John O’Regan penned this review.
Maddy Prior has become synonymous with the voice behind Steeleye Span. It was as much to escape the ghost of Steeleye as to make her own mark that she embarked on a solo career in 1978. That move caused both a sensation and consternation within the UK folk press and folk community. While Maddy as a writer had been involved in re-writing and editing epic traditional ballads as part of the Steeleye Span repertoire, her own progress as a songwriter in the singer/songwriter framework had not been documented. It was with this in mind that Woman in the Wings was conceived and recorded.
Listening to Woman in the Wings now in 2004, it strikes me that it has much in common with Steeleye Span’s later music. ‘Roller Coaster’, for example, has the Pop/Folk vibe of material on Sails of Silver and the full-voiced chorus recalls Steeleye in their harmonic prime. Likewise, ‘Catseyes’ — behind the reggae strut — lays a song in form and structure like that which Steeleye would have attempted. The simple ‘Mother and Child’, with just piano accompaniment, recalls the call and response narrative of traditional ballads like the ‘False Knight on the Road’. ‘Gutter Geese’ started with distant chanting as in ‘Gaudette’ and mentions ‘below the salt’ in the lyrics referring to the social standing reflected in the phrase. It is abundantly clear that while Maddy Prior’s solo career was meant to show that she had outgrown the Steeleye Span mantle, there was still a lot of Steeleye in there.
What also emerges from Woman in the Wings is how accomplished a writer Maddy was at that point in time. Life on the road certainly gave her ammunition, and one of her finest road movies was captured here in the form of ‘Roller Coaster’. This song, along with ‘Pity The Poor Night Porter’ (on her follow up album Changing Winds) number among the most frank and articulate accounts of the musicians life. The connection with performing is also maintained on the title track – a dramatic, ornate ballad complete with orchestration by David Palmer, which almost drifts into Renaissance territory at times with David Palmer’s piano sounding not unlike John Tout and Maddy’s vocals recalling Annie Haslam. ‘Deep Water’ and ‘Long Shadows’ dovetail neatly into one another, with the stark atmosphere of the former quickly dissolving into the gorgeous ‘Long Shadows’, one of Prior’s finest and most romantic compositions. Here David Palmer’s string arrangement recalls his work with The Johnstons on their Give A Damn album from 1968. While Woman in the Wingshad many familiar musical places for Maddy Prior to work from there were some surprises. The big band shuffle of the closing ‘Baggy Pants’ that initially seemed flippant and throwaway now seems to create an unexpected high note to end the album, while ‘Catseyes’ contains an addictive chorus, and ‘I Told You So’ bops along in a Jazzy manner not unlike Manhattan Transfer singing ‘The Fair Haired Boy’ and comes complete with Benny Goodman-style clarinet. Ian Anderson’s flute lent a distinctly Jethro Tull feel to ‘Gutter Geese’ and Martin Barre’s guitar lip up ‘Cold Flame’ and the Tull rhythm section anchored the album in contemporary rock fields.
In conclusion, Woman in the Wings marked the beginning of Maddy Prior’s public career as a singer/songwriter. However, the seeds had been sown in Steeleye Span and in future they would permeate the Steeleye output with a greater magnitude. This is the first public sighting of that style, and though flawed, is still a worthwhile effort.