Ever and anon, out of trauma and tragedy arises, phoenix-like, a thing of wonder from the ashes. In May of 1969, Fairport Convention’s band van swerved off the road and down a steep embankment on the M-1 outside of Birmingham, England. Most of the passengers in the van were jettisoned through windows and doors. None escaped injury, but guitarist Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn, died at the scene, and Fairport drummer Martin Lamble died en route to the hospital. Dark days indeed, for an up-and-coming band who had just tasted their first chart successes with the recent releases What We did on Our Holidays (released January 1969) and Unhalfbricking (released July 1969).
Though grief-stricken, the young band carried on, replacing the deceased Martin Lamble with drummer Dave Mattacks, and adding fiddler David Swarbick, who had gained prominence in the English folk movement with stellar appearances on several of legendary guitarist Martin Carthy’s solo recordings. Swarbick had already played with Fairport on the traditional air “A Sailor’s Life”, which first appeared on the seminal folk album Unhalfbricking. It was the song “A Sailor’s Life”, and the inestimable contributions of Swarbick that gave the band a new direction, integrating traditional English themes with a progressive electric folk sound that was first to appear on Liege & Lief (U.S. release 1970).
Yet, it was not merely a tweaking of musical elements that gave the album its undeniable dark character. There is an unremitting melancholy that pervades the recording — the emotional aftermath of a still-too-recent tragedy, perhaps — and sad partings, death, murder, betrayal, and insanity are frequent themes therein; however, there is a mysticism and an ancient but ageless wonder that underlies the sadness – a timeless sound that transcends both traditional and new material to a point where it is difficult to ascertain which songs were first sang in the 16th century and which were composed in 1969. It was from this remarkable synthesis of disparate elements that the landmark Liege & Lief album was created.
That Liege & Lief was eventually haled as the quintessential British folk-rock album, and recognized twice, in 2002 and again in 2006, as the Most influential Folk Album of all time by BBC Radio 2, is understandable, given the almost netherworldly quality of the recording. But what rankles is just how woefully underrated a folk-rock band Fairport Convention is in general terms. For instance, you most likely will not be seeing Fairport on a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voting ballot anytime soon, which is not so much surprising as it is infuriating, given the well-noted nearsightedness and blatant biases of Hall of Fame electors.
The late, great Sandy Denny never got her due as a rock diva, perhaps because she was never quite as pretentious as Stevie Nicks or over-the-top as Janis Joplin, and remained loyal to her folk music roots. But her voice is beautiful and ethereally distinctive, and if you are just getting into Fairport Convention but find Denny’s vocals eerily familiar, it is likely you recall hearing her stunning duet with Robert Plant on “The Battle of Evermore” from Led Zeppelin’s Volume IV album. Guitarist extraordinaire Richard Thompson seems to be suffering the same fate as Denny, praised by those few who appreciate his remarkable career (whether with Fairport Convention or his series of great solo efforts with his ex-wife Linda Thompson), and yet ignored because he does not fit in the mainstream of rock music. Such is the inanity of the recording industry that non-entities like ABBA , Blondie, and The Bee-Gees receive accolades, while truly gifted bands such as Fairport, Jethro Tull, and King Crimson remain unheralded.
Curmudgeonly editorializing aside, Liege & Lief is an electrified bit of traditional folk heaven, with many of the songs dating from the 16th through the 19th centuries (“Tam Lin”, “Reynardine”, “Matty Groves”, “The Deserter”). As alluded to previously, the original compositions “Come All Ye” (Denny and Hutchings), “Farewell, Farewell” (Thompson), and “Crazy Man Michael” (Thompson and Swarbick) meld so seamlessly with the older material that it can be quite hard to differentiate the two, which is a testament to the group’s superb songwriting skills.
“Reynardine” is an eerie ballad about a werefox (yes, werefox, not werewolf) that slyly draws a young woman to her doom with fair words to hide its evil intent. Although the song dates to the early 19th century, it draws on the medieval tradition of Reynard the Fox, a cycle of allegorical stories about a tricky but ultimately nasty animal antihero, wedded with later incarnations of vampire and werewolf tales. The sustained menace in the subdued guitar work of Thompson and Sandy Denny’s vocal treatment is superb here, and the barely-veiled malevolence of Reynardine is finally revealed in Denny’s subtle phrasing of “Sun and dark she followed him/His teeth did brightly shine/And he led her up a-the mountains/Did that sly, bold Reynardine.”
