July 10, 2020

Burning For You is a much better album than its reception at the time indicated … while Heartbreak Hill is simply essential Strawbs.

The very end of the original Strawbs career is covered here with these two Esoteric reissues, covering what was intended to be the last album they recorded in the 1970s, and the one which actually was – the latter being the ‘lost’ Heartbreak Hill album, which went unreleased for seventeen years until it belatedly saw the light of day in 1995. The Strawbs very rarely put out a poor album, and in one of their less talked about periods this is certainly also the case here, with a wealth of great stuff on display, particularly on the lesser heard Heartbreak Hill, which is a triumph without doubt.

Let’s go back first to Burning For You, however. Recorded in early 1977 as the follow up to 1976’s Deep Cuts, it is unsurprising that it follows the same relatively commercial path as its predecessor – slightly more so, in fact, as Dave Cousins had some altercations with producer Jeffrey Lesser during the recording of the album as regards Lesser’s vision for the record, and his clear desire to unearth a hit single. That said, despite a couple of unremarkable tracks which bolster things a little, there is some cracking material here. Lead guitarist Dave Lambert is responsible for two of the very best moments on the record, with Heartbreaker (mistakenly credited to Cousins/Cronk here) and the Moody Blues-esque majesty of I Feel Your Love Coming On, which could have sprung from the pen of Justin Hayward at his best with no-one batting an eyelid. Lambert sings these two tracks, along with bassist Chas Cronk’s Carry Me Home, and one is reminded of what a fine voice he had, and how much that fact gets overlooked in the Strawbs history.

Photo from Burning For You back cover

It’s fair to say, however, that The Strawbs would not be The Strawbs without Dave Cousins’ utterly unique vocal style, and he delivers here on several of his own excellent compositions, aided along the way by his oft-writing partner Cronk. Opener Burning For You may instantly condition one to expect the more widely known Blue Oyster Cult song of the same name, but is is not only very different but also, to these ears, much better. The stately Barcarole (For The Death Of Venice) and the amusing Alexander The Great, casting Cousins himself in the role of an ageing ‘housewife’s choice’ singer in a riposte to some critical barbs, are two other highlights, but the finest moment of the album comes with the closing Goodbye (Is Not An Easy Word To Say). Feeling that the band had run its course, the song was intended as Dave’s way of bringing down the curtain on the Strawbs career, and what a magnificent epitaph it would have made, an orchestral arrangement building it into a truly lighter-waving climax. A great song to close a very good, if not quite great, Strawbs album. Sadly, the choice for the single taken from the album was the ‘novelty sing-along’ (as Cousins put it) Back In The Old Routine, a track which left him dismayed after they performed it on Top Of The Pops – understandably so, as it carried echoes of their other long-time ‘albatross around the neck’, Part Of The Union.

That would have been it, had Cousins not been persuaded to give things another go later in that year, as Clive Davis offered the band a contract with Arista Records if he agreed to do a new album. The result was the largely unheralded Deadlines, and that was the official end to The Strawbs in the 1970s. Only it really shouldn’t have been. Determined to record another album with more of the spirit of the classic Strawbs about it, Dave reconvened in the studio with the band again in 1978 to record Heartbreak Hill, only for it to be left on the shelf after recording was completed, with management and label dropping the band, which then dissolved in a morass of disillusionment. Which is a real shame, as the album turned out to be the finest Strawbs work for several years, and would have made a much more fitting sign off to the decade.

The Heartbreak Hill line-up

The album kicks off in storming fashion, with the seven and a half minute Starting Over crackling with Dave Lambert’s coruscating lead guitar lines – sadly, this was to be the only track Lambert played on, as he abruptly left that band after recording that one track, to record a solo album. Jo Partridge, late of Cockney Rebel, was brought in on a temporary basis, and work continued. Two other lengthy tracks form the centrepiece of the album, namely the eleven-minute Starting Over and the monumental title track, referencing both Franz Kafka and the trial of Oscar Wilde, which comes right towards the top of the finest Strawbs ‘epics’ ever recorded, and would make the album essential on its own. Plenty of strong material backs this up, however, among the shorter tracks, with the sprightly, upbeat We Can Make It Together and the closing Let It Rain of particular note. There are also some tremendous bonus tracks on this one, with chief among them being a great demo of an unused song called Bring Out Your Dead, which really should have been used on the album in a full band arrangement to replace one of the shorter songs to make it stronger still. There are also superbly recorded, top-notch live renditions of Heartbreak Hill and Starting Over from the 40th Anniversary Reunion Weekend in 2009, when this line-up reconvened for the first time and played most of the album live. On this evidence, a full recording of that show would be most welcome!

In short, it may be that, to paraphrase Star Wars, ‘these are not the Strawbs you’re looking for’. But reconsider that. Burning For You is a much better album than its reception at the time indicated (and very possibly much better in hindsight than you remember it), while Heartbreak Hill is simply essential Strawbs, even if only for the combined 25 minutes of those three epics. With the excellent bonus material, (including a nice 1976 version of one of the strongest Deadlines songs , Joey And Me, on the Burning For You disc), and also Dave Cousins’ new notes in the accompanying booklets, these are well worth looking into. Give them both a go, they deserve more attention than they ever got in their day, and that’s a fact.