Posts Tagged ‘Leige and Lief’

Fairport Convention generally have the tag of being ‘the all-time folk-rock band of Britain’ and deservedly so.
“They do in a very worthy sense have the right to be crowned the most important folk-rock band ever”
“They began with a much more American focus to their music, which is often forgotten. It was much less traditional than it became a few years later. They fell back more into being a traditional folk band, but with all the rhythmic and rock sensitivity that would come to them. Back in 1969, Liege & Lief was the seminal album which established British folk-rock as a distinct genre, separate to the hippy mysticism of America’s west coast or the earnest finger-in-the-ear traditionalism of the folk club purists. Paving the way for everyone from Steeleye Span to Lindisfarne, it mingled rock & roll attitude with a sense of indigenous history and myth that stretched back deep into folk memory.

In the first month of the 1970s. Fairport Convention had performed all be it miming, on the British TV institution Top Of The Pops in August 1969, and come within one place of the top 20, with ‘Si Tu Dois Partir,’ their French version of Bob Dylan’s ‘If You Gotta Go, Go Now.’

That helped the Fairports album it came from, “Unhalfbricking”, climb to No. 12 in the UK chart. Then, on 17th January, 1970, they entered the bestsellers with a follow-up that, like its predecessor, has become a folk music cornerstone: Liege & Lief, it was the group’s third album inside a year, after Unhalfbricking and before that What We Did On Our Holidays. All of that during a period in which a car crash claimed their original drummer Martin Lamble.

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Sometimes it was difficult to tell traditional tunes apart from those written by the band. Although the supernatural epic “Tam Lin” and adulterous tragedy “Matty Groves” are plainly trad, the beautiful “Crazy Man Michael” was written by guitarist Richard Thompson and violinist Dave Swarbrick, while the melancholy “Farewell Farewell” is an old tune reworked with new lyrics — possibly in response to the fatal road accident on tour .

“Some of those members of Fairport did play with rock bands, including Dave Pegg who played with Jethro Tull, too. But they do in a very worthy sense have the right to be crowned the most important folk-rock band ever.

“I thought I might find something quirky, but I do have to go back to Liege And Lief because it’s the one that put them on the map. It’s the one you can’t escape, their biggie – their Aqualung, if you like!”

1. Come All Ye – 00:00 (Denny, Hutchings)
2. Reynardine – 05:02 (traditional – arr F C)
3. Matty Groves – 09:33 (traditional – arr F C)
4. Farewell Farewell – 17:44 (Thompson)
5. The Deserter – 20:24 (traditional – arr F C)
6. Medley – 24:50 (traditional x4 – arr Swarbrick, F C)
7. Tam Lin – 28:58 (traditional – arr Swarbrick)
8. Crazy Man Michael – 36:12 (Thompson, Swarbrick)

Sandy Denny – Lead Vocals
Richard Thompson – Guitars
Simon Nicol – Guitars
Ashley Hutchings – Bass Guitars
Dave Swarbrick – Violins and Viola
Dave Mattacks – Drums and Percussion

Island Records 1969

Fairport Convention, during 1969, released three albums, culminating in Liege & Lief, which represents a peak in UK folk music, and has a unique, almost otherworldly sound. This article explores that year–1969 in band’s hugely productive, tragic history. The remarkable Joe Boyd provides some insight into the band’s evolution within that brief, tumultuous period. The band signed to Island early on (their first, self-titled album was on Polydor). What followed was a series of albums that defined a special place in the coalescence of “nativist” (in the sense of perpetuating a tradition) music, which evolved from an American “sound” to one that was not only distinctly English, but altogether unique in style: a young, but highly-skilled Richard Thompson wrote and brought a sophistication to his guitar playing that belied his years; coupled with the heavenly voice of Sandy Denny and a group of talented band members, three essential albums resulted: What We Did on Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and what is considered to be their peak work, Liege and Lief.

In the midst of these records, a road accident killed the drummer and Thompson’s girlfriend, injuring several other members of the band. Although Unhalfbricking may have been a popular album in the UK at the time, Liege and Lief, the album that followed (the road accident) is, in retrospect, considered the more influential, because it reflects the group’s almost complete transition away from an “American” folk orientation. Denny is often credited with this shift in focus. She left Fairport shortly after Liege and Lief to embark on a variety of experiments, including solo work, before returning to the band in 1974. Sadly, she passed away in 1977 at the age of only 31.

Thompson went on to a long career as solo artist after departing from Fairport in 1970 and the band went through various personnel changes thereafter.

