Strawbs – ‘Heartbreak Hill’ & ‘Burning For You’

❉ James R Turner on new editions of two of the Strawbs’ last 1970s albums.

Esoteric Recordings’ remastering of The Strawbs’ post-A&M era of The Strawbs continues with two of the last albums recorded by the band in the ‘70s.

1977’s Burning for You, the Strawbs’ tenth album and the last album the band put out on Oyster Records, has a lot in common with its predecessor (1975’s Deep Cuts) stylistically and spiritually, and features the same personnel including guest musicians Robert Kirby on pianos, synthesizer and orchestral arrangement and John Mealing on piano and organ.

The only difference was this was produced by Jeffrey Lessor (although that relationship carried through to the follow-up, Deadlines, also released in 1977). This line-up, forged in the fire of the Hero and Heroine album, had working well together. This was a purple patch in the musical history of the Strawbs.

In his always candid sleeve notes, David Cousins recalls that Burning for You was borne out of a tumultuous period, where the record label booked them to record an album with very few songs written. As a result, a lot of the songs were written in the studio, whilst Chas Cronk and Dave Lambert provided a lot of the material, and it is a testament that despite these challenges the album sounds as good as it does and works so well.

It didn’t help that their management gave them Jeffrey Lessor to produce the album, with whom David Cousins had disagreements, and who wanted them to produce an album of singles. Against Cousins’ wishes, the band’s management insisted on them working with Lessor on the aforementioned Deadlines.

As a result of the attempt to chase a single, Burning for You is full of shorter, sharper songs, none of the massive epics like Ghosts, Vision of the Lady of the Lake or Hero and Heroine. That does not mean its a lesser album – there’s still the strong lyrical imagery that David Cousins weaves through his songs, and with superb orchestration from Robert Kirby throughout the album, you can tell they were trying for a single.

The title track, written late in the day by David Cousins, and which sums up his feelings at the time, is an absolutely beautiful song, the piano work and the orchestration really enhancing the sound; whilst the Lambert-penned I Feel Your Loving Coming on is another track that really stands out in terms of performance, and again the orchestration really builds into the song.

The satirical Alexander the Great is a biting response to some negative criticism received by the band, and is a mix of rock and boogie, with a phenomenal Lambert solo, and the aggression and anger behind the song is played out as the band give it their all.

A rare misstep by the band is the charming, if throwaway, Back in the Old Routine, with its slide guitar and music hall style was, bizarrely, released as a single in the UK, with the band performing it on Top of the Pops (in 1977!) – a decision that David Cousins comments was a mistake as “When I watched the playback, I realised we had undermined the credibility we’d built up for ourselves”.

Elsewhere, Lambert provides another of his trademark hard rocking tracks Heartbreaker, featuring some sublime synth work by John Mealing that duels with the guitar on this effervescent track that is pure undiluted Strawbs rock, and the strings again work sympathetically within the constraints of the rock sound.

Of course, if you have got Robert Kirby on strings (after all, he memorably did the arrangements that added so much to the melancholic work of Nick Drake) you know they will be spot on, and there is nothing excessive, everything is done to fit what the song needs, and the album is a lot warmer for it.

David Cousins was wearing his heart on his sleeve during these sessions, and the original emotive final track Goodbye (Is Not An Easy Word To Say) was intended to be Cousins calling time on his work with the Strawbs. However, he met Clive Davis from Arista who persuaded him to carry on, and that is where Deadlines (previously reviewed here) – the last Strawbs album of the decade – comes into the picture.

With a demo version of Joey and Me (later released on Deadlines), alternative versions of Goodbye and Barcarole, and a live version of Heartbreaker with David Cousins joined by the Intergalactic Touring band) one of the Strawbs’ more overlooked albums gets refreshed for the twenty-first century and, apart from Back in the Old Routine, has stood the test of time better than its troubled gestation would have suggested.

The Strawbs: ‘Burning for You’ (ECLEC2718) released June 26, 2020, from Esoteric Recordings, RRP £10.95. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

Now, the eagle-eyed readers amongst you will notice I’ve mentioned that Deadlines was the last Strawbs album of the 1970s.

Well, folks may I present to you Heartbreak Hill, the great ‘lost’ Strawbs album recorded in 1978, produced by the legendary Tom Allom, and with a revamped line up, with keyboard player Andy Richards (later to join Frankie Goes to Hollywood – and a long line-up of Strawbs keyboard players to move into bigger things, cf. Rick Wakeman to Yes, Blue Weaver to the Bee Gees) making his first contributions to a Strawbs album.

