To try to capture the essence of one of Britain’s most enigmatic, volatile, brilliant and ultimately tragic singers may be like trying to catch the proverbial lightning in a bottle.
Mick Houghton is not the first author to attempt it: Clinton Heylin’s 1989 tome No More Sad Refrains was an extensive and engaging analysis, calling on some three dozen new interviews with the likes of Pete Townshend, Richard Thompson and the latter’s fellow Fairport crew members. Such is the vaulted latter-day status of the British folk-rock tradition that another rigorously-constructed evaluation of Denny’s life and times is timely. Industry veteran Houghton, a respected music publicist these several decades, steps up to what he describes as the most daunting thing he has ever attempted. Illustrated by scores of interviewees, including Linda Thompson, Julie Felix and countless other contemporaries, the new volume redefines the concept of a labour of love. Admirably, it keeps the focus on the music, since for all her personal trials, that’s what keeps this mercurial nightingale in our memory. The book subtly emphasises that point with a playlist section at the back that lists not only Sandy’s own recording history, but maps out all of the discs she was influenced by, thus widening the net to include Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, even Traffic and the Beatles. Houghton works from the premise that this is not only Denny’s story, but that of those that helped shape her personality, from the Carthys and Swarbricks to Bert Jansch and Joe Boyd. The writer doesn’t pretend that he, or indeed many of us, kept a close watch on Denny’s work during the decline that contributed to her appallingly early death at 31, in 1978; but he usefully re-examines her often troubled relationship with her Australian husband Trevor Lucas, seeing a loose parallel with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. It’s a forensic, heartfelt and estimable portrait.