Graded on a Curve: Fairport Convention, Fairport Convention

Celebrating Simon Nicol on his 72nd birthday.Ed.

I know what you’re thinking—If you’re going to write about Fairport Convention, why not choose Liege and Lief, their undisputed masterpiece and the album that practically kick-started the English folk rock movement? Because I’d like to kick the English folk rock movement, that’s why. It’s what I call, unaffectionately, Renaissance Faire Musick.

And Liege and Lief exemplifies its most annoying hallmark, namely the tendency to recast Ye Olde English folk songs, complete with annoying verbal anachronisms, and add electric guitars. What you end up with is Sandy Denny singing in that ethereal voice of hers about kirtle greens (whatever they are) and dudes named Reynardine. Worst of all, she actually utters the word “maidenhead.” And unless used ironically (e.g., “Twas at a show by the Grateful Dead/That I lost my maidenhead/Beneath the bleachers/During ‘Tennessee Jed’”) I consider “maidenhead” (along with “merkin”) an automatic deal-breaker.

So while I like some of the songs on Liege and Lief—“Medley: The Lark in the Morning” hoedowns along like Roy Clark on Hee Haw—I ultimately opted to review Fairport Convention’s eponymous debut album instead. For one, the band recorded it before they got their folk freak on, and there isn’t a single song on it that goes, “So he’s gone ta fetch a claes prop/And he rammed it up the koondy.” (Rammed it up the koondy? His own koondy?? That sounds extremely painful.) Also—and this may be the real reason I picked it—Richard Thompson’s brilliant guitar playing is all over it.

Recorded in 1968 before Sandy Denny joined the band—vocals were handled by Judy Dyble, an eccentric with the odd habit of knitting dishcloths on stage, and Iain Matthews, later of Matthews Southern Comfort—Fairport Convention is a psychedelic folk rock LP with ne’er a koondy on it. Instead it includes a hodgepodge of covers by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Emmitt Rhodes, and American folk duo Jim and Jean (who were spoofed in 2003’s fake folk biopic A Mighty Wind), along with an adaptation of a poem by George Painter and six Fairport originals.

Fairport Convention is one strange album—one can see why they got labeled the British Jefferson Airplane—what with Judy Dyble’s folkie warble, its weird stew of highly electrified folk songs, unclassifiable jams (“The Lobster”), funky instrumentals, up-tempo psychedelic songs that remind me of the first Grateful Dead studio LP, and songs that defy easy description (“It’s Alright Ma, It’s Only Witchcraft”). And like I said before, it features guitar god Richard Thompson at his most far-freaking-out, larding Fairport Convention with some of the most blistering riffs he would ever play.

LP opener “Time Will Show The Wiser” (an Emmitt Rhodes cover) is the album’s highlight and a full-fledged Thompson guitar blow out that reminds me of both the early Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. A fast-paced psychedelic pop tune that would sound as out-of-place on Liege and Lief as Cradle of Filth’s Lustmord and Wargasm on Carole King’s Tapestry, “Time Will Show The Wiser” opens with a flurry of psychedelic riffs by Thompson, then Matthews comes in on vocals, followed by an acid-laced solo by Thompson. Dyble and Matthews sing the chorus (“And I don’t know which to go by, my mind or my heart/And this is so confusing, it’s tearing me apart/Time, it will show the wiser”), followed by a guitar solo so wonderful I want to take it home to meet me ma. Another stanza by Matthews is followed by yet more psychedelic mayhem by Thompson, then Dyble and Matthews repeat “Time will show the wiser” until a final frantic flurry of notes by Thompson closes the song.

“Decameron” sounds like it’s going to be Renaissance Faire Musick, and sure enough it alone on Fairport Convention skirts dangerously close to the genre. Still, it’s quite lovely with Dyble singing in a soft voice joined by some nice acoustic guitars, and I’m glad to report it’s totally lacking in the verbal anachronisms (“Thine hairy lover faire”) I find so annoying. The chorus is a bit fey for my hard-bitten tastes, what with Dyble warbling, “Every time the sun shines/To me it’s a rainy day” while the band plays a vaguely Renaissance riff, but that said I find “Decameron” hard to resist cuz it’s so darned perty.

And despite its shortcomings, “Decameron” is still 16,000 times better than English folk rock of the likes of Pentangle’s “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme,”—an insipid tale about virginity snatching sung by the droning, deer-caught-in-headlights Jacqui McShee—that is credited with causing the suicide of famed ethnomusicologist (and author of the seminal The Dunce on the Lute) Adolph Splerb III, who was discovered with railroad spikes driven into his ears, “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” still spinning on his record player.

The short but sweet instrumental “Portfolio” sounds remarkably like a Spoon song, and is driven by Dyble’s piano. She opens the song playing a repetitive riff, then drummer Martin Lamble joins in, followed by some really cool guitar by Thompson and some nice violin by Lamble. Following a big violin flourish, Dyble returns to repeat the opening piano riff, and it’s she who shuts things down.

Fairport Convention plays Bob Dylan and Ben Carruthers’ (the actor who starred in John Cassavetes’ 1959 classic Shadows) “Jack O’Diamonds” fast and loose like they’re the Byrds, and I really dig it despite its recorder solo by Dyble (which should have been a guitar solo by Thompson), and its lack of Thompson guitar mayhem in general. It opens with a slow guitar riff, then takes off, with Matthews singing “The Jack O’Diamonds is a hard card/The Jack O’Diamonds is a high card/The Jack O’Diamonds is a hard card/But it ain’t… hard… enough.” Then there’s some ensemble singing I don’t much care for, although I love Dyble’s wail at the end. All in all it’s a pretty cool song, perfect for an acid trip or poker night, and that’s what I call one multi-tasking tune.

“The Lobster” opens with some Grateful Dead-meets-King Henry VIII guitar noodling, followed by Dyble’s infernal recorder. Then the drums come shambling in as Thompson noodles some more. Finally the drums take up a martial beat as Matthews sings, “Like a lobster I can swim/And can grow another limb/Where a powerless stump you saw/I have grown another claw.” Then “The Lobster” scuttles on some more, before suddenly morphing into a total free-form jam, with Thompson playing some freaky and dissonant guitar while the drummers go rat-a-tat-tat. Then Matthews sings the second verse while Thompson contributes some scratchy guitar, and it’s as bizarre a song as you’ll ever hear, so bizarre that it sounds as if a lobster might have had a claw in writing it.

“One Sure Thing” is a sure thing, opening with Dyble folking out: “He used to be the only man I would see/He used to be the only good man for me/Oh, he used to be my one sure thing/Look at me now, what you see isn’t me.” Then Thompson commences to toss in some rabid guitar riffs before playing a off-kilter solo that is joined by mandolin and recorder. Finally Dyble sings again, only twice as fast, while Thompson plays some killer riffs in accompaniment, and Dyble shuts things down singing, “He used to be my one sure thing.”

Fairport Convention’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” (which I love: and here I thought the only Mitchell song I liked was “Turn Me On I’m a Radio”) beats the original by a Chelsea mile. Dyble’s voice is more bearable to the human ear than Mitchell’s, for one thing, and Fairport’s version practically jumps out of bed and shouts, “Let’s do this!” Dyble’s vocals are great, while the interludes where Matthews sings, his voice sounding far away and redolent with echo—while Thompson throws in some wonderful guitar—are starkly beautiful. And towards the end Thompson really jumps in, playing a rumbling guitar line then some very prog stop-and-start riffs to the accompaniment of Mini-Coopers zipping by as the song fades out.

