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Fairport Convention

With the band now stretching to over five decades in the music business, the Fairports are undoubtedly the greatest British folk group of all time. Housing classic breakaway acts such as RICHARD THOMPSON, SANDY DENNY/FOTHERINGAY, IAIN MATTHEWS, ASHLEY HUTCHINGS/The ALBION BAND, among others, FC produced their best work during a purple patch in 1969, when three LPs `What We Did On Our Holidays’, `Unhalfbricking’ and `Liege & Lief’ found critical favour.
Formed April 1967 as a quintet in Muswell Hill, London, this young trad-meets-folk-rock outfit (comprising Richard Thompson – guitar/vocals, Simon Nicol – multi/guitar/vocals, Ashley Hutchings – bass, Judy Dyble – vocals, and one-gig-wonder Shaun Frater – drums) set the tone for an avalanche of similar acts to subsequently appear; Martin Lamble was chosen over Frater as they became regulars at the local Middle Earth and UFO Clubs. Inspired by West Coast electric folk rock (The BYRDS, The MAMAS AND THE PAPAS, JEFFERSON AIRPLANE and a plethora of male-female harmony groups) plus the rise to fame of UK act The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND, FAIRPORT CONVENTION devised their own unique melange of sounds. Towards the end of the year, a lone debut 45, `If I Had A Ribbon Bow’ (written by Maxine Sullivan), surfaced on the Polydor label, while the first stable line-up was complete with the addition of second vocalist, IAN MATTHEWS (ex-Pyramid), and it was this sextet – with Joe Boyd on production – that recorded their eponymous FAIRPORT CONVENTION (1968) {*7} LP. A mixture of permutated group songs and humble cover renditions, the band excelled on tunes like `If (Stomp)’, `Decameron’, `Portfolio’, `Sun Shade’ and the DYLAN-esque `It’s Alright Ma, It’s Only Witchcraft’, while choice covers came courtesy of JIM & JEAN’s `One Sure Thing’, EMITT RHODES’ `Time Will Show The Wiser’, DYLAN’s `Jack O’Diamonds’ and JONI MITCHELL’s `Chelsea Morning’ and `I Don’t Know Where I Stand’.
Another personnel reshuffle ensued when former STRAWBS singer Sandy Denny (also a solo act) replaced DYBLE who left to guest on KING CRIMSON’s embryonic Giles, Giles & Fripp). This transformation of sound, highlighting Denny’s ethereal vocal range, saw FAIRPORT CONVENTION sign a deal with Island Records. A second album, WHAT WE DID ON OUR HOLIDAYS (1969) {*8}, saw only three re-treads this time (DYLAN’s `I’ll Keep It With Mine’, MITCHELL’s `Eastern Rain’ and the traditional `She Moves Through The Fair’ and `Nottamun Town’), while a handful of tracks stemmed from Thompson (including the perennial `Meet On The Ledge’), Denny (on her beautifully-depicted `Fotheringay’) and Hutchings (via rock’n’roller `Mr. Lacey’); Thompson and Matthews’ C&W, harmony-fuelled `Book Song’ was also a fan fave. Sadly, this was to be the last to feature IAN MATTHEWS, who formed chart-topping MATTHEWS SOUTHERN COMFORT. Sadder still, while travelling on tour (11th of May ’69), teenage drummer Martin Lamble was killed as their van crashed on the motorway, also killing Thompson’s sweetheart, Jeannie Franklyn.
With the help of fiddler Dave Swarbrick, FAIRPORT CONVENTION had their one and only UK Top 30 hit via their French/Cajun version (`Si Tu Dois Partis’) of `If You Gotta Go, Go Now’. Alongside `Percy’s Song’ and `Million Dollar Bash’, the track was one of a trio of DYLAN covers on third LP, UNHALFBRICKING (1969) {*9}, a record that was the first of four consecutive UK Top 20 entries. Guest player Swarbrick (ex-IAN CAMPBELL Folk Group) was more prominent on Denny’s haunting reading of 11-minute trad tale of a `Sailor’s Life’, while she also shined on her own compositions, `Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ and the deeper `Autopsy’; the Thompson pair, `Genesis Hall’ and `Cajun Woman’, suffered a little by comparison, although they were strong efforts in their own right.
