This interview was conducted and edited by Andy Farquarson: "I'm very happy for you to circulate copies to friends, steer other lists to it, put a link to it on your personal websites, do what you want with it for any personal use. BUT as I did the work to use in articles, and possibly publish in its entirety, please remember it is my copyright and do NOT use it commercially, quote from or publish it in any format for payment or gain."
I started out in music, like many of my contemporaries, playing in bands at school during the beat boom in the early 1960s. When I was about 14 or 15 years old, I persuaded my dad to buy me a guitar from Woodruff's, a long-gone Birmingham music shop. I also bought a copy of a book by Bert Weedon called 'Play in a Day: years later, incidentally, I discovered that the same book was the starting point for both Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson. I suppose most people of our age learnt to play from it. I don't know about playing 'in a day' - I seemed to spend the first six weeks trying to tune the bloody thing. I've still got the book, although not my original copy. Subsequently I got to meet Bert - a lovely chap - on several occasions. In fact, a couple of years ago Fairport played a charity gig and there he was, in the very front row, and I felt a bit embarrassed playing in front of someone who was the hero who'd got me started.
Anyway, as I said I played guitar in bands at school for a couple of years. We were all into the Shadows, Hank Marvin was our guitar idol. After school, I took a job in an insurance office for a year or so but I was determined to be a professional musician. By then, I'd soon gone off the Shadows - though I still have the greatest respect for Hank - and had got heavily into American music, the blues, R&B.
Birmingham was very big on R&B and the city has been the launching pad for some really great bands, great R&B players. One of the foremost was the Spencer Davis Group and Steve Winwood was a sensational musician even when he was only 16. My mates and I would go and see them at least once a week to listen to this fantastic band. I'd say Steve was a huge influence on me, and seeing the Spencer Davis Group increased my aspiration to become a full-time musician.
I had the day job in insurance but I was playing and practising more and more. I was in this little blues band called the Crawdaddies. We were all out at work but we used to play all-nighters at The Navigation. We'd be at the foot of the bill so we'd be first on and last on: one set at eight in the evening, the second at seven the next morning. It was good because between our sets, we could listen to all these fantastic musicians, see all the great R&B acts.
In hindsight, it was a really exciting time and the music was everything to us. There were other all-nighters too, at Birmingham Town Hall for example, but we'd still all troop into our day jobs next morning. Of course, it showed. For me, the clincher came when I got my first year insurance industry exam results. They were so good my employers decided I would be better off as a starving musician than as a well-fed but useless insurance clerk. But at that time, becoming a professional musician was viable because there were so many places to play. Virtually every pub put on live music so you could work six nights a week if you wanted to. That was what I was doing even when I was still in the insurance job - I was playing most nights of the week, anyway.
There was so much going on in the music scene in Birmingham and I found myself in several bands. I played lead guitarist and the change to bass came almost by accident, as a result of an audition. I'd heard that one of Birmingham's best-known bands, The Uglys, was looking for a guitarist. The band was fronted by Steve Gibbons who was a fantastic singer and had a great reputation in the city. Anyway, I went off to the Carlton Ballroom in Erdington and there in the audition queue was a mate of mine, Roger Hill. Well, Roger was a superb player and I remember thinking I didn't stand much chance against him. I was right: I didn't get the job. But as I was leaving, Steve just casually remarked that their bass player was quitting and would I like to give that a go. I told him I didn't have a bass but he replied that if I could get eighty quid together, their bass player would sell me his and I'd be in. 'Great', I thought, so I bought it. And that, in a nutshell, is how I became a bass player.
That bass was a good buy. It was a 1962 Fender Precision which I still have today. Years later, in 1980 in fact, I was in California on a Jethro Tull tour and I had the privilege of meeting Leo Fender and he autographed the bass for me. It really is my pride and joy and it never leaves the house nowadays. I suppose it must be worth a few grand by now.
After I left the Uglys I formed a blues trio with Roger Hill and a drummer named Alan 'Bugsy' Eastwood. This was the period when power trios were big, Cream were mega by then and Hendrix was really taking off. Besides, a trio is a great set-up if you play bass, especially if you've also been a lead guitar player. Alan was a great singer and he wrote good songs too, an all-round star musician: strangely, though, I've never heard any more of him.
After that, I teamed up with another drummer, John Bonham (who was with Led Zeppelin later of course), and we formed a band called The Way Of life. We did two or three dozen gigs but we never got repeat bookings because John was so bloody loud. Usually we'd be told to bugger off after the first few numbers. Then John went off to play with Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds which left me looking for a band again.
I was doing auditions, often in London (one was with the Foundations, would you believe, who had a big hit with 'Baby, Now That I've Found You', a really great song). I'd also started doing sessions in a little studio in Birmingham called Ladbroke Sound. Through that I met a guy called Johann Allan who was managing the Ian Campbell Folk Group which was based in Birmingham. The Campbell family had come south from Aberdeenshire in the early 1960s and ran Birmingham's most successful folk club, the Jug of Punch. In fact, it was one of the most successful in the whole country and took place every Thursday evening in Digbeth Civic Hall.
I had seen the Ian Campbell group on television while I was still at school and I remember being very taken by Dave Swarbrick's fiddle playing. At that time, though, it wasn't the sort of music I was interested in to be honest - I thought folk was all about old geezers with no hair wearing Arran sweaters and singing 'The Wild Rover'.
