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Fairport Convention | Fairport Convention / What We Did On Our Holidays / Unhalfbricking (Island)
The fame of, and the enormous love for, the Fairports is founded on these truly great first three albums. That they appeared from nowhere (well actually Muswell Hill) almost overnight as such accomplished musicians, with so many strong songs and at such young ages is remarkable. That several members would leave to enjoy celebrated careers as soloists or fronting and writing for their own outfits is of little surprise.
Commentators around 1967 perceived Fairport Convention as a kind of English Jefferson Airplane. If the group themselves always denied any deliberately intended parallels we may nonetheless easily recognise them on their self-titled debut. Admittedly the lovely female vocalist Judy Dyble, with her clear angelic voice, is far closer to a very young Marianne Faithfull as devout chorister than to Grace Slick, the wailing banshee. The boys, however, tear into everything with confidence and invention to match their alleged West Coast cousins. Twin guitars weave around Joni Mitchell's I Don't Know Where I Stand and undoubtedly improve on the original, as does the sophisticated version of Joni's Chelsea Morning. Both have aged not a jot. Psychedelic tinges are tastefully used on the latter and elsewhere to great effect: If I Had a Ribbon Bow, their very first single, a bonus cut, is a 1920s song that well-to-do flappers may once have danced to. It matches Lucy in the Sky for weird textural changes and tripped out headyness, a bit like Bertie Wooster taking a trip. More fun than early Floyd. Not bad for an opening shot. From a live French TV show comes another bonus cut, the Airplane-style extended jam that is the Fairport take on Richard Farina's Reno, Nevada. Its jazz/folk/rock fusion heavily washed thru with psychedelia will take you...further.
The psychedelia is replaced on 'What We Did On Our Holidays' with intelligent readings of English folk songs and folk-rock. Sandy Denny now replaces Judy Dyble and brings her great songwriting to equal Richard Thompson's. Please venture into a record store and listen to her song Fotheringay, the beautiful opening cut that takes many a person's breath away, a stepping stone to folk-rock or, heaven forbid, even folk music. The album contains five Thompson compositions including Fairports rallying cry Meet on the Ledge which exudes passion and soul where much of the album is sweet and delicate. And extremely exciting if you get into it and a little serious if you don't. The entire album, in its original form, is like a kind of gentle holiday, in good company, with happy endings to every day and loads of sweet surprises. You know, those lost summer holidays that seemed to last forever. The three bonus cuts, if you're wondering, are pretty good (an Everlys singalong and a couple of blues knees ups) but did interrupt the mood of it all somewhat.
The two bonus cuts on 'Unhalfbricking' are Dylan numbers and both, frankly, are really lame. The Ballad of Easy Rider, especially, drags and plods and has none of the lightness and grace of the Byrds 'original'. This is a shame as the Fairports were possibly second only to the Byrds as great Dylan interpreters. Well, whatever, three Dylan tracks on the original third album is pretty sterling stuff. Two of them, Si Tu Dois Le Partir (aka If You Gotta Go, Go Now) and Million Dollar Bash sound like Fairport's attempt at the 'Beach Boys Party'! Complete as they are with collapsing furniture, smashing glasses, breaking china and high-spirited vocals. These wacky excursions and Richard Thompsons rockin' folk rave up Cajun Woman lighten an otherwise pretty serious collection. Sandy Denny's most famous song Who Knows Where the Time Goes is more subtle and slick than the earlier Strawbs version. Her song Autopsy bemoans a deadening relationship and asks for one that frees rather than ties us down. It skips along in a very jazzy 5/4 before entering a slow, kind of funky stomp that is a real class act and then returns to the opening rhythm. A Sailors Life is a slow Jig, (if that's not an oxymoron), that is frequently compared to an Indian raga. It points the way ahead to a new (or the new) English folk-rock that Fairport may be said to have invented on their next record 'Liege and Lief'. Thompson's Genesis Hall, much loved and played by folk singers, really shows how much the group had absorbed Dylan, Joni , the Beatles et al and could match any of their peers. Genesis Hall was simply the name of a large disused East End warehouse squatted by young counter-culture types as well as more traditional 'gentleman of the road'. All were unceremoniously turfed out by the old bill. Thompson asks for understanding between really very different types of people with very different values, something he would be striving for as his own father was a policeman. This is all exemplified in the famous opening verse: "My father, he rides with your sheriffs / And I know he would never mean harm / But to see both sides of a quarrel / Is to judge without haste or alarm." Kinda wise for an eighteen-year-old to be formulating, huh?
All three of these records are inspiring. I don't know many better ones. They are not background music. They are each too rich to take in on one sitting so give them the respect they deserve.