Of the classic British progressive bands of the 1970s, the Strawbs stand apart in many respects. Rather than having roots in the psychedelic scene, they started as a bluegrass trio playing the music of their American idols. Gradually they evolved into a powerhouse of imaginative and innovative music, mixing elements of their folk roots with electric instruments and extended compositions. Throughout many changes in personnel, Dave Cousins has been the chief songwriter and guiding force of the band.
by Jeff Melton, Published 2004-09-01
Who were your early songwriting heroes when you and Tony Hooper were in the Strawberry Hill Boys?
When we started the Strawberry Hill Boys I had never written a song. Our repertoire was bluegrass songs by people like Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers. Hence our name – we were into the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Stony Mountain Boys, and the Rocky Mountain Boys etc. and as we rehearsed in Strawberry Hill it seemed appropriate.
I admired Pete Seeger as a banjo player. I played guitar for Mary Travers when she did a TV special in London as well as on TV specials with Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and I played banjo on albums by Tommy Makem on his own and one with the Clancey Brothers and Tommy Makem. The last two were produced by Teo Macero, who later produced Miles Davis. And I remember giving him "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus," our second single. I also gave a copy to Joni Mitchell – we didn't have an album out at that time. She taught me a tuning that she had worked out with David Crosby.
I saw Donovan on TV and thought if he can write so can I. He sort of came through the folk circuit.
When I started producing radio programs for Danish radio (before we recorded) I got into the Mamas and the Papas, and although I liked the songs they didn't inspire me to write. I was far more interested in the sounds they were making.
I suppose the Beatles were an early influence and the sounds of the folk scene (not the songs) with the harmonies of the Young Tradition.
Which 1960s American and European artists helped you decide to put a band together?
It was being involved with people who were interested in the Carter Family, or having Mike Seeger stay with me. We didn't form a band; we were a bluegrass group – the first in Britain. The band came later.
Do you have an early memory of people's reaction to your own songs?
DC: It was probably playing "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus" at the folk club I ran in Hounslow called The White Bear. The BBC came down to film it for a half hour TV special on the Strawbs called Colour Me Pop, which sadly no longer exists in the BBC archives. Great shame because David Bowie mimed to "Poor Jimmy Wilson" on the show.
What material did you play in the early days?
I don't have any set lists but you can tell what we played by listening to Preserves Uncanned, a double CD of our early origins.
You were also running a folk club in the UK at the time, correct?
This is going back to the early days. I not only ran the weekly folk club at the White Bear but also a fortnightly Arts Lab.
What acts did you book?
The folk club had all the regular folk artists – Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell, John Martyn, and The Johnstons etc. The Johnstons came over to my house after the show, and in fact I suggested to Paul Brady that he might like to consider joining us on piano. This was well before Rick joined.
The Arts Lab was different altogether. The first guest was David Bowie just as he had his "Space Oddity" in the charts. We later had the Spiders from Mars with Tony Visconti on bass before they did the Hammersmith Odeon show. There were about 60 people there. At another time we showed Don't Look Back [D.A. Pennebacker's movie on Bob Dylan] with Dave Lambert's band Fire supporting. Then there was Pete Brown reading poetry. It was a remarkable period.
Can you tell us any stories about when Sandy Denny was touring live with the trio?
I have many stories, but eventually I'll get round to writing the book! When we got back from Denmark having made the album with Sandy we dropped into a folk club at the Greyhound in Fulham Palace Road and sang a few songs. Pictures of that are on our new Acoustic Strawbs DVD filmed live in Toronto last July. We did "Who Knows Where the Time Goes." Soon after, we went to a folk festival Hull and Sandy came along in the car. We introduced her to Trevor Lucas and she decided to come back on the train with him instead of us. Very soon after they started living together.
Can you tell us how you felt about Rick Wakeman leaving the band?
I was disappointed, not because he left but because he didn't phone me to say he was. He went and told our managers instead. I wrote "Benedictus" about the event so it had its compensations.
Were you aware he had offers to join either David Bowie or Yes?
I knew he was working with Yes so it was not a surprise. I didn't know about David Bowie until later, when I met up with David's manager. I was flattered frankly that we had had the vision to see his ability first.
Was there a lot of tension building in the band during the making of Bursting at the Seams?
There was no tension in the making of that record. The tension came after the hits and the wish by Hud and John to do more like "Part of the Union" and me to do more like "Down by the Sea." In the end we were both proven right. Hudson Ford had several hit singles but no hit albums. We had several hit albums but no hit singles. Our management should have banged our heads together to sort it out, but in the end chose the split route. We sometimes sit around and say what bloody fools we were.
Dave Lambert was a friend from Hounslow where I lived, and just sort of fitted in. His loyalty to me has always been much appreciated and we now work even more as a team.
Is it true that you drove a car into a swimming pool in the US after you found out that Hudson and Ford were leaving the group?
This is another misconception. At the end of our first US tour I was taken to the Whisky A GoGo in LA by our manager, who told me the band was firing me. The next day I went to the Beverley Wiltshire, sat at the bar and worked out what percentage of the recorded material I was responsible for, as I was determined to carry on with the name. I got back to the Beverley Rodeo where we were staying, to find our managers in the pool with the others pushing a tray with a bottle of champagne on it to one another. I saw red and kicked all of the potted palms into the pool. It turned into a sea of mud and I had to pay for the filtration plant and the water. It cost a fortune. I went back to the scene of the crime some years later and the pool is no longer there. It's an outside dining area.
Can you tell us about the making of Two Weeks Last Summer? How did you come to work with Jon Hiseman and Roger Glover?
I was fed up with arguing with Hud and John about material so I went off and made an album featuring my new long material. It was a magic experience, recording in the studio.
I met with Roger to go through the songs before the album. Jon Hiseman was the best drummer around so I wanted him. He found the album a bizarre experience, as my way of working was acoustic and patchwork. In the end he wrote a very nice letter to say how much he liked the finished product. Rick came after he had left to join Yes and I hadn't seen him for a couple of years. I think his playing on the record is among his best ever. Roger and I see one another every ten years or so.
When was it clear to you that the new line-up for Hero and Heroine was going to click?
The minute we first started to rehearse in Feniton Village Hall in East Devon.
What was the first gig the band did in support of the album?
In the Pit Club in Honiton in East Devon. It showed us how wrong certain things were which we put right for the first US tour of that line-up. Bob Garcia came to see us play, actually on an exploratory mission to see whether the new line-up worked. And did it! The reaction was remarkable. It was somewhere like Cleveland.
Can you tell us about US tours you did to support Ghosts in the US? What bands did you open for?
We did so many they all tend to blur. We toured with Joe Walsh, Frank Zappa, Black Oak Arkansas, Blue Oyster Cult, The Eagles, Poco, Aerosmith, and REO Speedwagon.
I was told you opened for many acts where the Strawbs were unfairly billed with blues-rock acts, as well as acts such as King Crimson.
The double billing with Crimson was the most enjoyable of any of them. Bob Fripp actually called me in London to suggest we did some folk club gigs together. We rehearsed but it didn't slot together.
Rick came back to guest on "Tokyo Rosie" for Nomadness – what is the "naked" moniker in the Halcyon Days liner notes?
Because first time round he played the track bullocks naked. It didn't work and he had to come back in again.
What was it like for you to work with Jeffrey Lesser and Rupert Holmes on Deep Cuts?
Rupert is a brilliant musician and I found him an inspiration. Jeffrey is a brilliant engineer but he felt that Dave Lambert should be the lead singer. Not unnaturally I disagreed. It became very difficult and I wrote "Goodbye" on Burning for You as a result.
How did John Mealing and Robert Kirby come in to fill the keyboard role in the group?
Robert of course is well known for having done many arrangements for us. I can't remember how John Mealing came in. The twin keyboards sounded wonderful but the image was wrong as people thought we had to have two players to replace John.
When was the last time you were in America with an electric band?
In about 1991 for half a dozen shows.
Any memorable gigs?
