Steeleye Span guitarist Julian talks about folk-rock, continuing a tradition and acting with Madonna and Bowie

Julian Littman (second from right) with Steeleye Span. Picture by Peter Silver
Julian Littman (second from right) with Steeleye Span. Picture by Peter Silver

British folk favourites Steeleye Span are bringing their 50th Anniversary Tour to St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, this month.

Formed in 1969, the long-running band play the venue on Thursday, November 21 (7.30pm, doors 6.45pm), and tickets cost £26.50. Call 01323 841414 or visit hailshampavilion.co.uk to purchase tickets online.

It’s sure to be a celebratory concert as the musicians look back on five decades of creativity.

“It sounds predictable but it will be a mixture of old and new,” says guitarist and keyboardist Julian Littman, 66. “I’m hoping we can do quite a bit of stuff from the new album – Est’d 1969. We always visit stuff from way back so there will be some old favourites like ‘Thomas the Rhymer’.”

“We’re hopefully going to do a couple of things from the Terry Pratchett project Wintersmith,” he continues, referring to their 22nd studio album from 2013. “I think we’ve left that slightly fallow for a while but it was a great project that we did with Terry.”

“We’ll be doing something probably from the very first album too and we’ll cherry pick from the history of the band.”

It should be a pretty exciting show, he says, and now that there’s seven members in Steeleye, with five who can perform lead vocals, the band’s sound is richer than ever before.

“Obviously technology has improved,” says Julian, when asked about the evolution of Steeleye’s music. “So I’d say it’s a slightly fuller sound than it would have been in the early ’70s.

“You’ve got two guitars, bouzouki, violin, bass, drums and sometimes I play keyboards,” he explains. “The sound has changed but the ethos of the band remains the same, which is harnessing the traditional stuff but then moulding it into new material so that you get that hybrid – what they call ‘folk rock’ in fact.”

As, Julian says, there’s always been a progressive element too with “slightly off-the-wall”, sometimes supernatural themes and lyrics about ghosts, angels and strange goings-on.

“They’re nearly always story songs,” he says. “I mean there are odd ones that are straight-ahead love songs or whatever but mainly they’re tales of extraordinary things.”

Julian joined the group in 2011 and has been enjoying the Steeleye experience ever since.

“I love doing it,” he states, explaining that he now writes for the band and sings the odd lead vocals as well. “It’s a very fulfilling thing to do.”

“It’s just a buzz to be up there with six other people who are really talented. Obviously Maddy (Prior) is the mainstay of the band so it’s great to be alongside her.”

Maddy is the only original left in the group now, Julian explains, and, along with her formidable singing skills, she provides that link to the band’s past, giving it a sense of gravitas.

“There’s a great convivial atmosphere in the band too,” he continues. “We all want the same thing, which is to make great music and to have a good time.”

“And it actually doesn’t take up all of my time. We normally do two tours a year and then a lot of the rest of the time we can go off and do all of our other projects, which is what we do. Everybody’s got something else.”

For Julian, that ‘something else’ is acting. His current band commitments mean he can’t fit in a West End show anytime soon – “you have to sign for the year” – but long before joining Steeleye, Julian starred in a variety of TV, stage and film productions. These included The Sweeney, The Bill, Holby City and We Will Rock You among many others. He also worked with David Bowie on the well-received TV movie Baal, which aired on the BBC in the early ’80s.

“It was an acting gig,” Julian explains. “I got the call from the agent saying it was to do this Brecht piece Baal, and she said ‘it’ll be with David Berry’ who was a lesser known pop guy at the time. So I said ‘oh yeah, I know who that is...’ Anyway it turned out was David Bowie, which was very exciting. And it was a good piece directed by Alan Clarke who directed Scum.”

“We rehearsed at what used to be called the Acton Hilton, which was big tower block in Victoria Road, Action,” he continues. “They blacked out the windows of the rehearsal rooms and all sorts of things because it was David Bowie. The couple of little scenes I had were with David and we got on great, as you do for the length of the job. He was a great guy, very funny, really down-to-earth and easygoing.”

Julian also starred in Alan Parker’s big screen adaption of Evita (1996), the musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, snagging the role of Eva Perón’s brother Juan.

“It was the biggest film I’ve ever been on,” he marvels. “That was shot in Buenos Aires for six weeks, then Budapest for six weeks and then Shepperton (studios) for six weeks and, of course, it was with Madonna.”

“I got on great with her. In fact Alan Parker used to sometimes put me in scenes that I wasn’t in originally because me and Madonna used to get on fine and I’d cheer her up and stuff like that. It was a big gig for her. It was one that she really wanted to do and she actually requested that she could be in it. She’d written to Alan Parker as it was a thing she desperately wanted to do and I think she was great in it.”

Looking back, Julian says he’s always been involved in both acting and music, so his move into Steeleye Span wasn’t exactly a career change.

But, I ask, how did he get involved with the band?

Julian’s answer is complicated but the series of events that lead to his current role began with a stint in Gerry Rafferty’s band and a friendship with the drummer Liam Genockey. Liam joined Steeleye Span in the late ’80s and recommended Julian as the group’s new guitarist when Ken Nicol decided to leave in 2010.

“I’ve always been into the whole folk rock thing,” says Julian, naming Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull and Steeleye Span as some of his favourites.

“My first thing was that I had to do a video of myself playing along to one of their tracks. I sent that off to John Dagnell, the manager, and that was okay, and then I went up and had a play with Peter Knight who was in the band then and eventually they said ‘well, let’s try you for a tour, see how it goes’.”

“I carried on from there and I’m in my ninth year now.”

Visit steeleyespan.org.uk to find out more about the band.

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