Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span: ‘I wouldn’t have missed Top of the Pops for the world’

Released 50 years ago, Below The Salt was something of a landmark for Steeleye Span.

Steeleye Span
Steeleye Span

Their first album to be recorded with Rick Kemp and Bob Johnson in the fold, following the departure of Ashley Hutchings and Martin Carthy, it was also their debut release on Chrysalis Records whose stronger promotional muscle brought them a top 20 hit with the single Gaudete.

“We’d done the first three albums with Martin and Ashley, and the first album had Terry and Gay (Woods) on it, then Peter (Knight) joined us when they left,” recalls singer Maddy Prior. “Martin and Ashley went off to do other things and Rick and Bob came in and it became much more of a band that people are familiar with in the broader community. The folk world I think still has great affection for those first albums.”

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A mixture of medieval influences and folk rock, Below The Salt another chapter in Steeleye Span’s continual evolution, Prior believes.

“Steeleye changes all the time,” she says. “We’ve got a whole new raft of people in, but the essential thing is the approach to the music, which is basically traditional although not entirely, with a rock setting and a lot of harmonies – we’re big on singing.

“There’s a style that we’ve kind of developed of our own, and that’s what makes it work.”

Within two years of Below The Salt the band would become fully fledged pop stars, with a top five single, All Around My Hat, produced by Mike Batt, then famed as the singer, songwriter and producer behind The Wombles.

Prior, now 74, says she wouldn’t have missed the Top of the Pops days “for the world”.

“There was only that programme that pop music on, but we were fairly well known by then because we did big tours. Nobody did stadiums because that wasn’t what you did back then, but we were playing all the top venues, so it wasn’t completely out of the question. We’d done Gaudete before it, then later was Hat.”

In her teenage years, Prior, like most of her friends, had been interested in blues and R&B. “I was a Mod some days of the week,” she remembers. “But I sang versions of Joan Baez songs and I roadied for an American couple for a while and they said, ‘You’ve got stop singing (in an) American (accent) because you are rubbish at it’. I was kind of a bit offended but they said, ‘You’ve got to sing British traditional music’. I thought ‘oh, that’s like that stuff at school’. They gave me a load of tapes of traditional singers and I sat down a listened to these and I thought, ‘it’s all these old voices singing these dreary songs’.

“But I sat for a couple of weeks and I started to go, ‘That was quite nice, I like that’, so I got my ear into it and I could hear the tunes and that stood me in enormous stead.

“All our friends thought we were bonkers, because why would you be doing this stuff,” Prior says. “But it turned out to work for us. We just got into it.”

The interest in traditional music deepened after meeting multi-instrumentalist Tim Hart in 1966 and they released two albums as a duo, Folk Songs of Olde England, Volumes One and Two, before teaming up with Hutchings and the Woods in 1969.

“Tim and I had worked around the folk clubs for three or four years by then and we’d got a name,” Prior says. “We’d done two albums, which was really unusual then, nobody made albums. We never made any money out of them as it turned out. A guy called Tony Pike recorded us in his kitchen with a Revox for the first one, two Revoxes for the second one, which meant that Tim could overdub an instrument, but that was it. They took almost as long to record as they take to play because we just sang them. So we were kind of known on the folk scene, we had just that bit of gravitas because we’d got these albums.

“Ashley and Terry and Gay were at a bit of a loss. Ashley had been imagining having Sweeney’s Men, but they were in the process of breaking up, so it turned out there was the three of them and they were talking to quite a few people. They came to dinner and we got on and they said, ‘Do you want to join a band?’ So we said, ‘Let’s have a rehearsal and see what happens’. It went really well and I think (Steeleye Span’s first record) is a lovely album but at the end of it Terry and Gay left.

“I think they thought that would be the end of the band but no, we were a bit more robust than that.”

The band’s record contract – “for ten albums in five years” – ensured they were prolific. “That’s what people did then, pop musicians just churned them out,” Prior says. “Consequently I think the albums are a little bit curate’s egg. Some of it was really obvious. We quite often had half an album’s worth of material by the time we came to record, we would do more but it wasn’t of the strength of some of the material.

“It was about the same time that Kate Bush came in and said ‘I’m going to make one album every three years’. She spent a year writing it, a year recording it and a year selling it and then she’d start again. That was unheard of then, nobody did that, but of course everybody does that now.”

Steeleye Span’s high turnover of members over the last half century has enabled the band to stay fresh, Prior believes. “Everybody brings their own music, that’s how we want it to be,” she says. “We’re not our own cover band. I once was talking to Francis Rossi and he said (Status) Quo are our own tribute band and that was true because they would sing all their material but we’ve always moved on and it changes and we rearrange a lot of the songs. The songs are the strength, really.”

Big ballads remain at the core of the band’s repertoire, as well as five-part harmonies. “We have a particular way of doing harmonies,” Prior says. “We don’t tend to do organise them. The way we used to do it was everybody would find a little bit of tune that they liked and we’d all make up our own harmonies. We’d argue about them but we didn’t like to sing a harmony all the way through. The Watersons if I listen to them now, they do much the same. It was probably the way everybody did it then, very much by ear.”

Steeleye Span play at Leeds City Varieties on Tuesday May 10. steeleyespan.org.uk