ALTHOUGH Fairport Convention got mentions in previous pieces on Sandy Denny, Ian Matthews and Steeleye Span, I didn’t come near to doing them justice. So here’s a tribute to an act who, at their peak between 1968 and 1970, were in my opinion not just the finest folk outfit but the best band in the world full stop.
The story begins in North London in 1966, when bassist Ashley Hutchings (born 1945) and guitarist Simon Nicol (b 1950) started playing together in a skiffle group called the Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra. Rehearsals were held upstairs at Fairport, Nicol’s three-storey home in Fortis Green, Muswell Hill, which doubled as the surgery for his father, a GP. The future Kinks Ray and Dave Davies grew up in the same street. In an interview a couple of years ago, Nicol recalled: ‘I did get a tap in the gums off Dave once. I was coming home, in school uniform, just got off the bus. It was unprovoked. He was one of the wild children of Muswell Hill. I went to the wrong kind of school, as far as he was concerned, so I was rewarded by a punch in the face. Apart from that we never had much to do with each other.’
Hutchings and Nicol were soon joined by a local guitarist, Richard Thompson (b 1949), and a drummer named Shaun Frater. They named themselves Fairport Convention and played a gig in a church hall, following which an 18-year-old member of the audience, Martin Lamble, replaced Frater after convincing the others that he could do better. Another 18-year-old, librarian Judy Dyble, formerly of a group called Judy and the Folkmen, took over vocal duties.
Manager Joe Boyd signed the band after seeing them play underground haunts such as UFO and the Electric Garden, and he fixed up a contract with Polydor Records. Before they recorded their debut album he suggested that 21-year-old Ian MacDonald (later Matthews) should be recruited as another singer. This freed Dyble to enjoy her hobby of knitting dishcloths and scarves when not performing. She once sat at the front of the stage, needles clacking, at the Speakeasy Club while Thompson and Jimi Hendrix jammed together.
Fairport Convention, released in June 1968, contains some original material but mainly reflects the group’s then preoccupation with singer-songwriters from across the Atlantic.
The first track is Emitt Rhodes’s Time Will Show The Wiser.
This TV clip shows how ridiculously young they all are and how desperate to look cool. It is followed by a remarkably sophisticated performance of Joni Mitchell’s I Don’t Know Where I Stand.
The brief final instrumental track, M1 Breakdown, is by Hutchings and Nicol, and its title was to prove tragically prophetic.
With their boy and girl singers, Fairport were nicknamed ‘the British Jefferson Airplane’ and they shared a bill with Grace Slick’s mob before an audience of 10,000 at the first Isle of Wight rock festival that year. Their LP sold few copies, however, and they moved to the flourishing Island label.
For the second album, What We Did On Our Holidays, released in January 1969, Dyble was replaced by Sandy Denny, already an established figure on the folk scene through her work with Alex Campbell and the Strawbs. Although the LP still contains a Joni Mitchell song, Eastern Rain, and Dylan’s I’ll Keep It With Mine, it includes several originals by the band. Fotheringay, about Mary Queen of Scots, is a Denny composition and Meet on the Ledge, which would become Fairport’s anthem over the years, is by Thompson. Traditional offerings are Nottamun Town and She Moves Through The Fair. The album was a huge improvement on the first and began to get the band noticed. Simon Nicol would later describe it as his favourite.
Between January and April Fairport recorded LP number three, Unhalfbricking. Its title was supplied by Denny as her contribution to the word game Ghost which the band played while travelling to and from concert appearances. The cover features Sandy’s parents Neil and Edna outside the family home in Wimbledon, possibly as a thank you for the many cups of tea they supplied, while the band can be seen through the garden fence. The record features three Dylan numbers, the then unreleased Percy’s Song and Million Dollar Bash, plus Si Tu Dois Partir, a version of If You Gotta Go, Go Now sung in French. The latter earned the group an appearance miming on Top of the Pops, and just missed becoming a Top Twenty single.
The traditional A Sailor’s Life, at over 11 minutes, is an extended workout with a strong contribution from the Birmingham fiddler Dave Swarbrick, already a big name on the folk scene through his collaborations with Martin Carthy. The Thompson original Genesis Hall illustrates his growing songwriting talents but the undoubted highlight is Denny’sWho Knows Where The Time Goes, about which I have already waxed lyrical here.
I think it was in the sleevenotes to the retrospective double album History of Fairport Convention that engineer John Wood said no band anywhere could have played it better.
Ian Matthews features only on Percy’s Song and had left the group by the time the album was completed.
At 4am on May 12, 1969, Fairport were in their van on the M1 returning to London following an appearance at the Birmingham club Mothers when the roadie who was driving fell asleep at the wheel and the vehicle plunged 40ft down an embankment. The crash killed drummer Lamble, still only 19, and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn, 26, a fashion designer and magazine columnist. Thompson had a broken shoulder and Hutchings suffered multiple injuries. Simon Nicol, who had been asleep on the floor of the van, escaped with concussion. I couldn’t remember why Sandy Denny wasn’t on board and t’Internet was little use but an email to a learned friend elicited the explanation that her future husband Trevor Lucas’s band Eclection were supporting Fairport at Mothers that night and she decided to return with him (‘probably to make sure he didn’t cop off with a Birmingham groupie’.)
The June release of Unhalfbricking was imminent but the shattered Fairport felt they could no longer continue as a band. Nicol said: ‘It had given us a lot but now it had taken away a lot: was it worth it if it was going to cost people their lives?’
Hutchings said: ‘We were totally fractured, in more ways than one. It seemed like I was in hospital for months. When I woke up at the side of the M1, I thought I’d lost my sight. As it was, it was just that both eyes were terribly cut and bruised, and eventually, that improved. But I had a broken nose, broken cheekbone, a lot of head injuries, a broken pelvis, a bad ankle injury. All of those things took a long time to heal. People were asking us about the future, but we couldn’t conceive of planning one.’
Thompson added: ‘We were very traumatised and there was this feeling, “Should we carry on? Has the stuffing been knocked out of us?” But eventually, we made a conscious effort. We got together and said, “Yes, we are carrying on”.’
Fairport reconvened with 21-year-old showband drummer Dave Mattacks replacing Lamble and Swarbrick, 28, becoming a permanent member. Manager Boyd rented a country house in Hampshire for the band and together they began to create folk rock. What convinced them to abandon American music altogether was Music From Big Pink, the 1968 album by The Band. Thompson told the Guardian: ‘Big Pink showed us that Americana was more suited to Americans, and we needed to explore Britannicana, or whatever the equivalent of that was. They seemed to nail American roots styles so well, and blend them so seamlessly: country, R&B, blues. At that point, we thought, “We’ll never be that good at American music. We should be looking at something more homegrown”.’
That something was the classic Liege and Lief, which we’ll look at next week.