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STEELEYE SPAN "Bedlam Born" Park PRKCD55

After the "unplugged" delights of their previous album, the reborn Steeleye Span take their new look back to electric music on this new collection of songs and tunes, adding some very rock-influenced guitar and bass to the drums of Dave Mattacks, who is an unofficial fifth member throughout. Steeleye bring a maturity of thought to their latest definition of what makes folk music and bring it much nearer to modern music than they ever achieved with those slightly self-conscious fusions of Child with electricity from the early days.

Although the 14 songs which make up this 50 minutes of music merge into a complimentary programme the individual strengths and tastes of the four members are very noticeable. Bob Johnson is threatening that this will be his last recording. He, more than anyone on the folk scene has been able to research ancient songs in a truly historical way. Most of our "folk" songs seem to be nothing more than the popular song of the modern era, being written between the Restoration and the beginning of the wireless, but Johnson has been able to find material that dates back to Tudor times and the Middle Ages. His tour de force here is "Well Done Liar", a variant from the 1500s of the song the Dransfields recorded as "Who's the Fool Now", but very different in tone and structure. With its angry rock backing you will not recognise it as the same song.

He also seems to have been the force behind two songs sung by Gay Woods, "We Poor Labouring Men" done as a tribute to A.L. Lloyd, and "The Beggar". Tim Harries has yet to achieve the weighty reputation of his colleagues, but he moves a long way down that road here. His pastiche of a Child Ballad, "John of Ditchford", one of those gruesome tabloid murder tales, seems to have all the elements of the originals, perhaps more so than the true child of Child "Stephen", a story of one of the lesser lights in the Christmas Story. This gives the album title, and it is a sobering thought in view of our later uses of the phrase that the one who is "Bedlam Born" is none other than Jesus Christ. The tune is adapted from one by the 12th Century St. Godric, who seems to have been influenced by Heavy Metal.

Pete Knight provides two notable songs with his trademark lovely and unusual tunes, notably "Who Told the Butcher", which is based on the structure of traditional; riddle songs and is highly enigmatic, although my guess is it is about fly-fishing. Gay Woods contributes a couple of songs in a sweet Irish style, contrasting well with the heavy stuff and sings Steeleye's traditional odd/comic coda; this time "The White Cliffs of Dover", accompanied by some weird, almost discordant and slightly disturbing music which pinpoints its role as an underlining of the Battle of Britain. Another chart-topper from Steeleye Span. If the old aim of a folk-rock fusion is still their "mission statement" they are getting nearer all the time.

Bob Harragan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 43 of The Living Tradition magazine.