Strawbs: ‘Deadlines – Remastered & Expanded’ reviewed

❉ The definitive reissue of a great lost gem doesn’t sell itself short.

Deadlines, the last original Strawbs release in the ‘70s (the legendary ‘lost’ album Heartbreak Hill made its appearance much later on) saw David Cousins persuaded by Arista boss Clive Davis to record another album with the band (the closing song on the preceding album Burning for You, Goodbye (Is Not An Easy Word To Say) was intended, as Cousins states in his extensive sleeve notes, to be the farewell to the band.

However, the music business had different ideas, and in a striking Hipgnosis design, this deluxe box has the remastered album, Dave Cousins’ acoustic demos as well as session outtakes and alternative mixes, a complete BBC Radio One in Concert from 1978 on disc 2, whilst disc 3 is the DVD of the complete concert.

Deadlines is a bit of an afterthought when discussing classic Strawbs albums, and I think the difficult circumstances during the album’s making didn’t help matters – as the notes state, producer Jeffrey Lesser didn’t get the dynamics of the band.

Design by Hipgnosis – Aubrey Powell / Storm Thorgerson. Photography by Aubrey Powell
© Hipgnosis

The line-up had stabilised to the core trio of David Cousins (guitar, vocals) Dave Lambert (Electric guitar, vocals) and Chas Cronk (bass, vocals, guitars), with Tony Fernandez making his debut Strawbs appearance on drums. This line-up, forged during the Hero and Heroine days, continues in today’s Strawbs, with multi-instrumentalist Dave Bainbridge completing the 2020 line-up.

With the writing spread across the three writers and a few Cousins/Cronk/Lambert co-writes, the band had settled into a democratic writing situation (and if you ever see Cousins/Cronk/Lambert as the Acoustic Strawbs, the chemistry and friendship between the three is a joy to behold) and this is reflected in the style. There’s a lot less prog, and guided by Lesser’s production ideas, including promoting Dave Lambert’s rockier vocals as main vocalist gives this a more ‘Pop balladry sound’ as Dave Cousins suggest in the sleeve notes.

There’s more to it that though, as there always is on any Strawbs album. The intelligence behind the lyrics and song-writing always shines through here, in a tradition following on from tracks like The Papist and the Hangman, which sound likes a traditional folk song until you hear the lyrics, and Cousins’ lyrical poetry continues here, and his reflections on leaving the band and the current situation are to the fore in the dark beauty of The Last Resort and No Return, whilst Sealed with a Traitor’s Kiss is one of Cousins’ great vocal performances on record.

Whilst there’s no ‘epic’ to hang the album on, this is a great lost gem, with Dave Lambert handling main vocals to perfection on the opening rocker No Return, whilst the wonderful rock of I Don’t Want To Talk about It should, in a parallel world be Radio 2 daytime classics (trust me, after some time off and listening to Radio 2, it is a perfect fit) whilst the closing, reflective Words of Wisdom is not a bad way for the band to sign off.

The demos are interesting to see how the album developed, whilst the Dublin mixes of No Return, Joey And Me and Deadly Nightshade are interesting to see how they changed on relocation to London for mixing, and whilst I know some people are ambivalent about bonus tracks, I like to hear how the album developed, and it builds to the bigger picture I think.

The BBC concerts are also a welcome addition to the package, and we are so lucky that during this era of music we had a public service broadcaster that in 1978 was still broadcasting concerts from bands like the Strawbs on prime time Radio 1, and that they were simulcast on both radio and TV, so we have the joy of the sound and the vision. This mighty archive at the BBC is one that has yielded so many musical treats (see The Beatles at The BBC, Led Zeppelin at the BBC – plus bonus discs in packages like this, that Esoteric have done for Sky and the Move) and what a gig it is.

I’ve seen the Strawbs many times, and they’ve never disappointed, and here with new keyboard player Andy Richards (following the long tradition of Strawbs keyboard players becoming household names like Rick Wakeman and Blue Weaver, with Andy going on to join Frankie Goes to Hollywood and produces soundtracks for films) they put on a barnstorming performance.

Despite the fact the band are almost on the verge of splitting up, this captures a band at the peak of their powers, the trio of Cousins, Cronk and Lambert are never less than mighty, whilst Tony Fernandez (fresh from drumming with Rick Wakeman) is fantastic drummer, and Richards shines throughout on keyboards, his synth sounds blending perfectly with the sound. Pulling together a set list that has three tracks from Deadlines, and the rest pulled from the band’s history, we get a blinding version of Lay Down, whilst the mighty Ghosts gets an airing in a barnstorming version, whilst the legendary ‘big three’ from Hero and Heroine – Out in the Cold, Round and Round and Hero and Heroine – close the concert (and are still in today’s Strawbs setlist, which shows how mighty they are) with some great in-between song conversation and brilliant musicianship.

The Strawbs, whilst driven by the vision of David Cousins, have always been more about the sum of their parts rather than any particular flash soloist, and this comes across in this vibrant and eclectic set, which shows them at their best, and there is real energy and vitality to this performance, with the band operating on all cylinders and bouncing off each other. The three Hero songs in particular stand out.

This is the definitive Deadlines then, shining fresh eyes on one of the Strawbs’ more maligned albums, and now 43 years after its release it gets its chance to square up to its siblings in the Strawbs back catalogue and it doesn’t sell itself short.

If you’ve missed this, now is the best time to dive into it and enjoy.

 Strawbs: ‘Deadlines –  Remastered & Expanded’ (ECLEC32676) is out now from Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records. £11.99. Click here to pre-order directly from Cherry Red Records.

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.

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