Richard’s Musical Byways: Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, and Percy’s Song

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  • #9862
    RichardB
    Participant

    I’m sure we all have our favourite music tracks, beloved songs that we never tire of and stay with us all through our lives. Let me introduce you to one of mine, by way of a little trip down memory lane…

    In these days when the word ‘music’ used on its own is routinely taken to mean all the various manifestations of what used to be called ‘pop,’ and when the stuff is an all-pervasive part of our lives, it must be hard for people much younger than myself (and that would be most of you) to imagine what it was like to be a music-mad teenager (and haven’t most of us been?) in the early sixties. Back then, if you wanted to hear pop on the radio you only had two alternatives. You could content yourself with the few hours a week grudgingly doled out by the BBC Light Programme, or you could brave the whistle-y, crackly, fade-out-fade-in reception of Radio Luxembourg in the evenings. That all began to change in 1964, when Radio Caroline began broadcasting from a ship in the North Sea. By 1967 ten off-shore pirate radio stations were beaming day-long pop music over the British airwaves. It was a revolution, a bonanza for pop lovers.

    My favourite pirate station was always (‘Wonderful’) Radio London, some of whose jingles are preserved for posterity between the songs on the Who’s album The Who Sell Out. Every day when I came home from school the first thing I did was to park myself beside my parents’ big old wooden-cased valve radio (old-fashioned even then) in the dining room and switch on Big L, as it liked to call itself, and I’d stay there until tea time.

    By 1967 my tastes were moving away from chart music – in particular, I was getting heavily into the blues – and despite their rebel stance the pirate stations’ output wasn’t actually much more adventurous than that of the BBC, which played safe and stuck closely to the charts, or Luxembourg, most of whose programmes were sponsored by record companies. It seemed there wasn’t anywhere on the radio I could hear the music I was beginning to love – until I discovered Big L’s late night (midnight to 2am) show called The Perfumed Garden, hosted by one John Peel.

    Peel’s style was totally opposite to the manic cheerfulness of the average pirate DJ: soft-voiced, laid-back, intimate, as if he were sitting in the the room with you chatting. And he played whatever the hell he liked, little of which had anything to do with the pop charts but which did include the blues. I quickly became addicted, sneaking my mother’s transistor radio upstairs to – yes! – listen under the bedclothes, and my musical horizons got expanded quite considerably. Peel had just returned from living in San Francisco when he got the job on Radio London, and he played a lot of the music he’d heard there: the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, and others. Exotic names and adventurous music that had been previously unknown in this country. Stuff you couldn’t hear anywhere else.

    And then the chop fell. On 14 August 1967 the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act effectively shut down the pirates. To those of us who’d been dedicated listeners the newly-formed BBC Radio One was a poor substitute, even though many of its DJs had been recruited from the pirate stations. I was rather surprised but very pleased to find that John Peel was one of them.

    Considering his low-key approach, the two-hour Sunday afternoon show Peel was given had the ludicrously inappropriate name of Top Gear. Initially partnered with another DJ, he didn’t have quite the freedom he’d enjoyed on Radio London, but the show still featured quite a lot of non-mainstream music, with studio sessions from many groups (as we still called them then) who were below the radar of the charts. By no means all of these acts appealed to me, but one that did was Fairport Convention.

    I can’t remember exactly when I heard Fairport Convention on John Peel’s show, but they’d come quite a way in a very short time. Named for the house in Muswell Hill, North London, belonging to the parents of rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol, where they would convene to rehearse, they had only played their first gig in May 1967, but they were already building a reputation playing in London’s hippie hang-outs such as UFO (supposedly standing for Unlimited Freak-Out), though they themselves were neither hippies nor druggies. They were ‘nice grammar schools kids,’ as their first manager and producer Joe Boyd once said, and they were all, with the exception of bass player and de facto leader Ashley Hutchings, still in their teens, not much older than I was. They didn’t play freaky music either. Their music wasn’t quite like anyone else’s.

