By Michael Hunter (editor)
When venerable and influential English folk-rock band Fairport Convention reached the milestone of their 45th anniversary in 2012, there was naturally a great deal of activity to celebrate the occasion. There were 2 new CDs – ‘By Popular Request’ and ‘Babbacombe Lee Live Again’ – along with TV and radio specials, and a brand new 424 page book / DVD package. “Fairport By Fairport” was written by Nigel Schofield of Free Reed Records fame, and purports to tell “the full, unexpurgated story of Fairport Convention in the words of the people who were there”.
The book tells the story in mainly chronological order, using recent and somewhat older interviews, mainly by Schofield himself, to illustrate points from a personal perspective, as well as serving as a useful narrative tool.
Various questions came to mind when taking the time to read this lengthy work, so who better to ask than the author himself? One of the first things that struck me was the potential to feel daunted by such a large project – how did he feel when approached, and indeed who did the approaching?
NS: The publishers Rocket 88 suggested the idea of an up-to-date in-depth biography to Fairport. They felt Fairport fit in perfectly with the kind of act they like to publish works about and with the profile of their target audience. Fairport agreed on condition that I was approached and would accept the commission. There was then a series of messages and explanations ahead of the formal approach from Rocket 88 who asked me to come up with a concept.
I don’t know whether I would use the word daunting. It is certainly a big responsibility and, of course, a massive task, especially as part of the concept was to use, where possible, unpublished archive interview material so that throughout contemporary commentary would balance modern retrospection. It was interesting to see how things were thought of and/or explained at the time, compared with how they are viewed today.
It was also, incidentally, quite fascinating to reflect on my own relationship with the band over the years.
MH: Was anything deemed “off limits” by either you or the band? In other words, did you have pretty much free rein?
NS: I stipulated before I began that I was not interested in writing any kind of kiss-and-tell or muck-raking tome. That kind of gossip has its place and clearly also has its devotees, but in a serious overview of the band’s first 45 years it tends to be of little import. I know there is another book planned which will draw together those kind of stories. Additionally, I have over the years had many “off the record” conversations with members and ex-members of the band and I naturally respected that, though, of course, that kind of knowledge can prevent unfortunate blunders or misguided assumptions. There was certainly nothing declared off limits in terms of what I could or couldn’t write about.
MH: Most of the interviews are from your own archives – how many were newly done? It seems to be an effective technique to quote from them when the narrative requires, without necessarily worrying about the provenance of the quote – this would be intentional, I assume?
NS: That’s a very shrewd observation, if I may say so. Actually, I spoke to all current members of the band specifically with the project in mind. I had interviewed several members and ex-members fairly recently so I knew I had a good store of up-to-date material. I began with citing the source of each quote, but realised this was not only cumbersome but also of little value as it merely referenced an unavailable source. Where provenance was significant, relevant or, indeed, not from interviews I had conducted personally, I made sure it was clearly identified within the text.
MH: There were quite a few things I didn’t realise – apart from the larger story which is the main thing – but extra details like the infamous 1970 LA Troubadour bar bill being erased due to the management seeing Simon Nicol play trouserless [buy the book for that one!] – or just things like Judy Dyble having left before the first LP came out, or Arthur Brown singing Meet On The Ledge at a benefit after the band’s 1969 van crash – among several others. Did you find out a lot of new stuff yourself when putting the book together?
NS: That’s an interesting question. Rediscovered things I had forgotten would be more accurate than calling it finding out new stuff. Ashley [Hutchings] called me after reading the book and said it brought back a lot of memories he had forgotten. That sums it up really. There were things which emerged, often through collating dates and seeing connections.There were other things which were corrected – received wisdoms, things we had taken for granted, oft-repeated but somewhat garbled memories of band members. One example: the brief period between Judy’s departure and Sandy’s joining is often forgotten: people regularly have written about Sandy replacing Judy – it’s even been suggested that she was ousted to make way for her. Very wrong. The band tried to continue – and even recorded – without a female singer, but in the end bowed to outside pressure and started looking for a new female vocalist.
