THE BIRTH AND HEYDAY OF FAIRPORT CONVENTION: The formation and perfection of Fairport Convention, the leading British folk-group of the late 1960s

Prior to 1968, rather incredibly, there was not a single British rock group that played electric folk-rock consistently and well. It is thus not too surprising that the band to become roundly acclaimed as the best British folk-rock group, Fairport Convention, took its initial inspiration from American folk-rock, particularly the guitar-oriented California sort.

    It could be said that Fairport Convention was the first true second-generation folk-rock band, in that its initial repertoire and model came not from folk songs, but from imported folk-rock records. In our days of worldwide simultaneous releases and block-long music megastores, it can be easy to forget that in 1967, even LPs on Vanguard and Elektra could be hard to come by in England. To learn songs by Love, Richard & Mimi Fariña, and Jim & Jean commanded the same kind of obscurist archivism that American teenagers of the late 1950s and early 1960s needed to locate Alan Lomax field recordings, Library of Congress LPs, and Folkways releases.

    This is what Fairport Convention, formed in North London by guitarists Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol and bassist Ashley Hutchings, did to master a repertoire that likely was unduplicated anywhere in the British Isles in 1967. Over the next few months the lineup was filled out by drummer Martin Lamble, singer Judy Dyble, and singer Ian Matthews [who now goes by the spelling Iain Matthews]. Except for Hutchings, all were still in their teens (Nicol was only 16); except for Matthews, who'd been on a 1967 pop-rock single by the Pyramid, none of them had played on any records.

    "When I received the invitation to 'check out' Fairport I knew absolutely nothing about them," recalls Matthews. "All I knew was that they were beginning to establish themselves as an underground favorite, by playing regularly at the UFO club in Covent Garden. But the crowd I was running with at the time were listening to a completely different genre of music. The day I met the band for the first time they had gathered in a small studio in south London called Sound Techniques, to record their first single. I was between homes at the time and I walked in with my suitcase and a dozen albums under my arm: Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Tim Buckley, Byrds, David Ackles etc. I believe these albums got me the job, because it was coincidentally exactly what they were all listening to, plus Dylan, Joni and Richard Farina, of course.

    "At the time no one in the band was writing with any seriousness, so we dug deep into that type of approach for inspiration and for stage material. I don't think anyone apart from possibly Joe Boyd had any vision of where the band was headed, or what we might become. We were developing something and placed no boundaries on it. At the back of our minds American folk-rock was the happening thing, both musically and inspirationally. We loved the Airplane, and the two lead vocalist approach appealed to us. Because of our name and our scruffy onstage presence, lots of people around that time thought we were American, and considering the possible rewards, we were not about to attempt to dispel that presumption."

    "Wherever Fairport played when we started in '67, there were groups playing improvisational music to a large extent," says Hutchings. "They'd start out on a chord formation and maybe sing a few words, and that would just be the vehicle to go off and paint colors instrumentally, for long stretches. There was really almost no one else tackling the best singer-songwriters and what one might loosely call contemporary folk music. Eclection were the only band I can think of right now touring England at that time who impinged on our territory. Why that is, I don't know. It's just how it was.

    "And I'm glad it was, really, because we wouldn't have stood out. And we did stand out as a band. In the early days, we weren't that good. But we stood out because we played these short, intelligent, rather lovely songs, and no one else was doing them. Pentangle came from a whole different area. We didn't consider that we were anything like Pentangle. They played acoustic instruments, but also they came largely from the jazz side. They swung the folk. We rocked the folk."

    Actually the band occasionally delved far more into psychedelic improvisation than many realize. Joe Boyd's interest in the group was initially piqued by Thompson's guitar work during its half-hour cover of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band psychedelic instrumental "East West." On French TV in 1968, it did a radical seven-minute rearrangement of Richard & Mimi Fariña's "Reno Nevada" (now available on its archival box set Fairport Unconventional), Thompson taking the helm with several uninterrupted minutes of explosive jam-soloing. In the studio, however, concise songs would initially be the order of the day, though those early psychedelic jams looked forward in some respects to the lengthy updated folk epics that would appear in the group's later incarnations.

    The band's first album, 1968's Fairport Convention, is often dismissed as an irrelevant curiosity due to its dissimilarity to the group's later, more British folk-fueled efforts. To the contrary, it is a highly credible and enjoyable, if derivative, West Coast-styled folk-rock album, owing much to the early Byrds and (particularly in the male-female vocal harmonies and vocal solo tradeoffs) Jefferson Airplane. The songs they covered would have been obscure to almost anyone on either side of the Atlantic: Joni Mitchell's "I Don't Know Where I Stand" and "Chelsea Morning" (both of which she had yet to release), Jim & Jean's "One Sure Thing," the Merry-Go-Round's "Time Will Show the Wiser," and Ben Carruthers's "Jack o' Diamonds," the last of which is a true affidavit to their record-collecting prowess, as it's doubtful the original 45 could have sold more than a few copies. More importantly, the band showed itself capable of writing strong original material in the same mold.

