Book Reviews

Richard Houghton – Gonna See All My Friends – A People’s History of Fairport Convention: Book Review

The fans have their say – the distinguished and prolific history of Fairport and Cropredy, as told by the band’s fans and friends

Here, at At The Barrier, we make no secret of our fondness for Fairport Convention – inventors of folk-rock, continual generators of some of the finest music around and curators of Britain’s Friendliest Festival – Fairport’s Cropredy Convention. We’ve always known that we’re not alone in our admiration of the band and now, thanks to this beautiful new 384-page fully-illustrated book from Manchester-based music writer, Richard Houghton, there’s a documented record of the love that exist between the band and its fans – and vice-versa.

First – a word about the author: Richard Houghton and Fairport are natural-born bedfellows, in that, when searching for an adjective to describe either writer or subject, the word that isn’t far from anyone’s lips is “prolific.” Artists and bands as diverse as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Jethro Tull, The Wedding Present, Shaun Ryder and The Stranglers have already been the subject of biographies by Richard and his concept of “People’s Histories” is surely a winning formula, with Thin Lizzy, Queen, Cream, Rush, The Stones, The Beatles, The Who, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Smiths and The Jam – and now Fairport – having all received the treatment.

This is how it works.

It was back in April that Richard issued an appeal, via Fairport’s website, for followers of the band to send in anecdotes, illustrated if possible, of their experiences and encounters involving Fairport – how they first discovered the band and their music, when they first saw them perform live, Cropredy tales, close encounters with band members and anything else that anyone might consider to be of interest to others in what is, now, thanks to this book, definitively proven to be Fairport’s extended family. The fanbase responded in their droves (including – I’ll bashfully admit – myself and others within the At The Barrier team…) and, after some seven months of hard graft on the part of Richard, the result is Gonna See See All My Friends. And, from preface to postscript, Gonna See See All My Friends is a delight – to hold, to peruse, to study, to dip into. Even – and I might be giving more away about myself than I really should here – to smell.

The members of Fairport, along with their immediate associates have been closely involved in the compilation of the book. Guitarist/vocalist and founder member Simon Nicol contributes an informative foreword in which he ponders the reasons for the band’s longevity and relentless creativity – and finds at least some of the answers to those questions within the stories offered by the fans; Fairport historian, the redoubtable Nigel Schofield provides an insightful overview of the many recollections and opinions offered by the book’s contributors, making particular references to the global reach achieved by Fairport, the role of the Island Records series of Sampler albums (You Can All Join In, Nice Enough To Eat, Bumpers and El Pea) in providing many long-term fans with their key to the Fairport door and in the role of Cropredy in perpetuating and growing Fairport’s popularity. Not to be outdone, bassist Dave Pegg adds a touching afterword in which he emphasises the role and importance of we, the band’s audience, in providing the love and commitment to spur the good ship Fairport onward. And, as we’ll see, that’s a theme that permeates just about every page of this splendid book.

It’s lovely to see, too, that sprinkled in amongst the stories from fans all over the world, there are lots of recollections and revelations from highly-regarded musicians and public figures who have had the great (maybe occasionally dubious..) privilege of working closely with the individuals and collective body of Fairport. So, in amongst the fond memories of the student who was dragged along to 1970 Fairport gig, much against his will, to find that he’d been missing the best music he’d ever heard, or the many contributors who attended their first Cropredy Festival in the late eighties or early nineties and then never missed a year until COVID struck, there are enjoyable yarns from the likes of Ian Anderson, Doane Perry, Ralph McTell, Joe Boyd, Anna Ryder, Edwina Hayes, Fraser Nimmo, Steve Tilston, Huw Williams and Scott Doonican.

But really, and fittingly, it’s the people’s contributions that make this People’s History such a fascinating read. The ins and outs of the band’s formative years, including tales of hanging out with Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, the recruitment of Sandy Denny (sadly at the expense of the enduringly popular Judy Dyble) and the early gigs at Middle Earth et al are recounted in detail by early associates like Kingsley Abbot, John Penhallow and Richard Pearl. Dave and Christine Pegg both recall the first time that they saw Fairport – at Mothers, a club in the Erdington district of Birmingham (Peggy was invited to audition for the band the very next day!) and there are multifarious recollections of first encounters – in the UK, the US, Australia and all over Europe from people who, once smitten, continued to wave the Fairport banner, even, in many cases, through the famine years of the late seventies and early eighties.

There are several very touching stories, too. I was particularly moved by the account of how Fairport’s “musicality, skill and humour” helped contributor Peter Clarke come to terms with the tragic death of his wife, Lorna and by the story of how Karla Elliott managed to reconnect with the memory of her deceased father (who’d introduced her to Fairportland when she was a child) by listening to Fairport’s Jewel In The Crown album.

And, if you want to know what the Fairport guys really get up to during those marathon tours, there’s lots of that stuff here too… From wheelbarrow races in hotel corridors (you’ll have to buy the book to find out more…) to drinking marathons with the great and the good, to unscheduled and unexpected bowel movements – it’s all here, in the words of those that were present to witness, enjoy and be flabbergasted by it.

But, overwhelmingly, the enduring message of Gonna See All My Friends is the strength of the bond between band and fanbase. Story after story recounts the approachability and generosity of the band’s members. Picture after picture shows Peggy, Simon, Ric, Chris or Maart engaging with fans – and clearly enjoying the experience. And I believe that the intimacy that Fairport’s fans are able to share with their heroes goes a long way towards explaining why we all keep coming back for more. Of course, Fairport’s musicianship is, and always has been, impeccable; the music is top quality, entertaining and enduring; the albums are artifacts to be treasured, and Cropredy is, quite simply, the greatest show on Earth. But, if there’s a single lesson to be learned from Gonna Meet All My Friends, the secret ingredient in the Fairport cake is the camaraderie. The point is made over and over again – Fairport Convention and their fans are one big, happy family.

Dave Pegg sums it up very nicely in his brief afterword: “I knew I would never have the talent of my heroes – Hank Marvin, Joe Brown and The Beatles [Note: Some of us would dispute that modest suggestion] but I swore to myself that if ever I was to pursue my dream of making a living playing music, however successful I became, I would be as nice to fans as they were to me. Well Dave, that’s a promise that you’ve certainly kept. From me, and from the vast, peaceful, army of Fairport followers – Thank You.

If you haven’t already got the message, I’ll spell it out: Gonna Meet All My Friends is a wonderful book – in both appearance and content – and an essential addition to the bookshelf of everyone with a love of Fairport Convention. It’s published by Spenwood Books (incidentally – author Richard Houghton’s own operation), priced £19.99, and can be ordered here.

Fairport Convention Online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / YouTube

Richard Houghton Online: Website/ Facebook

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