Morgan asks: "Going back into the distant past again for a moment, you do at least one song from "Dragonfly" ("Josephine" comes to mind), but I can't remember ever hearing you do most of them, including my favorite, "The Weary Song." Why is that?"
There are nearly 300 songs in the repertoire. We pick songs that best suit wither acoustic or electric sets. We haven't got round to The Weary Song yet...but good idea!
Dave, can you settle it once for all: "Strawbs"...or "The Strawbs"?
It used to be "The" but I got lazy writing it!
Thanks to Dave for being so generous with his time, and to Geraldine for her assistance in setting up the interview! And of course, big thanks to all of you who attended the interview live or who came by to read afterwards...For more information about David Cousins and Strawbs, including tour dates, visit:
To purchase recordings, visit Witchwood Records