    "We were quite fortunate really, because in Joe and his direct link to Warners at the time, we had a private source to whatever American material we wanted," points out Matthews. "He was responsible for many of our early influences. Were it not for him, I may not have listened to Moby Grape, or Buffalo Springfield, for quite some time. Joni Mitchell too, Joe had a direct line to her publishing demos and supplied us with whatever we could handle. I'm sure the Joe pipeline was how Sandy [Denny] got [her composition] 'Who Knows [Where the Time Goes]' to Judy Collins.

    "I was not one of the driving forces behind the early Fairport direction. Most of this was engineered behind the scenes by Joe. He was very good at dropping subtle ideas and Richard, Ashley, and to a lesser degree Simon were very open and good at picking up the idea and running with it. I was a simply a singer at that point, struggling to find direction. Richard was one to never even consider the possibility of simply recording a soundalike cover. He was constantly searching for an alternate way to interpret these great songs. In retrospect, I see that he was a fine influence on my own ability to do that too. If we couldn't somehow add to the original, in some way, then we inevitably abandoned the song."

    The art of interpreting American folk-rock songs would provide Fairport's foundation for quite some time. Setlists from the era included additional covers of the likes of Love, Phil Ochs, the Jefferson Airplane, Eric Andersen, and Leonard Cohen. On the BBC, they went yet further, with interpretations of songs from Gene Clark's first solo album (a flop even in the States), Richard & Mimi Fariña, and two particularly unacknowledged Everly Brothers gems. Some of the best of these, with Sandy Denny rather than Dyble on female vocals, were assembled on a collection of 1968-69 BBC sessions, Heyday. Fairport's arrangements, in the manner of the best folk-rock covers, gave a bright rock lift to outstanding songs that made them both different than and equally worthy to the originals. In some cases, they exceed their models. Certainly there is no better Leonard Cohen cover than Fairport Convention's "Suzanne," with its dramatic alternation of Denny and Matthews solo vocals and entirely restructured tempos that both stutter and glide, investing it with a tension missing from Cohen's typically downbeat rendition. The remake of Richard Fariña's "Reno, Nevada" was similarly brilliant, with its close harmonies and Thompson's customary versatile, imaginative guitar riffs.

    If it seems strange that a repertoire based around American folk-rock verged on the exotic in England in 1968, it should be remembered that some of the American folk-rock artists, particularly the album-oriented ones, were far less celebrated in the UK than in their homeland. "Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe, all those people -- I don't think they meant a lot to English bands," explains Pete Frame. "I mean, Country Joe & the Fish, you couldn't read about them in Melody Maker or the New Musical Express, apart from maybe a mention and a line here or there. When Jefferson Airplane came over, there were limited audience[s] for it. Because you couldn't hear the bloody things on the radio. No one was playing them," apart from John Peel. And though some big bands like the Byrds and several singer-songwriters, from Judy Collins to Tim Buckley, toured Britain in the 1960s, some major folk-rock artists, like Buffalo Springfield, never made it to the UK at all.

    "The Americans carried the ball as far as I was concerned, no contest," feels Matthews. "All the great songs from that era came from the USA. The British scene was so very different, different attitude, different social structure and very different things to say. To me the American writing was so much more glamorous and worldly. I related to it much stronger than anything Al Stewart or Bert Jansch had to say."

    However, just as R&B-inspired British rock groups such as the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds could not have sustained themselves indefinitely on covers of American artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, and Muddy Waters, so was it only a matter of time before Fairport's well of American folk-rock covers both ran dry and marked the group as passé. The missing piece of the puzzle that transformed it into a more original band with a distinctly British style was supplied by Sandy Denny, the greatest British folk-rock singer, who replaced Judy Dyble in the spring of 1968.

    Though she only had appearances on two poorly distributed LPs to her discography, Denny brought a more substantial resume and higher reputation to Fairport than any of the other members had. She'd been singing in folk clubs since the mid-1960s, with a high voice that initially owed much to two singers named Collins. There was Judy Collins, naturally, but also (certainly to Americans) the far lesser-known British singer Shirley Collins, whose high yet smoky timbre had graced many obscure folk records since the late 1950s, including a 1964 LP with Davy Graham, Folk Roots, New Routes. In addition to the upper-register clarity and power of the Collinses, however, Denny had a knowing, oft-searing emotional passion to her vocals, She particularly excelled at haunting, minor-key songs with a peculiarly British ambience, her voice floating above the song with the all-enveloping chill of a fog covering the English moors. She was also comfortable with both traditional and contemporary material ,and with both acoustic ballads and rock songs. Her voice pulsed with an uninhibited life that no band could overpower.

