I hadn’t had any exposure to The Strawbs until I saw them at ROSFest last year. Originally announced as the Friday headliner, they wound up squished into a crammed Saturday schedule after some travel difficulties. They took the stage and roared through a single album, 1974’s Hero and Heroine. For a bunch of guys pushing retirement age, they were pretty damned good.
As I said, I went into that set cold. I knew, vaguely, that the band had a folksy background and had (at some point) included Rick Wakeman, but I was ignorant otherwise. I was, therefore, in the perfect frame of mind to absorb Hero and Heroine. There’s definitely folksy roots, but they rock on occasion (in a way that similar folksy based proggers like, say, Renaissance never do) and there was some interesting keyboard work going on. Sure, Dave Cousins’s voice had seen better days (did I mention retirement age?), but he still grabbed the tunes by the balls and delivered a great performance.
Needless to say, I had to pick up a copy of this album.
I headed downstairs to where the band’s merch table was. Sure enough, they had a whole stack of the album for sale. Or, at least, a version of the album:
Dubbed Hero and Heroine In Ascencia, it was a newly recorded version, rather than the original release. I didn’t really think twice about picking it up, since I figured there was a good reason for the new recording (other bands have, for legal reasons, rerecorded their own work to obtain the rights). Besides, this one was recorded by the band I’d just seen (aside from the keyboard player) – bonus!
Repeated listens really drove home just how rough Cousins’s voice is, though. With the energy of a live setting it’s one thing, but in the studio you get more picky. So I started wondering what the original sounded like, how the two would compare against each other. Sure enough, the original is legitimately available, so I grabbed if from Amazon and took a listen.
Aside from some slight rearranging of a few bits, both albums play the same. The performances, however, are very different. The 1974 version sounds much younger. It emphasizes the band’s folksy qualities. Cousins’s voice is pure, youthful, and full of life. It comes off well, just this side of being too “twee.”
The new version, by contrast (and perhaps surprisingly, given the older lineup) is more powerful, rocks harder, and just has more guts to it. Cousins’s voice has lost its youthful vigor, but that even works in its favor. Where the original sounds like a tale of love told through the eyes of a young man, one either living it or perhaps aspiring to it, the new version sounds like the pained reminiscences of an old man looking back on his own history. A lyric like “after all, it’s just the revolution I despised,” comes off as cocky and simple minded in the older version, but bitter and knowing in the new version. The shift of perspective gives the whole thing more depth.
Now, I may be full of shit about this. In fact, I wonder if my opinion would be flipped if I had first heard this album back in college or law school when I rediscovered prog. After all, it would have been the original and I would have been younger, so maybe I would have looked at the newer version in the way I look at the modern version of Yes – a pale facsimile of the genuine article. Certainly, by the time I was sitting in the Majestic Theater on a Saturday afternoon this year I was in a different head space than I was back then.
That’s one of the things about music (or any piece of art) that’s both wonderful and frustrating – you bring so much of yourself to it that it’s hard to ever get a “true” read on it. You only get one chance to make a first impression, after all, and when and how that impression gets made might make it hard to ever overcome it.
The bottom line, I suppose, is that the new version of Hero and Heroine speaks to my cynical side in a way that the original version doesn’t to my romantic side. That probably says more about me than it does about the album, which is pretty damned good in any event.