There were, I think, three distinct ‘phases’ to my trawling through my parents’ record collections. The first came at the age of 12, when I found a huge stack of slowly decaying C90 cassettes, each carefully indexed and numbered, in a drawer, that my dad had collected through the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Through that, I discovered Queen, Talking Heads and the Eurythmics (there was a bias, I think, towards the later, early 1980s stuff, because the cassettes tended not to have become quite so warped and stretched). A second phase came about three years later, when my parents were divorcing and I went through the huge stacks of vinyl in the living room, taping anything I found that was of interest as the soundtrack for GCSE revision. It was then that I stumbled upon, rather incongruously, The Doors, Peter Gabriel’s early solo albums, Jean Michel Jarre and Joni Mitchell.
The third phase came years later when my dad was transferring his vinyl collection over onto MP3 in order to free up space and I went through the hard drive on his PC looking for things of interest. It was then than I discovered Liege & Lief . I can’t now quite remember what had piqued my interest, though I think I might have been going through a Richard Thompson phase at the time and been curious to hear what the band that he started out with sounded like. Any which way, it was one of my better discoveries.
I suppose it’s the fate of all innovators to find that the passage of time renders their work much less radical sounding than it was when it was made. The idea of taking the motifs of folk music and adding electric guitar might seem very old hat now, but while it would probably be an exaggeration to say that Fairport Convention invented folk-rock, after all, Liege & Lief came some years after Dylan went electric, I think it is at least arguable that they were the first to produce a distinctly British take on it. One can hardly blame them for Mumford & Sons and the ‘nu folk’ movement, which for what it’s worth is to folk as nu metal was to metal a decade earlier, though your mileage may vary.
Where their previous album had been made up, to a significant part, of Dylan covers, Liege and Lief mixes original compositions with arrangements of traditional English folk songs and ballads. The best of them, to my mind at least, is their eight minute version of Matty Groves, an old folk song about an affair between a Lord’s wife and the song’s title character, [who works on the Lord’s estate]. Class warfare as a theme in popular music did not begin with Paul Weller singing about the Eton Rifles.
I do wonder if I might like this record more if it had a few more Richard Thompson compositions on it. Certainly, listening to this record again for the first time in quite a while, I think Crazy Man Michael is a rather stronger track than anything else on the record, even if there’s nothing quite as outright brilliant as Meet on the Ledge or Who Knows Where the Time Goes.
If Thompson’s songwriting is a strength, then so is Denny’s singing. Even tracks that don’t particularly grab me on their own merits, like the rather twee Come All Ye, have this going for them. My flatmate and I have had a long-running dispute regarding who was the better late 60s folk-rock singer: Sandy Denny or Maddy Pryor. I’m firmly in the Denny camp, though I concede that he’s taken singing lessons, probably has a much better idea what he’s talking about and it might simply be that I’d much rather listen to someone singing Fairport Convention songs than Steeleye Span songs. Any which way, there’s no getting away from the fact that Denny’s voice was a very significant part of the appeal of the band: perhaps the best reason to pick up this record, rather than that of one of their many imitators.
Highlights: Matty Groves, Crazy Man Michael.