    Denny had actually already recorded about four or five albums worth of material before joining Fairport, though few of the songs had been released. A couple dozen unreleased 1966-68 home demos, eventually coming to light on the CD bootlegs Dark the Night and Borrowed Thyme, are superb by any standard except (at times) the fidelity. With just a guitar as accompaniment, she filled the room with poignant longing and regret on traditional British and American folk songs; interpretations of recent work by Fred Neil and Jackson C. Frank; and her own compositions, which were rapidly ripening into tunes with a brooding magnetism similar to the covers she favored.

    In 1967, while a singer in the Johnny Silvo Folk Four, Denny participated in a couple of acoustic folk albums on the small Saga label, one credited to Alex Campbell and Friends (on which she variously took lead and backup vocals), the other to Sandy Denny and Johnny Silvo. Though the singing is excellent (ten of the tracks have been compiled on the CD The Original Sandy Denny), the simple folk arrangements, on both traditional tunes and covers of songs by Tom Paxton and Frank, are often old-fashioned and outmoded. Denny was better served by a band, and took many of the lead vocals on 1967 mild folk-rock sessions with the Strawbs. Mostly comprised of originals by Strawbs guitarist Dave Cousins, this batch also included her first recorded composition, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," the same one that Judy Collins would cover on her 1968 album of the same name. Denny proved adept at putting her vocals onto more upbeat, pop-slanted material than she had leaned toward on her folk recordings -- "And You Need Me," with a melody redolent of the Beatles' "If I Fell," in particular is a heartbreaker. Unfortunately these cuts weren't released at the time, though they did finally come out in 1973.

    "I don't really think that you could classify Sandy, in her early folk days, as a folk singer," maintains Cousins. "She sang in folk clubs, but she was singing songs like Jackson Frank's 'Blues Run the Game.' And the odd folk song, but she was also doing lots of Dylan-type songs as well. Although she could sing folk songs magnificently, she was equally at home with pop music. If you listen to 'On My Way' on the Sandy & the Strawbs album, which is the first track we ever put down, we were trying to be the Mamas and the Papas. That was the sort of song that we were doing at that time. The trouble was that my voice was nowhere near the quality that Sandy had on those early records. My voice was very nasal. It's warmed up over the years. It sounded pretty naff at the time."

    Shortly after joining Fairport, Denny explained to Melody Maker that "I wanted to do something with my voice. Although I can play guitar adequately I was feeling limited by it. It was a kind of stagnation. I was developing but the guitar was restricting. I always had it in my mind to join a group. I joined the Strawbs last year but I wasn't really ready for it but now I feel free to sing how I want to."

    Joe Boyd had known Denny for about a year before she joined Fairport. "I think Sandy was a completely different person than Judy, a much more powerful singer, a much stronger voice for a start. I think the band became less tentative with Sandy, because Judy was a delicate singer. There might have been a little bit of a feeling of holding back or hesitancy about being too aggressive in the band because the vocalist was so tentative, frail.

    "But with Sandy, you had a powerhouse. I think she boosted the band's confidence in a way because she was quite well known as a solo artist. The fact that she chose to join Fairport boosted all of their confidence level in themselves as a band. She brought her own songwriting, great songs. Then, I think she was really the key person ultimately responsible for introducing them to English folk music, because she had a large repertoire of songs that she used to sing with the band on the road or in hotel rooms after concerts and things."

    The shift was evident on early 1969's What We Did on Our Holidays. Like the Byrds, Fairport crafted a near-ideal balance between imaginative reworkings of traditional folk songs ("She Moves Through the Fair," "Nottamun Town"); quality covers of contemporary folk-rock singer-songwriters, some quite obscure (Joni Mitchell's "Eastern Rain," Bob Dylan's "I'll Keep It with Mine"); and original folk-rock material by various members. The self-generated cuts were the most variable. Certainly Denny's mournful "Fotheringay" and the Matthews-Thompson collaboration "Book Song" were folk-rock of the highest order, yet there were also more forgettable songs, and the cloddish blues-rock of "Mr. Lacey."

    This balancing act was preserved, with slightly less impressive results, on Unhalfbricking, which went to town (in another parallel with the Byrds) with obscure Dylan covers, none of which had showed up on Dylan's LPs: the ballad "Percy's Song" (with heartstopping vocals by Denny), "Million Dollar Bash" from the Basement Tapes, and a fittingly eccentric Cajun cover of "If You Gotta Go, Go Now," translated into and sung in French as "Si Tu Dois Partir." This became perhaps the most eccentric folk-rock hit single of all, stopping just outside the British Top 20; the French lyrics were obtained when (according to Nicol in Record Mirror) the group appealed for a translator at one of its shows at the Middle Earth club.

