Among the many talking heads in this absorbing account of Fairport’s life and times, it’s Rick Wakeman who provides the best quote. The band’s decision to go electric in the late 60s, opines the keyboard maestro, “was like putting a condom machine in the Vatican”. Plugged-in folk music just wasn’t one for the fusty traditionalists. For the less blinkered, however, Fairport’s assimilation of indigenous folk and rock’n’roll offered routes between worlds that had hitherto been neglected.
Almost everyone in Folk Heroes seems to agree that the watershed moment came with 1969’s A Sailor’s Life, the centuries-old ballad that Fairport fashioned into what founder member Ashley Hutchings calls “the first British traditional folk rock track”. Director Charlie Thomas (who also made the recent XTC doc, This Is Pop) does a fine job of explaining how they got there and where they took it, with help from key members past and present – Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson and Dave Pegg included – alongside admirers and associates such as Steve Winwood, Ian Anderson and producer Joe Boyd.
It’s a front-loaded drama that focuses on the path-beating years, from their beginnings as a covers band in Muswell Hill to the rediscovery of a wealth of traditional homegrown music that fed into Liege & Lief. There’s tragedy along the way, such as the road crash that claimed the lives of drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn (which, Thompson admits, left the band in deep shock for years).
But there’s also insight into what made the early line-ups so unique, be it the extraordinary guitar flights of Thompson or the pure majesty of Sandy Denny, the singer-songwriter described by Ralph McTell as “complex, dangerous, wild, crazy…” Tantalising footage of primetime Fairport is intercut with scenes from this summer’s 50th birthday bash at Cropredy, the old guard of Nicol and Pegg propping up the legend while also foraging into the future. The best vintage clip of all shows the late Dave Swarbrick on stage, in tan leather coat and fetching blue cap, ciggie fixed between his lips, sawing away on electric violin like a man in a hurry.
Post-Babbacombe Lee, the film sprints through the the 70s and comes to rest at present-day Cropredy, a celebration of the Fairport fellowship that’s the biggest folk festival in the UK. “Fairport has always been a band of friends,” muses Thompson, “people dear to my heart.” It’s an oft-told tale, but Fairport’s story is as much about deep bonds and lasting connections as it is groundbreaking music.