Fairport Convention – 1968 (Unhalfbricking photo session)

Sometimes all you need to make the right change is a key ingredient to slide into place. My track of the day by the Fairport Convention makes that case vividly. Before they would become the most well known and thoroughly English folk-rock group they were decidedly going in the wrong direction. By the stroke of good fortune, and a really darn good audition to replace Judy Dyble, Sandy became the main vocalist for Fairport Convention. All of this was happening at the right time, and the right place. My tracks of the day, “Fotheringay” and “A Sailor’s Tale”, portray how they righted that ship.

In America, the artists that pre-Sandy era Fairport Convention were influenced by such as the Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan were already moving past mere psychedelic and traditional rock songs, this shift in sound made what they were trying to do sound old hat by the time of their first release, 1968’s Fairport Convention. Sensing this statis, they retreated and regrouped with producer Joe Boyd (of Nick Drake, ISB, Shirley Collins fame) hoping to find a way forward.

Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol, had always been the guiding voices leading Fairport Convention by then. They saw in Sandy something they had always lacked, someone to light a fire under them.

Richard, lead guitar and writer, a young Scot, had always had a master’s touch in playing rock and blues, it was such a different way of playing that belied his background. His dad was a police detective and a very amateur guitar player, but let Richard have a go at his collection of Jazz and old Scottish folk music albums. He would learn to play guitar by imitating the sounds he heard on those records, and as his prowess grew he would blend in the rock style that most of his peers loved to listen to. Its this prowess that allowed him to play nearly anything and still leave his own unique stamp that attracted Joe Boyd to ask him to join Fairport Convention initially.

Simon, rhythm guitarist, a Muswell Hill Londoner, was a young high school dropout who lost his father when he was 14-years old. He used music as an escape from things that would weigh a young person whose life had been rocked by such events. Together with another friend of his Ashley Hutchings on bass, in the mid-60s they would practice in his father’s old medical office as the Ethnic Shuffle Band (ESB) in a house called Fairport.

Fairport Convention, with Judy and Iain.

As the ESB, joined by Richard now, they were a weird jug band prone to playing blues, funk, and rock. This lack of a clear vision, was ever present in their first recording as the Fairport Convention. In this recording, they rounded out their band with the voices of Judy Dyble and then-boyfriend Iain Matthews, and drummer Martin Lamble. It was a rock band through and through, choosing to play covers of west-coast style rock and American blues, interspersed here and there with tunes written by Richard. Richard by far the most talented out of the lot, refused to sing and stand out as he could have. As the album sold sparingly, Richard grew increasingly embarrassed by the amount of covers they did and the little original tunes they recorded. Something had to change.

With new decidedly more English songs in hand, Richard and Simon jumped at the chance of having Sandy in their group. In her, they saw another talented young artist who wanted to be original and look inward for inspiration. By then, they had a vision of new English folk music, one driven by electric instruments, progression, and experimentation.

1969 would be their banner year. In terms of maturity, What We Did On Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking are two consecutive albums of the same kind, that capture exactly the rise in taste and sophistication that Richard and Sandy were bringing to the table. Songs from What We Did On Our Holidays, like brilliant originals such as “Fotheringay”, “No Man’s Land”, “Meet on the Ledge”, “Tale on Hard Time”, which feature a genuinely heavier brand of English folk-rock, now make up most of the album.

What We Did on Our Holidays album cover.

As Richard’s and Sandy’s confidence grew so did the band’s less reliance on obvious covers, choosing instead to thoroughly reimagine songs like Dylan’s “I’ll Keep it With Mine” and Joni’s “Eastern Rain” surpassing the original versions easily. Their confidence in reimagining traditional songs was becoming even more revelatory. Hearing traditional tracks like “She Moves Through the Fair” and “Nottamun Town”, now de facto folk-rock standards, must have been mind blowing to their audience used to half-baked west-coast rock songs. It was clear their own voices could start hold their own.

Listen to Fotheringay at Grooveshark.

That’s what you hear peering through in Unhalfbricking. If you have the time listen to their take on Sandy’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, can you notice how much more muscular and grown it sounds? This album was a transitional album, where they finally were solidifying a Fairport Convention sound. It was a short period of joy. Initially, they were given first dibs at hearing unreleased Bob Dylan songs from his Basement Tapes sessions. These songs they could select any from and record them to round out their own material. “Percy’s Song”, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” (which they remade into Si Tu Dois Partis), and “Million Dollar Bash” would make it onto the album. I think, even Bob would admit, that their Anglicized versions of his songs were better than his recorded versions. Which goes to show the high level of musicianship that was ever increasing exponentially among them.

Unhalfbricking album cover. (Band in the field, and Sandy’s parents in the foreground).

Fresh off Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left sessions, Richard Thompson started to share his new more atmospheric and complex writing influence. With Iain Matthews now gone, and Sandy taking the lead, they started to take even more chances with their growing English folk influence. You hear this flowering fruit starting to form in “Genesis Hall”, “Autopsy”, and even more clearly in “A Sailor’s Life”. This song was their first true stab at reimagining a traditional English folk song. In this song, you them transform this tragic/troubling 19th century nautical round, into the thoroughly modern 20th century epic that no one saw coming from them.

Fairport Convention with Sandy Denny (Unhalfbricking photo shoot).

Joined by electric fiddler Dave Swarbrick, of early folk duo Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, and recorded in one 11:11 minute-long take, Richard and the boys create a sonic maelstrom from which Sandy tries to float her voice over. As the song continues to get increasingly torrid, proving that you could stretch out and improvise a thoroughly English traditional song, they start to send back a signal to their American brethren. This signal was that we no longer had to measure our music with the supposedly more “authentic” American folk tradition. Its a message that would only come to its full fruition on the next album, in spite, or maybe because, of some decidedly unfortunate bits of life that would have to occur to them for this to happen, more of that story tomorrow though…