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Off the beaten tracks: Sandy the sublime

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By popular request, a salute to the incomparable Sandy Denny, who died 40 years ago but whose remarkable voice will live on for ever.

Although in her short life she was hailed as the Queen of British Folk Rock, the work of Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny transcends musical genres. For a start, she wrote Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

an achingly beautiful reflection on the passing of the years, at the age of only 20. Her version recorded with Fairport Convention on the Unhalfbricking album was voted ‘greatest folk track of all time’ by Radio 2 listeners. Not only is Sandy in marvellous form but the understated playing, sound production, everything about it is perfect. Here we have a band at the peak of their powers, featuring not one but two all-time greats – Sandy and, on guitar, Richard Thompson. The song has been covered by several other artists, but nothing compares to this version. Many fans have chosen to have it played at their funeral and I will be another.

Born in London in 1947, Sandy Denny trained as a nurse on leaving school but then began a course at art college and soon became professionally involved in the capital’s folk music scene. After a brief collaboration with the Strawbs, she auditioned in May 1968 for Fairport Convention to replace Judy Dyble as singer. In an oft-repeated quote, band member Simon Nicol said she stood out from the other hopefuls ‘like a clean glass in a sink full of dirty dishes’.

Her first album with Fairport was 1969’s What We Did On Our Holidays, supplying the delicate first track Fotheringay, about the castle where Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned. Sandy herself was of Scottish heritage.

Her growing influence on the band became apparent later that same year with Unhalfbricking, which features the Denny compositions Autopsy and the aforementioned Who Knows Where The Time Goes? as well as the traditional A Sailor’s Life, which she had learned during her time in the folk clubs. This was an 11-minute improvisation which laid the foundations for the terrific album Liege and Lief, their third of the year.

One of the towering achievements of folk rock, Liege and Lief includes many classic tracks including Matty Groves, Farewell, Farewell, Tam Lin and Crazy Man Michael. It was voted ‘most important folk album of all time’ and a superb deluxe CD reissue was released in 2007, with a bonus disc of out-takes and BBC sessions.

While with Fairport Sandy rapidly developed a reputation for being ‘difficult’, particularly when copious drink had been taken, and before the end of that astonishing year she had turned her back on the band, determined to achieve more recognition for her songwriting. She formed the band Fotheringay with her future husband Trevor Lucas and they made one album of the same name. This includes my favourite song, by anyone, ever. The Sea is five and a half minutes of magic, the music rising and falling like waves on the shore while Sandy sings of her mystical obsession with the power of the ocean:

You will be taken, everyone, you ladies and you gentlemen.
Fall and listen with your ears upon the paving stone.
Is that what you hear? The coming of the sea?

This was my introduction to Sandy when in 1970 a school friend lent me a copy of the Island Records sampler Bumpers. The Sea was the penultimate track and I was captivated. Banks of the Nile is another great track but what denies the Fotheringay album classic status is the contribution of the Australian Lucas, lead crooner on several songs, all of which pale by comparison with Sandy. The band began work on a second album but it was not completed because Sandy walked out. Fotheringay 2 would eventually be released in 2008 and was pretty much a disappointment.

In 1971 came Sandy’s first solo album, The North Star Grassman And The Ravens. It’s a revelation. Highlights include Late November, The Sea Captain and the title track, but it’s all good. Again there is a deluxe CD reissue, from 2011, again well worth having.

Incredibly prolific, Sandy also participated at this time in The Bunch, a folk Who’s Who organised by former Fairport bassist Ashley Hutchings. They released an album of rock and roll standards, Rock On, which includes this sublime version of the Everly Brothers’ When Will I Be Loved?, Sandy harmonising beautifully with Linda Peters, the future Linda Thompson. Sandy also duetted with Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin’s The Battle of Evermore.

Sadly, Sandy and Trevor decided that her future lay in mainstream pop and the next two solo albums, Sandy and Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz, were schmaltzy affairs awash with strings, overproduced by Lucas and veering perilously into Nana Mouskouri country. Thankfully, pared-down demo versions of most songs exist on retrospective albums such as I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn.

By 1974 Sandy, now Mrs Lucas, was back in Fairport Convention with her husband also along for the ride. They recorded a live album and a studio LP, Rising For The Moon, notable for the beautiful After Halloween.

In 1975, surprise surprise, the couple left Fairport and began work on Rendezvous, which was to be Sandy’s final studio album. Again Lucas’s production is horrific which is a shame because there are some fine songs including Richard Thompson’s For Shame of Doing Wrong, here titled I Wish I Was A Fool For You. It came out in 1977, the same year in which the couple’s daughter Georgia was born, but sold poorly and Sandy was dropped by Island Records. Her behaviour by this time had become increasingly erratic, not helped by drink and drugs, and she had a habit of throwing herself down stairs. On a couple of occasions she suffered head injuries and by 1978, fearing for his daughter’s safety, Lucas had decamped to Australia with the child. He didn’t tell Sandy he was going and sold their Leyland Princess car to pay for the journey.

Sandy, who complained of crippling headaches, was prescribed a painkilling drug which had possibly fatal side effects when combined with alcohol. She sought refuge at a friend’s house, where she was found one afternoon at the foot of the stairs. She went into a coma and died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 31. Lucas succumbed to a heart attack in 1989, aged 45.

This is, of course, merely scratching the surface of the Sandy Denny story. There are a couple of worthy biographies and innumerable compilation albums for those who would like to explore further.

Finally, a question about this column. I initially resolved to steer clear of ‘big names’ because you readers are a knowledgeable lot and I thought it would be preaching to the converted. I also am keen to share my enthusiasm on the rare occasions I come across contemporary acts who aren’t rubbish. However the feedback so far has been on the lines of ‘why are you writing about young upstarts when there is so much great old music?’ So any suggestions on future direction would be welcome at alan@conservativewoman.co.uk

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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