When I was about sixteen (oh, about twenty-something years ago), determined to find music I could call my own, I embarked on a voyage of vinyl discovery back to the sixties and seventies. I discovered all kinds of amazing music that made the glossy nineties sound like, frankly, crap. The experimentation people got away with on major labels was quite something back then, before corporations sucked the life out of the business. One of my finds in my vinyl-hunting expeditions was the wild n’ woolly world of progressive rock. I don’t need to define it again, but suffice it to say, I got heavily into the heavyweights — King Crimson, Genesis, Roxy Music (OK, they were kind of glam but kind of progressive too), and yes, the Strawbs. This phase mysteriously ended, though I still kept listening to some of the stuff. Around the millennium my interest in the genre was rekindled in a big way and I became an obsessive collector for a while — and I’m not just talking Yes here. I have prog albums from every country in the prog world (especially Italy and Germany). I’ve made many amazing discoveries and also listened to a ton of dogs along the way.
Back in the early nineties, when I was really digging electric folk, Hero and Heroine was the only Strawbs album available on CD, to my knowledge, still in print in the A&M catalogue. The others I got on used vinyl. So, being the arrogant little jerk I was, I assumed that since this album was the only one in print, it must have been the most popular, and hence the worst. Naturally, right?
Years later I decided to give it a listen, and it was a revelation to my more mature ears. For this album is not just good, it’s a masterpiece.
Strawbs were led by David Cousins, an enterprising sort who was heavily involved in the London folk scene in the sixties. Strawbs were originally a folk group (The Strawberry Hill Boys), then a folk-rock band, then a a full-blown prog band, albeit with strong connections to the folk-rock world. Between 1970 and 1974 they released a number of very good recordings. The ones prior to this album were quite of their time, ie hippy mystical explorations for the most part. And for the most part incredibly good, especially the albums From the Witchwood, Grave New World, and Bursting at the Seams. I can’t help but feel that Cousins always had this more cynical, disillusioned side, which stands out in at least one track per album. “Sheep” from From the Witchwood is a harrowing, unflinching description of cruelty toward animals. “New World” is a screamingly angry excoriation of modern life. These songs don’t pull any punches, with lyrics that make the rhetoric of most punk bands sound like Air Supply.
So I suppose it’s no surprise that Cousins, a very, very talented lyricist with an odd but highly compelling lead vocal style, eventually produced an album that ditches the hippy trappings altogether and features his most incisive songwriting. Hero and Heroine sounds to me, and I mean this, like it should be considered the OK Computer of the early seventies. It’s got all of the state of the art elements of the music of its time. The lyrics are often timely, providing a preview of the anger and cynicism of the late seventies. Remember, the UK was in a crisis of confidence back then, on the cusp of bankruptcy and in search of a new identity.
The crack band plays with supreme confidence, from moments of gentle, wistful subtlety to those of massive bombast that rivals Queen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree has a treasured copy of this album by his bedside for inspiration. This album is just that good. So do we mention Strawbs in the pantheon of rock gods of that era? Of course not. They were too damn distinctive and challenging.
Hero and Heroine starts with a fairly typical long prog-rock suite, Autumn, which contains some romantic lyrics that could be considered twee. Not by me, I love them. A lovely evocation of Fall, the piece is really distinguished by John Hawken’s very ethereal use of mellotron. The thumpy intro featuring Dave Lambert’s guitar mimicking a seagull is richly dramatic, and when that sweet tron kicks in, you better believe you’re in heaven.
Track two, “Sad Young Man”, was actually written by drummer Rod Coombes, and is a very accomplished and harsh tale of a young man on the skids in the big city. A common theme in 1973, when most people were still desperately trying to bliss out or were strapping cellophane to their shoes and pretending to be spacemen? Not so much.
The third track, “Just Love”, is a boogie stomper by guitarist Lambert. A bit of a throwaway song but it is distinguished by some rather savage riffery from the axeman, who, like all the great guitarists, somehow manages to have his own sound that I’ve never heard anyone else duplicate. His playing is virtuosically appropriate throughout the entire album.
Having got those out of the way, the album is turned over to Cousins, who was on a mission on this album. “Shine on Silver Sun” is a Dylanesque mish-mash of imagery with a giant, insanely sing-along chorus. The album’s title track follows, another riff-tastic piece with slabs of mellotron, banjo (!) and a super-psychedelic story that Cousins alternates between intoning and shrieking (he really does have an interesting voice). The darkness in this tune is expressed almost hysterically, by which I mean scarily.
So it’s all very good so far, but he’s just getting started. The sorrowful acid-folk stylings of “Midnight Sun” predate the despondent mopery of Robert Smith by most of a decade. And oh, the flute tron. So celestial.
The bizarre existentialist lyrics of the folky “Out in the Cold” are at odds with the down-to-earth arrangement: “I walked in the city at midday/It was empty and bare/Looked in the mirror at midnight/There was nobody there.” The song also features some of the most uncomfortable sex imagery I’ve ever encountered.
The pièce de résistance is “Round and Round”. This song, after a weird synth intro (Moog, I think), turns into an almost futuristic, metallic riff-fest featuring some of Cousins’ most vicious lyrics, as he tears the peace ‘n love generation a new one. “We were just the product of the ever-spinning wheel” he spits out, and follows that up by declaring “After all it’s just the revolution I despise/The dawn of revelations and the flower power prize/And I pity those poor children with no sunshine in their eyes.” Heady stuff.
You know I love a big closer, and “Lay a Little Light on Me” delivers, big time. This angst-ridden plea for spiritual sanity and meaning again pulls no punches. “Growing boys/Masturbate/Drink the wine and take the bread/Saintly priests/Castigate/Holy water for the head” he sings scornfully before hollering “Rid me of your darkness/Lay a little light on me/Clothe me with your brightness/Lay a little light on me/Oh save me someone/Lay a little light on me.” The ending is a piece of gargantuan bombast by bass player Chas Cronk (love that name) that resembles an apocalyptic waltz.
So yeah, those were good times, the early seventies. This recording may have been predated by Ian Anderson’s bitter anti-religion campaign on Aqualung, but it contains its own special intellectual magic.
The fact that an album this good, with so much to say, with a killer band nailing music of such lofty ambition, then capitalizing on that ambition in spades, is not lionized as an all-time classic amply demonstrates the quality of rock music during that creative explosion just before I was born.
Nonetheless, I insist you find this recording, if you fancy interesting and creative rock music at all. You will not be disappointed.