First released in 1995 on The Road Goes on Forever (one of the first of a new generation of specialist labels reissuing back catalogue music) and revamped in 2006 on Cousins’ own Witchwood Media label, this is now the definitive edition of Heartbreak Hill.

How does an album as strong as this disappear down the back of a metaphorical sofa for the best part of 17 years? Simple, despite a revamped line-up, some sterling songs and a band that sound like they are on fire, the management withdrew financial support, and David Cousins was told to ’forget’ the album.

Disillusioned with the whole business, he went to work in local radio and The Strawbs did not record again until 1987’s Don’t Say Goodbye.

With Cousins, Cronk and Fernandez the core of the band, recording schedules clashed with Dave Lambert’s solo album work, so he only appears on the opener Something for Nothing, after which he leaves the band for twenty-three years, returning for good in 2001. His role is taken by guitarist Jo Partridge who contributes mandolin and vocals, whilst David Cousins’ old pal Miller Anderson contributes guitar and vocals on We Can Make It Together.

David Cousins had a knack of finding great keyboard players, and Andy Richards (who had performed with the band on the Deadlines tour) soon found his feet; in fact four out of the eight original tracks on the album feature his co-writing credits, and his synth-heavy keyboard sound adds a new dynamic to the band.

The guitar work of Jo Partridge, who steps ably into Lambert’s shoes, is a superb choice, and the new blood gives the band a shot in the arm. Cronk & Fernandez are a formidable rhythm section (and are still as integral to the band today as they were then) and David Cousins seems like a new man in the writing on this album.

There are eight quality Strawbs tracks on here, and two bona fide classics, so despite three tracks being rearranged for 1987’s Don’t Say Goodbye, when this landed in 1995 it was material no-one was expecting.

From the opening salvo on synth-driven Something for Nothing, which clocking in at over seven minutes is one hell of an opener for the album, Lambert laid down a searing guitar part before exiting stage left. With the interplay between the guitar and synths of Richards, this is an incredibly synth-heavy album, reflecting a brave new world of song writing for the band.

There is a rare songwriting credit for Tony Fernandez on the Cousins/Cronk/Richards/Fernandez number Two Separate People, which is a pared-down ballad, driven by Fernandez’s metronomic drum patterns and with a great piano solo by Richards, and suitably downbeat lyric by Cousins about the ending of a relationship. It sounds a quite simple track, but the  instrumentation that simmers away through the arrangement is incredibly sophisticated.

Highlight of the album, and probably of Cousins’ song writing between ’76 – ’78, is the epic title track, boasting impassioned lyrics like “If I’ve broken my back on the treadmill once, I’ve broken by back on it Twice. I’m not going back to Heartbreak Hill. At any price” and thundering percussion, a swirl of guitar and synths and some dramatic musical performances. This is a dark epic, as good as any ‘big’ song Cousins has ever written.

The bonus live version performed by the Heartbreak Hill line-up from the Strawbs 40th Anniversary concerts back in 2009, is included here with the other album epic, the ten-minutes brilliance of the Cousins/Richards composition Starting Over (a track which indicates Cousins’ fresh-leaf approach to this album) is astonishing.

The dynamics that this line-up bring to both these tracks vindicate the material, and prove why, as Cousins comments in his sleeve notes, this is the best Strawbs album that never was.

Other tracks of note include the soulful Let it Rain, with some sublime keyboard work by Andy Richards and impassioned soulful vocals Miller Anderson as a nice counterpoint to Cousins’ more English sound.

While the Strawbs have always been a band and David Cousins has always been the frontman, the guitar work of Dave Lambert provided a lot of the solos, and on this album Richards steps up to that plate and does an amazing job. Instead of the guitar of Lambert the sound is dominated by Richards’ synths, and this album in my opinion is the best album the Strawbs recorded between post-1976.

With a sympathetic producer, David Cousins’ best songs and a re-energised line up, had this been released at the time it would be hailed as the classic it undoubtedly is.

With home demos for Bring out your Dead (recorded as The Young Pretender on the Cousins & Wakeman album Hummingbird in 2002) and Another Day Without You, Heartbreak Hill can now be seen in the context of the Strawbs’ post A&M career, and should rightly be lauded as the classic it is.

The Strawbs: ‘Heartbreak Hill’ (ECLEC2719) released June 26, 2020, from Esoteric Recordings, RRP £10.95. Click here to 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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