Listening to Fairport Convention

The BBC and Island Records have just collaborated on the release of a 4-CD set of Fairport Convention’s BBC sessions between 1967 and 1974.  This covers the transformation of Fairport from a West Coast-influenced band playing lots of cover versions to a band that effectively wrote the book on blending rock music with traditional English folk influences. Much of this stuff has been around for a while on various bootlegs, additional tracks on ‘expanded’ albums and also on the 1976 (cassette) and 1987 (cd) release ‘Heyday’ which concentrates on the 1968-9 era.

Sound quality on the early tracks isn’t great, frankly, probably because many of them have been lifted from illegally-taped recordings made by radio listeners,  but the announcer (David Symonds, in all probability) who introduces ‘One sure thing’ as the work of  a British version of Jefferson Airplane isn’t far from the mark.  Fairport founders Simon Nicol and Ashley Hutchings added Richard Thompson on guitar, replaced original drummer Shaun Frater with Martin Lamble and brought singers Judy Dyble & Ian Matthews (nee MacDonald) into the band.  It was this line-up that signed with Joe Boyd’s Witchseason Productions, played many 1967 London gigs at venues like UFO and Middle Earth and released an eclectic debut album on Polydor.  Although the album featured some cover versions such as Joni Mitchell’s ‘Chelsea Morning’ and Dylan’s ‘Jack O’Diamonds’, Boyd allegedly vetoed a number of other covers that formed a regular part of Fairport’s repertoire  at the time.  Several of these covers appear on the early part of the BBC /Island set, including Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’and Richard Farina’s ‘Reno, Nevada’, the latter providing Thompson with a vehicle for an extended guitar workout at early live gigs.

Early Fairport with Judy Dyble (1967)

Hindsight has probably been kinder to the  Polydor debut album than contemporary reviewers were. It can now be seen as a terrific hybrid of British and American styles, but at the time, it didn’t sell at all well.  Polydor passed on the chance to release a second album and Fairport – along with many other Witchseason artists (Nick Drake, Dr Strangely Strange , John Martyn & The Incredible String Band) made their way to the more sympathetic environment offered by Island Records.  The second Fairport album – ‘What we did on our holidays’ – was the first of a flurry of  releases from the band in 1969.

By this point, Judy Dyble had left the band and formed Trader Horne with ex-Them member Jackie McCaulay.  She was replaced by Sandy Denny, who had recorded solo and with The Strawbs.  Of the auditions to replace Dyble, Simon Nicol said that Denny stood out like ‘a clean glass in a sink full of dirty dishes’. Denny’s arrival heralded the first flowering of the  British folk influence which has been a cornerstone of Fairport’s style ever since. ‘What we did on our holidays’ featured far fewer cover versions, featuring instead adaptations of traditional songs like ‘Nottamun Town’ and ‘ She moves through the fair’. The album is also notable for Richard Thompson’s emergence as a songwriter – particularly with ”A Tale in Hard Time’ and ‘Meet on the ledge’.

‘Holidays’ was swiftly followed by ‘Unhalfbricking’, an album that bucked the trend towards original material by featuring no less than three Bob Dylan songs.  It was, however, also notable for Thompson’s ‘Genesis Hall’ and Denny’s ‘Who knows where the time goes?’  The latter was covered to great effect by Judy Collins and helped to spread Fairport’s name further afield.  Matthews left during the sessions for the album to form Matthews Southern Comfort, allowing Denny to adopt a more central role in the band.  However, the most notable song on the album in terms of Fairport’s future development was ‘A Sailor’s Life’,  an 11-minute version of an 18th century folk song recorded in one take.  Both ‘A Sailor’s Life’ and the band’s cod-French version of Dylan’s ‘If you gotta go, go now’ (‘Si tu dois partir’) featured the fiddle-playing of Dave Swarbrick.

It’s hard to say what might have happened to the band had they not suffered a serious car crash in May 1969, just before the realease of ‘Unhalfbricking’.  Drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn were both killed in the crash and though the other band members survived with only minor injuries, the crash had a severe effect on them.  Simon Nicol has talked of how they speculated about whether or not they should call it a day, on the basis that  “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?”

