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Music / Fairport Convention

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We used to say that come the day,
We'd all be making songs,
Or finding better words,
These ideas never lasted long.
— "Meet on the Ledge"

Fairport Convention is a British band formed in 1967. Generally regarded as progenitors of the English Folk Rock scene, they enjoyed popular success in the late '60s and early '70s with DJ John Peel championing them on radio. They were considered as important to British folk-rock as The Byrds were to American folk-rock. After many line-up changes they continue to attract a modest but devoted following, especially to the annual Fairport's Cropredy Festival near Banbury in Oxfordshire.

The band began when guitarist Simon Nicol and bassist Ashley "Tyger" Hutchings were playing together in the Electric Shuffle Orchestra. They formed their own band along with guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson and drummer Sean Frater, which convened for rehearsals at Nicol's family home, Fairport, in Muswell Hill, North London. At first they set out to emulate American West Coast folk-rock bands like Jefferson Airplane, playing covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Byrds along with their own compositions. Frater left soon after the first gig at St Michael's Church Hall in Golders Green, to be replaced by Martin Lamble. Two singers, Judy Dyble and Iain Matthews, were taken on and the distinctive sound began to attract wider attention. An album, Fairport Convention, soon followed but sold poorly. They then hooked up with Island Records and producer Joe Boyd, replaced Dyble with folk singer Sandy Denny, and what followed in the space of a single year (1969) was their three best-known albums that took the band on a remarkable journey from capable cover artists to seminal folk rock, even as tragedy in the form of a road accident that killed Martin Lamble and injured other band members caused personnel changes and musical differences that led to disintegration.

As band members left to pursue their own directions Fairport Convention went through many lineup changes. The band that made the 1973 album Rosie had no members in common with those that made 1969's Unhalfbricking. By the late 1970s Britain had lost its appetite for folk-rock; few were buying their records and they were reduced to a small cult following only around the folk club scene. Poor sales led to the end of their recording contract and the band formally broke up, agreeing to meet for a reunion once a year in Cropredy, the home of bass player Dave Pegg who by then was the band's face. In 1985, with the growing success of the Cropredy Festival and the return of Simon Nicol, they reformed and have enjoyed modest success and a devoted following with a stable lineup to the present day.

Fairport Convention Albums

  • Fairport Convention (1968)
  • What We Did on Our Holidays (1969) (called Fairport Convention in the US)
  • Unhalfbricking (1969)
  • Liege & Lief (1969)
  • Full House (1970)
  • Angel Delight (1971)
  • Babbacombe Lee (1971)
  • Rosie (1973)
  • Nine (1973)
  • Rising for the Moon (1975)
  • Gottle o' Gear (1976) (as Fairport, or Fairport featuring Dave Swarbrick in the US)
  • The Bonny Bunch of Roses (1977)
  • Tipplers Tales (1978)
  • Gladys's Leap (1985)
  • Expletive Delighted! (1986)
  • Red & Gold (1989)
  • The Five Seasons (1990)
  • Jewel in the Crown (1995)
  • Old New Borrowed Blue (1996)
  • Who Knows Where The Time Goes? (1997)
  • The Wood and the Wire (1999)
  • XXXV (2002)
  • Over the Next Hill (2004)
  • Sense of Occasion (2007)
  • Festival Bell (2011)
  • By Popular Request (2012)
  • Myths and Heroes (2015)

Tropes associated with Fairport Convention:

