Occasionally an album comes along which makes more of an impact than was realised at the time of release, somehow it’s more than the sum of its parts. Simply re-releasing it is not enough and it has to be reassessed because with hindsight its true importance is realised. Such a record is ‘The Family Album,’ it was atypical of its composer and it set the blueprint for a whole series of albums which followed, establishing the label’s modus operandi. Joining Steve Ashley in the Tardis, Simon Jones travels in time.
Interviewing Steve Ashley is always a joy, he’s a dream to question honest and forthright with his answers and always thorough in his fact or detail. His sense of humour shines through and he’s often too modest as he’s one of the first / finest contemporary folk writers to show the influence of the tradition in his work. Often compared with Richard Thompson it’s only chronology that joins them in any way, their styles are poles apart, RT having departed for America years ago, Steve remains steadfastly Albion in location and inspiration. In the 70s he became the only British roots performer to sign with Motown – really – and he cut two albums packed with songs which touched on and drew from folk music and personal connection with English roots. Songs like ‘Fire & Wine,’ ‘Old John England,’ ‘Candlemass Carol,’ were classics displaying hints of ritual, history and lore in a modern arrangement. Steve was also a member of the first Albion Country Band and preserved that initial line up through a powerful electric reading of the ballad, ‘Lord Bateman,’ on his debut album.
We had to wait awhile for Steve’s third record, some seven years in fact before the appearance of ‘The Family Album.’ Now those decent types at Talking Elephant are about to reactivate the record three decades after its last appearance. Not only that but it’s been given a complete revamp involving bonus material, interviews with the key participants, contextual notes from those in the know and stacks of photos. It’s vinyl archaeology of the finest order. But that’s what we’re here to discuss and Steve’s keen to get started, first though some back ground.
Are you now fully retired from live performance or are you flexible about matters?
At this time I’ve got a few gigs booked in. A couple for what’s left of this year and a few for next year and I intend to continue singing to people for as long as I’m able. So yes, right now, I’m flexible about matters.
You’ve always been a very hands on kind of artist with the reissuing of your back catalogue. Is there anything still left that you’d love to see issued?
No not really. Many people have asked whether I’ll reissue the two ‘Demo Tapes ‘collections of peace songs. And I have thought about it, but they really were of their time.
We’re here to principally talk about revisiting ‘The Family Album.’ Can you pinpoint the genesis of idea? Which I understand came from a project called ‘Rare Old Men,’ was that down as a possible album too?
It’s a long time ago now, but as far as can remember it was when I wrote ‘Family Love’ (the song about the family car trip to the seaside) that I realised there could be an album which might pull other songs on board. Some were already written, some were tweaked a little and others were written towards the end.
‘Rare Old Men’ was intended to be the follow up to my second album for Gull Records, ‘Speedy Return’. But unfortunately, after the collapse of Gull’s deal with Motown in the States, my contract with Gull came to an abrupt end. The album was all there in demo form but after a while I let it go and used many of the songs on subsequent albums during the years ahead. ‘Mysterious Ways’, ‘Gog and Magog,’ ‘Catch Him if You Can’ and ‘The Last of The Diamonds’ all came from ‘Rare Old Men.’
Did the concept come more or less fully formed or did it arrive in a fragmentary way?
Well, once I’d got started the songs kind of fell into place over a couple of months.
How long did it take you to decide on the kind of family/angles/situations you wanted to portray?
I honestly can’t remember. Most of the time I write songs fast. I always have. I love the process of song writing. Once the idea, or more usually, once the melody comes and settles itself, the lyric tends to flow pretty quickly. As I say, it’s a joyful process which often leaves me feeling elated. Although sometimes it’ll end in disaster and a major disappointment which will leave me feeling flat for a few days. I also really enjoy the process of building an album and one song often leads to another. There’s a balance to be struck also, between tempos, ups and downs and key changes. There’s a lot of humour in the family songs too and that comes from my childhood and my adult experiences of family life.
Is there a degree of personal situation in the material?
Inevitably. But that doesn’t mean the songs are autobiographical. Far from it. A lot of my perceptions come from what I see going on around me, in other people’s families as well as my own.
How long does it take to you to write a song generally?
It varies. Generally, I’d say a day or two. The fastest I remember was the melody for Henry Lawson’s ‘Past Caring’ for The Bushwackers it arrived in a matter of minutes. I’ve no idea why. On the other hand ‘Gog and Magog’ went through changes in the lyric which went on literally, for years. I remember singing that one on gigs back in the early seventies but it wasn’t finished until it came out on the Topic album, ‘Everyday Lives’ in 2001. When I was younger the songs were perhaps more intuitive. The seasonal songs on ‘Stroll On’ were very much responses to inspiration I felt and saw. And they came thick and fast. The more recent songs, which have tended to be more responsive to political events have been more considered and painstakingly constructed. But they’ve all been enjoyable to write.
Did any of these give you any particular difficulty for any reason?