Marking their first proper outings as bona fide FAIRPORT CONVENTION members, Swarbrick and newbie drummer Dave Mattacks arrived on board. LIEGE & LIEF (1969) {*10} took on a stronger, traditional element, ideas and ye songs of olde researched and revamped by Hutchings, who was said to have dug up treasures – such as `Reynardine’, `Tam Lin’, `The Lark In The Morning’ medley, `The Deserter’ and the awe-inspiring tale of `Matty Groves’ – at the Cecil Sharp House of music archives. Three original cues, Denny & Hutchings’ `Come All Ye’, Thompson’s `Farewell, Farewell’ and Swarbrick-Thompson’s classic `Crazy Man Michael’, gelled hand-in-glove to make a truly tremendous and dazzling piece of work.
This marked a pinnacle period for both folk music and the Fairports, but it was soon to die a death when SANDY DENNY formed the short-lived FOTHERINGAY (and went solo), with Hutchings founding folky newcomers STEELEYE SPAN. Recruiting Dave Pegg on bass (another from the IAN CAMPBELL Folk Group), the band delivered their 5th album, FULL HOUSE (1970) {*7}, Thompson and Swarbrick taking over the majority of the singing duties (Nicol and Pegg on backing harmonies). Side by side with traditional arrangements such as `Flatback Caper’, `The Flowers Of The Forest’, `Dirty Linen’ and `Sir Patrick Spens’, the band came up with their own magical songs, `Walk Awhile’, the obviously-subdued `Sloth’ and `Doctor Of Physick’. Just prior to its release, the band issued double-header 45 `Now Be Thankful’ flipped with the longest titled song ever, `Sir B. McKenzie’s Daughter’s Lament For The 77th Mounted Lancers’ Retreat From The Straits Of Loch Kombe In The Year Of Our Lord 1727, On The Occasion Of The Announcement Of Her Marriage To The Laird Of Kinleakie’.
In early ’71, RICHARD THOMPSON departed for an acclaimed solo career, a solo career which stretched over four decades – and FAIRPORT CONVENTION were now four (remaining original Simon Nicol taking over lead vocals with Swarbrick). While ANGEL DELIGHT (1971) {*6} hit the UK Top 10, it was widely acknowledged that the LP – without THOMPSON, DENNY or MATTHEWS – lacked the oomph of old. Traditional yarns such as `Lord Marborough’, `Sir William Gower’, `Bridge Over The River Ash’ and the suggestive and flirtatious `The Bonny Black Hare’ were still exciting and instrumentally buoyant, while Thompson’s legacy came by way of Swarbrick collaborations `The Journeyman’s Grace’ and `Sickness And Diseases’.
Released only a matter of months after ANGEL, concept set and/or folk-rock opera “BABBACOMBE” LEE (1971) {*6} – the true story of 19th-century murderer John “Babbacombe” Lee – virtually stiffed at the proverbial box office. With the full storyline used as its track listing (the re-mastered CD finally set the record straight in 2004), the hallmarks and eccentricities were displayed. Critics of the day enjoyed the album’s prog-centric attributes, while others were alienated by its unique approach (preceding JETHRO TULL’s `Thick As A Brick’ by a year). If one could pick out the er… “tracks”, the best would be `John Lee’, `Breakfast In Mayfair’ and `Hanging Song’.
