Occasionally sentimental I may be but I’m not a great one for remembering anniversaries; however I was jolted by an article in The Independent yesterday......
It is hard to believe that today is the 30th anniversary of the death of Sandy Denny - the finest singer-songwriter that Britain has produced - and even harder to recall that it is 40 years since I first met up with the peerless Sandy Denny........
Around the time of mid-range Beatlemania and Psychedelia I first heard fledgling Fairport Convention ‘live’ on my cheap Phillips radio, probably in late ’67 – on one of the David Symonds/John Peel BBC shows. Fairport played an eclectic mix of jug band/blues and West Coast pop which no other Brit group was playing (Butterfield, Joni Mitchell, Byrds, Love, Leonard Cohen, Jefferson Airplane) mixed in with some early self-penned songs. From my radio to my untutored ear they seemed unlike any other British group and I particularly liked their male-female lead vocals.
I remember thinking that this was…
a) they were unique and,
b) my kind of music.
What amazed me was to hear that their drummer was my ex-schoolmate, Martin Lamble.
A month or two on.....and I got a Saturday job in a pharmacy in Golders Green (North London) – and I soon became great friends with a fellow Saturday worker, Helen Cinnamon, who I soon learned was a close friend of Fairport’s. For months into early 1968 Helen kept mentioning that Fairport were appearing around London and that she was hanging out with them and that I really ought to come along to a gig: with each refusal she probably thought ‘what’s his problem?’ Now I have always said - a self-perpetuating myth - that my Mum wouldn’t allow me to go to one of these ‘wild concerts’ (again in my myth) because that could only deprave my middle-class sensibilities BUT the truth is that I was incredibly shy and I just wasn’t confident enough to go on my own.
However, in the summer of ’68, in the wake of impending (and unsuccessful) A levels, Helen started going out with Martin and invited me to a gig in Hampstead where a burgeoning Fairport was playing. By now Fairport had released a single and their first eponymous album which had permanently transplanted Beatles albums from my turntable.
So I turned up with my schoolfriends Roy and Piers to see and hear my first live gig! There couldn’t have been more than about 30 (probably all students and friends of the band) in the audience and initially we were all seated uncomfortably on a hard floor in the dark. They trooped onto a wide stage but kept close enough to one another - Martin back-centre on drums, Tyger Hutchings far left, Simon Nicol in the middle and Richard Thompson far right in the darkness, Ian Matthews front left, and then Sandy Denny front right obscuring Richard. (Sandy Denny had recently replaced the beautiful voice of Judy Dyble as lead singer and I knew nothing about the new addition)
In hindsight, I probably had no idea what to expect but what we did NOT get was any extroversion, cavorting or guitar-smashing. What happened was that I was spellbound throughout the show – I recall the set included Reno Nevada, Suzanne, Some Sweet Day, Morning Glory, Eastern Rain and Meet On The Ledge (Sandy: “Simon’s on violin tonight as they’ve repossessed our piano”) but 3 people stood out for me. Through knowing Martin I was impressed with his versatility as a drummer – moving from great rock drumming and then to imperceptible sensitivity. It was clear that Richard Thompson carried his guitar wizardry slightly under that curly fringe - Paul Ghosh once told me that he slept with his guitar.
But it was Sandy Denny who stunned me that night. She was the focus of a band that previously had no focus – Sandy supplanted Tyger’s prosaic intros with her faltering and nervous (unrehearsed) manner which was also jokey and self-deprecating. And Sandy’s stunning soprano voice lifted the band to another level – the standouts were an aching version of Who Knows Where The Time Goes and (I think Sandy said) the first live and epic performance of A Sailor’s Life.
At the end Helen got us to meet with the band in the way of the 60's when you'd stand around saying nothing much in particular and in my case nothing at all but.......
In 35+ years of watching and photographing concerts NOTHING compares to the magic of that very first concert - halcyon days.
I saw Fairport a half-dozen times in the next couple of years and each time was a thrill and a delight. After their bus crash in 1969, I went off to University, Sandy (and Tyger) left Fairport, and things were never the same again. The Fairport songs from that '67-'69 era were the most unique collection from a British band and have never been surpassed - songs written by Joni Mitchell, Jackson Frank, Dylan, Emmitt Rhodes, The Farinas, Eric Andersen, Leonard Cohen and gradually Fairport members themselves.
Looking back some 40 years now, it’s remarkable to realise……just how unique Fairport was, and considering the quality of the music, to realise just how young they were. Suffice to say that Sandy has left a wonderful body of work, which in the final analysis is the only thing that matters.
Today recalls the genius of Sandy Denny - the finest singer-songwriter that Britain has produced.
(This is a cut-down version of a chapter - on Fairport days - from a book that I’m currently writing)
Here's a clip of Sandy solo:
Here is a link to Bob Harris’s tribute on BBC Radio 2 tonight.....