Sandy Denny: Fair play to her

She became a Seventies folk icon, but faded out in a haze of alcohol abuse. Now Sandy Denny, voice of Fairport Convention, is getting the recognition she deserves, writes Robert Webb

It is almost three decades since Sandy Denny suffered a cerebral haemorrhage from tumbling down the stairs of her parents' home in Cornwall. When she died four days after the fall, on 21 April 1978, the 31-year-old was the indubitable first lady of modern British folk music and lauded as the country's finest female singer-songwriter, an "English Joni Mitchell". The week she died, Kate Bush, then blowing through the charts with her debut single, "Wuthering Heights", took up the baton, citing Denny as a formative influence and even name-checking the shy, sandy-haired singer, on the album Never for Ever.

This year, on 6 January, Denny would have turned 60. Now, a lavish four-disc box set is being released, which collects together her valuable recordings made for the BBC, and a television documentary telling Denny's story is in the offing.

Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny began her career in the folk basements of London, making her name in 1968 as the front woman with Fairport Convention. She joined the fledgling folk-rockers, replacing the original vocalist, Judy Dyble, after a stint with The Strawbs, long enough to cut an album (released as All Our Own Work in 1973). Together, Denny and Fairport ploughed up the grassy landscape of British folk, electrifying a traditional songbook, adding a pinch of American R&B and throwing their own compositions into the mix, to the ire of folk purists, but to the delight of a rock audience raised on Dylan and acid-folk.

One fan who got to know Denny in the early days was the broadcaster Bob Harris, for whom Denny recorded several sessions in the early Seventies. "She and I shared a house in Parsons Green in 1968," Harris says, recalling her natural warmth. "I used to sit eating eggs and bacon with her. She was funny and lovely, light company." But Harris was aware of her sadness. "You wouldn't necessarily know it, but there was an underlying melancholy." This came, Harris feels, from her quick rise to stardom. "Sandy didn't welcome the responsibility of being the voice of a generation," he says.

The lodestone of the genre, Liege and Lief, was issued in 1969. This was the third in the trilogy of Denny/Fairport albums, with the equally inspirational What We Did on our Holidays and Unhalfbricking. The latter includes a re-recording of Denny's own "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?", the song the young songwriter had first touted around folk clubs in 1967 and which got her the job with The Strawbs – and to which she would return time and again in her career. "Then came the question / And it was about time," she sings on "Next Time Around", from her 1971 solo album, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, in reference to her best-known song.

Denny's 18 months with Fairport were burdened by problems, however, and the usual rock-band complaint of musical differences. As the decade turned, Denny quit to form her own group, Fotheringay, with her boyfriend, Trevor Lucas. Grafted from the same stem as Fairport and named after a self-penned composition, Fotheringay were good for one, self-titled album.

Then, in 1971, she was off again, this time on her own. Her quartet of classic solo albums on Island – beginning with The North Star Grassman and the Ravens and squared with Sandy, Like an Old-Fashioned Waltz and Rendezvous – brought her songwriting to the fore. Tracks such as "Late November", "Listen, Listen" and "It'll Take a Long Time" confirmed her as a writer of extraordinary complexity. "My songs are written from experience," she told the BBC in 1972. "They're my experiences of people." When couched in oblique metaphor, as many are, they often come across like cryptographic crossword clues. "About 10 people can understand them," she once said. "Some people are very easily described in natural terms, in atmospheres." Knowing references to her private circle of friends does little to diminish their wide appeal, however: the personal is made universal.

In between her albums for Island, Denny popped up in some unexpected places, ranging from the celebrated duet with Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin's "The Battle of Evermore" to a role in the stage version of The Who's Tommy and a bizarre 1975 Peter Gabriel-produced single by the slapstick comedian Charlie Drake, "You Never Know". She even rejoined Fairport Convention, for a half-hearted reunion set, Rising for the Moon.

After the release of Rendezvous in 1977 she retreated to a life of awkward domesticity with Lucas, by now her husband, and their new-born daughter, Georgia. All was not well, however, and her alcohol consumption increased, worrying those around her, especially Lucas, who moved his family to Australia, leaving Denny to drink. Lucas died in 1989; ironically, Georgia's stepmother, Elizabeth Hurtt-Lucas, now manages Denny's estate. Georgia is reluctant to comment on her mother's legacy and declined an invitation to write the liner notes for the new compilation Live at the BBC.

The box set replaces an earlier album, The BBC Sessions, issued on Strange Fruit in 1997. Sue Armstrong worked on both releases. "The original 1997 album came along at exactly the time that the major labels started looking at their archive recordings," she says. Realising their assets, Polygram, who controlled Denny's Island output, withdrew permission for the release at the 11th hour, with plans to issue it themselves. Armstrong was annoyed. "I said, 'We've made 3,000 copies of this,' and they said, 'OK, you can sell those, but that's it.'" They sold out in a day, leaving most fans with tantalising press coverage, but little chance of hearing the music.

In the end, Polygram did nothing and The BBC Sessions remained an elusive collectors' item. When, in 2006, Armstrong landed a job as product manager at Island, now under the auspices of Universal, she made reissuing the Denny material her priority. With the help of Hurtt-Lucas, the BBC archives and a fan's private collection, she has assembled a complete history of Denny's live and session recordings for the Beeb. What's striking is the clarity of the performances and the lack of overdubs and string arrangements.

The package includes a disc of "off-air" recordings and a DVD of three songs filmed for a long-forgotten BBC arts show, One in Ten. These eight-and-a-half minutes constitute the only known-to-exist television appearance of solo Denny (YouTube offers footage of her performing with Fotheringay on German television). Seeing her at the piano, ringed fingers dusting the keys, her eyes lidded, as she frowns her way through "The North Star Grassman and the Ravens" and "Late November", brings prickles to the neck. She also appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test, the BBC's flagship rock programme during the Seventies. However, as Harris explains, much of Whistle Test's early archive was wiped in 1976: "A couple of chaps with clipboards went in. Some material was rescued." Sadly, Denny's appearances were not and are now available only as audio tracks, included in the box set.

As the 30th anniversary of her death approaches, the silver-tongued chanteuse is the subject of innumerable blogs and fansites, as well as the usual roster of CD remasters. Her solo catalogue was reissued in 2006 and, the same year, Liege and Lief was voted by BBC listeners as the most influential folk album of all time. For Harris, and many others, Denny remains an important figure. "She resonates in Kate Rusby and the new folk revival, the new generation of British folk music," he says.

In recent years, her contemporaries Richard Thompson, John Martyn and Nick Drake have all been honoured with BBC4 biographies. "It would be nice to see her reinstated in the same way," says Harris, and explains his plans for just such a programme. With his wife, Trudie, Harris runs a production company, WBBC. "It's the Whispering Bob Broadcasting Company," he chuckles. Although Harris is undergoing treatment for cancer and taking a break from his regular Radio 2 shows, he is still able to keep on top of his pet studio projects. "We're just in the process of submitting a proposal for the Sandy Denny story," he tells me. "Robert Plant is keen to voice it. Hopefully it will be ready in time for the anniversary." As Sandy herself might say, it's about time.

Sandy Denny Live at the BBC is available from Universal; Bob Harris's radio documentary on Sandy Denny is planned for broadcast in 2008

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