Prelude | A Coat Of Many Colours


Clinton Heylin’s prelude to What We Did Instead of Holidays: A History of Fairport Convention and It’s Extended Folk-Rock Family

As every self-respecting folk-rock fan knows, each and every Fairport Convention incarnation has burned bright but ne’er long. Between June 1968 and June 1974, England’s premier folk-rock band would release no less than ten albums, while passing through just as many line-up changes. Only one line-up – 1971’s – would manage two consecutive albums, Angel Delight and Babbacombe Lee, before it was also rent apart by inevitable divisions.

Their most acclaimed configuration – the line-up responsible for the groundbreaking Liege & Lief (1969) – lasted barely four months, playing only a handful of gigs before losing singer Sandy Denny and founding father-figure, bassist Ashley ‘Tyger’ Hutchings, to aftershocks from a twice-fatal motorway crash. No wonder the band at times preferred to call itself Fotheringport Confusion (a reference to the number of members from Sandy’s post-Fairport combo who later joined her parent band).

But it would be the alumni from the era of the four consecutive classic Fairport albums, What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, Liege & Lief and Full House – recorded between June 1968 and April 1970 – who would challenge even their parent band’s prodigious output.

Ian Matthews, who would leave Fairport halfway through Unhalfbricking, went on to record an astonishing ten albums between 1969 and 1973, three of them with the chart-topping Matthews Southern Comfort. Ashley Hutchings, who quit less than a year later, would be responsible for eight projects between 1970 and 1973, three with Steeleye Span, his first reconfiguration of the English folk-rock sound and ultimately its most successful exponent.

As for Richard Thompson, after his own January 1971 departure he would record three era-defining albums over three-and-a-half years: Henry The Human Fly, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Hokey Pokey – the latter two with new singing partner, Linda.

Such an outpouring of product was possible because of a unique confluence of Circumstance: a commercial climate which abounded in the British MusicBiz for the first and last time, collectively brought about by a handful of young ambitious producer-managers, astute independent label-owners who catered entirely to the new ‘prog’ audience (and ceding artistic control to the bands themselves), complementing a family of musicians constantly pushing each other to define their place in the ever-changing panoply of popular song.

’Twas a time when Fairport were spoken of in the same breath as Led Zeppelin, with whom they famously jammed at LA’s Troubadour in September 1970, and Pink Floyd, with whom they shared a legendary show at the UFO the night Syd lost his mind and Richard Thompson blew a fair few minds – George Harrison’s included – with a thirty-minute reinterpretation of Paul Butterfield’s ‘East/West’. ’Twas also a time when Hutchings’s Steeleye Span not only toured with the Aqualung-era Jethro Tull, but enjoyed a Top Ten album in the wake of that nationwide jaunt.

Sympathetic to this synergy of style and English content, the producers and label-heads behind the proscenium gave the various Fairporters enough rope to play the jolly hangman. Which is why manager-producers Joe Boyd and Sandy Roberton and Island boss Chris Blackwell loom almost as large in this history of English folk-rock as many a fairweather Fairporter. This trio oversaw and/or rubber-stamped most of the albums that spouted from the folk-rock faucet during this six-year window of opportunity.

And what artifacts poured forth. If Fairport would never again scale the heights achieved between June 1968 and December 1970 – a period which didn’t just produce four classic LPs, but also a series of endlessly inventive BBC sessions and landmark gigs no one who witnessed them ever forgot – the members they shed more than took up the slack.

For Ashley Hutchings, the band’s founder and erstwhile leader, there would be ever-varying calibrations of English folk-rock, each more challenging than the last. Steeleye’s debut, Hark! The Village Wait, the Albion Country Band’s No Roses and the dance-rock experiment Morris On, were just three of the works he conceptualised in the two years after Liege & Lief’s December 1969 release.

