‘Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding my Voice 1967-75’, the memoir of Fairport Convention co-founder Richard Thompson, is just-published by Faber. Andy Childs reviews.
I’ve read a few in my time and I’ve come to believe that it’s probably unrealistic to expect that any musician’s written memoirs, usually spared any kind of rigorous, objective analysis, are going to be anything other than a reflection of their character as an artist. Arguably this country’s pre-eminent guitarist and songwriter, Richard Thompson is no exception, and so Beeswing, his recollections of a life and musical career — from the origins of Fairport Convention to the beginning of his long and fruitful solo — is understated, perceptive, lyrical, amiable and seemingly effortless.
Much of Thompson’s career and music has been detailed and examined by Patrick Humphries in his 1996 biography Strange Affair, plus there are references and insights in other notable books such as Rob Young’s Electric Eden and Mick Houghton’s biography of Sandy Denny, I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn. Beeswing complements these accounts with Thompson’s perspective; an interpretation of events that is occasionally revealing, sometimes poignant, often quietly amusing but hardly ever confrontational or controversial. I think the nearest he comes to divulging any hint of animosity is when he admits to “locking horns” with Dave Swarbrick on a regular basis towards the end of his time with Fairport, but the more tempestuous episodes in his life — the sacking of Sandy Denny from the band and Thompson’s acrimonious break-up with his wife Linda for instance — are not lingered over or given any real sense of life-changing drama. I suppose that could be considered as revealing of Thompson’s character in itself — and who are we to expect a man to bare his soul and expose his inner feelings about such traumatic events? Fortunately there is much else within the book to divert and entertain.
It’s no real surprise to learn that Thompson’s future was pretty much determined at an early age. He devotes the first chapter to mostly fond memories of his London childhood background and early youth — difficult father who nevertheless had a decent record collection; older sister whose boyfriends taught him guitar; learning from Bert Weedon’s manual; little interest in school; the now familiar life-changing exposure to rock’n’roll; forming a band at 14; local folk clubs; the frustrations of living in suburbia — all the ingredients for an ‘alternative’ lifestyle in music.
The first steps in the already well-documented formation of Fairport Convention were taken when Thompson met Ashley Hutchings in 1966. Simon Nicol and Judy Dyble were soon on the scene and with the addition of drummer Martin Lamble, Fairport was born. Joe Boyd took them into his Witchseason fold and provided them with management and recording expertise.
Without wanting to over-simplify matters too much I would suggest that there are three main events in the late 60s life of Fairport Convention that defined and established them. The first was the recruitment of Sandy Denny as lead vocalist — and Thompson is rightly laudatory of Denny’s talents and the galvanising effect she had on the band. The second is the horrific accident on the M1 which tragically took the lives of both Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklin. Clearly, Thompson has never completely come to terms with the effect that this unnerving tragedy had on him or the band. It is thought to have led to Ashley Hutchings’ departure months later and it was clearly a painful subject for Thompson to write about. There followed a short restorative trip to the U.S., and then the band decamped to Farley House in Hampshire to work on Liege & Leaf, the third major milestone.
Liege & Leaf is widely accepted as heralding the birth of folk-rock, a concept that had obviously been fermenting in Thompson’s mind for some time. Fairport were initially heavily influenced by American roots music and in particular The Band’s Music From Big Pink. But Thompson was never really comfortable with the idea of an English band trying to sound American — he wanted to embrace his Englishness and mine the roots of English traditional music in all its forms, and re-invent it in a contemporary rock format that would hopefully, simultaneously, grant them credibility and commercial success. Liege & Lief is the enduring legacy of that vision and Thompson writes about it at length and with obvious pride and affection. The Royal Festival Hall date that showcased the album, with support acts John Martyn and Nick Drake, is one of those occasions that pretty much define an era.
More personnel changes ensued — Sandy Denny was fired, Ashley Hutchings left, bassist Dave Pegg joined. The band, living communially, moved to The Angel, an old pub in Bishop’s Stortford. There were tours of the U.S. where Thompson has since been embraced as a star and has lived for the past 30 years. Then Joe Boyd sold Witchseason to Island Records, Thompson got the jitters and left the band. That was 50 years ago. Beeswing takes us a few years beyond that, encompassing a period of distinguished session work, his fruitful musical and personal relationship with Linda Peters, whom he married and with whom he made four very fine and two classic albums, and it deals with Thompson’s conversion to Sufism. In what is one of the most engaging parts of the book, he describes his growing interest in middle Eastern culture, his first Sufi meeting — after seeing an ad in Time Out, at which he was put at ease by the presence of fellow musicians from the band Mighty Baby, and his subsequent total immersion in the anti-materialist culture and religious practices of the Sufi Muslims. Linda was a convert as well and for about three years, living in communes, Thompson all but abandoned his musical career, re-emerging with the release of the First Light album. And this is pretty much where the book finishes, save for references to an unpleasant-sounding pilgrimage to Mecca, his eventual falling out with the Sufis, the end of his marriage to Linda, the death of Sandy Denny and a tantalising glimpse of his own burgeoning solo career.
Throughout the book Thompson’s own personal history is interspersed with snapshots of the general musical and cultural terrain in England in the late 60s and early 70s and is also punctuated with some surprising (to me anyway) facts — Syd Barrett is a distant cousin (!) and early on Thompson was in a band with Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers. And there are some very funny anecdotes — Viv Stanshall turning up at gigs with his ukulele (“Dear boy! How wonderful to see you! Do you mind if I sit in?”), a tense encounter with Buck Owens and the Buckaroos on Fairport’s first U.S. tour, in which the proverbial egg is spread over the appropriate faces, and a very drunken live Top Gear session in which they uncharacteristically abused the audience (“Peel was deeply upset – he later said it was like finding out your sister was a whore”).
Reading Beeswing, you are in the company of a relaxed, amusing, confident raconteur who also happens to be one of, if not the, finest British guitarists of his generation and a unique and treasured songwriter. It is of course required reading for all Richard Thompson fans and we can hopefully look forward to a future memoir that will cover his long and remarkably productive solo career and provide us with a fully rounded profile of the great man.
‘Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding my Voice 1967-75’ is out now and available via bookshop.org, or directly from your local independent bookshop.