Fairport Convention Liege and Lief

Fairport Convention’s Best Album: Liege and Lief

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.

Fairport Convention What We Did On our Holidays

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.

Fairport Convention Unhalfbricking

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”.

Key Tracks

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.

Matty Groves

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.

Farewell, Farewell

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’.

Tam Lin

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 MusicLiege & 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.

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  1. No arguments from me about this being the ideal entry point into the Fairport discography for newbies. Great analysis and song choices. It’s been my go-to Fairport album since I first started listening to them 30+ years ago, although What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and Full House are also brilliant and arguably as good as Liege & Lief. I have a few of their later albums, including Gladys’ Leap and a live one from the late-’80s. They’re very good but those early ones with Thompson &/or Denny are untouchable.

    • I think there’s a strong argument that the records with Denny and Thompson in the band are the peak. I even find Full House a step down with no Denny there, as much as I like stuff like ‘Sloth’ and ‘Sir Patrick Spens’. I also enjoy Ian Matthews’ solo career – as I assume you know, he made some nice mellow records in the early 1970s.

  2. Opening the question of Fairport Conventions best album will result arguments ad infinitum, I like Nine best, although on other days What We Did On Our Holidays, its like choosing the Deads best album, they all have something to offer depending on the day and the mood.

  3. Love this album. Probably is my favourite although I love the albums either side almost equally. Actually Farewell, Farewell is kind of traditional. I think the tune is taken fthe folk song Willy O Winsbury. Which, oddly enough, Thompson has done live!

  4. I’ve been hesitant to check out unhalfbringing – because I enjoyed L&L so much, I fear my expectations are unreasonably high!
    Come All Ye (thanks to her vocals) & the medley were the standouts for me

    • L & L is certainly more consistent, but all the early albums have a charm. As do the later ones, for that matter! Amongst those, I always enjoyed Rising For The Moon and the one I mentioned to J., below.

    • Unhalfbricking is less consistent (as Bruce said too) – definitely worth hearing, just not as coherent and unified. Would have been cool if all three of their 1969 records were on the list.

  5. I still haven’t really checked out any Fairport Convention. Briefly listened to Unhalfbricking and I never really connected with it, so turned it off with the intention of going back to it. Never did. Perhaps I started with the wrong album?

    • I’m kind of interested in absolutes – it’s interesting seeing in large catalogues when there’s debate over best album and when there’s a lot of consensus (like this one).

  6. Melodically I agree Matty Groves and Tam Lin are stand outs, though “Crazy Man Michael” I also would argue is a key track for its haunting storytelling and sense of lost love.

    • Wonder if they would have stayed together longer if they’d taken some time out. Hutchings stated that he left because he was dealing with delayed trauma.

      • Yes he was badly knocked about in the accident but also put a lot of work into the album, it probably wouldn’t have happened without him.

  7. Not being a huge folk fan, I have contented myself with Unhalfbricking all these years and once in a while it’s all I want to listen to. Why didn’t I try Liege and Lief? Two pathetic reasons: I don’t like the name and I don’t like the album cover. But I’ve often hear people say it’s the best Fairport album, so now I’m going to give it a try. I know Matty Groves because the regulars used to sing it every week at the Guernsey Folk Club, which means I know an inferior version, not the original.
    So yes, I’ll give it a whirl and report back.

  8. A great band. I’m not sure they “invented” electric British folk-rock, but they did popularize it. All the Denny-era albums are good. These days I’m more of a Pentangle and Bert Jansch fan, but Liege and Lief was a pivotal record, for sure. What We Did On Our Holidays has a special charm, with Thompson and Denny coming into their own as songwriters.

    • Thank you – I tidied up my wording – I think it’s fair to say that it’s the first electric British folk-rock album – other acts like Pentangle and Fairport themselves had dabbled in electric folk, but noone had done a whole album of it before. Is that better?

      What We Did On Our Holidays is very good as well. I like the Joni Mitchell cover of ‘Eastern Rain’ a lot too.

  9. Always good to see that bands like this still have people digging them. CB just doesn’t pull them out enough. I think we’ve had this talk before. I pull out Richards solo work more often but no denying how good this early stuff is.

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