Iain Matthews (known in the 1960s as Ian Matthews) was one of the singer-songwriters on the first Fairport Convention albums in the late 1960s, going on to perform both as a solo act and a member of groups such as Plainsong over the course of the next few decades. In this interview he remembers his stint in Fairport.
When you joined Fairport after having done the one single with Pyramid, my impression is that you, and to varying degrees some of the other Fairporters, really were not too deeply steeped in traditional folk music. Rather, your influences were more early American electric folk-rockers: the Byrds, Ian & Sylvia (who of course were really more folkies), the Fariñas, Love, and so forth. What was it that was attracting you and the band to such folk-rock, and were you conscious at this point of pursuing a, quote, "folk-rock" direction?
When I received the invitation to "check out" Fairport I knew absolutely nothing about them, all I knew was that they were beginning to establish themselves as an underground favorite, by playing regularly at the UFO club in Covent Garden. But the crowd I was running with at the time were listening to a completely different genre of music. So I had nothing to go on, there was nothing on vinyl, Fairport's recording days were still ahead of them.
The day I met the band for the first time they had gathered in a small studio in south London called Sound Techniques, to record their first single. I was between homes at the time and I walked in with my suitcase and a dozen albums under my arm, Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Tim Buckley, Byrds, David Ackles etc., and I believe these albums got me the job, because it was coincidentally exactly what they were all listening to, plus Dylan, Joni and Richard Fariña, of course.
At the time no one in the band was writing with any seriousness, so we dug deep into that type of approach for inspiration and for stage material. I don't think anyone apart from possibly Joe Boyd had any vision of where the band was headed, or what we might become. We were developing something and placed no boundaries on it. At the back of our minds American folk-rock was the happening thing both musically and inspirationally. We loved the Airplane and the two lead vocalist approach appealed to us. Because of our name and our scruffy onstage presence, lot of people around that time thought we were American and considering the possible rewards, we were not about to attempt to dispel that presumption.
It seems to me that prior to Fairport's first album, there were very few British artists producing folk-rock in the classic style, other than Donovan. It is certainly true that folk-rock informed the work of some of the recordings by the mid?1960s Beatles and other British acts. However, Donovan (from 1966 onward) was the only major British pre-1968 act that combined roughly equal parts of folk and rock (with some pop). British artists such as Pentangle/Bert Jansch/Davy Graham, as fine as they were, seemed much more folkies with a bit of rock influence, rather than acts trying to electrify folk music or combine folk with rock. And even in 1967-68, the only other British act that was doing classic-style harmony-guitar folk-rock was Eclection, who had the one rather little-heard album on Elektra. Would you agree with this?
Not only then, but for the next 10 years in the UK, to our great surprise no one tried to emulate the Fairport "thing." Some triffled with pale reflections, but there has never been, to my knowledge, a serious emulation.
And whether or not you agree with the view above, how do you feel Fairport's earliest work contributed to the evolution of the British folk-rock style?
I believe that Fairport, in all its incarnations, has almost single-handedly been responsible for and has written the book on the history of the evolution of folk-rock in the UK. Over the years Ashley Hutchings, with his Albion Bands and Richard through his solo work have carried the torch to another level.
Fairport's early repertoire was striking for its inclusion of many songs that would have been quite obscure in Britain (and sometimes even the US) at that point: "One Sure Thing" (Jim & Jean), "Reno Nevada" (Fariñas), "Chelsea Morning," "Eastern Rain" and "I Don't Know Where I Stand" (Joni Mitchell, before she had recorded anything official on her own), "Tried So Hard" (Gene Clark), "Some Sweet Day" (Everly Brothers), "Close the Door Lightly" (Eric Andersen), "Suzanne" (Leonard Cohen before he was big), "Time Will Show the Wiser" (Emitt Rhodes), "Jack O'Diamonds" (Ben Carruthers -- WAY obscure!), "Morning Glory" (Tim Buckley), "Percy's Song" (Bob Dylan, at that point unreleased by Dylan), etc. In a way this was like what British R&B/rock bands had been doing a few years earlier by covering little-known American blues/R&B songs, different perhaps in that you were covering material that was usually very recent. Was the band deliberately using something of an archivist's approach to selecting material, searching for tunes on hard-to-find imports, publisher's demos, and the like?
We were quite fortunate really, because in Joe and his direct link to Warners at the time, we had a private source to whatever American material we wanted. He was responsible for many of our early influences. Were it not for him, I may not have listened to Moby Grape, or Buffalo Springfield for quite some time. Joni Mitchell too, Joe had a direct line to her publishing demos and supplied us with whatever we could handle. I'm sure the Joe pipeline was how Sandy got "Who Knows" to Judy Collins.
And if so, what do you feel Fairport might have added to the original versions?
I have to say again here that I was not one of the driving forces behind the early Fairport direction. Most of this was engineered behind the scenes by Joe. He was very good at dropping subtle ideas and Richard, Ashley and to a lesser degree Simon, were very open and good at picking up the idea and running with it. I was a simply a singer at that point, struggling to find direction.
Richard was one to never even consider the possibility of simply recording a soundalike cover. He was constantly searching for an alternate way to interpret these great songs. In retrospect, I see that he was a fine influence on my own ability to do that too. If we couldn't somehow add to the original, in some way, then we inevitably abandoned the song.
I have thought in recent times that it might be a neat idea to take all of that great cover material we interpreted so well back then and put it all on a solo album, with a tip of the hat to the boys.
At the point at which Fairport began writing original material, what if anything did the band have in mind as far as trying to evolve from the cover-heavy original repertoire?
At the point at which we began to flirt with writing, we had no preconceptions as to form, or style. The writing itself was our inspiration. I began as a lyricist. I would take my lyrics and a hummable melody to Richard, (he and I were living in same house) and he would come up with the accompanying chords. We wrote two songs that way before I began my loose acquaintance with the guitar and thought I could do it alone, big mistake number one.
In what I would argue was Fairport's best lineup -- you, Sandy Denny, Thompson, Hutchings, Nicol, and Lamble -- I am particularly interested in your view what the crucial contributions were by yourself, Denny, Thompson, and producer Joe Boyd.
As I previously mentioned, I was at that point simply a pawn in the Fairport game. I was the male vocal energy on the right side of the stage. Ultimately I can't think of any long-lasting effect that my presence in the band had. It was a good schooling for me and a nice reference for my later endeavors. Sandy on the other hand was already becoming the undeniable writing force she would later be considered. Richard, well we all know what Richard's contribution was. Ashley was the driving force that Richard could never quite muster. Simon was the glue, the calming influence. I mean look at him, he's the only one still at ease with tying it all together after all these years. In my opinion, Martin, I am convinced, would have developed into one of the great British drummers, he had all the tools at his fingertips, tragic. Joe had a ruthless side to him also, nothing got in the way of his vision, not even me!
Now we come to the question that interests me most, and is going to be somewhat lengthy and involved. Over the years, a critical party line among rock and folk historians has developed which holds that Fairport Convention did not reach their peak, and truly develop their own vision, until the Liege and Lief album in 1969. The view often expounded by critics is that prior to this, Fairport were too derivative of west coast folk-rock, and found their identity when they decided to focus primarily on electrified English traditional folk. I personally disagree with this. I feel, first of all, that the very first (pre-Denny) album is quite respectable, and also that the band was truly at their best in the early, pre-Liege and Lief Denny period, when there was a very good balance between original folk-rock material, covers of traditional folk songs, and covers of contemporary songs by other folk-rock songwriters. I am not just saying this because this is when you were in the band; I feel it to be true. Would you agree with this, and if so why or why not?
I disagree with this too. Even in retrospect, I find early Fairport neither derivative nor unfocused. Most critics seem to have a hard time resisting labeling anything, even if it's unlabelable. Fairport was such an act, original from the get go. OK, they found a niche that no-one else had explored with Liege and Lief, but I challenge anyone to show me a band from that era and be able to say "that sounds like early Fairport."
I believe Liege was a huge turning point in the bands identity and acceptance, and I respect the many stylistic changes they made for that album, but listening back, my favorites were Holidays and Unhalfbricking. And let's not forget the oft overlooked Heyday: not sonically the best, but what great material and drive, you can taste the enthusiasm.
This question ties in with the previous one. Was it a frustration to you that the band swung more in the trad direction by the end of the decade, and how much of that was a factor in your exit from the band?
My exit from the band was no surprise to me. Given a choice, which I was not, I would have stayed another six months and thoroughly learned my craft. They were exploring the trad side of things heavily at that time and the end of my tenure came when I discovered accidentally that they were in the studio without me.
As it was, Joe (yeah, again) wanted to move on to phase 3 quickly and sentiments had no place in his plan. I was asked to leave and dumped on the same day. Presuming that he meant soon, I got in van to go to the show, Ashley turned to me and said ,"Where do you think you're going." Sandy bless her, turned to him and said, "You heartless bastard." I got out and away they sped.
My book is only covering the 1960s, stopping at the end of 1969, which is why there are not more questions about your solo career and work with Plainsong. However, you were starting your post-Fairport output by 1969. Knowing that this question has a rather grand sweep, how (if at all) were you determined to explore different territory at this point than you had in Fairport?
I didn't know what I wanted to do after Fairport, I moped around for a week or so and then set out in search of help. I found management, got a deal and made an album. The first thing I did, just to show no hard feelings, was to employ my former bandmates as session men. I was beginning to write quite a bit at that point, but I felt much safer exploring the west coast material that Fairport had abandoned in favor of folk.
Then my friend Marc Ellington put me in touch with the future M.S.C players and I was off and running. Our first date was at a club in Birmingham called Mothers, with Fairport and Fotheringay. Unwittingly they actually did me a great service, because no one else was really covering that stuff, you know, Hardin, Taylor, Ian and Sylvia, Arlo, Fariña and the like. I had the whole field to myself practically.
There is a country-rock flavor to much of your early post-Fairport work; was this a conscious decision, to integrate more of that influence? I'm guessing it might be, as Kingsley Abbott has written about listening to country-rock with you during this time.
Yeah, I listened to lots of country-rock, it was a natural for me. I loved pedal steel and vocals and most of the material adapted so easily into that mode so effortlessly.
A general question I am asking of several British musicians: how would you summarize the key differences between American and British folk-rock, as it evolved throughout the mid-to-late 1960s?
The Americans carried the ball as far as I was concerned, no contest. All the great songs from that era came from the USA. The British scene was so very different, different attitude, different social structure and very different things to say. To me the American writing was so much more glamorous and worldly, I related to it much stronger than anything Al Stewart or Bert Jansch had to say.
And my final question, again one I am asking of many people I interview: how do you feel the legacy of the "classic" 1960s folk-rock era has been felt in the music that has been since then, whether by yourself or your peers?
Well, just listen to Wilco and the question answers itself.
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