“Sun Shade,” a mid-tempo, EZ-jazz-inflected (or should that be infested?) number sung by Matthews, is easily my least favorite song on Fairport Convention. It evokes unpleasant images of orange shag-carpeted Holiday Inn lounges, and getting shit-faced on whiskey sours while some insipid jazz guitarist plays “Mandy” only to wake up the next morning next to a 76-year-old woman named Ethel Flort. (Not that anything like that’s ever happened to me, ahem.) Thompson plays some nice jazz licks throughout, if you’re into that sort of thing, but personally when I want to hear jazz guitar I turn on Sonny Sharrock, because he sounds like Jimi Hendrix with rabies. Then again if you listen with your fingers in your ears you could almost mistake Thompson’s noodling for Jerry Garcia at his most subtle, and I suppose that’s something. But it’s not really, and it would take a guest appearance by Sun Ra to save “Sun Shade” from being one big “smood jass” bummer.

“If (Stomp)” unfortunately has no stomp in it, but is instead a fast-paced Country Joe and the Fish-kinda number that features some nice ensemble singing, minimal stick work, and lots of really laid-back guitar work by Thompson. A song about a poor boy convinced he could win his love if he just had the bread, Matthews and Thompson (or maybe guitarist Simon Nicol) sing, “If I were rich enough/To give you entertainment in the manner that you’ve been accustomed to/If I could stitch enough/I’d save you nine and throw in a Dixie too.” “If (Stomp)” is a lightweight tune but pleasant enough, especially given Thompson’s excellent (but far too brief) country-tinged solo and closing guitar licks.

“Don’t Worry Ma, It’s Only Witchcraft” opens with a big jazzy bass line by Ashley Hutchings and some nice cymbal work by Lamble, and sounds ominously like it’s heading into jazz territory until Matthews starts singing about which way the wind blows and Thompson joins in with some heavy-duty guitar. Then the chorus comes in (“Please don’t get us wrong man/This is just a song man/No matter what we say/This is the season, stormy weather’s on the way/This is the season, stormy weather’s on the way/You’d better start worrying, witchcraft’s here to stay”), Thompson punctuating each line with a flurry of notes before bursting into a full-fledged blues solo. Then the band does it all over again, but this time Thompson’s solo is a thing of wonder, and makes Eric Clapton sound like the “Layla”-ruining poofter he is. As for Thompson’s rip-roaring solo during the next go-round, I prefer it to anything I’ve ever heard by that showoff Jimi “Why play one note when I can play 60?” Hendrix.

Fairport Convention does a rather lackluster version of Joni Mitchell’s “I Don’t Know Where I Stand,” although Dyble does a nice job on lead vocals. The real problem is Thompson, who stays in the background for the most part, and whose two solos are so muted, quiet, and lethargic they make me want to scream, “Put some crystal meth into that Englishman!” Which is unfair, because Thompson isn’t really to blame; his playing fits the mood of the song, which is “All muted and misty, so drowsy now/I’ll take what sleep I can” to quote Mitchell’s lyrics. But the song would be a much better song had Fairport Convention upped the tempo, giving Thompson the opportunity to cut loose. “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” is pretty enough, thanks to Dyble, but nothing special, and it’s almost (but not quite) as big a letdown as “Sun Shade.”

Closing track “M.1 Breakdown” is a speed-fueled 1:25 throwaway, but I really dig it. “M.1 Breakdown” starts with a car revving up, and features Thompson on mandolin along with a mess of acoustic guitars and a jew’s harp. Anyway, the song goes well over the speed limit, even for Nevada, and Thompson’s mandolin sounds like Led Zeppelin at its most frenetic, before the song makes an abrupt turn to the shoulder of the road to what sounds like a Jaguar breaking down.

Fairport Convention went on to make more famous and more beloved albums, but as Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Everything popular is wrong,” and I’ll take the songs on Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny or no Sandy Denny, over songs like “The Hexhamshire Lass” (which sounds like a Monty Python parody, but isn’t), “Percy’s Song,” the insufferable “Fotheringay,” “Crazy Man Michael,” and heaps of other Fairport Convention “classics” any day. Because when it comes to Renaissance’n’Roll, you can count me out. I’ll listen to Fairport Convention for Thompson’s guitar, but I’m saving my maidenhead for a folk-inspired lover with fewer anachronisms and teeth, say The Pogues.


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