Sunday, February 6, 2011
Nottamun Town, Fairport Convention (1969)
"My route to school took me past a music shop and there were always guitars on display. I just liked the shape, I suppose; I wanted to possess one." - Simon Nichol, co-founder of Fairport Convention
I have long suspected that if it weren't for the seemingly primal affinity that boys have for guitars and their shapes, the world might have been deprived of much of the world's existing music catalog. When you read the stories of how bands came to be, how often does it hinge on schoolboys who had zero interest in formal education but a full complement of zeal for wringing sounds out of their curvaceous instruments? Exactly!
Certainly that was the case with Fairport Convention. I discovered Fairport's haunting repertoire of guitar licks and vocals just as I hit the gloomy prison of my college dorm room in 1970, the perfect time and place to immerse myself in their electrified traditional and folk music.
Although their original creative influences as a group were often American singer-songwriters, both Nicol and one of the group's other co-founders, the in-a-class-by-himself Richard Thompson, have credited the British Fender Stratocaster wizard, Hank Marvin, of Cliff Richard's backup band The Shadows, with inspiring them to become proficient in the instrument as youths. Before the Beatles and the Stones invaded their own country, the Shadows were breaking ground with a home-grown rock and roll sound that took the world (except for the U.S.) by storm. Here they are with (Ghost) Riders in the Sky, in a rendition that I have to assume was revolutionary at the time.
Fairport Convention worked the London pubs relentlessly, honing their craft interpreting the music of others, but eventually settled upon an eclectic, almost improvisational fusion of musical forms that was later dubbed the British folk-rock genre. No one in England was doing this, not well anyway, at the time. Thompson, on Elvis Costello's Spectacle show, noted that they drew on The Band's emergence as a successful traditional, roots-driven group in arriving at their newfound direction.
Fairport's music in that early heyday was distinguished by a number of things, not least of which was what Nicol referred to as "the structured freedom and strength" of Thompson's playing. (Anyone who has never seen him live should put this on the list of Things To Do Before You Die.) Another thing that set them apart was the addition of a girl lead singer, Judy Dyble, who duetted with Ian (now Iain) Matthews. They felt she wasn't the strongest vocalist, but they and their audiences liked the female touch, and a subsequent search for her replacement turned up ex-Strawb Sandy Denny. Denny is the much revered songbird whose voice you hear floating into the stratosphere in my song selection today, Fairport's glorious reworking of the traditional folk song Nottamun Town. (During her audition, Nicol said she "stood out like a clean glass in a sink full of dirty dishes.")
Fairport landed an American producer based in the UK, Joe Boyd, allegedly after he witnessed Thompson's half hour interpretation of Paul Butterfield Blues Band's East West. (He also produced The Incredible String Band, Nick Drake and others in this genre, and had known Denny previously.) Fairport were sometimes compared to Jefferson Airplane, their sound being viewed in some circles as having a tinge of psychedelia. I didn't particularly see the resemblance, but whatever.
Though in its early days the group was as close knit as they could be, some of them living communally, the seminal lineup proved not to be enduring. Matthews left after the Holiday album, not much liking the turn toward traditional folk music; Thompson got restless to pursue his own solo career, and was gone by 1971. Denny left, came back, then left again, forming Fotheringay with her boyfriend Trevor Lucas. She died at the age of 31 from injuries sustained in a fall in 1978 (Thompson's stunning ode to her, That's All, Amen, Close the Door, is RT artistry at its very best). The group has had easily a dozen former members altogether over the years.
Simon Nichol came and went and returned, and today is the only original member of the group, which still tours. For 35 years, they've held the annual Cropredy Convention, an outdoor festival showcasing British folk-rock music that goes on for days (among other things, it boasts that it has "the cleanest toilets you'll find at any music festival"), closed by a lengthy performance by the band themselves.