Fairport Convention: Who Knows Where the Time Goes?
No one thought Fairport would last a few months when it formed.
That’s understandable when you consider that the band’s founder, Ashley Hutchings, was only a teenager in the mid-1960s when he and guitarist Simon Nicol started an acoustic jug band—The Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra—in suburban London. The lineup included a kazoo player and occasional guests including Thompson.
Popular culture typically recalls the Orchestra’s repertoire as eccentric, which seems fitting considering that Hutchings’ varied musical interests and desires. He never sought to “follow trends” but rather “start them,” as he says.
By 1967, Hutchings and Nicol disbanded the Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra and began a new collaboration that ultimately led to Fairport Convention. Little did they know that they’d become icons of a scene and sound.
“The biggest misconception about Fairport is that we knew exactly what we were doing,” says Hutchings of the band that chose its name from the Nicol family home where the group practiced. “We were all very young and grabbing [ahold] of anything we liked, very often literate songs, from Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan—just grabbing those and doing them our own way. We were almost the only group to do that.
“People were playing freaky music with light shows and extended solos, whereas we stood out because we did songs—literate, wonderful songs,” continues Hutchings. “We fell in love with traditional music and [recorded] Liege & Lief. These weren’t career moves. We were just doing what came naturally and it was all coming out in [what developed into] a Fairport kind of style.”
That style was a mix of classic and traditional folk songs, many including multi-part harmonies set to electric rock arrangements.
If the story of Fairport was a novel, then some might think that the author had used too heavy a hand to foreshadow certain events.
The newly minted folk-rock group that originally adopted a California rock sound many liken to that of The Byrds, was only one gig in when Martin Lamble replaced Shaun Frater on drums by. Soon, vocalist Judy Dyble though lauded for her distinctive sound, was also unceremoniously “dumped.” Her replacement was Strawbs’ singer Sandy Denny, continually hailed as England’s preeminent female vocalist. (Seriously—this isn’t hyperbole—ask any Brit.)
“I tell everyone I just wish there had been one really terrible singer between me and Sandy,” Dyble laughs before talking about accepting guest artist slots with the band at their annual Cropredy Festival.
“Years go by and it’s nice to be asked to do things,” she says with a smile. “We were all only about 18 years old [then]. How far ahead do you really think when you’re that age?”
As is the case with many young bands, poverty, immaturity and creative differences kept Fairport’s lineup in constant flux. What arguably set the group apart was its members’ musical passions.
“When I was in the band, I don’t think we had a stable lineup for a year,” says Thompson. “Things would change every six to nine months. Everything was crammed into short spaces of time. In 1969, what we used to do after a gig somewhere north of England was drive back to London and go back to the studio and go in and do a bit more. We were always recording—it was an endless process—but somehow we managed. We were all very young.”
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