The story of a folk-rock masterpiece
Denny formed Fotheringay with boyfriend Trevor Lucas, then produced a string of wistful, frosty solo albums including the magnificent North Star Grassman And The Ravens (1971). Hutchings recruited folk musicians Maddy Prior, Tim Hart, and Gay and Terry Woods from the Irish group Sweeney’s Men, shipped them to a cottage in Wiltshire and formed Steeleye Span, whose Hark! The Village Wait (1970) and Please To See The King (1971) cleave closest to the spirit and soundworld opened up on Liege And Lief.
At the end of 1969, Fairport’s remaining members hired bassist Dave Pegg, who had crossed between Midlands rock and blues boom outfits and the Ian Campbell Folk Group. At the end of 1969, they took the Farley Chamberlayne model a step further by moving into The Angel, a disused pub near Ware in Hertfordshire, where they would remain for the next two years. As Nicol explains, “the Angel was an open-ended commitment to living together as a band. There were families involved – Swarbrick had a wife and stepdaughter, Pegg had a toddler, Mattacks and I were both married; and we had the road crew living with us!”
The Angel years produced several of Fairport’s best albums. Thompson left to pursue his solo career after 1970’s Full House. But after ‘Babbacombe’ Lee – a concept album about a real Victorian convict who cheated the noose three times – came out in 1971, Fairport’s golden age was over. They abandoned the Angel to lead separate lives. Nicol quit; from then on, Fairport was simply a franchise presided over by Swarbrick and a succession of line-up changes. Sandy Denny briefly rejoined in 1974, then left again, and died tragically early in 1978.
In 1979 the first of Fairport’s regular reunion festivals took place. Today, the Cropredy Convention in Oxfordshire is a central pillar of the British musical year, and running it is a large part of the job for Pegg and Nicol, who are both currently in the group along with Ric Sanders, Chris Leslie and Gerry Conway. At this year’s event, to celebrate the group’s 40th anniversary the surviving original group – Hutchings, Swarbrick, Thompson, Nicol and Mattacks, with vocalist Chris While taking Denny’s role – will reunite to perform the whole of Liege And Lief together onstage.
“I’d like to think Fairport can continue moving through the months and years,” muses Nicol, “like a football team does, or a brass band, or a choral society or an orchestra. It’s not just a brand name, it has an ongoing continuity.”
“If others see it as an institution, that doesn’t really matter,” concludes Richard Thompson. “If the band sees it as an institution, that could be disaster – institutionalism was one of the things we were railing against in the ‘60s. But I see the band as still vital, still writing and exploring, and as long as it does that, it deserves to continue.”
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