Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Fairport Convention: The Best British Folk Rock of the 1960s

Anybody who first heard Fairport Convention's self-titled debut album when it was released in 1968 knew there was something truly original about this British folk rock band. While bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Yardbirds, and The Kinks were coming out with big rock n' roll singles on both sides of the Atlantic and touring America in what would come to be known as the British invasion, Fairport Convention was completely different from these bands. Also most British invasion bands were highly influenced by southern African-American blues musicians, such as Muddy Waters and Leadbelly, meanwhile Fairport Convention was quite the opposite as they adopted their own unique British folk rock style. Fairport’s biggest influences were the San Francisco psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane, as well as L.A.’s The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, and Tim Buckley. Fairport Convention even adopted Jefferson Airplane's style of singing with a male and female vocalist combination with Judy Dyble, and Ian Matthews. The other members of Fairport Convention included mastermind guitarist Richard Thompson, guitarist Simon Nicol, bassist Ashley Hutchings and drummer Martin Lamble.

It is not surprising, given these musical influences guiding the band’s onstage style, that some people mistook them for American musicians when they first started playing at the UFO club in Britain. Fairport's self titled debut album, released in the middle of 1968 has often been dismissed as not worth listening to when compared to the band’s material on its next three 1960’s albums; but that is simply untrue. Fairport Convention’s debut LP was, as San Francisco writer Richie Unterberger writes, "To the contrary, a highly credible and enjoyable, if derivative, West Coast-styled folk rock album, owing much to the early Byrds and Jefferson Airplane, particularly the Airplane's male-female vocal harmonies and vocal tradeoffs. In fact, in Fairport's early days, some UK media even dubbed the band, 'the British Jefferson Airplane,' and Fairport were once billed as 'England's Top West Coast Group.'" The two Joni Mitchell covers onFairport Convention, "I Don't Know Where I Stand," and "Chelsea Morning," were the best songs on the album, and interestingly enough had yet to be released by Mitchell herself; thus they were obscure covers to the people listening to them on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fairport Convention's 1967 debut album cover

The debut album starts off with a classic Fairport Convention song, "Time Will Show The Wiser," with Ian Matthews sounding like a mix between Paul Kantener and Marty Balin from Jefferson Airplane as he sings, "And I don't know which to go by, my mind or my heart, and this is so confusing, it is tearing me apart. I wish someone would help me this decision is mine. And my morals and emotions are hard to combine. And there is no easy way out to live at the time. Till it takes till she finds out, for the love that I hide." This sequence is followed by Judy Dyble coming in to sing soprano sounding vocals, with Matthews falsetto on the chorus, "Time it will show the wiser." A Joni Mitchell cover follows, "I Don't Know Where I Stand," which easily ranks as Judy Dyble's best vocal performance with the band, as she captures the feeling of a dark rainy day not knowing exactly where one is heading in a relationship with a new lover. Dyble shows how one can be at a loss to express something to another, as she sings in a clear voice, and yet with a hint of mystic dreaminess to it. When you listen to this song on a rainy day, those last few melancholy notes at the end of the song hit you even harder than they would on a sunny day.

The third song on the album "If, (Stomp)," sung by Ian Matthews, asks the question "If I were rich enough, would it make you need me as much as I need you? If I could pitch enough, you'd realize what a little country bread could do." The song has a different feel to it than the rest of the album, probably because it is a bit more country, but it still has a fantastic originality listeners can't miss, because no British band at the time was doing anything folk or country oriented. As Allmusic.com writes on their review of the first album, "Fairport's chief strengths at this early juncture were the group's interpretations, particularly in the harmony vocals, of obscure tunes by American songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Emmitt Rhodes, and Jim & Jean. Their own songs weren't quite up to that high standard, but were better than many have given them credit for, with "Decameron" and "Sun Shade" in particular hitting wonderfully fetching melancholic moods."

"Decameron" is the fourth song on the album and is softer than most of the other up-tempo, more rock-sounding songs. "Decameron," foreshadows the direction Fairport Convention would head in with their later three albums that would close out the 1960s: What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Of Liege & Lief. Its soft, saddening acoustic guitar sound and Matthews’ harrowing lyrics in the chorus, "See me fly, see me cry, see me walk away, every time the sun shines to me it's a rainy day," made "Decameron" one of the band’s best early songs. Even the dark lines about impending doom somehow sound so beautiful the way Matthews’ voice conveys them, "He didn't see the summer go. Though he knew what the shadows know. He didn't see his arm grow old. He didn't feel his blood run cold."

