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