Monthly Archives: May 2015

Sandy Denny: Remembered Again


Sandy Denny was one of the richest voices to come out of the British music scene during the 1960s and ’70s. She was a person who was much admired and respected within her area of folk and folk-rock music. Unfortunately, at the time of her death in 1978 at the age of 31, the promise of her hard work seemed to never be fully realized.

Mick Houghton’s new book about the late British singer brings together impressive amounts of information which help to gain an insight into the events which shaped her path through her musical career.

Many surviving members of her inner circle of friends and fellow performers have been interviewed to provide an insight into her rise and fall. These include people like Richard and Linda Thompson, Al Stewart, Ralph McTell, John Renbourn and members of Fairport Convention. Archival interviews with many other people including her late parents are also mined for extra depth into her character.

Denny began singing in folk clubs when just barely into her mid-teens. She sang what were called floor spots. These were performances by young hopefuls whereby they could sing and play a few songs without having yet achieved the status of being a credited performer on the main stage. Eventually, she did move onto that stage where she succeeded in attracting the attention of the audience and other folk musicians.

The story traces her first recordings with other musicians such as Alex Campbell and Johnny Silvo to her move to join the Strawbs with Dave Cousins. Of course, the thing that may be of most interest to many people was her joining Fairport Convention as a replacement for singer Judy Dyble.

Her days in and out of Fairport are covered in lengthy detail and bring the experience to vivid life. This includes such events as the horrific van crash which took the life of drummer Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson’s then girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn. Fortunately, Denny was travelling in another van with Trevor Lucas and his bandmates from the group Eclection. However, that did not prevent her from feeling the scars of the tragic event.

Houghton artfully weaves the story dealing with Denny’s involvement with Fairport Convention, her departure to start her group Fotheringay and her time as a solo recording artist.

Her personal life and relationships are also covered in great detail. Both that personal life and her musical life were often victims to her own emotional ups and downs. Bouts of insecurity often seemed to derail her attempts to keep things both musical and personal on a steady track. The addition of heavy drinking and cocaine use also served to keep things off a productive path.

I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn (a line from Denny’s song entitled Solo) is a well documented and well paced book which helps to put Sandy Denny’s life and career into perspective nearly forty years after her death from a fall down the stairs.

This is essential reading for any fan of British folk music from that era.

(I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn by Mick Houghton is published by Faber & Faber, London) 

Recent Arrivals – Discus


One of the best things about doing a radio programme featuring non-mainstream music for many years was receiving music from like-minded folks from around the globe. Such was the case back in the ’90s when I received a package of CDs from Martin Archer on his Discus label.

Martin continued to send me music and I continued to feature it on the airwaves. We also corresponded quite frequently and a musical relationship built up. In the ensuing years, we have played together live many times on my visits to the UK and we’ve also contributed to each other’s recordings.

When I visited Martin in Sheffield last June, he was in the midst of about a dozen different recording and performance ventures. At that time, he played me a number of recordings that he was working on. Many of these are now available on this latest trio of double-CD releases.

Vestigium is the latest collaboration between Martin and vocalist Julie Tippetts. Every release in their series of works seems to magically rise above the previous  set. This is no mean feat as each of their projects are quite wonderful affairs.

This latest set is no exception as the individual works often vary drastically in their sound but manage to create a bigger picture which holds all of them together. Sonic backdrops can be minimal and shimmering with the vocal lines drifting through the landscape. Other times, a steady bassline and percussion beat bring the funk to the fore.

Listening to these works, it seems like both Martin and Julie were destined to lock their creative energies together. Julie’s dexterous vocalizations meld perfectly with the music. Martin’s ear for detail and the ability to create subtle layers for the vocals makes for a tapestry of aural delights. The final work in the set – Stalking the Vision – is a fine example of this sonic synergy in action.

Bad Tidings from Slackwater Drag is by Martin’s ten-piece big band called Engine Room Favourites. From the introductory tune – Song for Alice Coltrane – you know that you are in for a good ride. Tracks range from dense and frenetic to minimal improvised structures.

At times, I was put in the mind of Soft Machine and also was reminded of Julius Hemphill’s Big Band. The latter thought was confirmed as the concluding number of the set is a cover version of Hemphill’s classic track The Hard Blues. And ERF do a most admirable job in their performance.

Inclusion Principle’s Third Opening shows even more diversity for Martin and his cohorts. This is a trio which also includes Herve Perez and Peter Fairclough.

On this set, the sounds range from environmental field recordings, computer-generated sounds, saxophones, piano and percussion. From minimal soundscapes to wild hyper-rhythms, the pieces blend and weave their way through two CDs of diverse sonic contexts.

Definitely three more highlights for the ever-expanding Discus catalogue.

Discus Music website