Fairport Convention

Fairport Unconventional

(Free Reed)

Fairport Convention are celebrating their 35th anniversary as a group this year–and on Fairport Unconventional, a four-CD box set issued in commemoration, it’s clearer than ever that the fascination with history that gave them their glory has become their trap.

They’re the progenitors of British folk rock, which draws much more heavily on traditional music than its American cousin. In fact, Fairport’s repertoire and the traditions associated with it define the band more than any specific personnel: they’ve gone through more than 20 musicians over the years, and the lineups that recorded, for instance, 1969’s What We Did on Our Holidays and 1973’s Nine have exactly zero members in common. Fairport Unconventional–which contains several pounds of documentation in addition to more than five hours of music–includes a Fairport family tree by longtime fan Pete Frame, who wraps it up with this note to the band: “If you bastards change your line-up one more time, you can find yourselves another fucking genealogist!”

Fairport Convention formally broke up in 1979, but they’ve played at least once every year since then, and usually more than that. They’re the very definition of a cult band: they only had one (minor British) hit, and the closest they’ve come to mainstream success was sharing a rhythm section with Jethro Tull. But the stately, exquisitely played music they recorded in the late 60s–featuring singer-guitarist Richard Thompson and singer Sandy Denny, both of whom went on to solo careers and cults of their own–spawned an active electric folk scene in England in the 70s, and continues to attract acolytes today. (Stephen Malkmus, for one, has lately been covering Holidays’ “Tale in Hard Time” live.)

Cults demand rituals that have to be performed just so, and for the last 22 years the central ritual of Fairport’s existence has been Cropredy, an annual weekend-long folk and folk-rock festival at which they always headline, recapitulating their entire career with whichever of their alumni turn up. For the first few years of the 80s, Cropredy was billed as a Fairport reunion gig; by the middle of the decade the group had settled into recording and touring again. Like the festival, the new box set (which includes a voucher for a fifth CD of Cropredy highlights) is bursting with nostalgia–more so even than most box sets. The implication of the Fairport repertoire is that the golden age to long for is the pre-pop era of folk music, when songs were about lords and battles and nobody knew who’d written them.

What the set doesn’t acknowledge is that the band’s own golden age pretty obviously lasted from 1968 to 1970–a turbulent but astonishingly fertile period, bookended by the arrival of Denny and the departure of Thompson and punctuated in the middle by a van accident that killed drummer Martin Lamble and seriously injured bassist Ashley Hutchings. Half of Unconventional’s 72 songs entered the band’s repertoire in those years, and they still form the backbone of their live performances. “Matty Groves,” a variation on the traditional ballad “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” from 1969’s extraordinary Liege & Lief, is their “Free Bird,” the inescapable dramatic climax of every show. (The version on the box is edited together from over a dozen performances recorded across 30 years.) 1970’s “Sloth,” featuring an extended improvisational section, is their “Dark Star,” rarely played but much anticipated. And “Meet on the Ledge,” a 1968 Thompson original about remembering lost friends, has become, as the box’s liner notes put it, “the only possible way for a Fairport set to end.”

How they moved past the peak that produced those songs and never returned is a curious and complicated story. Ashley Hutchings’s dreadful “Wings,” written in the 90s and positioned at the beginning of the box’s first disc, credits the Byrds as Fairport’s chief inspiration when they formed in London in 1967. That may be the case, but their music sure doesn’t support it. For one thing, “Wings” is one of very few songs on Unconventional that sound particularly Byrdsian; for another, it’s followed by Fairport’s first single, “If I Had a Ribbon Bow,” a Tin Pan Alley tune delivered by early singer Judy Dyble in a prissy, Joan Baez-inspired style.

What they did have in common with the Byrds was that they adored Bob Dylan. Early Fairport played a generous assortment of Dylan covers, including their one and only hit (it got to number 21 on the British charts): a version of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” improbably performed Cajun-style as “Si Tu Dois Partir.” They couldn’t always tell good Dylan from bad–“Dear Landlord,” a 1969 outtake, qualifies as very bad Dylan–but they’ve continued to add his songs to their bag ever since. A casual, sped-up romp through “I Don’t Believe You,” recorded in 1973 by the bastard Nine lineup, is one of the box’s unexpected highlights.

But they weren’t just Dylan fanatics: early on Fairport were into the whole American folk and folk-rock scene. They covered at least five Joni Mitchell songs; their radio sessions in 1968 included material by Jackson C. Frank, Tim Buckley, the Merry-Go-Round, Leonard Cohen, Eric Andersen, and Richard Farina. (Unconventional includes a much bootlegged French TV performance of Farina’s “Reno, Nevada,” featuring a long and incandescent Thompson guitar solo.) In 1969, though, their interests began to move away from American songwriters and toward the traditional music of the British Isles. “A Sailor’s Life,” from Unhalfbricking (a very early live recording is included in the box), was the first major sign of this change. Six months later they released Liege & Lief; five of its eight tracks were traditional, and the others were originals in the same lyrical mode. “Michael he ranted and Michael he raved / And beat at the four winds with his fists-o,” goes a line from Thompson and fiddler Dave Swarbrick’s “Crazy Man Michael.”

Aside from Sandy Denny’s folk-club enunciation and an instrumental medley of traditional dance pieces, though, the sound of Liege & Lief owes very little to either conventional folk music or the Rickenbacker sparkle of American folk rock. If you didn’t understand the words, it’d mostly sound like a really inventive rock ‘n’ roll record. “Reynardine” is played in free meter, and moves forward in rippling waves cued by Denny’s singing; “Tam Lin” is hard rock with a tricky meter and savage guitar jabs. Swarbrick even played his fiddle like a lead rock instrument, soloing right along with Thompson.

Denny and Hutchings left at the end of 1969, so Thompson and Swarbrick took over the singing on the next year’s Full House. On a 1969 pisstake of “The Lady Is a Tramp” recorded for the BBC and included on Unconventional, Thompson sings in an uncertain, vaguely American accent, but by the time he sings a verse of 1970’s “Walk Awhile” he’s imitating Swarbrick’s broad, very trad British vowels. “Battle of the Somme,” an instrumental they first recorded that summer, is a straightforward and almost too-pretty guitar-and-violin rendition of a traditional bagpipe tune, and a harbinger of things to come. By early 1971 Thompson was gone, but the band he left behind was firmly locked into the mode of playing traditional and mock-traditional music on rock instruments; they’d largely abandoned any link to contemporary pop.

Fairport Convention’s great mistake was deciding that the shift was a movement toward artistic maturity; in fact it was their moment of artistic maturity. In the liner notes to a recent reissue of Liege & Lief, producer Joe Boyd notes that Fairport “couldn’t stop playing” the Band’s Music From Big Pink, and wanted to record something “as English as the Band was American” (well, Canadian, but still); when you hear Liege with that in mind, you can hear a band with a rival to overcome. As long as there was something of the American singer-songwriter movement–or resistance to it–in their songs and playing, there was a sort of aspirational friction in everything they recorded. They had something to prove.

After Thompson left, they continued to milk both the repertoire and some of the stylistic tics of the very different group of players they had once been. That’s much more acceptable in traditional music than in rock, which may have helped to determine their course. But ever since then, through more than a dozen changes in personnel, the band’s been trying to move backward and forward simultaneously: forward to a repertoire that includes new material and doesn’t rely entirely on their great work (and therefore turn them into an oldies act), backward to an imaginary ideal of folk rock whose only point of reference besides British folk is, well, the good Fairport Convention records, and which therefore leans heavily on anachronism. It’s sent them into a slow and terrible decline.

You can hear the difference with painful clarity at the beginning of the box’s third disc, whose theme is British history. “Sir Patrick Spens,” a setting of the famous ballad, comes from a 1969 rehearsal tape; Denny isn’t quite sure how to get the words across, but Thompson and Swarbrick are knitting their glorious leads together. It’s clearly unfinished, but it’s also getting somewhere interesting fast. As soon as it ends, we move to 1992’s “Wat Tyler”: awful whooshy keyboards, soulless guitar noodling, and a dull original lyric about the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Virtually all of the post-“breakup” Fairport compositions that appear on Unconventional are similarly literal-minded, badly arranged, and as bloodlessly evocative of the past as a middle school textbook. Even the covers from recent years are feeble (including Elvis’s “It’s Now or Never” and a bit of a cappella dorkiness called “The Accountancy Shanty”). Still, for every disappointing late-model number, there’s a splendid rarity or revival from the pre-’71 days: Denny impersonator Vikki Clayton reviving Thompson’s “Genesis Hall” at Cropredy in 1993 with the author pitching in on guitar, three-part harmonies levitating a 1977 live take on Full House’s “Flowers of the Forest,” a majestically assured “Now Be Thankful” from a 1970 radio session. The musical tradition that serves Fairport Convention best doesn’t belong to the broad span of Britain’s history–it belongs to them alone.