Generally regarded as the first British folk-rock band, Fairport Convention is renowned for blending American rock influences with an ever-growing command of English traditional song. In Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson, the band has also yielded two of British popular music’s greatest ever talents. As a new edition of classic album Liege & Lief, a retrospective boxed set by long-time bassist Dave Pegg - who also pops up on Richard and Linda Thompson's In Concert November 1975 - hit the shelves, David Davies examines a musical institution that is still capable of striking sparks after more than 40 years
In 2007, the album Liege & Lief hangs so heavily over the history of Fairport Convention as to almost define it. A still-breathtaking amalgam of rock dynamics with traditional folk material and embellishments, its eight tracks caused a stir upon first hearing in 1969 and continue to inspire all manner of roots musicians thirty-eight years later.
Reaching the artistic high point of L&L was certainly not easy, however, and to begin the story with the recording of that album would be to negate the importance of the previous two years, packed as they were with line-up changes, creativity, a gradually emerging sense of direction and – just as things were finally coming together – tragedy.
Taking shape in London around bassist Ashley Hutchings in early 1967, Fairport Convention made its live debut that May with a line-up that also included Simon Nicol (rhythm guitar), Richard Thompson (lead guitar) and Shaun Frater (drums). Frater left the band almost immediately, with new drummer Martin Lamble and singer Judy Dyble joining the fold soon after for a brace of gigs – not least on the then-rapidly expanding network of ‘underground’ clubs like UFO and Middle Earth – and, at the end of the year, the recording of an eponymously-titled, Joe Boyd-produced debut album. Strong as this collection of contemporary covers and self-penned songs was, however, it rather paled in the shadow of its 1969 successors: What We Did On Our Holidays (featuring enduring Fairport favourite ‘Meet On the Ledge’) and the terrific Unhalfbricking.
Having replaced Dyble, folk-influenced vocalist and songwriter Sandy Denny brought a powerful new focus to Unhalfbricking’s blend of Dylan covers (one of which, ‘Million Dollar Bash’, was drawn from the legendary Dylan/Band Basement Tapes) and striking originals (Thompson’s ‘Genesis Hall’; Denny ’s ‘signature’ composition, ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’). Most significantly in terms of Fairport’s future direction, the band also tapped fiddler Dave Swarbrick to appear on an epic, bracing blast through traditional tune ‘A Sailor’s Life’. All this and, thanks to Sandy’s parents, Neil and Edna, one of the great album covers of all time.
Unfortunately, the euphoria that the band must have felt upon completing such a fine album was eradicated before it had even been released. Returning home from a gig in Birmingham on May 12, 1969, the band’s van crashed on the M1, resulting in the deaths of Lamble and Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn. The band was devastated and, not surprisingly, unsure of whether it should continue. Time passed, however, and with a new drummer secured in the form of Dave Mattacks, the group committed to sessions that would result in 1969’s Liege & Lief. The album’s stature has only grown since its release, to the extent that there have been a number of reissues (including this month’s 2CD ‘Deluxe Edition’) over the years and, in 2007, a live recreation by the same line-up – with Chris While handling the late Sandy Denny’s vocals – at Fairport’s annual festival, Cropredy.
Back in 1970, however, the band was about to undergo another radical change as Hutchings and Denny both announced their departures. A line-up featuring Dave Swarbrick as a full-time member and new bassist Dave Pegg - who Swarb introduced to the band in 1970 after Hutchings left to form Steeleye Span (Pegg's tenure with Fairport has been unbroken since) - recorded another strong album, Full House, before Thompson too decided to leave.
While Fairport pressed on for a further nine years, it took in so many line-up changes during this period even Mark E. Smith would have trouble keeping track-ah. In essence, however, the group ventured ever further into folk on albums like Babbacombe Lee and Rosie, with only the brief re-appearance of Denny (who would pass away at a tragically young age in 1978) during the mid-‘70s restoring a higher profile for a band that had increasingly become a cult concern. Ultimately, not even its core fanbase was enough to support it, and in 1979 – surely one of the more inhospitable years in which to be an active professional folk musician – Fairport announced a split.
Within a year, however, the band had returned to play a concert in the Oxfordshire village of Cropredy (the brainchiled of Pegg and his then wife Christine), kick-starting a series of annual extravaganzas that continue to this day. More live work followed and, in 1985, a line-up of Nicol, Pegg, Mattacks and violinist Ric Sanders recorded the first new Fairport album for seven years, Gladys Leap. The band was a real going concern once again, and the following two decades witnessed a sequence of new albums (of which, 2004’s Over the Next Hill is thought by some to be the most consistent) and, true to form, yet more line-up changes
Ahead of its time in the way that it has approached the business of music over the last few decades (instigating its own festival and, through Woodworm and, latterly, Matty Grooves, self-releasing new recordings), Fairport is now an indelible part of British musical history. Several landmark albums and some of folk-rock’s most distinguished (and characterful) musicians have made for one very long and eventful journey that shows no sign of ending any time soon.
The ‘Deluxe Edition’ reissue of Liege & Lief (Island), Dave Pegg’s 4xCD retrospective, A Box of Pegg’s (Matty Grooves) and Richard and Linda Thompson's In Concert November 1975 (Island) are all now available .