Fairport Convention are way more than a mere convention, being more an british institution, now a year shy of their half-century. Some may be surprised to hear they are still going, seeing them as a band time locked in the late 60s and cusp of the 70s, others stalwart fans of their ever changing line-ups. I am sort of within the latter camp, but my custom and appreciation has flagged and faltered over the years. Of course, the received wisdom is that they are a mere shadow of their earlier glories, but I am uncertain they were ever much more than a well thought of cult niche. A highly regarded cult niche, maybe, but it is the eye of retrospect that is needed to see that, and if all the people who so now highly rate the Sandy Denny/Richard Thompson years had done then, well, maybe the story would have been different. But it isn't their history I have come to discuss, more their penchant for a good historical narrative.
Starting as the UK's answer to Jefferson Airplane, they reasonable swiftly moved folkwards, arguably inventing folk-rock. The folk canon is full of tales of derring-do, real and imaginary, and the band have littered their output with historical narrative from the english civil war to WW1, from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Napoleon. But the most ambitious historical set-piece was Babbacombe Lee, the 1971 concept album, telling the true story of John "Babbacombe" Lee, the man who could not be hung. Lee was an ex-navy ne'er do well and petty criminal, who, in 1885, was convicted for the murder of one Emma Keyse, his then employer. Sentenced to hang in Exeter prison, the trapdoor bizarrely refused to function, despite testing, 3 times leaving him standing not dangling. As a result his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, the story building up layers of mystic significance year on year. He was actually released in 1907, for a while sustaining himself on the strength of telling his story, but later years, between the wars, are somewhat shrouded in uncertainty, he seemingly having died in the USA, during the mid 1940s, giving him a lucky bonus of extra 50 odd years longevity.
1971 had seen Fairport lose most of their more celebrated band members, shrunk to the quartet of Dave Swarbrick (fiddle/vocals), Simon Nicol (guitar/vocals), Dave Pegg (bass) and Dave Mattacks (drums). Swarb had found some old newspaper stories extolling the tale and the idea for an album was born. It is actually not a half-bad LP and has stood the test of time, perhaps better than some of their later output, possibly the reason why the current band, still including Nicol and Pegg, resurrected it for both a tour and a live recording, released in 2012. Here is the high point, the failed execution, in song, the 2 versions near 40 years apart. See which you prefer.
and 2012 (filmed in 2009):
Next year is Fairport Conventions 50th. They hold a yearly festival, Cropredy, in Oxfordshire. I was there for the 20th, 25th and the 30th birthday celebrations, unable to quite believe that last was nearly 20 years ago. I hope to return in 2017. Any of you be there? It will be history unfolding in itself. Again.
Buy 1971 or 2012