We continue our occasional series reappraising a selection of our favourite 1971 albums in greater detail. This time, we have a new close look at the album described by Robin Denselow in The Electric Muse (1975’s definitive story of the evolution of folk/rock) as The First Folk Rock Opera: Fairport Convention’s Babbacombe Lee.
As regular visitors to At The Barrier will appreciate, 1971 started badly for Fairport Convention. Wonder guitarist and master songwriter Richard Thompson left the band in January of that year and then, on the 20th February, the band’s communal home, former pub The Angel, in Little Hadham, Hertfordshire, was wrecked by an out of control lorry heading for Harwich. Despite these massive setbacks, the band regrouped, with Simon Nicol taking on the daunting task of replacing Richard as lead guitarist, and they went on to produce two seminal albums before the year was out. The chart-busting Angel Delight came first (in June), followed in November by an album considered by many amongst the band’s considerable and loyal following to be up there with their best: Babbacombe Lee.
Babbacombe Lee is no ordinary Fairport album; it’s a “concept” album, a “folk/rock opera” – call it what you will – that tells the story, in remarkable detail, of John Henry George Lee, better known as “Babbacombe” Lee or “The Man They Couldn’t Hang,” who, in 1885, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of his employer. Incredibly, Lee survived three attempts to hang him, as the gallows apparatus failed to operate.
Fairport’s Dave Swarbrick, an inveterate collector of antiques, had come across a bound collection of Lloyd’s Weekly News copies in a Middlesex second-hand shop. The magazines contained the story of the crime, the criminal proceedings, the failed hanging attempt and the subsequent story of Lee’s life. Legend has it that the magazines Swarb found had actually been bound by Lee himself, and that the binder was signed and dated (30 January 1908) by Lee. Swarb recognised that Lee’s story contained all the necessary ingredients for an engaging song. After kicking the idea around with the band members, it mushroomed into the basis for a complete album.
Born in Abbotskerswell, Devon, in (or around) 1864, Lee had served in, and been discharged from, the Royal Navy, and had a local reputation as a petty thief. After leaving the navy, he found employment as a footman at the home of Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse. During the night of 15 November 1884, the household’s cook was awoken by a smell of burning and discovered that the part of the house occupied by Miss Keyse was on fire. Lee raised the alarm, but when the dining room at the house was entered, the corpse Miss Keyse, with a deep gash across her throat, was discovered on the floor. Lee was arrested on suspicion of her murder and, despite the fact that any evidence to support this assertion was purely circumstantial, was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to hang at Exeter Prison on 23 February 1885.
It was there that, for reasons never explained but regularly speculated upon, the gallows trapdoor failed to open – not once, not twice, but three times. Following the failed execution attempt, Lee’s sentence was commuted by Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt to life imprisonment and, after a series of appeals, Lee was finally released in 1907. He died in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in March 1945, having become something of an international Cause Célèbre as a result of his (by then) well-documented tribulations.
Fairport’s album provides a true, if romanticised and embellished account of Lee’s life story through a set of songs. The album opens with the chilling words of the trial judge (read by Fairport’s manager-to-be Philip Stirling-Wall) condemning Lee to be hanged, following which we are taken back in time to Lee’s early life working the farmlands around Torquay and the growth of his desire to join the ranks of the naval crews that were a presence in the town. Lee’s period of naval service is covered by the only traditional pieces on the album – a mandolin recital of Trumpet Hornpipe (better known as the theme tune to Captain Pugwash) which segues into a rendition of The Sailor’s Alphabet, with Daves Swarbrick and Pegg providing alternating lines of vocal. The version on the album is fit to be played in mixed, or even ecclesiastical company, unlike the notorious out-take, The Naughty Sailor’s Alphabet that has been circulating in bootleg form for many years… (Editor’s Note: We’ll leave you to seek that one out for yourself if you’re curious!)
After the naval interlude, the song cycle picks up on John’s march towards his destiny as he secures his employment at the Keyse residence, recounted via a memorable Swarb vocal in John Lee, one of the album’s better-known songs (it was one of three selections from the album to be included on the outstanding 1972 compilation, History of Fairport Convention). The events of the murder are recounted by a news quotation, read this time by folklorist AL Lloyd, a close friend of the band, before the original Side 1 of the album comes to a close with Breakfast in Mayfair, a rare Simon Nicol composition in which the circumstances of Lee’s arrest are cleverly recounted by the device of the narrator reading the story aloud from a newspaper. Unusually for the period, Simon takes the lead vocal on this excellent song, and he delivers it magnificently – an early portent of the days when Simon would assume the role of Fairport’s dominant vocalist.
For the sequence of songs at the start of the original Side 2 of the album, Lee is tried, found guilty, condemned and incarcerated to await his gruesome fate. Swarb takes the vocal lead on the songs now identified as Trial Song, Cell Song, The Time Is Near and Dream Song and his vocal delivery are, to my mind, just about the best he ever achieved. The fear and loneliness of the accused – soon to be convicted – Lee is palpable in the lyrics (“You’d do as well without me, as I’m not allowed to use my voice” in Trial Song, “And when my short affair with life is ended, and I’m gone, will you tell the world the story of John Lee” in Cell Song, “As I lie here all alone I really can’t believe that twenty years I’ve spent on Earth can end in so much grief” in The Time is Near and “A voice in his ear says ‘They’ll do you no harm’” in Dream Song) and is given particular emphasis through passionate delivery. This section of the album is probably the most overlooked yet, to me, these are the songs on which the story and the musical performance all hinge, and this is the part of the album that I return to most frequently.
The drama at the scaffold is recounted vividly in Wake Up John/Hanging Song, the finale to the original album. It’s another excellent vocal performance from Swarb in which the three attempts to undertake the execution are breathlessly described, along with the verbal and emotional exchanges between Lee and hangman James Berry. The song’s refrain, “Shake the Holy Water, summon up the guard, dying’s very easy, waiting’s very hard” expresses perfectly the turmoil that can be imagined within the victim’s mind and the words burn their way into the listener’s subconsciousness. It’s a vibrant and rewarding end to a brilliant album.
In its original form, Babbacombe Lee was pressed and released as a series of episodes, rather than as an album of discrete tracks. Side 1 of the album was divided into three sections, the first concerning Lee’s early life up until his successful application to join the navy, the second concerning his life at sea and the third, the murder and the public’s judgement of the alleged perpetrator. Likewise, Side 2 comprised two further episodes, the first relating to Lee’s trial and incarceration and the second to his fitful sleep during the night before his anticipated execution and the dramatic events at the scaffold. This format was perpetuated for the early CD reissues of the album until, for the 2004 CD reissue, the album was finally separated into separate tracks.
The Babbacombe Lee album had an unfortunate aftermath. The album was produced by Simon Nicol and long-serving Engineer John Wood. When Simon presented the acetate of the finished album to the other band members on the eve of an American tour (in support of Island labelmates Traffic) he was dismayed to realise that certain members were distinctly underwhelmed. The impact of that reaction, coupled with the mental strain of undertaking a lengthy tour, performing to people who were there to see Traffic rather than Fairport, were instrumental in Simon’s decision to quit the band – a decision that was to destabilise the Good Ship Fairport for the next couple of years. Personally, I’ve never been able to identify any flaws in either the content or the production of this wonderful album and, like for many amongst the Fairport throng, Babbacombe Lee is a firm favourite.
Despite the aforementioned misgivings of certain Fairport members, Babbacombe Lee was critically acclaimed and, despite some pretty monumental (comparatively speaking…) marketing and promotion, it inexplicably failed to sell. Those who did take the plunge to buy a copy were rewarded with an excellent package; alongside the unquestionably great music, the package also included a facsimile of the Lloyd’s Weekly News publication that was the catalyst for the whole enterprise and a sticker that proclaimed the message “Don’t Hang Babbacombe Lee.” The stickers sprung up on walls and drainpipes all around the country, following the album’s release, and it’s still not unusual to see them adorning guitar cases owned by musicians of a certain age and inclination!
The Babbacombe Lee story didn’t end there either. In late 1974, BBC2 commissioned a documentary about the life of John Lee – narrated by Melvyn Bragg and aired in February 1975. For this production, Fairport provided a couple of new tunes – including Farewell To A Poor Man’s Son, an excellent new song from Dave Swarbrick and a re-recording of Breakfast In Mayfair with a lead vocal from Sandy Denny who, by that time, was back in the Fairport fold. The songs were recorded by Fairport’s Rising For The Moon line-up of Dave Swarbrick, Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks, Jerry Donahue, Sandy Denny and Trevor Lucas, plus Simon Nicol who temporarily re-joined the ranks for the project, and they eventually saw light of day as bonus tracks on the 2004 CD. The BBC documentary can be viewed on YouTube.
In 1982, Babbacombe Lee really did become ‘the album they couldn’t hang’ when it was performed in its entirety on the Friday evening at that year’s Cropredy Festival, to the clear delight of those assembled in the field at Home Farm. And then, in 2011, the current Fairport line-up gave Mr Lee a 40-year anniversary resurrection when they performed the piece, again in full, on that year’s winter tour and then again at the 2011 Fairport’s Cropredy Convention. What’s more a performance of the whole thing, recorded during the winter tour, was released as the Babbacombe Lee Live Again album in early 2012. I’ve a feeling that we’ve still not heard the last of John “Babbacombe” Lee.
Babbacombe Lee was Fairport’s seventh album. Remarkable by today’s standards – the band had only been in existence for five years! Every single one of those previous albums had shown new maturity and had suggested new directions for Fairport to consider. In some cases, members had been sufficiently enticed by the new opportunities that they had discovered that they jumped overboard to follow their own muse. But the good ship Fairport sailed on, and Babbacome Lee became the next chapter in their story. It was the first Fairport album to feature the same line-up as its predecessor: Dave Swarbrick on fiddle, mandolin and vocals, Dave Pegg on bass, mandolin and vocals, Simon Nicol on guitar, dulcimer and vocals and Dave Mattacks on drums, piano and harmonium. But like all its predecessor albums, it opened up new possibilities as the ship sailed on to its next port of call. And that tradition of moving forward incrementally with each new venture continues still today.
Fifty years after Babbacombe Lee, the current Fairport continue to innovate and delight; their most recent album, Shuffle and Go is a revelation that gives us all the hope we need that there’s still a lot of life left in the old vessel!
Watch a post-Simon Nicol lineup of Fairport Convention performing Hanging Song from the Babbacombe Lee album here: