Just about now, in any normal year, Fairport Convention would be loading up their van and setting off on their annual Winter Tour. And At The Barrier would be finalising plans to cover a selection of dates from the tour for our Live Reviews section. Manchester, certainly; somewhere in the Leamington area – the Spa Centre or Warwick Uni, definitely; and perhaps a gig at the seaside or in a historic town – Whitby, Southport, Bath or Canterbury come to mind. But not this year. Sadly, COVID has put paid to all of this so, instead, John Barlass takes us back to that day in August 1979 when Fairport bid us a final “Farewell,” before (happily) changing their minds.
My first Fairport Convention gig was at the vast Maxwell Hall, Salford University on 22 November 1974. With Sandy Denny back within the band’s ranks, Fairport was riding high and the gig was a sell-out. They were coming up with excellent material and their forthcoming album, Rising For The Moon, promised to be a stonker. Unfortunately, even before they’d finished recording it, the Fairport curse had struck and drummer Dave Mattacks had left the band, apparently over disagreements over the working methods employed by the album’s producer, Glynn Johns.
In true Fairport fashion, the band appointed a replacement drummer, Bruce Rowland, dusted itself down and got on with the job of finishing the album and going out on tour to promote it. But all was not well and in December 1975, after a year of gruelling tours and fraught relationships, the band was split apart when first Jerry Donahue and then the husband/wife pairing of Trevor Lucas and Sandy Denny decided that they’d had enough. And from my own point of view, this all kicked off when I was daring to harbour optimistic thoughts that Fairport was on the cusp of achieving the major breakthrough they’d always deserved.
It took a while to pick up the pieces but, after a short dalliance with a six-piece line-up that included Breton guitarist Dan Ar Braz and second fiddler, the recently deceased Roger Burridge and the Gottle o’ Geer album, put together by remaining members Dave Swarbrick, Dave Pegg and Bruce Rowland, along with a plethora of guests, a recognisable Fairport Convention emerged from the dust in the autumn of 1976 as former member Simon Nicol agreed to reunite with Swarb, Peggy and Bruce.
I was delighted. I’d never managed to see Fairport during the halcyon days of Full House, Angel Delight and Babbacombe Lee. I’d been a great admirer of Simon’s work with The Albion Band, and now I had the chance to see a ‘real’ Fairport back in action. I wasn’t disappointed; the new line-up toured pretty incessantly (including paying regular visits to Manchester and Salford – then my local venues) and The Bonny Bunch of Roses album, released in July 1977, was chock-full of traditional songs and frantic Swarb fiddle tunes and received good reviews in the music press.
However, the late 1970s were to become a difficult period for Fairport Convention. Punk had arrived in 1976, along with a sea-change in attitude within the music press, and bands such as Fairport, whose musicality had, for many years, had the likes of Melody Maker and NME fighting their corner, suddenly found themselves persona non grata. Indeed, the attitude of the press was such that, as a follower of bands like Fairport, the Albions, Planxty and Five Hand Reel, I was made to feel that my days were done. I was 21.
Tipplers’ Tales, Fairport’s May 1978 follow-up to The Bonny Bunch Of Roses took a bit of a critical mauling (much to my frustration – I loved it!) and their record label, Vertigo, eventually took the decision to terminate Fairport’s recording contract. If that wasn’t enough, Swarb had been told by his doctor that he risked going deaf if he continued to play loud amplified music (and Fairport were a LOUD band…) and, in late 1978, Fairport took the reluctant and inevitable (as it seemed at the time) decision to call it a day.
Fairport has always had a following that has compensated for its lack of overwhelming numbers with immense loyalty and the band decided that the best way to say a fond farewell to their fans would be to undertake a lengthy national tour before rounding off the band’s career at an open-air concert in their home village of Cropredy in Oxfordshire.
The tour kicked off on 10 May 1979 at The Sophia Gardens, Cardiff and ran up to and beyond (of which more later) that formal, ‘final’ farewell show, scheduled to take place in Cropredy on 4th August. Songs from shows in Birmingham, Southampton and Derby were recorded and released on the live album Farewell Farewell and the tour included shows at Nottingham Playhouse, where I caught the band for what I thought would be my penultimate time, Shrewsbury Music Hall, a gig at which Fairport made the national press after Swarb was knocked out following an altercation with Peggy’s bass and an appearance at the Loch Lomond Festival on a bill that also featured The Boomtown Rats, Buzzcocks, The Skids, Dr Feelgood and the Stranglers. The Melody Maker report of Fairport’s set at this latter event was mercilessly and unfairly scathing: “Fairport Convention have been doing ‘farewell’ tours since Richard Thompson donned his first turban. Let’s hope it’s final this time.” I cancelled my MM subscription after reading this inaccurate and insulting rubbish.
And so to Cropredy. Peggy and Swarb both lived in the delightful Oxfordshire village and the band had, from the summer of 1976, been playing an annual show in the garden of Prescote Manor, a large house situated just outside the village and the home of the late MP Richard Crossman and his wife Ann. Originally, the concerts were organised as fundraising events to benefit local causes, but by 1978, word had started to get around and the shows were beginning to attract crowds that couldn’t be accommodated at the Manor. For the 1979 Farewell concert, the band had, therefore, secured the use of a field on the bank of the Oxford Canal at Pewitt Farm, just south of the village.
Arrangements and preparations for the show were, by the standards of today’s Fairport’s Cropredy Convention events, primitive and miniscule. Admission to the site was by programme, obtainable in advance for the princely sum of £2.50, or at the festival gate for £3.00. The programme was a distinctly parochial affair, produced by John Heaverman and Dave Pegg. Fashioned as a spoof newspaper, The Fairport Convention News (Final Edition), it contained, in addition to a biog of Fairport themselves, a short history of Cropredy village, adverts for the Village Fete and the Help The Aged wine bar, short introductions to performers Steve Ashley, Earl Okin and a young fiddler going by the name of Chris Leslie and a full-page poster advertising the event. There were also adverts for Swarb’s two most recent solo albums, the Fairport Island Records back catalogue, Theakstons Brewery and Folk News – a long-extinct music mag (25p per month – send large SAE with 9½p stamps (sic) for free specimen copy!)
Security was virtually non-existent and facilities were ‘modest’. Indeed as the afternoon and evening of the concert progressed, it became far easier for us males to skip over Kean’s Bridge (Oxford Canal Bridge No. 155) into the adjacent field to relieve ourselves, rather than to risk the queues at the few mobile toilet trailers. The ladies were, of course, less fortunate in that respect. One arrangement that did prove to be adequate was the supply of beer – Fairport had arranged for the team at The White Bear in Masham, North Yorkshire to bring their mobile bar, along with several thousand gallons of Theakston’s Best Bitter and Old Peculier to ensure that proceedings were kept well-lubricated. And they were.
Fortunately, one potential snag never materialised. The day of the Farewell concert coincided with a massive show by Led Zeppelin at Knebworth Park in Hertfordshire and Fairport had been invited to appear as the opening act at that event. The opportunity to boost the band’s closing accounts with the income from an appearance in front of an audience of 200,000-plus was clearly too good to turn down and so Fairport duly appeared. Thankfully, after their Knebworth performance, Fairport made their way to Cropredy without hitch, arriving during the late afternoon, but their mode of transport from Hertfordshire to Oxfordshire remains a mystery to this day. A rumour spread around the Cropredy field that the band had travelled by helicopter – my (then) girlfriend actually overheard Christine Pegg (Dave’s ex-wife) explaining this to a friend in the queue for the ladies. As the afternoon progressed, further details of the alleged helicopter ride started to circulate in the field… the helicopter had, it was speculated, been loaned to the band by Jimmy Page, who had earlier used it for his own arrival at Knebworth; the speculation even extended to whether the loan of the helicopter had been a gratis gesture, or whether Fairport had been charged for its use… The band is now adamant that the journey was made in a blue Ford Transit van. Hmmm. Will the truth ever be known?
