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Convention - Liege and Lief
Review No: 287
Sandy Denny: Vocals
Dave Mattacks: Drums
Simon Nicol: Guitar and Vocals
Richard Thompson: Guitar and Vocals
Ashley Hutchings: Bass and Vocals
At the end of 1969 Fairport Convention were to release an album that was to change the face of British rock, and define a whole new genre: folk/rock. The fact that the album was released at all was astonishing in itself. But these days it stands the test of time as a groundbreaking work of genuine originality and bravery.
Fairport Convention first took wing into the realms of the British rock scene in 1967. Coming out of the North London folk scene, at first the line-up was kept very flexible, until they released that they might be onto something here. The line-up stabilized to Simon Nicol on guitars and vocals, a great man to have in any band, as adaptability was his middle name, and enthusiasm he kept in bags. Ashley Hutchings took over the bass responsibilities and being steeped in traditional British folk music became the unspoken leader come spokesman for the band.
On lead guitar and vocals was one of the nicest men on the planet, Richard Thompson, who also just happened to be one of the most original guitar players of his day, a distinctive vocalist, and a talented songwriter, so all round a pretty useful chap to have on board.
Martin Lamble sat behind the skins and was the drummer that every band envied, as not only could he keep time, but he brought with him a style of his own. Judy Dyble was the female singer that fronted the band, who had a fine clear folk voice enabling her to tell the stories the musicians were portraying. But Judy Dyble left the band preferring to stick to her solo folk roots and was replaced by the impeccable Sandy Denny.
Now it is beyond any doubt that Sandy Denny was the finest female vocalist ever to come out of modern music. If you have ever heard an angel sing then you have some idea how Sandy Denny sounds. She had a startling career, including appearing on two Led Zeppelin tracks singing with Robert Plant on ‘Battle Of Evermore’ and ‘Going To California’, which rather proves the point as at the time Led Zeppelin could have chosen anybody to sing on their albums.
Ian Matthews was then added as a second vocalist and the band went into the studio after signing a contract with the newly formed Island Record Company.
Their first album, ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ (1969) was an excellent album, showing great variety of style and hinting at things to come with a radical swing to traditional British music.
Dissatisfied with his role in ‘Fairport Convention’,
Ian Matthews left after contributing to one track on the next album, understandably
as it was very hard for him to compete and be compared to Sandy Denny.
But fear not, no need to feel sorry for young Matthews as he went off
and formed ‘Matthew’s Southern Comfort’ and was Number
One in the British charts by October 1970 with his version of Joni Mitchell’s
Come all Ye
The new album from Fairport Convention was a cracker released only six months after their debut album. ‘Unhalfbricking’ (1969) was a definite step down the road of development, for the first time including the talents of long time friend and fiddle man Dave Swarbrick for this album as a session player, but his future influence on Fairport Convention and British folk rock were swathing.
Due to their popularity Fairport Convention were almost constantly on the road, and just when everything seemed to be on the up and up disaster struck. In June 1969, returning from a gig in Birmingham, their Van ran off the motorway. In this terrible crash the lives of Martin Lamble and Richard Thomson’s girlfriend Jeannie Taylor were snatched away.
Naturally the rest of the members of the band were distraught, and at first could not bear the idea of carrying on without their fallen comrades. But Joe Boyd, Fairport Convention’s manager, rented a remote cottage in Farley Chamberlayne, near Winchester in Hampshire (you can tell how remote it was by the address). The remaining members of the band were invited to live there, and Dave Swarbrick was made a permanent member of the band. A replacement for Martin Lamble had to be found to allow the band to continue recording and touring. Dave Mattacks seemed to have the right temperament, was an excellent drummer, and above all made a superb centre half for the Fairport’s football team. Fairport Convention was a band again.
Collectively it was decided that a new direction had to be taken as the others could not imagine playing the old songs without Martin Lamble on drums.
They, as many others, were impressed by the new music coming out of America, particularly ‘The Music From The Big Pink’ by The Band. In their country recluse they could not stop playing the LP. They loved it, but at the same time they were shocked. It was so deeply American, so fully immersed in the roots of American culture that the Fairports felt that the goalposts may have been moved too far. They could never inhabit the space occupied by The Band. But perhaps they could accomplish something parallel to ‘Big Pink’ if they set their minds to it. Maybe they could create a repertoire as English as The Band was American.
Ashley Hutchings and Sandy Denny shared a love for old traditional English folk songs; almost every day the two of them would arrive back at the house with reams of new songs to show and play for their friends and band mates. Everybody was in agreement this was the way forward. Once the band had decided where they were going the music was laid down quickly and almost effortlessly. Daytimes were spent playing football in the spacious gardens, or taking long walks with Dave Swarbrick’s Collie dog. But in the evening they would pick up their instruments and get down to work.
The results were stupendous - a landmark in rock ‘n’ roll history. Of the eight tracks, the album opens and closes with originals. Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings ‘Come All Ye’ sets the mood perfectly, whilst ‘Crazy Man Michael’ by Dave Swarbrick and Richard Thompson brings the album to a fitting close. In the middle there is Richard Thompson’s beautiful ‘Farewell, Farewell’. In-between are five songs dug out by Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings which have been arranged by the band. All of them little gems. The medley in the middle is a joyous collection of tunes, jigs and reels. But perhaps the standout track on the album is ‘Matty Groves’, all eight minutes of it, as it tells of love between the classes. At first Sandy Denny’s beautiful voice leads us through the story, with its sad conclusion before the band breaks in rampaging towards the climax with a fine musical battle between fiddle and lead guitar.
‘Liege and Lief’ (1969) to this day is the British folk rock album. A seminal work which said it all, and launched a thousand imitators. Certainly Fairport Convention’s finest hour. Unfortunately, in their wisdom Island Records have decided to add two further tracks onto the original album, both of which are outtakes never meant for the paying public and do nothing to enhance the album.
Strange then that before the album had hit the record shelves in the shops, and after one radio broadcast, an appearance on Top Of The Pops to promote the non-LP ‘Si Tu Dois Partir’, which actually got to 21 in the charts, and only nine concerts, Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings left the band. Sandy Denny to form ‘Fortheringay’, and Ashley Hutchings to ‘Steeleye Span’. Especially strange as these were the two musicians who had taken the band off in its new direction. Of course the others quickly got over the shock, picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and carried on, having a new album in the charts by the following July: ‘Full House’ (1970).
A band under the Fairport Convention banner still records
and tours to this day, keeping the Fairport ideals alive. Ashley Hutchings
was to reappear in the band’s line-up over the next thirty odd years
every now and again when the whim took him, and is always welcomed back
with open arms. Sandy Denny re-joined the band in 1975 for another year
of touring and one more album, ‘Rising For The Moon’ (1975),
but left again in 1976. Sadly she died of a brain haemorrhage on Friday
21st April 1978 after falling down some stairs at a friend’s house
the previous Monday; a great loss to the world. But her beautiful voice
lives on as can be heard here on this exquisite album.