Fairport Convention: 'We were a boy band playing semi-traditional music'

Fairport Convention’s WinTour has become such an integral part of the calendar for British folk-rock’s most enduring band that Dave Pegg is the first to admit that he sorely missed it when the Covid pandemic shut down their adventures on the road for the best part of two years.
Fairport Convention, from left, Davve Mattacks, Chris Leslie, Simon Nicol, Ric Sanders and Dave Pegg. Picture Ben NicholsonFairport Convention, from left, Davve Mattacks, Chris Leslie, Simon Nicol, Ric Sanders and Dave Pegg. Picture Ben Nicholson
Fairport Convention, from left, Davve Mattacks, Chris Leslie, Simon Nicol, Ric Sanders and Dave Pegg. Picture Ben Nicholson

“It affected everybody in the arts really, especially financially, but the worst aspect for us as musicians was not being able to get together and play anywhere,” says the 76-year-old from his home near the French town of Lorient. “I play the bass and sitting on my own in my house in Brittany playing the bass, I can’t do it. I’m like a group member, I need to have other people to play with. I’d get all my favourite CDs out and play along with Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson and James Taylor but it’s not the same.”

Pegg might not be one of the founding members of Fairport, but he is the one with the longest period of continuous service. This is his 55th year with the band since replacing Ashley Hutchings in 1969. Next month he’ll be touring with Simon Nicol, Chris Leslie, Ric Sanders and Dave Mattacks in the band’s current incarnation.

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He is particularly excited about the return of Mattacks, with whom he formed a formidable rhythm section in the early 1970s before the drummer went on to play with the likes of Paul McCartney, Elton John and George Harrison. “It’s fantastic,” he says. “Sadly we lost Gerry Conway, his health means he couldn’t carry on playing the drums. He’s still with us, but touring became a real hardship for him, so it was great that Dave could come over from the States. He lives near Boston and he has the record for being in the band four times…

“Fairport is very much a family thing. We have lots of ex-members who we still see and play with from time to time, and that’s great for us. It’s a band that started in ’67, there have been many comings and goings, but having Dave is great because when I joined Fairport he was the drummer in the band then and we have a very tight contact in terms of our musical handshake. We’re a very good rhythm section – I’m told – so it’s great for me and it’s something that comes naturally. We’ve worked together on so many albums, not just Fairport, things like Nick Drake’s album Bryter Later and John Martyn’s album Solid Air, lots of Ralph McTell albums and Richard Thompson. It’s like we can each anticipate what the other person’s likely to do; we never get in each other’s way unless it’s a rush to get out of the van.”

Given that Fairport Convention’s catalogue encompasses 29 studio albums plus a further 27 live albums, choosing a concert set is filled with possibilities. “We’ve never had any kind of hits apart from the one fluke Bob Dylan song which the band did in French, Si Tu Dois Partir, which was a bit of a p***take, really, but it miraculously got into the top 20, and we’ve got such a vast repertoire,” Peggs says. “But there are some songs that over the years our fans really do like to hear every time we perform – things like Matty Groves, a 19-verse murder ballad 99 per cent of the time, occasionally it’s an 18-verse murder ballad when Simon’s omitted one of the verses but our audience know all the words to it. Similarly, a song which Richard Thompson wrote, Meet On The Ledge, which is our encore number.”

Pegg admits he could never have envisaged that his stint in Fairport Convention would last more than half a century. “It’s bizarre how things happen,” he reflects. “I loved Fairport Convention and I was lucky enough to be invited to join them. In the early days we had lots of line-up changes and lots of stress in terms of trying to sell (our music). When Fairport happened in the late 60s with little record labels it was all about the music, people like Island Records and Chrysalis and Vertigo, so it was all very much not hippie music but the people that ran the record companies were of a like mind to the musicians that they were signing. They were all young and music was predominanly the reason why they were setting up record companies. But then later in the 1970s when all these little labels became successful suits moved in, accountants and stuff like that, and it was pointed out to the bosses of the record companies that some of the acts they had may not be commercially viable and weren’t selling anything, and Fairport were one of those.

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“Island Records dropped us and then we went to Phonogram, and eventually they dropped us. We made two albums for them on the Vertigo label, but it was a time when the punk thing was happening in ’77-’78 and we felt we were out of date and out of place and that was when we kind of split up because our violinist at the time, Dave Swarbrick, had got some hearing issues, and we all felt that we didn’t fit any more. We thought we were too old to rock ’n’ roll, if you like – you’re never too old, you realise eventually – so the Vertigo label paid us not to make any more albums for them in 1979, and it was the first time we’d ever earnt any money from the music business.

Fairport ConventionFairport Convention
Fairport Convention

“It’s a strange feeling when the first time you’ve ever earnt any money from what you do for a living is when people are saying you’re no good at it and can you pack up doing it – that happened to us. We made £7,000 each through Phonogram paying us not to make any more albums. That’s when Dave Swarbrick left the band and went up to Scotland to live. I had a little cottage in Cropredy, but I had not got a permanent job in music. Fairport I’d done for 10 years, so it was like where do I start? I was going to set up a little studio with the money that Phonogram had kindly given us but I was invited to join Jethro Tull, who needed a bass player. All of a sudden I’d gone from being in poverty rock, which was what we called it with the Fairport, to being in one of the biggest bands in the world.”

In order to keep Fairport Convention going, they started their own festival – Cropredy – and record label, Woodworm. “That’s how we were able to continue,” says Pegg. “Our longevity as Fairport is down to the major labels going, ‘we don’t want you any more​​​​​​​, you don’t sell enough product​​​​​​​’ to us saying we can sell enough product to keep us going on our own terms​​​​​​​, and we escaped the clutches of the music business and have been independent ever since.”

Before joining Fairport Convention, Pegg had played in various rock bands in Birmingham with the likes of Robert Plant, John Bonham, Cozy Powell and Clem Clemson, who went on to join Colisseum and Humble Pie. His introduction to traditional music came via the Ian Campbell Folk Band.

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He recalls: “Birmingham was a fantastic city for music, there were some great bands there, but in order to make it as a musician you really had to leave Birmingham and move to London, that was the ideal way of getting known.

“Before that happened, I was invited to play with the Ian Campbell Folk Group, which was a Scottish traditional band, who were very big at the time. I played electric bass on one of their albums and they said ‘can you join us?’ My worst mistake was trading in my 1962 Fender Stratocaster for a Czechoslovakian double bass. It did give me employment in the Campbells for a year and that’s where I developed my interest in folk music.

“I was never a great double bass player, I was a double bass owner, but I enjoyed playing with the Campbells. I learned to play the mandolin as well, just to be able to play on some of their songs, and I developed a real interest in traditional music, which I still have to this day, and that helped me when I got the chance to play with the Fairport because at the time they’d got Sandy Denny and Dave Swarbrick who’d both come from a folk background. Sandy was known as a writer but Swarb was an expert on traditional tunes and was a big influence. Ashley Hutchings, who was the bass player before me, wanted to band to go in a traditional direction – in fact he left to form Steeleye Span to pursue his interest in traditional music.

“When I joined the band, Sandy had left, so we became the first boy band. We were a boy band playing semi-traditional music.”

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Pegg is credited with being the first to play jigs and reels on the electric bass; he says the innovation was accidental.

“I wish I could claim it was genius on my part, but the honest truth is that (it was down to) a set of tunes that had finished up on Full House, the first album I made with the band. They were collectively titled Dirty Linen, it was like four sets of tunes, and I listened to the tunes in rehearsal and I really wasn’t sure what to play, so I learnt the tunes as a failsafe and when we started practising them I said I can play these and weverybody went, ‘That’s incredible, yeah, do that’. It was because I couldn’t think of anything else to do, but at the time it was kind of revolutionary, I suppose, because a) there weren’t many bass guitarist playing traditional music, and b) they were quite complex tunes to play. I can still play them just about, although I have difficulty with the third one. I play them a lot slower now.”

Babbacombe Lee, the third album, that Pegg made with the band, broke new ground as the first folk opera. He says: “It was a concept of Dave Swarbrick. He found these old newspaper cuttings on the story of John Lee of Babbacombe, who got convicted of murder. For us Babbacombe Lee was perfect timing because we were about to record an album called Angel Delight and Richard Thompson had left the band. Richard is an absolute genius and a brilliant songwriter, so it hit the four of us very hard the fact that he was going. There was no animosity, it was just that the band couldn’t contain Richard’s talent, he wanted to go in a different direction and everybody wanted him to really be successful, which he is nowadays. He’s one of the best songwriters in the world, and certainly one of the best guitar players.

“When he left we were like, oh Christ, what can we do​​​​​​​? Finding a newspaper article about John Lee, Swarb said, ‘This is fantastic, it’s all there in front of us. We’ve got an album here, all we’ve got to do is rewrite that story’ and we could all chip in. Simon and Dave Mattacks and myself went off and wrote songs about particular extracts from the newspaper and it just worked so well. It was a great thing at the time to unify the band and give everybody the confidence that we could do something without Richard.”

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Fairport Convention’s ever-changing line-up throughout the 1970s meant those that were left regularly had to adapt to changing circumstances – as their ecletci catalogue from that period attests.

Pegg says: “We were young and had many influences musically and many directions that each individual could have gone off in, and when people did leave the band we never looked for a person to replace them who had the same kind of musical identity because you couldn’t find those people. You could never replace a Sandy Denny or a Richard Thompson. So whoever we invited into the band, we’d utilise their abilities and their talents. Whatever they brought into the band in terms of direction, we’d snap up. A classic example is the Fairport 9 album where you’ve got an Australian singer-songwriter, Trevor Lucas, and an American guitar player, Jerry Donohue, and Dave Mattacks, Dave Swarbrick and myself. It’s an incredibly eclectic album, if you listen to thos tracks individually it could be a different band every time, but it’s an album that shows off everybody’s ability.

“When Ric Sanders and Maartin Alcock joined the band when we got back together in 1985 and we made an album called Gladys’ Leap and the next album was called Expletive Delighted and it was all instrumental. We did that to show off Ric and Maartin’s ability as musicians. They were writing great tunes and we figured we had to show the audience the band had the possibility of continuing and playing giood music.”

Nearly 50 years since it was founded, Cropredy Festival in Oxfordshire, where three of the band have houses, is still going strong. This year’s line-up in August includes Rick Wakeman,Tony Christie and Trevor Horn. “I’m really pleased with it,” Pegg says. “Cropredy is a very eclectic kind of line-up, we try to have something for everybody.

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“I think it’s the best festival you’ll ever go to and it’s down to the philosphy we had putting it together, which is if we like it then our audience will like it. Last year we had Nile Rodgers headlining, which some people would go that’s totally out of context​​​​​​​ with Fairport Convention​​​​​​​, but I’d heard Nile Rodgers on TV a couple of times ​​​​​​​actually naming Fairport as one of his influences.

“But it’s not a folk festival. We have some traditional acts every year and we have some acts that people might think are a bit strange. We had Petula Clark five years ago when she was 81 and some people went ‘why have you booked her?’ I said because I saw her at Birmingham Town Hall and it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen, she was amazing. It’s a similar thing with Tony Christie – people go it doesn’t fit into the Fairport Cropredy Convention format, but it fits into our format because it’s great music and the guys is an incredible performer and he wants to do it. It’s part of 31 hours of music on the stage that we have this year coming up, and it’s an hour and a half of something totally different.”

Fairport Convention play at Penistone Paramount on February 9 and Harrogate Theatre on March 1 with Plumhall. https://www.fairportconvention.com/