Fairport Convention: The First Comeback
As Fairport By Fairport is about to be released, we thought you might like to read some alternative text from the book. Here is an extract that appears in a differently edited form in the finished book. The band members recall their return to playing live at the same venue from where they were returning when the fatal crash which claimed the lives of two people happened:
November 2, 1969
It was Dave Pegg’s birthday and he’d booked himself a night off from his busy schedule. Aside from being a full time member of The Ian Campbell Folk Group, he was also regularly playing bass on recording sessions and sitting in informally with rock bands run by his friends on the Brum Beat scene. For the past few weeks, he had been rehearsing with a new band named The Beast, a trio he formed with Clem Clempson and Cozy Powell.
PEGGY We were a power trio! Three mates who liked playing together. We rehearsed a lot but the band never played a gig.
Peggy could have chosen to stay home and watch telly that night. Like most young people, he had been won over by the iconoclastic new comedy series that had just reached its fifth episode. Despite being advertised in the Radio Times however, the latest edition of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was suddenly rescheduled. So, instead he decided to go hear some live music played by Fairport Convention. It’s the first time he had seen the band; he was there because Dave Swarbrick, who he knew from The Ian Campbell Folk Group, had just joined the group. It was, of course, the first time the band had played Mother’s since the fatal events of May 11. Six months apart, the two setlists had nothing in common. That November night the band played music from its forthcoming album and Peggy, like the rest of the audience, was hearing something entirely new. This was music deeply rooted in the kind of traditional music he was playing with Ian Campbell, but played in an electric context reminiscent of the bands he had played with before becoming the bass player with Britain’s most successful folk group.
PEGGY Of course, I didn’t know that I’d be joining the band in a couple of months. I was aware they were playing something that was innovative. I knew Sandy by reputation: she was a great singer. Swarb was familiar because of the Campbell connection: I found it quite funny: he was being a rock star. Then there was Richard’s playing: I had started out as a lead guitarist and Richard was one of the best. I kept hoping he’d play a solo, but of course he didn’t. The instrumental stuff was with Swarb.
One of the songs he heard was “a long ballad about sex and murder which led into a very fast reel.” It was his first encounter with ‘Matty Groves’.
ASHLEY In the six months between those two gigs at Mother’s so much changed. There were the obvious things, such as DM being Martin’s replacement, Swarb now a full-time member of the band, and the change in repertoire, playing the folk-rock set whereas before it had been more American-influenced. But they were the superficial changes.
RICHARD We’d done a lot of growing up in a very short space of time. It was a rapid maturing process.
ASHLEY We were very aware of what we were trying to do. Most groups have never had the chance to do that. They are swept along with the tide of success. One thing leads to another. You play local gigs. Someone asks you to play bigger gigs. Perhaps you get work on radio or television, or a recording contract. Maybe that leads to a hit. And so on. We had just had a hit of course, but deciding to make Liege & Lief and to go out and play that music…. to decide to carry on being Fairport Convention was very much a conscious decision.
SIMON What happened made us very aware of our mortality. Not many people of our age have the kind of experience that makes you realise how fragile, how tenuous life is. That applied to us as individuals; it also applied to our band. We had invested time, energy and careers in making Fairport our full time career. We had to decide whether the band was going to die.
ASHLEY I suppose you could say we eased ourselves back into performing live. You have to remember that, quite apart from all the music being new – to us as well as to the audience – we also had two new members.
It would have been easy for Fairport to fill their diary. They could take up bookings they had been forced to cancel. Given the hugely supportive attitude to the band, any venue would have welcomed them; there was probably not a band in the country who wouldn’t have stood down from a gig to create an opportunity for Fairport to play. They chose to be selective, though and played a very limited number of gigs in the last two months of 1969.
SANDY We were all nervous. We all had our own reasons for that. I had no idea how Fairport’s audience would react to listening to narrative songs with thirty odd verses.
RICHARD Apart from those couple of gigs with Sandy in the States, we hadn’t played in public for nearly half a year. We weren’t out of practice because we played every day at Farley, but returning to the stage after time off always gives you butterflies.
For the two Daves, Mattacks and Swarbrick, the situation was different. This was their real debut with the band (a mimed appearance on TV hardly counted). Both were experienced musicians, but appearing with Fairport took them way out of their comfort zone.
DM Most of my previous work had been in dance bands – ‘Come Dancing’ sort of stuff. Nobody notices the drummer in that situation unless you get it wrong. Rock is different. Added to that I was replacing Martin: that ensured that fans would have mixed feelings about me.
SWARB I’d only ever played folk. Fairport’s music was, of course, folk-based, but it was electric and loud. That’s a real oil and water situation.
PEGGY I’d never seen Fairport before that night, but like everyone else I was aware of the significance of that gig. It must have taken a lot of courage to go back there – a lot of ghosts…one in particular.
DM It was strange joining Fairport. It was different from anything I’d done before. The circumstances were the worst possible, of course. I don’t know whether there was any uncertainty about the band’s future: certainly that was not discussed. They did their best to make me welcome and include me, but that night things felt strained – not with me particularly, just among the band.
SANDY That was the night we really had to confront the fact that Martin was no longer with us…..“No longer with us.”