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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Trailer: What We Did Instead of Holidays

Trailer for Clinton Heylin’s book What We Did Instead of Holidays: A History of Fairport Convention and Its Extended Folk-Rock Family.

In June 1968, Fairport Convention made their official album. In the next fifteen years, those founding Fairportees would form a veritable dynasty of English folk-rock. Drawing on interviews with all the musicians and key figures, Clinton Heylin has produced the definitive history of a folk-rock family in its golden era.

Click here to order direct from Route

Click here to visit the book’s website

John Wood In Conversation With Clinton Heylin

Record producer John Wood in conversation with Clinton Heylin, recorded at a CAT Club event, at the Tap & Barrel, Pontefract. Clinton talks with John about some of the seminal albums he made and the artists he worked with including Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and Squeeze.

The Q&A at the end includes questions from Iain Matthews and Ian Clayton.

Click here for more on Clinton Heylin’s book ‘What We Did Instead of Holidays: Fairport Convention and its Extended Folk-Rock Family.

What We Did Instead of Holidays

Fairport Convention And Its Extended Folk-Rock Family
A History by Clinton Heylin

Route is delighted to announce the publication of a stunning new biography from one of the leading rock historians in the world. Click here to pre-order a signed first edition hardback.

In June 1968, a group of Muswell Hillbillies made their official album debut as Fairport Convention. In the next fifteen years, three of those founding Fairportees – Richard Thompson, Ashley ‘Tyger’ Hutchings and Simon Nicol – along with the next generation of Fairport recruits – Iain Matthews, Sandy Denny, and the three Daves: Swarbrick, Pegg and Mattacks – would form a veritable dynasty of English folk-rock, each pursuing their own path, but always returning to work with each other, to collectively produce albums with a near-eternal appeal.

Which is why every year since 1979 in a field somewhere near Banbury, 20,000-plus fans have congregated to celebrate this music’s enduring appeal at the Cropredy Festival.

So, fifty years on, now seems like the right time to tell the full story: to collect all the family lore that surrounds Fairport and its surrogates, and to disentangle the many highs and lows from those first fifteen years of Fotheringport Confusion.

Drawing on interviews with all the musicians and key figures in English folk-rock – including producers extraordinaire Joe Boyd and Sandy Roberton – Clinton Heylin has produced the definitive history of a folk-rock family in its golden era.

Candid, clear and cogent, presented with insight and chronologically, Clinton Heylin ties the loose threads of Fairport and its offshoots together in their own words. Diving deep beneath the surface of the music into the lives of the principals, he answers many un-asked questions.
Simon Nicol, Fairport Convention co-founder & longest serving member

We were young and ambitious. Learning the game without a manual or safety net. No one was exempt. Clinton Heylin has absolutely nailed the way it was. I recognize myself in this story and realized some interesting things about my former band mates. An enthralling read for any Fairport fan.
Iain Matthews, lead vocalist of Fairport Convention 1967-69

First edition hardback contains three colour photo-sections with previously unpublished photos.

ORDER: Be among the first to read this book. Click here to pre-order an exclusive author signed first edition hardback.

Clinton Heylin is one of the leading rock historians in the world, with over two dozen books to his name. These include biographies of Bob Dylan (Behind The Shades), Van Morrison (Can You Feel The Silence?), Bruce Springsteen (E Street Shuffle) and Sandy Denny (No More Sad Refrains), as well as his acclaimed pre-punk history, From The Velvets To The Voidoids, and the one and only history of rock bootlegs, Bootleg. His highly acclaimed titles It’s One For The Money and Anarchy In The Year Zero were nominated for the Penderyn Book Award. His most recent titles, JUDAS! and Trouble In Mind, are in-depth accounts of the two electrifying periods in Bob Dylan’s career when he was roundly booed. He lives in Somerset.

 

Trouble In Mind Launch Video

Clinton Heylin talks with the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, at the book launch for Trouble in Mind.

The launch was held in conjunction with The CAT Club and is hosted by Rev Reynolds. Before the conversation between Clinton and Bishop Nick, the room had enjoyed a full playing of Slow Train Coming. The version played wasn’t the released album, but a previous mix sent by Dylan to his record company which had a slightly different running order and included an extra track, ‘Trouble In Mind’.

The event took place at Tap & Barrel, Pontefract.

Nick Baines blogs at:
www.nickbaines.wordpress.com

Trouble In Mind website:
www.dylantroubleinmind.wordpress.com

PODCAST: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years With Clinton Heylin

 

Clinton Heylin discusses Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years with a capacity audience at Edward’s, Sheffield. Organised The CAT Club, and hosted by their very own Rev Reynolds. The evening begins with Clinton reading from his book and playing tracks from the era – including some rare Bob Dylan onstage ‘raps’ – and is rounded off with a lively Q&A before retiring to the bar to listen to Dylan’s classic gospel album Slow Train Coming and discussing the evening over a pint. Click play above to listen to a podcast of the event.

Recorded at Edward’s, Glossop Road, Sheffield on 14 November 2017. Running time 1:05:45.

Click here for more on Clinton Heylin’s book Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years – What Really Happened

Trouble In Mind | Introduction by Clinton Heylin

INTRODUCTION TO TROUBLE IN MIND BY CLINTON HEYLIN

BEFORE THE FLOOD

I never felt like I was searching for anything. I always felt that I’ve stumbled into things or drifted into them. But I’ve never felt like I was out on some kind of prospector hunt, looking for the answers or the truth … I never went to the holy mountain to find the lost soul that is supposed to be a part of me … I don’t feel like a person has to search for anything. I feel like it’s all right in front.
—BOB DYLAN TO DENISE WORRELL, 1985

Caveat emptor: I am an evangelist. That is to say, when it comes to the evangelical part of the Dylan canon – what in mediaspeak has been defined, rather misleadingly, as the gospel years (i.e. 1979-81) – I’m a believer. Not a trace of doubt in my mind.

From the moment I heard a live performance of ‘Covenant Woman’ from the November ’79 Warfield shows at a one-day Dylan convention in Manchester the following month, I knew the man had (re)connected to the wellspring of his art when that ol’ sign on the cross began to worry him.

As I have long argued, in person and in print, the consummate songwriter composed a body of work in the period 1979-81 which more than matches any commensurate era in his long and distinguished career – or, indeed, that of any other twentieth century popular artist.

But unlike that other seminal starburst of inspiration, the one between 1965 and 1967, the afterglow of this cerebral explosion is barely reflected within the grooves of the trilogy of albums CBS released in real time: Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot Of Love (1981).

Perhaps it’s because Dylan’s heart really wasn’t in the process of making records at the time. He did, after all, suggest in an interview designed specifically to promote the third album in said trilogy, that his primary interest was playing ‘songs which [a]re gonna relate to the faces that I’m singing to. And I can’t do that if I[‘m] spending a year in the studio, working on a track. It’s not that important to me. No record is that important.’ Said interview appeared on a CBS promo album.

The epicentre of Dylan’s artistry at the cusp of the decades – as it had been in the mid-seventies – was the stage; surely one reason why, starting in November 1979, he took an acetylene torch to the 1978 set list and began afresh. As he said at the time on his one radio interview, quoting 2 Corinthians, ‘All things become new, old things are passed away.’

To howls of protest that couldn’t help but remind one of the folk-rock furore thirteen years earlier, he delivered the same unrelenting Good News/Bad News message night after night, while each night becoming born again as a performing artist in front of the aghast eyes and ears of Dylan apostates.

Just as from September 1965 to May 1966, the shows which ran from November 1979 to the following May saw the gospel gauntlet thrown down nightly. Dylan delivered an unceasing barrage of biblical glossaries set to the soundtrack of a heavenly choir and a band of unbelievers riding the musical tide all the way to New Jerusalem. But this time there was no near-death experience to deflect Dylan from his chosen path. He would continue beating his ecumenical drum most of the time for the next eighteen months.

For much of this period, his was very much a voice in the wilderness. Much of the media, and a large percentage of his hardcore fan base, simply switched off. The North American gospel shows – All Saints’ Day ’79 at the San Francisco Warfield excepted – tended to receive only local reviews, and rarely drew ones interested in reporting the facts.

As for the shows themselves, journalists delighted in reporting that this ‘voice of a generation’ couldn’t even sell out intimate theatres. Even the eight English shows in July 1981 struggled (and failed) to sell out, barely three years after people were camping out for 72 hours just to get a single ticket for six Earls Court shows.

(Those arch-arbiters of fan demand, the bootleggers, were also switching off just as Dylan’s muse was switching on again, deeming demand to be insufficient from a demographic of wavering disciples.)

So, although Dylan played some ninety-eight shows between November 1979 and December 1980, all but a handful of which were still being taped by hardcore collectors, not a single vinyl bootleg was released in real time; and this, from the most bootlegged rock artist of all time. As for official album sales, the cliff Dylan fell off in 1980 with the catastrophic Saved was one it would take him seventeen years to scale again.

So, on the face of it, hardly the sort of period where a thorough revisit would send ripples of excitement through the Dylan world in 2017. And yet, when at the start of the year Dylan’s long-time manager hinted to a Rolling Stone reporter that the next Bootleg Series (lucky thirteen!) would re-examine the gospel years afresh, the fan sites were abuzz with anticipation.

Because, as a Nobel poet once put it, ‘Everything passes, everything changes.’ And three decades on, an official release (or two) of a judicious sample of one or two legendary residencies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal or London ranks high on most Bobcats’ bucket lists.

Ranking higher still for those whose focus is the studio oeuvre is a set that also affords a thorough re-examination of the two dozen songs Dylan wrote in the six months leading up to the Shot Of Love sessions. With 20/20 hindsight, the album bearing that name – even though it has real moments – stands as perhaps the most underwhelming Dylan studio collection of original songs to date, with maybe three performances on the official Shot Of Love worthy of inclusion on the double-album it should have been: the title track itself, a ‘Property Of Jesus’ that aside from a remix could hardly be bettered, and ‘Every Grain Of Sand’.

The good news – praise the Lord of Happenstance – is that the period 1979 to 1981 turns out to be among the best documented eras in Dylan’s six-decade-long career as a recording/ performance artist.

The explanation for this resides in two events dating back to January 1978: the purchase of a brand-new, state-of-the-art, eight-track tape machine made by Otari, the MX-5050, shortly after Dylan had signed a five-year lease on a rehearsal studio in downtown Santa Monica.

These serendipitous twists of fate meant Dylan could begin to record most rehearsals at his newly leased studio; demo songs he wished to copyright; as well as run tapes of all the shows he was to perform during a 115-date world tour. The rehearsal studio, known privately as Rundown, throughout this period would even serve as a sometime-recording studio for the two albums which bookend the Rundown era, Street-Legal and Shot Of Love.

Indeed, Dylan soon grew so comfortable with his Santa Monica ‘home studio’ set-up that he rekindled a work ethic last seen in the happy days spent in the Big Pink basement in West Saugerties, New York, with the last standing band he kept on retainer, the mostly-Canadian Hawks, back in 1967.

Having put together the second standing band of his career in September 1979, it should come as no great surprise that the dividing line between tour rehearsals, album sessions and copyright demos for the next two years would be as fuzzy as one of Fred Tackett’s effect-pedals; or that the aesthetic of the basement tape should be so readily revived by its instigator twelve years on, with a set of musicians no less accomplished than The Band and perhaps even more sympathetic to Dylan’s way of working on the hoof.

In those two years, the body of work Dylan and his band captured at Rundown Studios, between tours (and albums), is in many ways more impressive than the one he and The Band managed from their 1967 country retreat. The breadth of material tackled, if presented in its entirety, would certainly challenge that now available on the official ‘basement tapes’ Bootleg Series.

At least Trouble No More – the next Bootleg Series – more than hints at a Rundown facsimile of the ‘lost’ album Dylan could have recorded in the fall of 1980 – but didn’t! Frustratingly, when Dylan did finally enter the very same rehearsal studio where he demoed an album’s worth of new songs six months earlier, to begin the new album in March 1981, he had already discarded half a dozen strong compositions and begun to bastardize the lyrics to two defining post-conversion masterpieces, ‘Caribbean Wind’ and ‘The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar’.

By the time Dylan relocated to Chuck Plotkin’s Clover studio in late April 1981 to begin work on Saved’s successor in earnest, he was well on his way to making an album that was one-third filler (‘Heart Of Mine’, ‘Lenny Bruce’, ‘Trouble’) but just one-third killer. Yet Dylan himself would compare Shot Of Love with 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, which to his mind once provided a similar ‘breakthrough point’.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the two ensuing tours – a summer tour of Europe and a fall tour of the States – would signal a rerouting of the holy slow train. By second tour’s end, few vestiges of that preternatural commitment to his newly-wrought gospel material remained.

When the second anniversary of his landmark November 1979 West Coast residencies came around, Dylan was still on the road, heading for the Florida swamplands. Yet all that he had embraced when baptised by Vineyard pastor Bill Dwyer was not washed away.

He would soon fuse the sensibilities he was reaching for on Shot Of Love on the no less apocalyptic Infidels (1983). But that is another story, from another time and place. This trenchant tract confines itself to straddling the great divide which separates the smooth-as-silk Slow Train Coming from the bear’s-arse monitor mix that is Shot Of Love, covering all bases between.

It connects the dots by drawing on a wealth of new information, much of which has not been in the public domain before. Hopefully, it will achieve its primary goal: to serve as a testament to the inspiration faith can bring when aligned to genius, making a case for a wholesale re-evaluation of the music Dylan made during his so-called religious period.

With the release of an 8-CD Deluxe Bootleg Series, the three studio albums will no longer be the be-all and end-all of the gospel years, and we are a whole lot closer to knowing what really happened, artistically. As always with Dylan, it turns out that the more we understand, the more we can enjoy…

Clinton Heylin Signing Trouble In Mind

Clinton Heylin signing copies of Trouble In Mind. Want one? Click here.