    ‘Even by the standards set by the free-wheeling music fraternity of Britain’s “underground” at that time Fairport were unusual,’ wrote Hutchings years later. ‘We tended to play short, melodic songs by those we considered to be the best singer-songwriters, most of whom were in some way attached to the folk scene on the other side of the Atlantic. Lyrics were important… We favoured the poetry of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.’

    Many of these singer-songwriters very little-known over here at the time: Fairport were, in fact, the first British act ever to record a cover of a Joni Mitchell song. These influences gave their music a transatlantic flavour which, together with similarities in the line-up (two guitarists, bass, drums, two lead vocalists, one male, one female) got them nicknamed ‘the British Jefferson Airplane.’

    The greatest musical asset to the original line-up was Richard Thompson, a virtuoso guitarist with such an inventive and distinctive style that I can often spot his presence on a record without being told, even when he’s playing rhythm; but early in 1968 their original girl singer, Judy Dyble, was replaced by the incomparable Sandy Denny, and Fairport Convention’s music moved up to a new level.

    Sandy Denny’s voice was as instantly recognisable as Thompson’s guitar playing, and her singing could raise the hairs on your neck, send shivers down your spine, or bring tears to your eyes – sometimes all at once. But I won’t ask you to take my word for it. Here’s what her one-time bandmate, Richard Thompson (who should know), had to say, writing not long ago.

    ‘As decades pass, and fashions in music come and go, I realise more and more that Sandy Denny was not only the most important singer of my generation, but that no one has come along to touch her since. Who has her dynamic range, from unbelievable power to a whisper, all with the utmost expression? Who has her musical intelligence, her ability to sing the right thing at the right time? Who has her command of the dramatic, her ability to tell a story by inhabiting the song? … She should be the true yardstick against which all singers and songwriters are measured.’

    Born and brought up in Wimbledon, Sandy Denny had also had a comfortable middle-class background. Her musical roots were in the folk clubs, and her joining the band triggered a gradual shift in its musical direction away from American influences and towards British ones. Their second album, the first with Denny on board, was a big step forward from the first, but with the third, Unhalfbricking (a word Sandy Denny came up with during a word game the band played to pass the time in the van), their music really came of age.

    That album made a big impression on me, and on several other people I knew, when it came out in July 1969. For starters the sleeve was unusual. The front had no graphics at all, and showed Sandy’s parents, Neil and Edna Denny, standing outside their home in Wimbledon, with the band on the grass in the distance, behind the fence. The back had a candid natural-light shot of the band sitting round the table in the Dennys’ kitchen, eating a meal Edna had cooked for them. There were only five people in that picture: Ian Matthews, the male singer, had left during the sessions and sang on only one song, leaving Denny to carry the lead vocals alone – not that she needed any help.

    And the music was astonishingly assured and mature for a band some of whose members were still not old enough to vote by the laws of the time. Fairport understood perfectly that sometimes in music what you don’t play is as important as what you do play, that quietness can be more dramatic than loudness, and exactly when to hold back and when to let fly. The playing throughout is tight, polished, tasteful, with every note counting. The music is a cohesive whole: no one shows off, but everyone plays or sings their hearts out.

    The material comes from a variety of sources. There are two songs by Richard Thompson and two by Sandy Denny, including what is by far her best-known song, the exquisite Who Knows Where the Time Goes. There is a monumental extended reworking of A Sailor’s Life, a traditional English song from Sandy Denny’s folk club repertoire, recorded ‘live in the studio’ in one take, and a harbinger of things to come. And there are three songs by Bob Dylan. One of these is called Percy’s Song, and over the years it has cemented its place as my all-time favourite Fairport Convention track, and one of my favourite tracks by anyone. It still sounds as fresh to me as it did the first time I heard it.