1972 was a particularly bad year for Fairports (Nicol and Mattacks formed The ALBION COUNTRY BAND), only Swarbrick and Pegg surviving the numerous personnel changes besetting the group. Finally settling with former FOTHERINGAY guitarists/vocalists Trevor Lucas and Jerry Donahue (who replaced short-stay Roger Hill) and drummer Tom Farnell, FAIRPORT CONVENTION continued to gig. Attempting to break from their folk-rock perimeters, comeback LP ROSIE (1973) {*5} found the band a-wanting. Swarbrick afforded himself the bulk of the material, but only the title track (featuring SANDY DENNY, RICHARD THOMPSON plus wifey-to-be Linda Peters on the guest list) and `Furs And Feathers’ came up to scratch. Future husband of the aforementioned DENNY, Trevor Lucas penned two decent cuts, `The Painsman’ and `Knights Of The Road’, while the band’s old sound was not lost on trad tune `The Hen’s March – The Four Poster Bed’ and Dave Pegg’s `Peggy’s Pub’.
The chronologically-titled NINE (1973) {*4} was even worse than their last effort, the band now hitting a softer, countrified, bluegrass beat more akin to the EAGLES, not a band quintessentially English. The unison of Swarbrick and Pegg’s respective violin and mandolin playing was the upside of the album, but trad-cum-contemporary tracks such as `Polly On The Shore’, `The Hexhamshire Lass’ and even above-par `The Brilliancy Medley – Cherokee Shuffle’, didn’t cut the proverbial mustard. The set’s saving grace, the riff-heavy finale `Possibly Parsons Green’, was too little, too late.
The obligatory concert set, FAIRPORT LIVE CONVENTION (1974) {*6}, was next up for grabs, the re-introduction of now prominent solo artist SANDY DENNY stealing the limelight somewhat. Old faves such as `Matty Groves’ and Denny’s `John The Gun’ reminded the listener just how bloody good the band were/are, while a fresh rendition of DYLAN’s `Down In The Flood’ churned along nicely.
Sandy stayed on for one further studio album, the Glyn Johns-produced RISING FOR THE MOON (1975) {*7}; drummer Bruce Rowlands was added and now they were seven. From the opening title track, Denny (who contributed no less than seven songs including two co-penned with others, `Let It Go’ and the excellent `Dawn’) was in fine fettle, even on the RALPH McTELL-scribed song `White Dress’. It was clear Denny’s star was in full bloom, with other songs such as `Stranger To Himself’, `What Is True?’, `After Halloween’ and `One More Chance’ all deep and meaningful, and of course, tearfully poignant. On a footnote to a great “comeback” LP, the GORDON LIGHTFOOT-esque Lucas-Roche track, `Restless’, certainly crossed over into rootsy country-rock (as did the Donahue-Pegg-Swarbrick hoedown `Night-Time Girl’), a few tracks that the departed THOMPSON might’ve handled better.
With Denny, Lucas and Donahue taking off in December ’75, the remaining members Swarbrick, Pegg and Rowland (as FAIRPORT) clung on by recruiting guest acts for GOTTLE O’ GEER (1976) {*3}, including MARTIN CARTHY, GALLAGHER & LYLE (on `Friendship Song’) and Simon Nicol (for `Limey’s Lament). But its countrified gospel dirges (`Lay Me Down Easy’ for one) were lost on most fans and critics alike, the only saving grace was a quirky little instrumental, funky folk number, `Cropredy Capers’, and/or the traditional, back-to-basics (Jig Medley) `The Frog Up The Pump’. As guest-only Simon Nicol later stated: it was a case of the three having to pay their mortgages, but that was no excuse.
Now with the returning Nicol and signed to Vertigo records, 1977’s THE BONNY BUNCH OF ROSES {*4} fared little better, mixing as it did a handful of traditional, ALBION BAND-ish tracks (including `Adieu Adieu’, `The Eynsham Poacher’ and the lengthy `General Taylor’) with a few of their own, alongside renditions of RICHARD THOMPSON’s `The Poor Ditching Boy’ and RALPH McTELL’s `Run Johnny Run’.
