Fairport Convention - Biography
By Scott Feemster
It can't often be said that one band is responsible for starting one genre of music, but in the case of Fairport Convention, it's very nearly true. The band's mixture of rock influences combined with British folk music was a revelation in the late 1960's, and the band were one of, if not the first, band to play British folk rock. Since then, the band has split up, gotten back together, and endured numerous line-up changes and tragedies that would have stopped other bands in their tracks, but the group continues to record and tour and remains a vital musical unit now past their 40th year together.
The original incarnation of Fairport Convention came together in 1967 as a group of friends who all knew bass player Ashley 'Tyger' Hutchings and wanted to form a group that was similar in sound and intent to some of the 'West Coast' American bands that were becoming popular at the time, such as The Byrds and The Jefferson Airplane. They first got together at the north London family home of rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol, called Fairport, and took their name as a natural extension of that meeting. The original line-up of the band included Hutchings, Nicol, drummer Sean Frater and lead guitarist/vocalist Richard Thompson. This incarnation practiced and played one gig, after which a young drummer in the audience named Martin Lamble convinced the members of the band that he could be a better drummer for them than Frater. With Lamble in and Frater out, the band soon picked up another member in female vocalist Judy Dyble. With their unique-for-the-English-scene sound, the band fit in nicely with the psychedelic underground scene of the time, and found steady work at such venues as UFO and Middle Earth. At one of those gigs, they caught the attention of producer Joe Boyd, who took over management of the band and got them a contract with Polydor Records. At Boyd's suggestion, the group added another male vocalist, the singer Iain Matthews. With this new incarnation somewhat stable, the group entered the studio with Boyd and recorded their first album, Fairport Convention (Polydor), released in 1968. The album featured original material written by the group, as well as covers of songs by Joni Mitchell, Emitt Rhodes and Bob Dylan. The album was warmly received by critics and fans but didn't sell well, and got the band nicknamed 'the British Jefferson Airplane', probably because of their sound and dual male/female lead vocalists. Boyd got the band a new contract with Island records soon after their first release.
Before the band started work on a second album, Dyble left the group, and was replaced by folk singer Sandy Denny, who had already recorded material with the Strawbs and as a solo artist. With Denny on board, Fairport Convention recorded and released What We Did On Our Holidays (Island)(1969), an album that highlighted Denny's haunting vocals and displayed Thompson's increasing inventiveness on guitar and showed the band moving more towards the folk influences that were bubbling under their sound. The album included the song “Meet On The Ledge”, which has gone on to be the traditional closing song in Fairport concerts in years since. Fairport Convention quickly followed up What We Did... with their next album, Unhalfbricking (Island), released the same year, 1969. Unhalfbricking saw the band move further away from 'pop' and closer to the electrified British folk for which they would become known. The album featured guest fiddler Dave Swarbrick, who would become a member of the band later. The band became a favorite of influential BBC DJ John Peel, and Peel championed the band whenever possible and recorded the group numerous times for his radio program. ( These BBC sessions were later released in 2002 as Heyday: BBC Radio Sessions, 1968-1969 on Island Records). Peel's patronage even got them an appearance on BBC television's popular music program Top Of The Pops, where they performed a French-language version of the Bob Dylan song “If You Gotta Go”.
Tragedy struck the band in May of 1969, as the group's van crashed on the M1 motorway on the way home from a date in Birmingham. Martin Lamble, the group's drummer, and Jeannie Franklyn, Thompson's girlfriend, were both killed in the crash, and the rest of the band sustained injuries as well. Fairport Convention could have very easily fallen apart at that point, but they decided to stay together and soldier on. By the time they were ready to perform and record again, Matthews had left the band, Swarbrick had joined full time, and Dave Mattacks was recruited to take over the vacancy on drums. The resulting album, Liege & Lief (Island)(1969), became an instant classic and showcased the band's full conversion to a British folk rock band, relying much more on traditional British folk songs and original compositions by members of the band than on covers of songs by other, mainly American, songwriters. The group played a sell-out concert at London's Royal Festival Hall to launch the album, and the record went on to spend fifteen weeks in the U.K. album charts, eventually charting as high as #17. Years later, in 2006, the band would be given an award for the album from BBC Radio 2 as the “Most Influential Folk Album Of All Time”. Even as Liege & Lief was a highpoint for the band, things continued to change. After touring for the album, Hutchings left the band to form Steeleye Span, and Denny left to resume her solo career and form the band Fotheringay. Dave Pegg was drafted as the group's new bassist, but the group decided not to get another female vocalist after Denny's departure. The members of the group and their families decided to all move in together and took over a former pub in the town of Hertfordshire called The Angel. The group soon got to work again and released the album Full House (Hannibal) in 1970. The album highlighted both the vocal interplay of the members of the band, but also fine guitar work from Thompson and wonderful violin and viola playing from Swarbrick. Unfortunately, it marked the end of Thompson's time with the band, and he went on to a successful solo career. Despite setbacks, the band kept its momentum going and recorded the album Angel Delight (Island)(1971), which became the band highest charting record, and followed that up with a folk-opera concept album written by Swarbrick based on an infamous Victorian-era murderer named Babbacombe Lee (Island)(1971). Though hailed by critics, the buying public didn't respond to it, and thus began Fairport's gradual retreat from the best-selling album charts.
The time after Babbacombe Lee was marked by so much shifting in the band line-up, that it's a wonder they managed to perform, record, and stay together at all. In 1972, both Mattacks and Nicol left the band, leaving Swarbrick and Pegg to recruit guitarist Roger Hill and drummer Tom Farnell. This line-up recorded some material that was never released, and then Hill left and was replaced by American guitarist David Rae. This line-up didn't last long either, and by 1973, Mattacks returned to the band and the group recruited two members of Sandy Denny's band Fotheringay to complete a new line-up, American guitarist Jerry Donahue and Denny's husband, Australian guitarist and vocalist Trevor Lucas. This version of Fairport completed two albums, 1973's Rosie (Island), and 1974's Fairport Nine (Island). The band's re-connection with Denny was made more clear when she joined the band again in 1974, and recorded Rising For The Moon (Island)(1975). The album was seen as a return to form for the band, and was the highest charting album ever for the band in the U.S. The revolving Fairport door continued to swing, however, as Mattacks quit the band during sessions for the album, and was replaced by drummer Bruce Rowland. After touring to support the album, Denny, Donahue and Lucas all left the band in 1976, leaving Pegg, Rowland and Swarbrick to complete their contractual obligation to Island to produce one more album. With the help of session musicians and producer Simon Nicol, who soon re-joined the band, the trio released the album Gottle O'Geer (Island) in 1976.
The quartet of Rowland, Pegg, Nicol and Swarbrick signed with the Vertigo label and released the albums Bonny Bunch Of Roses in 1977 and Tippler's Tales in 1978, but the label backed out of a proposed four album deal after just two albums, leaving the band without a label. By 1979, the band was label-less, upset after learning of Sandy Denny's death of a cerebral haemorrhage after a terrible fall, and Swarbrick learned that he was losing his hearing. They decided to end the band by playing a final outdoor concert in Cropredy, an Oxfordshire village where Pegg had settled. The concert was a great success, and the band decided, even though they were officially breaking up, that they would come back every year in one incarnation or another and make Cropredy an annual festival celebrating all things Fairport-connected. Because no record label would release a record of Fairport's final gig, Pegg and his wife Christine started their own label Woodworm and released it themselves.
Pegg went on to join Jethro Tull, and Nicol and Swarbrick formed an acoustic duo. By 1985, the trio of Pegg, Nicol and Mattacks decided to re-start the band as a recording entity again, and recorded the album Glady's Leap (Varrick) at Pegg's studio. Pleased with the results, the trio recruited former Soft Machine and Albion Country Band member violinist Ric Sanders and multi-instrumentalist Maartin Allcock to join the reconstituted band and recorded an all-instrumental album Expletive Delighted! (Varrick), released in 1986. This version of the band stayed together for an amazing 11 years and produced such albums as Red & Gold (Rough Trade)(1988), The Five Seasons (Rough Trade)(1990) and Jewel In The Crown (Talking Elephant)(1995). In 1996, Fairport released the album Old-New-Borrowed-Blue (Green Linnet), a collection of all-acoustic numbers, and in the years since, both an electric version of Fairport and the acoustic four-piece have run parallel to each other. In 1996, Allcock left the band, and was replaced by fiddler and mandolin player Chris Leslie. In 1998, Mattacks also left the band and moved to the U.S., and was replaced by drummer Gerry Conway. Fairport found itself moving into the new century with successful tours, the successful Copredy festival, and studio albums that were still selling rather well for independent releases. These releases include The Wood And The Wire (Compass)(2000), XXXV (Compass)(2002), Over The Next Hill (Compass)(2004) and Sense Of Occasion (Matty Grooves)(2007). (Matty Grooves is the band's own label, started in 2004). A four CD box of some of the band's rare and unreleased recordings called Fairport Unconventional (Free Reed) was released in 2002, followed by another 4-CD collection of live highlights from the Cropredy Conventions called Cropredy Capers (Free Reed)(2004). The Fairport Convention line-up of Pegg, Sanders, Nicol, Leslie and Conway continues to tour around the world and shows no sign of slowing down. At the 2007 Cropredy Convention, the classic line-up of Swarbrick, Hutchings, Mattacks, Nicol and Thompson got together with vocalist Chris While, (taking over Sandy Denny's parts), and performed the whole of Liege & Lief to a rapt audience.