Strawbs – Heartbreak Hill / Burning For You: Album Review

Strawbs fans can rejoice with the pairing of Heartbreak Hill and Burning For You in Remastered and Expanded forms.

Release Date: 29th May 2020

Label: Cherry Red Records

Formats: CD

If like me, you’re a fan of all things Strawbs, then 29 May is a date for your diary because, on that date, Cherry Red Records will be reissuing two classic Strawbs albums via their Esoteric Recordings imprint.  Heartbreak Hill is known to Strawbs followers as the great ‘lost’ Strawbs album and Burning For You, from 1977, is the last album from the band to trouble the sales charts in any way (it slithered its way into the lower reaches of the US Billboard Top 200 way back then…)

In his excellent autobiography, Exorcising Ghosts (Witchwood Media, 2014) Dave Cousins expresses highly contrasting views and memories of the preparation and outcomes of the two albums.  1978’s Heartbreak Hill, he considers to be “…among the best albums Strawbs ever made…an opportunity to regain the band’s status, especially in North America.”  On the other hand, Dave considers Burning For You to be “lacking in continuity… his least favourite Strawbs album.” A view probably influenced by a difficult relationship he was, at the time, experiencing with the album’s producer and the rest of the band members. He does, however, concede that, to the casual listener, the songs “sound great.”

Unfortunately, during the recording of Heartbreak Hill, Strawbs’ management and record deals hit the rocks and the album was mothballed and did not see release in any form until 1995.  It was remastered from the original tapes in 2006 and this latest version sees the original 8 tracks supplemented by four excellent bonus offerings.

Heartbreak Hill is indeed a great album; possibly a culmination of the direction in which Strawbs had been heading during the preceding years.  It’s unashamedly prog-rock and it’s a fine example of that genre.  OK – it sounds like a folky Yes in quite a lot of places but Dave’s distinctive voice and vocal delivery and the unique construction of the songs clearly mark it as a Strawbs album and this new version sounds remarkably fresh.  The album’s title is, perhaps, appropriate, because it’s shelving, way back in 1978, must have been heart-breaking to Dave and the band but this new release does, at last, see justice being done.

Strawbs’ line-up for Heartbreak Hill was Dave Cousins on vocals and guitar, Chas Cronk on bass, Andy Richards on keyboards, Tony Fernandez on drums and, for this album only, Jo Partridge, replacing the recently departed Dave Lambert on guitar (although Dave does feature on the album’s opening track, Something For Nothing.  The band is further supplemented by Miller Anderson, who adds some tasteful guitar licks and wonderful backing vocals to We Can Make It Together.

The album is a pleasure to listen to and Something For Nothing and the two big production numbers, Heartbreak Hill and Starting Over still generate sufficient shivers to enliven the most jaded backbone.  Desert Song is a driving rocker with tasty guitar licks and ‘50s- styled backing vocal and somehow evokes the Grave New World era. Let It Rain, the last track on the original album, also harks back to an older version of Strawbs, particularly with its anthemic, infectious chorus. 

The bonus tracks are equally enjoyable – Bring Out Your Dead and Another Day Without You are Dave Cousins’ home demos featuring just Dave’s voice and piano.  Bring Out Your Dead is an excellent song and could, I feel, have merited contemporaneous release in the stripped-down format in which it appears here.  Another Day Without You is barely recognisable from the baroque power ballad that it was to become but this basic bonus version certainly has its charms.  Live versions of Heartbreak Hill and Starting Over, taken from Strawbs’ 40th Anniversary Celebrations in 2009 complete the album. Both are excellent versions of two of the album’s outstanding tracks, played and sung with huge skill and passion.

In both his autobiography and in the sleevenotes to the reissue of the Burning For You album, Dave Cousins is scathing, suggesting that the album is imbalanced and lacking in quality material, and to some degree, he may have a point.  The album was recorded, at Relight Studio in Hilvarenbeek, Holland, in less than ideal circumstances.  Firstly, it was originally released in 1977, only months after Strawbs’ previous offering, Deep Cuts, and the band were desperately short of worked-up material. Secondly, there was evident friction between Dave Cousins, the producer Jeffery Lesser and, reportedly, between Dave and the other band members.

In truth, the album is something of a curate’s egg – there are a couple of brilliant songs; Burning For Me, written in the studio by Dave Cousins in response to a challenge from the producer is classic Strawbs, as is Cut Like A Diamond.  Both rock along nicely and feature typically impassioned Dave Cousins vocal performances. Similarly, Barcarole (For The Death Of Venice) is a lovely tune (a quality accentuated in the bonus track instrumental version) with some wonderful vocal harmonies. 

Throughout the album, Dave Lambert contributes excellent guitar work but his songwriting contributions feel somewhat out of place; I Feel Your Love Coming On and Heartbreaker are both pleasant enough but just don’t sound like Strawbs songs… 

Turning to some of Dave Cousins’ other contributions, Keep On Trying and Back In The Old Routine are deliberately and blatantly poppy.  Back In The Old Routine was, in fact, the album’s single and it earned the band their last ever appearance on Top of the Pops.  The song’s styling sees Dave emulating Ray Davies at his most Vaudeville and the references to “sexy Au Pairs” and a Chinese takeaway serving Siamese cat, sit extremely awkwardly in 2020.  The single bombed.

Listen to Keep On Trying from Heartbreak Hill:

For Burning For You, Strawbs’ core lineup of Dave Cousins (vocals and guitars), Dave Lambert (vocals and lead guitar), Chas Cronk (bass) and Rod Coombes (drums) was supplemented John Mealing and Robert Kirby, who provided orchestrations and keyboards.  Two of the album’s better tracks do, perhaps, suffer from over-orchestration – Chas Cronk’s Carry Me Home, a McCartney-ish power ballad and Goodbye (Is Not An Easy Word To Say), intended as Dave Cousins’ farewell to the band are both pleasant songs, but the adequate instrumentation provided by the band does get somewhat drowned by the strings.

The album is certainly enhanced by the bonus tracks. Joey And Me, a song that would see release on 1978’s Deadlines album is more classic Strawbs with Dave C delivering a killer vocal over strummed acoustic guitars. Goodbye (alternate take) is mellower than the cut chosen for the original album and, happily, dispenses with the strings, and the instrumental version of Barcarole is a delight. 

The album closes with Heartbreaker, a completely different song to the Dave Lambert number featured on the original album.  The bonus Heartbreaker is a single from 1977, a Will Malone composition performed by The Intergalactic Touring Band, with Dave Cousins providing guest vocals.  It’s a good song and quite a curio.

In summary, 29th May is a date to look forward to.  The remastered and expanded Heartbreak Hill is a treat to savour. Burning For You, particularly with the excellent bonus tracks, is a must for Strawbs completists.

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