Psychedelic rock comes out on Fairport Convention’s cover of Bob Dylan's, "Jack O' Diamonds," which has Matthews singing in a sly voice, "Jack O' Diamonds is a hard card to play. Jack O' Diamonds get open for riches." The song also has a great flute solo in the middle before it cranks back into an up-tempo beat that one can easily dance to. Many Fairport Convention fans rank "Jack O' Diamonds" as one of the band’s best early songs, along with the two Joni Mitchell covers on the album "I Don't Know Where I Stand" and the beautiful "Chelsea Morning." Just listening to "Chelsea Morning" puts you in a beautiful place, like the breakfast room at a ski resort inn in the Swiss Alps, where you can have your "milk, and toast, and honey, and a bowl of oranges too," followed by a beautiful day on the slopes with your girlfriend.

"Sun Shade," is another classic on Fairport Convention, with a softer psychedelic sound than the other tracks, and subliminal vocals by Ian Matthews that are so quiet they are hard to detect. Listening to "Sun Shade,” who could deny the internal beauty this band possessed to create some of the best music ever recorded in the 1960s. "Sun Shade" was also an example of Fairport adopting their own musical style and not relying on Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell covers to complete their catalog of songs. Not only was the musical component of the song a tremendous leap forward for the band, but also the lyrics were majestically haunting:

“Dying's not easy today. Trying but can't get away. Feel just the almost touch of her hand and the trees in her hair. Lies float. The sun, she saw only me in the sky. What could be higher than we? Wind grows cold in the trees. She cries, so hard to please. My restless feet, the rain in the street and her vanity fair. Sighs in the eyes of the boarding-house lady who stares. Thinking I care. So, it's a long dusty road. Feelings I shouldn't have showed. Follow me with a sweet bird when I'm ready to fade. Lights like these burn so bright, keep me out of my shade. Just see me fade.”

"It's Alright Ma, It's Only Witchcraft," is another psychedelic-sounding song on side two of the record. It starts out with a slow bass solo, but then picks up to become one of the hardest rocking songs on the album. The chorus chants, "This is the season, stormy weather is on the way," after which Richard Thompson provides the two best guitar solos on the album, showing how his contribution to the band was so essential. This song definitely contains the San Francisco acid rock, Jefferson Airplane feel to it, and it is interesting to speculate how British fans took to it at the time, considering not many were keen on bands like The Airplane, Big Brother & The Holding Company, or The Grateful Dead. As Richie Unterberger writes in Eight Miles High, "Fairport Convention delved far more into psychedelic improvisation than many realize." This goes especially for Fairport Convention fans who have chosen to ignore the first album because they don't think it compares to the band’s more traditional folk rock style of music composed with Sandy Denny.

Another example of Judy Dyble's vocals with the band before her early departure after Fairport Convention was released was on "One Sure Thing," the second to last song on the album. The lyrics written by Harvey Brooks and Jim Glover, tell a brooding tale of a woman who no longer feels the same way about the man she once loved: "Look at me now, what do you see it isn't me. Look at me now just a leaf without a tree. He used to be my one sure thing."

Nobody would have guessed that Fairport Convention could find an even better female vocalist to replace Judy Dyble, but somehow they managed, as Sandy Denny proved to be a valuable replacement with one of the most beautiful harmonizing voices in the history of music. As Wikipedia writes, "Denny’s distinctive voice, described by Clive James as 'open space, low-volume, high-intensity' is one of the characteristics of two of the albums she sings on both released in 1969: What We Did On Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking." As Untenberger Unterberger writes, “These recordings marked the growth of much greater musicality and song-writing ability among the band." What We Did On Our Holidays was much more folk rock based and mellow in comparison to Fairpoint Convention, thus the band was doing the opposite of Jefferson Airplane, who slowly seemed to be abandoning their folk rock roots in favor of a more psychedelic/electric rock outfit. Meanwhile the first song off What We Did On Our Holidays, Sandy Denny's "Fotheringay" has her giving her haunting ethereal vocals that gave Fairport Convention a more mystical sound with this second record. What We Did On Our Holidays was divided between the original material and well-chosen covers, such as Joni Mithell's "Eastern Rain" and Bob Dylan's "I'll Keep It With Mine." The album also had several folk rock songs that can mellow the mind into the beautiful, harmonious purity of Fairport’s classic sound. Just listening to "Book Song" eases its way into the soft instrumental "The Lord Is In This Place, How Dreadful Is This Place," with Denny humming primal sounds that make one think of past memories. While this album may not be as highly regarded as either Unhalfbricking or Liege & Lief, it was a pivitol stepping stone into the sounds of British folk rock that Fairport Convention would only continue to develop on their later two 1969 albums. As Untenberger writes on Allmusic.com about What We Did On Our Holidays, "More than simply being a collection of good songs (with one or two pedestrian ones), it allowed Fairport to achieve its greatest internal balance, and indeed one of the finest balances of any major folk-rock group. The strong original material, covers of little-known songs by major contemporary songwriters such as Dylan and Mitchell, and updates of traditional material were reminiscent of the blend achieved by The Byrds on their early albums, with Fairport Convention giving a British slant to the idiom.” An example of the future direction of Fairport Convention can be heard in the way Denny sings the Bob Dylan cover ‘I'll Keep It With Mine,’ with such a tragic yet divine voice, that it makes her seem like some sort of mournful goddess. The best song on the record is "Meet On The Ledge," which is sung by Ian Matthews, but once the chorus chant of "We're going to meet on the ledge," kicks in, Denny joins him in a beautiful hippie chant that recalls the sounds and vibes of the 1960s, more than almost any other music out there. "Meet On The Ledge," is less folky than most of the other songs on What We Did On Our Holidays, and does not at all signify the direction the band would head in with their follow up album a few months later.

Sandy Denny: The best female British folk singer of all time.

On Fairport Convention’s third album Unhalfbricking it was clear that the band had reached a whole new level, as they dove even deeper into the realm of traditional British folk rock. Unhalfbricking was also an important transitional album for the band, which was still young at the time. This shift would not be completed until their next album Liege & Lief. Fairport Convention's shift began when Ian Matthews quit the band in the middle of the recording sessions for Unhalfbricking. There were signs of Fairport heading away from their early Jefferson Airplane and Byrds influences on What We Did On Our Holidays, with songs like "Nottamun Town," but now it was obvious where Fairport was going, especially when you heard the incredible Bob Dylan, seven-minute folk cover "Percy's Song." This song was an emotional ballad sung by Sandy Denny about a man who gets into a car wreck with four other people in his vehicle and afterwards is the only survivor. The judge sentences Percy to ninety-five years for first-degree manslaughter, even though he did not intentionally kill the people in his car. The song shows how something tragic can happen to anyone in the world, and how we have far less control over our lives then we actually realize. Other gems to listen to off Unhalfbricking include the opener "Genesis Hall," which Denny sings with great passion: "Well, one man he drinks up his whiskey. Another he drinks up his wine. And they'll drink till their eyes are red with hate. For those of are a different kind. Oh, oh, helpless and slow. And you don't have anywhere to go." Other Denny classics on the album include the underrated "Autopsy" and "Who Knows Where The Time Goes," one of the greatest British Folk rock songs that is still highly appreciated around the world. Some of the Bob Dylan covers on this album like "Si Tu Duis Partir," and "Million Dollar Bash," sounded much sloppier than some of the earlier ones Fairport Convention had recorded on their first two albums, but that didn't matter because the rest of the songs off Unhalfbricking were so beautiful and original. Even the band’s interpretation of the Bob Dylan penned, but The Byrds song, "Ballad Of Easy Rider," sounded so vastly different from the way Roger McGuinn of The Byrds had sung it in a country voice on The Easy Rider Soundtrack. The way Denny sang "Ballad Of Easy Rider" had some country elements but was much more British folk, The lines in the song could have been written about the one of the motorcycle hippie characters in the film: "All he wanted was just to be free, that’s the way it turned out to be. Flow river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road to some other town. Flow river, flow, flow to the sea." It is clear that on Unhalfbricking Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson shared most of the createive control, which was a huge shift from the first album when Ian Matthews and Judy Dyble shared power.

The cover to Unhalfbricking

Allmusic.com points out Dave Swarbrick’s contribution to Fairport Convention's transitional stage on Unhalfbricking, "The clear signpost to the future was their 11-minute take on the traditional song "A Sailor's Life," with guest fiddle by Dave Swarbrick, soon to join Fairport himself and make his own strong contribution toward reshaping the band's sound." Fairport Convention definitely created an incredible sound in their masterpiece "A Sailor's Life."

It was unfortunate that the beautiful vocal combination of Ian Matthews and Sandy Denny could not remain intact once Matthews departed the band. And yet, it was clear Matthews was moving in a far different direction than the rest of the band. He didn't want traditional British folk rock as much as he wanted to explore the psychedelic sounds of the1960s, which he thought Fairport Convention had done a great job on with the first self-titled album. The rest of their material just wasn't jelling with his style. The band would continue on to record their best-known album to date...an album that many folk rock fanatics would rank as the greatest album of 1969: Liege & Lief.

Sandy Denny in Fairport Convnetion's hey-day

Coming soon: a review of Liege & Lief.

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