When I was coming of age in the mid-eighties folk music was a definite, absolute no-no for aspiring young hipsters which I suppose I was. I remember vaguely coming across members of the folkster scene during my time at university in Norwich, probably on their way to a hoedown in the back room of a pub somewhere off the Unthank Road. It wasn't a scene that appealed. The men almost all had beards and unkempt ones at that. There seemed to be living things in some of them. The women wore large frocks.
Perhaps I'm doing them an injustice. My good mate Andy who had closer connections to this scene would be able to put me right. They clearly weren't The Velvet Underground and Warhol's Factory which was more of the kind of crowd I was blindly searching for. Folk music was so far from being 'cool' less than ten years from Punk that it looked like it would never come back.
But it did. This stuff is as hip as anything else now and it seem to be everywhere. Right slap bang in the heart of everything, right in the mainstream. Mumford & Sons! Could anybody explain Mumford & Sons to me? Is that folk? It seems as diametrically opposite to Fairport Convention and the great British folk music of the sixties and seventies as it's possible to be. Mumford & Son don't seem to have any discernible roots to me.
There is better stuff though. Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Devendra Banhart, Bon Iver even. Not all of it completely my cup of tea but certainly drawing on these sources. The best folk music for me wherever it comes from always seems to be about land and landscape and the people who find themselves on and in it. Generation after generation. Century after century. An earnest mapping and charting of rural cultural memory. A celebration of it all at the same time. Because this stuff is important.
I never would have thought I'd write these things when I was in my early twenties. But you grow older and realise the value of music like jazz and folk because they cut so deep and the best musicians are like seers, channelling something so profound that it's almost beyond expression. Fairport Convention are an important band if any of these things hold any value.
They're still here, more than forty years after their inception, although the current incarnation is quite different from the original line up and at least a couple of them have sadly fallen by the wayside including the incomparable and utterly majestic Sandy Denny. They're a British institution (I cringe to write such 'rockspeak' but in this case it's true).
I'm not willing to call this stuff folk rock. I think it's a pretty ugly term. Fairport to me are folk even though they electrified it their music was ingrained, immersed with the tradition. As I've said I find some of the 'hey nonny no' aura of some that surrounds the genre a bit embarrassing. Fairport could have fallen into this trap too. I think in their later versions they actually do. In the first song on here Denny sings 'So come on you rolling minstrels' and you can practically here the morris dancers. But they have a stately grace that makes this stuff just fly.
Early incarnations of Fairport drew on Blues and R&B. Fairport was a house in Muswell Hill where the band did some of their early rehearsals. Their earliest recordings settled on an American West Coast sound. There's lots of Jefferson Airplane, Byrds, Joni Mitchell Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs and most especially Bob Dylan on their great first album. I love this record because I love the stuff it's influenced by. It's a blast! But it's certainly not all their own vision. Have a listen to this. I'm sure it's clear what I mean.
'Don't you want somebody to love?'
What this clip does illustrate though is the bands greatest asset. Their incredibly fluent musical virtuosity. Most particularly their boy genius lead guitarist Richard Thompson an absolutely incredible musician who is still putting it out over forty five years later. Fairport learned their chops (sorry!), playing on the London Underground Psychedelic Scene at clubs like UFO and Middle Earth playing on bills with bands like Pink Floyd and Tomorrow who they ended up being a long way away from musically just a couple of years down the line.
Joe Boyd chanced upon them at UFO. As an American more au fait with their influences than most he appreciated what they were doing, saw their potential and asked to produce them. At this point a bunch of musicians who had been doing this as a sideline, for fun, realised there was more mileage in it than that. Judy Dyble's replacement by Sandy Denny in the Spring of 1968 was the clear turning point. Denny was rooted in traditional folk and was a driven and intense musician.
She brought her own songs and a record collection and the band transitioned away from the West Coast to a more realised British sound in their second album What We Did On Our Holidays and then much more fully so with Unhalfbricking. The cover of this is an absolutely classic English image and describes where the band have moved to by now.
If Denny joining the group was the pivotal line up change then The Sailor's Life was the pivotal song that would lead them to Liege and Lief. Denny sang it to the rest of the band backstage before a gig and they arranged it on the spot and played it onstage that night. It's an absolutely massive song. Sprawling over eleven minutes the course of which marks a transition in British music as great as any I can think of. From one mindset to another. It was also the song that brought Dave Swarbrick into the band on electric fiddle. Another line up change and with the death of original drummer Martin Lamble in a road accident and his replacement Dave Mattacks joining the line up that would make Liege and Lief was in place.
Lamble's death along with that of Thompson's girlfriend in the same accident obviously caused enormous trauma. Other band members were hospitalised by the crash and it seemed for a while like that might be that but were encouraged to continue by other fellow musicians and reconvened after a short hiatus recruited Mattacks and set about rehearsing and preparing their next record.
Fairport moved as a group to the countryside just outside Winchester and set about recording what they themselves termed 'a concept album' of traditional English material. They had a large rehearsal room and when they got fed up they'd go outside and kick a ball around or feed the ducks or walk the dog.
Good albums should really have good sleeves. Liege and Lief has a great cover. An embroidered hedge of grass framing the title, the group's name and six portraits of the band members in purple and grey. There's an ancient wooden totem on the back and the inner sleeve has picture and text of folklore heroes and legends. It's a fine object.
It all has a depth and resonance that it's hard for mere rock bands to match because with the introduction of Denny and Swarbrick in particular Fairport gained a folk authenticity that was peerless. But these were still young people with an awareness hard-found from tragic recent events that they were alive and lucky to be so but owed a very real debt to the dead. They had a relish and desire not just to pay it in full but to make this stuff sing and swing.
'Come all ye rolling minstrels
And together, we will try
To rouse the spirit of the earth
And move the rolling sky'
It has such grace and poise. It reels and jigs and does cartwheels. It's so sure of itself. A band that knows its time has come. They are achieving something similar to what The Band had managed in the States at round about the same point in their recently released first two albums. There's a reclaiming and renewal of roots and cultural heritage. But it's all joyous and totally new at the same time.It also has a strong connection to the back to the land movement that was so strongly embedded in the counterculture in the late sixties.
Great albums need great sleeves but they also absolutely need great first tracks. The first song sets the tone and lets you know what's in store. It makes you decide whether you want to carry on listening. This one really does the trick. We're in for a treat!
Reynardine digs deeper still into the English rural legend almost burrowing into the soil itself. It's a story about a woman meeting a rake who is only ever going to lead her astray. They both seem to know it and so does the narrator and the story unwinds to its conclusion with terrible inevitability.
Denny's voice is glacial. She knows so much about this stuff and her voice is hypnotic and commanding. I can't imagine what it must have been like to see her live in a small venue. The accompaniment is tense and restrained. You get the sense that the band knew exactly what they'd got with her and what she allowed them to say. There were times when they just need to provide the backdrop and she would tell the tale with full-blooded intensity and carry all before her. I can't think of another British female singer to touch her. Dusty Springfield perhaps but precious few others.
Matty Groves, pretty much the album centrepiece, (surely the Liege and Lief of its title) is very much a band affair by contrast. If anything Denny is pretty restrained here as the band take centre stage. Many would rate this as Fairport's greatest achievement. Certainly it's amongst them. Personally it's a bit too much of this world for me and Sailor's Song, Who Knows Where The Time Goes and Fotheringay amongst others have an ethereal and spiritual quality that this doesn't. It's that which really draws me to them most as a band. The jigs touch me rather less and this is surely a jig
Still it's a pretty mighty jig nonetheless. It reminds me of my good mate Matthew who I worked with and shared an occasional toke with on a Friday night in his Man About The House flat in Dortmund during m couple of years there back in the early nineties. I imagine he must have played me Matty Groves more than a couple of times He swore by it. So here's to you Matt if you're reading this! Hope you're well and I'll give it another spin and see how it takes me.
Have to say Matt never did this look.
It sets off at a horse trot and Denny tells the tale. It's a well known traditional about the seduction of a peasant boy by the lady of the manor and their subsequent violent murder at the hands of the furious lord. For the first five minutes or so the narrative unfolds in strict four line verses with the exception of a brief Swarbrick fiddle excursion.
Then the band kicks in and reels away and there's a succession of musical duels between Thompson and Swarbrick above all that strangely remind me of The Devil Went Down To Georgia. It's all highly impressive but for me a bit more in line with the group that Fairport turned into after the departure of Denny and Thompson and lacks the transcendent quality that she in particular brought to the band. Her contribution for me is quite prosaic here in comparison to the great heights she achieves elsewhere on the album. Sorry Matt, still doesn't quite do it for me. What do I know. This is one of the great folk moments. Judge for yourselves.
Farewell, Farewell, the last song on Side 1 is back to transcendent and back to Sandy. It's sure as eggs is eggs about death. It's about pain and loss and resignation and departure and friend and fellowship and family and community and war and those lost through it. It's about the seasons changing and it all coming around again. Aren't many last songs on the sides of many albums about these things? A long, long list could be made. This is one of the best. It makes me think of poor Sandy Denny.
'Farewell, farewell to you, who would hear
You lonely travelers all
The cold north wind will blow again
The winding road does call'
It's about us all. But most of all for me it's about poor Sandy Denny.
In many respects Farewell, Farewell could easily and perhaps should have been the last song on Liege and Lief. But it's not. There's still a side to go. Every great album has had immense thought put into it as a journey for people you don't know and never will to undergo and experience. There's certainly a great deal of thought and feeling in this album. Fairport chose not to place this song last of all and must have had good reason for it.
I've taken a big break during this record in terms of writing it up. That hasn't mean I'm bored of Liege or Fairport. Far from it. When I write these reviews, the records I write about inhabit me until I'm done and being inhabited by Fairport is an incredibly supporting and sustaining experience.
Not on the album but the song and riff that have been going round and round my head while I think about this band!
I've just been for a swim and then a beer in the pub in Newcastle Central Station. On the way back with my shopping I looked up at the sky over the building where I live. It was an indescribably beautiful turbulent, cloudy sky. Looking like it might be about to rain. Looking like summer might be on a downward turn at last.
It was the kind of sky that geniuses like Poussin, Titian, Turner and many more have tried to describe for us. The enormous, indescribable universe we inhabit and try our whole lives mostly in vain to comprehend. Fairport Convention for me, at least with this line up and these few precious albums understood it and channelled it like very few others.
The Deserter starts Side 2 with an utterly assured and measured tread. Swarbrick and Thompson duel throughout. It's a relentless tale of coercion and punishment. Betrayal and punishment. The teller of the tale is betrayed first by state then by his colleagues, then by his love. The full force of the state and its institutions concentrated on the confinement and absolute condemnation of the individual in every respect.
A story of a poor innocent who is press-ganged, betrayed, then betrayed then betrayed again, Who could that remind us of), ultimately convicted and taken to be shot. When strangely at the last moment he appears to be reprieved by personal order of Prince Albert. Although it seems he's going to be sent back into service. It's not entirely clear if the reprieve comes too late because the tone throughout seems so inevitably tragic, mournful and funereal. It's a case of less is more because the band's playing again is almost restrained. The tale dictates the tone of the playing and singing. It's masterful!
In documentaries members of Fairport talk about the process of the added players constantly raising the bar during this period. Denny's joining was surely the key catalyst for this but Thompson, Nicol, Swarbrick, Hutchings and Mattacks pitch in to full effect here as throughout the album. Swarbrick and Mattacks deserve special credit for coming into the band at this point of time under such circumstances and making such telling contributions.
It's true ensemble playing. Sparring but in a way that constantly pushes things forward. They play as a fiercely knit unit throughout, remarkable given that they've so recently added new members and lost other key players. Apparently the rehearsal time for the album was particularly intensive and it pays off. Their understanding and working through terrible personal grief brings them to an utterly new place. It must have been a phenomenally exciting as well as a deeply gruelling experience to undergo. But they were young.
