Author’s Note: I’ve been lucky in that several people I’ve written about have become friends, albeit geographically distant ones, and among those is Steve Ashley – known (by me anyway!) as the Inspector Morse of the folk world: a gentle romantic with a flair for mystery… I’ve had a great time hanging out with Steve and his wife socially at the Cropredy Festival a couple of times, in Oxford restaurants and at his own all-star birthday concert in Cheltenham. Steve in full flight is the best company you could wish for – a very funny, humane, generous and delightful fellow. All of which means, of course, that he’s not half as successful as he should be. Such is life.
Steve Ashley: Stroll On
Published: Mojo, June, 2000
Tracks: Fire And Wine / Finite Time / Silly Summer Games / Springsong / Monkey Puzzle Tree / Farewell Green Leaves / Morris Minor / Candlemas Carol / John Donne Song / Lord Bateman / Follow On
Currently available as: Stroll On Revisited (Market square MSMCD104), including two outtakes and a non-album single
Producer: Austin John Marshall
Singles extracted: None, though Old Rock’n’Roll (a contemporaneous single) is added to the CD
Released: April 1974
Chart Peak: None
Recorded between 1971 – 73, with guest appearances from the biggest names in folk-rock, the passing of time has confirmed two things about Steve Ashley’s nearly still-born debut. Firstly, it is a masterpiece of its kind – a beautiful, rich and deeply atmospheric collection of very English songs, like a musical impression of Dickens, Victorian Christmas cards and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex with a running concept concerning seasonal change. Secondly, it is still too much of a best-kept-secret.
It may be tempting to view the early seventies as a golden age for British folk-rock – a time when record labels were seemingly delighted to throw vast sums of money at ludicrous, self-indulgent nonsense. So it was that Sandy Denny and a gang of her Island label cronies were allowed to hole up in Manor Studios for weeks on end fooling around with old Buddy Holly songs (a not-very-successful album called The Bunch eventually resulted) while all sorts of no-hopers plugged away at turning the leafy lanes of trad into something that Canned Heat might be able to play. Somehow, while everyone else was finding an outlet for their sub-standard fol-de-rol, this masterful, beautifully textured and gentle epic nearly slipped through the net. Rejected by thirty labels it was only the tenacity of maverick producer Austin John Marshall which finally saved the day.
Marshall’s CV already included masterminding the ground-breaking Davy Graham/Shirley Collins partnership and filming the first Jimi Hendrix Experience documentary during the sixties. Steve met him through a folk club he was running in 1967 in Maidstone: ‘We were both designers,’ says Steve. ‘John was working at The Observer and I went to work there with him, and while I was there we both got into the Incredible String Band. Listening to The Hangman’s Beautiful daughter inspired me and I started to write my own stuff and work as a duo with Dave Menday, called The Tinderbox. After a few months in London I moved down to Kent again and was living in an old vicarage at the foot of Rochester Castle, a very magical place to be – Dickensian houses all around, a great sense of history. Looking back I think that impacted on the writing. Most of the record – the seasonal songs – were written at that time, in 1968. The String Band were drawing from all sorts of music but I took the decision to focus on English music, writing modal melodies and ensuring that the language and vocal delivery were distinctively English. It was a magical time – I was writing two or three songs a week then and they seemed to have a life of their own.’
Marshall was touting Steve to various labels and secured a deal with Polydor for one song, ‘Farewell Brittania’, which ultimately fell through. Tinderbox called it a day and Steve formed an electric folk band, Ragged Robin, that would stagger on until the winter of 1973. Meanwhile, in 1970, Marshall had secured another hopeful avenue for Steve’s songs: ‘John had got to know the guy who owns Olympic Sounds in Barnes. This guy offered a publishing deal and the chance to record an album at Olympic with whoever we wanted on it – incredible! I decided it would be nice to have string arrangements in a kind of Delius/Vaughan Williams style. John played me Nick Drake’s stuff and said ‘this is the man’. So we got Robert Kirby, I sang him a few counter-melody ideas for some of the songs and he went away and came back with these amazing, mind-blowing arrangements.’
Stroll On was thus essentially recorded in 1971, but over the three years of rejections that followed a few adjustments were made. Two tracks, Spirit Of Christmas and Love In A Funny Way (both rescued for the CD version), were dropped in favour of an epic recording of the traditional Lord Bateman with the otherwise undocumented first Albion Country Band line-up – a band Steve was briefly involved with in 1972. Also, the Robert Kirby arrangement of Steve’s signature song Fire And Wine (first recorded by Anne Briggs on her 1971 album The Time Has Come) was replaced with a barn-storming version by Ragged Robin. In this spirit of career-chronicling, Steve reconvened his Tinderbox duo to record the mystical Finite Time and the circle was complete. But by the time Marshall had secured a deal, with Gull in 1974, Steve was almost past caring: ‘I didn’t actually believe it until I went into a shop in Chelsea and bought one!’ Gull had a US licensing deal with Motown and thus this most English of albums appeared on the home of Afro-American pop the following year. But by the time Speedy Return, appeared, also in 1975, the Gull/Motown deal collapsed and Steve’s career went into a limbo which has only occasionally been broken with low-key releases ever since – sampled on the 1999 compilation The Test Of Time. A new album, promising the spirit of Stroll On, is due very soon: ‘I think it’s got some of that magic in it,’ says Steve, ‘but it’s been maturing. Rather than ‘fire and wine’ I like to think of it as vintage port!’