    Bob Dylan recorded Percy’s Song in 1963 for his third album, The Times They Are A-Changing, but it was left off the record, only surfacing in 1985. It is a narrative song: a man has received a savage jail sentence for manslaughter after a fatal car crash, and the song tells the story of his friend’s attempt to get the sentence commuted. Appropriately, Dylan set the words to a haunting traditional ballad tune.

    Fairport Convention’s rendition begins quietly, with Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews (this is the one track on Unhalfbricking he’s on) singing the first verse in acapella harmony. Then the instruments come in one by one as the song progresses – acoustic guitar, bass and drums, dulcimer (yes, really), electric guitar, and finally organ, building the tension in a crescendo as the tale unfolds. It is a perfectly judged performance that brings alive the drama in the storyline. And through it all runs that lovely melody.

    There is another recording of the song by Fairport Convention, a version recorded by the BBC for John Peel’s show after Ian Matthews had left. The BBC recording isn’t as carefully structured as the album track, but Sandy Denny delivers a superb, impassioned vocal that knocks the socks off the other version, taking improvised liberties with the melody and timing with the assurance of a maestro (or whatever the feminine of that is) on top of her game. I’ve never been able to decide which one I prefer, so I’m linking to both and (always supposing you’re interested enough) you can judge for yourselves.

    Within a month of the end of the album’s recording sessions and two months before its release, #Percy’s Song took on an unexpected and tragic resonance for the band. On the evening of 11 May 1969 Fairport Convention played a gig at Mother’s in Birmingham. Also performing in Birmingham that night were Eclection, the band in which Sandy Denny’s Australian boyfriend Trevor Lucas played, and she decided to travel home with him. The rest of the band set off for London in the van, but in the small hours of the morning, near Scratchwood Services on the M1, the driver fell asleep at the wheel. The van swerved across the carriageway, went over the crash barrier and rolled down an embankment into a field. Simon Nicol had been suffering from a migraine and was lying down on the floor; when the van finally came to rest he was alone inside it. Everyone else, and all the gear, had been thrown out of the doors and windows as the van rolled. Nicol escaped serious injury, but the others were not so lucky, and two people were killed outright: Richard Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn and the band’s drummer, Martin Lamble. He was two months short of his twentieth birthday.

    The car left the highway and was thrown to a field
    There were four persons killed, and he was at the wheel…

    They were all traumatised by this horrible accident, not least Sandy Denny, who suffered a severe case of survivor’s guilt, for the personal relationships within the band were as tight and cohesive as its music. At first they weren’t at all sure whether they wanted to carry on, but eventually they decided that they would – but not by performing anything they’d played with Martin Lamble. They would need to work up an entire new repertoire.

    Their management booked for them a country house in Hampshire and they all moved in, living there together for nearly three months, relaxing and rehearsing, creating their new music. What emerged gave them their most famous album, set the course for the rest of their career and kicked off a revolution in British folk music, but that is another story.

    Sadly, there was more tragedy to come. By the end of 1969 Sandy Denny had left the band, and despite being voted best British female singer two years running by readers of the old Melody Maker, and two or three well-received albums, her subsequent career faltered. As the seventies wore on she began to unravel, becoming increasingly dependent on drink and drugs. Marriage to Trevor Lucas, a notorious philanderer, didn’t help. The birth of a baby girl couldn’t halt the decline. In March 1978, on holiday with her parents in Cornwall, she fell down the stairs, hitting her head on a concrete floor. She got no medical treatment and began to suffer from crippling headaches. By now her behaviour was so erratic and irresponsible that Lucas, concerned for the safety of his daughter, took the baby with him to Australia. A few days after he left Sandy Denny was found collapsed at the foot of the staircase in the home of a friend she was staying with and was rushed to hospital. She never regained consciousness, dying four days later on 21 April, and that golden voice was silenced. She was thirty-one years old.

    The links:
    The album version
    The BBC recording

    • This topic was modified 7 months, 1 week ago by Athelstone.
    • This topic was modified 7 months, 1 week ago by RichardB. Reason: Thought of some better words since the first attempt at posting
    #10028
    Daedalus
    Participant

    Lovely, elegiac blog, Richard. I don’t think I realised how hard it could be to access pop music, especially anything out of the mainstream, until the late 60s.

