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Sandy Denny, Fotheringay and the album that refused to stay buried

Fother1Image: Linda Fitzgerald-Moore
One of the most memorable live experiences I have ever known came at the Cropredy festival in 2007, when the sublime Chris While took Sandy Denny's place in what was otherwise the Fairport Convention line-up that recorded Liege and Lief; nearly four decades on, track by track, they re-created that gloriously influential album. If that event took some of us back to the end of the 1960s, what of the tremendous project, pursued by Jerry Donahue, to ensure that a subsequent step in Sandy's career - the second, abandoned album by Fotheringay - was not lost for ever in record label archives? This article, from The National* (published in Abu Dhabi), tells the story - and, don't forget, for a mainstream readership - of Jerry's determined campaign to salvage a priceless gem of the British folk-rock era....

Thirty years have passed since Sandy Denny, a young woman with the voice of an angel but a taste for hard living, suffered a brain haemorrhage while staying with a friend in London. Just 31, she slipped into a coma and died.

She left a young daughter, large numbers of adoring fans and a fair body of recorded work that was to trickle out in various forms over the next three decades.

To coincide with this year’s anniversary of her death, the BBC produced a radio documentary named in part after her most famous song, Who Knows Where The Time Goes? The project echoed a recent explosion of interest in the singer far in excess of the attention she commanded when alive.

And just when it seemed there could surely be nothing more to say or hear, that every radio and television library, record label archive and attic had been combed for material to satisfy the fascination with her life and work, another Sandy Denny album has surfaced.

The story of Fotheringay’s 2, the follow-up record that took 38 years to complete and release, is an extraordinary one. Who, indeed, knows where the time went?

In 1970, having left Fairport Convention, the pioneers of British folk-rock, after the first of her two stints with the band, Denny created Fotheringay. She was the undoubted star, and eyes focused naturally on her. But she saw it in more democratic terms, considering her colleagues – two former members of Eclection, Trevor Lucas and Gerry Conway, and two former members of Poet and the One Man Band, Jerry Donahue and Pat Donaldson – as equal components of the band.

There were similarities between the group Denny formed and the one she had left: traditional songs and wistful country ballads meeting rock and finding glorious expression in superior musicianship and breathtaking vocals.

Even the name of the band was resonant of Denny’s recent past. Fotheringay, her song about Mary, Queen of Scots, had been a treasured part of Fairport’s repertoire.

Fotheringay’s eponymous debut album is regarded by folk-rock connoisseurs today as a masterpiece. Even in 1970, when the weight of expectation led to cooler appraisal, the hope was that Fotheringay would take the genre to new heights of subtlety and substance. Work soon began on a follow-up.

Despite the bouts of self-doubt that dogged her career, the young Denny, far from being confined to the tight ghetto of folk, was viewed within the pop music industry as highly marketable.

There was pressure to embark on a solo career and, during a break for Christmas from recording the new album, it became irresistible.

When the band returned to the studios in Chelsea, west London, early in Jan 1971, she was in tears as she announced her decision to leave. The album was abandoned, and the tapes of what had already been recorded disappeared into record company archives.

And there they would have stayed but for the stubborn resolve of one of Denny’s Fotheringay colleagues, an American guitarist called Jerry Donahue. It was not quite a case of a dog refusing to let go of a bone, since the bone was buried; Donahue nevertheless kept on digging until, five years ago, he unearthed it. Eventually, in exchanges with Joe Black, an executive from Universal, which long ago absorbed Fotheringay’s label, Island, it became clear that the work in progress was likely to have survived. And so it turned out to be; even though the tapes had been shunted around on to different reels, Black was able to assemble all the material.

“I was so happy,” says Donahue, whose own career path had led him, post-Fotheringay, into production. “It was just so great not only to hear these long-lost recordings, but to find them in such good condition.”

The remaining snag was that the timing of the break-up of the band meant nothing was a finished product. Donahue set about piecing together the jigsaw using the best elements of each track Black had located. Denny’s most appealing version of a song might be on one tape, the strongest guitar solo or bass line on another. “I wanted everything to be the absolute best,” he says.

It was quickly evident that some additional work would be needed. Denny was long dead, of course, as was Trevor Lucas, her estranged husband at the time of her passing in April 1978 and the father of their daughter, Georgia.

Donahue, who divides his time between California and the northern England town of Clitheroe, quickly recruited the others. Gerry Conway was living near London, and working regularly with Fairport, and also his wife Jacqui McShee’s band Pentangle. Pat Donaldson was lured from his retreat in the south of France.

Both travelled to Donahue’s studio in Clitheroe to add the sequences needed to complete the album. Wild Mountain Thyme, a traditional ballad widely acclaimed as one of the most gripping tracks of the newly released album, was a good example; Denny had recorded it as a guide for the others, with just voice and guitar. On the version buyers of the new album hear, all three of Fotheringay’s surviving musicians are featured.

The result of the extra recording, and the process of mixing and matching the best segments of each track from a variety of contemporary sources, is a set with key differences from what Denny and Fotheringay’s fans have previously encountered, even though other versions of the same material have appeared since her death.

“These are not only among the very first versions of those songs,” says Donahue. “They are totally different takes, different performances from those that made their way to vinyl and/or CD in the years that followed the 1970 sessions. Once the doors were finally opened to us, it was like pursuing a known treasure with limited expectations – and, upon finding it, uncovering totally unexpected gems that were either forgotten or presumed lost forever.”

So how good is it? Few would claim that sounds essentially recorded nearly 40 years ago could be seen as the cutting edge of modern music. “Listening to my own performances from all that time ago, I can hear the enthusiasm,” says Conway, Fotheringay’s drummer. “And I can also hear where it was flawed.

“Generally speaking, though, it is a great thing of its time. We had all given up hope of seeing it happen and to our amazement it has come out, warts and all.”

What the passage of time has not removed, as Conway’s comments imply, is the passion with which Fotheringay approached their music. Beyond that, the individual performances are compelling. Lucas’s tones, which dominate several tracks, are lugubrious, but seem utterly right for the context; if the classic male folk-rock voice of the era existed, he had it. From Denny, there is yet another melancholy reminder of that magical combination of emotion, purity and vulnerability.

Despite two awards as female singer of the year, as voted by readers of a respected pop music weekly, Melody Maker, the solo career was not a resounding success. Denny was to descend into the rock pitfalls of drink and, reportedly, drugs, weaknesses that introduced a self-destructive aspect into her final years. But those who knew or admired her prefer to remember the exceptional vocal gifts, which make Wild Mountain Thyme and Silver Threads and Golden Needles not only the outstanding tracks of 2, but as fresh as if recorded last week.

“I have such fond memories of that time,” says Donaldson from his French home. “It was a wonderful band, extraordinarily together. For Sandy to leave was a huge dilemma for her, and I think it stayed one in the back of her mind for the rest of her life. She never seemed settled in any way, as a solo artist or on a personal level. But it was an absolute privilege to work with her. She is way up there on the top rung of the ladder of people I’ve played with.”

Earlier this month, the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London was the setting for one more commemoration of the anniversary of Denny’s death. Performers paying tribute to her life and work ranged from such younger innovators as Lisa Knapp and Jim Moray to a sprinkling of pop music figures, notably Marc Almond and PP Arnold.

It was one more occasion guaranteed to stir powerful memories. Donahue, the man most responsible for rescuing a lost chapter of her work, was among those present.

“Sandy is still probably the most special singer I have known,” he says. “I have heard technically better, but when she was into a song, especially when recording a guide track without interference from nerves, or from people telling her how it should be sung, it was the most beautiful thing I have heard.”

* 2 by Fotheringay is out now on Fledg’ling Records.
Go the The National website to see the above article featured by the national newspaper of the UAE - and accompanied by a photo of Sandy taken at London's Marquee Club in 1966.


Colin Randall

Welcome to all coming here from the Sandy Denny and Family group at Facebook after I posted a link there on April 29 2020 ....

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