The alternative American ‘Holidays’ cover with Sandy Denny (1969)

After some reflection, Fairport elected to continue with Dave Mattacks drafted in as Lambert’s replacement and Swarbrick added as a permanent member.  They were soon back in the studio recording ‘Liege and Lief’ , an album that featured Fairport staples ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Matty Groves’ as well as a fiddle medley from Swarbrick.

The transformation of Fairport  from West Coast cover band to English folk traditionalism was effectively complete and with Swarbrick and Denny assuming an increasingly major role in proceedings, Fairport’s course for the next 40 years was established.  Hutchings wanted an even more traditionalist approach, so he  left after ‘Liege and Lief’ to  form the ultra-traditional Steeleye Span and Thompson left to go solo in 1971.

‘Liege and Lief’ is often seen as a benchmark for English folk-rock and far be it from me to disagree.  However, for all the critical approbation that has come its way over the years, it was at this point that I began to lose interest in Fairport Convention.  I should probably ‘come clean’ at this point and say that I have a limited tolerance for English traditional folk music.  History and tradition are all well and good but not at the expense of creativity.  All too often in the coming years I found that Fairport, Steeleye Span and fellow travellers were hamstrung by their insistence on allowing themselves to be limited by the demands of the format within which they were operating.  To me, the borderlands between various styles are often the most rewarding and both Denny & Thompson went on to produce work (Denny, alone and with Fotheringay, Thompson on the records he made with his then-wife, Linda Peters) that was far more stimulating simply because it avoided the comfortable options offered by the ‘folk tradition’ .  Would Fairport’s orthodoxy have permitted a ‘Late November’ , ‘The Sea’ or ‘The Great Valerio’?  I suspect not.

All of which means that I find the earlier selections from this BBC/Island box set to be by far and away the most arresting.  If we are to be strictly chronological about this, then Disc 4  (The ‘bootleg’ recordings)  followed by Disc 1 (the early Sandy Denny-era stuff) offer some fascinating insights into this stage of Fairport’s career.  As well as previously-extant covers, we get a further batch here including a number of Joni Mitchell songs from her first two albums, such as ‘Night & the City’ and ‘Marcie’ , as well as the Everly Brothers’ ‘Gone, gone, gone’  (recently revived by Alison Krauss & Robert Plant) and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a wire’.  Whilst these songs may not be original, the material arguably allows a greater degree of flexibility in the arrangements than later ‘folkier’ material.

I have no doubt that many readers would not endorse my views regarding the relative worth of 1967/8 era Fairport and the 70’s era ‘folky’ Fairport.  Then again, you’re either a lover of traditional English folk or you’re not.  Personally, I’ve always found it a bit limited in its scope.  In the end, I think Fairport became a bit too comfortable with their jigs and reels, whereas I never did, to be honest.  To each their own, I suppose…..


4 responses to “Listening to Fairport Convention

  1. Pingback: All Around the World News

  2. I can’t agree more. What a thoughtful reappraisal of early Fairports. I love that first album and while it would be foolish to say that the records at followed were nothing less than brilliant, that debut and the Heyday recordings are the ones I play the most these days.

    • Thanks for your comments, Ashley. Like you, my Fairport listening doesn’t extend much beyond ‘Unhalfbricking’ these days, but it’s been a real boon to hear all these radio sessions – many of them for the first time. I’m sure with the crowds that pour into the Cropredy Festival site every summer, the remaining Fairports feel vindicated in their decision to follow the Trad folk path, but I always found it a bit stifling and still do.

      I guess Richard Thompson was always going to head out on his own at some point, but I was surprised to read an interview with him where he said that he wasn’t really sure why he left when he did and that it might have been a trifle premature. Although it took him a couple of albums to really hit his stride, he has certainly had a stellar career (in critical terms) pretty much ever since.

      Whilst Ian Matthews has had nothing like the same degree of critical acclaim as RT, he too has made some decent records – especially his early 70’s solo output and the albums he did with Plainsong. I think Sandy Denny’s solo career started brilliantly, too – the ‘North Star Grassman’ and Fotheringay albums still sound great. After that, I think things got a bit patchy and I’ve never been comfortable with the attempts made by Island and others to sanctify her and turn her into a kind of English Joni Mitchell – she was good, but not that good in my opinion and for all the recent box sets and posthumous praise, I don’t think she produced a body of work that maintained a consistently high level to the end of her life. Great voice, though…

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