Not content with that blistering burst, over the next eighteen months he threatened to make the Albion Country Band a more authentic version of Fairport folk-rock than Fairport itself, before the psychological scars of a 1969 road crash caught up, driving him to the wiles of Sussex where the healing could begin.

When it came to the star-crossed Sandy Denny, there would be the brave new world of Fotheringay, whose eponymous debut caused almost as many ripples in 1970’s rocky estuary as her Fairport parting glass, Liege & Lief. That band, though, foundered on the rocks of band-finances and irresolvable arguments about who should be the sea captain. Three promising solo albums followed before Fairport again clutched her to their bosoms for one more sea voyage in 1974-75.

Richard Thompson, the guitar wizard who co-founded Fairport with Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol back in July 1966, when barely out of school, came to the realisation no single band could house him or hold him down late. The second of that triumvirate to fly the coop, Thompson would carve his name into the very fabric of folk-rock with his first solo effort, Henry The Human Fly (1972), perhaps English folk-rock’s finest moment.

When that album crashed and burned, critically and commercially, he simply rebooted the brand and bounced back with I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, the first of six albums with the angel-voiced Linda Thompson (aka Peters). This duo would carry the folk-rock brand into the eighties, making music as vital and enduring as any British singer-songwriters in those halcyon days.

But having failed to dent the charts with any of the cult classics which made them critical darlings, the couple parted not as friends. Their bitter musical divorce came in May 1982, documented nightly on a fateful American tour promoting their swansong, Shoot Out The Lights, shows which have become steeped in rocklore for reasons only partially rooted in the musical cliff edge they skirted.

Ian Matthews’ once promising post-Fairport career hit the buffers Stateside after he took Jac Holzman’s Elektra shilling at the end of 1972. Thankfully, the albums he made in 1971-72 – If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes, Tigers Will Survive, Journeys From Gospel Oak and the two Plainsong albums – continue to reward repeated listens.

Unfortunately, the deal he made with the devilish Holzman required him to disband Plainsong, rather than release their second attempt at a post-Fairport sound worthy of the original. Like Ashley, the singer would never again find the drive and determination to make five quality albums in two years. Like his fellow Fairporters, Matthews would plough on regardless, trading on the faint name-recognition his early output still accords him.

When it came to Fairport itself – left rudderless by the departures of Denny and Hutchings in November 1969 and cut creatively adrift when Thompson quit in January 1971 – Island Records continued picking up the tab as it toyed with projects suggested in turn by Simon Nicol (Angel Delight), and furious folk fiddler, Dave Swarbrick (the folk-rock opera Babbacombe Lee and Rosie).

After finally they chanced on a quasi-folk, quasi-soft-rock niche – part-Fotheringay, part-Fairport – in time to produce the eclectic Nine (1973) and a patchy reunion album with Sandy Denny, Rising For The Moon (1975), put the original English folk-rock vehicle in reverse for good.

Though the band, in name only, would bounce from pillar to post for another four years, lasting till August 1979, the brand name had been irredeemably tainted by too many mediocre albums since their late sixties heyday.

By then, the cold wind of social and political change had blown in a new business-first spirit, at odds with the creative free-for-all that had afforded so many talented musicians the opportunity to put the Great back in British pop music; for a while, a fair few innovators had snuck under the radar and into the shops and hearts of its many music fans. The land where Henry the Human Fly, Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman, the Poor Ditching Boy, Matty Groves and the Blackleg Miner could roam free was no more.

Thankfully, a whole lot of folk-rock is their enduring legacy. The substantial soundtrack to their own wacky story is an impressive body of music this single band of brothers and sisters produced over a decade and a half; each and every note inspired by that folk-rock codex first formulated in a house in Muswell Hill that the Nicol family rented out to pay the bills. Which is where our story begins, on a day in 1965, when a certain potential tenant, a working stiff his friends called ‘Tyger’, descends on a house called Fairport, hoping to rent a room above a converted doctor’s surgery…

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