    As you know, Fairport is one of my favourite bands as well. I’d never heard the live version of Percy’s Song but just listened to it, and I know what you mean – both versions have different things to recommend them, and I’m not sure I’d like to say which I like best. I don’t think it had ever occurred to me to draw the parallel between the minibus crash and that song, but I can see why they’d never want to perform it again. It’s also a bit sobering to think that we have that incident to ‘thank’ for the step into Liege and Lief, and the band’s subsequent direction. I suppose they were heading in that direction anyway, but I can imagine that the transition would have been more gradual.

    Sandy Denny’s story is tragic too. Like many of us here, she seemed to have a real talent for second-guessing herself, and was (in professional as well as human terms) quite possibly her own worst enemy. Leaving Fairport on the spur of the moment and setting up Fotheringay seemed to rob her career of all momentum at the point it was really taking off. (I sometimes experience something close to panic when I remember that there are only four Fairport albums that have her vocals on them, and of those, only one is from the band’s musical peak). And then when she rejoined Fairport and made Rising For The Moon, an album I have a lot of time for (and which bears a lot of similarities to what would have been Fotheringay’s second album), its moment seemed to have passed, and I can’t help feeling Denny felt rejected as a result. Years ago I found the ‘Boxful of Treasures’ 5 CD compilation in a record shop for something stupid like £25 (good luck getting that new for less than five times that, these days) and it has a pleasing sprinkling of her songs from the various bands she was in and solo, with a book about her life. She recorded a lot considering how short her life was, but it should have been more, and I can’t help wishing more of it was with Fairport. Not that I have anything against the later lineups, but she had magic in her voice.

    #10029
    RichardB
    Participant

    I don’t think that parallel had occurred to me until I heard it pointed out by Ashley Hutchings himself. I recently found a video on YouTube of the song being performed at Cropredy, I think about five years ago, and before they begin Hutchings chats about how they discovered and recorded the song, ending with, ‘It was to take on a new meaning shortly after that.’

    I think maybe the saddest thing about Sandy Denny was that she had this wonderful talent, and knew she had it, and had an outgoing, bubbly personality (everyone who knew her agrees on this), and yet underneath it all she was so insecure. One of her friends once told of how they were sitting at a pavement café when a slender, pretty girl walked past. Sandy sighed and said, ‘If only I had my voice and her looks, I’d have it made.’

    I’ve read a couple of biographies, and her story never fails to move me.

    #10031
    Athelstone
    Moderator

    Your blog resonated with me in so many ways, Richard. I’m not quite the same generation as you, but I’m old enough to remember the rise of the pirate radio stations. I also remember listening under the bedclothes, not to a pirate station, but to Luxembourg. It wasn’t John peel that rocked my boat, but Tony Prince (my Prince and Ruler) who urged me to make love not war (because love is lovely and war is…). it was another tragic voice that I can still hear from back then, Cass Elliot, but I also remember Sandy Denny so well. Her voice was just perfect, but not in the way that many people think a perfect voice should be. It was powerful and pure, but it was also untrained. It had variety even as she sustained a note. It was authentic.

    #10034
    Bella
    Participant

    I was born a tad too late to really enjoy all of this, but your blog (a great read – thank you) brought back memories of a wonderful 3 day cruise we took in 2014 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Radio Caroline.

    They had Johnnie Walker, Emperor Rosko and Dave Cash, Georgie Fame, The Rhythm Kings (we watched both their sets all 3 nights – it was a joy), Eddie Floyd…

    They’d even got Howard Marks on board with a plan to do a tour of the Amsterdam coffee shops – but this had to be cancelled when the insurance company refused to cover the excursion, so he had to give us a talk instead.

    The funniest thing was that they didn’t manage to fill the ship entirely with people who were there for the music. The publicity hadn’t been huge – we only learned about it from a small flyer in a pub in Harwich when we were visiting. So the company had then advertised a nice Amsterdam city break to the usual folks who used Cruise & Maritime. There was a large cohort of rather bemused worthies looking anxiously at the vast crowds of elderly reprobates living it up all over the ship.

    Glorious.

    • This reply was modified 7 months, 1 week ago by Bella.
    #10036
    JaneShuff
    Participant

    You brought back so many memories Richard. Begging for my own radio so I could listen to Radio Luxembourg at night. Was the Power Play a RL thing? Anyway thanks for the chance to remember my youth!

    #10037
    Daedalus
    Participant

    @bellam, perhaps you can help me. I remember as a child hearing about a pirate radio ship that had been caught in a storm and had to put into Harwich, when it was impounded. I was there with my Mum and she pointed it out to me. I just remember a small, red ship. This was in the mid 1980s. I can’t find any references to it. I know we still had pirate radio in those days as I remember hearing it now and again, and grownups mentioning it.

    Having had one more try at finding it, I think it may have been the ‘Communicator’, home of the Laser 558 station. Ring any bells?

    #10042
    Bella
    Participant

    @daedalus there is a small, red lightship in Harwich. Lightvessel LV18.

    They did a bit of broadcasting from there.

    There’s a wiki on Radio Caroline which mentions ship and storm damage. Mi Amigo is the main one

    I did link to it and the LV18 info but the site here seems not to like my posts so I am trying again without.

    #10041
    Bella
    Participant

    @daedalus

    Well – I replied but it has not posted. Hmmph. Will try again.

    There’s a little red light vessel LV18 at Harwich. They did broadcast from it a bit, I think.
    https://www.radiomuseum.org/museum/gb/trinity-house-lightvessel-no.-18-harwich/.html

    This wiki has quite a bit of info about ship damage. Mi Amigo seems to be the main one affected
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_Caroline

    I know nothing about the Communicator.

    #10045
    RichardB
    Participant

    Libby said:

    Thank you for the blog, Richard.
    A school friend was a fan of Fairport and Denny. I enjoyed listening but not enough to keep up an interest after school. Was the house in Hampshire Headley ?Grange. Led Zep recorded there. I still listen to them occasionally but after I left school I switched to classical and have stayed there ever since.

    Tony Prince! ‘Your royal ruler.’
    Yep, under the bedclothes. And trying to read books under the bedclothes too, with a torch, but it was just too stuffy and uncomfortable to make much progress. Cass Elliot’s voice still does it for me. When I was a child in the 60s her voice and songs seemed to be all about the future.

    #10046
    RichardB
    Participant

    The house in Hampshire was Farley House, in Farley Chamberlayne, near Winchester. They didn’t record there, just worked out their new music and rehearsed.

    On a slightly tangental note, my career as a bus driver kept bringing me into contact with places in Sandy Denny’s early life. One route I drove went past the hospital where she was born, another along the road where she grew up, another past both her primary school and the hospital where she died, and the one I drove for my last ten years or so past her secondary school. The masses of girls congregated at the bus stops around three-thirty every afternoon were the bane of our lives…

    #10054
    RichardB
    Participant

    Libby said:

    Thanks, Richard. Have you been to Farley Chamberlayne? It’s worth a trip for anyone in the area. I can’t remember what the house looks like, and the internet isn’t obliging, but FC is a deserted medieval village with a pretty church. It feels remote and wild despite close proximity to Winchester.

    R

    #10055
    RichardB
    Participant

    That’s probably one reason it was chosen as a refuge for the band. And yes, it does sound worth a visit.

    If you’re curious, this page has a photo of the house as it was when the band was there, though it appears to have been taken from the back garden. A click will blow it up.

    #10056
    Daedalus
    Participant

    Wow, that’s not far from me at all. Half an hour by car. A pilgrimmage might be in order

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