The unchallenged inventors and high Kings of British folk rock have struggled through tragedy and changes, retaining the name that now represents not so much who is in the band, but what it stands for.
The original 1967 line-up comprised Iain Matthews (Iain Matthew McDonald, 16 June 1946, Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, England; vocals), Judy Dyble (b. 13 February 1949, London, England; autoharp/vocals), Ashley Hutchings (b. 26 January 1945, Southgate, Middlesex, England; bass), Richard Thompson (b. 3 April 1949, Notting Hill Gate, London, England; guitar/vocals), Simon Nicol (b. 13 October 1950, Muswell Hill, London, England; guitar/vocals) and Martin Lamble (b. 28 August 1949, St. Johns Wood, London, England, d. 12 May 1969, England; drums). The band originally came to the attention of the London underground club scene by sounding like a cross between the Jefferson Airplane and the Byrds. As an accessible alternative, people immediately took them to their hearts. American producer Joe Boyd signed them and they released the charming If I Had A Ribbon Bow. On their self-titled debut album they introduced the then little-known Canadian songwriter Joni Mitchell (I Dont Know Where I Stand, Chelsea Morning) to a wider audience. The album was a cult favourite, but like the single, it sold poorly.
Judy Dyble departed and was replaced by vocalist Sandy Denny (b. Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny, 6 January 1947, Wimbledon, London, England, d. 21 April 1978, London, England; ex-Strawbs). Denny brought a traditional folk feel to their work that began to appear on the superlative What We Did On Our Holidays. This varied collection contained some of their finest songs: Dennys version of She Moved Through The Fair, her own Fotheringay, Matthews lilting Book Song, the superb Bob Dylan cover Ill Keep It With Mine, and Thompsons early masterpiece Meet On The Ledge. This joyous album was bound together by exemplary musicianship; of particular note was the guitar of the shy and wiry Thompson.
Matthews left soon after its release, unhappy with the traditional direction the band was pursuing. Following the albums critical acclaim and a modest showing in the charts, they experienced tragedy a few months later when their Transit van crashed, killing Martin Lamble and Thompsons girlfriend and noted dressmaker Jeannie Franklyn. Unhalfbricking was released and, although not as strong as the former album, it contained excellent readings of Dylans Percys Song and Si Tu Dois Partir (If You Gotta Go, Go Now). Denny contributed two songs, Autopsy and the definitive Who Knows Where The Time Goes?. More significantly, Unhalfbricking featured guest musician, Dave Swarbrick (b. David Cyril Eric Swarbrick, 5 April 1941, New Malden, Surrey, England), on fiddle and mandolin. The album charted, as did the second Dylan number.
By now the band had opened the door for future bands like Steeleye Span, by creating a climate that allowed traditional music to be played in a rock context. The songs that went on the next album were premiered on John Peels BBC radio show Top Gear. An excited Peel stated that their performance would sail them into uncharted waters; his judgement proved correct. The live set was astonishing - they played jigs and reels, and completed all 27 verses of the traditional Tam Lin, featuring Swarbrick, now a full-time member, plus the debut of new drummer, Dave Mattacks (b. David James Mattacks, 13 March 1948, Edgware, Middlesex, England). The subsequent album Liege & Lief was a milestone; they had created British folk rock in spectacular style.
The album, however, created problems within the band and Hutchings left to form Steeleye Span and Denny departed to form Fotheringay with future husband Trevor Lucas (ex-Eclection). Undeterred, the band recruited Dave Pegg (b. 2 November 1947, Acocks Green, Birmingham, England) on bass and Swarbrick became more prominent both as lead vocalist and as an outstanding fiddle player. From their communal home in Hertfordshire they wrote much of the next two albums material although Thompson left before the release of 1971s Angel Delight. The band made The Guinness Book Of Records in 1970 with the longest-ever title: Sir B. McKenzies Daughters Lament For The 77th Mounted Lancers Retreat From The Straits Of Loch Knombe, In The Year Of Our Lord 1727, On The Occasion Of The Announcement Of Her Marriage To The Laird Of Kinleakie. The same years Full House was the first all-male Fairport Convention album and was instrumentally strong, with extended tracks like Sloth becoming standards.
The concept album Babbacombe Lee, released in late 1971, although critically welcomed, failed to sell and Simon Nicol left to form the Albion Country Band with Ashley Hutchings. Swarbrick struggled on, battling against hearing problems. With such comings and goings of personnel it was difficult to document the exact changes. The lack of any animosity from ex-members contributed to the family atmosphere, although by this time record sales were dwindling. Sandy Denny rejoined, as did Dave Mattacks (twice), but by the end of the 70s the name was temporarily put to rest. The family tree specialist Pete Frame has documented their incredible array of line-ups. The original bands swansong was at Cropredy in Oxfordshire in 1979. Since then, an annual reunion has taken place and is now a major event on the folk calendar. The band has no idea which ex-members will turn up!
The fact that Fairport Convention has continued to release new studio albums has made the concept of the swansong a sham. With Swarbricks departure, his position was taken by Ric Sanders (b. Richard Sanders, 8 December 1952, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) in 1985 who rapidly quietened his dissenters by stamping his own personality on the fiddlers role. Some of the later collections have been quite superb, including Gladys Leap (1985), with Simon Nicol back on lead vocals, and the instrumental Expletive Delighted! (1986). With the release in 1990 of The Five Seasons, the band established the longest-lasting line-up in their history. The nucleus of Pegg, Nicol, Sanders, Mattacks and multi-instrumentalist Maartin Allcock (b. 5 January 1957, Middleton, Rochdale, Lancashire, England) were also responsible for 1995s Jewel In The Crown (named after their favourite tandoori takeaway). Nicols voice sounded like it had been matured in a wooden cask and fuelled the suggestion that he should perhaps have been the lead vocalist right from the beginning. This was their bestselling and undoubtedly finest album in years and dispelled any thought of old folkies growing outdated and staid. Who Knows Where The Time Goes? (1997), although a lesser album, did include an excellent live version of I Heard It Through The Grapevine, recorded at Cropredy in 1995.
The Cropredy box set issued in 1998 is an invaluable chronicle of the history of Fairport Convention, narrated by the band itself and including the hilarious and now legendary April fool telephone conversation. The Wood & The Wire was yet another excellent recording with the current line-up of Pegg, Nicol, Sanders, Gerry Conway (b. 11 September 1947, Kings Lynn, Norfolk, England) and Chris Leslie (b. 15 December 1956, Oxford, England). This line-up has continued to release studio albums well into the new millennium.
Fairport Convention, in whatever shape they appear, is as much a part of the folk music tradition as the music itself.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.