Fairport Convention: The tragedies behind the pioneers of folk rock

By any measure, it was a period of prodigious creativity. Between June 1968 and December 1969, Fairport Convention released their first four albums — and changed the course of music both in Britain and further afield.

By John Meagher

By any measure, it was a period of prodigious creativity. Between June 1968 and December 1969, Fairport Convention released their first four albums — and changed the course of music both in Britain and further afield.

The third, Unhalfbricking, was their first to chart, and helped make them one of the UK’s most critically acclaimed bands. The next, Liege & Lief, which came out in the last month of the 1960s, is widely regarded as one of the most influential folk-rock albums ever, a record that fuelled the creative juices of a young Christy Moore and continues to resonate with such contemporary luminaries as Lankum.

Fairport Convention have had more members than Everton and Watford’s recent managerial roll-call combined and they play a Dublin show this evening in the auspicious surrounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Co-founder Simon Nicol and longest-serving member Dave Pegg will be among the quintet to play in Jonathan Swift’s old stomping ground.

But, impressive as the band’s longevity has been, it’s the line-up centred on the rare talents of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny more than half-a-century ago that ensures Fairport’s lofty place in the popular culture canon.

The story of early Fairport Convention is one of youthful ambition, magnificent musical virtuosity and seemingly boundless creativity. It’s also one underscored by a tragedy that threatened to destroy the band. Remarkably, they came back even stronger, even if Thompson and Denny were soon to take other creative paths.

The band’s origins date to 1966. Thompson was just 17 when he and Nicol, along with Ashley Hutchings, formed a band and started to knock out Bob Dylan and Byrds covers. They got their name from ‘Fairport’, the large mock Tudor house in London that was owned by Nicol’s family: the early incarnation was peopled by middle-class grammar-school educated kids.

The group hit the ground running. Soon they were supporting Pink Floyd, who were also going places fast thanks to their mercurial leader Syd Barrett. At one of those Floyd gigs, in July 1967, Fairport Convention opened, while the headliners had to contend with the fact that Barrett had just overdosed on LSD. David Gilmour had to deputise.

It was at that show that Fairport met the American producer Joe Boyd, who would produce their self-titled debut and the four albums that followed it, including the illustrious pair mentioned above. Boyd’s part in the great British folk revival should never be underestimated.

While they showed considerable promise on their debut album, there were few signs about what was to come. Having taken their sonic cues from the other side of the Atlantic, they were dubbed “the British Jefferson Airplane”.

Things started to pick up when Sandy Denny joined the band in 1968, replacing Judy Dyble, who later claimed she had been “unceremoniously dumped”. A couple of years older than Thompson, Denny had already cut her teeth as vocalist with English folkies the Strawbs. Continue reading

The Artistry of Danny Thompson: Part 1, The 1960s

Chronicling the magnificent career of bassist Danny Thompson, this article focuses on his work in the 1960s, including Pentangle, Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band and others.

I have been toying with the idea of writing an article about Danny Thompson for a while. His playing is a common thread across so many albums I cherish, that dedicating an artist profile article to him seemed inevitable. But where to begin, what to cover? There are over 400 album credits with his name on it, spanning almost six(!) decades. The task seemed monumental, given my inability to avoid digging deep into my chosen subjects. I finally decided to take the plunge and go for it. So here is the first article in a series (what else?) that will cover a few decades of his unique career. This one here is dedicated to his work in the 1960s.

Danny Thompson was born in 1939, taking his name after ‘Danny Boy’, the song his miner father loved to sing. He tried his hand with various instruments including trumpet, mandolin and guitar, but the first serious instrument was the trombone, an instrument of which he said: “It is the only one I had much success with, probably because it’s an instrument of judgement, just like the bass.” He gave up on the trombone due to his love of boxing: “I lost my first fight and swore I would never lose another one. And I didn’t, in 22 fights. That was one of the reasons I gave up the trombone, because a smack in the chops is not very good for that.” His desire to play with his mates in a skiffle band led him to the bass as a DIY project: “I made my own tea-chest bass and at 14 I would get on the London buses with it to go to gigs and play.” The entrepreneurial lad had the foresight to build hinges into his bass, making it collapsible and easily transportable on a bus.

At the age of 15 Thompson bought Victoria. Don’t leave in disgust, no basic human rights are violated in this story. Victoria is a French bass circa 1860 built by Gand, a famous string instrument builder. This was the beginning of a beautiful love affair with a musical instrument. Thompson tells the story: “I bought her for a fiver from an old man who I promised to repay at five shillings a week. I collected her and the same night did a gig in a Wandsworth pub for fifteen shillings [three weeks’ money!]. On the way to the pub it was drizzling and she got quite wet and when I started to wipe the rain from her, all the beautiful varnish came through making the trumpeter remark: ‘blimey it’s probably a Strad or somethin’!” Victoria is not a Strad, but its worth was many folds what Thompson paid for it: “The next day he took me to Foote’s bass shop in Brewer St, Soho and they offered me £130. I took her back to the man and said ‘this is worth £130, not a fiver’. But he said ‘look son, if you want to play it, just give me the £5’. I think back to that a lot and think that it was meant to be, especially as it turned out that this was an extraordinary instrument that I now cherish. She’s been on countless recordings from the 1960s until now – and she is beautiful.” Danny Thompson remarked that for him to play on a different bass “it’s as though I’m being unfaithful. It feels like I was sleeping with some other woman while my wife is in hospital delivering my baby!” Continue reading

That’s all folk — the unconventional birth of Fairport Convention

In an extract from his new memoir Richard Thompson remembers how the iconic band came about, recalls their early gigs and looks back at the motorway crash that killed his girlfriend and their drummer

Fairport Convention

How the band came together
I met Ashley “Tyger” Hutchings through my schoolfriend Brian Wyvill, who lived a few doors away from him in Durnsford Road, Muswell Hill. Brian had been recommending us to each other for a while, so it was inevitable that we should cross paths eventually, and it finally happened one sunny afternoon across a suburban garden gate. You could bet your life that any band run by Tyger in 1966, of which there were several, would have an obscure repertoire. For Dr K’s Blues Band, he used to track down and play B-sides by artists who had been mere footnotes in blues anthologies, and for the Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra he revived the 1920s repertoires of Gus Cannon and the Memphis Jug [ . . . ]  Subscribers to THE TIMES continue