Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

A History of Fairport Convention in 5 Songs

Judging by the rain lashing down outside it must be nearly festival time.

Once the time when kids would take leave of their parents to spend a few days enduring the sort of conditions that would have Oxfam issuing an appeal for aid, today this mainly seems to be parents taking leave of their children and proceeding to spend the weekend pretending they're both old enough to remember the sixties and young enough to be cool, when clearly they are neither.

Cropredy 2005 I think, or 2009, or 1991, or ....
And I should know, I'm one.

I've been drowned in Glastonbury (although never had my tent nicked), have seen the Archers fans and Green Underpants Man at Cambridge (note to the older male festival goer; under wear is necesary but not sufficient clothing), wandered stoned around the Big Green Gathering wondering when something was actually going to happen and in a relatively unique experience seen a load of pissed off bands realising they're not going to be paid at the one and only Padbury Folk Festival.

Annoyingly that was one I actually paid to get in to.

However like a criminal salmon returning to the river of its first crime I usually end up back in a field in Oxfordshire listening to a band that formed three years before I was born.

1) Who Knows Where The Time Goes (1969)

Fairport Convention started in 1967, although even then they weren't as good as they used to be.

Line up changes started immediately when at their first gig  Martin Lamble turned up to watch but went home the new drummer.

After the first album Sandy Denny joined and shortly afterwards Dave Swarbick arrived with fiddle and a repertoire of folk songs, making the first great lineup.

1969 saw no less than three albums, including their immortal Liege and Leaf. However What We Did On Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking between them added just as many classic songs, both self penned and traditional.

Sandy didn't sing on them all, but for me these are the Sandy Denny years and so it has to be one of hers that is the pick of this era, and the song that is truly her finest is this one.

Richard Thompson was responsible for the sky turning from purple to evening, but everything else in this song belongs to Sandy Denny. Her words, her singing - part folk, part jazz - and her amazing voice make this an emotive track.

She was only twenty two when she recorded this, and nine years later she would be dead. In between she's sing with Led Zeppelin, briefly return to Fairport and record four albums of her own. She never achieved the popularity she craved, but she is remembered with more affection than many more famous artists. An English Rose who is much missed.

2) Sloth  (Full House 1970)

Without Sandy song writing duties fell to the guys, mainly Swarb and Richard Thompson.

Thompson soon left, believing he could write better for himself than the band. His solo efforts rarely troubled the charts, but he gathered critical acclaim and a loyal fan following. Personally I don't believe any other artist, armed only with a guitar and self-penned songs, could better entertain an audience, although his major achievement may have been convincing his wife Linda that she could actually sing.

Whilst Sandy and Richard were pursing their own careers it really did seem that Fairport were less than the sum of their former parts. Indeed it was hard to keep track of who was in the band and who was out of it, and they acquired the nickname Fairport Confusion.

They played the first Glastonbury Festival and although their popularity waned as the decade progressed, all the time they were slowly building up the sort of dedicated fans that make a group immortal, helped by the then innovative idea of a newsletter.

Musically this was a varied era, but one track stands out. "Haunting, moody, dazzling", Sloth is a long way from the laying-maidens-in-long-grass school of folk music and shows how well Swarb and Thompson worked together as writers and performers.

3) Nineteen Years Old (Cropredy 1986)

Fairport decided to call it a day in 1979. They said goodbye at a special concert in the village to which bass player Dave Pegg had moved.

Legend had it that they arrived by helicopter after performing at Knebworth the same day, but in reality it was a Ford Transit.

The gig was such a success they did it again the next year, and so on for six years, with the festival only happening because of the band and the band only surviving because of the festival.

Members of Fairport turned up in unusual places during this period. Dave Pegg and Jerry Donahue for example make a cameo as part of a band in Who Dares Wins. Unfortunately this was not the TV comedy series that launched the career of Rory McGrath, but the gung-ho SAS film that sank the career of Lewis Collins.

Who the band actually were at this point was a bit vague as pretty much ever ex-member still alive would turn up at Cropredy. Fairport had acquired a fair few friends in the music scene over the years, and one or two would usually play as well.

For folks like me who came to Fairport from Heavy Metal there was one person whose appearance would make a wet weekend in a leaky tent a sacred experience, and that was Robert Plant, here performing an old Muddy Waters number in 1986. The song was chosen because of the age of the band, not their taste for teenage girls.