Not that I recall. As I say, I really enjoy writing songs and the Family songs were kind of fuelling and defining each other as the project progressed, especially towards the end of the process. I hear them now and they still seem fresh to me. But so much of that is also down to the performances of the Fairporters. They all played some fantastic stuff on those songs.
Which of them would be the stand outs to you?
I don’t think I can go there. In a way they are like children. I couldn’t say one is a favourite over another. Each one has a place, a job to do, if you like. There are four or five which have attracted more attention in reviews and in cover versions. So I tend to feel there are some in there which have been perhaps overlooked by comparison. But that’s the case in every album isn’t it? Some songs are immediate and others reveal their secrets later on.
Sporting late 70s folk scene fashion, the duo with Chris Leslie (left.)
The recording time line seems complex. Sessions began at Dave Pegg’s Cropredy home studio first? That must have been early in 1979 just as Fairport were winding down, did their long farewell hold up recording much?
I don’t think so. Peggy and I worked pretty quickly when we began recording. We did some live shows at the beginning of the year and all the songs were there at that point. So the gigs tightened up the arrangements and I remember doing some with the chaps at Fairport’s final Farewell. But I can’t remember when we got in the studio. I think it was probably after their Farewell. But I’m not sure.
There must have been a pause when he joined Jethro Tull, moved to Barford St. Michael and built what became Woodworm in the chapel. How much work of the album had been completed by this stage?
Most of it actually. And it has to be said that Peggy did a great job in recording everything at the beginning. When he moved to Barford St Michael and the chapel became a studio we went back and recorded the band numbers, ‘Feeling Lazy,’ ‘Little Bit of Love’ and the end of ‘Rough With The Smooth’ all live together in the chapel.
So one of the first projects in the new complex was to finish the record?
Yes, I suppose it was. And you’re right, Dave had joined Jethro Tull and Mark Powell took over as recording engineer. Dave was busy learning material for his new band but still managed to fit us in. Bruce (Rowland Fairport’s drummer,) was helpful at that stage with ideas and encouragement during mixes and eventually, with the mastering*. I came back to the chapel years later with the Steve Ashley Band to record the ‘Mysterious Ways’ album.
In some ways the sessions set the template for Woodworm’s records, happy, jolly and always a bunch of mates.
I don’t know about setting a template as such. But I know what you mean. Dave Thompson described it as “a bouyant, all-together now bonhomie to the album”. It certainly was a fun way to make a record. But I think that spirit has always been a hallmark of Fairport Convention. Those guys have always had a lot of fun together. They play beautifully and enjoy what they do. I think I was very fortunate that Peggy put so much time and energy into the album, along with Simon Nicol , Bruce and Chris Leslie who I played with as a duo around that time – and we mustn’t forget Martin Brinsford, Capes, Mark Powell and Trevor Foster (although I wasn’t there for his bits) – it was fun for all of us. As Dave Thompson said in his review, the joy is contagious.
A certain Mr. Nicol joins Steve on stage.
There were extra additions in the studio involving non Fairport family musicians Martin Brinsford, the harmony group Capes, Trevor Foster who I think was ex Brighteyes. Any thoughts on their contributions?
Well, I’m grateful to them all for some very tasty sessions. Martin and I were friends in Cheltenham, and his melodeon and harmonica parts are perfect for ‘Family Love.’ We’ve played it together many times over the years and it’s always good fun. Capes were a real surprise. And if you’d told me at the time that we’d have a Swingle Singers style group on board I’d have run away! But no, they were great. Brilliant vocal arrangements by Tom Morrell, and the girls’ vocals at the end of ‘Pancake Day’ ring out like bells. The same with ‘I’m a Radio.’ We performed together at Cropredy too. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the studio when Trevor overdubbed his drum parts and I haven’t seen him since. So I never got the chance to thank him. But again, very tasty touches.
Were you satisfied with the finished product?
I was amazed by it. Especially because it was, in effect, a demo, that is until we went back to improve some bits. My previous two albums were recorded in big studios with orchestral arrangements from Robert Kirby. In fact, Olympic Sound was the biggest in the country. The Stones, Hendrix and the Beatles, I think, all recorded there at some point. So Peggy’s little back room in Cropredy was quite a contrast – even though his monitor speakers were apparently used on Sergeant Pepper. But the sessions themselves were so relaxed and enjoyable it was an amazing experience to hear the songs brought so effortlessly to life. Sometimes a large expensive studio can be quite intimidating. But these sessions were so easy. So yes, I was more than satisfied.
Fairport’s Christmas parties aren’t as riotous as they once were.
You approached diverse companies in Chrysalis and Topic, sort of poles apart, were you comfy with that?
