MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Fairport Convention’s “Liege & Lief”

The making of Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief

By A.D. Amorosi

“Come all ye rolling minstrels/And together, we will try/To rouse the spirit of the earth/And move the rolling sky”
—“Come All Ye,” Fairport Convention

Contrary to popular belief, the rolling minstrels of Fairport Convention didn’t form in 1967 to change the way audiences heard the woody folk traditions of the British Isles and hot-wire the primeval acoustic form with radical, dusky electricity and authenticity.

Bassist Ashley Hutchings, guitarist Simon Nicol and Charlie Christian/Django Reinhardt six-string acolyte Richard Thompson just wanted to emulate the harmony-filled, Dylan-inspired sounds of America’s West Coast—the California cool of the Byrds and Joni Mitchell—when they got together. And that’s what Hutchings, Nicol and Thompson did, at first, while working in a rehearsal space (Fairport House) in the northern London suburb of Muswell Hill. On its eponymous debut as Fairport Convention in 1968 with singer/autoharpist Judy Dyble, vocalist Iain Matthews and percussionist Martin Lamble, the band-starting trio used their best ringing harmonies on covers of Emitt Rhodes, Tim Buckley and Richard Farina while penning their own like-minded, pre-psychedelic folk rock.

“We certainly weren’t comparing our songwriting to those great artists,” says Hutchings. “We were only starting to compose, and that’s just what came out. In retrospect, I believe that we rejected our own very early songs and ideas, but at least we were trying to find our own voices.”

By 1969, however, the founding trio replaced ’60s American folk with dark, old, British traditionals and blistering rock-outs that mirrored the thrush-filled mien of the moors and the songs of the wood. They switched out Dyble with the darkly intricate and clearly beautiful voice of Sandy Denny and welcomed new members such as dance-band drummer Dave Mattacks and Dave Swarbrick (one of the U.K.’s most in-demand fiddlers and mandolinists) to Fairport’s fold.

Swarbrick and Mattacks didn’t feature on 1969’s What We Did On Our Holidays, but the fully remade Fairport Convention came into its own with the same year’s torrid, transitional Unhalfbricking. Knotty-pine epic Liege & Lief became arguably the finest, most haunted, truly British folk-rock album of all time. Along with crafting many a misty-mountain hopping mood, the Fairport Convention of Liege & Lief gave rise to haunted, like-singing folkies Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the Incredible String Band and Nick Drake, as well as musky rockers Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, to say nothing of the American freak-folk movement and all the nü-folk artists who dared to bare their autoharps.

“We found that traditional music from the U.K. and Ireland spoke to us in a profound way,” says Thompson of the signatures, simplicities and complexities of British folk. “This was the music from our own corner of the planet, and we felt that it would also speak for the audiences of Britain if we could contemporize it by playing it amplified. Once you sing a song that is centuries old, and you feel the ghosts of all the other singers who have passed it down and modified it and polished it, you get hooked on the tradition.”

That’s Liege & Lief to a “T.” By paying heed to the bracken-and-brush-filled whimsy of self-arranged traditionals (“Reynardine,” “Matty Groves,” a sun-dappled suite of “The Lark In The Morning,” “Rakish Paddy,” “Foxhunters’ Jig” and “Toss The Feathers”), as well as terrapin originals (Thompson’s mournful “Farewell, Farewell,” his fiery “Crazy Man Michael” written with Swarbrick, Denny/Hutchings track “Come All Ye”), Liege & Lief finds equal dedication in the Brit, the folk and the rock sides of that full-blooded, three-headed hydra.

“It was magical, all of it,” says Joe Boyd, Fairport’s manager, producer and the leading lion of the burgeoning U.K. folk scene of the time.

“There was a shared aesthetic with Pentangle, Shirley Collins and the Incredibles, but we weren’t influenced by these other acts,” says Hutchings. “We were a rock group playing folk and rock. A lot of these other acts swung the folk. We rocked the folk.”

Liege & Lief was the ancient and the future all rolled into one serious, mysterious and mischievous whole, a deservingly separate entity from the just-released, seven-disc Come All Ye: The First 10 Years Fairport boxed set that breathes its own rarified air.

The group’s journey to Liege & Lief involves not nymphs and fairies, but rather a deep and abiding love for and fascination with folk’s traditions, and the dislocation that difficult and tragic moments bring to the extended family of a band.

Hutchings and Nicol had known each other and played together since 1966 when they both were part of the Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra, with its hot-licking skiffle rhythms. “By 1967, I had a wide knowledge of all kinds of music,” says Hutchings. “My father had also been a bandleader in the ’30s and ’40s. What I knew for sure was that I wanted to be a groundbreaker. I was not interested in following the crowd.” That was evident not only in his skiffle skills but in his love for the American blues of Gus Cannon, Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert and Tommy Johnson.

“I was given the nickname ‘Tiger’ at school for my tiger-like behavior on the football field—verbal rather than playing,” he says with a laugh. “I chose to put the ‘y’ in because it was possibly ‘cooler.’ Only later did I discover that William Blake spelt “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright” with a ‘y.’ But maybe I instinctively knew something.”

In 1967, Thompson already had a long career of band gigs: He had started playing out at age 12, as well as studying classical guitar. (One of his school bands, circa 1963, was with Hugh Cornwell, later of the Stranglers.) “I started playing with Ashley and Simon in pre-Fairport bands in, like, 1966,” says Thompson. “Growing up in London, we were exposed to a huge range of music. We went to folk clubs, saw visiting blues artists, jazz, classical, the lot. I was also very interested in art theory. So on the first Fairport album, you hear us stylistically all over the map … and a bit on that second album, too.” Thompson notes that on those albums, if they had a unifying goal it was to emphasize lyrics. “We covered Leonard Cohen, Dylan and Joni Mitchell at a time when that was not fashionable,” he says. “Blended with this was the general zeitgeist of ’60s London flower power, so my guitar solos tended to be lengthy. But we genuinely thought a lot and talked a lot about music, and we were generally determined to not sound like other bands.”

Though Thompson was born in Notting Hill and entranced by rock ’n’ roll, his Scottish grandfather had a huge influence on the guitarist via his books and jazz collection, both of which long stuck with Thompson. “Rock swept everything else aside for a while, because it was so exciting and spoke clearly to a post-war generation,” he says. “But I realized that I was incorporating Django elements into my guitar style, and all the Scottish ballads I’d read in my grandfather’s library as a kid were being regurgitated in my lyrics.”

Hutchings, Thompson and Nicol shared commonalities from growing up in North London. They were all embarked on individual and collective musical quests, and loved to share musical discoveries. “Also, and importantly, was a common sense of humor, as we never took ourselves too seriously,” says Thompson.

Boyd, the producer and operator of the UFO Club (and the man who was production stage manager when Dylan went electric at Newport), liked Fairport. He put the band onstage at his club, suggested the outfit add another voice (Iain Matthews) to team with Dyble (who was known for sitting and knitting onstage when she wasn’t standing at the microphone), got the group a record deal and began handling Fairport’s career through his management company, Witchseason.

“I really couldn’t think of another name, and Donovan’s great track (“Season Of The Witch”) was on the turntable when the accountant told me the deadline for titling was that day,” says Boyd. “I later regretted naming my company after a Donovan song, but it lasted OK.”

Says Thompson, “Joe discovered us and signed us and produced us, and was always helpful in enlarging the scope and influences of the band. But the British-traditional direction of the band was steered by Ashley. Joe was excited by the possibilities, but the instigation came from the band itself.”

Hutchings says that Fairport was lucky to have Boyd at the helm and trusted him as far as business and musical taste were concerned. “He was good to work with because he encouraged us to do what we wanted and never dictated,” says Hutchings, eschewing his own role in the focus of Fairport’s folk traditionalism for the sake of camaraderie. “It was a good arrangement.”

Excitement and professional goodwill aside—a debut album, a gig at the Isle Of Wight with Jefferson Airplane—the first record didn’t sell, and changes had to be made. Fairport signed a new contract with Island (after its Polygram debut) and replaced Dyble with Denny, a folk singer who had previously recorded as a soloist and as part of Strawbs, a neo-classical musical act whose work was a harbinger of progressive rock.

“Sandy adored Richard, and together, their voices were perfect,” says Boyd of the clarion-clear yet mournful Denny, whose voice would soon become paired with Thompson’s. (During the recording of Unhalfbricking, Matthews left after one song, eventually to form Matthews Southern Comfort.) “There was huge mutual respect between Denny and Thompson.” The guitarist concurs with the producer’s praise. “She seemed brilliant then, and now everyone acknowledges that she is one of the greatest singers Britain ever produced,” says Thompson. “Everything went up a gear with her.”

“It didn’t initially change our style, but within a year, her familiarity with British folk music helped us make the transition from North American-influenced material to British folk rock,” says Hutchings. “Sandy was one of those rare creatures who could feel at home singing folk and singing rock. Also, she could do it convincingly.”

Unhalfbricking dramatically dropped Fairport’s American folk inspirations and rich Californian harmonies (that was singer Matthews’ big thing) and replaced them with all-things-ye-olde-English, giving their nascent Anglo-Celtic woodcock lilt an electric kick with Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?” and “Autopsy,” among the album’s other brooding treasures.

An 11-minute version of traditional English tune “A Sailor’s Life,” with guest fiddle by Swarbrick, also gave great hints as to where Fairport Convention was heading. “I loved Swarbrick’s playing from hearing him in 1964 with Ian Campbell, and even made an album with him (Rags, Reels & Airs) for Elektra in 1966,” says Boyd. “I had doubts about his character”—Boyd declines to elaborate—“but he was such a good player, I couldn’t object to Fairport’s bringing him in. It was their choice.”

Of making three albums in one year, Liege & Lief included, Hutchings says that “the business of releasing three—as it happened, classic—albums in one year was just an accident of scheduling. However, it’s clear that we were making big strides in our identity in a short period of time. And by the way, no drugs ever featured in the creative process, and drink just slowed you down.” To all this post-teen, pop-cultural effusion, Thompson adds, “At that time, we really weren’t much of a drug or drink band—just the energy of youth, I suppose.”

Despite the highs of new members and their interaction with old sounds, what brought Fairport Convention—and Thompson, in particular—crashing to earth was an accident. On May 12, 1969, on the way home from a show at Mothers in Birmingham, the band’s van wrecked on the motorway, killing drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn, and injuring the rest of Fairport’s members. With this black cloud hanging over its head, to say nothing of the horror of loss, Fairport Convention thought itself over and was considering disbanding. “The loss of Martin and Jeannie was a massive trauma for the band,” says Thompson. “It probably took us a couple of years to really process it and get over the shock.”

Hutchings recalls that Lamble’s death meant that the band had come to an end of a chapter. “He was that important—as a musician and as a much-loved friend,” he says.

Boyd recalls that, for a moment, Fairport Convention was set to break up. “I provided support,” he says. “At first they all said the group was over. Then they said that they would re-form but never ever play those same songs from their past again, hence the need for a new direction and repertoire.”

The idea of moving further than Unhalfbricking into the traditional tunes and inspirational lore of British and Celtic music and legend seemed to be the way forward, with Hutchings poring through the library and archives of Cecil Sharp House, an English folk music and dance arts center in London’s Regent Park, for authentic inspiration and traditional medieval texts. “It was all their idea, but perhaps my enthusiasm, my endorsement of their plans, was helpful,” says Boyd.

Once a new direction became their focus, Thompson and Hutchings recall being calmed by the idea of a next album. “It was easy to carry on into Liege & Lief as a fresh chapter and not have to play the old material,” says Hutchings.

“We felt it was a good time to do an album project, and we had already discussed this new possible direction,” says Thompson. “It was intended to be a one-off, but having taken that step, we really didn’t see any reason to go back, so we left behind our old repertoire and moved on. It was therapy for us to be so involved in something.”

Before embarking on songwriting or bringing in another drummer, Boyd states, there was one other influence to consider: the Band’s Music From Big Pink, its production by John Wood and the 1968 album’s rustic mix of folk, country, jazz, R&B and even classical. More so than the songs of Robertson, Danko and Co., it was the idea that one could trod ancient paths and come up with fresh, new results that caught Fairport’s collective attention. Throughout our interview, Boyd enthuses about Wood’s hot-wired sound. “That album posted a big sign for the American roots that early Fairport had been so enamored of,” says the producer. “‘Don’t bother. You’ll just sound ridiculous next to us.’ Consciously or subconsciously, the Band inspired Fairport to go as deep into U.K. roots as the Band had by going into American roots.” Wood wound up as an engineer on Liege & Lief, so obviously Boyd was as smitten as the Fairports when it came to the Band.

Hutchings agrees with Boyd’s estimation of the Band’s inspiration—to a degree. “We did come to make Liege & Lief as a consequence of listening to the Band,” says the bassist. “We loved their brand of Americana, but we really didn’t just want to copy them, so we translated their values and use of traditional forms into a British model.”

Then there was Mattacks, the drummer called in to replace the irreplaceable Lamble, and a secret swinging weapon of the Fairport Liege & Lief sound as far as producer Boyd was concerned.

“First off, I’m not an artist—I’m a working musician,” says Mattacks matter-of-factly. “In the time before I got to Fairport, 1967 and ’68, I was playing in this Lawrence Welk-style dance band and trying to get better as a musician and as a person. I’m still working on both.”

After a quick, casual audition won Mattacks the drummer’s stool, Liege & Lief became his first experience in a professional recording studio. “There were other recordings I’d done before which were very low key, but Liege was the biggest one at that point,” he says. “Plus, the people in Fairport came across to me as really good people and excellent players.” In regard to Lamble, all Mattacks knew was that “he was a wonderful musician and very different from me.”

Different is what Fairport wanted. After Unhalfbricking, Swarbrick joined as a full member, as did Mattacks. Boyd set the band up in a rented house in Farley Chamberlayne near Winchester in Hampshire before heading into the studio, Sound Techniques, in London. Starting its recording in October 1969, with what Thompson recalls as “Come All Ye” (“It sounded great on playback, so we were confident the rest would sound good, too”), the album’s title is composed of two Middle English words: “liege” meaning “loyal,” and “lief” meaning “ready.”

Originally built as a dairy, Sound Techniques—a Chelsea studio famously utilized by Pink Floyd (“See Emily Play”), the Yardbirds and Pentangle—was largely responsible, according to Boyd, for giving Liege & Lief’s songs breadth. “It was indeed a magical room and all the musicians loved working there, especially since Fairport had done its first three albums there,” says the producer. “They were late in going from four tracks to eight, but when we got there for L&L, Sound Techniques had eight tracks by then.”

The producer, though already renowned for providing his clients with the woodiest tones that folk music could buy, insists that he was but a conduit for Fairport’s sound, spirit and invention.

“I never pushed them but rather just visited the house in the country where they were living and preparing new music, and just applauded,” says Boyd. “Then I did my normal job of honing the sound, judging their vocals and helping them achieve their vision.”

Thompson began writing material that was new, and mournful, to him. “First off, my songs were cryptic and metaphorical but were clearly trying to work through this immense crisis in my life,” says the guitarist of Liege & Lief tracks such as “Farewell, Farewell,” the fiddle-laden “Crazy Man Michael” and its “raven with eyes black as coals” lyrics for Denny to sing, and even his melancholy arrangement of Brit traditional “Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood.”

“Richard had already developed into a wonderful songwriter prior to Liege & Lief, but on that album the two songs he presented to the band took it to another level,” says Hutchings. “In this case he had completely understood the language and sentiment of folk songs and translated that into his new songs. For me, he became a truly great songwriter at a stroke.”

Mattacks calls Thompson one of the greatest songwriters of all time, whose sad, dark times and witchy tunes poked through the sunshine: “If there was melancholy to be detected in those songs of his, remember what had happened to the band.” As for Denny, who co-wrote “Come All Ye” with Hutchings, her songwriting and vocals had become so cutting and clear they were downright transparent.

Hutchings goes on to say that between the arranging of traditional and the forging ahead of new songs, discovering and presenting the Liege & Lief material was a completely organic process with all six of its members contributing equally in their collective ways. “Swarb didn’t lead, and Joe didn’t push us,” says Hutchings of any rumor regarding the experience that both Swarbrick and Boyd had in the ancient Anglo folk-music stakes. “To be the first in a sphere requires a lot of hard creative work, and everyone pulled their weight. Each person had to find a way to technically play this stuff. And yes, it was exciting and rewarding.”

Thompson seems to recall some exception to Hutchings’ rule. Yes, the guitarist agrees Liege & Lief’s arrangements were mostly organic, with everyone pitching in ideas. “But remember, Dave Mattacks was inventing a whole new drum style to go with this music,” says Thompson regarding the subtle swing and brush of the drummer’s work. “And I’d say that Swarb pretty much arranged the ‘Lark In The Morning’ medley, and we slid into it where we could. Swarb brought to the band a huge fund of musical knowledge. I mean, he was one of the stars of the folk scene at the time.”

Mattacks is very pragmatic about his inventive contributions to Fairport and Liege. “Why play folk, why play jazz, why play rock? It’s all just music,” he says stoically. “I wasn’t thinking about sending anything anywhere. I was merely responding to the music that I was involved with. I didn’t join until after Unhalfbricking, so I didn’t have any ‘take’ on their earlier recordings. I knew that with this album, the band was doing ‘something different,’ but as my musical background was almost the opposite of theirs, it took me awhile to really appreciate the band’s aesthetic direction.” Mattacks does give credit for the traditional “The Deserter” and “The Lark In The Morning” medley to Swarbrick.

Hutchings laughs when he says, “People think, I imagine, ‘So they just rocked up folk.’ It was often a painstaking slog to technically make the instrumental work jell and do justice to the material—make it accessible to the listeners while honoring the process that had yielded such a tradition.”

Despite such a brilliant and innovative direction and what seemed to be a happy demeanor among the bandmates, soon after Liege & Lief’s release, two more losses occurred: Co-founder Hutchings and Denny both left the group.

“I don’t have anything to say about Sandy leaving the group, as I left at the same time and was too wrapped up in what I was going through then,” says Hutchings without elaboration. He did soon start a more traditional folk-music sound with a new band, Steeleye Span, while Denny went on to form Fotheringay. “That left the band sort of in the middle,” says Mattacks.

Boyd says that he knew for some time that Denny was distressed with where things were going. “She was afraid of flying and L&L immediately led to offers to tour America and Europe,” says Boyd. “She didn’t want to leave her then-new boyfriend Trevor (Lucas, of Fotheringay) alone in London, and go off for weeks without him, and she really didn’t want to focus on the old traditional songs. She was full of ideas for her own compositions.”

Thompson says he knew that Denny wanted to spend more time with Lucas and that she hated flying. “And at the time, that was enough reasons,” he says with a sigh. “We were happy at the time to carry on as a ‘boy’ band, Sandy being wonderful but also high maintenance. We also lost Ashley at the same time. I was very happy to continue with the band at that time—I cracked later.” Thompson exited the band after 1970’s Full House.

As for Mattacks, he left with Nicol after 1971’s Angel Delight to join the Albion Band. Fairport carried on, with varying permutations, until the present, with all of its members continuing with some of the most bracing trad and non-trad music from England.

Hutchings, now semi-retired, says of Liege & Lief, “We certainly created something new. Although the influence on other musicians wasn’t massive, it was very widespread.”

Mattacks isn’t sure “whatsoever” if Fairport and Liege & Lief conjured up a ye olde Brit folk scene in its wake. “But after I ‘got’ what they were doing regarding their take on English music,” he says, “it had a profound effect on me as a musician and how I heard and interpreted music from that point on.”

Thompson, who’s played a handful of Fairport reunions and recorded three old Fairport songs of his for his new Acoustic Classics 2 release, states he’s glad to play with “the lads” always, “but probably feel at this point that we are separate musical entities and plough different furrows.” Of Liege & Lief, he calls it a very pioneering record. “It had a predictable influence on British and Irish folk and rock,” he says. “But it also reached to other countries, where artists saw a way to revive their own folk cultures.”