fairport at 50

On Saturday 27 May 2017 Fairport Convention will play a birthday concert at the Union Chapel in Islington. It will be fifty years to the day - to the hour almost - since the band's first-ever gig a few miles away in north London. Current bandmembers Simon Nicol (guitar, vocal), Dave Pegg (bass, backing vocal), Ric Sanders (violin), Chris Leslie (fiddle, mandolin, backing vocals) and Gerry Conway (drums) reflect on the band’s longevity.

Fairport Convention photographed in November 2016. The band will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary on 27 May 2017.

Q: What was the first record you bought; and what’s the most recent album you’ve listened to?

Simon: The first record I bought was a 78rpm ten-inch shellac disc by a novelty pianist by the name of Winifred Atwell. I was about six. The tune (yes, it was an instrumental) was The Poor People Of Paris.

Peggy: The Shadows was my first album (it was in mono). The most recent is The Art Of Making Faces by Anna Ryder on which I played on a couple of tracks.

Ric: The first album I bought was the eponymous debut by the West Coast band It's A Beautiful Day, featuring the great violinist David LaFlamme. I love that album still. The most recent album I've listened to is The Getaway by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Fab!

Chris: It was an LP sampler called Clogs and featured among others Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Steeleye Span, Shirley Collins, Marc Ellington, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior. I loved it!

Gerry: The first record I bought was Duane Eddy’s Because They’re Young. The most recent album I listened to is Little Richard’s Greatest Hits.

Q: What was the first Fairport song or album you ever heard; and when did you first see the band perform?

Peggy: The first song was Si Tu Dois Partir and I first saw them at Mothers Club in Birmingham on 2 Nov 1969, my birthday.

Ric: The first Fairport album I bought was Liege And Lief. I was seventeen and had just started to play so I learnt all the stuff from that great record. A bit later I saw the Full House line-up at Birmingham Town Hall.

Chris: The first Fairport album I heard was Liege and Lief. I first saw the band live 1975/6 at Oxford Poly - what a great night!

Gerry: The album would be What We Did On Our Holidays and I probably first saw them at Mothers in Birmingham.

Q: Which of FC’s five decades most stands out in your memory and why?

Simon: As I approach the beginning of our sixth decade (on 27 May, 2017) it's all becoming a bit of a blur. But each has its own flavour: the first being such a whirl of newness and extravagant experimentation, the second including time out on sabbatical watching developments but keeping close before rejoining, the third feeling the benefits of a new autonomy outside the mainstream of the Music Biz, the fourth and fifth centring on stability and the security of confidence, and now a tinge of pride that we've somehow reached into so many lives and touched so many people, just by doing what we love to do.

Peggy: I have been there for all of them so this last one is most important for me as I want to be there for the next one.

Ric: I guess the eighties. I joined in 1985, and had a great time touring all over the world, including America and Australia where I'd never played before. A lot of those years I can't clearly remember, which is always a good sign!

Chris: Well, for me the last ten years which is half my time in the band. But if I had to pick an album that has a stand-out quality for me it comes down to two: Angel Delight and Fairport Nine.

Gerry: I think the decade we are in now is the one that stands out for me. The current line up is the longest serving in the history of the band and it is playing better than ever.

Q: When you joined as a new member, did you feel you were stepping into another's shoes?

Peggy: Well, yes; Ashley and Sandy had left and the band weren’t replacing Sandy.

Ric: I must have felt some trepidation at stepping into the shoes of the great Dave Swarbrick, though I don't really remember that. In Soft Machine I'd played with some amazing musicians including John Etheridge, Allan Holdsworth, John Marshall, and Karl Jenkins, and had been on a double header tour with John McLaughlin's Shakti, so I was confident - more so than now in fact. I was young and had the fearlessness that youth gives you.