Drawing the whole thing together made me aware of some surprising things: for example, both Sandy [Denny] and Chris [Leslie] joined the band as established figures on the folkscene having worked with an already respected band; both were respected vocalists; both made their first contribution to the band a song that they had had for some time; in each case it was based on an incident in the life of an almost legendary figure from Scottish history; in each case it became the opening track on their first album as a member of Fairport. In terms of the book, this doesn’t mean anything so far as Fairport’s history is concerned – but it is a remarkable set of coincidences – and there were many others.
Another story that was new to me was Simon’s account of the Moon Landing during the Farley Chamberlayne rehearsal sessions. I loved the way he recalled it and his expression verged on the poetic, making the mundane immensely moving.
MH: Then of course there’s the matter of the book probably being bought by hardcore fans, who would pretty much know the story already. How could / did one work around that, to make it readable to those long term fans and newcomers without alienating either?
NS: I thought long and hard about this. How much can one assume a Fairport fan knows. Indeed, one has to ask what a Fairport fan is. I have a friend who I always assumed had been a fan from the start only to discover, when talking about the book, that he actually got into them around the time of Rosie. There are long-term fans who know the entire history. There are fans of the early days who have paid little attention to what happened since, certainly in any detailed way: the kind of people who think “they should never have reformed”, “it’s not Fairport without Swarb” (which incidentally rules out the first three albums) or even “they haven’t made a decent record since 1969”. These quotes are not made up, but were said to me when I told people I was working on a Fairport book. One fan has assured me he will buy it but only read the first few chapters because the rest doesn’t interest him.
There are the Cropredy era fans – people who got to know the band through the Festival or related events. They often don’t know anything about Fairport’s early history. If one listens to conversations at Cropredy when an old song is revived or an ex-member joins them on stage, this is immediately very obvious.
There are kids far too young to have any real awareness of Fairport’s “glory days” and who happily sing along to Chris Leslie’s songs, but look stumped by something from Angel Delight. The Summer of Punk is ancient history to them, never mind the Summer of Love. There are those who’ve discovered Fairport via Winter Tours and know them essentially as a current band.
It would be impossible to hone what one didn’t deal with in depth so that it satisfied all those different groups. Actually, I kept one thing in mind as I worked: a serious Fairport fan who approached them in the States around 2005 and asked why Sandy wasn’t with them. So, I decided to tell the full story, but wherever possible to provide new insights, comments from the band, corrections to received wisdom and therefore make sure I told the whole story.”
MH: One thing I think the book achieves is to personalise the story, helped in no small part by the interview snippets. In other words, giving an insight into the various members’ thoughts, for example Jerry Donahue’s negative frame of mind in his final months with the band. Perhaps that’s one way to straddle the old/new camps of readers – providing information that’s pertinent to both.
NS: It’s good that Fairport has benefited so well from reissues (certainly of the Island era material – the Woodworm Era is another matter and one which they address in the book), There have also been the box sets and BBC collections. So even that old stuff has its own currency. Fairport’s deliberate policy of re-recording songs from its back catalogye has helped here too. It’s very different from playing a song live or even including it on a live album: it takes a song from the band’s repertoire and essentially says “How would THIS Fairport tackle this song?” – just as they would with songs from other sources. By Popular Request was a bold, and very successful, attempt to take this to the actual extreme.
So I think that there is a general awareness of the history that may not be “your” bit of the Fairport story. Everyone has an aspect of their career – or maybe a period of their career – that they don’t really know about – so I tried to cover that. I also tried to provide new insights when you are reading about a part of their career you may know well. The fact that the information is ‘from the horses’ mouths’ gives it validity and I know some remarks have surprised other band members because they had realised that their fellow band members had seen things in a certain way.
The other aspect of personalisation, which is something Fairport very much wanted, was that it included my view of the band’s history, particularly because of my changing relationship with them. So I tend to wander in and out at certain key moments, using memories, diary entries, quotes from contemporary articles or reviews etc. to try to act as eyes and ears for the reader.
MH: Were you conscious of the balance of writing a book called “Fairport by Fairport” but still having to inject your own personality / history / experiences into it? Do you think you struck the right balance?
NS: I began to answer this in the last question. It wasn’t an easy balance to strike, especially with all the Fairport voices ringing down the years as well. I tried various formats, including one which began each section with an eye-witness account and then leapt Doctor Who-like to connected bits of their career. For example, seeing the Nine line up at Cropredy prompts recollections of that particular “Phoenix Phairport” moment and then led on to Sandy’s return and their experiment with AOR. In the end the approach became too complex and anything but a straight narrative, with occasional cross-referencing tended to disturb the balance.
I wanted to make my own appearances (as opposed to simply providing the neutral narrative timeline) happen where I felt experience or memory provided a useful insight. Luckily, I was working with skilled editors who helped keep everything on track: it was a very fruitful collaboration in every respect.
MH: When you look back on it – assuming you do – is there anything you’d change? Apart from the odd typo, perhaps!
NS: With any book, one wishes one had more time (and yes that includes a final run at the proofing!). As it turned out, the time I set aside for the initial in depth writing didn’t quite work out and so I ended up fitting in a lot of the writing with other commitments, which I would have preferred not to do. It would also have been good to have had the book ready for Cropredy.
Most of all, though, the real regret is those people I could not longer interview: Geoff Hughes who died as the book was being completed; Jonah Jones who I only interviewed once, briefly, at Cropredy; and of course Sandy, Trevor and Martin.
MH: What’s so good about Fairport anyway?
NS: 45 years for a start. The fact the band can have support change and still be Fairport. Three classic albums in one year. Inventing a hugely significant music genre. The great musicians that have been and are still in the band. The band’s reputation, despite its lack of commercial success in the accepted sense. Its cottage industry approach. Cropredy at the same time a hugely respected and influential festival and the world’s biggest village fete. And, something I return to several times in the book, Fairport’s strange ability to anticipate important trends. That moment during Meet On The Ledge when the lights come up on the audience and every one of that 20,000 strong crowd is briefly a member of Fairport Convention. The ascending fiddle line that improves perfection at the end of Farewell, Farewell.
MH: Anything else you’d like to mention about the book that no-one has asked you yet? I assume it’s still available – or are reprints likely?
NS: There was an initial run of autographed copies, followed by the immediate second reprint which has not sold out. It is intended to keep the book in print. Whether it will be available in other forms is something yet to be decided.
I have been asked how long it took me to write the book. I’ll give you the real answer – six months and 44 years.
I was pleased to be able to include a chapter which dealt specifically with folk-rock i.e. all the Fairport versions of traditional songs. There are fewer than one might imagine for a band regularly described as a folk group – and usually found in the folk sections of record shops (remember them?)
It’s a good point to say thanks to everyone who has been part of Fairport for all the music which kept on coming round again when I really needed it, for the great times I’ve spent with you, for the hours of interviews over the years and for your incredibly warm and positive response to the book – particularly Ashley who called out of the blue having borrowed a copy from Simon.
Finally, an abiding Fairport memory. There was a tape of an interview with Sandy, recorded shortly before her death. It was recorded for radio and never broadcast. Events overtook its relevance, particularly as she was looking ahead to what she hoped would happen. It had sat unplayed for years and was so badly deteriorated that it was beyond rescue. Oxide was being visibly shed as it played. It was a strange feeling to know the tape was being heard for the first and only time, and to hear our two voices and Sandy’s boisterous infectious giggle. I made notes as well as transcribing and ended up with the cliche “larger than life” – then realised how little of Fairport’s 45 years she (or Richard or Ashley or Swarb) spent in the band, but what towering influences they have remained. At the time the nation was full of Olympic fervour and I added to my notes “Liege, Lief and Legacy”. Some things, of course, are destined from the outset not to make the final cut, but they help things along the way.
More details on the ‘Fairport By Fairport’ webpage: http://fairportconventionbook.com/