The next in our series of opinion pieces on ‘what happens when a band loses a key member’ features a band whose revolving door policy is legendary, yet we pick on one particular key member…
FAIRPORT CONVENTION / SANDY DENNY
Fairport Convention are, of course, known for the vast number of lineup changes that the band have experienced since their formation way, way back in 1967. Altogether, 25 members have passed through the band’s ranks. Some stayed for a long time – bassist Dave Pegg joined the band in 1970 and never left; others, like American guitarist Dave Rea, hardly had time to take their coat off before moving on. And, certainly, some members left a more lasting impression of their time within the band than did others. For example, without founding father, Ashley Hutchings, there’d have been no Fairport, and we’d all be spending the second week of August wondering what to do with ourselves. Likewise, without the tenure of demon fiddler Dave Swarbrick, it’s doubtful that Fairport’s exploration of British traditional music would have lasted more than a couple of albums. But, I don’t believe that there’s many amongst Fairport’s vast and enduringly loyal fanbase who would challenge the assertion that the two most significant departures from the band were the supremely talented Richard Thompson and the doomed genius, Sandy Denny.
Plenty has been said about RT’s contribution to Fairport. He wrote the band’s perennial anthem, Meet on the Ledge, aged just 17, he adapted his songwriting style to fall seamlessly into the traditional idiom that the band explored for the Liege and Lief album – it’s still hard to believe that a song like – say – Crazy Man Michael isn’t a traditional folk song, he led the band to what many, myself included, consider to be their peak achievement – 1970’s Full House masterpiece – and his mastery of the guitar is almost matchless. Richard Thompson was, without doubt a massive influence on what Fairport became and that influence remains to this day. He still regularly pops up regularly at Cropredy to rejoin his old classmates for deep dives into the back catalogue and he could so easily have been the subject of this article…
But, I’ve decided instead to look at the impact of the one and only Sandy Denny on Fairport and at how the band coped with her departure.
I suppose that the story starts in May 1968. After a charming first single – If I Had A Ribbon Bow – had been released (to limited media reaction) via Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp’s Track imprint (home of The Who, Jimi Hendrix and others of similar ilk), Fairport succumbed to the courtship overtures of Chris Blackwell and his Island Records label. The band were maturing, developing a heavier sound, and an unfortunate victim of this progression was the original frontperson, the lovely Judy Dyble. In the band’s – and, crucially, their management’s – opinion, Judy’s voice wasn’t suited to the new, rockier, material that the band were starting to explore and the difficult decision was taken to ask Judy to leave the band. The grisly deed of dismissal was conducted on a Muswell Hill park bench by Ashley Hutchings and Fairport set off down the road of becoming an all-male band, with Iain Matthews assuming the role of lead vocalist.
But it didn’t really work. Judy had contributed much more to the band’s sound and image than anyone had realised and, almost immediately, audiences were asking what had happened to her – “Where’s the ‘chick’ singer” – in the parlance of the day. Fairport accepted that a female replacement for Judy had to be found and, after a sequence of auditions, and the prompting of such band associates as The Young Tradition’s Heather Wood, forward stepped Sandy Denny.
Even before she’d been suggested as a potential band member, Sandy was well known to Fairport. She’d been a presence on and around the London folk scene since the early 60s, and had recently become an established figure at the folk scene’s “top end” venues such as Les Cousins in Soho, The Scots Hoose in Cambridge Circus and the nearby Bunjies, where she’d inhabited the same performance space as hopefuls like Al Stewart, Davy Graham, Ralph McTell and American visitors including Paul Simon, Tom Paxton and Jackson C Frank. She’d already started writing top quality songs and her first ventures into the recording studio had taken place in early 1967, when she laid down tracks with Alex Campbell, Johnny Silvo and the nascent, still acoustic, Strawbs.
Opinion varies, according to who on Planet Fairport is consulted, with regard to Sandy’s recruitment. Former manager, Joe Boyd has always suggested that he believed Sandy’s temperament would make her an overbearing presence amongst his “shy boys,” and that he thought her recruitment to be a bad idea. Others, including members of Fairport recall a rather different set of circumstances in which Boyd was instrumental in suggesting her as potential new member. Whatever the circumstances, the impact of her recruitment was seismic, and pretty well immediate. Sandy’s voice was the perfect counterpoint to Iain’s, she was familiar with – and brought a whole new vocal dimension to – the American singer/songwriter material that still formed a significant proportion of Fairport’s material at the time and, best of all, her compositional abilities helped provide the springboard to launch the band into their next, rich, phase. Another strength, that wasn’t to break the surface just for the time being, was her knowledge of and ability to interpret traditional folk song.
