Fairport’s Round Dozen
On Wednesday January 23 at 7pm, Fairport Convention will perform live on The Folk Show with Mark Radcliffe’s on Radio 2 and chat with the presenter. They’ll discuss their long and varied career, with the odd mention of the book Fairport by Fairport, we hope. As vast as the book is, there was some material that couldn’t be fitted in, but we are very happy to be able to publish some of it on our blog. The selection below has band members discussing their first album for the Vertigo label, Bonny Bunch of Roses:
In 1977, as Fairport Convention celebrated its first decade, Island Records were no longer interested in a band it found difficult to promote.
PEGGY Our album sales were dropping and we’d proved pretty conclusively that unlike most rock acts on the label we weren’t capable of having hits.
Record labels have regular purges of their roster, and as Island reviewed their catalogue in the post-punk era, there was no room for a group playing folk rock alongside acts like Roxy Music and Bob Marley. Despite Peggy thinking that, ‘when you’re as closely associated with one label as Fairport were, sometimes it’s hard to find someone else who will take you on,’ in fact they found a new home pretty quickly.
SIMON Our manager at the time, Philippa Clare, got us a deal with Phonogram to record six albums for Vertigo. It’s a matter of record that we only made two of them: the label paid us not to make the rest. That’s a pretty good clue in which direction your career is heading!
Phonogram’s prog rock label, Vertigo’s roster included Gentle Giant, Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy and Status Quo, but there was room for music with a more rootsy approach. Like Fairport, Dr Strangely Strange had, years earlier, moved from Island to Vertigo; Magna Carta had released a string of critically acclaimed folk-based albums on the label. Iain Matthews released his early albums on Vertigo.
SWARB We’d tried going mainstream with Sandy and Trevor. It hadn’t worked out. Now we were out on a limb. Vertigo wanted us to go back to being a more traditionally-based group, which suited me fine.
In many ways, The Bonny Bunch Of Roses picks up where Full House left off, its title track being one of the final recordings by that line up.
SWARB I was always sorry that ‘Bonny Bunch’ had spent so little time in Fairport’s set. I was happy to go back to it. It also provided the album’s cover.
SIMON After a couple of frankly embarrassing record sleeves, it looked classy.
The front showed Napoleon in silhouette, clutching a bunch of red white and blue roses: behind him, also in silhouette, staggers a single file line of wounded soldiers.
SWARB All those figures on the sleeve, including Boney, are actually me. I had great fun dressing up and striking poses.
The figures are set on a stark white background recalling the Russian snows that ultimately defeated Napoleon’s French Revolutionary army. Inside, the sleeve featured individual band members against a background of the French revolutionary standard.
SIMON I wonder if John Tams minds that we pre-empted him with a sleeve that would have been great for the soundtrack for ‘Sharpe’
Opposite them, the tracklist showed that Fairport had gone back to the music they were playing when Swarb and Peggy first joined.
SIMON Aside from ‘Bonny Bunch’, the album had Richard’s ‘Poor Ditching Boy’, which really sounds like it should be a traditional song. Swarb and I had played it as a duo and it made sense to record it with the band.
PEGGY Of course, we were looking towards the future – just look at our optimistic smiling faces on the sleeve. There’re lots of things about that album that looked further ahead than any of us could have foreseen. We did one of Ralph’s songs: he was important to us in the eighties, writing songs for us, using Fairport as his studio band and recording at Woodworm. There was a song called ‘Eynsham Poacher’ which was quite local, with all of us living in and around Cropredy. That came from John Leslie, Chris’s brother: they were a duo and appeared at one of the early Cropredy Festivals and of course Chris plays a really crucial part in Fairport’s future.
SIMON We were also laying the foundations of Fairport’s new repertoire – the things we’d play over the next few years and at those first Cropredy Festivals, though I think the next Vertigo album had more songs with real staying power.
The album began and ended with instrumentals, a set of musical quote marks that became more apparent when the album was released on CD. The first tune was composed by Peggy and it enjoyed a new lease of life when he joined Jethro Tull and it was added to their repertoire.
PEGGY ‘Jams O’Donnells’ got its name from a favourite book of the time by Flan O’Brien. It was something I really liked and also still a new composition when Fairport broke up and I had the chance to join Tull. Ian asked if there was anything I’d like them to play of mine, and it was the obvious choice.
The other tune in the set, ‘Royal Seleccion No.13’, was a medley of some very well known Scottish dance tunes. The title came from Bruce Rowland’s favourite brand of cigar. The tunes included ‘Haste To The Wedding’ and ‘Dashing White Sergeant’, which many Fairport fans would recognise from Ashley Hutchings’ album The Complete Dancing Master, plus ‘Toytown Parade’, familiar to an entire generation as the ‘Larry The Lamb Theme’. Aside from ‘Poor Ditching Boy’ and Ralph’s ‘Run Johnny Run’, the album included one other non-traditional song, Swarb’s ‘Last Waltz’ (“That’s one from my Engelburt Humperdinck period!”)
Everything else on the album was traditional. ‘General Taylor ‘is a sea shanty: like the title track it had been a contender for Full House or its successor. ‘Adieu, Adieu’ had also been in Fairport’s repertoire shortly after that and was considered for Rosie: it was now revisited with the eighteenth century broadside given a new twist courtesy of a nicely lifted lick from The Who’s ‘Happy Jack’.
PEGGY Today, they’d no doubt just sample the original. To make it work Bruce and I had to figure out what Entwistle and Moon were doing and duplicate it precisely.
SIMON Bonny Bunch was, in a real sense, a fresh start. It does lean back to the point where Fairport’s first period of real success started to wind down. Not that the two are connected, but it also continues very naturally from the point where I left the band.
PEGGY You could almost imagine Bonny Bunch as the follow up to Angel Delight and Babbacombe Lee. It skips that period between Rosieand Gottle O’Geer when Sandy was in the band and Simon wasn’t.
SWARB It doesn’t signify anything sinister because mostly the songs are traditional, but there isn’t much on that album that we couldn’t have recorded in ’72 or ’73. We had already played, and in some cases recorded, several of those songs then.
Knowing what Island had in its archives, it is quite possible that Fairport were in fact pre-empting the release of a rag-bag compilation of out-takes.
PEGGY We’d seen CBS delve into their archives when Dylan left them and went briefly to Asylum. The album called Dylan that came out then was a compilation of out-takes.
Bonny Bunch was well received by critics who described Fairport as “back on form” and “back on track”: It didn’t sell as well as hoped however, which was an indication that Fairport’s hardcore fan base was diminishing…