WE left Fairport Convention last week at Farley House, a rented Hampshire country mansion where, battered and bruised, they began their recovery following the motorway crash in May 1969 that killed drummer Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson’s American girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn. Lamble had been replaced by a danceband percussionist, Dave Mattacks, and fiddler Dave Swarbrick had joined the group after playing as a session musician on Unhalfbricking. And a collective decision had been made to abandon American songwriters and concentrate on traditional British music.
Despite having suffered multiple injuries in the smash, bassist Ashley Hutchings was soon travelling regularly from the village of Farley Chamberlayne to Cecil Sharp House in North London, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s library and archive. ‘It was obvious that we had to go back to our own roots to form our own brand of music,’ Hutchings told Uncut magazine. ‘And I’ve always been the archivist, the person who roots around and tries to find obscure material. That summer of the crash, I went to as many folk festivals as I could, stayed up late talking to traditional musicians, cramming a lot of knowledge into my head in a very short time.’
Swarbrick’s folk knowledge was also a help. He was in touch with the singer and writer A L Lloyd, author of the book Folk Song in England, who became the band’s musical guru. Over three months, Fairport crafted the songs that would make up the album Liege and Lief.
According to Swarb, ‘We had a music room and we went into it every day, from early in the morning to late at night. We religiously worked very hard. I’m talking 12, 14 hours a day. We knew that we didn’t have Farley Chamberlayne for ever – it was an expensive place to rent.’
Thompson remembers things slightly differently. He said: ‘Things started at around noon, and we worked till six. There was a bit of football on the lawn; a bit of kite-flying up on Farley Mount, trips to the pub. And we did a bit of busking in Winchester, next to the Cathedral. We discovered that we had an unpaid milk bill: £15, which seemed like a fortune. It was, “Who’s got £15?” “Nobody. Let’s go and busk for it.” All of us piled off, and we played in the Cathedral close; the whole band! We raised about £30 in an hour – made a donation to the Cathedral restoration fund, paid the milk bill, and got a couple of rounds at the pub out of it.’
On September 24, four months after the crash, the band played a triumphant sold-out comeback concert at the Royal Festival Hall, supported by Island labelmates Nick Drake and John and Beverley Martyn, then went straight into the studio to record Liege and Lief, their third album of 1969.
It begins with Hutchings and Sandy Denny’s rollicking Come All Ye, a calling-on song to introduce the band and one of three new compositions written in traditional vein. This is followed by Reynardine, one of at least 20 modern versions of the traditional tale about a creature, half man, half fox, who seduces a fair maid and whisks her off to his castle.
Next comes the 17th century murder ballad Matty Groves, which tells how a lord’s wife tempts a peasant lad between her sheets while her hubby is away, only to be grassed up by a servant. She and Matty wake up to find said aristocrat at the foot of the bed and not in the best of moods. Needless to say, it all ends in bloodshed after eight minutes of inspired playing by Swarbrick and his new colleagues.
The fourth track, Thompson’s Farewell, Farewell, sung beautifully by Sandy, can be seen as a poignant reference to the M1 tragedy.
It alludes to those who will ‘never return to see your bruised and beaten sons’, while ‘And will you never cut the cloth?’ could well refer to 26-year-old Jeannie, who enjoyed a successful career as a fashion designer for rock stars including David Crosby, Donovan, Eric Burdon, Cass Elliot and members of the Monkees and Cream. My Fairport-loving friend reminds me that she was immortalised in the title of Jack Bruce’s debut solo album Songs for a Tailor.
Bruce said of her: ‘She used to make clothes for me and had a shop on Santa Monica Boulevard which was the epitome of LA chic in 1967. On the day I began work on the album I got a letter from her which finished with the words, “Sing some high notes for me”, which is something she used to say. That also turned out to be the day of the crash. That’s the reason the album got its title.’ There is a picture of Jack and Jeannie here. She is also the subject of I’ll Bet She Knew It, a song by Jack Nitzche. Thompson set his lyrics for Farewell, Farewell, to the tune of the traditional Willie O’Winsbury, sung here by the lovely Anne Briggs.
Side two of Liege and Lief begins with The Deserter, a Victorian press-gang story, followed by a roistering traditional medley of tunes arranged by Swarbrick, his fiddle to the fore.
Hutchings said: ‘So much of the developments in traditional folk music are academically driven, but for us it was a natural thing. There would always be earnest, dry sleevenotes on any traditional album saying exactly where a song came from, how many years old it was and so on. Whereas we just leapt in and did this in a rock’n’roll kind of way. We weren’t concerned with being historically accurate, it was rock’n’roll. And it blew a lot of cobwebs away. We were on a kind of crusade.’
Track seven is the traditional Scots ballad Tam Lin, telling how a damsel rescues her true love from the Queen of the Fairies.
And the original LP concludes with Crazy Man Michael, which sounds traditional but is a Thompson/Swarbrick composition about a delusional geezer who kills an uppity talking clairvoyant raven then finds he has in fact dispatched his sweetheart.
Liege and Lief was released on December 2 and enjoyed only moderate success, reaching No 17 in the album charts. Its impact came to be appreciated over the years, however, and in 2006 at the Radio 2 Awards it was named ‘most influential folk album of all time’.
By the time it came out, Fairport’s personnel had changed again. Both Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings were on their bikes for different reasons – Sandy wanting to record more of her own compositions and Ashley keen to delve deeper into the folk tradition, soon forming another band, Steeleye Span.
In came bassist Dave Pegg (born 1947) who had played with Midlands blues bands as well as the Ian Campbell Folk Group. He gave the group’s playing even more punch and urgency. Pegg moved in with the rest of the band and their families to the Angel, a former pub in Little Hadham, Hertfordshire, where they worked on the music for 1970’s Full House.
By now Thompson and Swarbrick were a strong songwriting team. Full House begins with one of their joint compositions, the jolly Walk Awhile.
It reveals the band in fine vocal form, all-male harmonies making up for Sandy’s absence. Dirty Linen is another collection of jigs and reels arranged by Swarbrick, then comes the magnificent Sloth, again written by Thompson and Swarbrick, a nine-minute workout notable for the remarkable interplay between guitar and fiddle. One of Fairport’s finest moments without a doubt.
The next track, the traditional Sir Patrick Spens, is no slouch either. It tells of a confirmed landlubber who is mischievously recommended to the King in Dunfermline town as ‘the very best seaman who ever sailed upon the sea’. Hapless Sir Pat is summoned to take command of His Majesty’s ‘mighty boat’ and conducts it swiftly to the sea bed forty miles off Aberdeen. Again, beautifully played as is the next traditional instrumental, Flatback Caper.
Then comes Doctor of Physick, another Thompson/Swarbrick collaboration about the sinister John Monk, who steals maidens’ virginity on his nocturnal rounds – ‘Oh, father dear, I dreamed last night a man sat on me bed’. The album is completed by the lilting traditional Flowers of the Forest. Original pressings of Full House featured another track, Thompson’s Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman, but this was withdrawn at the last minute because the author was not happy with his contribution, forcing the record company to put a sticker on the back of early album sleeves with the revised track order. It did feature, however, on the LP Live at the LA Troubadour, recorded in 1970 and released in 1977, and on countless reissues and compilations.
Full House marked the end of Fairport’s classic years because Thompson stunned his bandmates shortly after its release by announcing he was going solo. However they remained friends and he continued living at the Angel and, as Simon Nicol put it, paying for his share of the cornflakes. Half a century on, Fairport are still going strong, albeit with only Nicol remaining from the original line-up, and hosting their annual festival at Cropredy in Oxfordshire to which Thompson is a regular contributor.
Next week, how Richard turned into Henry the Human Fly.
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