You can hear connections being made and embedded and the band delving into and almost summoning up centuries of cultural consciousness. The people they talk of, Reynardine's bride, Crazy Man Michael, Matty Groves and the deserter here, all tragic victims in one sense or another but all in their different ways embedded in the landscape they've departed and all are brought back and redeemed in the songs they inhabit.
Next track Medley - The Lark in the Morning is Fairport in full on folky hoedown mode and it's not really for me though it fits fully with what the band are planning to get across on the album and it's flawlessly played. It certainly shows how far the band have come in two years because this bears absolutely no resemblance to anything on their first album.
So to Tam Lin, another of the famous 'breakthrough' tracks. Fairport seemed to produce so many of them during this year. As a band they were often painted as academics and it seems there's a lot of this going on. Self-conscious excavation and restoration. Then wedding it with deeply felt singing and playing.
Hutchings has spoken of going to the local Cecil Sharp House before and during the making of the album.The English Folk Dance and Song Society a historical library resource brimming with traditional sheet music and reference boks that the band bedded their new approach in. Tam Lin is a direct product of this.
Liege and Lief is immersed in these narratives. As Nicol says 'certain songs from that album just refuse to lie down and die'. Tam Lin is one. The lyrics dig deeper into Middle-England than anything else on the album. We're in faerie land here, rooting into the soil itself and channelling all of the primal musical and cultural heritage and energies of the country that has borne the musicians forth. Characters are threatened with being turned into newts, snakes, lions and knights but it never grates. For me it's absolutely authentically rooted.
The playing here is more severe than anything else on the album. Elsewhere the touch is feather light at points but this much more consciously rocks out. For me it paints the way forward to a lot of crimes and excesses committed in the name of folk and prog over the next few years. The horrid ghost of Jethro Tull hovers somewhere here. But this is not the tracks fault in itself. In itself it's incredibly impressive.
So to Crazy Man Michael which is one of, if not my favourite track from the album. It's another song for the ages. Madness, magic, murder and despair. I can't say much more about it myself. It speaks best for itself.
'Michael he whistles the simplest of tunes
And asks the wild woods their pardon
For his true love is flown into every flower grown
And he must be keeper of the garden.'
For his true love is flown into every flower grown
And he must be keeper of the garden.'
Fairport know completely what they're doing here. They understand the traditions and respect them but they're also crafting something utterly and thrillingly new. This is why it's lasted and if anything gained resonance in the forty plus years since it was released.
Yesterday I got on a coach and went with the students of the organisation I work for to Bamburgh Castle and Holy Island. They're as English as places as anywhere I know. You can feel the history in the stones, in the earth and the swirling world, the incredible immensity of nature we're all cradled in all around you. We had sun, wind and rain in equal measure. I drank some beer. I ate a Holy Island beef and ale pie. It was a wonderful, evocative day!
A picture of Holy Island taken by one of my students yesterday. Thanks Olivia!
All the time I had Fairport playing in my head. Sandy Denny singing. Richard Thompson and the others playing. It's been wonderful writing and thinking about this band over the past fortnight and realising fully for the first time what they achieved here. Really they're incomparable.
The album itself achieved reasonable commercial success but it also alienated plenty. Fans who liked their West Coast transitional mix. American rock critics who appreciated the same and had no entry point for the English folk references. Folk fans who couldn't deal with electrified versions of the traditional canon. It also broke up the band. Within a few months Denny and Hutchings were gone. Within a couple of years Thompson too. For me they could never be the same after this regardless of the talent of the musicians who remained or joined or rejoined thereafter. Their golden phase was over!
For me 1969 will always be their really special year though they had great moments before and since. They cover so much ground on Liege and Lief that I imagine it will probably be seen as their high watermark when they're all done and gone though I'm tempted to go out and get Unhalfbricking today to see how it compares. Also planning to buy Electric Eden , a book which describes this incomparable period of English music in depth. Cheers Fairport! We should all raise a glass really!