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History: Simon Nicol writes about Fairport

"We had a big van and we weren't afraid to use it!"

I took up guitar at about 12. My route to school took me past a music shop and there were always guitars on display. I just liked the shape, I suppose; I wanted to possess one. I nagged my parents and eventually I got one for a birthday or Christmas. It's similar to the song Chris Leslie wrote decades later – The Wood and The Wire – about a boy looking in the shop window.

It's an old story, often told, about how a nexus of musicians gathered around Ashley Hutchings in our little comer of the north London suburbs. I first met Ashley because I used to go to youth clubs when I was about 14 or 15 and if there was a band on, there was a fair chance that Ashley would be leading it. And when there was a local church hall gig on a Friday or Saturday night, Ashley would inevitably be playing bass in whatever group it was.

Ashley was slightly older than most of us and he was the one who always seemed to be leading the local bands. He was coming up with new combinations of musicians and constantly experimenting with all kinds of music, from beebop to tango to country blues to big band music. Obviously, it wasn't possible for him to perform in all those genres, but there was nothing to stop him having, say, a country blues band and a Chicago-style blues band and running the two in parallel with slightly different personnel.

So he had a bulging address book and was always on the lookout for people who could play. That's how I got brought into his net and, I believe, how Richard did. I joined Ashley's arsenal of personnel because of my ownership of, if not my expertise upon, a 12-string guitar. That's how I ended up in an ersatz country blues band.

Richard and I didn't know each other – we went to different schools – until we met through Ashley. We knew a few people in common though. Richard had been depping for the guitarist in an Ashley Hutchings outfit called Dr K's Blues Band

It was the mid-1960s and virtually everyone that I knew had a guitar. Most people of our age were in a group even if it they'd never played a gig as such. I'd rather lost interest in formal education at about 14 so I was happy to give music my energies and attention though I didn't envisage it becoming my life at that stage.

As things developed, Richard and I started doing more gigs with Ashley. That trio became the core of an entity that played under various names including The Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra and Tim Turner's Narration.

Fairport

By the time we became Fairport Convention, it was early in 1967. The next thing we knew, we'd got ourselves into all those underground clubs that were springing up. Once we were in somewhere, we were different enough, and competent enough, to get re-booked.

During that summer, we were getting a lot of work, riding the same wave that was supporting a great many other bands. We were on everywhere but so were they: remember, the clubs were running all-nighters of live music so they swallowed up a lot of bands. At Middle Earth, for example, you'd do a set at 10pm then again at 6am.

We regularly played UFO, one of the leading underground venues, and that's where we met Joe Boyd. He had the connections to get us a recording deal so we went from amateur to semi-professional, then to professional status very quickly. We did our first gig as Fairport in May of 1967 and we were in the studio by September or October.

Our setlist was, I think, more eclectic than many of our contemporaries. We stood out because we'd mix songs and instrumentals, mix American covers which the audience could recognise with bizarre and little-known stuff. We also had a girl singer, Judy Dyble – that also marked us out as different. That and the polysyllabic name led to the 'English Jefferson Airplane' tag. We used to do a few Airplane covers and I think people assumed we were from the west coast.

We were always willing to experiment. I was Fairport's first electric fiddle player. I did it as a bit of light relief but I couldn't really play, I'd never learnt. I don't even remember where it came from; we suddenly seemed to have a violin and I seemed to be the one who played it. I brought a freeform approach to the violin, I was avant garde in the 'avant garde a clue how to play it' sense.

Joe had thought it would be better to go into the studio with an augmented vocal line-up; quite rightly, he'd seen we needed someone with a bit more experience of singing into a studio microphone. We lacked that element in live performance but the lack was much more apparent in a studio situation. Someone had recommended Ian Mathews: we all met, we got on and Ian joined. Going into the studio made us – well, made me – feel like we'd become grown-ups, we were professionals. We had signed contracts, we were on a wage.

The first major change came after we'd recorded the first album. It had became apparent to us that Judy wasn't a forceful enough vocalist and she left. But whenever we played, people would ask 'where's the girl gone?' or 'is your singer sick?'. We could hardly go back to Judy, we'd asked her to leave. So we decided we'd try to find another girl and set about the ghastly business of advertising and auditioning. We got Sandy Denny.

We released What We Did On Our Holidays and then recorded Unhalfbricking. At that stage, we were working really hard, constantly on the road, three or four gigs a week. Ian, Richard and I shared a flat in Brent, the others were also in London, so we usually drove back to London after gigs, however far away we'd played. We had a Ford Transit and there was inevitably a lot of night driving.

The crash

In May 1969 we'd played at Mothers in Birmingham, a nice gig. Sandy had been picked up by Trevor Lucas of Eclection (they were an item) so she wasn't in the van but the rest of us were. Our road manager and sound guy, Harvey Bramham, did most of the driving although I'd do a bit to relieve him. On this particular gig, he'd been feeling peaky all day, quite unwell.

Harvey held it together most of the way back, as far as Mill Hill on the M1 motorway. I had a bad migraine so I wasn't in a seat; I was stretched out on the floor with a blanket over my head trying to sleep off this terrible headache.

When I woke up, the van was doing things which didn't involve the wheels being in contact with the ground: when it stopped moving, I was the only one left in it. All the gear had gone out of the back and all the people had gone out through the windows and doors. It was about half-three in the morning. We'd gone down an embankment beside near the Scratchwood service area.

Everyone was spread out: some moving as they came to; some not moving at all. The emergency services rescued us pretty quickly. Jeannie Franklyn, Richard's girlfriend, was dead by the time the ambulance arrived. At the hospital, they weren't able to bring Martin Lamble back to life.

Ashley looked terrible – his face was smashed up and, as with any scalp or face wound, he was covered in blood. Richard had broken his shoulder and Harvey had gone through the windscreen and ended up ninety feet away in a very bad state. I was extremely fortunate in that I had no serious injuries, just bruises and mild concussion.

That was a big watershed, I think. In the aftermath, we thought a lot about what to do, whether to call it a day. It had been fun while it lasted but it took a definite effort of will to continue. It had given us a lot but now it had taken away a lot: was it worth it if it was going to cost people their lives? Martin was only 18 or 19 years old. He would have gone on to have been so much more than just another drummer, another musician: there was something very special about him.

Even though Sandy had not been present at the accident, she was devastated. When she visited us the day after in hospital they nearly had to admit her too because she was so distressed. I remember she was very upset about Martin for ages.

We all felt psychologically traumatised as well as being damaged physically. But by the time Ashley's face was back together and Richard's bones were healing, we'd decided to rebuild the band and carry on.

I believe the crash hung over the band in unseen ways. I think it was one of the unspoken reasons for the next big change, when Ashley decided to leave the band later that year after we had recorded Liege & Lief and relaunched the band to some fanfare and acclaim. Whatever the upfront reasons about musical differences and wanting to concentrate on traditional material, I think the accident was the underlying reason why Ashley felt he couldn't continue with us.

The Daves

The rehearsal and recording of Liege & Lief was a fantastically productive period for us. As well as getting all the material together, we had to incorporate Dave Swarbrick and Dave Mattacks into the band.

Dave Mattacks had to invent an entirely new way of playing the drums. It wasn't a case of learning what Martin Lamble had been doing and developing that: DM was doing a completely new thing. He was a Mecca ballroom boy, very disciplined, a lot of traditional technique, a very different kind of drummer to Martin who was more intuitive, more shoot-from-the-hip.

Swarb was not only older than us, he was already a star. He'd already worked with us in the studio, of course but suddenly there he was, a fully-fledged member of our fold having broken up a hugely successful partnership with Martin Carthy to throw his lot in with Fairport Convention. He loved it!

We all spent that summer together at a house in Farley Chamberlayne, near Winchester. It was a lovely atmosphere, we found ourselves able to put aside the memories of the crash and the injuries and the loss. When we re-emerged, there was a natural groundswell of sympathy towards us. The launch gig at the Royal Festival Hall got good notices and the album was very well received.

Ashley had the zeal of the newly converted: he had the fire in his belly and wanted everything to be ultra traditional. That's what he wanted Fairport to do; but we didn't. With the benefit of hindsight, I think we wanted the material to be generated internally, to reflect the people on the stage performing it.

We were ready, anxious, to go to America by then. But it became apparent that Sandy did not want all the international travelling. She didn't want to be separated from Trevor for weeks and weeks at a time. Besides, she was terrified of flying.

We were obviously going to have to replace her and I think that precipitated Ashley to decide if he was going to get off the bus now was the time. Sandy leaving was, I think, the catalyst for him going too. So they left almost simultaneously.

We had to make some pretty quick decisions about replacements. Neither Richard nor I were going to change to bass. In the end, we listened to Swarb's entreaties: "We can save all the hassle of auditions, I know a guy from Birmingham, you'll love him, he's a great player." We thought: "Uh oh, Brummie axis forming here." (which, of course, it did later).

It worked out instantly, perfectly, with Peggy. It worked musically and personally in equal parts.Ashley was more comfortable being a bandleader and a researcher who happened to play the bass – Peggy had a lot more technique and was a bass player first and foremost. Admittedly, Peggy became a driving force but that was later.

We were without a singer. No one was willing: no-one wanted to be the first bus out of the garage. I suppose that Swarb was more used to being in front, in the limelight, than the rest of us. Richard and I were both more shy. So Swarb got pushed out there by default. And as Richard's song-writing became more central to what we were doing, so he came forward more too. It's natural that a writer should present their own songs. I just joined in for variety. Of course, Richard and I had sung backing vocals before – even though you couldn't hear them.

"There's this old pub..."

I can't remember who decided that we should all live together although, of course, we'd done that successfully in Winchester the previous summer.Robin Gee (our road manager) and I who were saddled with finding somewhere. We looked at the Angel in Little Hadham and I remember phoning round everyone to tell them it was too bleak, too spartan, grubby, damp, inadequate bathrooms and so on. But by then Swarb and his family were on the way there from Milford Haven in a removal van.

As things turned out, the Angel was OK even though it was pretty basic and freezing cold. It ended up as quite a headcount there. Robin and Richard were the only singles at first, though another roadie called David Harry joined us later. The rest of us were married – DM and his missus, me and mine, Swarb with his wife and stepdaughter, and Peggy and Chris with their baby daughter. One bathroom, one sink, one kettle for all of us!

Everybody was happy and it worked socially. We were remarkably tolerant of one another: "Who's had my bleedin' cornflakes?" Nobody would do the washing up though – it would mount up until Chris Pegg put on her marigolds and put us all to shame.

Musically, living together was hugely important. We were incorporating Peggy and we were working on a lot of new repertoire in what was effectively a new band. To do that fairly quickly obviously meant a lot of songwriting and a lot of rehearsal. We'd work hard all afternoon then toddle down to the Nags Head when it opened.

The next major phase was the start of the American tours. I'd been to the USA before, immediately after the motorway accident. I was still mildly concussed and rather stiff – mind you, I'm like that all the time nowadays. At the time Joe Boyd was in Los Angeles mastering Unhalfbricking. Fairport was signed to A&M whose HQ was in Hollywood and I made friendships then which were reinforced when the band went over later.

After Full House was released, the band went to the USA quite frequently. We did a terrific tour opening for Traffic who were our stablemates on Island Records. The audiences like what we doing and, of course, we were cool because Englishness was cool. They got it musically, particularly the instrumental stuff. They loved the traditional tunes flying off the stage at them, no-one had heard playing like Swarb's.

In a country of guitarists, they took to Richard too, the structured freedom and strength of his playing. They liked the sheer stamina of what we were playing: if you listen to those Troubadour sessions, some of the instrumentals are frighteningly powerful.

As well as the US tours, it was a period of intense work at home as well. We were playing a lot of gigs, particularly colleges, here in the UK - we had a big van and we weren't afraid to use it!

Then Richard stopped coming to gigs. He was spending more and more time in his room writing; writing songs that didn't really fit the band, writing for the experience. In a way, I suspect, being a member of Fairport was beginning to interfere with the process, with the songwriting.

Richard was still in the loop, he was very comfortable with us at the Angel. But he just wanted more time. Nothing was formally said, we just began to find we were becoming a four-piece. There must have been a point when Richard was officially no longer a member of the band but I don't remember it.

We wondered whether or not we should we replace Richard, and if so who could we get to play guitar. But it would have meant more upheaval, and also it would have involved incorporating someone else into the household.

I'd got the wrong sort of guitar for playing lead so we sent Robin out shopping and he came back with a Telecaster and an AC30 amplifier for me. In my view, I don't play electric guitar: I play one like an acoustic guitar. But after a bit of rehearsal and some judicious encouragement from Swarb and Peggy, I had the confidence to take the lead guitarist role.

I enjoyed it, though obviously I never tried to fill Richard's boots – that would have been impossible. I liked the new sound, liked playing a new sort of guitar to me. We had a more open texture, a lighter and more organic feel, more holes in the mix, and not only because we'd gone down from five members to four.

The other side of the glass

It worked very well and we went into the studio to do Angel Delight. Fairly soon after that Swarb found the story of John Lee and I ended up being producer on Babbacombe Lee. I'd always had an affinity for that side of things, ever since I'd first walked into Sound Techniques studio back in 1967.

I found something really appealing about the recording process, I really liked the look and layout of the control room, liked the touch of the machinery. I made it my business to learn as much as I could without getting in the way as we recorded. I was the only one who felt really at home either side of the glass: Ashley, for instance, was much more concerned with the sound coming out of the speakers. Where he took the purely artistic approach, I found I lent towards the mechanics of it as least as much.

I worked alongside John Wood, a superb engineer and a great guy. Fairport owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for the way those records were made and for how well they've stood the test of time.

John owned and ran Sound Techniques: we always used him whether we were working there or at Olympic. He did all Joe Boyd's Witchseason artists – the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, the lot. Like any great engineer, John did so much more than just facilitate the recording. An engineer may not need to be able to play or to read a score but he needs to be musical, understand the music, be part of the process, and be a mate.

We went to the USA in late 1971 and it was during that tour that I felt it was time to go. I'd just turned 21 and I'd been in the band since I was 16. I felt I'd given Fairport a lot of time, a quarter of my life. I thought: "It's time to stop this. Don't know why, just tired, just ready to work with other people." Chris Blackwall persuaded me to finish the American dates and then we decided that I'd stick with the UK tour. That took us up to December 4, at Dublin stadium, which is where I played what I thought was my final Fairport gig.

By then, the band had had three months to get used to the idea of me leaving. Each of us owed the band and one another our respect – but we didn't owe each other our entire working lives. We weren't joined at the hip. So it was fine: I bad them a fond and happy goodbye and went off to the house I'd bought in Northamptonshire.

Time out

The house needed a lot of work, I'd saved up a bit of money, I'd no firm plans. I'd seen that other people had left the band and they hadn't turned into tramps. Not long after, in the January I think, Ashley phoned me. I'd done some work with him and Shirley (Ashley's then-wife) on the No Roses album line-up. He was thinking of putting together another outfit, the Albion Country Band.

I had the largest house with the most room so I ended up providing the rehearsal space. A happy but confusing period ensued. There were a lot of new people to work with. Steve Ashley, for a start. I'd never met him before and here he was, this wild-eyed songwriter. Ashley has this great instinctive way of bringing people together knowing they will get on and then leaving them to work it out, to find musical common ground. Generally, his instinct is right.

I've never really stopped working with Ashley since. On and off, I've been in various permutations of the Albion bands as often as most people and I've been involved in his various theatrical things. I hope it continues: it's always good to get a call from him.

I didn't lose touch with Fairport socially, personally – they were my mates, they were family. I'd go to their gigs, as indeed did Sandy. I remember we'd get blotto on their drinks while they were on stage which is a good old tradition.

After a couple of years, around 1974, I started working again with Peggy and Swarb. We were all a bit under-employed and we put together an acoustic trio called Three Desperate Mortgages. This coincided with the Rising Of The Moon period. We took the trio round universities and the larger folk clubs. It was a tremendous hoot, so much laughter, so much spilled Guinness.

That reinforced the idea of us working together as well as socialising. In 1975 they were working on what would eventually become Gottle Of Geer, the final contracted album for Island. It had started life as a Swarb solo project – there was plenty on tape but it was a bit of a ragbag really. Peggy and Swarb asked me if I'd come in to engineer it for them.

It was huge fun to be involved in. Island just gave us the keys and said 'turn out the lights when you leave' so there were a lot of all-night sessions in the studio. If we made a rash experiment and wasted three hours, it didn't matter. It wasn't costing anything to spend hours trying out some weird organ loop then deciding it wouldn't work.

Eventually it was all done. They put together a band which did twelve gigs but had very little relevance to the stuff on the record. As well as Peggy, Swarb, and Bruce Rowland, there was Roger Burridge on fiddle, Bob Brady on piano and Dan Ar Bras who was very confused. I don't know how he got roped in. They went out as Fairport (without the 'Convention') but it obviously wasn't going to work so I wasinvited on board to play guitar. That turned out to be the longest-lasting pre-1985 line-up – three and a half years.

"money is for nothing ... "

We secured a deal with Vertigo, the one that ended up with them paying us not to make records. It seemed a novelty, like that Marx Brothers line: "How much for you NOT to rehearse?" "Oh, you can't afford it."

We did Bonny Bunch and Tipplers Tales then didn't make the other four contracted albums. Phillipa Clare, our manager, did well for us with Vertigo . She was no shrinking violet and we needed someone forceful to speak for the band.

At the end of that period we did Farewell Farewell. The rights reverted to us and that was the beginning of Woodworm Records. As one door closes, another springs open.

We decided we couldn't go on. As always, there was no single reason. Swarb's hearing was deteriorating: we either had to replace him or go fully acoustic. Who could replace him? And, in the latter case, what would happen to Bruce? Strangely, it didn't occur to us to simply turn the volume down.

We also knew we were swimming against the tide as far as the music business was concerned. The Sex Pistols had been doing their iconoclastic thing, anyone who'd been around for more than a few weeks was seen as a dinosaur. If we'd ever been in fashion, we'd become desperately unfashionable. Vertigo buying us off was a bit of a giveaway, really.

On top of that we had no record deal. So we chucked it in.

During the previous twelve years, we'd managed to generate – without realising it, let alone setting out to do it – a groundswell of loyalty and genuine affection for what we did. A lot of it had to do with the festival which had already been running in a small way for a few years.

We put it on as a reunion in 1980, having not played a gig for twelve months and more people than ever turned up. There was our cue: perhaps the band could exist on a reunion basis. The next year there even more people turned up. It grew to include the new year gigs too, and a few trips to Scandinavian festivals, attracting more people each year.

Resurgence

By 1985, we were thinking it was time to work up some new material, some new songs to perform at Cropredy to vary the older Fairport repertoire. Peggy, DM and I had gaps in our diaries, we had Peggy's studio, we thought: 'now's the time, let's do it'.

Swarb had Whippersnapper but he was very supportive of the idea of doing something new with us. So the three of us got on with it. We worked incredibly well, very quickly, and in ten days we had a record, Gladys' Leap. It just needed Swarb's parts, the overdubs. He had a day off from touring and came to hear what we'd done.

But Swarb didn't like it. I think he wanted the whip hand, basically. We said "Well, you're busy with your band, if we wait to do it the way you want, it won't get done." We really liked it, you see, and so did the people we'd played it to.

There were two irreconcilable positions: there was no compromise possible. So Swarb cut his losses and we finished the record. To be fair to him, Swarb was up to his eyes with Whippersnapper. But the nail in the coffin was that Swarb didn't want any of it played at Cropredy. It was as if to say: 'you've done your record, you can sell it, but you can't play it there'. Well, the whole idea had been to get more material to play at the festival.

That's how the 1985 line up of Peggy, DM, me, Ric and Maartin came about. We got Ric in to finish the album. Peggy had known him from Birmingham for years and I'd worked with him in the Albions.

Maart had been around since the year dot. He used to come to gigs when he still a schoolboy, bunk off to see us play, and miss the last bus home. He was very musically literate, always asking how so-and-so had played this or that, so he was in. That band lasted eleven years during which time Fairport and the festival went from strength to strength.

In the early nineties, the four-piece acoustic line-up began to develop. It grew to establish itself, we realised we could have two versions of Fairport in parallel. They are complementary, they are different: with the four-piece, the pace of the evening is different, it's closer to the audience, it's more flexible.

Eventually Maart left. I remember it as being uncomfortable. We had the feeling he'd been wanting out for a while but he wasn't saying. He just made himself more, well, just difficult, unreliable. We lost not only the electric guitar but all the bigger stuff, the keyboard and sequences, the big production numbers.

Chris Leslie slipped in seamlessly. We'd known him for years, and he'd stood in at short notice when Ric had injured his hand. He's a brilliant musician and he learnt the whole Fairport set in a couple of days.

The other change has been Gerry joining us on percussion. Again, it was an easy transition because, as Gerry says, he feels we've all been on the same road for thirty-five years but just in different vehicles.

Postscript

Throughout its life Fairport has been predicated on performance, not recording. I know it's never a proper Fairport gig unless it's a lot of fun and involves a bit of tightrope-walking, a bit of risk-taking, a little insecurity about the performance. And Fairport will never start to take itself seriously – take the music seriously, yes, but don't take yourselves seriously for God's sake.

I'd like Fairport to become the first band to be like a male voice choir, carrying on through changes of personnel but retaining it's identity. After all, no-one bats an eyelid about a brass band playing on long after all the original members are gone. Why shouldn't there be a Fairport Convention in fifty or a hundred years?