The final word on Sandy Denny's other band
While Fairport Convention toiled, Fotheringay idled. While the band Sandy Denny left in the wake of 1969’s folk-rock landmark Liege And Lief gigged relentlessly, the group she put together with her boisterous Australian boyfriend Trevor Lucas swanned around in a vintage limousine. They retreated to a Sussex farmhouse to ‘get it together’ but rehearsed only once and spent most of their time messing about and getting drunk. They spent stupid money on a gigantic PA system nicknamed ‘Stonehenge’ – and by all reports that didn’t work either.
Within a year, Denny, Lucas, his Eclection bandmate Gerry Conway, and co-conspirators Pat Donaldson and Jerry Donahue had frittered away a reported £30,000 advance and had only one half-cooked LP to show for it. “We’ve had a terrible deadline to meet,” Denny says with dog-ate-my-homework air introducing a BBC session on this surprisingly hefty document of Fotheringay’s brief career. “All that material we’ve been working on must go on the album ‘cause we don’t have anything else to put on it.”
The cupboards have been stripped bare for this four disc boxed set – 3CDs of studio recordings, demos, radio sessions and a live set, plus a DVD featuring un-broadcast TV footage – which features some of the best work of Denny’s maddeningly unfulfilled career. Indeed, the rendition of the Napoleonic bloodbath ballad “Banks Of The Nile”, which closed their self-titled album, released in June 1970, might well eclipse more celebrated Fairport classics like “A Sailor’s Life“, “Percy’s Song“, “Farewell Farewell“ or “The Deserter“.
Cursed with a voice of supernatural power, Denny knew when she walked out on Fairport at their peak that she did not want to spend the rest of her career belting out souped-up traditional songs. Her mentor and producer Joe Boyd was equally sure Denny could do better than retreating into a band whose easygoing style – a little bit country and little bit rock’n’roll – harked back to the early Fairport. However, while Denny (as she appears on German TV show Beat Club), a glowering thundercloud in a kaftan hunched over her piano, sounds like a solo star in waiting, she certainly doesn’t look like one. Her eagerness to cede the spotlight to Lucas, meanwhile, suggests she didn’t feel like one either.
Denny’s voice hugs every alpha-male curve of Lucas’s on Fotheringay’s live and studio versions of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel”, and by all accounts the monstrously insecure singer was utterly smitten with him. However, while Lucas’s spade-is-a-spade baritone has its charms – “Peace In The End” is cheery enough and Denny’s embellishments give his version of Bob Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing” some heft – his contributions only paper over the cracks between the clutch of songs Denny brought to the new band. But when Denny was inspired, so were Fotheringay.
As with “The Banks Of The Nile”, the band provide a beautifully measured counterpoint on “Nothing More” – Denny’s attempt to reach out to her former bandmate Richard Thompson, quietly grief-stricken in the wake of the crash that killed his girlfriend Jeannie Franklin and Fairport drummer Martin Lamble. “My friend I know you’ve suffered, although you are still young,“ she sings. “Why was it you would not take help from anyone?”
The gentle swells that Fotheringay build under “The Sea” show a sympathetic subtlety, as the former nurse depicts the apocalypse coming to her home city: “Sea flows under your doors in London town, and all your defences are all broken down.” A distaff relative to Nick Drake’s “One Of These Things First”, its meaning is – like many of Denny’s songs – smoothed away by wave upon wave of obfuscating rewrites.
Fotheringay are at their unobtrusive best again on the “The Pond And The Stream”, Denny somewhat unfairly calling herself out for being an uptight urbanite compared to free-range folkie Anne Briggs. “Annie wanders on the land, she loves the freedom of the air,” Denny sighs. “She finds a friend in every place she goes. There’s always a face she knows. I wish that I was there.”
However, country living proved notably less inspiring when Fotheringay moved to Chaffinches Farm in Sussex, on a vague mission to log-cabin together their second LP. Fairport sparkled on their bucolic retreats – Liege And Lief came together at Farley Chamberlayne, near Winchester; Full House, their first post-Denny record, was born of communal living at the Angel, a former pub in Hertfordshire. Fotheringay’s rural idyll, by contrast, largely involved playing cards and going swimming.
An exasperated Boyd downed tools after the band returned to the studio that December. Functioning prototypes of “Late November” and “John The Gun” – both of which would appear on her first solo album – capture Denny in “Battle O Evermore” Valkyrie voice, but a surfeit of Lucas leads, and will-this-do covers of “Wild Mountain Thyme” and “Silver Threads And Golden Needles” showed exactly how little Fotheringay had done on their holidays. Boyd told Denny she was wasting her time. He had a point.
Fotheringay were dissolved, but Denny’s solo career proved no more fulfilling. 1971’s North Star Grassman And The Ravens has a sullen charm, but no amount of string sections could cover up a shortage of top-class material as Lucas looked to steer her toward mainstream diva-dom on her final three LPs, Sandy, Like An Old Fashioned Waltz and Rendezvous. Drunk, drugged and disappointed, Denny unraveled, and motherhood only accelerated her decline. She died from a brain haemorrhage, aged 31, in April 1978, days after Lucas had spirited their baby daughter Georgia away to Australia – an extreme intervention which may have staved off further tragedy. Lucas died of a heart attack, aged 45, in 1989.
In light of that unhappy ending, many pinpointed the Fotheringay-era as the period when the rot set in. What Nothing More suggests, though, is that 1970 might have been Denny’s best year as a writer. The easy atmosphere and the security of having Lucas close by may not have eased her anxiety – Boyd wrote that Renee Zellweger’s Bridget Jones was an accidentally perfect Denny – but it gave her the space to create some startling songs. What came after seemed too much like hard work.
Gerry Conway, drums
Can you remember how Fotheringay first came about?
It was beginning to be the end of Eclection; we’d had several line-up changes and Trevor and I weren’t happy with the way it was going. Then there was a conversation one day in the kitchen of Sandy and Trevor’s flat in Chipstead Street in which the plan to form another band was hatched – the three of us were in it together. We just had to look for a bass player and a guitar player.
Was it Sandy’s band, Trevor’s band or everyone’s?
Sandy really wanted to have a vehicle for her own songs, so we did more or less concentrate on her material along with some traditional stuff and contributions from Trevor. Nobody cracked the whip. It was a friendly band. No one had any ambition of storming the charts are getting rich. Money didn’t come into it – there wasn’t any.
What was the dynamic between Trevor and Sandy?
I think they were just in love, and from love comes great things – but we were all mates together. Trevor was very much a party type person. There wasn’t going to be anything deep and meaningful going on – it was all going to be fun and we all got swept along on that sort of vibe.
They have been characterised as the Sid and Nancy of folk rock; was theirs a noticeably volatile relationship?
It did eventually become that way. Sandy did have quite a temper, bless her, so they would quarrel, but that never really included us – we just accepted that Sandy was that way. I remember backstage at a gig, Sandy was unhappy about something and I could hear her going on behind me, then suddenly she grabbed the bench I was sitting on, not spotting me, and threw it across the room with me on it. It was more funny than anything else.
Banks of the Nile is one of the performances of Sandy’s career: can you remember much about recording it?
I remember it like yesterday. We did a few takes of it and we weren’t happy, so we did what most people did in those days: stopped the session and went to the pub. And when we were a bit more refreshed we decided to come back and just jam it. It’s something that we just did blind. Did we realise it was a special moment? No. We were never happy. It always could have been better.
Is it true that Fotheringay had a Bentley?
What we had was a couple of very dodgy Austin Princesses, which we didn’t own. Our friend Jock had a car business and occasionally he would take us to gigs in one of his Austin Princesses, so we were arriving in style but usually breaking down halfway home. The nearest Fotheringay came to a Bentley was when Jock asked me to take one to Chipstead Street for Roy Harper to pick up – I had it for about an hour.
Is the talk about ‘Stonehenge’ – Fotheringay’s massive PA system – overstated?
It was true and it was silent. It was Trevor’s brainchild – he went to WEM, who were making PAs, and laid out a plan to build a big system. Sure enough, they built it and it was enormous. The only problem was that when set it up, you could put your head in it and you still wouldn’t hear anything. It was a bit of a white elephant.
Fotheringay’s country retreat to Chaffinches Farm seemed to involve more swimming than songwriting. True?
That’s fairly accurate. We did do one rehearsal, but the rest of the time Pat Donaldson and I were gardening. Then our roadie at the time – his brother had a motorbike shop – got a couple of BSAs for us and we had time trials up the side of the house or would ride them over the sand dunes in East Wittering. I’m not sure what we were preparing to do – we were just there.
Sandy split Fotheringay go solo. Can you remember how that came about?
Sandy came in in floods of tears to say that she had been persuaded to do the solo career and had to leave the band. After that we had a short meeting with the rest of us to decide whether we were going to carry on and get somebody else, but without Sandy it wasn’t a goer. The band only really survived for a year. This is a four disc set – I am amazed that there is that much material available.
Joe Boyd seems to have been fairly dismissive of Fotheringay.
He wanted either Fairport with Sandy or Sandy as a solo act, but what people failed to understand about Sandy was that her driving force in life was the sort of solidarity that came from being in a friendly band. She wanted to be successful – we all did – but I don’t think it was top of her list. First of all was that life should be nice, and that she should have nice people around her.
INTERVIEW: JIM WIRTH