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Formed in 1967 and with an ever-changing line-up to the present day, Fairport Convention are generally considered the first and foremost British folk-rock outfit. 'Unhalfbricking', their third album, first released in July 1969 and peaking at No. 12, spawned their only hit single and to date is one of their only four albums to make the Top 20 album chart.
Their constantly changing personnel was reflected on this record. Shortly after recording began, vocalist Ian Matthews left (his band Matthews Southern Comfort had a No. 1, their only hit, with 'Woodstock' in 1970), and multi-instrumentalist Dave Swarbrick was featured as a guest musician, being confirmed a full member soon afterwards. Moreover, 19-year-old drummer Martin Lamble was tragically killed (as was Thompson's girlfriend Jeannie, not a member of the group) when their van was involved in an accident while returning from a gig shortly before its release.
The original album had eight tracks, with 39 minutes playing time. Two bonus tracks on the CD take this up to 48 minutes. Four and a half songs were written by Bob Dylan, two each by the group's singers and guitarists Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson, and one was a traditional folk tune.
'Genesis Hall', the opening song, was one of Thompson's compositions. Genesis Hall was the nickname of the former Bell Hotel in Drury Lane, the scene of a mass squat around the time, and of a mass eviction by the police. A deceptively simple song with Sandy's clear vocals to the fore above mainly subdued guitar and dulcimer, the lyrics show some bite, as in the second verse: 'You take away homes from the homeless - And leave them to die in the cold - The gypsy who begged for your favours - Will laugh in your face when you're old'. It's startling to think that Thompson was only 19 when he wrote this song. Moreover it may not have gone down too well at home - his father was a policeman.
The one and only Fairport hit single (No. 21), which undoubtedly helped boost album sales, was 'Si Tu Dois Partir'. How eccentric can you get - a group from London turning Dylan's 'If You Gotta Go, Go Now' into a lighthearted folksy singalong, but translating it into French first. A washboard, accordion, and Swarbrick's fiddle add colour to this one, to say nothing of the bottle which falls on the floor and smashes in the brief pause before the final chorus. Apparently the group initially wanted to take it off the tape, until it was pointed out that the literally shattering sound was completely in time with the rest of the song. This was utterly unlike anything else in the Top 30 at the time, and remains a folk-rock classic.
'Autopsy', one of Denny's songs, is a wistful song that seems to be about a love affair turning sour, or else one which has run its course as the two people concerned rake over what went wrong. 'You must philosophise, But why must you bore me to tears? You´re red around the eyes, You tell me things no one else hears.' Musically there are shades of Joni Mitchell, in that the instrumentation is mainly acoustic, with a lightly-picked electric guitar and subdued drums, while there's something slightly jazzy about the rhythm.
'A Sailor's Life' is probably an old eighteenth-century song which describes a young woman's attempt to find her lover, a sailor, then discovers that he has drowned. Something of a marathon, this one, as the song takes up just under six minutes, before a long instrumental section with lead guitar on one channel and fiddle on the other. Altogether it runs to over eleven minutes. The first few times I heard it I thought it was pretty self-indulgent, but now it all fits together somehow - but you probably have to be in the right mood to get the best out of it. Some critics have compared this to the Doors, especially their marathon 'The End'.
From the longest song to one of the shortest, at barely two and a half minutes - Thompson's 'Cajun Woman'. Like 'Partir', this is good-time folk at its best, with Thompson and Denny taking lead vocals in turn. The backing is terrific, with slide guitar, squeezebox, fiddle and drums all having a blast. If this had gone on twice as long, I'd have been the last to complain.
You could hardly look for a greater contrast on the next two tracks. Denny's 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes' is a gorgeously introspective song, with some wonderful pictures in words: 'Across the purple sky all the birds are leaving....Before the winter's fire, I will still be dreaming, I have no thought of time.' While Thompson has always been notable for his sometimes fierce, emotional guitar work, he equally knows when to hold back, and his colourful yet restrained playing on this one is a delight.
'Percy's Song' is one of Dylan's early songs about the scales of justice being weighted against the ordinary man or woman, in this case a driver sentenced to 99 years for manslaughter after killing somebody in a car accident. The melody is wonderful, as is the first accapella verse and the ensuing vocal harmonies. However the lyrics are a tad repetitive - the constant 'Turn, turn again...Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind' throughout get a little wearing on a song which lasts nearly seven minutes. This, by the way, is the only track to feature the shortly to depart Ian Matthews.
To close the original album is one of Dylan's more jolly songs. 'Million Dollar Bash' was part of the legendary Basement Tapes, and in contrast to the gloomy mood of the preceding song, this is lighthearted nonsense of the best kind. 'I took my potatoes home to be mashed, but then I made it right on to that million dollar bash.' It sounds like everyone is taking turns on singing a verse, and the general atmosphere is more of mates singing along in the pub than in a recording studio, while Swarbrick plucks a hearty mandolin.
The foregoing is a review of the CD which just reproduces the original eight tracks. The bonus tracks are 'Dear Landlord', a mid-paced Dylan song very similar to the writer's original version on 'John Wesley Harding', with Denny on piano as well as vocal, and 'The Ballad of Easy Rider', by Dylan and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, another very attractive and mainly acoustic ballad.
There are short sound samples of each on the Amazon 'Preview all songs' facility.
The 8-track CD includes a centre spread of the photo of the band gathered round the table for a meal, which was originally on the back of the LP sleeve, while the 10-track issue includes booklet notes by Ashley Hutchings and additional photos. On the front cover is a photo of Denny's parents standing outside the gate of their garden and home in Wimbledon, while the band are just visible through the trellis on the lawn the other side. (In America, the front cover design was a photo of performing elephants with a tiny inset picture of the band, as one or more of them had apparently offended the US record company rather badly).
On their way to gigs, the band used to relieve the monotony of travelling by playing a game called 'Ghosts' in which they had to make up imaginary words. 'Unhalfbricking' was Denny's favourite.
Critics seem to like this record, or at least about half of it, for different reasons. They usually praise the more serious tracks while dismissing the more rollicking, shorter songs as throwaways. Frankly, I think it offers the listener the best of both worlds. It is perhaps ironic that they have always been one of the most genuinely British-sounding of bands (Thompson and Denny sound British to the core and make no effort to ape American mannerisms), even though they loved and acknowledged their debts to contemporary American and Canadian writers, while being keen to write their own as well. There was no shortage of instrumental talent in the ranks, and while some of the songs might be intense if not downright mournful, they knew when to vary the repertoire with a little light relief. Too many boisterous good-time songs, or too many gentle but serious not to say pure folky songs, would lack the balance this provides.
It's possibly not a record you will love straightaway, but ultimately an extremely good one which is worth persevering with. I acquired a copy in my late teens and it took me some time to enjoy the whole lot, but I'm glad I made the effort. It's not quite flawless, but not far off.
And I think we're justified in calling it a classic. 'Q' Magazine placed it at No. 41 in its 50 Greatest British Albums Ever in 2004, while that same year 'The Observer' ranked it No. 27 in its all-time top 100 British albums.
[Slightly revised version of a review I originally posted on dooyoo]
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Genesis hall
2 Si tu dois partir
4 A Sailor's life
5 Cajun woman
6 Who knows where the time goes?
7 Percy's song
8 Million dollar bash
9 Dear Landlord
10 The Ballad of Easy Ride