As for my own journey to Cropredy. Well, this was a big event and I wanted to make the most of it. My girlfriend and I left our home in Bolton on Wednesday 1st August and spent nights in Wem, Shropshire and Kingham, Oxfordshire, before arriving in Cropredy during the afternoon of Friday 3rd August. Camping facilities around the concert field were limited and wouldn’t be opened until the day of the concert and we were directed to the field, now a thriving static and touring caravan site, at Littlegood Farm, just up the road from The Bell in Great Bourton. A few early festivalgoers had started to arrive and we pitched our tent amongst them.
To someone arriving from the part of the country that the newly-elected government was about to re-designate as POST-industrial Lancashire, the village of Cropredy and its rural environs were nothing short of a revelation. The only place we’d seen thatched cottages was on chocolate-box lids, and canals were dirty, unnavigable ditches, full of unwanted prams and bicycles, rather than pleasant rural waterways. We were stunned, and when we ambled down into Cropredy and were confronted by the very pub that I’d studied and pondered over for years on the cover of the Fairport 9 album, I truly believed that I’d arrived in heaven. Of course, the obligatory photographs were taken…
Cropredy village, on the evening of Friday 3rd August was almost eerily quiet. Nowadays, festivalgoers start to gather in Cropredy from around a week before the festival but in 1979, the only unusual (at least, I’m assuming it was unusual) presence was a group of Cavalier soldiers from the Sealed Knot Society, all in full uniform, who were mustering in the wake of their recent re-enactment of The Battle of Cropredy Bridge. Otherwise, it was just another rural Friday evening.
The morning of the festival duly arrived and we were joined at the campsite by a couple of friends who’d made the early start from Bolton to travel down on the day. The concert itself wasn’t scheduled to start until 4pm, so there was still plenty of time to explore this delightful area before we got down to the serious musical business. We took a trip, first to Banbury, where I bought a huge sheet of polythene (I considered myself a festival ‘veteran’ and I’d seen first-hand the devastation that a wet day in a festival arena could wreak. Thankfully it wasn’t needed (at least not in 1979…) and, inspired by The Albion Band’s adventures at The National Theatre, a copy of Flora Robson’s Lark Rise to Candleford. After Banbury, we headed over to Hook Norton for a few pints of the village’s own beers in The Sun Inn (still there but now unrecognisable!) before returning to Great Bourton, kitting ourselves up for the day, and heading down the lane to the festival field.
For those familiar with the layout at the present-day Cropredy Festivals, Pewitt Farm lies across the canal from the current concert site at Home Farm. It’s now used as Camping Field 1. It’s a far smaller field and a lot less naturally suited to being a concert location than Home Farm, but, to the 4,500 of us that turned up on 4th August 1979, it was fine. And so was the weather. The sun shone all afternoon and the evening was cool, but dry. The first time I’d ever experienced clement weather at an open-air concert . Truly, the Gods were on our side!
And that brings me to the favourable impression of Cropredy as a concert venue that formed in my mind that afternoon and which, despite soakings too numerous to mention over the ensuing 40 years, is an impression that has never diminished. My previous festival experiences at Buxton, Knebworth and Reading had all been blighted in some way, either by the weather, the facilities, the immensity of the crowd, lack of edible food, the effects of bad drugs, booze, lack of sleep or a combination of all three upon those around me, or the quality, inaudibility or bad view of the performances. There wasn’t then, nor has there ever been (apart from the weather…) any such problem at Cropredy. This first festival set the standard that Cropredy has maintained ever since – brilliant music, a wonderful, friendly, considerate crowd, good beer, edible food and a wonderfully tolerant, peaceful vibe.
Memories of the music on that momentous day are fairly sketchy, partly owing to the passage of time and partly to the consumption of the aforementioned Theakston’s products, but we all had a wonderful time. According to the programme, the festival bill was:
Bag o’ Nails
The Kitchen Band
The Rollright Stones
Graham Smith’s Greek Section
The Tanglefoot Band
Simon and Andrew Loake
The Akeley Morris Men
Steve Ashley and Chris Leslie
Fairport Convention (plus Special Guests)
That’s an awful lot of performers to fit into a concert that only kicked off at 4pm!
My memory may be deceiving me, but I have no recollection of appearances from The Kitchen Band, The Tanglefoot Band or Tony O’Leary, although Bert Jansch’s band, Conundrum, who had supported Fairport on the Farewell tour, certainly did put in an appearance.
It was The Rollright Stones that drew the crowd’s attention away from the bar and towards the stage. A three (or four..?) piece folk band from the Banbury area, they drew on their repertoire of familiar folk, ceilidh and morris tunes including Step And Fetch Her and Trumpet Hornpipe (concertina/melodeon player Bryan Sheppard was member of the local Adderbury Morris Men) and they went down really well. Simon and Andrew Loake, a duo based at Daventry Folk Club kept the party going with an entertaining set that involved copious onstage intake of a mystery alcoholic beverage and a rousing version of Whip Jamboree, a shanty made famous by The Spinners, no less. It was a tune that got under our skins – I was singing it to myself for months after the festival!
The Akeley Morris Men performed in front of the stage, between sets, and I recall that they became more raucous and progressively more unsteady as the afternoon turned to evening. Thankfully, they left some Theakstons in the bar for the rest of us, but we were worried that they might not. Their performance of Bonny Green Garters was one of the things that inspired me to try out this morris dancing lark for myself. It was a pastime that kept me amused for the next 15 years or so!
Steve Ashley was the first of the day’s performers with whom I’d been previously familiar. I’d first come across him as a member of folk-rock outfit Ragged Robin and I’d recently bought his excellent Stroll On album. At Cropredy, Steve performed as a duo with the then-unknown local fiddler Chris Leslie and I recall that their set included a rendition of Steve’s signature song, Fire And Wine. I also had a recollection that Steve performed selections from his Demo Tapes CND project and the hilarious Family Love, a song in which the line “Somebody has just Blown off, but no-one will admit it” had my girlfriend literally weeping with laughter. Or am I confusing his 1979 and 1980 appearances? I do remember that, as their set drew to a close, Steve announced that their duo was about to be disbanded, as Chris was about to start a course at the Newark School of Violin Making in Nottinghamshire. I’ve often wondered what happened to Chris after that….
It was during Steve and Chris’s set that members of Fairport were spotted around the field, thus confirming their successful arrival from Knebworth, by whatever means of transport they had actually used. Peggy was, unsurprisingly, hanging around outside the beer tent with his young son, Matthew, who had decided to spend the day in the guise of a Punk, and had, to his mother’s clear disapproval, found some means of colouring his hair a rusty orange hue. My mate passed Swarb meandering slowly up School Lane wearing the cheesecloth top that he’d worn onstage at Knebworth and would also wear for Fairport’s performance that night. My mate was incredulous that he’d seen the star of the day’s top attraction mingling so obliviously, and expressed his doubts that Jimmy Page would be behaving in a similar manner at Knebworth! If I recall correctly, Peggy and Bruce Rowland joined Steve and Chris for a couple of numbers towards the back end of their set.
Earl Okin’s mix of one-man lounge jazzband and eccentric English comedy was perfect for the occasion. Dressed in his trademark white suit and bowler hat, he went down a storm and I was delighted to see that, when he eventually reappeared at Cropredy in 2004, he gave us more of the same, to the same blissfully bemused audience reception.
I’d enjoyed Conundrum when they’d appeared with Fairport during the 1979 Farewell tour. Alongside the great Bert Jansch, the band comprised multi-instrumentalist Martin Jenkins (later to join Swarb and Chris Leslie in the late, lamented Whippersnapper) and bassist Nigel Smith. On 4th August 1979, they played to an audience that was becoming restive in anticipation of what we all believed would be Fairport’s final performance, and, perhaps, suffered accordingly. There were some high points though, particularly Martin Jenkins’ vocal delivery of Ry Cooder’s Alimony.
After Conundrum were finished, there was a lengthy wait whilst the stage was prepared for the main act of the day, the year, the decade. My mate and I popped down to The Brasenose to buy some tobacco (not for sale at the concert site) and, whilst casting anxious glances at our watches, as we didn’t want to miss Fairport’s grand entry, were reassured by a gentleman in full highland costume that we needn’t worry, as he and his similarly attired mates had been booked to pipe Fairport onto the stage, and they weren’t ready to go yet!
And so to Fairport. We really, honestly all believed that this would be the band’s swansong. As we took our seats on the ground in front of the stage (that’s what we did then – no folding chairs, and if you stood up too early in the set, you’d be subject to entreaties to sit down by those behind you – it was very considerate, but bloody uncomfortable!) the atmosphere was a potent combination of the expectation of Christmas and an impending sense of loss. During the Farewell tour, the band had dug back into their extensive archive to revive a selection of songs that had fallen from their repertoire, and their set at the Farewell show followed along similar lines.
Fairport hit the stage at some time around 11pm and, as usual for that era, opened their set with Royal Selecction #13. The band then burst into Walk Awhile, the crowd now on its feet packed tightly together and swaying. Dirty Linen, The Journeyman’s Grace and Adieu Adieu all followed before Simon stepped up the mike for John Barleycorn, the only song from their recent Tipplers’ Tales album that they featured on that momentous night. After Me With You, a Swarb piece-de-resistance from the Rosie album, we were treated to the first guest appearance of the evening. It was no secret that Ralph McTell was around . He’d spent most of the afternoon in close proximity to the Theakston’s pumps, and his state of refreshment was pretty evident as he stumbled onto the stage to join the band for White Dress and, appropriately, Stagger Lee.
After Ralph’s appearance, Fairport continued with The Hen’s March…, The Eynsham Poacher and Flatback Caper. At some point along the way, Maddy Prior appeared, to a rousing reception, and enchanted us all with an a cappella version of the lovely Mother And Child before Fairport headed into the home straight with Matty Groves (not then the showpiece set-closer that it later became, but indispensable nonetheless), Bridge Over The River Ash (renamed Bridge Over the Oxford Canal for the occasion) and a version of Loudon Wainwright’s Red Guitar before the finale of The Lark in the Morning and, inevitably, appropriately and devastatingly, Meet on the Ledge.
We did, of course, bay for more, but, as compere/organiser, Johnny Jones reminded us when he arrived onstage to close down proceedings, “We never follow Meet On The Ledge.” Johnny entreated us to “Remember where you were on 4th August, 1979. Not at f**king Kebworth – At Cropredy!” And that was literally that. Although, we know now that it wasn’t!
When we got back to our tents at Great Bourton, sometime around 2am, I sat down to write my diary entry for the day. Looking at that entry now, the first thing I notice is that the writing is barely legible . It had, after all, been a draining, emotional and well-lubricated day, but the poignancy of my final words in that entry still shine through after 40 years: “…Sad (very) to see Fairport Convention disappear.” Thankfully, they didn’t.
The next day, Sunday 5th August, we called in at The Brasenose for a last drink before heading back north to Lancashire and we were pleasantly surprised to see the Fairport guys, still wearing the clothes they’d worn on stage the night before, all gathered and quaffing Draught Bass as though nothing special had happened. So surprised was I that I was reprimanded by my girlfriend and was told to “Stop gawping at Simon Nicol.” I couldn’t help it – I wasn’t used to seeing my heroes in such casual proximity! What we didn’t know was that, far from relaxing after their final show, the band were preparing to head for Belgium for a couple more concerts that had been arranged – typical Fairport!
We all now know what happened next. Even at the Farewell concert, rumours were starting to spread that another concert – a reunion – would be arranged for 1980, and so it was, with Richard (and Linda) Thompson and Dave Mattacks rejoining the band to revive the classic Full House line-up. Perversely, the 1980 concert was better attended than the 1979 Farewell show. Word had evidently got around that Fairport at Cropredy was an event not to be missed.
The show in 1981 was even bigger. The event had outgrown Peewit Farm and, for the first and only time, the festival took place in the grounds of Broughton Castle, just outside Banbury. It’s the only Cropredy Festival since 1979 that I wasn’t able to attend. In 1982, the festival arrived at Home Farm and that’s where it’s stayed, right up until the present day. No longer a glorified village fete, Cropredy Festival is a meticulously organised, media-friendly event with first-class facilities and an eclectic bill of internationally known acts, designed to please all (good) musical tastes and all age groups.
But some aspects of that first, final Farewell concert haven’t been lost. The needs of the concertgoers have always been paramount to the festival’s organisers and, at Cropredy, we’ve always been able to enjoy edible food, good ale, good sanitation and a wide range of eclectic shopping opportunities, long before such things became de rigeur on the festival circuit. Cropredy Festival prides and promotes itself as “Britain’s Friendliest Festival” and that’s no idle boast – it really is the case, and the seeds for all of this were sown at Peewit Farm on 4th August 1979.
Fairport were young when they first said goodbye. Simon was only 28; Peggy was 31. If they had been professional footballers, they’d have been in their prime, but the fickle nature of the music business and the obsession with trends and fashion amongst those who were writing about music at the time cast them as old men. But they, and we, have had a long last laugh. After 40 years (and disregarding Coronavirus) they and we continue to thrive and that’s a testimony to the quality of Fairport’s music – past, present and, hopefully, future. Look how the festival has grown from those humble 1979 beginnings! If anyone had suggested in the immediate wake of that concert that we’d still be coming along in 40 years’ time and that the Cropredy stage, just over the canal from Pewitt Farm, would host attractions of the magnitude of Robert Plant, Alice Cooper, Emmylou Harris, Madness, Lonnie Donegan and Brian Wilson, they’d have been sedated and taken somewhere warm and quiet. But it all happened and we hope that, post-COVID, the book of Cropredy will continue to receive stunning new entries.
And what of the Dramatis Personae of that day back in 1979? Do local performers like Simon and Andrew Loake and the members of Bag o’ Nails and The Rollright Stones still treasure their memories of their appearances at this momentous occasion? I’m sure they do! Where are they now, and what have they been doing for the past 40 years?And the field was crammed with people of a similar outlook and with similar tastes and aspirations as my own. We’ve already mentioned the Scots Pipers; what about the ladies operating the wine and cake stall (in aid of Help The Aged – remember?) Or the young barman, star-struck because he’d just served a pint to his hero, Ralph McTell? Or, indeed, the group sat just in front of us with their large box, full of pint bottles of Holden’s Special, who demonstrated to an interested and amused crowd the inverse link between alcohol consumption and balance? And what about the group of gentlemen who decided to cool off during that warm afternoon by stripping naked and taking a dip in the adjacent, unfenced, Oxford Canal only to earn a public rebuke from Johnny Jones? Did any or all of these keep the faith and continue with their annual Cropredy excursions? Are any of them still alive even? Are any of you reading this? Please let us know!
I was 23 years old when I attended that Farewell concert in 1979. I was just a few years into what would become a 44-year career, I was thin, single, with a full head of dark hair. Over the years, I’ve married (happily to the girl that accompanied me to that first festival), moved house several times – to York, Derbyshire and now South Warwickshire. I’ve spread a little around the waist, kept my hair (but now it’s white), retired and I live just a few miles away from those magical fields in that pastoral village that opened my eyes so widely back in August 1979. Some of this probably would have happened even I hadn’t attended that concert. But a whole lot of it wouldn’t!
Thank You Fairport for saying “Farewell,” and then deciding that you didn’t mean it after all!
Watch Fairport performing The Eynsham Poacher at the 1982 Cropredy Festival here: