Fairport Convention: Who Knows Where the Time Goes?
The combined talents of Fairport Convention’s members began to pay off with more gigs, a growing fan base and a recording contract with Island Records. Although the band was not financially successful, its fortunes were certainly on the rise.
One night in may of 1969, everything changed.
On a drive home after a gig in Birmingham, the band’s van crashed. Most of the passengers were injured and 19-year-old Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn, were killed. Understandably shaken, the band was unsure if Fairport Convention could—or should—continue.
It wasn’t long after that Dave Mattacks, then a drummer in an English dance band, heard that the group was looking for a replacement for Lamble.
“All I knew was that they had a good reputation as musicians,” says Mattacks, who is hailed by many as England’s foremost folk drummer today. “I didn’t want to be in a dance band all of my life. I wanted to move into contemporary music but I was incredibly ignorant about that kind of music. I knew about Peter, Paul & Mary but I had no perception of what Fairport was doing.”
Prior to his audition—the only one he’s ever had—Mattacks bought the group’s album Unhalfbricking, released just two months after the fatal crash, and learned a few tunes. (In 2004, Q magazine placed the album at number 41 in its list of the “50 Greatest British Albums Ever.”) Although he remembers little of the tryout, it began a stint that saw him working on and off with the band for the next three decades. At about the same time, Dave Swarbrick, who was a guest fiddler on Unhalfbricking, also joined.
Combined with Hutchings, Denny, Thompson, vocalist and guitarist Iain Matthews and Nicol, the group created what many regard as the most influential folk rock album of all time— Liege & Lief —released in 1969.
“I was in the band for about 18 months, playing the music to the best of my ability, before I really understood—from an aesthetic viewpoint—what they were trying to do,” says Mattacks. “Before that, technique was the be all and end all. I was super conscious of song form and lyric form…Then I stopped being so concerned with what I was doing and started to become much more aware of what was around me, what the verse was doing, what the lyrics were saying. It had a profound effect on how I played.”
When you think of Fairport Convention’s success with Liege & Lief and Unhalfbricking, it’s tempting to compare the group to Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds and not just based on sound. All three bands were filled with brilliant, incandescent players. All three found success at about the same time— Buffalo Springfield in 1967 with the single “For What It’s Worth” and The Byrd’s in 1965 with the single “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Most notably, all three bands began to implode almost as soon as popular success arrived.
Like their American folk-rock counterparts, Fairport Convention became rife with tension as disagreements about musical direction deepened. Hutchings left to form the band Steeleye Span, which began as a traditional folk band and moved into rock arrangements and is often cited as the second most influential British folk rock band, after Fairport. Denny left to form the short-lived traditional folk group Fotheringay. The rest of the band was in flux.
“I remember Simon and Richard meeting me at the airport [when I returned from a vacation] and telling me ‘We have some bad news—Sandy and Ashley have left,’” recalls Mattocks. “It was right after [we recorded] Liege & Lief. I remember them saying, ‘We think Sandy is irreplaceable, but we’ve got this great bass player—Dave Pegg.’”
Pegg was only 21 when Swarbrick recruited him to join Fairport Convention. Although Pegg had only seen the band play a week before they extended the invitation, he joined, becoming the only member that has never left the band. His energetic, innovative playing—often cited as inspirational by folk and punk bassists—added another element to the band’s already powerful sound.
Soon after Pegg joined, Thompson left, leaving the remaining members badly dispirited. That was especially true of Nicol, who former bandmates said was hesitant to try to fill the musical void left by a musical genius.
Although Nicol left the band a year later—which he jokingly refers to as his “years off for good behavior”—the addition of Pegg to the band set the stage for the future of Fairport that has musically morphed depending on the musical inclinations of the current line up.
“We do hear that Fairport Convention has lost its balls,” says Pegg, the longest continual serving member of the band. “There are no big keyboards, no big guitar things. To some extent that is very true; we have kind of mellowed out a bit. It’s not like a middle of the road thing but we have a much gentler sound. Simon doesn’t play much electric guitar now. [Our last studio album of original music] Festival Bell is a happy mixture of what we do.”
The band members are arguably a bit mellower, too, leaving some of their harder partying days behind. Some classic stories of the band recount how the group would drink so much during their own concerts that the tab was more than their performance payment.
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