Liege and Lief

Liege & Lief
by Fairport Convention, 1969
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

Most people know that the history of Fairport Convention is complicated. Since its definitive album Liege & Lief appeared in 1969 and confirmed its future as a fiddle-driven electric folk band, relatively few of the group’s diehard fans have known that one of its first complications was in wanting to be a psychedelic pop band, for which none of Fairport’s members was confident enough as a singer. Soprano Judy Dyble was photogenic, but with a faint voice like Vashti Bunyan’s she was miscast as lead vocalist for a band that styled itself originally on Jefferson Airplane. After their first album Fairport replaced her with Alexandra “Sandy” Denny, an intense, fair-haired ex-nurse from Wimbledon, the granddaughter of a Scottish traditional singer. Denny had already made a name for herself singing traditional material; perhaps more to the point, she was also well-connected in pop and American folk, having dated such as Jackson Frank and the Strawbs’ Dave Cousins, with whom she cut an album. She had a voice at least as strong as Grace Slick’s, with a distantly similar “high iron” quality (though she was as English as Slick was American), and had gained some attention for her own composition, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.”

For the first time the band had a member with real star quality. The new arrival was also a mixed bag. Denny could be erratic, with a touch of Celtic dourness and defiance to her character and the weakness for drink that sometimes goes with it. But she gave the band a frontperson, and though barely out of her teens, she was an accomplished professional who pushed the men to rise to her standard. Perhaps more importantly, her style was so distinct that it stamped what had been a talented, but amorphous band forever in her image and made a great musician out of the other wild talent in the lineup, young Richard Thompson.

It may be heresy to say that Sandy Denny did not have a beautiful voice. Of course she did; but the qualities that we are predisposed to attribute to a beautiful voice, especially a female voice–softness, gentleness, vulnerability–were not inherent in her curious timbre. She imbued her phrasing with these qualities while her style remained brutal and strangely preoccupied. Reserve was the key to her power, insofar as it can be reduced to a formula. She could indeed raise her voice: if one had heard her loud, strange alto at full strength, one never again quite believed in her delicacy. But she was as far from melodrama as the infamous schoolmarm who never raises her voice because she never has to. If she was not the most versatile singer–her technique is that of a powerful wind instrument, held sometimes at a higher and sometimes at a lower pitch, but always going the same way–she was one of the most paradoxically subtle. Such was the force at her command that she had only to hint at it to introduce a note of terror into the sunniest or most wistful moments. Denny’s interpretations were wonders of delicacy in practice, but their humanity was like that of a warrior in a private moment. And at high gain she meant business. Her uniqueness is demonstrated on one of the most famous tracks from Liege & Lief, “Matty Groves,” if one compares it to another well-known version by Joan Baez. Both are showcases for the singer’s voice, with the result that Baez (raised in Baghdad) turns the song into bravura lament almost in Middle Eastern style, by way of the Portuguese fado. On Liege & Lief, the song’s violence comes off as understated even as Denny has told it using sheer muscle, her plainchant literally shouting down the tale over some eight minutes.

It was improbable that Sandy Denny would ever be paired with Richard Thompson. As much discipline as Denny had in singing, she had none in real life; by contrast Thompson was so reserved that those around the band feared Denny would intimidate him, and so dedicated that he would turn up for rehearsal after working days in a stained-glass factory, hands bleeding. But it was Denny around whom Thompson first developed his lacy harmonies and massive bass notes. On the first classic-lineup Fairport album, What We Did On Our Holidays, Thompson had not fully emerged as Denny’s counterpart; instead she was played off against tenor vocalist Simon Nicol, who would soon be relegated to backing vocals. The Denny-Thompson partnership begins to emerge on Unhalfbricking. It is announced on the opening track, “Genesis Hall,” with a lyric that went for the throat:

When the waters run thicker than trouble
I’ll be there at your side in the flood
It was all I could do to keep myself
From taking revenge on your blood.

These two were not harmless folkies, though they had little interest in revolution, sex, drugs, or rock and roll as topics and the record also included “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” the song that did most to establish Denny’s misleading image as a spiritual dreamer, eyes always on an ocean sunset. “Genesis Hall” was about the class divisions of England, written from the point of view of Thompson’s father, a policeman witnessing riots in London, and of a people for whom friends across class lines might also be enemies. The record’s centerpiece was Fairport’s first setting of a traditional ballad in “A Sailor’s Life.” On What We Did On Our Holidays Denny had sung “She Moved Through the Fair,” which is often taken for a traditional piece but is not. However, it showcased all the strengths Denny would bring to true folk songs and which would appear in spate on “A Sailor’s Life”: scrupulous timing, emotion without sentiment, and an ability to inhabit the song impersonally, yet so intimately that it might have been written yesterday. Thompson’s percussive guitar winds around Denny’s singing with a creativity that seems fated in its own right, like a knight’s moves around a rook. The electric amplification on “A Sailor’s Life” is the reverse of the art-rock folkiness of bands like Jefferson Airplane, Jethro Tull, and Genesis, all of whom would experiment with related effects. The early Fairport’s secret may simply have been in the power of its personalities. However psychedelic “A Sailor’s Life” becomes, the amplification serves only to strip the band further down to its essential pair–Denny in the role of the piper, always the most fearless man in battle, and Thompson not far behind her as the drummer.

The next album, Liege & Lief, is the most famous of the Thompson-Denny era in Fairport’s history and represented a turning point in several senses. Though it is not all true folk material, it is all British, about half traditional and half the band’s compositions in a traditional style. The addition of gonzo fiddler David Swarbrick allowed the traditional pieces to include instrumentals. Another change, from Martin Lamble to Dave Mattacks on drums, was of rather a different nature. Lamble had died in May 1969 when Fairport’s van crashed following a gig in Birmingham. All but Sandy were on the van, and were injured to some degree. The worst suffering was Thompson’s, since his girlfriend had been killed outright as well as Lamble. It now seems miraculous that Liege & Lief was put out only months later, but it is no surprise that every moment on it breathes menace, cruelty and sorrow, with guilt as the overriding theme. So far from being a resurrection of the band, as it was hailed at the time, Liege & Lief makes it clear that this version’s days were numbered. On Unhalfbricking “A Sailor’s Life,” “Genesis Hall,” and even “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (and a car-crash song of Bob Dylan’s, “Percy’s Song”) all had seemed to foreshadow the disaster: on Liege & Lief each side contained a ballad, “Matty Groves” on the first side and on the other, “Tam Lin,” in which the price for love is violent death or might be and the male lover bears the punishment. On “The Deserter,” a young soldier escapes execution by the army only by royal command, to be sent back to the front lines. Add to that two Thompson compositions about his loss, “Farewell, Farewell” and “Crazy Man Michael,” and a version of “Reynardine” that seems to touch on it pretty directly:

She said, “Kind sir, be civil,
My company forsake,
For in my own opinion
I fear you are some rake.”

“O no,” he said, “no rake am I,
Brought up in Venus’ train,
But I’m seeking for concealment
All along the lonesome plain.

“Your beauty so enticed me,
I could not pass it by,
So it’s with my gun I’ll guard you
All on the mountains high.”

Sun went dark, she followed him,
His teeth did brightly shine
And he led her over the mountains
Did that sly bold Reynardine.

There were other problems as well. From the point of view of the band’s future, Liege & Lief represented an embarrassment of riches, with several hugely talented individuals predestined to seek different paths. Swarbrick clearly was in hog heaven, and it was just as clear that Thompson and Denny had only to keep working together, with or without him, for Fairport to be a huge success in this particular niche. But the old Fairport had always been a group of songwriters first and foremost. The two new musicians contributed an unheard-of power but did not share the experiences that bound the rest together. The sophistication of the musical settings meant that Denny had to sing her hardest on almost every number, an intensity that would be difficult to sustain over many albums. She was comfortable keeping pace with Thompson, whose reserve allowed her to stay just within reach of full strength until key moments. Swarbrick on the other hand was an undersized party animal like Denny and one whose sinuous fiddle could, if need be, replace her voice. What was worse, Denny didn’t mind being replaced. She was still only in her twenties and deeply conflicted about show business, especially the hard-drinking, male-oriented world of British traditional folk as represented by such as Swarbrick and Dave “Peggy” Pegg, who would play bass beginning with Fairport’s next album. Though some within the band foresaw it developing along the lines of Steeleye Span, Denny wanted no part of that.

