CD Review – The Strawbs – Expanded Editions: Burning for You/Heartbreak Hill

Esoteric Recordings have released two newly re-mastered and expanded editions of a couple of 1970’s Strawbs albums. In his autobiography, Exorcising Ghosts (Witchwood Media, 2014) Dave Cousins recalls theme:  1978’s Heartbreak Hill, he talks of as “…among the best albums Strawbs ever made…an opportunity to regain the band’s status, especially in North America.”  whereas Burning For You is, in his words “lacking in continuity… his least favourite Strawbs album.” He does, however, concede that, to the casual listener, the songs “sound great.”

So first up is the classic 1977 album Burning for You:

Recorded at Relight Studios in the Netherlands in March 1977, this was the band’s second for the recently established Oyster Records (formed by Deep Purple member Roger Glover). Recording sessions were by the line-up of Dave Cousins (vocals, acoustic guitars), Dave Lambert (vocals, electric guitars), Chas Cronk (bass, guitars, vocals) and Rod Coombes (drums) augmented by Robert Kirby (mellotron, electric piano, synthesiser & acoustic guitar) and John Mealing (keyboards). Initial recording sessions were supervised by Jeffrey Lesser (previously worked on the Deep Cuts album). Most songs were penned by Dave Cousins and Chas Cronk, with one failed single (‘Back in the Old Routine’) and Dave Lambert contributing (‘Heartbreaker’, ‘I Feel your Love Coming on’).

The title track ‘Burning for You’ is simply super in its evocative sound and structure. I could play that one over and over again! ‘Cut Like a Diamond rocks nicely. And ‘Barcarole (For The Death Of Venice)’ is just lovely (and listen to the bonus track instrumental version) with some wonderful mellotron and vocal harmonies that are ever so slightly Beatle/McCartney-esque. 

‘Alexander the Great’ has a stomping charm and excellent guitar work. ‘Keep On Trying’, is definitely a tilt at the twee mainstream with it’s Pilot-esque guitar (sadly this track is not ‘magic’). And, with ‘Back In The Old Routine’, both are deliberately and blatantly poppy.  ‘Back In The Old Routine’ even got them their last appearance on Top of the Pops, a pastiche of Ray Davies in vaudeville mode or sub-Randy Newman effort. But perhaps that is what makes the album disjointed. They fail to blend the twee with the classic like Queen seemed to manage on ‘Day’ and ‘Night’. Maybe it doesn’t suit them. But don’t get me wrong, all tracks are well played and perfectly enjoyable.

‘Heartbreaker’ is another nice rocker with a good riff, keyboards slightly dated these days perhaps, and again on the poppier side. The other two of the album’s tracks end up being perhaps a little mawkish – Chas Cronk’s Carry Me Home power ballad and Goodbye (Is Not An Easy Word To Say), which I understand was intended as Dave Cousins’ farewell to the band. Both perfectly pleasant songs, with any hard edges softened by smothering strings.

So to this casual listener, there is some great stuff and plenty of good stuff on here, enhanced further by the bonus tracks. ‘Joey And Me’, ended up being released on 1978’s Deadlines album, more classic Strawbs in style with Dave singing over strummed acoustic guitars. ‘Goodbye’ (alternate take) is even mellower than the original album version but more genuine without strings. And the instrumental version of ‘Barcarole’ is a delight. The bonuses end with ‘Heartbreaker’, not the Dave Lambert number but a single from 1977, a bombastic Will Malone composition performed by The Intergalactic Touring Band, with Dave Cousins providing guest vocals.  A good song and quite interesting to have it here.

Second up is what has become known as the “lost” album: Heartbreak Hill.

Recorded in 1978 at Ringo Starr’s Startling Studios, the album was recorded at a time of change for the band. Following the album Deadlines, the sessions for this album featured Dave Cousins (vocals, guitar), Chas Cronk (bass, vocals), Andy Richards (keyboards), Tony Fernandez (drums) and Jo Partridge (guitars, mandolin, vocals).

Dave Lambert had been in first sessions, but his departure after the recording of the song “Something for Nothing” led to the recruitment of Jo Partridge. The album also included Miller Anderson on guitar and vocals on ‘We Can Make it Together’. Sadly, on completion, Strawbs found themselves without management or a record deal and the album remained unreleased in any form until 1995 when a CD was prepared from a 7 ½ ips copy tape. The discovery of the original master tapes in 2006 saw a new re-release of the album.

