Sandy Denny (1947-1978) had one of the most remarkable voices in British folk-rock as well as superior songwriting skills, but her darker impulses got the best of her, cutting short a promising career at age 31. Still, her work with Fairport Convention, Fotheringay and on her solo albums have stood the test of time. Plus, she is the only person to share vocals with Robert Plant on a Led Zeppelin album.
In Joe Boyd’s breezy memoir, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (2007)—which Brian Eno called “the best book about music I’ve read in years”—the American expatriate talks about a time when he helped reshape the British music scene by making it take itself seriously. Among Boyd’s many accomplishments were his opening—with John “Hoppy” Hopkins—of the UFO Club, ground zero for psychedelic London. He also produced the first single by Pink Floyd, a mainstay of the UFO Club; managed and produced the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, discovered, produced and then managed the enigmatic Nick Drake. And that was just the start of his career.
Through it all, though, one name kept bubbling up from Boyd’s narrative that begs further comment. Sandy Denny.
Boyd met Sandy Denny before she became the lead singer for Fairport Convention. At the time, she was a pianist, acoustic guitarist and a singer with a reputation as a boozer but in possession of such a rich and textured voice that she found herself in the weird position of being too good for any of the bands she joined. When he saw Denny performing at the legendary London folk club Les Cousins, Boyd felt she was floundering musically. In addition to playing songs by her ill-fated former boyfriend Jackson C. Frank, she was caught between the world of folk music and…whatever came next.
“Whatever came next” was exactly what Boyd had in mind.
Boyd describes staying up all night talking about music with Denny. “Dawn found us listening to a tape of Radio Luxembourg’s sneak preview of Sgt Pepper at her parents’ home in Wimbledon…Sandy was tired of slogging around the folk clubs with her guitar: she wanted to sing in front of a band. ‘A Day in the Life’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky’ made solo folk singing seem a very limited palette.”
Denny gave Boyd an advance copy of an album she’d just made with the Strawbs. He was “startled by how great her voice sounded on record.” Particularly impressive was the song she’d composed, her first songwriting credit, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”. The song would go on to be covered by many other artists over the years since.
The original version of the song, with the Strawbs:
You can practically hear Boyd’s brain shouting, “Have I got the perfect band for you, Ms. Denny!” But before he could act on that thought, Denny had found her way on her own to that ideal vehicle—Fairport Convention, another Boyd discovery. There she became the perfect vocal foil for the extraordinary guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson. Together, over the course of three albums, Denny and the Fairports created a British version of the folk-rock that the Byrds had unleashed in America. They mined the rich motherlode of traditional English folk music, while adding the dexterity and power of an ensemble of brilliant rock musicians. The three albums she recorded with Fairport Convention—What We Did on Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief, all released in 1969—are all now rightfully deemed classics.
Sadly, her tenure with the Fairports didn’t last. She departed in 1970, first to form her own band, Fotheringay, with Trevor Lucas, her future husband, then to pursue her own solo career. Fotheringay released one fine album, which contained five songs written by Denny, who had put down the acoustic guitar and moved behind the piano.
Boyd had, early on in their relationship, noticed Denny’s insecurity over her instrumental playing: “When playing the guitar, she would stare at her left hand, keeping a wary eye out for the inevitable slip. It was only when she sat at the piano, her first instrument, that she became serene and graceful, the dignified lady she longed to be. She was cleaver and quick and a brutal punisher of fools, but she wore her neediness and her heart very much on her sleeve.”
“Nothing More,” from the Fotheringay album, was the first song she composed on the piano.
Here is Fotheringay performing “Nothing More” live at The Beat Club in 1970:
Boyd left England, for a job with Warner Brothers in California, before Denny could complete a second Fotheringay album. He’d had high hopes for her, but her own self-destructive behavior, particularly with alcohol, was an omen of darker days ahead. Even so, Sandy Denny embarked on a fairly productive solo career, releasing four albums from 1971 to 1977, each mining increasingly dark themes of loss, longing, passing time, the death of friends and lovers. Despite possessing one of the strongest and most captivating voices in pop music—a British equivalent of, say, Linda Ronstadt—Denny did not pander to trends or seek new musical pastures. Thus, sales of her solo albums diminished with each release and after Rendezvous (1977), Island Records dropped her from the label.
She did, however, record a slightly eccentric album (The Bunch: Rock On) with Richard Thompson, on which they, and a few other Fairport Convention musicians, covered some rock ‘n’ roll classics.
The Bunch: “That’ll Be the Day,” Sandy Denny on vocals, Richard Thompson on lead guitar
Though Denny never reached the global stardom Boyd envisioned for her, she was held in the highest esteem in the UK. She was twice voted “Best British Female Singer” by Melody Maker readers and was even featured as co-vocalist with Robert Plant on “The Battle of Evermore,” off Led Zeppelin IV (1971):
But here’s where it gets a little strange.
It seems that, over the years, Denny’s friends had tolerated or overlooked her increasingly erratic behavior. Known from the outset for her hard drinking and boisterous pranks, she also suffered from bouts of depression and dramatic mood swings that impacted her relations with band members and her own troubled marriage with Trevor Lucas.
One tendency, above all others, should have been the reddest of red flags. That is, she had a “party trick” of falling off bar stools or falling down flights of stairs, presumably as a humorous pratfall in the manner of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau character. However, when combined with copious amounts of alcohol, the “trick” lost its humor and turned potentially dangerous.
And, sometimes, it wasn’t a trick, but a real fall. In fact, in March 1978, Denny fell down a staircase while on vacation and suffered a head injury. To alleviate the resultant headaches, she was given a painkiller that could be fatal if combined with booze. After a second serious fall at home, her husband took their daughter and went to Australia.
Feeling abandoned, Denny asked a friend, Miranda Ward, if she could stay at her home, vowing to get help for her headaches and alcoholism. However, before she could act on those sensible impulses, Denny was found unconscious at the foot of a staircase in Ward’s home. She lapsed into a coma and never regained consciousness, dying on April 21, 1978. It’s shocking now to realize that she was all of 31 years of age.
The world lost one of its great singing voices. Here’s hoping Sandy Denny found some peace in rest.
As seems to always happen with the supremely talented, Sandy Denny’s musical legacy and reputation has grown exponentially since her death. So, in that sense, she has not fallen into the realm of the obscure, the forgotten or the hard to find.
The first of the posthumous releases to catch the wind of renewed fan interest, Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (1985), was produced by Trevor Lucas and Joe Boyd.
Several more reissues and packages of unreleased material have been made available over the ensuing decades, plus a short documentary film (Sandy Denny Under Review). Most recently, the 7-CD box set by Fairport Convention Come All Ye – The First 10 Years (2017), contains previously unreleased demos and alternate takes featuring Denny during her first tenure with the band over the period 1968-69.
This is the first of four parts of Sandy Denny Under Review, a thorough exploration of not just her career but the transitions going on in the English folk scene as it collided with rock & roll and psychedelia: