I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny
by Mick Houghton (Faber 502 pp).
Review by Andy Childs
Sandy Denny is widely acknowledged by all who knew and heard her as the finest female singer of her generation by some distance. Her singing had the power to move grown men to tears and to put her contemporaries and rivals firmly in their place. Even today artists as accomplished as Rachel Unthank are in awe of her voice – “don’t listen to her! You’ll realise that the rest of us are wasting your time”. Yet because she was always portrayed and generally perceived as a folk-singer she was never a true commercial success and never received the wider recognition that her talent should have made possible. She was also, like an awful of people with a rare talent, a deeply flawed character which, combined with the frustrations of an under-achieving career resulted in a tragic, premature conclusion and an enduring fascination.
In this new biography of Sandy Denny, Mick Houghton has, with diligent research and judicious use of quotes from an extensive range of people associated with her life and career, pieced together the story of a lady blessed with natural ability, infused with an adventurous, sometimes reckless spirit, dogged by insecurity and unfortunate choices and of a life lived out in a manner that inspired devotion and unconditional love from those around her. Houghton narrates the tale with sensitivity and even-handedness, never reticent where relevant to lay bare the extent that Denny’s destructive and erratic behaviour played a part in shaping her eventual demise, but fulsome in his obvious admiration for her music and thoroughly convincing in his appraisal of her legacy. He also very wisely refrains from lengthy, pedantic analyses of her songs and instead highlights her most notable work, offers his own authoritative opinion on her various album, and pretty much leaves it up to the reader to rise to the challenge of investigating further.
Sandy Denny came from a non-musical background although there was always music in the house of Neil and Edna Denny. A very bright girl but hated school – she was from an early age too free-spirited and undisciplined for a formal education. Impetuous, a bit of a rebel. Also something of a drama queen, a trait that would appear to have manifested itself periodically throughout her life. Her musical gifts were soon apparent though and these her conventional middle-class parents thankfully supported if not encouraged her in. As a 16 year old she was already playing gigs at the Kingston Barge Folk Club from which her father used to pick her up in the middle of the night. After leaving school she had a spell nursing and started playing more prestigious venues like The Troubadour in London. Nursing wasn’t a success though and in 1965 art school beckoned. By this time she had graduated to the legendary folk club Cousins in Soho and it wasn’t long before a career in music became inevitable and she quit art school. I’m not sure how extensive her live work was around this time but she did a residency at the South Ruislip Folk Club during October 1966 which was literally half a mile down the road from where I used to live. However, as a 14 year old caught up in the euphoria of life-changing rock music spawned the year before I was blissfully unaware of this at the time. Reading Houghton’s evocative portrayal of these times I have a genuine pang of regret.
Sandy Denny’s first two records, on the unhip Eros label, were collaborative, patchy affairs that only hinted at her abilities and could never be described as an artistic statement of intent but, as future mentor and producer Joe Boyd commented, “the experience she gained shouldn’t be underestimated”. She then joined The Strawbs for a year – made an underrated album with them – All Our Own Work , but only played one UK date. Soon after the album was released she left the band thereby scuppering any chance they had of promoting it properly. Denny showed what Boyd called “strong will and clarity of vision” in leaving The Strawbs. She, and Boyd, knew that her future lay along a different path. How she came to join Fairport Convention six months later is one of many episodes in Denny’s life that apparently still remain open to interpretation but I think it’s safe to assume that Joe Boyd, as the band’s manager and a growing admirer of Denny’s talent and potential, was a key player in this move. Judy Dyble was ousted from the band and Denny joined. She didn’t just replace Dyble though, her forceful nature changed the very fabric of the band. And Boyd was initially afraid that she would “eat them for breakfast”. As Martin Carthy says : “there was a hooligan busting to get out in Sandy, and Fairport released that. I think they were sometimes fairly surprised at the size of the hooligan”.
Denny and Fairport Convention stretched each other in more ways than one. She had an ambivalent relationship with folk music and had never really been part of any traditional folk scene, always preferring to write her own material in a style that would later be validated by the singer-songwriter phenomenon. The way she sang had a folk music sensibility and she stretched that sensibility to the limits of what a singer could achieve within that genre. Inside though was a jazz singer and rock singer itching to express herself and ready to make the transition away from pure folk music. As Ashley Hutchings is quoted as saying : “she was one of the very, very few there have ever been and certainly the best who could sing traditional folk songs with a rock sensibility. June Tabor can’t do it. Maddy (Prior) can’t do it. Shirley Collins can’t. The best singers in England have tried and Sandy was the best. She naturally understood how to sing traditional songs and she could translate that into a rock context. Nobody did that better because she was also a very good rock singer”. On the face of it Fairport Convention was a good move. They saw themselves as a rock band at the time and would welcome Denny’s contributions as a songwriter. Their classic first two records for Island – What We Did On Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking followed. Critical if not commercial successes, they announced Sandy Denny’s arrival as an enthralling, unique new voice and Fairport Convention as a major new band. She’d also seemingly found an extended family who could help fulfil her potential, bolster her confidence, and accommodate her impetuous and attention-grabbing personality. Any sense of long-term stability in her life that was beginning to emerge was short-lived however when first Australian and guitarist with the group Eclection, Trevor Lucas, entered her life as boyfriend and eventual husband, and then more drastically, in May 1969 on the way home from a gig in Birmingham, Fairport were involved in a devastating road crash that killed drummer Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn. Eclection also played Birmingham that night and Denny was travelling back with Lucas in his car therefore escaping the incident physically if not emotionally. Traumatised but resilient and determined, the band retreated to the country, recovered, added two significant new members in Dave Swarbrick and Dave Mattacks, appeared incongruously on Top of the Pops to plug their chart single Si tu dois Partir, and recorded what many consider their finest album – Liege & Lief. Houghton calls it “a triumph all round. An undeniable artistic success.” No-one who’s lived with that album for forty five years would argue with that. It was however a very different album from its predecessors, creating in essence a new genre of music – British folk-rock, and leaning heavily on traditional folk music for its inspiration. For Sandy Denny it ushered in a time of uncertainty. Her doubts about traditional folk music as a direction she wanted to pursue re-emerged, anxieties around travelling – especially flying came to the fore, and her apparently well-grounded fears that the serial philanderer Trevor Lucas was undermining their relationship, plus the growing belief that she should be making her own records on her own terms, all this combined to effect her exit from Fairport. Joe Boyd wanted her to make a solo record but instead she formed Fotheringay with Lucas and they made what Boyd describes as a “curate’s egg of a record”. Fotheringay is nevertheless held in high regard and Houghton states that ‘Sandy’s singing is arguably her best on record, displaying an undeniable originality, by turns plaintive and sensual, vibrant, grave, intuitive and skilful’. Hopelessly managed, financially untenable and downright unlucky – a prestigious appearance at The Royal Albert Hall was completely upstaged by support act Elton John – Fotheringay was inevitably a short-lived episode and Denny eventually, finally made the solo album that beckoned amidst the less than ideal backdrop of a colossal and slightly comical misunderstanding between her and Joe Boyd as to his involvement in her future career – a clash from which their relationship never really recovered. North Star Grassman & The Ravens was a melancholy affair and a commercial failure. Sandy and Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz, her second and third solo albums, fared little better. British female singer-songwriters generally failed to match the commercial success of their U.S. counterparts and in truth Denny never shook off the folk singer tag and never reached a wider audience. By now Denny and Lucas were married, Boyd had moved to the U.S. and Island Records are at a loss as to how to further Sandy Denny’s career. In 1974, in a move that Houghton says “escalated the process of her emotional unravelling” Denny rejoined Fairport, probably to be closer to Lucas than for any artistic reasons. Deep in debt and hopeful for a change in fortunes Island bought in Glyn Johns to produce their Rising For The Moon album which was undeniably more commercial-sounding but seems to have been a stressful experience for all concerned. Denny especially. Her various insecurities, exacerbated by a now alarming dependance on cocaine and booze, deepened. She became depressed, suffered from violent mood swings and generally behaved increasingly erratically. By the end of 1975, after a succession of inept managers, and a disastrous U.S. tour, Fairport was finally falling apart. Denny made her fourth, and last, album Rendezvous, a confused affair, veering off in too many different directions and doing little to re-establish her credentials as potentially a hugely-successful singer-songwriter. To add to her anxieties she became pregnant and the child, a girl named Goergia, she had always confessed to wanting, but by now was in no fit state to become a mother to, was born in July 1977, two month before Island Records dropped her. By now, tragically, her life was totally unravelling. Isolated, artistically adrift, depressed, possibly paranoid, post-natal depession quite possibly made things even worse for her and her drinking and drug-taking fuelled her neuroses remorselessly. Finally, in act of desperation to protect his baby daughter, Trevor Lucas took Georgia to Australia out of harm’s way, a move that would earn him the wrath of many of Sandy Denny’s friends and especially that of her father, and the scapegoat for her subsequent death.
Sandy Denny had fallen down the stairs on numerous occasions. It became known as Sandy’s party piece.
In April 1978 she was staying with a friend, Miranda Ward. Musician Jon Cole who Miranda had asked to look in on Sandy, found her unconscious at foot of the stairs on April 17. Lucas flew back from Australia immediately to be with her but she never emerged from a coma and died on April 21 aged 31. Contrary to popular belief, Ward’s contention is that Denny didn’t die by falling down the stairs but collapsed at the foot of the stairs, possibly from a brain haeomorrage caused by previous falls. Either way she died a tragic, lonely, premature death after a turbulent, intermittently incandescent life.
Despite the fact that by all accounts Sandy Denny could be, and often was, a light-hearted, funny person who liked a drink and to be “one of the lads”, her story is touched with an overwhelming melancholy and an underlying sense of desperation. Houghton offers, to his credit, a largely non-judgmental and objective interpretation of events which thankfully avoids any woolly myth-making or unnecessary sentimentality.
Almost as soon as I’d finished reading this book it was announced that the three surviving members of Fotheringay – Jerry Donahue, Gerry Conway and Pat Donaldson are to reunite for six UK dates in June accompanied by Kathryn Roberts, Sally Barker, and P.J.Wright. Furthermore a four-CD box set of Fotheringay recordings is about to be released by Universal, following on from their mammoth nineteen CD Sandy Denny box set issued in 2010. Add to that the various Fairport Convention re-issues and their new studio album Myths & Heroes and there’s obviously no shortage of Denny-related music to sate the thirst of the converted. For those not yet familiar with, and aware of the stature of, Sandy Denny’s work, I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn, like all the best music biographies, leads you instructively to her music and induces you to live with it, immersed in the fruits of a great talent.
Mick Houghton is the editor of Remembering Gene Clark, the Caught by the River tribute to a hero. Read it here.