Marking a sad time all round (with the tragic death of SANDY DENNY on the 21st of April ’78), FAIRPORT CONVENTION issued the near-conceptual TIPPLERS TALES {*6}, a return to form for most folk fans, fusing the theme of alcohol throughout a cocktail of traditional drinking cues such as `Three Drunken Maidens’, `The Hair Of The Dogma’, `The Bottom Of The Punch Bowl’ and `John Barleycorn’. English rock’n’reel at its best was evident on the narrative-biased `The Widow Of Westmorland’s Daughter’ and that perennial of tunes, `Reynard The Fox’.
Despite cutting a FAREWELL, FAREWELL {*6} live album in 1979 (plucked from their “final” tour that summer), the Fairports continued on regardless – in one way or another – throughout the 80s; core original members (Dyble, Thompson and Nicol) even reuniting with Swarbrick, Pegg, Mattacks and Rowland for the 1981-recorded MOAT ON THE LEDGE: LIVE AT BROUGHTON CASTLE (1982) {*6}.
With the hiring of songwriter/co-songwriter RALPH McTELL, Nicol, Pegg and Mattacks returned to the studio for GLADYS’ LEAP (1985) {*5}, an album that also featured guest spots from RICHARD THOMPSON, Cathy LeSurf (ex-FIDDLER’S DRAM) and Swarbrick’s part-time (for now) violin replacement, Ric Sanders.
With the latter and Maartin Allcock on board, instrumental follow-up, EXPLETIVE DELIGHTED! (1986) {*5} flummoxed their audience, with overly loud drumming from Mattacks a turn-off for most. Individually, each contributed the odd rumble of sorts, the best examples being Sanders’ three cues `Portmeiron’, `Expletive Delighted’ and `The Rutland Reel – Sack The Juggler’; the closing number `Hanks For The Memory’ (interpolating `Shazam’, `Apache’, `Pipeline’ and `Peter Gunn’) was a tribute to The SHADOWS’ guitar legend, HANK MARVIN, featuring RICHARD THOMPSON and Jerry Donahue.
From the early 80s, FAIRPORT (and all who sailed with her) had limited their live appearances to annual bashes at Cropredy in Oxfordshire, an event which has now become something of a mini-festival attracting thousands of folk/roots fans each year.
Towards the turn of the decade, FC delivered a number of live sets on their own Woodworm imprint, but studio sets such as RED & GOLD (1988) {*5} and THE FIVE SEASONS (1990) {*5}, still surfaced periodically. The first of these – with the title and title track stemming from McTELL again! – featured a DYLAN song, `Open The Door Richard’, while the latter delivered a Peter Blegvad (ex-SLAPP HAPPY) track, `Gold’. Both albums showcased outsider writers such as Dave Whetstone, Huw Williams and ARCHIE FISHER, and proved the band were indeed flexible if not completely insular.
STEVE TILSTON, LEONARD COHEN, CLIVE GREGSON, JEZ LOWE, RALPH McTELL and other songsmiths lent their songs to FC’s new studio set, JEWEL IN THE CROWN (1995) {*5}, but the album failed to blend the usual mix of slips, jigs and reels with contemporary folk-rock. Various line-ups continued to record the occasional studio set throughout the 90s, with 1996’s largely acoustic OLD NEW BORROWED BLUE {*6} and 1997’s 30th Anniversary set, WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES {*7}, drawing favourable reviews. The latter featured a live version of SANDY DENNY’s signature tune as well as an unlikely cover of MARVIN GAYE’s `I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ and a reading of JETHRO TULL’s `Life’s A Long Song’. Tull mainman Anderson, meanwhile, contributed his inimitable flute to 2002’s XXXV {*5}, an album which took the veteran folk-rockers into the new millennium at the same time as it resurrected past classics. The appropriately-titled OVER THE NEXT HILL (2004) {*6} saw Simon Nicol and co looking to new horizons if never really straying from their latter-day path.