    "The scene at Middle Earth was that you'd do two sets, and they'd be separated by quite a considerable time while other bands did their thing," verifies Nicol. "I think the boredom factor was one of the reasons we came up with this wacky idea. Three or four punters joined us in the dressing room; they were either French visitors or students of French working in London, and happened to be there that night. Sandy and Richard between them had fairly good school-level French. That's how we sort of thrashed it out. But nobody would pretend that the translation of that lyric would have passed muster at the Strasbourg court of justice." "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" had at this point only been released by Dylan on an obscure European-only single, though Manfred Mann had taken it to #2 in the UK, in English of course, back in 1965. Nicol admits that had the song been better known, they might not have been quite so reckless in turning it upside down: "If it had been on [Dylan's 1964 LP] Another Side of, maybe we wouldn't have been so libertarian with it. 'Cause he was on a pedestal at that time."

    Unhalfbricking also featured Fairport's own recording of Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," which had already appeared on Judy Collins's album of the same name, and Sandy offered another illustration of her peerless aptitude for folk-rock melancholy on "Autopsy." The band would have been better served at this point to focus more on Denny songs than those by Thompson, who had emerged as Fairport's other principal composer, particularly with the unceremonious departure of Matthews.

    Part of the reason Matthews was felt to longer fit in was his tepid interest in the band's growing focus on remoldings of British traditional folk songs, epitomized by Unhalfbricking 's nine-minute epic "A Sailor's Life" (a tune which had already been recorded by folk notables like Martin Carthy, who put it on his second album, and Judy Collins, who did it way back in 1962 on her debut LP). "They were exploring the trad side of things heavily at that time, and the end of my tenure came when I discovered accidentally that they were in the studio without me," says Matthews. "Joe wanted to move on to phase three quickly and sentiments had no place in his plan. I was asked to leave and dumped on the same day. Presuming that he meant soon, I got in van to go to the show. Ashley turned to me and said, 'Where do you think you're going?' Sandy, bless her, turned to him and said, 'You heartless bastard.' I got out and away they sped." The animosity, incidentally, couldn't have run that deep; Hutchings played on Matthews's first post-Fairport solo album, and NME even reported in late 1970 that Ian had approached Ashley and drummer Gerry Conway with a mind to form a new group, though that didn't come to pass.

    "I think it would have been impossible for him to have gone with the direction the band went in," says John Wood. "When you listen to What We Did on Our Holidays, all the tracks with Ian are much smoother. There's almost a desire to have more polish on them, and to double-track; he liked to double-track. It's a very different form, really."

    "What everyone has to remember is, we were very young," responds Hutchings when asked for his take on Matthews's departure. "I suspect that at the time, we weren't aware of how good a combination Sandy and Ian were, vocally. If you listen in particular to the Heyday album, to the radio sessions, the voices blend incredibly well. I suppose it was inevitable that once we moved onto the traditional material, Ian would  leave. In those days, he wasn't really interested in folk music; I think he would agree with that. So his days were numbered. There wasn't really a decision to make, once we got on the road to traditional material.

    "In retrospect, I think we could have worked harder in trying to make it work as a group. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had Ian stayed, and somehow got through Liege & Lief [Fairport's late-1969 album, and its first to focus almost wholly on material with or derived from British traditional folk roots]; whether it would have evened out, panned out. We'd have pulled it more back into the mainstream with Ian singing a lot. Because if you listen to the early Matthews Southern Comfort [Matthews's first post-Fairport band], they started to do some traditional songs; they tended to be American ones. I wonder what the combination would have been like, doing a mixture of traditional song, maybe American and English, with Sandy, with Ian, with the band."

    Over the years, a sort of party line has developed among many rock and folk historians that Fairport Convention did not reach its peak, and truly develop its own vision, until it recorded the Liege and Lief album later in 1969. This view holds that prior to this, Fairport was too imitative of West Coast folk-rock, and found its identity when it decided to focus primarily on electrified English traditional folk. To those that value diversity, innovation, and quality original material matched with great singers and players, this view is, of course, nonsense. It's arguable, but Fairport was never better than during that brief period when Denny and Matthews were both in the band.

    "Even in retrospect, I find early Fairport neither derivative nor unfocused," offers Matthews. "Most critics seem to have a hard time resisting labeling anything, even if it's unlabelable. Fairport was such an act, original from the get-go. OK, they found a niche that no one else had explored with Liege and Lief, but I challenge anyone to show me a band from that era and be able to say 'that sounds like early Fairport.' I believe Liege was a huge turning point in the band's identity and acceptance, and I respect the many stylistic changes they made for that album. But listening back, my favorites were Holidays and Unhalfbricking, and let's not forget the oft-overlooked Heyday -- not sonically the best, but what great material and drive, you can taste the enthusiasm."

There's much more on late-1960s British folk-rock,and 1960s folk-rock of the last half of the 1960s from all over North America and the British Isles, in Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock's Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock.

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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