Anyway, Johann was into American music and he was bringing acts over for the Campbell's club. There were some big names: the Byrds, Joni Mitchell, Tom Rush, Paul Simon - they've all played the Jug of Punch for fifteen quid. The Campbells were working on an electric album engineered by Gus Dudgeon, a fantastic engineer who was also into a lot of the great singer-songwriters from America. Gus, incidentally, still comes to Cropredy every year. I'd done some demos and began recording for the Campbells, playing bass guitar on their album. The upshot was they invited me to join the band as a double bass player. Well, I'd never played one before but I got hold of a Czech double bass by swapping a 1962 Stratocaster for it: one of the biggest mistakes I've made, in hindsight. To be honest, I was never one of the world's best double bass players.
I played with the Ian Campbell band for over a year and we made a few records. Swarb guested on one, a live recording in London, and he and I hit it off, got on really well, found we had a lot in common. At the time, he was playing with Martin Carthy - they were one of the best folk duos any of us will ever see. Swarb was young and very go-ahead and was always on the lookout for something new to do in music. I knew he'd done some work for a London band called Fairport Convention, then I heard he'd joined them.
During 1969, Fairport made Liege & Lief which was immediately acclaimed and became a hugely influential album. Within a month or two of its release though, Ashley Hutchings and Sandy Denny both quit so the band was without a bass player. Swarb suggested they give this mate of his from Birmingham a try. Apparently, when he'd told them I was playing with the Campbells they were a bit apprehensive in case I was a dyed-in-the-wool folkie. That wasn't the case at all, of course: in fact, I wanted to get back in a rock band.
I went to see Fairport play in Birmingham at Mothers Club which was in the old Carlton Ballroom where I'd auditioned for The Uglys. This was at the beginning of progressive rock and I suppose Mothers was Birmingham's Middle Earth putting on bands like Yes, The Nice, Arthur Brown, Pink Floyd and so on. It was my birthday and I remember saying to my wife, Chris, what a great band they were and I'd love to play for them. The very next day Ashley left and I got a phone call from Swarb offering me an audition. I got the job and found myself in Fairport Convention. That was thirty-five years ago.
Fairport were doing exactly what I wanted to do. I'd learnt a bit about traditional music and its songs and forms during my time with the Campbells and, of course, Fairport were fusing traditional and electric music. I found myself in a group of people with very similar musical tastes to mine, all about the same age, and all with rock music backgrounds. It was really great.
Chris and I were living in Sutton Coldfield but we left to move in with the band into an old pub, the Angel in Little Hadham, Hertfordshire. In those days, to make it in music one had to leave Birmingham anyway. I suppose it was a sort of hippy commune really: Swarb and his wife had a young daughter and Chris and I had our daughter Steph; there was Simon and Bert (Roberta, Simon Nicol's first wife); Richard; Dave Mattacks and his wife; and Robin Gee, our tour manager. And there was only one bathroom!
When we first moved in it made the front page of the local rag: something along the lines of "Hippy Invasion in Little Hadham." We all had long hair, of course, and the locals didn't know what to make of us at all. One afternoon we were sitting in the garden playing loud music through the PA system when the Hertfordshire Constabulary turned up, led by a senior officer. He had so many badges on him that we thought we were really in for it. Everyone scurried off to hide the strange substances that the band was wont to smoke. But they hadn't come to bust us: they'd come to ask if we would play at the police benevolent fund dance. Talk about relieved: "yeah, of course we will, sure, we'd love to."
They wanted us to play a huge ballroom so we suggested that instead we'd put on a fundraiser in Much Hadham, a nearby village where we used to go drinking. We invited a band called Trees to join us and we put the gig on in a meadow opposite a pub. We charged five bob (twenty-five pence) admission and got about three thousand people. Next day, we were in the garden with the PA blasting again and the police turned up with our fee: a dishwashing machine! The police fund had done well out of it, they were delighted, and after that we were accepted, were even sort of heroes, in the village. One consequence was that we had no worries while we were away on tour: the police were there everyday watching the place.
If you live that closely with a group of people for a year, you really get to know each other, especially if there's only one bathroom. We were a group of youngsters having a great time. People's characters are set by their early twenties, I think, so the people I got to know then are the same people I know now: certainly Simon and Swarb are. I don't mean small personal foibles: I expect Richard has a bank account now, rather than stashing all his cheques under the bed: he never cashed a cheque in all the time we were there although he was doing lots of sessions and stuff (Swarb, incidentally, was the exact opposite and spend it all before he'd even earned it).
We were in Little Hadham for a year or maybe a bit more, I think. It was a great time, a very happy year. Living together paid off in the music, too, in that we were very relaxed when we played and completely at one with each other as musicians. Living like that, everyone got to share each other's musical tastes. You had to because we all had our own stereos and the walls were thin. I remember that everyone was into the Band's 'Music From The Big Pink' and you'd have several copies playing at once, different tracks from different rooms, or the same track at different points but sometimes, by a rare fluke, in sync.
When I joined I thought Fairport was a rather serious band: I mean, they took the music very seriously, much more so than I'd ever done. But after Sandy left, it became a bit of a lad's band, as if we'd thought 'now she's gone, we can piss about a bit more' and, as I said, we became much more relaxed on stage.
After I joined, we spent about three or four weeks in solid rehearsals. The Angel had been rented by Joe Boyd, Fairport's manager, because it had rehearsal space as well as accommodation for us all. Joe was an American about our own age. He was very influential and he knew everybody including all the big American acts that Fairport were influenced by: The Byrds, The Band, Dylan. He'd produced Fairport's previous album on his Witchseason label.
Rather disconcertingly, no-one wanted to sing. Just two nights before our new line-up's first gig we were down to drawing straws or tossing a coin to decide who'd sing which songs. Swarb and Richard got lumbered with most of the vocals.
We played that gig (it was in January, I think, at The Country Club in Hampstead) and after that we were working more or less all the time. Fairport was well-known on the London underground scene and was fashionable with the media, but we also appealed to college audiences who were about the same age as us. So a lot of the gigs were at universities: we must have played just about every one in the UK. Some were verging on the bizarre. I remember we went up to Manchester University because the social secretary, a mate of Richard's, had been let down and needed a band quickly, and was willing to pay us with a fridge. We played the gig and at the end of the night we loaded this fridge into the van with the rest of our gear and took it back to the Angel. I imagine we were the only band to regularly get paid in household appliances.
The first overseas tour after I joined was seven weeks in America, playing weekends mostly. That would have been in the spring of 1970. The first gig was three nights in San Francisco at the Filmore West supporting Jethro Tull and another band, Clouds. We played Winterland too, and the Troubadour. That was the gig which gave rise to that bit of Fairport mythology about the bar tab. We were doing 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 fifteen hundred bucks.
But we had a fantastic week there: there were so many faces there. The Eagles dropped in nearly every night (before they'd even become the Eagles actually - they were Linda Ronstadt's backing group then) because I think they were hoping to poach Richard; even then, he was such a fantastically good guitarist. Linda Ronstadt got up and sang with us, Odetta too. It was great for me because it was the first time I'd ever been to the States.
The first Fairport Album I worked on was Full House. We recorded it at Sound Techniques, a little 8-track studio in Chelsea, with a fantastic engineer, John Wood, though a lot of the vocal tracks were laid down while we were off in the States. Swarb and Richard were writing a lot together, even while we were on the road every night, and they had a lot of material for the next album, which was Angel Delight.
Then Richard decided he wanted to leave. I think it was because he was starting to find the group a bit restrictive. He was writing more and more, was becoming a really great songwriter, and he was developing fast as a singer too. I think he had all this stuff he wanted to get out but felt he couldn't in the constraints of a band. He is a very diplomatic guy: he'd never say 'we can't do this song because it isn't going to work'; he'd come up with something else. It's not as if we fell out: Richard wanted to go his own way, work on his own. By then, he'd left the Angel and gone to live in London though he would come back a lot and still had a room there.
I thought 'well, that's it' because although there was no leader as such, I couldn't see them wanting to carry on without Richard. I felt he was the motivator, the most creative, and we all respected him as a musician (as, indeed, most of the world does now). We were happy for him because it was obvious that he was going to succeed but I felt it would spell the end. I was the new boy so it wasn't up to me although I felt we should carry on.
We got the impetus to keep going when Swarb discovered a bunch of old newspapers in a second-hand shop in Ware. He was into antiques and curiosities, pretty knowledgeable, a real collector. Anyway, the papers told the story of a guy called Babbacombe Lee: Swarb reckoned it could be the basis for an LP. He proposed telling Lee's story in songs, translating it into a viable album, with contributions from all of us. The story, the plot, was there already: all it needed was telling in lyric form and setting to music. We thought 'yeah, you're right, we could do this, it would work'. So we sat down and started writing stuff. And because we had that focus, had something to stick our teeth into, we decided we should carry on with Angel Delight as well. We wrote the title track, which is about life at the Angel, all very true and a nice fun little piece. That was it: we had the momentum to keep the band going.
Those two albums - Angel Delight and Babbacombe Lee - were first time that the same Fairport line-up had recorded two albums: every other one had seen changes in personnel from its predecessor. Mind you, that was very much the way bands worked in those days. I really enjoyed doing those two, I still like them a great deal. But Babbacombe Lee was not an easy thing to perform live because it needed to be played through in its entirety. Without Richard, we toured it as a four-piece; the first half of the show would be Babbacombe straight through and after an interval we'd do a set of other Fairport material. It was a very disciplined exercise and I thought it brought us together in performance.
We took it to Ireland, and had storming gigs in Belfast and Dublin where we had the Chieftans opening for us. The gig was in the national stadium, in the boxing ring: we set the PA up with a WEM 4x12 in each corner and a little WEM 12 channel Copycat. The Chieftains were still semi-pro then, they'd never used a PA before, but they were fantastic, sensational: we thought 'wow, we've got to follow that!'
But we were still getting knocked by the traditionalists, by folkies who thought we were just a great big electrified noise. On the other hand, we were encouraged by the opinion of people like Bert Lloyd who thought we had a great fusion of musical styles.
We had gone to the USA again to support Traffic who were on the same label as us, on Island Records. We liked them and they liked having us as an opening act. We'd get on and do the first set, we were playing big places, we were getting really tight. Simon had had to adopt the role of lead guitarist after Richard left: I know he won't mind me saying that that isn't really what he's best at. He's a bloody ace rhythm guitarist, up among the very best but he's not really a soloist. Even so, he'd bought himself a Stratocaster and a Vox AC30 and we had a bit of the sound of a Creedence type band. The fiddle was taking the lead more and more, Swarb was really into it and bought an echo FX and a wah-wah pedal.
Simon was doing some very very good stuff on electric guitar: it was all there really, musically, there weren't any gaps. But Simon wanted to work on production more, though: he's technically very au fait, he's got a great ear, and he was getting all sorts of offers. He's the sort of bloke who can behind a desk and get a great sound almost instantly. He was into that side of it and he wanted to work with other people.
Simon had been pretty involved in the mixing of Babbacombe Lee. A white label of it was sent over from England while we were in America. It arrived about the time of the last gig at a point where we were all pretty bushed, knackered. We listened to it and there was some adverse comment which I don't think he liked. His reaction was, sort of, 'I think it's time to go.' For me, it was a real blow, very bad, because I thought of him as the last bastion of old Fairport. After all, he was the guy in whose house and garden it had all started. I thought it was probably all over.
