Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sgt Pepper

I wrote a few days ago about an innocuous event which occurred 50 years ago, which later took on much more importance. A few days after that event happened another, whose importance was immediately recognised - the release of The Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper" album. Like the inaugural Fairport gig, this too passed me by at the time....

I've been trying to recall when I first heard any of the songs on this album. "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were well-known, as they were the double A-sided single which should have been on the album, but for the others, it seems that it was several years before I heard them. I definitely recall hearing "She's leaving home" at some stage during 1969, but without knowing what it was.

My English teacher in 1969, Mr Patten (who also taught PT and unfortunately died at an early age), once played for us "A day in the life" during a class. This would have been in the autumn term of 1969, as I remember that I and my classmates knew by then how to handle an album sleeve. He was illustrating the kinetic lyrics of the middle part ("Woke up, got out of bed"), before dissing the rest of the song.

When I first went to Israel in the summer of 1972, some of my friends amused themselves by singing all the songs from "Sgt Pepper"; I remember hearing the title song and thinking "aha, they're singing Sgt Pepper", but for me, this record was already passé. Back in Bristol, someone who sort of created a group with me (we never really played a gig) asked whether we could play "Lucy in the sky with diamonds"; I had seen the sheet music in a Beatles' song book and as it didn't seem too complicated, I said yes - without having heard the song, as it had been banned by the BBC. I think I eventually heard it in 1973, and when I did, I asked myself whether "this is that wonderful song that everyone has been praising for years"?

I get the feeling that I never heard the album in its entirety until I bought the cd in 1991. Now, a new deluxe two cd version has been released: the first has a remixed version of the original album, whereas the second contains out-takes and remixes of the single. I am still underwhelmed. Without deliberately trying to be contentious, my favourite song is probably "It's getting better", followed by "Fixing a hole" and "She's leaving home". I enjoy most of the other songs but don't feel any real enthusiasm to listen to them, unless I've been reading (once again) how the tracks were created. Typically, it is the second disc which I find more interesting: hearing the backing tracks for "She's leaving home" and "It's getting better" without vocals, which reveal hitherto unknown details.

By 1969, when I started listening seriously to music and "Abbey Road" was the Beatles album, I still preferred listening to "Unhalfbricking" (Fairport) or the first Nick Drake album. It wasn't until John Lennon's death at the end of 1980 that I (and probably many more) started listening once again to The Beatles.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Fifty years of Fairport

27 May 1967. I was just a schoolboy in short trousers, a few months shy of my eleventh birthday, waiting out my final term at Henleaze Primary School before taking up my scholarship at Bristol Grammar School. At the same time, four young men walked onto the stage of a church in Golders Green, London: they had just begun calling themselves Fairport Convention. At the end of their show, another young man approached them and said that he could drum better than their current drummer; a tradition had set in right from the beginning of having a fluid line up.

I first became aware of Fairport at the end of 1969, from a magazine article entitled "Sounds of the 70s", in which the writer(s) discussed acts which were expected to achieve success in the 1970s. In the time between that initial show in Golders Green and the publication of that magazine article, a mere two and a half years, Fairport had already released four albums (a fifth, 'Heyday', featuring songs from this period would be released twenty years later), had recruited and released three singers, had suffered the misfortune of the van crash on the M1 in which the drummer died, and most significantly, invented the genre called 'Folk rock' - not the wishy washy American version, but full on rock treatments of traditional songs.

1969 was quite arguably the most successful year that Fairport had. The 1970 version lacked Sandy Denny, the 1971 version lacked Richard Thompson, and in 1972, the final remaining original member, Simon Nicol, left. Several very temporary line ups appeared under the Fairport name, but it seemed that the group had run its course - after five very full years. But no: Swarbrick and Pegg put together a new line up, combining forces with some of the survivors of Sandy Denny's Fotheringay, and a stable configuration appeared ... for about a year and a half. I didn't see the five member version, but I did see the group after Sandy returned.

That line up didn't last very long, and soon the group returned to the wilderness. I went to a festival in Southend sometime in 1976 which featured a very unusual line up - their picture appears on the sleeve of the atrocious "Gottle o'geer" record, but half of the people in the photo didn't play on the record. Fortunately, Simon Nicol (who engineered GoG) returned, and there was a very strong group for the years 1977-8, which I saw several times (including two times in the same week, when I finally met someone in the group). 

But by 1979, I had emigrated and the group folded - I know for a fact that my emigration did not play any part in the group's ceasing to exist. It wasn't until around 1986 that the group reformed and recorded "Gladys' leap". Although initially this was only a temporary group, Maartin Allcock and Ric Sanders soon joined to make a permanent group - which played together for an unprecedented ten years, at which stage Maart was replaced by Chris Leslie. A year later (1997), Dave Mattacks - drummer since 1969, although not during 1977/9, left, to be replaced by Gerry Conway (ex-Fotheringay). 

That line up is still playing, twenty years on! Full marks for longevity, but the sounds that they make are boring to my ears and only make me wish to hear the original recordings. 

So raise a mug to Fairport on their fiftieth birthday! They have been a part of my life for almost ever. It has to be said that their first ten years were so much better than the latter forty years.