It came about this way: I received a 180-gram reissue of Genesis’ Trespass for Christmas. In a documentary on the making of the album Tony Banks said the band’s first truly progressive work had been inspired by listening to groups like The Nice, Family, and Fairport Convention.
Fairport Convention? I think I once saw a passing reference to “progressive folk” applied to their work, and was familiar with their definitive album, Liege & Leaf — a statement on their growing affinity with the English folk tradition. While Trespass has some folk-inspired moments it’s anachronistic to say Liege influenced Genesis’ 12-string arrangements and composite chords. I went back to Fairport’s debut, Fairport Convention, recorded in November 1967 (man, something about British bands and fall recording sessions) and released in the spring of ’68.
I get why some reviewers heralded early Fairport as the “British Jefferson Airplane.” Out of the gate, “Time Will Show the Wiser” could pass as a rev-up for Altamont. Despite the similarities Fairport displays with a tighter, chiseled attention to detail, with emphasis on the ironic chord change and sudden shift in mood. And right away one is confronted with the stunningly mature guitar chops of 18 year-old Richard Thompson. One moment Thompson is as brash as Jeff Beck and subtle as Django Reinhardt the next.
This eclectic set unveils surprising inventiveness: 18 year-old Judy Dyble’s recorder, on the instrumental break to the Dylan cover “Jack O’ Diamonds,” anticipating Jethro Tull; her angular piano lines on “Portfolio”; her electric autoharp stroking through the dank waters of “The Lobster.” Seventeen year-old drummer Martin Lamble plays with the timing, accent, and panache of seasoned veteran. Had he not died two years later when the band’s van overturned on the M1 he would’ve given Phil Collins a run for his money, or been lauded for the ear and expertise of a Ginger Baker, minus the excess (a smaller kit helps).
Framing these flourishes were bassist Ashley “Tyger” Hutchings and rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol — whose dad lent the young musicians the space above his medical office.
Whatever had been going on in those rehearsals at the Fairport house in Muswell Hill, North London, these youngsters caught it like lightning in a bottle. Want to hear something Fripp-like before Dyble joined Giles, Giles, & Fripp? Check out the menacing, minor-key guitar break on “One Sure Thing” (one of three Joni Mitchell covers). Need a hint on where Genesis might have caught some recurring musical ideas? Behold “The Lobster,” its shape-shifting form driving through depths of light and shade before surfacing in a massive build-up, the forlorn voice of Iain Matthews (Ian McDonald) in a canyon of reverb, reduced to a final, plaintive syllable.
Strictly speaking, Fairport Convention isn’t a prog album. It’s art rock with dashes of West Coast, country, and jazz. It anticipates, it inspires. Yea, it probably even terrified rival bands who, may I dare say, were relieved after the departures of Dyble and Matthews to find Fairport choosing a direction and genre that, while brilliant and important in its own right (ask British ears), would never plow up the lineaments of British rock in quite the same way.
For those interested in the antecedents of progressive rock, Fairport Convention is an essential and rewarding listen.
Below, a live performance on the French television music program, Bouton Rouge: