Tag Archives: Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Fotheringay – Fairport Convention

For Fairport Convention, convincing Sandy Denny to join the band was akin to a decent mid-table football team somehow landing the most prolific goalscorer in the league. Fairport’s self-titled first album, on which vocals were handled by Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble, is so wet it beggars belief. The players, particularly Richard Thompson, show flashes of their later brilliance, but it was a record made of undistinguished original material and white-bread covers, sung by two of the folk revivals less impressive vocal talents

In a field not short of remarkable singers, Denny remains the unchallengeable queen of English folk rock. That’s how good she was. And it was all there – the singing and the songwriting – in Fotheringay, the first song on Fairport’s second album, What We Did on Our Holidays. Hearing it must have stunned those who’d suffered through If (Stomp) or their reading of Jack o’ Diamonds on Fairport Convention.

The song – a meditation on the final hours of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned in Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire and awaiting her execution – is lavishly beautiful and melancholy, with a gorgeous, unwinding melody. The chord sequence is rather more grandly Baroque in places than is strictly period correct, but, accompanied as it is by wordless backing vocals from the band, it has a mournful dignity that feels entirely appropriate to the song’s lyric.

Clive James – Australian critic, poet, broadcaster, lyricist, all-round renaissance man – had some insightful things to say about Denny’s lyric writing in a 1974 article for Let it Rock:

Somebody who can sing so beautifully has little need to be adventurous in her writing as well. It is wise, then, to be grateful for the adventurousness she did show in her early songs. […] On What We Did On Our Holidays, her song “Fotheringay” gave concrete evidence of the potential for innovation in the mind behind the voice:

The evening hour is fading
Within the dwindling sun
And in a lonely moment
Those embers will be gone
And the last
Of all the young birds flown.

Words like “dwindling” and “moment” are partly chosen for the way their grouped consonants resist her tendency to flow unimpeded from vowel to vowel — her temptation to sing English the way Joan Sutherland sings Italian. At this stage Denny is still intent on keeping some Germanic roughage in the text, thereby providing her melodic sweetness with something to bite against.

Equally interesting is her ability to use a literary tense — “And the last/Of all the young birds flown” — without slipping into archaism. This is modern grammar and syntax: complex, but contemporary.

And he was less impressed with her later work. On her first solo album, he says:

…the linguistic mannerisms are out of control. “The wine, it was drunk/The ship, it was sunk,” she sings in “Late November”, and in (guess what) “The Sea Captain” we hear her declare: “From the shore I did fly/… the wind, it did gently blow/For the night, it was calm” etc. After a few tracks of such relentless syntactical fidgets, the listener’s patience, it is exhausted.

I share James’s lack of patience with pseudo-archaism. It’s lazy writing, and Fotheringay is the very opposite of lazy. It’s exemplary – a startling piece of writing with a vocal performance full of wisdom, empathy and compassion. It is a little strange listening to Denny’s early masterpieces – Fotheringay, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, Autopsy – and knowing she never quite hit those heights again, but the thing is that she hit them in the first place. Countless writers who you’d have to, in a clear-headed unsentimental judgement, call greater or more significant artists than Denny never wrote individual songs as stunning as Fotheringay. That’s why she’s still rightly revered by fans of British folk music.

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Sandy Denny, Tele in hand, ready to rock

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The Poor Boy is Taken Away – Richard & Linda Thompson

Fairport Convention’s history is famously one of constant reorganisation, replacement and redefinition, initially forced on them in the most terrible of circumstances when their first drummer, Martin Lamble, was killed in motorway van crash after a gig. But even in the glow of the success of Liege & Lief, Fairport Convention swiftly reconstituted itself again. Sandy Denny was more interested in furthering her development as a songwriter than interpreting old British ballads, and not without justification since she had written Who Knows Where the Time Goes before even joining Fairport. Meanwhile bassist Ashley Hutchings cared little for anyone’s original material, no matter how good it was; he had taken up more or less permanent residence in Cecil Sharp House, the headquarters of The English Folk Dance and Song Society.

There wouldn’t have been room in any group for two members pulling in such different directions, but inevitably neither of them would stick with the band for very much longer; Hutchings began Steeleye Span as a vehicle for further experiments with the Child ballads, while Denny formed her own band, Fotheringay. Richard Thompson, Fairport’s baby-faced lead-guitar prodigy, did stay, but he would stick it out for only one more record before departing to pursue his own solo career. After just one coolly received album, though, Henry the Human Fly, he began making duo records with his new wife Linda.

