Well one man he drinks up his whiskey
Another he drinks up his wine
And they’ll drink ’till their eyes are red with hate
For those of a different kind
That all sounds a bit 2016 to me but no, this is a lesson from our ancient ancestors from 47 years ago, Fairport Convention Unhalfbricking. The middle LP of the three they released in 1969, bands having to do a proper job of work back then in medieval times, this has always been my favourite one – long before I learned about the crash that gave it such resonance and Sandy Denny’s own, too short, life. Subject matter? unwanted babies, doomed romances, a drowned sweetheart sailor – funnily enough I love Unhalfbricking for its sheer joie de vivre.
Let’s run the good ship 1537 aground on the biggie here, ‘A Sailor’s Life”, 11:13 of sad lamenting the happy-go-lucky life of a sailor, his abandonment of a shore-based chick* and the subsequent report of his death. The only song here by the prolific ‘Trad. arr’**, cleverly it is also the least traditionally folk sounding of all here. At around the 6 minute mark Fairport abandon all pretence of folksiness and unfurl their freak flags, flying them high and proud over a 5 minute stomping freak-out that would have done any of their west coast^ contemporaries proud. Richard Thompson cuts loose brilliantly, shadowed, equally brilliantly as it happens, by Dave Swarbrick on fiddle – sounding much more like, the divine, Jean-Luc Ponty than any hedgerow fiddler of antiquity. If only they’d thought to sign that Swarbrick chap up as a full-time member.
Which is not to say there aren’t any folk kicks to be had here on Unhalfbricking, drop your needle on the opener ‘Genesis Hall’ for that, wonky opening chords aside it’s as traditionally folky a tale as you could want, albeit one named after a London squat that had been raided and closed down by the forces of law and order. Look past Sandy Denny’s angelic tones and this is a tale of intolerance , oppression and a desire to fight back, the verse after the whiskey and wine one above is,
When the rivers run thicker than trouble
I’ll be there at your side in the flood
T’was all I could do to keep myself
From taking revenge on your blood
Sandy Denny’s own ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ is about as close to sacred music as I own^*. Thompson’s perfectly understated guitar underlining the main action, which is very much THAT VOICE – no wonder she was the only vocal guest on any Led Zep album. It’s just a perfect song, perfectly sung and played – easy; go on bands why don’t you all do one? I love the meditation on the migrating birds and the transient nature of time/intransigent nature of love/nature. No wonder, umm, folk keep voting it one of the top folk songs ever. if I didn’t have 37 songs already pegged for my funeral I’d add it too.
For me though Unhalfbricking is a great example of a great English album, made in idealistic thrall to the US, looking across the Atlantic for the explosion of ideals, ideation and ideas, as all those great 60’s bands did. Just check out the rip-roaring fun they’re all having with ‘Cajun Woman’. What Fairport started to do with Unhalfbricking was to look back at an uniquely English tradition and repurpose it and reinvigorate it, in a similar manner to the way the like of Dylan and the Band were doing with the American tradition, to discover their own vernacular. It’s this historically unique hybrid stage that I find the most interesting, just like the Stones circa Let it Bleed. Ahh, Bob Dylan …
Mr Dylan supplies no fewer than three of Unhalfbricking‘s 8 tracks^^. Fairport were one of the beneficiaries of the Basement Tapes song surplus, Dylan’s publishers called them in and offered them several and they chose three great ones – ‘If You Gotta Go, Go Now’, ‘Percy’s Song’ and 1537-fave ‘Million Dollar Bash’. I rather like ‘If You Gotta Go, Go Now’, Dylan’s cri de lit, but it was the work of near genius to translate it into French, with the aid of a couple of fans between sets, to create something not-cajun, not-Dylan, not-folk and totally Fairport – fun, playful and easy on the ear. ‘Percy’s Song’ and its tale of a futile attempt to persuade a judge to rescind a friend’s 99-year jail sentence is a charming piece, melodic and melancholy, although the subject matter takes on a bitter bright hindsight given the band’s own fortunes:
A crash on the highway flew the car to a field
Turn, turn, turn again
There was four persons killed and he was at the wheel
Turn, turn to the rain and the wind
Clocking in at only 2:56 I wish ‘Million Dollar Bash’ was ten times as long. I only have to hear the opening chords to make me grin from ear to ear – the band all taking different verses and vamping it up for all their worth is a treat, if this doesn’t at least make you sway around a bit then you have no soul. This is pure fun, naievetie almost – the band clearly having an undisciplined blast and definitely the right way to close the album.
Except on these last few listens I find myself very much haunted by the Sandy Denny track ‘Autopsy’ and its’ tale of recriminations and relationship-gone-bad blues. The spritely music somehow becomes overwhelmed by her voice, slows and gives her the space to slice and dice her target, ‘You must philosophize / But why must you bore me to tears?’, those pure tones sound, for once, cold and bleak – the difference between admiring a peak on the horizon and spending a winter’s night on it. Needless to say the production by, the ever-reliable, Joe Boyd and others, is flawless – everything captured sharp, separate and warm.
The cover, of course, adds so much to the tale and the overall perfection of Unhalfbricking. Denny’s parents pictured outside their garden fence, looking staunchly respectable and normal as a bunch of long hairs clutter up their lawn in the background, the church of St Mary’s in the distance*^. No band name, no album name. A perfect cover and an eloquent memorial to drummer Martin Lambie who died in the crash that May, along with Jeannie Franklyn, a friend of the band and Thompson’s girlfriend.
Fairport rebuilt themselves of course, cutting a whole album of songs by Trad. arr next on the stunning Liege And Lief, but for my money I prefer Unhalfbricking for it’s mix of cultures, good times and naievetie. Perfect.
*it’s the oldest story in the book: Boy meets chick, boy runs off to sea, persistent chick builds boat and follows him, boy drowns just off ‘yon green island’, chick (probably) drowns herself – you’ve heard it a million times before.
**I hear Trad lives in a huge house these days, with a speedboat and heliport and everything with all those royalties from everyone’s LPs.
^I’m talking California, not Ilfracombe here.
^*and I type that, knowingly, as someone who owns in excess of 40 AC/DC records.
^^41.375% as I worked out without the aid of an electronic abacus.
*^the oldest memorial within which dates back to 1537, in fact. True story. To think the US edition only got circus elephants.