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Sunday, 5 October 2008

Written in granite: Will Ye Go Lassie Go

I first heard about the exciting prospect of the completion of the second Fotheringay on the grapevine the best part of a year ago and I must admit I was fairly excited. I've been a Sandy Denny fan for a long-time; I can remember buying the 4LP Who Knows Where The Time Goes boxed set when it came out in the eighties and being captivated by the sheer breadth of her talent. She had a voice so English in its purity and an amazing understanding of the traditional songs of these islands, but she was also a superb songwriter – I believe she claimed that Who Knows... itself was the second song she ever wrote. I dare not even think what the second song I ever wrote was, but I'm fairly confident it wasn't as good as that.

I'll assume you're familiar at least with the three LPs she released with Fairport Convention in 1969, in particular Liege And Lief, which effectively invented British folk-rock in one fell swoop and is one of the most perfect albums ever made. Sandy left Fairport after that and the next year was back with another astonishing album – let's just recap: her fourth in the space of two years. The band also featured two members of Eclection, drummer Gerry Conway and Denny's future husband Trevor Lucas, plus Pat Donaldson and Jerry Donahue. And a fantastic album it was too. I have to confess – and I know I'm not alone in this – that I wish Sandy had picked up where she'd left off on L&L in terms of insisting on being the lead singer on everything. It's not that there's anything wrong with the songs sung by the boys, it's just that when you happen to have one of the loveliest of all English voices in your midst it feels rather wasteful not to make full use of it. Even so, we do get plenty of that voice and we also get some more of Sandy's own songs. However my own personal favourite track is the closing rendition of the traditional Banks Of The Nile, and this is where the boys shine too, the guitar interplay sounds to me as though it must've influenced Verlaine and Lloyd (known to be admirers of British folk-rock, so highly probable).

I've owned at least three or four copies of Fotheringay over the years. The original vinyl LP, in one of the most garish gatefold sleeves of all time, with the band all drawn decked out in, ahem, medieval dress (although I hadn't previously been aware of the courtly penchant for flared trousers and wide lapels), then certainly I owned an Island cassette copy, then there was the Hannibal CD release, which added a couple of tracks recorded for the second LP and released on compilations at the time. I've a feeling I've owned another at some point as well...

Then I also have a couple of bootlegs, both of which basically cover more or less the same material drawn from the band's BBC sessions. The better of the two is called Wild Mountain Thyme and it hinted at the riches that might've been in store had they made that second album. So did they? Well, yes and no. According to the sleeve-notes, they started work and recorded basic backing tracks, with guide vocals recorded live at the same time. Then they took a break for the holidays and Sandy was coming under pressure to embark upon a solo career, she hummed and hawed a bit but in the end she gave in – a couple of these songs did end up on her solo debut The North Star Grassman And The Ravens – and the sessions were abandoned. A couple of tracks appeared on various compilations and as bonus tracks on the Hannibal CD reissue of the first album, one or two more on the Box Full Of Treasures Sandy boxed set a few years back. But other than that, unless you'd heard the BBC sessions, much of this will be totally new, at least the Fotheringay versions. The real revelation is their version of Wild Mountain Thyme. The song is familiar – I think I first came across it recorded by The Byrds on Fifth Dimension, but this is an utterly gorgeous reading.

The astonishing thing is that the sleeve-notes remind us that all of Sandy's vocals, at least, are guides, recorded live in the studio while laying down the basic rhythm tracks and never intended to be final. With most singers this would be thin ice at best, if not catastrophic, but with Sandy... You'd never guess it. They sound beautiful.

So then... Is this the second album that Fotheringay might've released in 1971? Well no, of course it isn't. For a start it's almost 50 minutes long (although I am emphatically not complaining!), they would surely have left off at least one or two of these songs. It would have been sequenced differently, they might have recorded other songs for it as Sandy was clearly writing plenty which ended up on North Star... instead. Sandy would certainly have re-recorded all her vocals. The sleeve-notes aren't all that clear about exactly what work has been done on this over the last couple of years and what was on the original tapes – but there's certainly nothing to complain about in that respect, if they've overdubbed anything they've done it in keeping with the sound and spirit of the original and it's seamless. The only real information given is that the aforementioned recording of Wild Mountain Thyme was originally just guitar and vocal and here we can make a comparison between this newly created full band version and the one recorded for the BBC which, under the title Will Ye Go Lassie Go appears on the WMT bootleg. The BBC recording is just electric guitar, bass and Sandy whereas the Fotheringay 2 version adds drums, more guitar and male backing vocals and the electric guitar sound is perhaps a little more swathed in chorus and a little more rounded than it would've been in 1971, but it certainly still sounds right. And the same is true of the whole album, it doesn't sound quite like a record made in 1971, but nor does it sound like some hybrid, it just sounds beautiful.

It's a well-known tragedy that the Corporation frequently erased tapes from that period but the existence of the bootlegs and, in particular, the fact that the WMT one is clearly sourced from vinyl makes me wonder whether they might perhaps have ended up on some of those transcription discs the BBC used to make for use on the World Service. The versions on that are, if not pristine quality, certainly good enough to release if someone did a bit of cleaning up - much poorer quality recordings have seen the light of day.

A few years later three of the five members of Fotheringay were back together again except that, in one of those peculiar quirks of fate, they were Fairport Convention (although they outnumbered original members of that band) and they made Rising For The Moon. This is a much less celebrated Fairport album but I've always loved it, the title track is typical of that period when folk-rock was flirting with pop music (see Steeleye Span's All Around My Hat album) and the title track is a great pop song.

Anyway, I heartily recommend both Fotheringay albums, both of them available on the excellent Fledg'ling label, the first one is one of the key early UK folk-rock albums, along with others such as those 3 Fairport albums, the first three Steeleye Span albums, Trees' On The Shore, Pentangle, etc. Now there's another instalment in the story. Oh and the first Trees album, The Garden Of Jane Trelawney has recently been reissued with a few bonus tracks – what about someone digging out their BBC sessions?

Finally I'd like to apologise for the brief hiatus over the last few weeks: there's some very exciting Granite Shore news which we'll be announcing shortly and therein lies the explanation... Watch this bit of cyberspace.

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