Linda Thompson is a wondrous singer who is somewhat overshadowed in the history of Brit-folk by Denny. And Sandy was, in any dispassionate assessment, in a class by herself, with what Clive James characterised as a “lavish delicacy of sound” and a stylistic and emotional versatility that is close to miraculous. But it would be extremely unfair to damn Linda Thompson for not quite living up to that. Few singers in any generation can. What she did share with Denny was versatility, in feeling and in genre: her voice is cosmopolitan in a way that can make the hewn-from-the-soil Norma Waterson and Shirley Collins sound like untutored bumpkins, and earthy enough to make the trilling, precise Jacqui McShee sound prissy and piercing. Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior has some similar vocal qualities to Thompson, yet was often saddled with a lumpen band and the production talent of Mike Batt (since inflicted on us via Katie Melua), a choice of collaborator that rather suggests a shallow emotional response to music. Neither Thompson would have given the time of day to a hack like Batt.

Richard Thompson may have done more than any other musician to weld British traditional song to electric rock and roll, but his guitar playing is in the final analysis more American than British; three parts Chuck Berry to one part Billy Pigg. Indeed it’s little remarked upon that few British guitarists can interpret country songs as well as Richard Thompson, which he manages to do without sounding callow or pretentious or fake, and frankly without hitting you over the head with the fact that he’s playing country either. On songs like the devastating The Poor Boy is Taken Away, he taps into the emotion of country music without duplicating its standard riffs, licks and clichés. Like his Fairport bandmate Sandy Denny, who cut the definitive version of Silver Threads and Golden Needles with Fotheringay, and like his former wife and musical partner Linda who sings it so beautifully, he’s able to inhabit and interpret American music without burlesquing it.

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Genesis Hall – Fairport Convention

Golly, it’s an early masterpiece of British folk-rock…

Early Fairport Convention is so wet you need to towel down after listening to it. It’s so green it gives you verdirgis. Their path to artistic maturity required them to toughen up and stop being so damn callow, which they never did entirely. Only Fairport could have put their excruciating version of Million Dollar Bash on the same LP as Genesis Hall (Richard Thompson), Who Knows Where the Time Goes (Sandy Denny) and their genuinely groundbreaking reading of A Sailor’s Life.

Unhalfbricking is the album in question. 1969. Two Thompson songs, two Denny songs, a trad/arr., and three Dylan songs, with two more emerging as outtakes on a reissue. Flawed as it is by the godawful Dylan covers (and no, I’m not going to give Si Tu Dois Partir a pass either – sorry, Fairport fans. I’m no Dylan diehard but I don’t hear any of the stuff that made Dylan and the Band’s version of these songs great in any of the Fairport versions), Unhalfbricking stands as their finest album of mostly original songs. Still, it seems strange, looking at the start of their careers and knowing the later songwriting accomplishments of Thompson and Denny, that they ever needed to lean so heavily on another writer’s songbook.

But what is great about Unhalfbricking is great indeed. Undeniably great. All-time great. Who Knows Where the Time Goes was voted the best song ever by Radio 2-listening folk fans, and I’m of no mind to disagree. It’s plainly wonderful. A Sailor’s Life is perhaps the most important performance in the whole of British folk-rock, in which, writes Rob Young in Electric Eden, ‘All the elements that we might associate with English electric folk are switched on.’ Fairport would continue to explore this new sound on Liege & Lief, but nothing is ever as exciting the second time around.

But, for listeners, probably the first time they heard Fairport sound genuinely confident and muscular was not on A Sailor’s Life. It was on album opener Genesis Hall, Richard Thompson’s first masterpiece.

Thompson has explained that the song is about a Drury Lane squat and how his policeman father was one of the squad sent in to evict the squatters. Thompson, seeing ‘both sides of the quarrel’ but naturally sympathising with the squatters, and being appalled at the level of violence used by the police, wrote Genesis Hall in response. A taut waltz, played with vigorous force by drummer Martin Lamble, it’s as chill as a November morning; Denny’s performance of Thompson’s passionate, if somewhat dramatic lyric, achieves its force through its icy calmness.

Lamble was in fantastic form all over Unhalfbricking, and if Who Knows Where the Time Goes was his most emotional performance and A Sailor’s Life his most exploratory (it’s a cliché, but his cymbal washes really are incredibly evocative of the ocean spray), Genesis Hall finds him at his most authoritative. His shocking death in a van accident on the M1 after a show in Birmingham denied us the opportunity to hear him on the Liege & Lief material; his death was a musical as well as personal tragedy for the band. His replacement, the inimitable Dave Mattcks, is himself a fabulous drummer, but he sounds to me like a player who tends to sit back and respond to the dynamics of the rest of the band, whereas Lamble tended to lead them. Certainly no one who’s played Genesis Hall as the drummer in Fairport (a roll-call that also includes Gerry Conway, who I’ve raved about before here) have grabbed the song by the scruff of the neck like Lamble, with his triplet tom-rolls and crisp snare flams. Far more than any song they’d recorded up to 1969, Genesis Hall put the rock into folk-rock.

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Fairport convene on the lawn, probably not during autumn

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?