Fairport Convention, Unhalfbricking, UK, Deleted, CD album (CDLP), Island, IMCD293, 621600

Fairport Convention - Unhalfbricking CD Front cover

Unhalfbricking

Singer-songwriter Ian Matthews had walked away shortly after recording for the album began, so the vocal duties mostly fell to the forever-beautiful Sandy Denny. Her tremendously expressive voice anchors the stellar guitar work of Richard Thompson (at the time, fast becoming a force in his own right). The passionate drumming of young Martin Lamble and the guest fiddle of Birmingham notable Dave Swarbrick, who would go on to take an active role in the collective until 1984, also stood at the forefront of the work. Furthermore to the departure of Matthews came a shift from American folk-rock to traditional British folk.

The most powerful song and centerpiece of Unhalfbricking is an 11-minute adaptation of “A Sailor’s Life”, a tune recovered from the turn of the 20th century and reworked thoroughly. Beginning with Denny’s forceful reading and twittering, teasing instrumentation, the track develops into a soloing, epic raga on the scale of The Doors’ The End with Thompson’s righteous guitar vigorously trading virtuosity with Swarbrick’s fiddle over a tight rhythm section dirge and less oedipal weight. In due order, this timeless aimed aesthetic would not take full effect until the following album, Liege & Lief, which is widely regarded by critics and fans as their seminal work. As such, three whole Bob Dylan covers fill out the Unhalfbricking tracklisting. A jaunty Cajun French rendition of If You Gotta Go ranks as their only hit single, out of all that history. Though the cut barely missed the UK top 20, it got them on the legacy Tops Of The Pops TV show anyway. Their version of Percy’s Song hits the appropriate stride as well, but the closing Million Dollar Bash ramshackle sing-along seems a little tacky and amateurish. Perhaps three Dylan covers was a bit much for one album.

Even so, the groundwork for immortality had been laid. Denny’s legend was born and Thompson’s was on the rise. However, drummer Martin Lamble died in a tour bus accident along with Thompson’s girlfriend while touring in support of this album, so things would never be the same again. That leaves Unhalfbricking as a time capsule of fun and discovery that cannot be repeated. It’s a moment of fleeting brilliance frozen in time, and a bargain at almost any price.

Fairport Convention, What We Did On Our Holidays - 1st, UK, Deleted, vinyl LP album (LP record), Island, ILPS9092, 252480

The band’s second album, is the best of them all, spilling over with perfect moments and climaxing with Richard Thompson’s ultimate Fairport anthem “Meet on the Ledge”. The songs are not as innocent as on the first album: Thompson’s “Tale in Hard Time” starts with the line “Take the sun from my heart, let me learn to despise”, while Sandy Denny’s medieval-sounding “Fotheringay”, which sounds at first like the story of a princess running away to escape the smothering palace life, turns out to be about Mary Queen of Scots awaiting her execution. Denny shares lead vocals with Iain Matthews, who left after this album, and both are in fine voice. Denny’s singing on Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It with Mine” will leave your jaw hanging open. The band begins its journey into British traditional music with “She Moves Through the Fair”. The musicianship and arrangements are first-rate, mixing rock and folk touches with expert balance, and the production is remarkably clear for a 1968 album.

Fairport Convention, What We Did On Our Holidays - 1st, UK, Deleted, vinyl LP album (LP record), Island, ILPS9092, 252480

As usual, I came to this party late.  While the States was enjoying a folk revival in the mid-sixties that led to a range of new sounds from artists like Bob Dylan, the UK folk scene developed a little differently. Joe Boyd, who is credited with helping Dylan “plug in” at Newport, was working the London club scene with bands like Pink Floyd and managed to sign this new folk group—Fairport Convention to capture some of that American folk sound: what resulted was eventually quite different, and led to a series of albums that saw the band develop a far more distinctive sound based on traditional English folk music.

I wasn’t much of a “folkie” growing up in the States in the sixties (I was only ten years old in 1965), though as time went on, I certainly became familiar with some of the traditions- the work songs, the protest songs, and the lilting, story-telling ballads. When I finally got around to hearing some of the Fairport records from the Denny-Thompson era, I was struck by something that transcended all of the elements with which I was already familiar; there was something haunting about Sandy Denny’s voice, and the band wasn’t just strumming through another tired old ballad. The key to this record, and the band’s sound was something that gave the whole band an otherworldly quality: Denny’s voice was often characterized as “ethereal,” but it is more than just that voice; and it wasn’t just well-played folk-rock, either. Instead, I think it was raw talent, leavened, tempered and forged into something different- my guess is that the band members were changed by everything they went through in very short time.