Dave Mattacks stayed on for a bit but he didn't want to see Simon replaced. We rehearsed but it wasn't really working out and DM was very much in demand as a session man, he's such a well-respected drummer you know, and he left. He wanted to develop his own career.
That left me and Swarb trying to hold it all together. We'd moved up to Birmingham again and we got a Fairport line-up together which included some mates of mine from Birmingham. There was Roger Hill and Tom Farnell who was a great drummer. That line-up toured extensively, went to the States, and had a great camaraderie. We got on really well as a bunch of guys but musically it wasn't really Fairport.
There were a lot of line-up changes during that time: another fiddle player called Roger Burridge; we had an American, David Rea who's a really great guitarist; and Dan Ar Bras from Brittany. It was a very complicated period, even I can't remember it all. I'm sure it's all written down somewhere - if you find out, let me know and I'll buy you a pint. Anyway, none of those line-ups really gelled.
We were still signed to Island and were contracted to do an album, Rosie, which we began working on at The Manor, the studio Branson had recently opened. It wasn't working so we scrapped it all, scrapped everything. Then we went to Trevor Lucas, an old mate of ours who we'd known for ages and who was with Sandy Denny. Fotheringay, Sandy and Trevor's band, had split up and he was looking out for something to do so we asked him to produce the album. We went to Sound Techniques, got John Wood in to engineer it. We had Gerry Conway and Dave Mattacks in on drums, Jerry Donahue on guitar, Trevor played on it too. We had a great time making that album and we persuaded Trevor and Jerry to join us touring, then we got DM back as well. It was a promising line-up, we all got along well as mates and as musicians.
It was good to be out playing live, touring Rosie. Fairport was, always has been, a live band, not a band that lives to make records, not the sort of band that enjoys spending six months of the year in the studio. Gigs are what we do. You know; you get in the van, you drive out somewhere, you play to an audience, you go and have a curry, then you get back in the van.
There were obviously very strong possibilities with that line-up. We made an album, Fairport Nine, which is one of my favourites. It has Jerry's laid back country rock guitar, Swarb is excellent on it, and Trevor had written some good things for it and is a great singer. I felt the band had really come together again: it was something new, something as strong as the earlier stuff. I was extremely proud of that line-up, and people really got behind it too, thought it was a great sound.
Sandy and Trevor got married about that time. They went to Australia in the winter because Sandy had got a festival to do there and Trevor, who's Australian, wanted her to see his folks. Anyway, he phoned us: "Come over guys because I've got you on at the festival." Great! We went over, had a wonderful time, and Sandy got up and sang with us. It was magical, electric. Back here, we played some shows round the UK with her and so Sandy rejoined the band. The result was Rising For the Moon.
Again, it wasn't easy but we had great support from Island Records who always seemed to be on our side despite the fact that we never sold bucketloads of records for them. At Island's suggestion, we were lucky enough to Glynn Johns in for Rising Of The Moon; he is an incredible producer and engineer. We'd lost a lot of money on the far eastern tour, due to bad management, to management problems shall we say, and we owed about thirty-five grand. Island bailed us out yet again.
We were recording the album at Olympic Studios when halfway through the sessions Dave (Mattacks) decided it wasn't for him. He wasn't getting on with Glynn; surprising really in hindsight because they've since become great friends. He left after the first couple of weeks. Mind you, we were getting a lot of stick from Glynn, he was a hard taskmaster, a perfectionist. But for me it was one of the best times I've had in a studio. The whole way Glynn worked was very disciplined, really conducive to getting stuff down and there are some excellent tracks on Rising.
We were obviously stuck for a drummer and it was Glynn who suggested we get Bruce Rowlands in. He was well-known for his work with Joe Cocker, a great drummer with a completely different style to Dave. In fact, you can hear it on the album, hear that there are two different drummers. Anyway, Bruce fitted in really well; again, it was someone coming in who we all got on well with.
So, all of a sudden there we were with a great line-up again and Island did everything they could to try to get us off in America; we did a really long intensive tour there that year. When we got back to the UK, we toured to virtually full houses, including selling out the Albert Hall. Island had got Joe Lustig managing us. But despite the label's efforts, despite us working, the record sold no more than any of our previous ones and the tour made very little money for us either - we finished up working hard for six months, going to collect our dosh, and ending up with about three hundred quid each. It was scandalous.
It's the old story. I'm not saying anyone ripped us off but, with other people running your business, there's dosh going out on all sorts of things, all the bills to be paid, and the musicians always seem to be at the end of the line. So you end up busting a gut then look at what you've got: I thought 'shit, three hundred quid: if I'd been working in a factory, I'd have three thousand by now'. It was getting to the point where we were all getting frustrated by the financial disarray. After all, everyone in the band needed an income and we were well aware there were other things we could be doing to make a living: session work, solo projects and so on.
That was it really. Jerry and Sandy both felt it was too much, too little reward for devoting all their time just to the band, to Fairport. Jerry was much in demand as a guitarist, Sandy always had her own career opportunities beckoning. They felt they had to go. So it was left to Swarb and me again.
Swarb had started a solo album and that became the basis of Gottle of Geer. We got a load of our mates together to play on it, Swarb had plenty of songs for it, and we had a lot of fun recording it. Bruce produced it, Simon Nicol did most of the engineering and got a great sound. It was a bit of fun really but, again, it didn't sound like a Fairport album. Island said 'look, this is going to be it guys; it's the end of the deal.' And it was. There were certainly no hard feelings either way, they put Gottle of Geer out as a Fairport album, and that marked the end of the record deal. Christ, we thought, that's it.
But it wasn't because Bruce, Swarb and I decided that we'd carry on. We'd forget about making records, just do gigs, just get out there and play. Simon was up for that too. By then he was quite keen to get back in the band: he'd had five years doing other things. Well, we had a very happy couple of years then. We had a manager, Phillipa Clare, who was a good hustler, did really well for us and got us a deal with Vertigo, part of Phonogram. So we started making albums again.
We did Bonny Bunch of Roses at Chipping Norton Studios in ten days, including mixing it, a very quick album. It's very much Swarbrick-influenced with a lot of traditional elements on it as well as cover stuff like Ralph's Run Johnny Run - I really like that album a lot.
Everybody was happy because we were going out doing gigs. Bruce had moved to Oxfordshire, Chris and I were in Cropredy, so was Swarb, Simon was renting a place in Banbury I think. The four of us did another quick album, Tipplers Tales. But we weren't selling many records; the punk thing was happening, music was changing. There was so much new stuff on the radio, we'd do these college gigs and the room would be full of punks; we'd think 'Jesus, we really are out of fashion; we're too old for this, maybe we should be doing something else'. Added to that, poor old Swarb was having hearing problems, getting ringing in his ears, it was driving him nuts.
Though we were still getting audiences, we weren't selling any records. Vertigo said 'sorry guys, we don't want you anymore, we don't want any more albums.' But we weren't having that! They'd signed us for six albums so I phoned Philippa and said 'tell them we are going to give them the albums anyway whether they like it or not'. I was determined they were going to honour the contract, we were going to have the money. She phoned back and said they wouldn't have it: I said 'they bloody well will'. Eventually a compromise was reached: they paid us not to make the remaining albums. It was the first substantial sum we'd ever had. It was fantastic for us.
We did our farewell tour in summer 1979, culminating in the farewell concert in August at Cropredy. By then, the festival had sort of started - the first ones had been in Dick and Anne Crossman's garden. We recorded the farewell tour and the Cropredy gig. We wanted to put it out but no-one was interested, no-one wanted to pick up the album. So Chris and I decided to put it out ourselves and that's when we started Woodworm Records. We were among the first to do that, to set up to record, manufacturer and put out our own work. We pressed up 3,000 copies, called it Farewell Farewell, and sold the lot.
So that was the end of Fairport, or so we thought at that stage. The cash from Vertigo allowed us to do stuff we wanted to do at last. Swarb could afford to move to Scotland and I was able to set up the studio at Cropredy.
One day I intend to write a book about it all. There are so many stories. Swarb has his too, he could tell you things I really wouldn't want to see in print, though often his version is completely different to mine. Here's one.
The four-piece - me, Swarb, Simon and Bruce - were booked to play in Shrewsbury, the Music Hall. We set up the gear, did the soundcheck then buggered off down the pub about six o'clock. Ronnie Laine was a mate of Bruce's and he joined us. Well, we were having a real laugh, we were all drinking, and I'd had a good few pints. Swarb had had lots, certainly as many as me. But he's never been a great drinker. Still, he was having a great time, we all were. Well, we left the pub, everyone was happy; I was happy; Swarb was incredibly happy. In fact, he was so happy he couldn't stand up.
Anyway, we got back to the venue, got Swarb on stage. The opening number we chose was Dirty Linen. I think I chose that because it's quite hard on the bass and I wanted to get it out of the way first, to get through it because after two hours I wouldn't have stood a chance. As soon as we started Swarb kept leaning on me, he could barely stand up. He was having a great time but I couldn't play with him on my arm. Then he hit me in the eye with his bow. Twice. It bloody hurt, it really did. The third time he caught me in the eye I just saw red, and I smacked him over the head with the bass. I must have hit the poor sod much harder than I thought because it broke the bass! Honestly, the neck came away. It floored him, he was unconscious. I thought 'Oh God, I've killed Swarb!'. It freaked me right out, I just ran out, got in a taxi and came home. A cab from Shrewsbury all the way back here (well, Cropredy actually).
I felt dreadful, just terrible. I was thinking it would be on the news any minute: 'Rock star killed by mad bass player'. I tried to phone the gig: I was expecting a call any minute saying he was dead. Of course, as soon as I'd legged it Swarb had come round. He was OK, though obviously it had been the end of the show. Me and Swarb apologised to one another, there was no bad blood.
But at least the promoter had a real sense of humour: he booked us for a return gig and he produced this great poster, a pastiche of a boxing or wrestling poster: 'Fairport Convention - Seconds Out: Round Two'. The audience came back - well you would, wouldn't you? - and it was a bigger crowd than ever. They probably wanted to see who'd attack who.
During that last year, 1979, I had been getting messages from Ian Anderson but I was always too busy to return the calls. Actually, I assumed it was Ian A Anderson of Folk Roots magazine but it turned out it was the one from Tull. It came as a surprise because I hadn't heard from him since we'd supported them years before in the USA. Well, eventually he caught me on the phone. Their bass player was really ill (he died later, it's an awful story) and they were looking for someone to dep for the tour. Their drummer had seen a clip of Fairport on TV, which was really lucky because we'd hardly ever been on it. He'd told Ian he'd seen a guy from Fairport playing bass on the telly, someone else dug out my number for Ian and I got the call.
I dropped everything because they were really enormous, a big band, it was a fantastic opportunity for me. I was catapulted into a job where I could earn real money at last. I was only hired at first for that one tour but on the very last night, the last gig of the tour, word came through that John had died. We were incredibly shocked. So, sadly, I was invited to join the band. So from 1980 onwards, Tull became my full time job.
Ian had taken over the management of the band a couple of years earlier, running everything himself, managing it. It was more than financial necessity, it was so he could control what he did, so the band didn't get lumbered with situations it didn't want to be in, so it didn't get shafted. You know when you want to be working so you organise your own tours; it makes sense to be the ones to make those sort of decisions. I watched him doing all that and I thought 'this is what Fairport should be like' although by then Fairport had ceased to exist. Of course, it's what I do for the band now; me and the others run it all.
Actually, I'd been working towards that in the last two years before Fairport called it a day. I'd been increasingly responsible for a lot of making it happen, organising things, getting involved with the tours and the business side. I'd started to take a real interest in running things mainly because it had gone so wrong in the past.
By the time I joined Tull, Chris and I had moved here (Barford) and we had room to build a much bigger studio than the one at Cropredy. The little label was up and running, we had that too, we were recording people like Steve Ashley. His album had Bruce on drums, other Fairport people on it, and Chris Leslie. The festival was growing too, Chris was getting heavily involved in making that happen, in running that.
For the first five years, Cropredy was purely a reunion festival, a Fairport thing. Now and then the band would get together again for the odd gig, usually a New Year bash for a laugh. All these things were being run from here. At the same time, I was working with Tull and having a bloody great time doing that.
It was pretty much non-stop, there weren't that many lulls, Tull was out a lot and there was studio work too. But in 1985, there was a couple of months without much happening. We'd been doing things with ex-Fairporters at the Cropredy reunions, various line-ups, experimenting round the Fairport theme. Swarb had gone off to Scotland and was very happy on his little smallholding, Simon and he were doing duo gigs together, but we'd all kept in touch.
We had recorded the reunion bashes and Cropredy and we started releasing them as bootlegs - The Boot, The Third Leg, The '82 Tapes and so on. We put them out ourselves, of course, shifted them by mail order, put the money towards funding the next festival. It worked well, we ploughed it back in, and Cropredy began to get bigger and bigger.
By then we were getting ten or eleven thousand people coming to Cropedy. The first one, the first reunion festival, had attracted maybe four thousand. So when the band was completely inactive, its audience actually grew. That says a lot, doesn't it? It says 'don't work' - if you don't work, people will come and see you more!
Of course, there was no new material in the reunion sets. We'd play Fairport's back-repertoire at Cropredy albeit with varying personnel. But we felt ready to play new stuff, wanted to in fact. As luck had it, during my couple of months lull from Tull Simon was around, Dave Mattacks was about as well, and they both had open diaries for a few weeks. The studio here had expanded and I'd just got a new 16-track in. It was obviously feasible for us to do a new studio Fairport album. So me, Simon and Dave started recording, working on what would become Gladys' Leap.
Swarb was in Scotland still but we invited him to come and play on Gladys. But he didn't really like what he heard of it and I think he may have been a bit peeved that he hadn't been invited in right from the beginning. He'd also started Whippersnapper with Martin Jenkins, Kevin Dempsey and Chris Leslie.
Chris was an old mate of ours, we'd known him since we all moved to Oxfordshire. He'd grown up with Fairport's music, been very influenced by the band, especially by Swarb, and he and I had worked together in the past. So as Swarb wasn't up for it, I asked Chris if he was interested in the new Fairport album. He said he'd love to but that he was too tied up with Whippersnapper.
We also invited Ric Sanders to come along to play on the album. I'd known him for years: we'd met in musical circles in Birmingham. Ric is from Solihull, I'm from Acocks Green, which are on the same side of Birmingham and my dad had been the caretaker at a school where Ric's dad taught.
Ric plays very differently to Swarb, of course, a completely contrasting violin style, a fantastic player. He came along and played on the recording sessions here and it was great. So that was the Gladys line-up, plus Richard came up and guested on one track and Cathy Le Surf on another. It was fun to make, we put it out, the punters seemed to love it. People started saying we should be playing live, get the band together again.
We thought 'OK, that would work'. So I asked Ric if he would do it and he was delighted. Then I asked Maartin Allcock to join the band. We'd met Maart when he was a Fairport fan, a great supporter, very keen on our music. He'd studied music at Manchester, he's a really great musician. He used to turn up to the festivals, he was always up for the craic, always ready to get up and play. I knew he could play almost anything - he's a really great bass player, for instance, but I was doing that - and that he would be a good guitarist and multi-instrumentalist for the band.
The five of us hit it off very well. We rehearsed for three days solid, here, working from a list of Fairport stuff that everybody knew. We went off to do a gig in London, just to see if it would work out, and ending up playing for four-and-a-half hours! It was so good, it was just joyful. We had a really fantastic night. I realised we had the makings of a great band here; the continuity of the old-timers (me, Simon and Dave) combined with the new blood (Ric and Maart).
It was fresh, really exciting. Ric and Maart's approach was different to all the people who'd played in Fairport before, of course. They thought it was great, they were incredibly keen, loved playing with a band they'd grown up listening to. So we played a few little dates and I was thinking all the while that we should capitalise on it, should have a full-time band again. Ric and Maart were having a really big input as well; both of them were writing stuff, composing these great instrumental pieces. I thought we should do something immediately, catch the moment. So we put out an album, all instrumental, called Expletive Delighted: it was the first Fairport album without vocals but I really wanted to show everyone just what these new chaps could do, how brilliantly they could play. We made it here on 16-track; it went together effortlessly, we really enjoyed doing it.
So there we were: a line-up. It meant we could tour again, it meant we had new material for Cropredy, it meant there was a Fairport again. So from 1986 on, Cropredy wasn't just a reunion festival any more: we had a band.
We were searching out new material to do, looking for songs because none of us were songwriters. Ralph gave us Hiring Fair, we had Wat Tyler, there was Red And Gold about the battle on the very fields were the festival is held. Once you decide, accept, you aren't going to get the songs from within the band, it opens up endless possibilities. You listen to everything that comes through the post on the lookout for a new song you can do, that fits or which you can adapt to the line-up. And, of course, we resurrected stuff from the repertoire, reinterpreting numbers like Reynard and John Barleycorn.
I was still working with Jethro Tull and Ian had come to Cropredy in 1986 and seen Fairport. He really liked it, said he thought we should do more with it; and he also suggested we might support Tull, which I felt was a real honour. It costs a lot of dosh to tour: in fact, nowadays, bands often actually have to pay to get in as support to a big name band, their label has to bung the headline act a couple of grand to get that exposure. Of course, Tull were happy to pay us to be on their tour and we thought it was a great opportunity for us. But we needed an album for it, one which would be distributed in America.
So I went to Island Records where there were still people we'd worked with in the '70s, notably a chap called Phil Cooper. I told him we were off to the States with Tull, a really big tour, and that I wanted some dosh to do an album. I wanted his label to put it out in the States; I knew we had to guarantee that people in America would be able to get it. He was very good about it - Island coughed up, about twenty-five thousand bucks or thereabouts. We had thought about recording the album at Cropredy but decided it would be a bit risky, too risky in fact. So we went to a studio in Bray and we made the album in a day: we just set up and played it live, though we added some applause from a John Martyn live album. We used a photograph that had been taken from behind the stage so though it's ostensibly recorded at the festival, and called Live at Cropredy, and everyone assumed it had been done at Cropredy, it was actually recorded fifty miles away. That guaranteed we got the result, the quality, that we had a first rate album for the States, and it's a great album, as live as it gets.
We spent every penny of the advance, all the fees from Tull, and a big subsidy from our Cropredy money on the seven week US tour, the 1987 Crest of a Knave tour. I was knackered, I was playing with both bands, finishing the Fairport set then going straight on again. Because I was with Tull, I had to fly with them while the poor Fairport guys went with the crew in two motorhomes. It was horrendous for them, it was winter, they had to put snowchains on, or get out in the freezing cold to change tyres and things, drive fifteen hours at a stretch to get to the gigs. How they stuck it, got through it, I really don't know.
The tour made a lot of friends for Fairport, the response was tremendous. We went down an absolute storm every night we played. In the past, Fairport never really got the support in America, particularly airplay on radio, despite Island's best efforts and the fact we'd been over so often. This tour was successful in that we'd have fifteen thousand people in a stadium going for it - in Detroit they even gave us a standing ovation - but the album sold very little. I guess the kind of music we play isn't the sort of thing that is designed to be commercially successful. Poor old Island never even recouped the advance, but it was a great gesture, it allowed us to do the tour. That twenty-five thousand dollars was nothing to a big record company, of course, though it was everything to us.
I don't want this to sound like some sort of hard luck story, but we spent all our advance, a big wedge of our Cropredy money, and every penny Tull paid us to work our balls off doing thirty dates in the USA. That's the harsh reality of the music business. People outside think it's all booze and luxury: it bloody well isn't. But despite the stress, the aggro, the exhaustion, the lack of sleep and the near-death experiences of driving through deep snow at 100 miles an hour in a Winnebago with summer tyres on, it's really satisfying to play for big crowds, to play for people who really love what you're doing. I think it gave the band a lot of confidence, it certainly helped us play tighter and, as I said, it made us friends over there.
We kept that same line-up for ten years, a record breaking achievement for Fairport. Meanwhile, Maartin had also joined Tull, playing keyboards. He did a couple of tours, the States and Europe. We used to do the backing tracks for Tull here (Barford) and that's how Maart auditioned for the band. In fact, there's been quite a bit of crossover in terms of personnel: Gerry Conway and Dave Mattacks have worked on Tull stuff too.
Towards the end of his time with us, Maart was getting into all sorts of other things, getting into the technology, developing his own ideas. But during his last two years, Maart wasn't really happy in Fairport. I think he'd had enough, he wasn't getting on too well with some of the band. I think he wanted to go but he couldn't really say it. Things came to a head, there were some bad gigs, we felt he wasn't really trying for the band anymore. So he split, it was a mutual thing, it was time to move on. It was very very sad, we all love Maart, but musically it was beyond repair.
We had to get somebody else. We were tossing names around and I think Chris Leslie was one of my suggestions. Everyone had known Chris a long while, and of course he'd helped us out when Ric had an accident with his hand, put it through a window. That time Chris had been a star, learned the repertoire for a three-hour set at two days notice. We all rated him as a fantastic player, a brilliant musician. But he's also a real gent and very very reliable, the sort of bloke who would never let anyone down. He only lived a few miles away and Fairport was among his favourite bands. He was a natural for the job. He was well known as a violin player, of course, but I knew he was great on the mandolin and I'd heard him play guitar too in the past. We also felt it would be very beneficial too to have another singer, someone to take a bit of the weight off Simon, and Chris is a fine singer of course. It opened up more vocal choices, more opportunities.
I knew Chris had written songs but as soon as he joined the band it became obvious that writing was something he was cultivating. We were really pleased. I was into Lindisfarne, loved them, and I'd been very impressed by the songs Nigel Stonier had written for them. He'd written them in conjunction with the Lindisfarne guys and I thought it would be a great idea to try putting him and Chris together. I suggested it to Chris, he went for it, and the two of them have come up with some wonderful stuff. And the band has also had the great songs Chris has written himself.
Chris was just what we wanted; an all-rounder, someone whose heart was in the right place. The band has always picked up an identity with the changes in the line-ups. New people bring new things, it grows, even if stuff that no longer works has to go out the window. We were a bit lighter in sound, I suppose, in not having the electric guitar anymore, but it didn't bother us. You make up in other ways, develop your own sort of sound. It's the first line-up we've had without electric guitar but personally I don't really miss that. We've had some pretty spectacular lead guitarists in the past, they'd be pretty hard to replace; you know, Richard, Jerry. But Simon is a very good guitarist and sometimes plays electric when we've got the full band with Gerry Conway.
Gerry has been the most recent change, joining us a couple of years ago when Dave Mattacks left. We'd known Gerry for years, from the earliest days. He'd been in Fotheringay with Sandy; he'd helped us out at various time, worked with us on Rosie; I'd worked with him in Tull. So though he is very different to Dave, it's like I was saying - the style changes and the band grows.
Gerry has changed the sound particularly in the area of his percussion, his congas, bongos and that sort of thing. It's obviously very important if you're a bass player to have a drummer that you can gel with. Obviously, I work differently with Gerry than I used to with Dave Mattacks. But with someone as good as Gerry, it's not something you have to sweat over, he's such a fantastic player.
Cropredy is something we are very proud of. People love it because it's a really peaceful weekend and they know there'll be a nice atmosphere, they can bring their families, have a good time. I don't think that many people come just to see us, don't necessarily come to Cropredy to hear Fairport. I bet there a good few who don't even see our set at all. There is always a lot of great music, a variety of bands.
The festival has allowed us to do a lot of things, has been very important to us as a band. As I said, if it hadn't been for the money from Cropredy we could never had afforded to go on the Jethro Tull tour in 1987. There are plenty of other examples like that: it subsidises the far eastern tours and our little forays into Europe. It pays for our albums as well: they don't cost a fortune to make but nevertheless the money has to come from somewhere.
For us, our set at Cropredy is also great chance to play with our mates, we have lots of people up there guesting. We had Robert Plant one year which gave us a chance to run through half-a-dozen Zeppelin songs. I suppose a handful of the real die-hard Fairport fans get a bit pissed off about that, you know, but ... well, there you go.
We have always been what we want, the band I mean. Fairport has never been what the record company wanted, never been what the punters wanted it to be, it's only ever done its own thing. When we've made albums, Fairport has never had one eye on what the current musical climate might be, or done simply what was expected of it. In fact, I don't think musical fashion has had any relevance to Fairport: half the time we'd have no idea what was fashionable anyway.
The band will always be Fairport despite all the changes it's been through. It's a different band to every punter you talk to. Some people hate this or that line-up, some love so-and-so or hate so-and-so, some want it to still be Richard and Sandy. But all these different people still come along; maybe they just like to hear Meet On The Ledge at the end of the night. There is an element who have been with us since 1967, always come to Cropredy, turn out to every winter tour.
The audience is very important to us. Without them we wouldn't be out on the road, wouldn't be treading the boards, there wouldn't be a band. We don't sell enough CDs to survive, we survive by doing tours. Besides, we are a live band: touring's what we do. I couldn't sit around doing nothing, I want to be out there playing, I get such a kick out of it whether it's with Fairport or Steve Gibbons or whoever and the same goes for the others, I'm sure.
One problem is we don't attract enough youngsters to the gigs. We don't play the sort of music they can get up and boogie to. In the early 1970s when we started playing a lot of jigs and reels, people went wild, threw themselves about, had a real dance to it. At some of the festivals you get pseudo-Irish bands who play these fast numbers for a whole set just to get the kids leaping about but we don't do that. A lot of kids don't understand: they say 'you can play that stuff; why don't you?' But we were doing that thirty years ago, we prefer to play songs, we're old fashioned that way. At least at Cropredy you have the space, people can either sit there or they can get up and boogie.
I've no idea if Fairport would survive if neither me or Simon were in it. I'd hope so: it probably would as long as it had the elements of what Fairport is known for. There's more to Fairport than me and Simon - it's something bigger than us. I'm not the bloke to ask, though; because I've done it so long, since 1969 in fact, it's very hard for me to be objective about my role in the band. I don't think about the longevity of it much, to be honest, nor how much longer it will last. It's more a case of thinking about what are we doing next week, what's happening next September. I can't abstract myself from it to that extent, can't be that impartial.
Fairport Convention is like a brand name. Everybody's heard of it but an awful lot of people only know it's the name of a band, not what we do or who is in it. Other people see us regularly and like us: others know what we do and aren't keen on it but also don't know who is in it. Here's an example, a classic one. Fairport has never been invited to play the Cambridge Folk Festival: never. The last time I went when Ken Woolard was still alive, bless him, he thought I was with Steeleye. And he was organising the thing. That sort of summed it up really; I mean, what do you have to do? After thirty-five years?
I've been in this band for virtually all my adult life, for getting on two thirds of my entire life. I don't know what would happen if I popped my clogs tomorrow: maybe Matt (my son, who is also a bass player) would step in but it's not really his thing musically. When I joined, obviously I had no idea how long it would last. I never ever could have imagined it would still be going thirty-five years later. I don't think any one thinks in those terms in this business. Sometimes I still hardly believe it is still going strong.
Even after all this time, it's still incredibly satisfying when we do a really good gig and people love it. Fairport used to reasonably consistent but in the last few years, we've done some rather ropey shows. But you know when you've done a good one and it's great when the punters tell you. And some of them know, they really do. Some of them will see two or three dates on a tour, they know when you're playing well, when you're trying.
That's what keeps me going, that's where my satisfaction comes from. I love gigging, I love playing the bass. I don't understand bands that don't go out on the road, I can't imagine what, say, Keith Richards does most nights. I suppose he must get his mates round, have a bash at home. But picking a guitar up at home and playing a few songs to yourself just isn't the same as playing in front of people even if it's only down the village hall. Playing a good 'un, pleasing the punters: I can't see I'll ever want to stop doing that.