Fairport Convention guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson recalls early days with the band in his new memoir
Simon [Nicol]’s family [guitarist and founding member of Fairport Convention] owned a large mock Tudor house called Fairport on Fortis Green [in Muswell Hill, north London]. It had been the family home and also housed his father’s medical practice. Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks grew up literally down the road. Not long before I first met Simon, his father had tragically died of cancer, and he and his mother moved to a smaller flat nearby. Fairport was rented out, and Ashley [Hutchings] was one of the renters. It was a large, sparsely furnished house, with a capacious living room that was ideal for rehearsing in – the only problem was that our PA system would sometimes pick up shortwave radio transmissions from the fire station next door. Ashley soon realised that his landlady’s son Simon played the guitar, and recruited him to play in the Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra. Richard Lewis and Kingsley Abbott were two friends in the area who both had record collections that we could raid; Richard suggested the name Fairport Convention for the band, which seemed to sum us up nicely – plus, in keeping with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Strawberry Alarm Clock, and Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, it was suitably polysyllabic for the age.
We rehearsed whenever possible, polishing a repertoire of covers of the Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful, along with a bit of blues and R&B and the odd country song. Our drummer, Shaun, was probably the weakest link in the band at that point. Our short-term ambition was to play competently together and have enough songs for a couple of sets. We were planning to play our first show as Fairport, but before that happened there was an important watershed moment in our own backyard.
The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream was a concert at Alexandra Palace on 29 April 1967 that might be described as a ‘psychedelic happening’. The idea of a happening had existed in the world of Pop Art for a decade or so – an artistic event that broke the norms of perception and behaviour. This was my first experience of the LSD version of that, with loud music and light shows that were intended to disorient the participant, and lead them to experience reality differently.
The sound hit me as soon as I walked through the door. It was like being inside a huge bell that was being hammered from the outside: the cacophony seemed to blend into one deafening drone. The hall was the size of a couple of middling cathedrals, and the music was bouncing off the ceiling. Standing in the middle of the hall, I could hear three bands at once! I got close to the stage and watched Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Sam Gopal and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. The music was loud, self-indulgent, theatrical and quite experimental. It was as if the shackles of pop music had been removed during the previous few months, and a kind of musical anarchy had taken over. The friends I had come with vanished and reappeared again through the course of the night. There were light shows and silent films from the 1920s. Some people were smoking dried banana peel and the smell of hashish was strong in the air, while a lot of the crowd were undoubtedly on acid. John Lennon was wandering around, looking every inch an impersonation of himself, with his moustache, NHS spectacles and Afghan jacket. Yoko Ono did a performance called ‘Cut Piece’ that involved inviting members of the crowd to cut pieces from a girl’s dress until she was naked. There must have been ten thousand people in there. One of the members of Soft Machine, Pink Floyd’s rival for the most famous psychedelic band in London, was wearing a top hat with the wings of a model glider attached to it, which seemed almost like the new sartorial normal. Was this what it was like at the famous Fillmore in San Francisco, on any given day of the week?
Here was proof of the arrival of a new culture. The Mods had ruled for a couple of years, with their Italian suits, parkas and Lambrettas, but now the hippies were taking over, with bell-bottoms, paisley shirts and long hair. There was a new spirit in the air.
Extracted from Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice 1967-75 by Richard Thompson (Faber). Buy a copy here.
Find out more about Fairport Convention and the folk revival in Will Hodgkinson’s online course, The Idler Guide to British Folk