Fairport Convention, Liege & Lief - 1st - VG, UK, Deleted, vinyl LP album (LP record), Island, ILPS9115, 551293

In the decades since its original release, more than one writer has declared Fairport Convention’s Leige and Lief  the definitive British folk-rock album, a distinction it holds at least in part because it grants equal importance to all three parts of that formula. While Fairport had begun dipping their toes into British traditional folk with their stellar version of “A Sailor’s Life” on Unhalfbricking Liege & Lief found them diving head first into the possibilities of England’s musical past, with  Ashley Hutchings digging through the archives at the Cecil Sharp House in search of musical treasure, and the musicians (in particular vocalist Sandy Denny)  eagerly embracing the dark mysteries of this music. (Only two of the album’s eight songs were group originals, though “Crazy Man Michael” and “Come All Ye” hardly stand out from their antique counterparts.) Leige and Lief was also recorded after a tour bus crash claimed the lives of origina Fairport drummer Martin Lamble  and also Richard Thompson’s girlfriend; as the members of the group worked to shake off the tragedy (and break in new drummer  Dave Mattacks  and full-time fiddler Dave Swarbrick ), they became a stronger and more adventurous unit, less interested in the neo-Jefferson Airplane direction of their earlier work and firmly committed to fusing time-worn folk with electric instruments while honoring both. And while Leige and Lief  was the most purely folk-oriented Fairport Convention album to date, it also rocked hard in a thoroughly original and uncompromising way; the “Lark in the Morning” medley swings unrelentingly, the group’s crashing dynamics wring every last ounce of drama from “Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves,” and Thompson and Swarbrick‘s soloing is dazzling throughout. Liege & Lief introduced a large new audience to the beauty of British folk, but Fairport Convention‘s interpretations spoke of the present as much as the past, and the result was timeless music in the best sense of the term.

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Fairport Convention  like many groups in that era – developed rapidly over the course of their first three albums. The dialectic of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny was driving them towards becoming a very original and successful band when tragedy struck. Their first impulse was to disband, but decided to carry on while vowing never to play the repertoire they had developed with drummer Martin Lamble, who died in the crash. Music From Big Pink was a huge influence during that traumatic spring of 1969. It both barred the way to any further exploration of American roots music – how could a bunch of English kids possibly compete with that?  and inspired them to look for their own roots in the traditions of the British Isles. This new repertoire was driven by a combination of Sandy’s experience in folk clubs, Ashley Hutchings intense research, the addition of ace trad fiddler Dave Swarbrick, Thompson’s blues-avoiding rock guitar virtuosity and the discovery of strict-tempo dance-band drummer Dave Mattacks who steered them clear of rock clichés.

When you take in this body of work now, it is all the more remarkable that the three albums- What We Did on our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief were released within a single year, from January through December, 1969, with the deaths, injuries and marked evolution of their style all occurring within this remarkably brief period.

Among my copies are early UK Island pink labels and pink rims; as seem to be typical of my experience with Island’s output during this period, the pink labels are warmer and sound less “reproduced” but the pink rims are quieter.

If you aren’t familiar with Fairport Convention, at least buy Liege and Lief on an old Island UK pressing. These records aren’t terribly expensive. I think you’ll find, as I have, that this leads you to tap into more undiscovered, rich veins from this era of music-making in England. That so much of this material was first recorded on Island tells you just how influential that label was and remains so.

Sandy Denny

When I finally got around to hearing some of the Fairport records from the Denny-Thompson era, I was struck by something that transcended all of the elements with which I was already familiar; there was something haunting about Sandy Denny’s voice, and the band wasn’t just strumming through another tired old ballad. The key to this record, and the band’s sound was something that gave the whole band an otherworldly quality: Denny’s voice was often characterized as “ethereal,” but it is more than just that voice; and it wasn’t just well-played folk-rock, either. Instead, I think it was raw talent, leavened, tempered and forged into something different- my guess is that the band members were changed by everything they went through in very short time.

Fairport Convention are still performing and have become something of an English institution , but for me , the magic that is in this LP and the other two seminal albums that they recorded in 1969 will never be surpassed . These albums are the equal to anything that was recorded in the sixties

Before her untimely death, Denny managed to squeeze in a duet on Led Zeppelin’s ‘Zoso” album (a/k/a LZ IV) as well write “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (1967), later covered by Judy Collins with great success.

Boyd’s rather remarkable life included organizing European tours of blues and soul artists such as Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, handling the “sound” at the 1965 Newport Festival (where Dylan ‘went’ electric) and operating the UFO Club, where Pink Floyd developed their sound. His book, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960’s recounts much of this in detail and is a fascinating read.