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Features: The Liege & Lief Story

Fairport Convention's Liege & Lief won 'Most Influential Folk Album of All Time' at the 2006 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

Mark McCulloch tells the story of the seminal1969 LP.

During 1969, the members of Fairport Convention were living in a rented Queen Anne mansion in Farley Chamberlayne near Winchester. The youngsters were recovering from a motorway crash that had resulted in the death of drummer Martin Lamble and their friend Jeannie Franklyn and injured several other band members.

Their previous album, Unhalfbricking, released earlier that year, had been hailed as 'perfect' by Fusion magazine, with Rolling Stone calling it 'Fairport Convention at their best'.

Unhalfbricking showed the band beginning to edge away from their original US West Coast influences towards a more traditional English sound. Bass guitarist Ashley Hutchings was spending time researching traditional songs at Cecil Sharpe House , the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, while vocalist Sandy Denny was also increasing her repertoire of English folk music – occasionally dismissing an excited Hutchings' latest find with: "Oh, that one. I've sung it for years."

Indeed, it was Denny who had introduced Fairport to the song A Sailor's Life, arguably their first proper step into the genre that would become known as British folk-rock.

The result of these influences was Liege & Lief, the LP that marked the transition of Fairport Convention from a rock band that used folk music as an influence on their sound, into a band that specialised in reinterpreting traditional English music.

Many of the songs were premiered on long-time supporter John Peel's BBC radio show Top Gear. Peel commented that these were the songs that would "sail them into uncharted waters", and as was so often the case, Peel was correct.

Fairport had thrown themselves into the electrification of ballads, myths, and rollicking jigs with innovative and stimulating effect. Guitarist Simon Nicol recalls new member, drummer Dave Mattacks "getting a tremendous charge out of it, inventing a whole new form of drumming without knowing it."

Fiddler Dave Swarbrick, a guest on Unhalfbricking was now a full member of the band, forging an inspired partnership with guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson.

The individual talents were balanced perfectly. From the driving pace of Matty Groves to the haunting vocals of Crazy Man Michael, Sandy Denny's voice and Richard Thompson's guitar were the perfect conduits for this seminal recording.

With Liege & Lief, Fairport had invented British folk-rock in spectacular style. It was a milestone album for them, and an inspiration for many others. Even after more than thirty years, it is still one of the biggest-selling British folk albums, and has been consistently voted into 'Best of' lists by pundits and public alike.

For example, Q magazine feted Liege & Lief in their list of 'Best Folk Albums' list, describing it as "...consciously revivalist at a time when folk was drearily parochial, Liege & Lief revolutionised the genre. Swarbrick supplied the cachet, the band redefined the meaning of 'Trad Arr' and Sandy Denny sang like an angel. Folk-rock's defining moment."

Many other reviews testify to the enduring quality of the album. Take Uncut for instance: "Liege & Lief set out a template for how rock and British folk could fuse together and become at once mystical and vital." Similarly, The Wire said: "The group's masterpiece... this is one of the monumentally great records of the last 40 years... a focused and coherent work, the whole record steams along at an excited pace."

However, the album was to be the last from that classic Fairport Convention line-up. Sandy Denny left to form Fotheringay with her future husband Trevor Lucas, Ashley Hutchings went on to found Steeleye Span, and Richard Thompson was to leave after the next Fairport album, Full House.

As Nigel Williamson, writing in The Times, noted in retrospect: "Not only did Fairport Convention invent English folk-rock but they effectively destroyed it, too. Nobody could top the electrified versions of trad ballads such as Tam Lin and Matty Groves on their classic, genre-defining Liege & Lief – after that there was nowhere left to go."

Ashley Hutchings probably summed up Liege & Lief best, though. Speaking to Q magazine in 1999, he said: "It's a monster album. I love to listen to it even now."

Mark McCulloch, February 2006

Read more about Fairport's history on this website. For a tracklist of Liege & Lief and Fairport's full discography, visit the excellent Expletive Delighted "unofficialy official" fansite