When I went to Royal Holloway College in 1972 I had expectations of what life would be like there. I was looking forward to playing rugby and cricket; I was hoping to meet lots of interesting, intelligent people; I assumed I would get a girlfriend; I had not really thought about live music. My first expectation was met and I played a lot of sport. To slightly misquote Cousin Jasper in “Brideshead Revisited”, I spent a lot of time shaking off the friends I made in the first term. I failed to establish any sort of relationship with a girl. I saw lots of great music.
One of the best nights of the week was Monday night because it was Folk Club night. When the bar opened at 8 p.m., I ordered a pint of draught beer for 12p (or, if I was feeling extravagant, maybe a pint of Guinness for 14p) and listened to lots of great music. There were seldom more than 100 people there and sometimes it was as few as 20. Normally, there was a guest artist but equally good were the evenings when the only people performing were students. An obvious highlight that lives long in the memory was “Searching Song” by Paul, who later went on to run the folk club with Simon Rankin. There was a girl who played most weeks and she normally sung”The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell when we all joined in with the chorus. In my first year, the guy running Folk Club was Colin Tucker who was a scarily good looking bloke and was very friendly and a good musician. He always started the evening with a song I’d never heard of called “Come All Ye”. He took it slowly, only singing one verse and we all sung along to the chorus. They were great evenings.
It was surprising that I had not heard Liege And Lief before 1972 as it was released in 1969. Wikipedia reports: “The album has come to be regarded as having a major influence in the development of British folk rock. It was voted the ‘most important folk album of all time’ by BBC Radio 2 listeners in 2002, and at the 2006 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, it won the award for Most Influential Folk Album of all time.”
“Come All Ye” opens the album. Why is it so great? It has Britain’s best ever guitarist, Richard Thompson all over it. It has Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle playing amazing fills. Best of all, it has Sandy Denny on lead vocals. MOJO and UNCUT have both described Sandy Denny as Britain’s finest female singer-songwriter. This song is a co-write between Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings who plays bass and was a founding member of three of the most noteworthy English folk-rock bands in the history of the genre: Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Albion Band. Add to that, Simon Nicol (who is still in Fairport Convention) on guitar and Dave Mattacks on drums. Dave Mattacks has recorded with, amongst others, The Incredible String Band, Elton John, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Cat Stevens, Loudon Wainwright III, Brian Eno, Alison Moyet, Joan Armatrading and Jimmy Page. So this was a supergroup before the term got invented. The playing is sublime but it was the combination of traditional folk and late Sixties pop music that made it so influential.
The record was made in the wake of a tragedy. In May 1969, Fairport Convention’s drummer, Martin Lamble and Jenny Franklyn (Richard Thompson’s girlfriend) were killed in a car crash. Dave Mattacks and Dave Swarbrick were subsequently invited to join the band. In late October the band rehearsed in an house in Hampshire before recording the songs in London with Joe Boyd producing. Ashley Hutchings reported that “It was a magical time and there’s a lot of magic on that album. There was a special feeling in the house, in the room, and also a lot of hidden magic and weirdness on that album. The past is weird, you know, our ancestors did a lot of weird things.” Richard Thompson said “Nothing resonates like an old song. To sing something beautifully written, and then refined over hundreds of years, that still has meaning and urgency, that still creates vivid pictures in the mind, is a deeply rewarding thing. I think we hoped the band would achieve some mainstream popularity, so that we could bring the tradition a little closer to people’s lives”.
“Matty Groves ” is a traditional song which is sung beautifully by Sandy Denny. There’s no need to keep saying this because she sings beautifully on the whole record. I have a number of her solo albums and they’re all good but none are as consistently brilliant as “Liege And Lief”. Whereas today, we might not think that the two minutes of wild electric guitar work from Richard Thompson at the end of the song is significant, at the time, this was a revelation in a folk song. While The Byrds may have invented ‘folk/rock’ in 1965, it was Fairport Convention (along with Pentangle and Steeleye Span) who stamped their own British version onto this genre.
“Farewell Farewell” is a very sad, haunting song, written by Richard Thompson. Many people assume it is written in response to the death of his girlfriend. “Farewell, farewell to you who would hear/You lonely travelers all/The cold north wind will blow again/The winding road does call. And will you never return to see/Your bruised and beaten sons?/’Oh, I would, I would, if welcome I were/For they loathe me, every one’. And will you never cut the cloth/Or drink the light to be?/And can you never swear a year/To any one of we? ‘No, I will never cut the cloth/Or drink the light to be/But I’ll swear a year to one who lies/Asleep along side of me'”.
“The Deserter” tells the tale of a victim of impressment into the British Navy. After escaping, he is turned in by a comrade, for which he receives 303 lashes. He deserts again and his girlfriend informs on him. This time the punishment is death.There’s a really emotional part when the intensity increases and Sandy Denny sings “Then up rode Prince Albert in his carriage and six saying ‘Where is that young man whose coffin is fixed?'” The drums kick in and then “Set him free! Kick off his irons and let him go free! He’ll make a good soldier for his Queen and country'” Dave Swarbrick’s string work is marvellous and this is my favourite song on the record.
“Tam Lin” is another traditional song with a complex story that has slight changes in different versions of the song. When Fairport Convention play it, Richard Thompson’s guitar work and Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle playing are, again, sublime. It’s worth looking at the Wikipedia entry to get an idea of what the song may be about. However, the meaning of the song is not as important as the overall impression of mystery and intrigue given by references to elves, naked knights, newts, snakes, fairies, white steeds, all sung with conviction and emotion. It’s stunning.
The record ends with “Crazy Man Michael”, co-written by Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick. It deals with a man who unknowingly kills his lover while believing he is attacking a sorcerer in the form of a raven. A tragic note on which to end such an amazing record. Equally tragic is that this sublime line up never made another record. Ashley Hutchings and Sandy Denny left before the album was released and Richard Thompson only made one more record with Fairport. Nevertheless we should now be thankful that such a fantastic 40 minutes of music survives.