Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Fairport Convention in the 60s and 70s (part 2)

In my last post, I wrote about the first years of the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, in which superb albums as Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief were produced. With this little text, I finish covering Fairport's history until 1979, when they disbanded for a few years.

Angel Delight (1971) is, in my opinion, their last great album, even if in terms of style it’s kind of the same old story. It’s called like that because the band members and their families had moved to a former pub called “The Angel”. It has, amongst other songs, a couple of fine instrumentals (nice fiddle work in Bridge Over The River Ash) and two songs I call “the pirate songs”, traditional melodies rearranged once again by the band. C’mon those two tracks (Lord Marlborough and Sir William Gower) sound indeed like some stuff pirates would sing, don’t tell me I’m wrong!

Looks like they’re having fun in the live version of Bridge Over The River Ash!

From now on it’s mostly downhill, although the albums are still pretty decent. So for those who are kind of “meh” about Fairport after listening to the few songs I posted, maybe it’s better for you to leave it here (oh, but do have a listen at the last Fairport song in the post!). On a side note, the changes in the band line-up get more and more common, so the band was called by some people “Fairport Confusion”.

Next in line comes Babbacombe Lee (1972). While it’s not a bad album, I find it’s more interesting to talk about the story it tells: the one of John “Babbacombe” Lee, a murderer from the Victorian era who was condemned to death and later reprieved because the gallows failed to do their job in not one, not two, but three occasions! The album is a concept album that describes the criminal’s life, and is considered the first “folk rock opera”.

Next come Rosie (1973) and Nine (1974), albums which I found online after quite a while searching for them! And yes, Nine was their ninth album, they really thought hard about the title. Again. No, I don’t mean to be bashing, I’m just joking, but ok I guess it can be misunderstood, no more bad jokes about album titles! The first of these two is nothing special, being the title track the best song. Nine is better, with a good catchy opener such as The Hexhamshire Lass, some very good instrumental work here and there (The Brilliancy Medley & Cherokee Shuffle and The Devil in the Kitchen) and a bunch of highly enjoyable songs, such as Pleasure & Pain or Polly On the Shore (the latter has a better, not so slow version in the Fairport Unconventional album, though). Pretty hard to find stuff from this album on youtube, so although I wanted to post an instrumental...

Rising For The Moon (1975), while not better than the previous two albums, was the album that would mean the real breakthrough for Fairport Convention, or so they apparently thought. Sandy Denny was back and they all had high hopes. Considering this, the album is a bit disappointing, with only one really remarkable song, the title track.

Three members, including Sandy Denny, left after this album. Sandy, unfortunately, had a tragic end. She suffered from substance abuse problems for some time, which was obvious to others by 1977. She drank and took cocaine while being pregnant, and when she finally had a baby, she often acted in a tremendously immature way with it, apart from not really seeming to care for the baby.

In March 1978, while being home alone, she fell down a staircase and hit her head on the concrete. Because of the continuous headaches she got from that accident, the doctor prescribed her a painkiller which had fatal side effects when mixed with alcohol. In the middle of April, her husband, an Australian songwriter (who was also part of Fairport in one or two albums) left UK with their child and returned to his home country because of Sandy’s behaviour, as the baby wasn’t really safe with her. Four days after that, she collapsed and fell into a coma while at a friend’s. She died another four days after that, because of a brain haemorrhage and trauma to her head. Sandy was only 31 at the time.

Back to Fairport, there’s not much more to say before they disbanded in 1979. They signed up with Vertigo, which bought them out of the contract for poor sales after two of four contracted albums, The Bonny Bunch of Roses (1977) and Tipplers Tales (1978).

The Bonny Bunch of Roses was again far from the 1969-1971 golden days in terms of quality; Fairport’s spark was clearly fading. Run Johnny Run was a pleasant surprise though (strangely and unfortunately, the chorus is a bit of an anti-climax), and Royal Seleccion no.13 is yet another good instrumental (ok there’s a short sung intro) with great fiddle work. However, it looked pretty clear the good days would never come back.

(No, those two links are not the same song, just in case you're wondering)

Tipplers Tales is mainly about... well, alcohol. Hey, it could be worse, it’s only this album; look at Irish folk songs, they’re either about alcohol or about patriotism! I was positively surprised with this album, even more after reading it was recorded in only ten days. In words of bassist David Pegg, every member got 7000 pounds after this album, which was the first time they made money out of music; enough money to split up.

The album is very consistent, probably their best since Angel Delight, in my humble opinion. Ye Mariners All is a good intro song, first instrumental and then sung, catchy, it makes you pay attention. Three Drunken Maidens, as you may imagine, is the perfect prototype of pub song. Play it loud while you’re tipsy, raise your glass and sing it with your friends. Same with Lady of Pleasure, The Widow of Westmorland's Daughter... ok, same with half of the album, damn I should really try, it’d be fun for sure. And then they have this really nice version of the traditional song John Barleycorn, although the version in the live album The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood is slightly better.

(Yes, the last link is from a rather recent concert)

This is pretty much what Fairport Convention did until 1979. As I said before, they disbanded, played together from time to time and started recording again six years later, although I haven’t been able to download their newest music.

I did find a 4 CD box that came out in 2002. Its name is Fairport Unconventional, and it basically features previously unreleased songs, rearranged band classics and live versions. Some of the stuff there is amazing, and ok, I’ll admit it, I could just download one of the four CDs. The alternate version of Nottamun Town, the single Rubber Band (it’s so silly and I just can’t help being so cheered up by it) and most of all, the absolutely beautiful cover of Bob Dylan’s Lay Down Your Weary Tune (possibly Fairport’s best Dylan cover, maybe better than Percy’s Song). Unfortunately, Youtube deleted my channel recently, so I can't send links for those songs.

In conclusion, Fairport Convention is a band that had three or four amazing years at first and then, although still producing decent music with a few little jewels here and there, started a slow and early decline. I’d love to see them live anyway, but I certainly can’t imagine them coming to Spain.

Bonus track: Jethro Tull's version of John Barleycorn. Very different from Fairport's one, but pretty cool nonetheless.

And this is the link for the facebook group I created for this blog:

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Fairport Convention in the 60s and 70s (part 1)

Last week I wrote about a CD which is, in my opinion, rather easy to like. Today, on the other hand, I’ll write about a band that doesn’t have so many fans, and hasn’t been well liked by the friends I’ve tried to introduce it to... so as nobody wants to listen to me talking about them, I’ll make the internet (which means not really that many people, in this case) suffer.

Fairport Convention make folk rock music. They started in 1967 and, after countless band member changes, they still record and tour. At first, their style was not really a British folk one, but rather a guitar flavoured Californian folk-rock. This, however, changed after a short time.

A couple of years ago or so I downloaded what I thought was all or most of their music. However I recently discovered I don’t have Fairport’s post-70s music, so I’ll just write about their first thirteen years, before they disbanded for six years (when they still did occasional concerts).

I won’t specifically write about their members, with some exceptions, as this little text would be extremely messy to follow considering all the members’ comings and goings. The first exception helps me explain the origins of the band. It was bassist and Ashley Hutchings and guitarist Simon Nicol who started rehearsing in a house called “Fairport”, in North London, and... ok, I think that explains it pretty well. The found another guitarist and a drummer and the band was made. Shortly after this they found a female singer, Judy Dyble, who would knit scarves when not singing during concerts. Really. Anyway, for their second album Dyble would leave and Sandy Denny would arrive. Sandy is, for me (and many others, I’d say) a key member of the band, even though she wasn’t there for a very long time. I’ll talk more about her later in this text.

Their first album, called, ahem, Fairport Convention (yes, I know, very original), while decent, doesn’t really drive me crazy. It doesn’t have the folk approach of later albums, being rather a bunch of rock songs. The highlight of the album is, in my opinion, Jack O’Diamonds, a traditional song. In this case, Fairport created the music for the lyrics written by Bob Dylan and Ben Carruthers based on the original song. Although Fairport Convention would later on do covers of Bob Dylan songs, this is not exactly the case, as what the band took here were extracts from Bob Dylan’s poem-sequence Some Other Kinds of Songs, from the back cover of Another Side of Dylan.

There is also a Leonard Cohen cover in this album (specifically a bonus track in the 2003 remastered edition), as Fairport Convention decided to rearrange Suzanne. It’s personally one my biggest disappointments regarding the band. Having previously heard some of their Dylan covers, I had very high expectations, as the original gives me goosebumps (in a good way!). However, Fairport’s version is plain boring.

One year later, in 1969, three new Fairport albums would come out, two of them being amongst my top three. The first of those albums is called What We Did On Our Holidays. The sound here is folkier, and although it’s not really amongst my favourites either, it has a couple of great songs. It should also be mentioned that this CD contains another of Fairport’s Bob Dylan covers, I’ll Keep It With Mine.
While Meet On The Ledge is considered by many the band’s unofficial anthem and it’s the song that usually closes their concerts, my personal favourites are Nottamun Town (the alternate version in the rarities album Fairport Unconventional has an even better instrumental work) and, most of all, the sad and beautiful Fotheringay.

Oh, I almost forgot, this album also has a cover of the traditional song She Moved Through The Fair. However, I’ve heard much better versions, such as the ones by Loreena McKennitt or Alan Stivell.
The second of the three albums they released in 1969 is Unhalfbricking, which was, and still is, very acclaimed by both critics and fans. Totally understandable, as the whole CD is outstanding. It’s not easy to choose the best song of the album, but I’d go with Who Knows Where The Time Goes? and Percy’s Song.

The first is a beautiful composition by Sandy Denny, whose voice really shines in this song. Sandy’s voice wasn’t the typical clear and flawless voice most people love, but rather (that’s at least what comes to my mind) the voice of someone who has seen many sad things in her life, someone whose existence has been sad and full of sorrow.

Percy’s Song, along with Si Tu Dois Partir (the original song is called If You Gotta Go, Go Now), and Million Dollar Bash, are Bob Dylan’s covers. While I’m a Dylan fan, I prefer Fairport’s covers to the originals, especially in the case of Percy’s Song.

Fairport Convention kept rearranging traditional songs. In this album, they did a version of A Sailor’s Life.
Before the third 1969 album, something terrible happened to the band. Their van crashed on a motorway when they were on the way home from a gig. The drummer, who was nineteen years old, died, as well as the guitarist’s girlfriend. The band almost disbanded and Iain Matthews, one of the singers, left. However they decided to continue and the most immediate result was Liege & Lief, considered by many their best album (I actually can’t really choose between this one, Unhalfbricking and Angel Delight).

This time there were no Dylan covers, but rather English traditional songs rearranged with electric instruments and something which would become a habit: instrumental medleys where the violin would have the main role but the mandolin would play an important part too (what a great instrument the mandolin is, oh I love it, yes I do!).

As a little side note, there are two Frank Sinatra covers from BBC radio live performances (The Lady Is A Tramp and Fly Me To The Moon) in the 2007 deluxe edition. I just found out and I can’t find them on youtube, pity!

Most songs in this album are amazing. Crazy Man Michael, Tam Lin... but two of them shine above all the rest. First of all the traditional song Matty Groves, and finally a song that gives me goosebumps and makes my eyes itchy every time I listen to it: Farewell, Farewell. Sandy Denny at her best, I have no words to describe her voice in this song, it’s totally heartbreaking. Farewell, Farewell is proof that you don’t need pompous musical arrangements and lyrics about a broken heart and stuff such as “Oh I miss you come here blepblepblep”.

(in the Farewell video, when you read “loathe” I’m not sure if it’s “love”, maybe “loathe” makes more sense but when I’ve searched the lyrics online half of the sites say one thing and the other half say the other)

This album is considered as a major influence in the development of British folk rock: BBC Radio 2 listeners decided in 2002 that it was the most important folk album of all time, and, in 2006, the album won the BBC Radio 2 folk award for Most influential Folk Album of all time.

Liege & Lief meant the depart of Sandy Denny (and bassist Ashley Hutchings), who would come back for a short stint five years later. Dave Pegg (also Jethro Tull bassist, it was thanks to him that I discovered Fairport) took over the bass, while Sandy Denny wasn’t replaced.

The following nine years would be a period of numerous changes in the band lineup, which wouldn’t stop them from producing a bunch of CDs. The next album was Full House (1970). Maybe it wasn’t as good as the two last ones, but Fairport managed to produce a very solid album, which has again both original compositions and rearranged traditional songs. The male vocals (everyone except the drummer sang at some point) worked well and even though Sandy’s voice was irreplaceable the damage was not as big as I’d have thought.

While Flatback Caper is a mood-lifting instrumental (for some reason it makes me think of children playing in the countryside... ok I know, weird thoughts of mine, I’m stopping!), Sloth is a very slow yet haunting song (it has something I can’t really explain, but it fascinates me), with an instrumental section in which the combination between electric guitar and fiddle is excellent.

I guess this is long enough for today, so I'll post the rest of Fairport Convention's history until 1979 in a few days. But hey, wait a second.

Bonus track: Loreena McKennitt’s version of She Moved Through The Fair .

Ok, another bonus track: Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, there’s no way I could post this without including a link to this song. 

And this is the link for the facebook group I created for this blog:

Friday, 17 January 2014

Paul Simon- Graceland

This may be an excuse to procrastinate, but the thing is that this morning I really felt the urge to start a blog. I’ve never really cared about blogs and I can’t recall reading one regularly. This, and the fact that I don’t trust my writing skills (except in certain exams!) make me think that this blog, even if I manage to update it regularly, will be rather lame, but I want to try nonetheless.

I’m not here to write about my everyday life or to transform deep meaning-of-life thoughts into words, I’d rather write about music. I’m sure my friends will appreciate it; not because we have the same taste, rather (often, not always) the opposite. Perhaps writing this will make me stop punishing my friends’ ears with my lectures about Jethro Tull, Alan Stivell, The Alan Parsons Project and so many other bands and artists.

I should say that my taste in music is wide, or at least that’s what I’d like to think. That’s why I may write about rock, blues, folk, jazz, heavy metal... so if there’s anyone who reads the product of my procrastination, you may find something you love one day and you may want to kill me the next time you read this blog. Oh, and I’ll try to write about not so well known bands from time to time.

Finally, this is no expert analysis, don’t expect any kind of music technicalities. This is just for fun, I’ll probably just write my simple opinion about an artist or CD, provide a couple of links and write a few interesting facts, if I know them. I’ll be happy if someone discovers some nice music.

Ok, to business. I won’t start with my favourite band, neither with music I’m listening to very often these days. I find it fitting to start from the beginning, that is, the first artist whose music caught my attention, and that’s Paul Simon. After almost twenty years of listening to it, his album Graceland still sounds like a masterpiece to me. I’m not a big fan of pop music but this is the kind of CD where every song is good and in the right place. Also, funnily enough, it’s apparently the perfect CD for listening in the car. My earliest memories regarding music involve listening to Graceland in the car a bazillion times (without getting tired of it, of course), but not only that: when I uploaded the whole CD on youtube, I received tons of comments saying the same thing.

I’ll start with some background. Graceland was released in August 1986. By that time, Paul Simon had long ago parted ways with Art Garfunkel (I may write about their music together another day). His previous CD had apparently been disappointing (I’ll be honest, I’ve only listened to Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints from Paul Simon) so his career wasn’t at its best. One day he listened to a cassette of a South African Band, The Boyoyo Boys, in which there was an instrumental song called Gumboots. He made his own version of the song, with lyrics; it’s the fourth track. A real mood-lifting song, however no matter how many times I try to sing it in the shower I’m not fast enough! See (hear) why:

What makes this album very special is the African influence. I doubt someone could have imagined Paul Simon doing something like this: African voices and rhythms can be heard in most of the songs. A good example of this is the song Homeless, written by Simon and Joseph Shabalala, founder and musical director of the South African choral group Lady Black Mambazo. The melody for Homeless is a traditional zulu wedding song. As you can see, it’s sung a cappella.

American artists (apart from Simon) can still be heard throughout the CD, such as Linda Ronstadt in the beautiful Under African Skies. However, this song is probably more famous for the live version Paul Simon did with Miriam Makeba (who sadly died in 2008).

Also, Los Lobos claim they wrote the last song of the album, All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints, while Simon doesn’t give them any songwriting credit for it. I personally do not know if it’s true or not, as it’s apparently his word against theirs. The song’s catchy, though.

The album’s so good that I’d put links for all the songs here, but that’s not the point. However, I’d like to highlight one last song, which was my favourite for many years. Paul Simon at his best. Wicked bass lines. And Chevy Chase in the video (yes, as you can see, Paul Simon is a very small man!). The song is You Can Call Me Al and it’s absolutely fantastic.

There’s one last topic I’d like to mention about this album. Graceland was recorded when there was still apartheid in South Africa, and thus an international boycott against it. The fact that Paul Simon recorded part of the CD there and that he did it with the collaboration of many local musicians made the American songwriter face accusations from various anti-apartheid organizations and musicians, which on the other hand gave more publicity. As a consequence, Simon was declared persona non grata by the United Nations. This didn’t really make sense, as he was promoting South African music while not offering any support to the South African government, so in 1987, the year after the CD was released, the United Nations reconsidered its position.

After Graceland, Paul Simon did The Rhythm of the Saints, this time inspired by Brazilian sounds. The album is not bad, but my expectations were too high and it was a big disappointment. Some tunes are really worth listening to, though.

Ok, this is it for today. As you can see, this is a very simple thing done with some very basic researching. But hopefully there’s someone who didn’t know about Graceland, read about it here and liked it. That’s what I’d like to do with this little blog. I’ll try to write again in a week or two, still no idea about which band.

Bonus track: dance with The Boyoyo Boys!

And this is the link for the facebook group I created for this blog: