Fairport Convention in the 60s and 70s (I)

Written on the 25th of January 2014

Last week I wrote about a CD which is, in my opinion, rather easy to like. Today, on the other hand, I’ll write about a band that doesn’t have so many fans, and hasn’t been well liked by the friends I’ve tried to introduce it to… so as nobody wants to listen to me talking about them, I’ll make the internet (which means not really that many people, in this case) suffer.

Fairport Convention make folk rock music. They started in 1967 and, after countless band member changes, they still record and tour. At first, their style was not really a British folk one, but rather a guitar flavoured Californian folk-rock. This, however, changed after a short time.

A couple of years ago or so I downloaded what I thought was all or most of their music. However I recently discovered I don’t have Fairport’s post-70s music, so I’ll just write about their first thirteen years, before they disbanded for six years (when they still did occasional concerts).

I won’t specifically write about their members, with some exceptions, as this little text would be extremely messy to follow considering all the members’ comings and goings. The first exception helps me explain the origins of the band. It was bassist and Ashley Hutchings and guitarist Simon Nicol who started rehearsing in a house called “Fairport”, in North London, and… ok, I think that explains it pretty well. The found another guitarist and a drummer and the band was made. Shortly after this they found a female singer, Judy Dyble, who would knit scarves when not singing during concerts. Really. Anyway, for their second album Dyble would leave and Sandy Denny would arrive. Sandy is, for me (and many others, I’d say) a key member of the band, even though she wasn’t there for a very long time. I’ll talk more about her later in this text.

Their first album, called, ahem, Fairport Convention (yes, I know, very original), while decent, doesn’t really drive me crazy. It doesn’t have the folk approach of later albums, being rather a bunch of rock songs. The highlight of the album is, in my opinion, Jack O’Diamonds, a traditional song. In this case, Fairport created the music for the lyrics written by Bob Dylan and Ben Carruthers based on the original song. Although Fairport Convention would later on do covers of Bob Dylan songs, this is not exactly the case, as what the band took here were extracts from Bob Dylan’s poem-sequence Some Other Kinds of Songs, from the back cover of Another Side of Dylan.

There is also a Leonard Cohen cover in this album (specifically a bonus track in the 2003 remastered edition), as Fairport Convention decided to rearrange Suzanne. It’s personally one my biggest disappointments regarding the band. Having previously heard some of their Dylan covers, I had very high expectations, as the original gives me goosebumps (in a good way!). However, Fairport’s version is plain boring.

One year later, in 1969, three new Fairport albums would come out, two of them being amongst my top three. The first of those albums is called What We Did On Our Holidays. The sound here is folkier, and although it’s not really amongst my favourites either, it has a couple of great songs. It should also be mentioned that this CD contains another of Fairport’s Bob Dylan covers, I’ll Keep It With Mine.

While Meet On The Ledge is considered by many the band’s unofficial anthem and it’s the song that usually closes their concerts, my personal favourites are Nottamun Town (the alternate version in the rarities album Fairport Unconventional has an even better instrumental work) and, most of all, the sad and beautiful Fotheringay.

Oh, I almost forgot, this album also has a cover of the traditional song She Moved Through The Fair. However, I’ve heard much better versions, such as the ones by Loreena McKennitt or Alan Stivell.

The second of the three albums they released in 1969 is Unhalfbricking, which was, and still is, very acclaimed by both critics and fans. Totally understandable, as the whole CD is outstanding. It’s not easy to choose the best song of the album, but I’d go with Who Knows Where The Time Goes? and Percy’s Song.

The first is a beautiful composition by Sandy Denny, whose voice really shines in this song. Sandy’s voice wasn’t the typical clear and flawless voice most people love, but rather (that’s at least what comes to my mind) the voice of someone who has seen many sad things in her life, someone whose existence has been sad and full of sorrow.

Percy’s Song, along with Si Tu Dois Partir (the original song is called If You Gotta Go, Go Now), and Million Dollar Bash, are Bob Dylan’s covers. While I’m a Dylan fan, I prefer Fairport’s covers to the originals, especially in the case of Percy’s Song.

Fairport Convention kept rearranging traditional songs. In this album, they did a version of A Sailor’s Life.

Before the third 1969 album, something terrible happened to the band. Their van crashed on a motorway when they were on the way home from a gig. The drummer, who was nineteen years old, died, as well as the guitarist’s girlfriend. The band almost disbanded and Iain Matthews, one of the singers, left. However they decided to continue and the most immediate result was Liege & Lief, considered by many their best album (I actually can’t really choose between this one, Unhalfbricking and Angel Delight).

This time there were no Dylan covers, but rather English traditional songs rearranged with electric instruments and something which would become a habit: instrumental medleys where the violin would have the main role but the mandolin would play an important part too (what a great instrument the mandolin is, oh I love it, yes I do!).

As a little side note, there are two Frank Sinatra covers from BBC radio live performances (The Lady Is A Tramp and Fly Me To The Moon) in the 2007 deluxe edition. I just found out and I can’t find them on youtube, pity!

Most songs in this album are amazing. Crazy Man Michael, Tam Lin… but two of them shine above all the rest. First of all the traditional song Matty Groves, and finally a song that gives me goosebumps and makes my eyes itchy every time I listen to it: Farewell, Farewell. Sandy Denny at her best, I have no words to describe her voice in this song, it’s totally heartbreaking. Farewell, Farewell is proof that you don’t need pompous musical arrangements and lyrics about a broken heart and stuff such as “Oh I miss you come here blepblepblep”.

(in the Farewell video, when you read “loathe” I’m not sure if it’s “love”, maybe “loathe” makes more sense but when I’ve searched the lyrics online half of the sites say one thing and the other half say the other)

This album is considered as a major influence in the development of British folk rock: BBC Radio 2 listeners decided in 2002 that it was the most important folk album of all time, and, in 2006, the album won the BBC Radio 2 folk award for Most influential Folk Album of all time.

Liege & Lief meant the depart of Sandy Denny (and bassist Ashley Hutchings), who would come back for a short stint five years later. Dave Pegg (also Jethro Tull bassist, it was thanks to him that I discovered Fairport) took over the bass, while Sandy Denny wasn’t replaced.

The following nine years would be a period of numerous changes in the band lineup, which wouldn’t stop them from producing a bunch of CDs. The next album was Full House (1970). Maybe it wasn’t as good as the two last ones, but Fairport managed to produce a very solid album, which has again both original compositions and rearranged traditional songs. The male vocals (everyone except the drummer sang at some point) worked well and even though Sandy’s voice was irreplaceable the damage was not as big as I’d have thought.

While Flatback Caper is a mood-lifting instrumental (for some reason it makes me think of children playing in the countryside… ok I know, weird thoughts of mine, I’m stopping!), Sloth is a very slow yet haunting song (it has something I can’t really explain, but it fascinates me), with an instrumental section in which the combination between electric guitar and fiddle is excellent.

I guess this is long enough for today, so I’ll post the rest of Fairport Convention’s history until 1979 in a few days. But hey, wait a second.

Bonus track: Loreena McKennitt’s version of She Moved Through The Fair.

Ok, another bonus track: Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, there’s no way I could post this without including a link to this song.

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4 thoughts on “Fairport Convention in the 60s and 70s (I)

  1. Pingback: Fairport Convention in the 60s and 70s (II) | A Little Light Blogging

  2. Pingback: Greensleves | A Little Light Blogging

  3. Pingback: Thirty-eight minutes of pure joy with Al Stewart | A Little Light Blogging

  4. Pingback: She moved through the fair | A Little Light Blogging

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