Just one in Toronto where we played for over three hours, trying to emulate Bruce Springsteen.
How did the acoustic tours in the US go for you, Dave and Brian?
Both tours were immensely successful (April/May and November/December). We will be over again in October to do more acoustic shows.
How did you decide to include Mary Hopkin as an additional vocalist on "Blue Angel"?
I was invited by Mary to play on her Apple album Earth Song/Ocean Song, produced by Tony Visconti. We became friends and have remained so.
The Hummingbird disc with Rick and Ric Sanders could almost be called a Strawbs album, don’t you think?
No. Rick and I were adamant that this was not what we wanted. That is why there is no electric guitar. We may record together again but in no way will Rick record as part of the Strawbs. That is history. I do have the tapes of a concert he and I recorded back in 1988 that I have archived. Wait and see.
What tracks are standouts for you?
The whole album to me is a joy. It's simple in places, complex in others. It was fun to make, as you can see from the video we made that is a bonus on the Tokyo DVD.
Can you tell us about the labels the band has been on and their overall support both in Europe and in the USA?
We were the first British band signed worldwide to A&M Records in Los Angeles. We made ten albums for them. We left to join Oyster, Deep Purple's label, through Polydor. This was probably as a result of my friendship with Roger Glover who played on Two Weeks Last Summer, my only solo album. We made two albums for the label. We subsequently signed for Arista but left after one album when the band dissolved following my decision to go into radio. Various albums were issued subsequently on a label called Road Goes on Forever but those albums have now been absorbed into our own boutique label, Witchwood Records. Witchwood will be issuing a new album to coincide with the tour of the 1974 line-up in June.
A&M signed you in 1968, correct? Who were the reps you worked with and what was their plan to break you into the US?
We worked with Bob Garcia, Head of Promotion who became a firm friend and supporter. He was a wonderful person to work with. We also worked with Heavy Lenny Bronstein who was a major factor in getting us on radio. Our last two albums on Witchwood have been promoted by Lenny with tremendous results for a band that has no been exposed to the US for 25 years. Ron Farber was a great supporter and I still see him. We were very well looked after in Canada by Doug Chappelle and his team. As we tour more they are all coming out of the woodwork and it's very flattering that they do. Derek Green in the UK also became a good friend.
Do you feel you struck a fair contract with them?
A&M without doubt were the label of the 1970s.
Did you actually meet Alpert and Moss?
I met Herb in LA and he was absolutely charming. We were invited to a label party when we first arrived in LA and all of the senior executives were there. Great people. Jerry Moss and I went to lunch to discuss the fact that we were going to leave. I was very sad.
Please tell us a bit about the group's performances on the Top of the Pops.
We were the first band to do the "Album Spot" on Top of the Pops – we did "The Hangman and the Papist." It became infamous for Rick playing his mimed organ with a paint roller. I could have murdered him! We did the show many times with "Lay Down," "Part of the Union," "Shine on Silver Sun," "Back in the Old Routine" etc. It was the most important promotion vehicle of its day in the UK.
Did you lip-sync to a backing track?
Mostly the show was mimed although later we did live vocals. Dave Lambert and I sent up the miming aspect by joining our electric guitars together with one lead. We were not popular with the show's producers!
Did you see record sales increase as a result?
When the band folded in the late 70s you went into radio. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
It is a misconception that I went into radio as a DJ. I was the Program Controller of Radio Tees, one of the first nineteen commercial radio stations in the UK. Now there are 250! At that time the Managing Director and Program Controllers of commercial stations had to be vetted by a government body called the Independent Broadcasting Authority. They were very concerned at first about having a rock singer in charge of a radio station with the remit to be the voice of the community, carry news programs, playing just nine hours of music in any twenty-four hour period. When the ratings went up and we got nominated for five Sony Radio Awards in my first year, they calmed down.
Did you also do live interviews?