There is little doubt that Denny would have had a spectacular career as a traditional singer, especially making her start in 1969 when her voice was at its peak; she might have become the genre’s lodestar. But Denny had ambitions as a singer-songwriter and an American-style pop singer, like Joni Mitchell, and tended to regard British folk as something of a booby prize, associated with her strict parents, her sexist colleagues, and her distance from the contemporary Bond-girl ideal of female beauty. Denny’s insecurity about her looks may have been the one thing that ensured Fairport would not survive in its essential lineup. She was in fact irresistible, strongly resembling a British character actress–Annette Crosbie, or even Felicity Kendal–and too attractive to men for her own good, while her short, square, pit-pony’s build gave her the strength to project her voice as she did. Still, in an environment of “fair dinkum blokes,” as David Swarbrick admitted, there was a lot for her to be sensitive about. To this must be added a probable depressive disorder that she medicated with alcohol, making her life in this lads’ environment doubly dangerous. It is, perhaps, remarkable that she survived as long as she did.

So Denny left after Liege & Lief and Fairport clearly wouldn’t be the same. Nobody has ever exceeded Denny on the “muckle ballads”: the lengthy, morbid traditional fare building up at caterpillar’s pace. Within a few years, Denny would have forfeited much of her own voice to her Churchillian indulgence in drink and nicotine, and things would never be quite the same for her either, though each of her subsequent albums includes unforgettable moments. To listen to her recordings of the later seventies, including two with a cobbled-together version of Fairport lacking Thompson, is to be made aware of just how much her early greatness was a matter of physical capacity. When it was all gone she resorted to standards and mediocre pop tunes, while her renditions of audiences’ favorites among her own work grew ever weaker and her substance abuse became critical, and she died of a brain hemorrhage when she was just thirty. (The circumstances are murky. For a long time it was believed that she fell down a flight of stairs, but recent evidence suggests it was due to a combination of prescription drugs and alcohol that may or may not have been aggravated by a fall. The story was told in such a way as to hide the fact that at the time of her death, Denny was living separately from her husband and young daughter, and the conflicting interests of her survivors–her husband in turn accused her parents of not seeking medical treatment for her in time–ensured the full truth would be lost.)

Her work with Fairport is thus shadowed in retrospect by her early death, but death had never been far away after the 1969 van crash. Although Denny was not involved, she became that tragedy’s voice: many have remarked that on her unforgettable rendition of “A Sailor’s Life” she seems to be telling the story of Thompson’s bereavement (to be named by Linda Thompson as a correspondent in divorce proceedings on her album One Clear Moment: “He spent all his time with a memory/And he left me so alone”). And on Liege & Lief Denny would sing the only song he ever wrote directly about his loss, “Crazy Man Michael,” as if she were trying to comfort him. But she could only comfort him from the standpoint of her own anguish. Denny’s voice is very quiet here, shrinking to a whisper when one expects it to rally to its old iron; she sings as someone who knows she herself has survived by the luck of the draw. The song is uncanny today, foreshadowing her own death. It can only say what happened, in the tones of one who knows it from the bottom up, and one suspects that was the only comfort either would ever accept. “Crazy Man Michael” remains a song that Thompson will not perform in concert. It closes Liege & Lief.