The labels that have carried my stuff have often been poles apart. You can’t imagine more distance between poles than Motown and Topic! But those two approaches to Chrysalis and Topic were years apart. Peggy took the tapes to Chrysalis shortly after he joined Jethro Tull. But they passed on it. It’s not suprising really, the ‘Family Album’ is a quirky collection of songs and Dave had just joined a hugely successful band for the label. It was kind of Dave to try it but it was probably not the right move, at least at that time. Bruce took the finished album to Topic, but again it wasn’t right for them either They became more open to contemporary folk albums later on. And of course I made two albums for them twenty years later. And ironically, most of the Family songs are published by Topic.
In essence the recordings sat on the shelf for a long time at any point did you give up on them and move on because the first ‘Demo Tapes’ cassette must have been on the horizon.
The first ‘Demo Tapes’ cassette was released in 1981, two years before the ‘Family Album’ finally appeared. The CND campaign had taken over my musical career. It was a serious commitment at the time, with Cruise Missiles destined for these shores and the Tory Government shelling out billions on Trident. If my memory serves correctly, the failure to place the album with a label put it on the back burner. But I never disowned it. I just got seriously involved with the Peace Movement with loads of benefit gigs. I recorded a single with Bruce Kent and Lord Noel-Baker and I also got arrested at Upper Heyford USAF base. It just wasn’t the right time for the ‘Family Album.’
Was there any specific tour or series of dates to promote ‘The Family Album?’
No not really. I think the first gig was in The Plough at Cheltenham. We had three dancers for ‘Pancake Day’ and ‘The Wedding Song’ which, by the way, we took off the album. It was a good song musically but a little too cynical. In the end it just didn’t fit. Anyway, Cheltenham was great fun. Martin Brinsford played drums on that first one. Then Peggy fixed one up in Banbury for Help The Aged. Ralph McTell kindly agreed to do the support and bring in a bigger audience. Ian Campbell was MC. And for that gig Bruce Rowland took over on the drums. After that we did The Half Moon in Putney and we did a good spot at Cropredy. We’ve done a few numbers at my 60th Birthday concert and at Peggy’s, plus a club gig with just Chris and Martin. But that’s about it.
Would you trust this lot with your Granny?
We must mention the cover concept. A great idea, was it yours?
Yes it was. We were all, or most of us, raising families at that time. Dave’s two children were in there, along with Simon’s. And Simon’s wife Sylvia and my wife were both pregnant. Our daughter is sitting in the middle holding a gun. So wives, children and dogs were all welcome.
Nominations for best dressed character – myself I’d go for Chris Leslie’s mutton chop sideburns and greased quiff.
Yes, that Teddy Boy look was one he’d obviously been nurturing for some time! I hope he didn’t have a sharpened comb in his pocket. But I’d have to go for my wife Liz, dressed as the Granny. She looks very convincing. However, now she is an actual granny she doesn’t look as old as that.
You kept yourself hidden, when perhaps you should have been front and centre. Why did you feel you had to appear as the dog? There were real dogs too!
I don’t know, it just seemed like a good idea. It’s a squirrel costume actually and the large dog’s head doesn’t really go so well with it. The Pegg’s Dog, Legs Pegg is in there too and our own Rufus, the inspiration for the song, is characteristically exiting stage left. He was a great character.
The photo captures a happy go lucky atmosphere.
Yes it does and so much of that is generated by Dave Pegg. His sense of fun never stops.
How do you view ‘The Family Album’ from the distance of forty years? What are its strengths? The theme of the record is timeless.
I’ve always had a soft spot for it. I’m proud of the songs, and track to track they cover so much ground. In recent years I’ve been much more engaged with writing political songs, because in my view, these wretched times demand them. But now I’ve retired from making albums I’ve had the chance to look and listen back. And ‘The Family Album’ warms my heart and makes me laugh. ‘Family Love’ and ‘Lost & Found’ still bring a chuckle, even though I know what’s coming next in the lyrics. So I suppose it has a special place in my heart and mind. I’m still writing songs of course and many are related inevitably to climate change, Covid and this dreadful fascist government of ours. But I still enjoy ‘The Family Album’ and I’m really grateful for its reissue. The time was right I think.
The old saying is that the only thing about your life that you can’t change is your family.
That’s true I suppose. You might say the same for the Labour Party. I thought we could change it. But it now seems more determined than ever to be a stand in Tory Party. Years ago I might have said the same for the Folk Scene family but there are some encouraging signs of change in there these days. And long may that be the case.
* It should be noted here that Steve and Bruce Rowland became great friends so much so when Steve and his wife went to visit her mother who lived in Devon, they’d often pop in to see Bruce and his family, the sensible Mr. Rowland having given up all that rock palaver and opened a paint shop in the county. Indeed few of the locals and his neighbours knew that Bruce had musical history! Besides Fairport he played with Joe Cocker at Woodstock and had further adventures with the Grease Band and Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance. One of the bonus tracks on the new edition of ‘The Family Album,’ is dedicated to him.
Revitalised ‘The Family Album,’ is once more in the racks courtesy of Talking Elephant Records talkingelephant.co.uk