The next year Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson and Martin Barr appeared and whilst guests like this didn't exactly help Fairport become either popular or cool, it did mean that left field teenagers like me to could where their tour t-shirts with pride and brag about how Cropredy was more fun than commercial Glastonbury. Fairport even had a vaguely topical song about the Poll Tax - although this was the Poll Tax of 1377, not 1989.

In fact, as Ric said during a technical failure at one festival, it was all "Pretty damn cosmic."

4) Hiring Fair (In Reel Time 1987)

Eventually the band decided to reform properly, but Swarb's heart wasn't in it (and his lungs weren't doing too well either) and he was soon replaced on fiddle by Ric Sanders. Not only could he play all Swarb's old stuff almost as well, he could leap off the drum kit whilst doing so.

The new Fairport launched itself with a fake live album called In Reel Time. I converted one of my friends to the cult of Fairport with the  Widow of Westmorland's Daughter, an up-tempo song about a woman regaining her virginity in an unusual manner, but as a representation of this era I'm instead going to choose instead a slower number about a man loosing his virginity in a rather more common way.

A feature of the this Fairport was the vocals of Simon Nicol. A founder member, his dad's house had given Fairport the first part of its name ('convention' was added courtesy of a comment from a passing policeman). He had started off as backing vocalist and rhyme guitar but he had slowly moved towards the front of the stage and had now developed into an outstanding vocalist.

The group still lacked a decent songwriter, but made up by using material from other performers, which if nothing else added to the Cropredy guest list. Some of these were new and unknown whilst others were older and well known. Amongst the latter was Ralph McTell, who contributed many of the best songs, including this one.

5) Pilgrims (Fame and Glory 2009)

And so the band continued. Line up changes became fewer. Chris Leslie, who'd been with Swarb in Whippersnapper, joined, first as Ric Sanders' stunt double after he fell through a window on the eve of the bands 25th Anniversary appearance at Cropredy, and then as a regular member.

At the same time they finally began to gain some serious recognition.

Various members of Fairport played with other bands. Dave Pegg and Martin Allcock toured with Jethro Tull, whilst Ric Sanders toured with Fred Baker and Vikki Clayton and then his own band.

However for me the most productive partnership was with French composer Alan Simon, especially his Excalibur series which appeared in three parts between 1999 and 2012. These songs showed Fairport as a rock band and also the continued maturity as Simon Nicol as a vocalist. Morte d'Arthur was mixed in with the Irish Book of Invasions and any other Celtic myth that couldn't run away fast enough, so it was nice to hear Fairport singing about real people for a change.

This song, from the second Excalibur, has Simon singing about heading off to, not Cropredy, but Glastonbury.

At some point during this period I ended my own annual pilgrimages to Cropredy and started volunteering for Greenpeace duties at Pilton. Friends I'd introduce to Fairport still went, and thanks to the Internet group Talk Awhile they met virtual friends in flash mob style meet ups around the site. I thought they were taking it all a bit too seriously, but eventually I realised that they were right and I was wrong and I resumed the annual act of worship.

The festival has changed little over the years. You camp next to your car, a short walk from the main field. There is just one stage and you can still see it from the kiddies area. You don't appreciate these things unless you go to other festivals.

Domestic strife in the Pegg household has seen the festival under new management and put on a more commercial footing, whilst new technology has given us video screens and Matty Groves appearing as Mr Potato Head (reduced to chips by Lord Arnold), a silent movie hero and even a Ken doll having an affair with Barbie.

Quite how long it will carry on is a good question, but I expect to be at the band's fiftieth anniversary bash in 2017. After that, who knows? But the band seems to be raising their own replacements with Matt Pegg, Kami Thompson, Kristina Donahue, Henry Nicol and Imogen Leslie all having appeared on stage at Cropredy.

Looking back it's not hard to still see the band as something less than the sum of its parts, especially with Richard Thompson still at his creative peak and with a Sandy Denny tribute evening touring the country to critical acclaim.

However a certain symbiosis appears to sprung up with band, festival, fans and Wadsworth 6X all dependent on each other. There may be better bands, there may be better festivals, there may even be better beer, but there are certainly no better fans.

And I should know, I'm one.


Jeff Ingarfield said...

We were one of the unpaid bands at Padbury! The Twelve Sullivans.
Remember it well. Rained like never before.

Martin Porter said...

Yes it was wet. Fortunately the entire audience was able to fit into the beer tent.