by Nick Clark.

"If they decide I’m the man for
the job, I’ll be very, very, happy"

Photo: Richard Butchins


Rick Kemp jumps off and on the bus

One of the most surprising things I realised about Rick Kemp was just how much of his early career he spent with Steeleye Span. He actually joined them at the beginning of the seventies when Ashley Hutchings and Martin Carthy left and the inclusion of himself and Bob Johnson as replacements surprised many as both were more rock orientated than traditional folkies. It proved a shrewd move however, as the arrival of the two brought immediate commercial success, especially when drummer Nigel Pegrum was added to beef up the sound still further. What followed is often regarded as the golden age of the group, it certainly remains their most successful period in terms of chart placings. Throughout this time, Rick remained integral to the group and even later, as they metamorphasised into the Maddy Prior Band and back he stayed with it and only left during the mid-80’s because of an injury.

He never achieved the individual success with his solo career that he had enjoyed in the early years of Steeleye Span and family life kept him out of the limelight until a chance came to rejoin the group in the summer of 2000 to replace Bob Johnson on a tour of the USA and later, the UK. With so much history to consider and so much to learn about the life of this highly regarded bassist, it was difficult to know where to start. I ended up by first welcoming him back, on behalf of The Unofficial Steeleye Span Website and all Spanners fans, to the group.

Yes, I’m back, if only for a few weeks. Time and a decision from the others will tell. I REALLY enjoyed the tours -–it was so good to be back in the thick of it once more, playing to dedicated ‘Spanners’ on both sides of the Atlantic.

Did it seem you were coming back to the band you left all those years ago or have you noticed significant changes in the music over that time?

There are significant changes in the music. Firstly, there is a fluidity, which was not there when I left fourteen or fifteen years ago – more spontaneity, which suits my playing very well and secondly the boundaries have been expanded. Without getting too ethereal or philosophical, the ‘heavy’ music is heavier, the ‘expansive’ much more so.

Have you worked with any of the newer members before?

I had never worked with either Gay or Tim before but had worked with Peter (apart from sixteen years with Steeleye Span) in many other situations. I’ve also done lots of sessions with Dave Mattacks.

How did you get asked to return? Was it a surprise?

John Dagnell of Park Records called me on behalf of the band saying that Bob had left and that Tim was going to move ‘sideways ’ as it were, to play guitar. It was a surprise for many reasons, mainly I suppose, as I imagined that they would want a newer, younger person to replace Bob.

Had you kept up to date with Steeleye recently – had you heard ‘Horkstow Grange’  for example, their last album before the current one?

Yes, I had listened to ‘Horkstow Grange’ and although it had some fine moments, it did not reach the heights of ‘Bedlam’, which is amongst the best work ever produced by the band in my opinion.

That album (‘Bedlam Born’) was a defining moment for the band. Were you aware of that on the tours, I mean; was it apparent in the audience reaction?

Right from working at home with the ‘Bedlam Born’ tape I was aware that this was a pivotal moment for the band. The reaction to the new material on the gigs was marvelous and confirmed my feelings that this was a classic Steeleye Span CD.

How did all this compare with 1972 when you came into the group for the first time?

The only similarity with 1972 was the confidence in the music – the Steeleye Span mission to be the best in their field and hopefully beyond.

When you joined Steeleye back then, with Bob Johnson, the band were about to enter their most successful period to date. How much of the groups sound was in place when you first came to them and what did the two of you add that pushed them into the limelight?

I think that Bob and I shared a rock 'n' roll heritage which became evident much more when Nigel Pegrum joined us later. The riff-based material made much more sense with drums.

What are your favourite memories of those times?

There was almost a sense of ‘Us against the world’ right at the beginning – this was exciting. The rapid progress and constant gigging/recording made us a very tight team and the companionship, which resulted from this ‘propinquity’, was amazing.

Do you have any songs that you are particularly proud of from that time because of your musical or creative input to them?

I’ve never worked as closely with any band and I’m very fond of all the songs in their way – personal input is very hard to separate from the whole. Having said this, certain tracks are favourites – ‘Long Lankin’, ‘Scarecrow’, ‘Take My Heart’, ‘Gone to America’ and ‘Somewhere In London’ are very special – I could go on. My fave. CD’s are ‘Hark the Village Wait’, ‘Back In Line’, ‘Storm Force Ten’ and ‘Bedlam Born’.

That’s a great back catalogue! How does the present Steeleye connect with that ‘golden-age’ period, or doesn’t it? Is that even important?

There is a noticeable continuum as you would expect from a band whose themes are mainly traditional but I don’t believe a conscious effort has to be made to preserve that which has gone before. Firstly, it’s all, or most of it, on record and secondly, it’s continuing popularity is due partly, I think, to its constant change.

The most successful line-up broke up when Bob and Peter left. Did you enjoy the return to more traditional folk with Martin Carthy?

I’ve never really seen the line-up with Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick as more ‘traditional’ in essence but I suppose the sound, given the melodeon and Martin’s greater use of acoustic guitar, gave that impression. I have to say that the Martin Carthy/John Kirkpatrick line-up was just as loud, if not louder!

When you left the reformed Steeleye Span, was it just so you and Maddy could have a family?

I left mainly because of a bad shoulder/neck injury and playing had become very painful, but my leaving also coincided with writing plans, a musical, book and TV projects, most of which have still to see the light of day, although some are nearly there, hopefully!

Since that departure, we’ve seen you on tour and record with Maddy doing ‘Happy Families’ but what about your own solo work?

I have recorded two solo albums – ‘Escape’ and ‘Spies’ and I’m about to start a third, provisionally entitled ‘Codes and Plans’. There are plans to do some solo gigs when this comes to fruition. I always have a backlog of songs; writing and recording are among my favourite aspects of the life in music.

Do you have any ambitions unfulfilled in the world of music or are you playing now purely for enjoyment?

I think to do solo gigs well and to build an audience for that is the last big hurdle – but time is pressing and my time seems to get scarcer!

Do you see a future with Steeleye if asked? Would you like to return ‘full-time’?

If they decide that I’m the man for the job, I’ll be very, very happy – I think that I have a lot to offer for the future, most of which didn’t have time to show itself in the six weeks of touring. I have some radical ideas, to be adopted or not, about the future of my favourite band.


Nick Clark talking to Rick Kemp exclusively for ‘The Unofficial Steeleye Span Website’ The interview was conducted in December 2000

Read Nick Clark's review of 'Escape'

Read Nick Clark's review of 'Spies'