To mark their 40th Anniversary (and with Chris Leslie installed as their main songwriter), the band released their umpteenth set, SENSE OF OCCASION (2007) {*5}, an album with a foothold in all things passed/past (i.e. `Tam Lin’ and `Polly On The Shore’), while challenging their loyal audience with renditions of the odd alt-pop song (XTC’s `Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’). Bypassing yet another effective but perennial LIVE AT CROPREDY ’08 (2009) {*6} set, FAIRPORT CONVENTION’s follow-up studio work, FESTIVAL BELL (2011) {*7} rang in their next long-player. Arctic Sea shanties and tales of characters such as Lord Franklin were beset among covers by RICHARD SHINDELL (`Reunion Hill’), RALPH McTELL (a fresh cut entitled `Around The Wild Cape Horn’) and a reprise of `Rising For The Moon’.
Simultaneously released by Matty Groves Records, the live-in-concert BY POPULAR REQUEST (2012) {*6} and their age-old re-vamp of BABBACOMBE LEE LIVE AGAIN {*6} kept the veteran group chugging along nicely.
Reeling back the years and sticking with the same line-up for over 16 years (Leslie, Nicol, Pegg, Sanders and Conway), FAIRPORT CONVENTION complemented a series of “Wintour” shows with a fresh studio set, MYTHS AND HEROES (2015) {*7}. Their usual medieval approach battered against the main-sail of the MUMFORDs (and Co), but pipe-and-slippers English folk-rock was at its best, storytelling without the bawls – or, er… fuss. Topical tie-in tales of dead soldiers from WWI, one in particular `John Condon’, a 14-year-old who met his fate in the trenches, captured the past. The SHOOGLENIFTY-like Celtic flag flew high in the sprightly (and orchestrated) `The Gallivant’, where as the LEVELLERS-like title track was punk for OAPs. Of the others, their perennial use of RALPH McTELL songs (here, in `Clear Water’) added the sing-a-long factor, while one could almost touch the hills, the valleys and the mist on the glens for the tender `Weightless – The Gravity Reel’ and `Jonah’s Oak’.
FAIRPORT CONVENTION’s frank and forthright 50:50@50 (2017) {*6} anniversary set proved a worthwhile addition to their mountainous CV discography; split as it was between fresh Chris Leslie (or Ric Sanders) studio recordings from the heart of Oxfordshire and live pieces from the previous two years. A fan for many a year, ROBERT PLANT made a perfect contribution on `Jesus On The Mainline’, whilst they didn’t venture far afield, folk-wise, when they invited JACQUI McSHEE to bolster other trad ditty, `The Lady Of Carlisle’.
To add to the equation, a commemorative, Cropredy-performed (12th August 2017) double-CD entitled WHAT WE DID ON OUR SATURDAY (2018) {*7} celebrated their 50th anniversary (again!) in fine style. Featuring a galaxy of folk stars, including former cohorts ASHLEY HUTCHINGS, RICHARD THOMPSON, IAIN MATTHEWS, JUDY DYBLE, SALLY BARKER, DAVE MATTACKS, MAARTIN ALLCOCK and RALPH McTELL (soloists in their own right), even the non-genre affinity would nod their heads to the likes of `Suzanne’, `Reno Nevada’, the mighty `Sloth’ and other usual suspects.
For twenty solid years or so, the stable line-up of Nicol, Leslie, Pegg, Sanders and Conway had just about exhausted any avenues Brit-folk could accomplish; though with the almost totally home-spun effort, SHUFFLE AND GO (2020) {*6}, at least their spirit was stoic to the cause. Indeed, it was outsider tracks; a cover of JAMES TAYLOR’s `Jolly Springtime’, Rob Beattie’s `Moses Waits’ and PJ Wright’s `The Byfield Steeplechase’, that resonated with fans old and err… new. By and large the wholesome set was nice enough to eat, and even up-tempo numbers `Steampunkery’ and `The Year Of Fifty Nine’ was no match for enterprising opener, `Don’t Reveal My Name’.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/GRD-GFD // rev-up MCS Jul2012-Apr2020

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