In the same vein, “Tam Lin”, a 16th century Scottish ballad, invokes the netherworld with the folk tradition of an earthly knight held in thrall by Mab, the Queen of Faery. The none-too-tragic loss of the heroine’s maidenhead, tithes to Hell, shapeshifting, and love conquering evil ensue, but it is the electric minstrelsy of the band, particularly Swarbick and Thompson, that sets this tune apart from being a fey and thoroughly nancified renaissance faire rendition of ye olde broadside ballade.
But the centerpiece of the traditional songs on Liege & Lief is the incomparable “Matty Groves”, a 17th century murder ballad of adultery and revenge, where the dull-witted (but obviously well-hung) Matty Groves is seduced by Lord Darnell’s wife — just after Sunday prayers, no less. Lord Darnell finds out about the tryst, catches the two in bed, a duel is fought, and the unhappy lovers meet their deaths on the edge of Lord Darnell’s bloody sword. Lord Darnell, ever one to keep up the appearance of status and privilege, then suggests ironically to his servants, “A grave, a grave…to put these lovers in/But bury my lady at the top, for she was of noble kin.” Swarbick and Thompson finish the song with a rousing several-minute duel of fiddle and guitar.
Elsewhere on the album, Richard Thompson’s burgeoning songwriting abilities are highly apparent, and for one of such tender years (20-years-old at the time of Liege & Lief), far more mature than his age belied. “Farewell, Farewell” seems to mirror the overall sad tone of the album, with Denny breathing the appropriate air of melancholy into the song. In addition, the tune “Crazy Man Michael” is a musical descent into madness (a la Edgar Allan Poe) which chronicles a troubled man’s manic discussion with a prophetic raven.
Musically speaking, Fairport Convention’s departure from the Byrd-like What We did on Our Holidays and the Dylanesque folk of Unhalfbricking is quite pronounced, and Dave Swarbick’s influence is most notable on songs like “Matty Groves” and the foot-stomping “Medley” (which contains the reels and jigs “The Lark in the Morning”, “Rakish Paddy”, “Foxhunters’ Jig”, and “Toss the Feathers”). Swarbick’s roughhewn and masculine fiddling indelibly marked Fairport’s future recordings and acted as blueprint for such groups as Steeleye Span (which Ashley Hutchings formed after leaving Fairport) and Jethro Tull (several members of Fairport have also been in Tull at one time or another) to explore different perspectives of British folk.
However, as British reporter and rock critic Nigel Williamson wrote in The Times, “Not only did Fairport Convention invent English folk-rock but they effectively destroyed it, too. Nobody could top the electrified versions of trad ballads such as Tam Lin and Matty Groves on their classic, genre-defining Liege & Lief – after that there was nowhere left to go.” Williamson’s statement is perceptive but perhaps a little bit too heavy on the hyperbole. What Liege & Lief did in effect was to destroy the continuance of Fairport’s classic lineup, due primarily to musical differences. Sandy Denny feared that Fairport was heading too far down the road of traditionalism, which would adversely affect her songwriting, and she left to form the band Fotheringay; whereas, Ashley Hutchings felt that Fairport was not traditional enough (and thus his next band, Steeleye Span, featured more reels, jigs, and selections from Child’s Ballads). After the next Fairport album, the live recording Full House (1970), Richard Thompson also left for a solo career. Still, Fairport Convention managed to soldier on with guitarist and co-founder Simon Nicol, Mattacks, Swarbick, and new bassist Dave Pegg.
Doors open, doors close. People come and people go. But between the final, sad partings and first, furtive hellos, sometimes a spark of genius glows, caused by the friction of farewells and felicitations. Liege & Lief was just such a fortuitous meeting in the hallway, a brief interlude with a profound effect on all who shared in the encounter.