Liege & Lief is the fourth album by the English folk rock band Fairport Convention. It is the third and final album the group released in the UK in 1969, all of which prominently feature Sandy Denny as lead female vocalist. (Denny did not appear on the group’s 1968 debut album). It is also the very first Fairport album on which all songs have either been adapted (freely) from traditional British and Celtic folk material (for example “Matty Groves”, “Tam Lin”), or else are original compositions (such as “Come All Ye”, “Crazy Man Michael”) written and performed in a similar style. By introducing songs of this genre into the group’s repertoire Denny, who had previously sung and recorded traditional folk songs as a solo artist, was instrumental in this transformation. Although Denny quit the band even before the album’s release, Fairport Convention has continued to the present day to make music almost exclusively within the traditional British folk music idiom, and are still most strongly associated with it.
The album was moderately successful, peaking at number 17 on the UK Albums Chart during a 15-week run. It is often credited, though the claim is sometimes disputed, as the first major “British folk rock” album. (This term is not to be confused with American-style folk rock, which had first achieved mainstream popularity on both sides of the Atlantic with The Byrds’ early work several years prior.) The popularity of Liege & Lief did a great deal to establish the new style commercially and artistically as a distinct genre. In an audience vote at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2006, the album was voted “Most Influential Folk Album of All Time”.
Following the motorway accident that had killed Martin Lamble, the band were left without a drummer. After the release of Unhalfbricking, Dave Mattacks took over the role and, having previously been a drummer at Mecca Ballrooms, had to “learn a whole new style of drumming.” Dave Swarbrick, a little older than the rest of the band, had already been in a successful duo with guitarist Martin Carthy. After his appearance on Unhalfbricking, he too joined Fairport full-time.
The band rehearsed and put together Liege & Lief over the summer of 1969 at a house in Farley Chamberlayne, near Braishfield, Winchester, launching it with a sold-out concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall late in 1969.
Gone were the covers of songs by Bob Dylan and others, replaced by electrified versions of traditional English folksongs and the first of a long line of instrumental medleys of folk dance tunes driven by Dave Swarbrick’s violin playing. Much of this material had been found by Ashley Hutchings in Cecil Sharp’s collection, maintained by the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
The title is composed of two Middle English words: liege meaning loyal and lief meaning ready. The cover, a gatefold in grey and purple, featured cameo images of the band along with track listing and credits.
Soon after the release of Liege & Lief, Ashley Hutchings left to further pursue traditional music in a new band, Steeleye Span; Sandy Denny also left to form Fotheringay.
Liege & Lief was promoted by John Peel on his Top Gear radio programme and the album spent fifteen weeks in the UK album chart, reaching number 17. In a contemporary review, John Mendelsohn of Rolling Stone recommended the album only to devotees of “quietly arty traditional folk” and felt that “Deserter” is the only “arresting” song, as “not even the originals match up to the group-composed material on previous albums.” Robert Christgau of The Village Voice gave Liege & Lief a “B–” and said that, because of his “anti-folk” tastes, he was disappointed with the album’s more traditional material after Unhalfbricking.
The album has come to be regarded as having a major influence in the development of British folk rock. It was voted the ‘most important folk album of all time’ by BBC Radio 2 listeners in 2002, and at the 2006 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Liege and Lief won the award for Most influential Folk Album of all time. At the event, the original line-up of Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Dave Swarbrick, Dave Mattacks, with Chris While replacing Sandy Denny, performed Matty Groves. Georgia Lucas, the daughter of Sandy Denny and Trevor Lucas, accepted the award on behalf of her late mother. This commemoration was repeated on 10 August 2007 at Cropredy, when the complete album was performed.
In a retrospective review, Allmusic’s Mark Deming said of the album that “while [it] was the most purely folk-oriented Fairport Convention album to date, it also rocked hard in a thoroughly original and uncompromising way”. In June 2007, Mojo magazine listed Liege & Lief at number 58 in its list of “100 Records that changed the world”.
Sandy Denny (vocals)
Ashley Hutchings (bass, background vocals)
Dave Mattacks (drums, percussion)
Simon Nicol (guitar, background vocals)
Dave Swarbrick (fiddle, viola)
Richard Thompson (guitar, background vocals)
01. Come All Ye (Denny/Hutchings) 4.55
02. Reynardine (Traditional) 4.33
03. Matty Groves (Traditional) 8.08
04. Farewell, Farewell (Thompson) 2.38
05. The Deserter (Traditional) 4.10
06. Medley 4.00
06.01. The Lark In he Morning (Traditional)
06.02. Rakish Paddy (Traditional)
06.03. Foxhunters’ Jig (Traditional)
06.04. Toss the Feathers (Traditional)
07. Tam Lin (Traditional) 7.20
08. Crazy Man Michael (Thompson/Swarbrick) 4.35
09. Sir Patrick Spens (Traditional) 4.02
10. Quiet Joys of Brotherhood (Traditional/Farina) 10.16