Sandy contributed just three of her own compositions to her first two albums with Fairport, but they were all absolute doozies. Fotheringay, Sandy’s contemplation of the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots was chosen to be the opening track to the classic What We Did on Our Holidays (1969) album. It’s a beautiful song, structured around the acoustic guitars of Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol, with a divine vocal delivery from Sandy, and it still features occasionally in Fairport’s live performances to this day. On Unhalfbricking (also 1969), Sandy went one better, scoring compositional credits with Autopsy and the marvelous, unforgettable, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, a song that she’d written as long ago as 1966, had already recorded with Strawbs and which would go on to become the song she’s most associated with. The was no question that her presence was leaving a deep, perhaps indelible mark with Fairport.
But, as we’ve already seen, Sandy had also brought something else along to the Fairport party – her affinity with traditional folk ballads. Her interpretation of the Irish ballad, She Moves Through the Fair, had been a regular feature of her folk club repertoire and her delivery of the song on the What We Did on Our Holidays album is nothing short of breathtaking. Over the years, and undoubtedly inspired by Fairport’s interpretation, She Moves Through the Fair has been covered many times, by artists as varied as Alan Stivell, Art Garfunkel, Sinéad O’Connor, Van Morrison and All About Eve, yet, to my mind, it’s Fairport’s/Sandy’s version that remains the definitive reading of the song.
And then, one evening, according to Fairport legend, Sandy gave an impromptu performance of the traditional A Sailor’s Life in Fairport’s dressing room, prior to a 1969 gig at Southampton University. Ashley, Richard and Simon jammed along and, so the story goes, the band was so enraptured by the sound they’d created that they went out on stage and performed the number that very night. The song was incorporated into Fairport’s regular set and, when the time came to record Unhalfbricking, A Sailor’s Life was a shoo-in for the tracklisting. And, to add further substance to sound, as well as a considerable chunk of folk credibility, Joe Boyd managed to convince folk’s most respected fiddler, a certain Dave Swarbrick, to come into the studio to play on the track. And, it was at that point, many would suggest, that English folk/rock was well and truly launched.
The next phase in the Fairport story has been retold often and in great detail. On 11th May, 1969 – after the recording of Unhalfbricking but prior to the album’s release, Fairport’s van crashed on the way back to London from a gig at Birmingham’s Mothers club. Sandy wasn’t on board, having travelled back to London by other means, but Fairport’s drummer, Martin Lamble and Richard’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklin were both killed in the crash. The other van occupants, including Ashley, Richard and Simon were all injured and the long-term psychological effects of the experience were immeasurable. The very future of Fairport was, for a while, in severe doubt but, eventually, the decision was taken to recruit a new drummer (Dave Mattacks), invite Dave Swarbrick to join on a permanent basis and to press ahead, following a completely new direction that built upon the tentative folk/rock experimentation of She Moves Through the Fair and A Sailor’s Life. And that decision led directly to Liege and Lief – the album that has since been recognised as The Greatest Folk/Rock Album of All Time.
The Liege and Lief story – Fairport ensconced at Farley Chamberlayne to recuperate and rehearse, the frequent visits to Cecil Sharp house to research source material, the consolidation of the band’s new lineup, the incorporation of original material from Richard, Sandy and Ashley into the album’s traditional theme and the album’s launch at the landmark concert on 23rd August 1969 at The Royal Festival Hall – is a familiar one. And, after the album’s release, neither English folk nor English rock were ever quite the same again and, tellingly, neither were Fairport.
Sandy had always expected that Liege and Lief would be a would be a one-off project before Fairport returned to exploiting their own songwriting talents – and particularly hers and Richard’s. After all, both Sandy and Richard were, by that point, recognised as two of the most talented composers around. However, other members of Fairport, and Ashley in particular, saw the folk-based material of Liege and Lief as the band’s future. The emotional effects of the van crash were still very raw amongst all who had been involved and, after a short trip to Denmark and on the eve of Fairport’s first scheduled American tour, Sandy announced that she would be leaving the band. What’s more, the nature of her deliberations had been so unsettling to Ashley that he also decided that his musical future lay elsewhere. And thus, not for the first or last time, the good ship Fairport Convention received a massive broadside, right at the very moment when a major breakthrough seemed to be inevitable…
So what happened next? Well, by this time, Fairport – and particularly the remaining founder members Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol – were used to dusting themselves down and getting on with life after a major setback and, in all honesty, they were well placed to do just that. In Daves Swarbrick and Mattacks, they’d enticed a pair of imaginative and innovative musicians – each arguably the best in their specific fields – into their ranks, they still had the amazing compositional and guitar skills of Richard Thompson and the adaptability of Simon Nicol to rely on, they’d learned how to merge traditional folk influences with rock music and, significantly, they’d reaped the rewards – as well as suffered the pains – of communal living. All they needed was a bass player, and they could be up and running again…
The recruitment of Dave Pegg into the Fairport ranks was, probably, the greatest masterstroke that Fairport ever pulled off. He’d been recommended by Dave Swarbrick, who had known him from their days together in the Ian Campbell folk group and, despite some apparent misgivings from Swarb’s bandmates, who doubted the violinist’s ability to recognise the required credentials for a rock bassist, Peggy was invited to audition. Peggy was, and – of course, is – one of the best bassists around and, once they’d heard him play, he was accepted with open arms and Fairport was, once more, a going concern. The new collective, together with partners, children, roadies and sundry animals took ownership of The Angel a disused (or “deconsecrated,” as Peggy describes it) pub in Little Hadham, Hertfordshire, and set about writing and rehearsing the material for 1970’s Full House, the album that many, including myself, consider to be the crowning achievement in the long and highly distinguished career of Fairport Convention.
Full House is, without question, a genuine, enduring masterpiece. Richard and Swarb were coming up with songs like Walk Awhile, Sloth, Doctor of Physick and Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman. What’s more, Swarb had brought along his encyclopedic knowledge of traditional songs and tunes and, on tracks like Dirty Linen, Flatback Caper and Sir Patrick Spens, the new lineup demonstrated that they knew exactly how to execute them. The band were having great fun, too, they undertook their first, long-awaited American tour and live recordings from that era bear evidence that, on top form, the band could blow away even the most cynical of audiences. Indeed, it seemed, that at least for a short while, the traumas and continual upheaval of the foregoing years had finally been left behind. But, this is Fairport Convention we’re talking about…
Up until this point, Fairport hadn’t managed to keep the same lineup together for two consecutive albums and, true to form, that sequence was continued when on 24th January 1971, Richard Thompson announced that he would be leaving the band. Richard’s departure could never be anything less than a severe body blow but, thankfully, Fairport did continue – and they do to this day. There have been many high points over the intervening years since Richard’s departure but, at least in my humble opinion, Full House marks the absolute zenith of Fairport’s achievements. The album celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020 and, two years late – blame COVID for that – Fairport reconvened the Full House lineup at the 2022 Cropredy Festival, with Chris Leslie standing in for the “otherwise occupied” Dave Swarbrick, to perform the album sequentially and in full. And what a gratifying experience that was – for the band and for the 20,000 of gathered festivalgoers.
And, to cap it all, that Cropredy performance has been preserved in wax on Fairport’s recent Full House For Sale CD!
And, as for Sandy – well she went on to great things, too. First, she formed Fotheringay – the band she named after that first Fairport composition – before making a string of incredible solo albums that never really received the recognition they deserved. She rejoined Fairport in 1974 – her husband, Trevor Lucas was, by that time, a member of the band but, despite some fine moments – notably the 1975 Rising For the Moon album – her return didn’t really work out and, in December 1975, Sandy left Fairport for the second time, this time accompanied by Trevor and wonder guitarist Jerry Donahue in a split that almost, but – thankfully – not quite put paid to Fairport Convention for good.
Fairport, of course, lived to fight many another day. Tragically, Sandy passed away on 21st April, 1978, aged just 31. Her final years had not been happy. She was hugely disappointed that her music failed to receive the widespread recognition it surely deserved, she’d found motherhood challenging, her marriage to Trevor Lucas encountered difficulties and she struggled with alcohol dependency. But her contribution to Fairport Convention – both musically and in shaping the direction that the band would take – was massive, and the impression she made during her relatively short stints in the band remains clearly visible today. Fairport still perform her songs – particularly Who Knows Where the Time Goes – and the high points of many a festival have been those times when guest vocalists have joined the band on stage to revisit Sandy Denny songs. If only the Crazy Lady was still around to sing them herself.
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