If you want to seriously annoy Simon Nicol, founder member of the veteran folk-rock band Fairport Convention, bring up the subject of newcomers to the music business being unable to deal with the “pressure” of life in the public eye.
“It brings out the beast in me,” says Nicol, 64, sitting in the band’s office outside Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. “These people have personal minders, they are limo’d from door to door, have all the support imaginable and are required to do no more than deal with their press. Yet they lack any sense of proportion and they aren’t grateful for what they have.”
These aren’t the gripes of a niggardly oldster who has never tasted success. Fairport, as they are more commonly known, were once the darlings of the university circuit, taking their place among other prog rock outfits such as Jethro Tull and Yes.
They arrived on the scene in 1967, the summer of love. In those days, before success depended on a multi-millionaire Svengali with high-waisted trousers, this band of bright grammar school boys, influenced by The Byrds and Bob Dylan, developed their own sound, playing English folk music with drums and electric instruments to create a musical hybrid of their own invention.
In terms of commercial success they only had one hit single – Si Tu Dois Partir, a French language version of Dylan’s If You Gotta Go Now. However, they also released several well-received albums in quick succession, including their 1969 masterpiece Liege and Lief, an album which was still sufficiently popular in 2006 to be voted The Most Influential Folk Album of all time at the Radio 2 Folk Awards.
In terms of lifestyle, in those far off days when even rock musicians were allowed private lives, the young Fairports enjoyed a lot more freedom than their manufactured counterparts of today. By 1970 they were all living together – five band members, wives, children and assorted roadies – in a former pub, The Angel, in Little Hadham, Hertfordshire, in the kind of bedlam that today’s tabloid features editors would dream about.
“I suppose it was a sort of hippy commune, really,” says bass player, Dave Pegg, 67, speaking from his main house in Brittany in France. “The locals didn’t know what to make of us all. One afternoon we were sitting in the garden playing loud music when the Hertfordshire Constabulary turned up, led by a senior officer. Everyone scurried off to hide certain herbal substances that shouldn’t strictly speaking have been there. But they hadn’t come to bust us at all. They wanted us to play a concert for the police benevolent fund. We said we’d love to.
“The upshot was that we put on a show in the meadow opposite and got about three thousand people there. The next day we were back in the garden with the PA blasting again and the police reappeared. The fund had done really well and they were delighted. They obviously must have felt sorry for us living in such squalor because they had bought us a dishwasher! One other consequence was that from then on we had no worries about security when we were away on tour. The police were there every day watching the place.”
The Fairports played with many of the great and the good of the music scene at that time. Richard Thompson, one of the best guitarists in the world, was with them in their early days, as was the talented but flawed diva, Sandy Denny, who died in 1979 following a fall, probably brought about by drugs and drink. “She was a mass of contradictions – sublimely confident yet terrifyingly timid at the same time,” says Nicol, who knew her from her first nervous audition for the band. “Her passing still casts a shadow all these years later.”
West Coast minstrels
In their early 1970s heyday the band also went to America where they played the West Coast venues such as The Filmore West in San Francisco and the Troubadour in West Hollywood where stars such as The Eagles, Neil Young, James Taylor, Carole King and Joni Mitchell were regulars.
Pictured above: The band in 1970, L-R Simon Nicol, Dave Swarbrick, Richard Thompson, Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks
“It was a fantastic, dream-like, holiday existence,” says Nicol. “Linda Ronstadt, who was so beautiful it hurt your eyes to look at her, made us strawberry shortbread and Joni Mitchel invited us up for tea in her house in The Canyon.
“Another time, I lost a bet to one of the Eagles, who were Linda’s backing band, and the forfeit was that I had to play a set with no trousers on. I did it but then Linda started stroking the inside of my thigh on stage with her foot! Crazy guys. Crazy times.”
It was around this time too that the Fairports developed their reputation as a good-time band, Mojo magazine giving them the motto: “Fairport Convention are to real ale what the Grateful Dead were to acid.”
“The Troubadour gigs in 1970 gave rise to a fair bit of Fairport mythology,” says Pegg. “We did a week’s residency, two spots each night and three on the weekend, for which we were going to be paid five hundred dollars. But when we went to collect our wages, we’d drunk so much we owed them 1500 bucks.”
Like all good things, of course, this sort of existence could not last. In the mid-70s the music scene changed irrevocably – punk rock hit the air waves; folk rock was deemed pompous and old fashioned. Sales dwindled and the Fairports were released by their record label. On 4 August, 1979 they played a farewell show in a field in Cropredy, Oxfordshire.
That, by rights, should have been the end of the Fairport Convention story. But it wasn’t! For the next few years, although the band did not tour or record any more, they came together once a year in that same village of Cropredy – so chosen because most of the band lived in the vicinity – for a reunion performance featuring their former members.
Curiously, the crowds grew year on year and it became obvious that they still had an audience. So In 1985, with a line-up which included two new boys, they re-formed, making new albums and touring for all they were worth.
Since then it would be misleading to claim that Fairport have returned to the musical mainstream. As Nicol once said, “We run parallel to the rest of the music industry: we don’t bother them and they don’t bother us.”
However, their albums sell in respectable numbers and as they have brought their whole enterprise “in-house”, recording in their own studios and releasing their work through their own management company, they cut out many of the middle men.
Cropredy and Touring
Their Cropredy festival, too, has grown to become one of the most successful in the country. At first, when run by Pegg’s wife, Christine, it had the heady scent of incense, old kaftans and folk music about it. Headliners included the likes of Steeleye Span and Martin Carthy. When the Peggs were divorced in 2004, however, a new organiser, Gareth Williams, who previously worked for Oasis, took over the reins and since then the star names have been somewhat starrier, with the likes of Alice Cooper, Status Quo, Jules Holland, Steve Winwood and Robert Plant playing the main spots, backing Fairport themselves who always close the festival on the Saturday night. The 20,000 tickets for the festival are now usually sold out weeks before the event. The 2015 festival is 13-15 August. Tickets go on sale on 1 February.
People have written books charting the various incarnations of Fairport over the decades. Nicol has described the band as a kind of musical bus running a circular route onto which members board and alight as they wish.
Its lynch-pins in the glory years of the Sixties and Seventies were Nicol and Pegg on guitars, with Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and Dave Mattacks on drums. Today the latter two have been replaced by fiddler Ric Sanders, 62, once of the avand garde jazz fusion group Soft Machine, multi-instrumentalist and song writer Chris Leslie, 56, and drummer, Gerry Conway, 57, formerly of Pentangle, who spent the ‘70s travelling the world playing for Cat Stevens.
Sanders lives in Bloxham, Leslie in Adderbury and Conway has a home in Redhill, Surrey. Nicol lives in a substantial Victorian villa in Chipping Norton and Pegg has the kind of property in Brittany that comes from having played, as well as with Fairport, for the stadium rock band Jethro Tull for 16 very profitable years.
This country house is situated six km from the coast in between Port Louise and Merlevenez in Morbihan. He has three rooms which he rents out, a swimming pool/spa complex and a 4,000 square metre park-like garden with a large pond full of carp.
He and his partner Ellen do not advertise but Retiremove readers are welcome to check prices and availability by e-mailing email@example.com.
Excellent, convivial company, Pegg offers “Pegg’s tours” which take in the stones at Carnac, the market at Auray and guidance to the best restaurants and bars. There, he will also happily recount stories of his days making music and mayhem with the likes of Ozzie Osborne, Billy Connolly, Robert Plant, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Jon Bonham, Sandy Denny and Steve Winwood.
Underpinnimg the band’s continued success is a rigid work ethic. They still play close to 100 shows at home and abroad every year and this is not private jet and fancy tour bus, glamour and glitz touring but distinctly “old school” – described by Pegg as “you get in the van, you drive somewhere, you play to an audience, you have a curry, you get back in the van.”
In 2002, to celebrate their 35th anniversary the Fairports toured almost constantly. Nicol found that he had spent 168 nights of the year in hotels. He reckons he clocked up over 200 gigs which rather explains his irritation at the idea of younger bands keeling over with nervous exhaustion at the first sight of an audience.
Sitting in his office in the country Nicol is working on the logistics for this year’s Winter Tour – 25 gigs in as many nights playing to 500-1,000 seater theatres. Now past the age when even workaholics slow down and when most people retire to the golf course, does he see an end to the road in sight? “I don’t think I have peaked yet as a musician,” he protests. “I’m enjoying touring and playing and turning new pages. Retirement isn’t an option. I can’t retire. I’ve got gigs.”
For details of Fairport Convention’s 27-date tour which starts in Glasgow on 16 January and ends in March on 1 March, and their new album Myths and Heroes see www.fairportconvention.com