Though Denny and Thompson were never lovers, they didn’t need to be, any more than Billie Holiday and Lester Young. That two such difficult people should have had perhaps their easiest relationship with each other suggests that they recognized an essential likeness, beneath their surface differences, that went beyond friendship but required only music to express itself, and perhaps they parted after Liege & Lief because the album had said all that needed to be said about it. Had they explored further variations on the theme, Liege & Lief might not have had such a powerful effect on what was to come. As a one-off it remains the gold standard in part due to the time-preserved Shakespearian quality of its leads. Telling their story as they do, together and separately, it gives us, in Denny, a woman who created the path for Sinéad O’Connor with a bare handful of songs, as well as for Maddy Prior, June Tabor, Loreena McKennitt, and countless other folkies; and in Richard Thompson, the likeliest musical father of PJ Harvey. That the analogies straddle the borders between pop and folk is in keeping with the way this album has become a cultural touchstone as well as a musical one. If one doubts this judgment, consider how little it has dated even forty years hence, after Thompson at least put much of it behind him for a long time. The development of Thompson’s style would soon owe as much to the other great female singer whose voice he set, Linda Peters, known to fans as Linda Thompson and legally such for a number of years. She was everything Denny was not, as a singer: halting, rough-textured, emotionally transparent, and sexual. Time had marched on.

But not forever. Denny would be in her mid-sixties now, while Thompson has recently entered his own seventh decade. One wonders, had Denny lived, if she would have come to realize how much she was appreciated and stabilized, or if it took her death, and the near-Arthurian legend around her to follow, to bring her reputation to the point where she was recently named one of the past century’s 100 essential voices on NPR. Still, neither the ghost of Denny nor the living Thompson are at an age where it is impossible to imagine them, as they would be now, on a reunion tour singing the songs they created when they were both very young, perhaps with not quite as much youthful energy but with the savor of lives lived. Yet given his despair at the time of Liege & Lief, it slots neatly into the tale’s already improbable share of dramatic ironies that it was Thompson who lived to grow old, and to contribute a lion’s share of “worldbuilding” in the sff sense to British folk rock. In Full House, Fairport Convention still had at least one more great album in them. This was entirely due to the continuing growth of Richard Thompson, though the musical contributions of Swarbrick, Pegg and Mattacks are solid and Swarbrick added a fine tenor. Thompson also was learning to sing. Though it would be several more years before his off-key growl turned into a real voice, it was perfect for the snippets of funny-dreadful verse he was writing, like “Mary and Joseph” and “The Angels Took My Racehorse Away” on his first solo record, Henry the Human Fly, and the great “Doctor of Physick” on Full House.

Thompson was still traumatized, as can be seen in his famous liner notes for Full House where most of the characters in the Child ballads are massacred on a rugby field, and as would be apparent in his songwriting for years to come, but his writing songs at all was a sign of hope. In this sense Full House is Sandy Denny’s last album with Fairport, as the songs Thompson was beginning to write sounded much as if written for her until they began to be written for Linda. He followed Swarbrick as one who remembered doing the same for Denny. “Doctor of Physick,” the penultimate song on the album, is the greatest song that Denny and Thompson never did together, and it is tempting to consider that it might revisit the same ground as “Crazy Man Michael,” referencing their shared grief in the crucial line: “If you think upon improper things the Doctor will know.” Innocence can be lost while one isn’t looking, after all:

O father dear,
I dreamed last night a man sat on me bed,
And I fear
When I awoke I could not find my maidenhead.
Every sigh he’ll hear,
So wear your relic near,
Dr. Monk unpacks his trunk tonight.

Nor had Denny forgotten. She wrote one of her best songs expressly for Thompson, though she would perform it with her husband’s band rather than with Fairport. Thompson’s friends still speak of it as the truest portrait of him ever written. “Nothing More” was in some measure also a song for Denny herself. It is thus appropriate that it ends with a riddle, a sudden farewell to speech, and the word “alone.”

My friend, I know you’ve suffered,
Although you are still young,
Why was it you would not take help from anyone?

O it’s true, it’s very true, he said,
Some hard times I have known
But I have always overcome them on my own.

O the pearls that you hold in your hand
They are beautiful to see
But you show them not to anyone
Not even me.

For you are like the others, he said,
I never can be sure
That you wish just to see the pearls and nothing more.

O my tune it does not change, he said,
And neither does your song,
And words I use them rarely when I’m all alone.