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

Writte on the 29th of January 2014

In my last post, I wrote about the first years of the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, in which superb albums as Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief were produced. With this little text, I finish covering Fairport’s history until 1979, when they disbanded for a few years.

Angel Delight (1971) is, in my opinion, their last great album, even if in terms of style it’s kind of the same old story. It’s called like that because the band members and their families had moved to a former pub called “The Angel”. It has, amongst other songs, a couple of fine instrumentals (nice fiddle work in Bridge Over The River Ash) and two songs I call “the pirate songs”, traditional melodies rearranged once again by the band. C’mon those two tracks (Lord Marlborough and Sir William Gower) sound indeed like some stuff pirates would sing, don’t tell me I’m wrong!

Looks like they’re having fun in the live version of Bridge Over The River Ash!

From now on it’s mostly downhill, although the albums are still pretty decent. So for those who are kind of “meh” about Fairport after listening to the few songs I posted, maybe it’s better for you to leave it here (oh, but do have a listen at the last Fairport song in the post!). On a side note, the changes in the band line-up get more and more common, so the band was called by some people “Fairport Confusion”.

Next in line comes Babbacombe Lee (1972). While it’s not a bad album, I find it’s more interesting to talk about the story it tells: the one of John “Babbacombe” Lee, a murderer from the Victorian era who was condemned to death and later reprieved because the gallows failed to do their job in not one, not two, but three occasions! The album is a concept album that describes the criminal’s life, and is considered the first “folk rock opera”.

Next come Rosie (1973) and Nine (1974), albums which I found online after quite a while searching for them! And yes, Nine was their ninth album, they really thought hard about the title. Again. No, I don’t mean to be bashing, I’m just joking, but ok I guess it can be misunderstood, no more bad jokes about album titles! The first of these two is nothing special, being the title track the best song. Nine is better, with a good catchy opener such as The Hexhamshire Lass, some very good instrumental work here and there (The Brilliancy Medley & Cherokee Shuffle and The Devil in the Kitchen) and a bunch of highly enjoyable songs, such as Pleasure & Pain or Polly On the Shore (the latter has a better, not so slow version in the Fairport Unconventional album, though). Pretty hard to find stuff from this album on youtube, so although I wanted to post an instrumental…

Rising For The Moon (1975), while not better than the previous two albums, was the album that would mean the real breakthrough for Fairport Convention, or so they apparently thought. Sandy Denny was back and they all had high hopes. Considering this, the album is a bit disappointing, with only one really remarkable song, the title track.

Three members, including Sandy Denny, left after this album. Sandy, unfortunately, had a tragic end. She suffered from substance abuse problems for some time, which was obvious to others by 1977. She drank and took cocaine while being pregnant, and when she finally had a baby, she often acted in a tremendously immature way with it, apart from not really seeming to care for the baby.

In March 1978, while being home alone, she fell down a staircase and hit her head on the concrete. Because of the continuous headaches she got from that accident, the doctor prescribed her a painkiller which had fatal side effects when mixed with alcohol. In the middle of April, her husband, an Australian songwriter (who was also part of Fairport in one or two albums) left UK with their child and returned to his home country because of Sandy’s behaviour, as the baby wasn’t really safe with her. Four days after that, she collapsed and fell into a coma while at a friend’s. She died another four days after that, because of a brain haemorrhage and trauma to her head. Sandy was only 31 at the time.

Back to Fairport, there’s not much more to say before they disbanded in 1979. They signed up with Vertigo, which bought them out of the contract for poor sales after two of four contracted albums, The Bonny Bunch of Roses (1977) and Tipplers Tales (1978).

The Bonny Bunch of Roses was again far from the 1969-1971 golden days in terms of quality; Fairport’s spark was clearly fading. Run Johnny Run was a pleasant surprise though (strangely and unfortunately, the chorus is a bit of an anti-climax), and Royal Seleccion no.13 is yet another good instrumental (ok there’s a short sung intro) with great fiddle work. However, it looked pretty clear the good days would never come back.

Tipplers Tales is mainly about… well, alcohol. Hey, it could be worse, it’s only this album; look at Irish folk songs, they’re either about alcohol or about patriotism! I was positively surprised with this album, even more after reading it was recorded in only ten days. In words of bassist David Pegg, every member got 7000 pounds after this album, which was the first time they made money out of music; enough money to split up.

The album is very consistent, probably their best since Angel Delight, in my humble opinion. Ye Mariners All is a good intro song, first instrumental and then sung, catchy, it makes you pay attention. Three Drunken Maidens, as you may imagine, is the perfect prototype of pub song. Play it loud while you’re tipsy, raise your glass and sing it with your friends. Same with Lady of Pleasure, The Widow of Westmorland’s Daughter… ok, same with half of the album, damn I should really try, it’d be fun for sure. And then they have this really nice version of the traditional song John Barleycorn, although the version in the live album The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood is slightly better.

(Yes, the last link is from a rather recent concert)

This is pretty much what Fairport Convention did until 1979. As I said before, they disbanded, played together from time to time and started recording again six years later, although I haven’t been able to download their newest music.

I did find a 4 CD box that came out in 2002. Its name is Fairport Unconventional, and it basically features previously unreleased songs, rearranged band classics and live versions. Some of the stuff there is amazing, and ok, I’ll admit it, I could just download one of the four CDs. The alternate version of Nottamun Town, the single Rubber Band (it’s so silly and I just can’t help being so cheered up by it) and most of all, the absolutely beautiful cover of Bob Dylan’s Lay Down Your Weary Tune (possibly Fairport’s best Dylan cover, maybe better than Percy’s Song). Unfortunately, Youtube deleted my channel recently, so I can’t send links for those songs.

In conclusion, Fairport Convention is a band that had three or four amazing years at first and then, although still producing decent music with a few little jewels here and there, started a slow and early decline. I’d love to see them live anyway, but I certainly can’t imagine them coming to Spain.

Bonus track: Jethro Tull’s version of John Barleycorn. Very different from Fairport’s one, but pretty cool nonetheless.


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