Tuesday, 22 April 2008

SANDY DENNY 1947-1978

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.....


Judy D said...

I really love that poster... it has been known to terrify many a small child!!!

London Refugee said...

By Jove,
Who could this mystery Judy D be?!

And you are so right about small children clamping their hands over their eyes. I have this wonderful poster on the wall and those fearsome caricatures keep our girls trepidatious when entering my workroom.
Especially that bird on the right with lizard eyes who's lost her ski poles. (And gentle RT looks like a vampire!)
Blame the erstwhile artist - one Gregory Irons.

I might swap it for a 102 bus ticket from Bounds Green to East Finchley circa 1966?

Mr Refugee

Pam said...

This is beautiful. For those of us who weren't able to be there (I was but a wee small American brat back then), you provided a nice simulacrum of time travel.

Sure wish I could get a reproduction of that poster, see what's so darn scary about it.

London Refugee said...

How lovely of you to drop by all the way from Maryland and leave a kind few words.

For a shy teenager from the 'burbs' HEARING FC was a musical bolt but SEEING FC was a musical cyclone - and Sandy was the immutable force (personally and musically) who caused the band to really blossom. And I have always contended that, if Martin (Lamble) hadn't died in that wretched crash the band would have stayed together for a good deal longer.

My poster is behind glass but I could always try to repro it for you.....!?

I'll try and catch up with your blogging on RT and Sandy.

Best wishes,
Mr Refugee

JK in PA said...

I was also a teenager the first time I saw Fairport. My NYC friends invited me to visit on the occasion of Traffic, FC, and Mott the Hoople playing the Fillmore East. I had been a fan since "Holidays", and was of course in love with Sandy, but I was totally determined to see Richard Thompson. I've seen him scores of times since (including with Linda), but that first show was incredibly special. My friends, who were Traffic fans, instantly became FC fans.
Thanks for sharing your memories.

Andy F said...

Nice piece - brings back happy memories.

I first saw Fairport play in the Electric Garden (later Middle Earth) in Covent Garden in July 1967 and thereafter saw them frequently in various London venues - they seemed to be working more or less every night in the first couple of years. Although I lost touch with the band during the 1970s, I reconnected when (having moved to the midlands) I started attending Cropredy and I am still involved with Fairport more than 40 years since I first heard them play.

For more information on the period covered by your blog entry, readers might be interested in the detailed memoir by Kingsley Abbott (one of Fairport's circle from that period) - it is titled Fairport Folio and you can get hold of it through the band's website at:

Best wishes,


London Refugee said...


Thanks for dropping by with your remembrances.

I have also seen Richard many times since '67 and although Fairport 67-69 was the sum of their superb parts, it was Richard at that tender age of 17-19 who mesmerised me for 3 years with guitar wizardry that I still think has only been matched by Hendrix.
So brilliant, so young!

The Refugee

London Refugee said...

Oh, Andy,

You old dyed-in-the-wool FC-er! We probably rubbed shoulders a coupla times around the metropolis. You must have seen Faiport with Judy D (see above) in one of their earliest shows.

The wonderful Kingsley was a school mate of mine (and Martin Lamble's) and has a font of untapped knowledge about Fairport as well as having a monumental record collection. And spot on - Kingsley's Fairportfolio always deserves a plug as it gives such an evocative feel for those halcyon times. Paul Ghosh and Andy Horvich also deserve mention as they were Richard's schoolmates and have insights into Richard's early guitar times.

Best wishes,
The Refugee

Philip M Ward said...

Thanks, Mr Refugee. Always good to hear first-hand accounts from those days. You might be interested in my Sandy blog at www.sandydenny.blogspot.com.