So this time round, Heartbreak Hill has been newly re-mastered and features four bonus tracks, including two David Cousins home demos from 1978 and live recordings of ‘Heartbreak Hill’ and ‘Starting Over’ from the Strawbs 40th anniversary celebration in September 2009 performed by the line-up who recorded the original album.

Opening with the 7 minute plus ‘Something for Nothing’, it’s a great piece of prog, in short! Some sections are slightly Yes-like, the keyboard break mid-way and tight instrumental end-section are definitely prog-outs, and Cousin’s voice is at its classic best. I know I’ve mentioned Yes already, but ‘Another Day without You’ with it’s delicate acoustic guitar and mandolin has a Howe-ian feel, simply gorgeous. But don’t get me wrong, this isn’t derivative, it is top notch Strawbs. ‘We Can Make it Together’ is another cleverly constructed, slightly more accessible, almost throwaway Moody Blues song with delicious lead riff, keyboard embellishment, rich vocals and lovely guitar breaks.

‘Heartbreak Hill’ is the second of the three lengthier songs, again just over 7 minutes. It is an excellent prog start (early Marillion, anyone?!) and again possesses quality Cousins vocals and story-lyrics. Lovely slide guitar heralds the next section of interplay with rich glory-days keyboards. Indeed Mr Richards has a starring role in plenty of this track, including super piano as the piece transitions into yet a rock-jazz section before returning to the opening tight staccato as it comes to a dramatic close. Wow. Worth the costs of the CD alone!

The initial start of ‘Starting Over’ suffers ever so slightly from timebound keys sounds, and also from following the previous epic. That said, it takes nearly 11 minutes to tell its tale and does so very well, with rich vocal harmonies and musical twists and turns (at one point even sounding a bit IQ!). I’ve seen some people express less liking for this one due to its length, but personally, I think good things come to those who wait, and I enjoyed the musical development, the time and space taken by the band to reach the acapella vocals, then closing section.

‘Two Separate People’ provides solace and yet is a cleverly intense song in its rhythm and structure, followed shortly after by ‘Desert Song’, a pleasant rocker with some tasty guitar, evocative of an earlier simpler Strawbs era. Similarly, ‘Let it Rain’ harks back to an older band version, with an infectious and anthemic chorus.

The bonus tracks are enjoyable, home demos of voice and piano – Bring Out Your Dead and Another Day Without You. The former would have been fit to sit as is on the album, and the latter is barely recognisable from the album version. The two live versions featuring the original band are fitting additions showing how their work back in the day was truly worthy of immediate release and not the ignominious end it faced. They work well in the live setting. Two decades unreleased? A generation missed, the moment passed, but thankfully getting deserved honour now.

I had the privilege to be a Director in the CRS when Dave Cousins was involved, and I appreciated his wisdom and vision back then. These albums are a suitably impressive record of his all-round ability, even when circumstances were against rather than with him. With artwork restored and fresh input from Dave, these are most worthy releases and a pleasure to listen to. They sound great!

BURNING FOR ME TRACK LISTING

1. BURNING FOR ME
2. CUT LIKE A DIAMOND
3. I FEEL YOUR LOVE COMING ON
4. BARCAROLE
(FOR THE DEATH OF VENICE)
5. ALEXANDER THE GREAT
6. KEEP ON TRYING
7. BACK IN THE OLD ROUTINE
8. HEARTBREAKER
9. CARRY ME HOME
10. GOODBYE
(IS NOT AN EASY WORD TO SAY)
BONUS TRACKS
11. JOEY AND ME (1976 SESSION)
12. GOODBYE (ALTERNATE VERSION)
13. BARCAROLE (FOR THE DEATH OF VENICE) (DAVID COUSINS & ROBERT KIRBY INSTRUMENTAL VERSION)
14. HEARTBREAKER (DAVE COUSINS / THE INTERGALACTIC TOURING BAND)

HEARTBREAK HILL TRACK LISTING

1. SOMETHING FOR NOTHING
2. ANOTHER DAY WITHOUT YOU
3. WE CAN MAKE IT TOGETHER
4. HEARTBREAK HILL
5. STARTING OVER
6. TWO SEPARATE PEOPLE
7. DESERT SONG
8. LET IT RAIN
BONUS TRACKS
9. BRING OUT YOUR DEAD (DAVID COUSINS HOME DEMO)
10. ANOTHER DAY WITHOUT YOU (DAVID COUSINS HOME DEMO)
11. HEARTBREAK HILL (LIVE AT THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION – SEPTEMBER 2009)
12. STARTING OVER (LIVE AT THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION – SEPTEMBER 2009)

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