As Program Controller I was entirely responsible for the output of the station. In my first week John Lennon was shot so I made a half hour documentary with interviews with Richard Neer on WNEW and so on. I made a series of piano lessons for children with Rick Wakeman, a series about the spiritual beliefs of leading songwriters called "Rock of Ages" where I interviewed Cat Stevens about becoming Yusuf Islam, Pete Townshend about Meyer Baba, we also had one of Bob Marley's last interviews when he talked about Rastafarianism. It was immensely powerful stuff and went round the radio network. I interviewed Dame Vera Lynn and one of the records she chose for her show was "Vera Lynn" by Pink Floyd. She was tickled pink about that!
What has it beenlike to work with A&M on the Halcyon Days collection?
In the UK I arranged the running order, which has been highly praised in the All Music Guide. I went over to New York to discuss the running order of the US version, which was totally different – in fact I preferred it to the UK version. They also remastered the record completely differently as they felt the UK version was too bright. They made the US version sound more rounded.
How do you feel the reissue series has worked on the four CDs they have released so far?
They have all done very well, especially Hero and Heroine in Canada, which went gold the first time around and has sold a further 26,000 since its CD release.
Are there any plans for the remainder of your catalog being reissued on a bigger label other than Korean Si-Wan?
I am in negotiation with Universal for the release of Strawbs, Dragonfly, and Nomadness. We have recently licensed Two Weeks Last Summer from them, a major achievement for a small label. I am very keen to get our old records released properly as the ones available are bootlegs!
The Strawbs Tokyo 1975 DVD is a great archival release. What did you think when you first saw that and the Grave New World film?
It is great archive material. I was a little embarrassed by the shirts I wore for Grave New World, but then these were the times.
The 1970 performance with Rick is a great slice of time. Do you recall that TV performance?
I remember it vividly. Our bass player, Ron Chesterman, had just left us and was on the show with a group called Draft Porridge featuring one Davy Johnstone of Elton John fame on banjo. So was Ralph McTell, and their jaws dropped at Rick's ability.
Is there any other material waiting in the wings?
There is quite a lot and it will come out over the next couple of years.
How did the electric band come to reform for NEARfest and US tour this year?
Having such a great response to the acoustic shows in the States last year, I wanted to play a rock festival again with the band, and by chance NEARfest were interested. The obvious line-up was the Hero and Heroine line-up but as John Hawken had declined to do the Chiswick House 30th anniversary concert I didn't expect him to be interested. However he came to see us play in his hometown in New Jersey in October, came on stage for the encore, and decided that he would love to do it. Chas Cronk and Rod Coombes were just as enthusiastic, and here we are!
Was the Chiswick reunion gig of multiple line-ups a factor?
It was the show where we met up with Rod Coombes again and I enjoyed that set in the show enormously. Rod came and played drums on "Blue Angel" and we have remained in contact. The photo session was a hoot as we decided to recreate the Hero and Heroine sleeve photo.
But John Hawken didn’t play there...
I can't remember why John didn't play at Chiswick. Most of the others did.
I take it there were a few old band members you had not seen in quite awhile.
It was a trip down memory lane, but the thing that came home was the camaraderie. The Strawbs is more like a family than a group. Dave Lambert and I were in a studio with Rick a few days ago and ended up singing "The Shepherd's Song" and "A Glimpse of Heaven" round the piano. The next day I did a song with Rick for a lunch at the Birmingham Press Club. Rick and I are talking about making another album and we have the theme already.
Are you rehearsing material from Hero and Heroine / Ghosts time period for your tour this year?
As it is the material that John played, it will be focal to the set. We are in the process of working up material for a new album, which we hope to have out for the tour. It's a bit complicated with John living in the US but we'll do it somehow.
Any other notable tracks that you are planning?
There will be a few surprises.
Any chance that there may be an acoustic set of a few pieces like “Hanging in the Gallery”?
I doubt that we will do any acoustic songs as this will cut across the Acoustic shows.
Also any Dave Lambert songs?
Of course. The band is running two units this summer – the US line-up, which will concentrate on the rock element, and the UK line-up, which will focus around the earlier material. There will not be any acoustic material as this is the preserve of Acoustic Strawbs. We may well do some new songs from the new album. Who knows, it's all a long way off.
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