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Fairport Convention: The tragedies behind the pioneers of folk rock

Their work in the late 1960s was an unholy marriage of two very different genres that left purists aghast but would leave its mark on the soundscape of the 1970s

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‘The British Jefferson Airplane’: Fairport Convention in 1969; Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny (seated) Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble and Ashley Hutchings. Photo by Gems/Redferns

‘The British Jefferson Airplane’: Fairport Convention in 1969; Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny (seated) Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble and Ashley Hutchings. Photo by Gems/Redferns

‘The British Jefferson Airplane’: Fairport Convention in 1969; Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny (seated) Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble and Ashley Hutchings. Photo by Gems/Redferns

By any measure, it was a period of prodigious creativity. Between June 1968 and December 1969, Fairport Convention released their first four albums — and changed the course of music both in Britain and further afield.

The third, Unhalfbricking, was their first to chart, and helped make them one of the UK’s most critically acclaimed bands. The next, Liege & Lief, which came out in the last month of the 1960s, is widely regarded as one of the most influential folk-rock albums ever, a record that fuelled the creative juices of a young Christy Moore and continues to resonate with such contemporary luminaries as Lankum.

Fairport Convention have had more members than Everton and Watford’s recent managerial roll-call combined and they play a Dublin show this evening in the auspicious surrounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Co-founder Simon Nicol and longest-serving member Dave Pegg will be among the quintet to play in Jonathan Swift’s old stomping ground.

But, impressive as the band’s longevity has been, it’s the line-up centred on the rare talents of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny more than half-a-century ago that ensures Fairport’s lofty place in the popular culture canon.

The story of early Fairport Convention is one of youthful ambition, magnificent musical virtuosity and seemingly boundless creativity. It’s also one underscored by a tragedy that threatened to destroy the band. Remarkably, they came back even stronger, even if Thompson and Denny were soon to take other creative paths.

The band’s origins date to 1966. Thompson was just 17 when he and Nicol, along with Ashley Hutchings, formed a band and started to knock out Bob Dylan and Byrds covers. They got their name from ‘Fairport’, the large mock Tudor house in London that was owned by Nicol’s family: the early incarnation was peopled by middle-class grammar-school educated kids.

The group hit the ground running. Soon they were supporting Pink Floyd, who were also going places fast thanks to their mercurial leader Syd Barrett. At one of those Floyd gigs, in July 1967, Fairport Convention opened, while the headliners had to contend with the fact that Barrett had just overdosed on LSD. David Gilmour had to deputise.

It was at that show that Fairport met the American producer Joe Boyd, who would produce their self-titled debut and the four albums that followed it, including the illustrious pair mentioned above. Boyd’s part in the great British folk revival should never be underestimated.

While they showed considerable promise on their debut album, there were few signs about what was to come. Having taken their sonic cues from the other side of the Atlantic, they were dubbed “the British Jefferson Airplane”.

Things started to pick up when Sandy Denny joined the band in 1968, replacing Judy Dyble, who later claimed she had been “unceremoniously dumped”. A couple of years older than Thompson, Denny had already cut her teeth as vocalist with English folkies the Strawbs.

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Scots ballads

Her presence was felt immediately. Second album What We Did On Our Holidays was much more assured than its debut and Denny’s voice made listeners sit up and take notice. Clive James, the late Australian critic and doyen of TV arts broadcasters, perceptively described Denny’s singing as “open space, low volume, high intensively”.

Her remarkable vocal came into its own in the curiously titled Unhalfbricking. It’s Thompson’s favourite Fairport album and easy to see why it’s often seen as the one that sowed the seeds of British folk rock. The epic, 11-minute A Sailor’s Life is the album’s centrepiece in every sense of the word. There’s more happening here than most bands manage in the course of an entire career. “Sandy used to sing Scots ballads in the bus or dressing room and that’s what really got them intrigued by British traditional music,” Boyd later recalled. “She specifically played them A Sailor’s Life, which she used to do in the clubs. I went to see them in Bristol and heard them do it for the first time and it was wonderful. How do you put a rock ‘n’ roll attitude to a traditional ballad? There it is?”

Denny left her stamp on the album in many ways: it’s her parents, Neil and Edna, who grace the cover. They’re standing outside the family home in Wimbledon, southwest London.

The arrival of Dave Swarbrick on fiddle added colour to the traditional folk sounds that Fairport cheerily plundered. There’s a strong Cajun feel to proceedings here — think Cajun Woman, Million Dollar Bash and the Bob Dylan cover If You Gotta Go, Go Now (renamed, in French, as Si Tu Dois Partir).

In May 1969, tragedy struck when they were returning from a gig in Birmingham just before the album’s release. A roadie who was driving their van lost control and drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend of two weeks, Jeannie Franklyn, were killed. With the band in shock and considering their future, producer Boyd had to put the finishing touches on the album, which came out in July. Ultimately, Thompson and Denny decided to work on new songs and in a frenzy of recording that October they delivered a defining album. Liege and Lief looked deep into the past for inspiration and material while also channelling rock stylings into the material.

Folk purists were aghast and some rock lovers struggled to make sense of what they contended was an unholy marriage between two very different genres. A contemporaneous review from Rolling Stone dismissed the album as “boring”. The passage of time would be much kinder, and the novel idea of an electric folk album would become comparatively commonplace in the 1970s and onwards.

The recording sessions were beset with internal fighting. Hutchings and Denny quit, the latter determined to write her own songs rather than reinterpret ancient ballads. Thompson’s eye was on a solo career too. Although the album has long been given iconic status, he later conceded that it sounded artificial and contrived.

Thompson would go on to enjoy a wonderfully chequered career. With his wife Linda, he would release several admired albums including 1974’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights. Last year, his memoir, Beeswing, was praised for its unstinting account of early Fairport Convention and his burgeoning solo career.

Denny also went on to release several noteworthy albums as a solo artist and a solitary album with Fotheringay, the band she formed on leaving Fairport. But she was dogged by personal troubles, suffering from depression and alcohol dependency. Her marriage to bandmate Trevor Lucas was tumultuous. Disturbingly, she would sometimes throw herself down a flight of stairs in order to get a reaction — “Sandy’s party trick” as it was known to acquaintances.

She was on holiday with her young daughter when she fell down stairs and hit her head on the concrete floor. She was prescribed a painkiller known to be lethal if combined with excessive alcohol. She died in April 1978 after another fall at her home. She was 31.

Denny’s legacy has swelled in the decades that followed, with publications such as Mojo and Uncut lauding her as one of the great British songwriters. Ultimately, though, it was her union with Thompson in early Fairport Convention that secures her legend and continues to reverberate today.

Fairport Convention play St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin this evening as part of the annual Temple Bar Tradfest. The performance starts at 6.30pm


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