Bassist Ashley Hutchings and rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol formed Fairport Convention in 1967. They named the band after Nicol’s father’s medical practice, above which they rehearsed, on the same Muswell street as the Davies brothers of The Kinks grew up.
Lead guitarist Richard Thompson and drummer Martin Lamble joined the group, along with vocalists Judy Dyble and Iain Matthews. When Fairport Convention recorded their 1968 debut, they were a folk-rock band, but rather than taking cues from traditional British sounds, they were more akin to Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds.
Dyble was replaced by Sandy Denny for the first of three 1969 LPs, What We Did On Our Holidays. Their 1969 LPs showcased their songwriting ability, with songs like Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ and Thompson ‘Meet On The Ledge’ on their 1969 records.
A significant piece from 1969’s second record, Unhalfbricking, was ‘A Sailor’s Tale’, their first electrification of a British folk song. Shortly before the release of Unhalfbricking, the group’s van was involved in a serious road accident, which killed Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn.
The group continued with new drummer Dave Mattacks and fiddler Dave Swarbrick. They recuperated and rehearsed in a house rented by producer Joe Boyd, while Hutchings went through traditional British song archives looking for material. Hutchings later said: “It was a magical time … and there’s a lot of magic on that album. There was a special feeling in the house, in the room, and also a lot of hidden magic and weirdness on that album. The past is weird, you know, our ancestors did a lot of weird things.”
The group’s fourth album, Liege & Lief, was released in December 1969, and is credited as the first electric British folk-rock album. While the record was dominated by traditional tunes, especially the lengthy ‘Matty Groves’ and ‘Tam Lin’, the group’s original compositions fit into the record’s ancient feel.
Why Liege & Lief is Fairport Convention’s Best Album
Fairport Convention have released almost 30 studio albums, but. Liege & Lief featured the band’s strongest lineup. The addition of Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle gives the band extra firepower, and his duels with Richard Thompson’s lead guitar are magical. The adaptations of traditional folk songs work beautifully, and Denny’s vocals give the songs an earthy mystique.
This lineup of Fairport Convention didn’t last long – before Liege & Lief was released, two key members had already left. Sandy Denny left to pursue a more contemporary sound, while Ashley Hutchings, suffering delayed trauma from the van crash, quit to form Steeleye Span and later the Albion Band.
Fairport Convention continued for more than 50 years, with mainstays like Mattacks, Nicol, and bassist Dave Pegg. Despite the longevity of Fairport Convention, there was a surfeit of talent in those early years, with Thompson, Denny, and Hutchings’ post-Fairport endeavours overshadowing the parent band in the 1970s. 1970’s Full House has moments of excellence, with Pegg’s bass giving the band even more virtuosity, but Denny’s vocals were irreplaceable.
Liege & Lief isn’t just the first British electric folk-rock album, but it’s also arguably the best – in a 2006 BBC audience poll, it was voted as the “Most Influential Folk Album of All Time”.
Liege & Lief is a terrific album, and if there’s a weak spot, it’s the cheery opener ‘Come All Ye’, which lacks the dark heart of the rest of the record, and consequently feels out of place.
This salacious murder ballad was a great candidate for the full electric treatment. It tells the story of a commoner, Matty Groves, a more accomplished lover than Lord Donald, but a less accomplished fighter. Half of the song is given over to Swarbrick and Thompson’s jamming.
While most of Liege & Lief consists of traditional songs, Richard Thompson also contributed two pieces. They’re both excellent, and both fit into the traditional tone of Liege & Lief, but he’s never played either live. Denny sings ‘Farewell, Farewell’ on record, so perhaps the vocal range is beyond Thompson. Or maybe the song is a tribute to Jeanne Franklyn – the line “And will you never cut the cloth” can be interpreted as a reference to her work as a tailor. Thompson wrote the lyrics, the tune is from the folk tune ‘Willie O Winsbury’.
The song ‘Tam Lin’ dates back to at least 1549. It’s the tale of a mortal man, Tam Lin, captured by the Queen of Faeries. It’s another lengthy song with space for Thompson and Swarbrick to jam, and Denny’s quietly menacing vocal sells the story beautifully.
Do The Experts Agree?
Although it’s since been recognised as a folk-rock landmark, Rolling Stone magazine were lukewarm to Liege & Lief on release; John Mendelsohn wrote that “the majority of the material on Lief was provided by the English Folk Dance & Song Society Library at Cecil Sharp House, which should make the album endlessly enticing to all you musicologists out there.” He also noted that “Lief is a nice album to put on to accompany sitting by the fireplace or staring vacantly at a candle flame.”
On the website Rate Your Music, Liege & Lief is ranked the highest of Fairport Convention’s albums. It has an average rating of 3.90/5, and is ranked as the #657 album of all time.
On the website Acclaimed Music, Liege & Lief is ranked as Fairport Convention’s best album, and the 446th best album of all time, while Unhalfbricking is also highly regarded.
Liege & Lief is included in the original edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.