Inspired by The Byrds, who had taken many American folk forms and almost single-handedly invented Folk Rock, the Fairport’s Richard Thompson had long considered why not do that with British Folk music. They had hinted at the possibilities on previous album “Unhalfbricking” and “Liege And Lief” is that British Folk Rock vision in full bloom.
Just before recording started tragedy struck. The band were returning from a gig at the famed club Mothers (above a carpet shop) in Birmingham on 12th May 1969. In the early hours the bands van crashed on the M1 after their roadie, who was driving, fell asleep. Drummer Martin Lamble, just 19 years old, and Richard Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn were both killed. All other members of the band suffered injuries of varying severity and they very nearly disbanded. Eventually they reconvened with Dave Mattacks stepping in on drums and occasional fiddler (he appeared on 3 tracks on previous album “Unhalfbricking”) Dave Swarbrick joining permanently. Producer Joe Boyd set them up in a studio in a rented house in Farley Chamberlayne in Hampshire where, in October and November, the band created definitely their signature album and a landmark in British Folk Rock.
Of the 8 tracks that make up “Liege And Lief” 5 are arrangements of traditional folk songs with three (mosttly) originals written in the same style. You’d be hard pressed to know, if you didn’t already, that first song “Come All Ye” (written by Sandy Denny and bassist Ashley Hutchings) wasn’t a traditional folk tune. It’s a fantastic “scene setter”, a proper “banger” (as the vernacular would have it these days) and one night I might even be brave enough to drop it into a DJ set. The remaining self penned songs are “Farewell, Farewell” and “Crazy Man Michael” although both have traditional roots. “Farewell, Farewell” was written as a tribute to Martin Lamble and Jeannie Franklyn, Thompson set new lyrics to the 18th century melody of the traditional song “False Foudrage”. “Crazy Man Michael” was also initially written by Thompson, again as a new lyric set to a traditional melody, this time “The Bonnie House of Airlie” a 17th century Scottish song. When Dave Swarbrick heard it he suggested allying Thompson’s lyrics to an original song he had written instead.
But the meat of this album is the skilful way Fairport Convention melded traditional folk music to Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Reynardine” is a traditional English ballad dating from the 19th century about a werefox (think werewolf, but a fox) who attracts beautiful women up to his castle, although what happens there isn’t revealed; “Matty Groves” is an early 17th century story of adultery, class division and murder from Northern England; “The Deserter” (also known as “Ratcliffe Highway”) was reportedly learned from Dubliner Luke Kelly who found the song in a Victorian broadsheet but suspected it was much older. It’s thought to have been Sandy Denny’s favourite on the album.
The second track on side 2 is a medley of traditional fiddle tunes that highlights both Swarbrick and Thompson’s musical dexterity, a bit rough around the edges in spots but thrilling when rocked up with a drummer; finally “Tam Lin” about the rescue of said Tam by his true love from the Queen of the Fairies (anyone getting Decemberists “Hazards Of Love” vibes here ?). It’s usually combined with the Glasgow Reel which is very likely incorporated but as I don’t know it I can’t confirm. This songs dates from the mid 16th century !
Whatever your opinion on folk music, and it is sometimes hard to see past the beards Arran jumpers and finger in the ear image, it is at its heart the music of the ordinary people of its making, I once heard a well known folk musician (who’s name I won’t repeat here) describe The Clash as folk music. “Liege And Lief” is without doubt a hugely important and influential album in British folk and rock music. Having listened to it a lot for the purposes of this write up, I find myself liking it more and more. It struck me that it’s not often you hear British rock music almost devoid of American influence (Rock being an American form after all) but this is likely as close as you'll get. Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick turn in incredible, virtuoso performances and it’s arguable that others like Steeleye Span and more contemporary folkies like The Pogues and The Levellers ( and by extension Ferocious Dog, Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphy’s yadda yadda) owe a debt to this wonderful album and it’s mix of 2 diverse styles into one whole. Give it a go, I did and it relieved me of some musical prejudices and opened me up to a whole new world.
Come All Ye - https://youtu.be/MPuAOF3TiLk