Album Review

Steve Ashley – Steve Ashley’s Family Album Revisited: Album Review

Welcome return of a classic, lost album from Steve Ashley.

Release Date:  30th July 2021

Label: Talking Elephant

Formats: CD

I’ll own up from the outset.  I have a lasting fondness for the music of Steve Ashley. A fondness that was seeded when I first saw his folk/rock outfit Ragged Robin perform a show in Bolton – 26th May, 1973, according to my diary.  I was immediately taken with the fluidity and humour of Steve’s audience interaction, with the pure Englishness of his and the band’s material and with his special, unique singing voice.  I kept close tabs on what he was up to after that first encounter. Further Ragged Robin shows followed (Steve was the member of that first folk/rock generation who seemed to most frequently visit our wet, cold northern outposts…) along with solo performances – a gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall with Decameron and Jack The Lad in late 1975 springs particularly to mind – and, of course there were his appearances at the early Cropredy Festivals as part of a duo with future Fairporter Chris Leslie.

Steve’s first two solo albums, the mighty Stroll On (1974) and its 1975 follow-up, Speedy Return are both classics – indeed, Stroll On was belatedly recognized as such by Mojo magazine (no less) in one of its regular Buried Treasure features.  Unfortunately, shortly after the release of Speedy Return, Steve’s deal with Gull Records collapsed and his plans for a third album were, by necessity, put on ice.  Work on The Family Album commenced in 1979 at Dave Pegg’s cottage studio in Cropredy.  The Cropredy recordings were originally intended as demos – Peggy tried to use his Jethro Tull involvement to get Chrysalis Records interested in them, but to no avail, and it was 1982 before the album was pressed and released.  And what a tremendous album it is.

Featuring a line-up that includes Chris Leslie, Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg and the late Fairport drummer Bruce Rowland, as well as Martin Brinsford, vocal harmony ensemble Capes, keyboardist Mark Powell and drummer Trevor Foster, Family Album is a collection that sounds just as fresh today as it did when it first saw the light of day back in the early eighties.  And that’s a statement with which Fairport’s Dave Pegg agrees wholeheartedly – as he says: “Steve’s Family Album was one of our first releases [on Peggy’s Woodworm Records imprint] and, to my ears, still stands up today with the quality of the songwriting and the ‘vibe’ of all the musicians involved.  It was great fun to do and I still love listening to it.  It’s lovely to know that it’s being made available again.”

Family Album is, loosely, a collection of songs that capture the spirit of family life.  There are songs about family outings and songs that express the ups and downs of life from the various viewpoints of the baby, mother, father, both grandparents and even the family dog.  There are songs of joy, songs dripping with humour, songs of regret and songs of acceptance.  And everything is wrapped in just the right amount of thoughtful instrumentation; Peggy’s fretless bass contributions are awesome, Chris’s violin parts are sublime, the vocal harmonies from Capes – particularly on Pancake Day and I’m A Radio – are beautiful, and, best of all, there’s that unique Steve Ashley voice to put the lyrics over with exactly the right level of swagger or intimacy – depending on the subject matter!  And as well as providing the studio and the basslines, Dave Pegg also oversaw the production duties.

The album opens with the timeless, priceless Family Love.  Martin Brinsford plays melodeon and harmonica on a hilarious account of a family trip to the seaside in father’s Morris.  When we first heard this song at Cropredy in 1980, my (then) girlfriend had tears of mirth streaming down her face as the story of squashed sandwiches, father “going ‘pom pom pom’ ” to himself and various car occupants farting or throwing up unfolded.  “Thank Gawd for that!” says father, as the family finally reach the seaside, before immediately turning around and heading back home.  It’s a wonderful song that gets the dynamic of a family outing spot-on.

Born To Rule (The Baby’s Song) is a clever, gentle number in which the family’s baby gives his own account of his existence and, notably, reflects on the incessant bombardment of nursery rhymes that he/she has to endure – all to a soft guitar/bass backing.  Anyone searching for a recipe for pancakes will find what they’re looking for in the lyrics to Pancake Day, an a cappella song with lovely harmonies from Capes.  The song opens with a recording of the Cropredy Church bells, made, apparently, one hungover morning after a heavy night chez Pegg.

I heartily recommend that everyone should hear Lost and Found (The Dog’s Song) at least once.  It’s a piece of literal “doggerel” in which the family dog (a cockney one) tells his life story, half-spoken, half-sung in a voice eerily similar to Keith Moon’s Bell Boy vocal.  The late Bruce Rowland makes no bones about his view on the song in the album’s sleevenotes: “Steve has an archive of beautifully crafted material… (apart, that is, from the f**cking dog song).”

After the drama of The Dog Song (and you really do have to hear it for yourself) things move from the ridiculous to the smoothly sublime.  Once In A While (The Grandmother’s Song) is a Steve Ashley classic and one of my all-time favourites.  The song is an insightful reflection on growing old, losing the pleasures of youth and seeing a family grow and move on – all things that Steve, and many of the rest of us, will have experienced for ourselves since the song was written.  It’s a truly beautiful song, laced with tasteful banjo, guitar, bass and some wonderfully discrete drums that, despite its message of regret, still manages to convey a sense of contentedness.

Anyone with any exposure to Steve Ashley’s music will probably be familiar with Feeling Lazy.  Steve performed the song with Fairport at the 2007 Cropredy Festival and also at Dave Pegg’s 60th birthday celebration at Birmingham Town Hall, later that same year.  The song has also been covered by, amongst others, Arizona Smoke Revue and Show Of Hands.  Starting with a contemplation of the passage of time, it bursts into life in a celebration of indolence, and it’s yet another Steve Ashley classic.  I’ve always particularly loved the line: “do it all tomorrow, just you wait and see, I only need to borrow someone else’s energy.”  Absolutely!

Recollections of life’s tribulations are not just confined to the family’s sentient members… In the thirties-flavoured I’m a Radio, the family’s radio gets in on the act to tell its story, starting with the day that it left Japan, and it makes a particular point of mentioning the times that it was “dropped in the stew and dropped in the loo.”  The lovely Days Like Today is brought fully to life by Chris Leslie’s mournful fiddle and Love Is All We Live For, a song that eloquently describes the emotional turmoil of break-up, is probably the closest song on the album to the introspective material that dominated Steve’s first two albums.

Things get slightly sinister for Little Bit Of Love, a dark song, disguised as an upbeat rocker. that describes the ongoing disintegration of a family, and Somewhere In A Song, one of the two songs newly included on this reissue, provides another serving of the classic, intimate, Steve Ashley.

The album’s original closing track, The Rough With The Smooth (The Grandfather’s Song), is another one of those classics.  It’s one of the three tracks from the original album (Family Love and Once In A While were the others) that were chosen for inclusion on the excellent 1999 Steve Ashley compilation album Test Of Time and, as such, may be one the album’s more familiar numbers.  The lyric, written from the point of view of a 72-year old man (an age that Steve has now exceeded and which even many of his younger followers are rapidly closing in upon) describes putting up with creaky knees, arthritis, loneliness and life in a care home and, once again, Steve hit the bullseye.  An excellent song with a fantastic anthemic ending in which Peggy and Chris once again excel.

Fairport’s former drummer, Bruce Rowland, passed away in June 2015.  During the recording of Family Album, Peggy suggested that he came along to add drum parts to a number of tracks, and this was the first meeting between Bruce and Steve Ashley.  They became great friends and Steve was honoured to be asked to perform his magnificent reflection of mortality and afterlife, Over There In Paradise (from his 2001 album, Everyday Lives) at Bruce’s funeral.  For Bruce, the closing track on this reissue of Family Album, is a personal tribute to Bruce.  Respectful and poignant, it recalls Bruce’s time with The Greaseband, Fairport and Slim Chance and Steve delivers the song, a cappella, in that voice that remains as charming and instantly recognizable as it did back in May 1973.  A fitting end to an enormously welcome reissue.

Listen to the hilarious Family Love – the album’s opening track below. You can buy the album here.

Steve Ashley: Website

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