  • The Alcoholic: Sandy Denny toward the end of her life had become one, something that is believed to have led to her fatal accident.
  • Ambiguous Situation: A number of the folk ballads Fairport covered don't spell everything out. "Reynardine" is a warning to young women about the title character, but it's not clear whether the implication is Sex Signals Death, Rape as Drama, abduction, or something else. Similarly, it's not entirely clear why gold-haired maidens are warned not to go to Carterhaugh in "Tam Lin", or who's giving the warning (the song does explicitly state that "their maidenhead" - i.e., virginity - is at risk, but it's not clear whether the implication is Rape as Drama or Out with a Bang; some versions of the original text have Tam Lin giving the warning himself, while others have Janet's father giving the warning, but Fairport's leaves the speaker ambiguous), and it's never explicitly stated in Fairport's version whether Janet's encounter with Tam Lin (which leaves her pregnant and isn't actually described) is consensual, though their behaviour afterwards suggests that it was (and for that matter, Janet's decision to go to Carterhaugh after the aforementioned warning suggests that either she wanted sex or else she's a serious case of Genre Blindness and/or Horrible Judge of Character - the latter of which would also contradict her characterisation later in the song).
  • Anthropomorphic Vice: Covered the Trope Namer for Tipplers Tales, and the whole album is themed around intoxicants.
  • The Band Minus the Face: Several instances owing to their long history and many members, and depending on who the "face" being referred to is:
    • 1970's Full House was their first album after Sandy Denny left the band
    • 1971's Angel Delight is their first album without Richard Thompson in the band, although he still contributed two songs to the record.
    • 1973's Rosie is their first album without Simon Nicol, and thus featured no original members in the lineup, but both Thompson and Denny showed up to provide guest vocals on the title track.
    • 1976's Gottle O'Geer was the album after Denny left the group for a second time. Her husband Trevor Lucas, who had acted as the band's main male lead singer for the previous few albums, also left with her. Gottle O'Geer was initially planned as a solo album for Dave Swarbick, but Fairport still owed Island one more album and it was credited to the band as a result. Their next album The Bonny Bunch of Roses featured the permanent return of Nicol, and the band hasn't had another one of these records since as a result.
  • Bilingual Bonus: "Si tu dois partir" on Unhalfbricking is Bob Dylan's "If You Gotta Go, Go Now", a 1965 hit for Manfred Mann in Britain, sung in French.
  • The Bus Came Back: Richard Thompson hasn't been a full-time band member since 1970, but he has appeared as a guest on several of their albums since. He's also performed a few shows with them here and there over the decades, most often at their annual Cropredy Festival.
    • Denny also briefly returned after a roughly four-year absence for 1974's Rising for the Moon.
  • Child Ballads: They have recorded several, including "Tam Lin" (#39), "Sir Patrick Spens" (#58), and "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard" (#81, as "Matty Groves").
  • Concept Album: Babbacombe Lee.
  • The Cover Changes the Gender: Averted. Several songs Denny sang (examples: "The Deserter" and the Liege & Lief version of "Sir Patrick Spens") still referred to the narrator as a male, despite her vocals obviously being female.
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning: As discussed further on the YMMV page, much of the traditional English material they covered very likely had very different meanings to its authors and to its contemporary audiences than it does to contemporary audiences and to the band themselves.
  • Cover Version: A lot of them. They're particularly noted for their renditions of traditional English folk songs; they've also covered several Bob Dylan songs (including three just on the original version of Unhalfbricking and a fourth as a bonus track).
  • Downer Ending: Another common thread in the band's cover material, often extending to levels ("Sir Patrick Spens" is an example here).
  • Dramatic Irony: The debut album Fairport Convention included a song called M1 Breakdown. In 1969, a few weeks before the release of Unhalfbricking, the band was returning to London from a gig in Birmingham when their van crashed on the M1, killing Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson's girlfriend Jeannie Franklin.
  • Epic Rocking: A lot of examples. From their first five albums (including bonus tracks from reissues), "Reno, Nevada" (7:44), "A Sailor's Life" (11:11), "Percy's Song" (6:57), "Matty Groves" (8:10), "Tam Lin" (7:14), "Quiet Joys of Brotherhood" (10:19, although this includes a Hidden Track and a minute of silence), "Sloth" (9:15), and "Bonny Bunch of Roses" (10:48) stand out. A more complete list can be found on the trope page. In general, their work from the sixties and the early seventies often falls into this trope, but they toned it down from the mid-seventies through the nineties. Since 2000, they've begun employing it more often again. (Also of note is the vinyl edition of "Babbacombe" Lee, where there are only five songs; four are longer than six minutes and the longest is 13:20. However, these were split up for the CD version, and none of the CD tracks is longer than 5:25.)
  • In Name Only: After guitarist and founder Simon Nicol left in 1972 to form The Albion Country Band, there were no members remaining of the band as it was before the crash. Nicol rejoined in 1976 and has been there ever since.
  • The Lad-ette: Sandy Denny was infamous in the band for insisting on going drink for drink with the male members of the band (which, tragically lead to her later alcoholism) and was known to start belching contests with bandmates.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: In "Tam Lin", Janet, an unmarried noblewoman, who is obviously one of the people who can least afford to get pregnant, gets pregnant from her encounter with the title character, which is strongly implied to be her first. It's a case of Earn Your Happy Ending, though, because they end up marrying at the end.
  • Long Runner: As of 2017, the band has been together in one form or another for fifty years (though they did take a hiatus from 1979 to 1985).
  • Medley: They have several. From Full House, "Dirty Linen" & "Flatback Caper" were medleys of traditional folk songs. "Jack O'Rion" (from Tipplers Tales), at 11:04, might be their longest.
  • Mood Whiplash: Done deliberately in "Matty Groves", in which the bloody ending of the song's tale is immediately followed by a riotous major-key jam.
  • Murder Ballad: Several, which probably won't come as a surprise as a lot of them are based off of the Child Ballads. "Matty Groves" is probably the best example.
  • Neologism: Unhalfbricking. A Perfectly Cromulent Word coined by Sandy Denny in the course of a word game the band members were playing on a trip between gigs.
  • No Name Given: Lord Darnell's wife in "Matty Groves" is never given a name, despite being the central character of the story.
  • One-Steve Limit: Very strongly averted with the early '70s incarnation of the band, which featured no less than three guys called "Dave" (Dave Swarbrick, Dave Mattacks and Dave Pegg).
  • Progressive Rock: Some of their songs could be considered to constitute early examples of progressive folk. Prog Archives has them listed as a "Prog Related" act.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: The Daily Telegraph mistakenly reported the death of violinist Dave Swarbrick in 1999, saying that he had died at home in Coventry. Swarbrick later said "It isn't the first time I've died in Coventry." He died for real in 2016.
  • Revolving Door Band: They've been nicknamed "Fairport Confusion" by rock historian Pete Frame for this reason. No member of the group has been with the band for its entire existence. Its only consistent original member, guitarist Simon Nicol, was out of the band between 1971 and 1979. Although Dave Pegg has never left the group since he joined it in 1969, he is not an original member like Nicol.
  • Rock Opera: Babbacombe Lee tells in a folk-ballad style the true story of John "Babbacombe" Lee, sentenced to hang for the murder of his employer but released after the gallows failed to operated three times in succession.
  • Self-Demonstrating Song: In "Come All Ye", Sandy Denny sings a verse about each of the instruments.
  • Shout-Out: "It's Alright Ma, It's Only Witchcraft", from the first album, is likely one to Bob Dylan's "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" (from Bringing It All Back Home).
  • Typo on the Cover: A budget re-release of Unhalfbricking has the album title as UNHALF BRICKING on the rear cover, with "Si tu dois partir" turned into "Is tu dois partir".
  • Uncommon Time:
    • "Autopsy" switches between 3/4, 4/4, and 5/4.
    • "Tam Lin" mostly alternates between 7/4 and 6/4.
    • The instrumental coda of "Matty Groves" seems to use this as well, but good luck counting what the actual meter signature is.
      • (5/4, as it turns out, but the subdivisions of rhythms makes it very non-obvious.)