Of all the tasks that can be considered thankless, writing an authorized biography of a band that has been around for almost fifty years, and whose accumulated membership tops twenty-five must rank among the literary equivalents of cleaning the Augean Stables.
Who is it actually authorized by? The original line-up, only one of whom is actually a member today (and has had his own periods away from the band inbetween times)… the current line-up, some of whom were still in short trousers when the first group came blinking into being? A random selection of past lads and lassies; an all-inclusive gathering of everyone still living… can you even begin to imagine how many conflicting memories, at-odds opinions, and downright ugly feuds that would awaken?
So, before we even crack the spine of Fairport by Fairport, author Nigel Schofield’s small-telephone directory sized chronicle of the Convention’s story, we know that he will never be pleasing all the people all the time. The authorization itself came from the band’s current line-up, who between them number around 100 years service to the cause – founder member Simon Nicol (present from 1967-1971, 1976 until the band’s split in 1979 and from their 1985 reunion-to-date) and Dave Pegg (1969-1979, 1985-date), plus three comparative latecomers – Ric Sanders, who joined when the band reconvened in 1985, Chris Leslie, who joined in 1996 and Gerry Conway, a total whippersnapper with just fifteen years service beneath his belt.
Sundry past members also speak (although they weren’t directly interviewed for the book), Schofield’s own forty year archive of past interviews is laid bare, and while you can fire up the search machine and find forums-a-go-go grouching that this fact is wrong, and that recollection is skewed, this quote is manhandled and that man is misquoted, one thing is irrefutable. Fairport by Fairport doesn’t simply tell the band’s story. It also reminds us why we wanted to read it in the first place.
There are other contenders of course, precursors and forbears and adventurous explorers alike, but if any band can be said to have fathered British (and, consequently, international) Folk Rock as it is understood today, then it’s Fairport. From the moment “A Sailor’s Life” electrified 1969’s Unhalfbricking and (we will telescope events a little here) awakened the band’s interest in the bowels of Cecil Sharp House, Fairport did not simply lead the way into the world of electric folk. They created great swathes of that world, too, establishing not only the music’s internal parameters, but the genre’s external limits as well.
Remember that in Judy Dyble, one of the “English Jefferson Airplane”’s original vocalists, they boasted a singer whose natural talent (as envisioned by her subsequent discography, and a 2013 album that truly kicks butt) surely lay in what we’d usually term progressive waters; remember, too, that her successor, Sandy Denny, was far better known as a singer-songwriter of devastating intent; that fellow founder Richard Thompson is routinely ranked among the greatest rock guitarists of the last fifty years; that one time drummer Bruce Rowland was onstage at Woodstock; that both Dave Pegg and Maartin Allcock were long time Jethro Tullers… and so on and so forth. Fairport, and all who sailed in her, created Folk Rock by ensuring that almost any other genre could embrace it. Or be embraced by it.
And it’s that, more than the “then they did this, then they did that, and by the way that story’s wrong,” which lies at the heart of Fairport by Fairport. Yes the story is told, the events are relayed, the chronology is solid (for the most part… although things do get a little funky towards the end, as though a bunch of sections fell out of order and the editor failed to notice).
But with each new chapter demanding you grab the next album in the sequence, you realize just how far-reaching Fairport’s ambitions have always been; that even during the occasional lows that awaited the band during the 1970s, they were always striving towards something new, something different, something that would make a listener sit up and say “are you sure this is Fairport, I could have sworn it was….” And if you don’t believe me, spend an evening downloading every version of the band’s 1970 leviathan “Sloth” that you can find, and then listen to them back to back. The entire history of classic rock folk prog and more will unfurl before your ears, and leave you reeling and breathless.
Hilarious in some places, tragic in others, enjoyably opinionated and littered with anecdote, Fairport By Fairport is not going to please every reader, or even every past band member. Pedantic differences of opinion notwithstanding, its eye for detail is generally as sharp as cat claws; and its understanding of context is more or less flawless. Memories may fade or get screwed up, but Fairport’s place in history is spelled out with heartfelt precision.
A history for which they were responsible.