Fairport Convention: ‘Liege and Lief’

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At the end of 1969 Fairport Convention released an album that was to change the face of British rock, and define a whole new genre: folk/rock.  The fact that the album was released at all was astonishing in itself, but these days it stands the test of time as a groundbreaking work of genuine originality and bravery.

Fairport Convention first took wing into the realms of British rock in 1967.  Coming out of the North London folk scene, at first the line-up was kept very flexible until they realized that they might be onto something here.  The line-up stabilized and Simon Nicol took on guitar and vocal duties; a great man to have in any band as adaptability was his middle name and enthusiasm he kept in bags.  Ashley Hutchings accepted the bass responsibilities, and being steeped in traditional British folk music he became the unspoken leader cum spokesman for the band.

On lead guitar and vocals was one of the nicest men on the planet, Richard Thompson, who also just happened to be one of the most original guitar players of his day.  Thompson was a distinctive vocalist and a talented songwriter, so all round a pretty useful chap to have on board.  Martin Lamble sat behind the skins and was the drummer that every band envied, as not only could he keep time but he brought with him a style all of his own.  Meanwhile on lead vocals was the impeccable Sandy Denny.

Due to their popularity, Fairport Convention were almost constantly on the road and just when everything seemed to be on the up and up, disaster struck.  In June 1969, returning from a gig in Birmingham, their van ran off the motorway and in this terrible crash the lives of Martin Lamble and Richard Thomson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Taylor, were snatched away.

Naturally the rest of the members of the band were distraught, and at first could not bear the idea of carrying on without their fallen comrades.  But Joe Boyd, Fairport Convention’s manager, rented a remote cottage in Hampshire and the remaining members of the band were invited to live there while Dave Swarbrick was made a permanent member of the group.  A replacement for Martin Lamble had to be found to allow the band to continue recording and touring.  Dave Mattacks seemed to have the right temperament and was an excellent drummer, but collectively it was decided that a new direction had to be taken as the others could not imagine playing the old songs without Lamble on drums.

Ashley Hutchings and Sandy Denny shared a love for old traditional English folk songs – almost every day the two of them would arrive back at the house with reams of new songs to show and play for their friends and band mates.  Everybody was in agreement this was the way forward and once the band had decided where they were going the music was laid down quickly and almost effortlessly.  Daytimes were spent playing football in the spacious gardens, or taking long walks with Dave Swarbrick’s collie dog, but in the evening they would pick up their instruments and get down to work.

The results were stupendous – a landmark in rock‘n’roll history.  Of the eight tracks, the album opens and closes with originals: Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings’ “Come All Ye” sets the mood perfectly while “Crazy Man Michael” by Dave Swarbrick and Richard Thompson brings the album to a fitting close.  In the middle there is Richard Thompson’s beautiful “Farewell, Farewell” plus five songs dug out by Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings, which have been arranged by the band.

The medley in the middle is a joyous collection of tunes, jigs and reels but perhaps the standout track on the album is “Matty Groves”, all eight minutes of it, as it tells a tale of love between the classes.  At first Sandy Denny’s beautiful voice leads us through the story, with its sad conclusion before the band breaks in rampaging towards the climax with a fine musical battle between fiddle and lead guitar.

“Liege and Lief” (1969) to this day is THE British folk rock album – a seminal work which said it all, and launched a thousand imitators.  It was certainly Fairport Convention’s finest hour.  Strange then that before the album had even hit shop shelves, and after one radio broadcast, an appearance on Top Of The Pops to promote the non-LP “Si Tu Dois Partir”, which actually got to 21 in the charts, and only nine concerts, Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings left the band; Denny to form Fortheringay and Hutchings to Steeleye Span.  Of course the others quickly got over the shock, picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and carried on, having a new album (“Full House”) in the charts by the following July.

“Liege and Lief” gets an unreserved 5 stars.

Fairport Convention.
Fairport Convention.

Fairport Convention:

Sandy Denny – vocals

Dave Swarbrick – fiddle, viola

Dave Mattacks – drums

Simon Nicol – guitar and vocals

Richard Thompson – guitar and vocals

Ashley Hutchings – bass and vocals

Album tracks:

Come all Ye

Reynardine

Matty Groves

Farewell, Farewell

The Deserter

Medley (The Lark In The Morning / Rakish Paddy / Foxhunters Jig / Toss The Feathers)

Tam Lin

Crazy Man Michael