The reverberations from The Byrds‘ first two albums could be felt as far away as the Muswell Hill house where Simon Nicol and his teenage school chums convened to make their own music.
Fresh from an apprenticeship with Elektra in New York, young producer Joe Boyd, then running the now-mythic UFO Club in London’s Covent Garden, saw Fairport Convention play and was transfixed, especially by Richard Thompson’s unique guitar work. But Boyd couldn’t work out why the band weren’t bastardising their own traditional music.
In asking themselves the same question, Fairport Convention commenced a voyage whose co-ordinates defined British folk rock; the rattling climax of A Sailor’s Life; the eerie worldliness of Richard Thompson’s Meet On The Ledge and Sandy Denny‘s Who Knows Where The Time Goes (first recorded by Denny when she was with The Strawbs); and of course, the entirety of their 1969 masterpiece Liege & Lief.
The LP Unhalfbricking is graced with an unforgettable cover.
Unsullied by album title or band name, the photograph, by Eric Hayes, is of an elderly, middle-class couple – Sandy’s parents, Neil and Edna Denny – posing in front of their home in Arthur Road, Wimbledon in the Autumn of 1968.
Through the high fence behind them you can just make out Fairport Convention, lounging playfully on the lawn under a tall, old beech tree. The misty church spire in the distance underlines the image’s assertion that this is rock music unlike any other, rock music from a different lineage.
The band were involved in a motorway accident in May 1969 in which drummer Martin Lamble died. The band were returning in their van from a gig in Birmingham (UK) when, on the outskirts of London, their roadie fell asleep at the wheel and the van went cartwheeling across the M1. Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie “the Tailor” Franklin also died in the crash.
The group re-formed later that year with singer/violinist Dave Swarbrick coming in as the focal point, writing much of the music and making his jiggy violin as essential part of their sound. Sandy Denny left the band in the same year to form Fotheringay, and later to work with her own band and on solo gigs.
Guitarist Richard Thompson left in January 1971 and Fairport Convention became very much Dave Swarbrick’s band and reached the revered status of an ‘institution’ on the British rock scene.
26 January 1974: the first rock act to play the Sydney Opera House was Fairport Convention, and Sandy was back in the fold. As long as Trevor stayed with them and Sandy wanted to be with him, it seemed inevitable.
But the ambitious world tour – which included their first Japanese visit – was financially ruinous. The band returned to the UK despondent and practically bankrupt, and dismissed their manager.
David Denny took over temporarily and a live album was rushed out to help the cash flow. In the meantime, Sandy and Trevor moved to the heart of the country.
In recent years the band have toured the UK each spring and appear annually at their own Cropredy festival (in Cropredy, Oxfordshire).
Dave Swarbrick read his own obituary in the Daily Telegraph while in a Midlands hospital in 1999. He later sold signed copies of the obit at his gigs before the newspaper complained that he was infringing their copyright.
Swarbrick was dogged by ill health in his later years. He suffered from emphysema and underwent no less than three tracheotomies. Undeterred, he continued to perform live with the aid of an oxygen canister. Even a double lung transplant, received in 2004, failed to stop him.
He eventually passed away for real on 3 June 2016.
Ashley ‘Tyger’ Hutchings
Vocals, mandolin, bouzouki