Chris: Stepping into Maartin Allcock’s shoes was impossible. He is such a fab musician and he can cover such a broad pallet of sounds from electric guitar to keyboards and many instruments in between. I just had to find my own space and build my own nest on stage so to speak. The band let me do exactly that, as they have for all new members throughout Fairport’s history. I believe that approach is a big part of the band’s strength and longevity. I brought a more acoustic approach with mandolin, bouzouki, fiddle and whistle, plus my songwriting and vocals.

Gerry: Very much so. Dave Mattacks had a long tenure with the band and it had evolved in a certain direction. If a person leaves a band the chemistry will change.

Q: Of all the people you’ve worked with who has taught you the most?

Simon: That's an invidious choice. I would say I've learned something from everyone I've played music with, however briefly or however intensely. Some have taught me to play less or shut up altogether!

Peggy: This is a hard one but I think of all the great performers I have known Robert Plant would get my vote. Having gained worldwide success with Led Zeppelin and lived through all that stardom he is still a down to earth chap who will gladly join you for a pint at the Cropredy bar. Indeed, he has joined Fairport on stage for surprise appearances.

Ric: My route into Soft Machine came through playing with the great jazz pianist Michael Garrick. I had actually written to him asking for jazz theory lessons, and ended up in his group. He taught me a lot. His son Chris Garrick (who was a baby when I first met him) is now a world class jazz and gypsy violinist, and a great guy.

Chris: For me, my time in the band Whippersnapper in the 1980s was like an apprenticeship. I was with Dave Swarbrick, Kevin Dempsey, and Martin Jenkins. We rehearsed, wrote, and toured quite intensively for five years with that four piece line up. I was really finding my way on all levels at that time. I was keen to learn and I did in bucket loads - about music, life on the road, what to do and what not to do. I’m very grateful to them all.

Gerry: Music itself is a never-ending learning curve and all the bands and solo artists I have worked with have enriched it.

Q: What incident or anecdote that fans don’t know about makes you cringe the most; and what was your most embarrassing moment on stage?

Simon: Dedicating a song to a couple and getting one of the names wrong, particularly as I substituted the name of an ex - that was quite a moment. At the ill-fated Krumlin Festival in 1970, I had resorted to drinking Elton John's dressing room brandy (just one bottle - he had several) while waiting to go on. After a while, I was too pissed to stand up so I sat on the floor, leaning back on my amp. Richard Thompson wandered over and switched it off. And I didn't notice, carried on playing.

Peggy: In my drug-and-drink crazed period I once insulted the owner of New York’s Bottom Line club during the show and sang a very rude version of the sailors’ alphabet from the stage. But my very worst moment on stage was at the Krumlin festival in the 1970s when I had a toilet accident while wearing white jeans. As Billy says: “Never trust a fart.”

Ric: When I was in the Albion Band in the late seventies, I would do an Echoplex solo of variations on the John Coltrane classic Afro Blue. At this time I was playing a skeleton fiddle - actually a Victorian practice fiddle that I'd had electrified. At one quite big London gig (I can't remember the venue) the frame snapped during this piece, sending all the strings wildly out of tune. Nobody seemed to notice except me, and in fact it went down rather well! I felt a bit sheepish though, and scurried off stage to do emergency repairs with lots of gaffer tape. I think my memory is selective and erases embarrassing moments, and I fear there's many more to come.

Chris: That’s for me to know, and them to find out! As for embarrassing moments on stage, in the mid 1990s I was playing fiddle in an Ashley Hutchings show called Sway With Me. My eyesight required glasses but I was in denial. The show involved quite a lot of spoken word so I had big written cues by my feet. About half way through the show I was squinting at my cues waiting to come in with on fiddle. As I stared down, I became aware of a very long silence. I eventually looked up to see Ashley and everyone else on stage staring hard at me… the fiddle piece came in sure, confident, and in tune but very late!

Gerry: The red and white pinstripe suit I bought from John Stevens in Carnaby Street made me cringe. On stage, probably the very large and misplaced crash cymbal I played in the middle of a very quiet section at a Jethro Tull concert was the most embarrassing.

Q: What fact about you would most surprise fans?

Simon: I don't listen to a lot of music in my downtime.

Peggy: My technophobia.

Ric: When I was sixteen I had a Class 1 firearms certificate, and was a pretty good shot in the Olympic discipline of rapid fire target pistol shooting. I was a member of the Shirley Small Arms Club, in Birmingham. Some of the guys there were ok, but some were into hunting and I'd just end up arguing with them. I was already passionately vegetarian - now I'm vegan. I really don't like people who are into hunting, like for instance my local Conservative MP. Wouldn't want to hurt them of course. Hurting things is their trip, not mine. I got rid of my gun and took up the fiddle. Good call.

Chris: That I watch East Enders?

Gerry: Nothing, all is known!

Q: Which new musical instrument would you most like to learn and why?

Simon: Hang on, I'll never get the hang of the guitar! What would be the point in struggling with a fresh new beast?

Peggy: I’m happy playing the ones I am still trying to improve on. I lost a lot of interest in playing after severing a tendon on my first finger in an accident. The injury restricts my ability to play stuff that I used to sail through but now find difficult or not feasible.

Ric: I never particularly required a fiddle to sound like a fiddle. In my head I often hear the sound of a blues harp or a soprano sax, so either one of those would be nice.

Chris: If I had lots of time and a music Guru it would be the Indian Bansuri which is a bamboo flute. It has such an emotional liquid sound that is mounted on the breath - the very basis of being alive. The notes are born from right inside oneself. I love listening to it, very calming and grounded. The Indian system of learning is by ear, by listening and repeating – that would be fantastic!

Gerry: Probably the bass guitar because it’s my partner in the rhythm section.

Q: What unfulfilled musical ambition(s) do you have?

Simon: A nice royalty cheque would be a wonderful surprise.

Peggy: I would love to play in James Taylor’s band.

Ric: I love playing the piano but it's a private thing - I'm not good enough to play in public. But I'd love to find the time to practice more. Maybe I will do in my old age. Quite soon then! And of course I'd like to do as much as possible with the trio I have with Vo Fletcher and Michael Gregory. We play the blues, and I love it!

Chris: I am having an old Hardanger Fiddle restored at the moment. It was made in 1925. Thanks to a friend in Norway who is a researcher of such things, I know quite a lot about the maker’s life which was quite tragic. I feel very honoured to have one of his instruments. As soon as I get it back I will be looking to use it, certainly in my solo gigs.

Gerry: I’ve always wanted to play in Sting’s band because I love his approach to music.

Q: What’s the oddest place or circumstance in which you’ve had inspiration for a song or tune?

Simon: Sorry, but I'm not a writer - never applied myself to that discipline and I figure that bus left a long time ago.

Peggy: I wrote a tune for Roger Bucknall as a ‘thank you’ to him for giving me a Fylde bouzouki. I phoned Chris Leslie to see what he thought of it and he said: “I don’t believe it, I’ve just written one for Roger too.” The two tunes worked very well together and finished up on Fairport’s Myths and Heroes album.

Ric: At the Watts Chapel in Surrey, a beautifully odd gothic building and memorial to the Victorian artist George Watts. Google Watts Gallery or Chapel and check it out. It inspired a tune called St Martha's Hill, which I recorded with my dear pal Gordon Giltrap.

Chris: The checkout counter of a DIY store. The whole song came to me as I was handing over the cash. I held up a long queue whilst I got my iPad out, and sung the whole piece into the mic to a very surprised, if not a little reluctant audience. Only kidding! But I have written a new song all about the highs and lows of the nation’s favourite past time DIY and called it Devil’s Work.

Gerry: In my head.

Fairport Convention backstage at Fairport's Cropredy Convention festival in August 2016

Q: What has been the most exciting or rewarding gig you have played with FC?

Simon: Any of the better Cropredy performances. It's not just the high spot of the year, it energises me (and the other lads) for the rest of the performing year and even makes up for the long periods of ennui stuck in traffic on the M25.

Peggy: One concert I will always treasure is Sydney Opera house with Sandy where we sold out two shows.

Ric: That's easy - every Cropredy! My first as a band member in 1986 will always be especially memorable for me. Robert Plant guested with us, and we played some blues. My second in 1987 was the first time I got to play live with Dave Swarbrick. We played Fiddlestix together with Jerry Donahue - what a blast!

Chris: It is really hard to single just one out. We play such a variety of venues throughout the year and I love them all. But I suppose if I had to pick just one it would be our festival at Cropredy. It is such a great feeling to be on stage at five to midnight when we close the show with Meet On The Ledge. The whole audience sings the chorus back to us. It is very emotional and for me it gets more so every year.

Gerry: Every Cropredy festival is exciting for me and also the big Excalibur shows which Fairport was involved in.

Q: What, in your opinion, has been FC's influence on popular music generally and folk music in particular? And in what ways is FC's music still relevant?

Simon: That's not for me to say; but it seems undeniable that Liege and Lief cracked open a door into a new wing of the musical household and that since then a lot of other stuff has rushed in to follow. And Fairport will always be relevant, even if only in the context of its own timeline, just so long as we never become our own tribute band - my personal nightmare.

Peggy: Well British folk-rock was invented by FC and our music is still relevant to us for sure. As long as we think it’s good - great songs and playing - and people enjoy it enough to come and see us play then it’s working.

Ric: I suspect we may have had more of an influence on unpopular music! But that's good, because so much of the music I like is unpopular. And just being among the very first to electrocute folk music must have been quite an influence. I think all music from any time period is relevant if people enjoy it or find it gives them comfort or excitement or peace or whatever they get from it.

Chris: I don’t really know apart from the fact that Fairport is a band with great longevity and survival. We’re still touring and making new albums, which must say something to the wider world. The Fairport name pops up everywhere – for instance, we got a name check recently from Nile Rodgers.

Gerry: The band has shown record companies that money isn’t everything. Fairport is not just a band playing music - it generates a great deal of love and kindness on stage and that makes everyone feel good.

Q: Given FC’s instability during the 1970s, how do you account for the band’s survival?

Simon: A stubborn refusal to listen to common sense and a desire to pay the mortgage without getting a job in the factory!

Peggy: I have lived through most of the changes and always enjoyed being in the band despite the ups and downs. I’ve always believed in Fairport enough to find new members who would enable the band to continue.

Ric: Since I joined in 1985 there have been only two line-up changes so to me Fairport is a very stable band. Perhaps it's in the nature of younger bands to be finding what they like playing and who they like playing with, so moving on to new things is more likely. In Fairport I think we all pretty much know where we are in the world of music. We've all been round the block a few times and are happy with where we've ended up.

Chris: Willingness to change and not become its own tribute band.

Gerry: I’ve no idea, except the current line up has been unbroken for nearly twenty years - a miracle!

Photo credit Ben Nicholson

Q: Simon and Peggy have been the central relationship in the band for much of its existence - how important has that been to the band?

Simon: To me it's been vital - I still look to Peggy for energy and indefatigability, an ability to act decisively when I dither and doubt, and his natural talent for making people feel good and making them see things his way. I try to be Simon the Steady.

Peggy: See my answer above.

Ric: Very important I think, especially with regard to our festival at Cropredy. It's Simon and Peggy who put the whole thing together with Gareth Williams, the festival director, and they do a great job.

Chris: Really important. Simon is an original member and his voice and guitar playing are so identifiable with the band’s sound. Peggy joined in from 1969 and there is no other bass player like him. He can be incredibly lyrical, and very heavyweight, and all shades in between. Music aside, their personal input to the band forms the foundation on which everything else rests. Over the years Fairport has taken control of its own destiny and Simon and Peggy have been a big part of that.

Gerry: Hugely so I think. Peggy works tirelessly to bring new ideas into the band and is a brilliant networker. Simon takes care of most of the admin, advancing tours and booking hotels, And all that’s before they go on stage to play.

Q: How important to the band is its very close relationship with the fans?

Simon: It clearly is possible for bands to last long periods without breaking the sense of mystique, but that could never have been the Fairport way. We don't put ourselves on any pedestals so disabuse anyone who tries to elevate us there.

Peggy: Very important indeed. We talk to the fans at every concert we play and their feedback is very useful to us.

Ric: I've often said that a Fairport gig is a meeting of friends, and I would say that this social aspect has contributed enormously to the band's survival.

Chris: Our audience is the other half of the equation that makes it all work. We are so blessed with a lovely audience. We always go out after shows to sign stuff and meet them. Some have become friends over the years. I like to think that the audience feels part of the Fairport.

Gerry: Very important. Everyone who comes to a Fairport show or to Cropredy is considered to be a friend of the band.

Q: How does FC maintain enthusiasm and freshness after five decades?

Simon: It's still a hobby and it's still fun. If it isn't, then you're doing it wrong. Besides, we're all hams and we like to show off.

Peggy: When you get to my age the setlist is new every night.

Ric: Going around playing music to people and making them happy is a great job and I never take for granted how lucky I am to be doing it. The world has never been more in need of the healing power of music.

Chris: Having such real friendships between us. Always having current material and a current album. And having a great audience.

Gerry: I think we share a common goal in that we just love to play. So each gig is a new adventure.

Q: Given FC's longevity, how do you see the band evolving?

Simon: Little by little - no plans. Anyone could be struck down overnight and then we'd just have to deal with it. Otherwise, I don't feel a change in the wind.

Peggy: Slowly.

Ric: I'm a big fan of evolution - I'm pinning most of my hopes for the future of the planet on it in fact. In Fairport, all of us listen to all sorts of stuff and I think we’re still evolving in our different ways as musicians. Still learning, still writing, still practicing.

Chris: Medically.

Gerry: I don’t have a crystal ball.

Q: Do you still have recordings of your earliest pre-FC performances?

Simon: No, but I've got a couple of fossilised carrier pigeons from back in the day when we exchanged contracts with Witchseason Management.

Peggy: I have quite a lot.

Ric: I have a cellar full of cassette tapes of early excursions into jazz and improvised music. Will I ever get time to listen to them again? Maybe in my old age, when I'm not practicing the piano.

Chris: Yes, I still have the very first LP I played on. My brother John and I were guests on an album by Mithras (a folk band from Northamptonshire) back in the mid 1970s.

Gerry: I’ve got quite a few but some of the fans have many more.

Q: Have you met any of your musical idols through being in FC?

Simon: Oh yes. But not very many of them. And they're quite normal, apart from their special talents. People are people - take 'em as you find 'em!

Peggy: Yes; Macca, Ringo, Jethro Tull, John McEnroe, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Elton, The Band, and loads more.

Ric: I admire my favourite musicians but I don't idolise them – ‘idols’ isn't the word to use. In San Francisco with Fairport I met David LaFlamme who, along with Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris, was most influential to my playing style. David was a really lovely guy. I met my pal Rocky Rockliff through Fairport and through him I met George Martin a couple of times.

Chris: Yes! And I got to play the seminal mandolin part to The Battle Of Evermore at Cropredy one year.

Gerry: Yes, many at Cropredy as well as Steve Gadd who is one of my all time favourite drummers and James Taylor.

Q: What question would you ask your musical idol?

Simon: "Is that still your own hair?" "Would you like to manage a folk-rock group?" "Can I borrow your Bentley?"

Peggy: Can you lend us a tenner?

Ric: The nearest I have to an idol would be Paul McCartney and I'd ask him if he needs a vegan electric fiddle player

Chris: I would ask Paul McCartney if he has any of George Harrison’s ukuleles and if so could I play one?

Gerry: I would say to them “What time is it Eccles?” to see if they like the Goons.

Q: Who impresses you as a performer nowadays – what contemporary artist do you admire most?

Simon: Oh dear, this is like Gordon Brown on Desert Island Discs, nominating The Arctic Monkeys to show how ‘down with the kids’ he was. I don't get exposed to that much new music since my kids all grew up years ago and I actually think that for many people (me among them) there is a finite amount of music you can absorb usefully - a limit on your personal capacity - so it's been a long time since somebody new has pressed any new buttons for me.

Peggy: I was very impressed by Ed Sheeran who I saw on television recently.

Ric: The BBC recently had about 60 sets from Glastonbury up on iPlayer, and I watched and enjoyed a lot of them. There really are some great young artists and bands out there. I was particularly knocked out with the set from Laura Mvula and her fantastic band - and she's from Birmingham! Damon Albarn is a prolific and brilliant artist and I always love to hear his many and varied projects. At Glastonbury he appeared with The Syrian Orchestra - it was wonderful and very moving. Also at Glastonbury was Anoushka Shankar, who played a stunningly beautiful set from her new album Land Of Gold.

Chris: I’ve been listening a lot recently to Jake Shimabukuro, an amazing ukulele player from Hawaii. He has an incredible touch and is taking the ukulele into new places. He has a great vibe as a person too and I’d love to meet him.

Gerry: After watching Sting’s sixtieth birthday concert I was blown away by Lady Gaga. She is an amazing talent.

Q: If you could have anyone cover one of FC’s songs, which song would it be, and who would you want performing it?

Simon: No comment, sorry.

Peggy: James Taylor performing Chris Leslie’s My Love is in America.

Ric: Well, if Adele would cover Ukulele Central Chris and I would be very happy. OK, it's a long shot, because as far as I know she doesn't play the ukulele. Come to think of it though, Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) is a great uke player, and if he covered it that would be really cool.

Chris: Mercy Bay performed by Muse.

Gerry: It would be Jimmy Durante singing Walk Awhile.

Q: If you could re-record any of the FC albums you’ve played on, what would you change and why?

Simon: The only thing I would like to modify would be to mature my own singing voice which seems to have 'broken' twice more since puberty. The early stuff sounds embarrassingly whiney and nasal to these old ears now. But hey - we got here by being there, and that was the only route to this place, so it's all good really.

Peggy: Not for me - once they are done they’re done.

Ric: I don't think I've ever recorded anything that I haven't thought I could have done better. So it's best not to go there and just concentrate on making the next one as good as possible.

Chris: They are just moments in time that express what was happening then. I look at all recordings I’ve made like this. I’ve never wanted to change anything. I might play or sing things differently now, but that’s where I’m at now.

Gerry: I see each track on an album as a snapshot of the song or tune. Like a photo it holds memories so I wouldn’t want to re-record anything.

Q: If you knew when you started what you know now would you do anything differently? If so what?

Simon: As a firm sceptic of time travel, and too confirmed a realist to indulge in such idle fancies, I am at peace with the history of the band, warts and all. It was a growing experience for all of us, with far more ups than downs, fun times than sad times, happy miles traveled than regrettable ones.

Peggy: I would not have worn Argyle socks with my blue suit.

Ric: Some people say ‘If I could do things over I'd do them just the same’. I can't relate to that. I'd do lots of things very differently, both in my musical and personal life. Peter Cook once said: “I’ve learned from my mistakes and I’m sure I can repeat them exactly."

Chris: Not really. I’ve always tried to learn from all experiences, both good and bad, and not to be swayed too much by either. The one watchword I would give to my younger self as a guide would be ‘kindness’.

Gerry: I would have studied music theory and had more tuition.

Q: Which question do you most wish people would stop asking you?

Simon: "Can I have that tenner back I lent you?"

Peggy: Do you know that Ken Dodd’s dad’s dog’s dead?

Ric: I wish they'd stop asking me which question I wished people would stop asking me.

Chris: “Why do you watch Eastenders?”

Gerry: “Do you wish you played the harmonica instead of the drums?”

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