Liege & Lief
Sleeve concept & design: Fairport & Roberta Nicol
Cover photography: Eric Hayes
Design co-ordination: Diogenic Attempts Ltd
Born of tragedy and catching Fairport Convention in a spiral of flux, Liege & Lief is now seen as the quintessential English folk-rock album, and with good reason. A serious car crash in May 1969 resulted in the Fairports taking themselves off to get it together in the country, more specifically Farley House in a secluded part of Hampshire. There, in idyllic circumstances, the album which became Liege & Lief was worked up, before being recorded back at Sound Techniques in London.
The album contains a strong element of duality – the old partnering the new; grief barely overcome yet the seeming contentment of the rehearsals. Even the title suggests two distinct parts of a whole, the two Middle English words meaning “loyal” and “ready” respectively. This duality is also on display in the artwork, which was undertaken by the band along with guitarist Simon Nicol’s then wife Roberta, and pulled together by Island Records stalwarts Diogenic Attempts Ltd, who have also worked on albums by Nick Drake and Dr Strangely Strange, as well as previous Fairport discs.
The overall look of the album harks back to a pre-industrial age, with its images of medieval folk customs, the pictures of folk music collectors Francis Child and Cecil Sharp, and the woodcut borders pulling it all together. Modernity seeps through in the cameo-style portraits of the band members though, who, despite their trad leanings, fail to appear as anything other than late-’60s groovers.
The front cover thus gives off an air of non-committal mystery; the unsmiling faces are as distant as the past which they invoke.
The band photos, as well as the nostalgia-inducingly atmospheric ones taken at Farley House during the rehearsals, are the work of Canadian photographer Eric Hayes. Arriving in London via Japan and India in July ’68, music lover Hayes fell in with the Fairports after photographing them at gigs and was asked to shoot something for their forthcoming album (the result being the clever jigsaw-like image for Unhalfbricking), as well as for Liege & Lief. Hayes remembers specifically being asked to photograph the iron age wooden idol which ended up gracing the back of the album along with the Witchseason logo, but assumes that the small portraits of the band members were taken from photos he took while visiting in Hampshire. He remembers his time with the band fondly: “I was invited to bring my camera and spend a weekend [at Farley Chamberlayne]. A full-page colour photo of the band acting up and rolling around on the lawn appeared on the cover of Disc & Music Echo. That was one of the rewards of that visit. My most delightful memory, though, was waking up in the morning to the sound of Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle drifting up the stairs”.
And did Fairport Convention’s backwards glance into trad arr pay off? Well, not in the short term, as, in spite of the sold-out album launch at The Royal Festival Hall and somewhat fine sales (it peaked at #17 in the UK charts), reviews were mixed. And ultimately of course, it lead to the break-up of that line-up of the band, with both Ashley and Sandy departing to pursue their differing musical ambitions.
However, in the long term, Liege & Lief is seen as both the cradle and pinnacle of English folk-rock, and has arguably fulfilled its role as the harbinger of the old.
Gitte Morten © 2015
Thanks to Eric Hayes.
This article was published in Shindig! Magazine, May 2015