I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny review
Tender and insightful look at life of a standout musical talent who died tragically early
Sandy Denny in September 1971: “Her natural talent would never desert her nor would her almost overwhelming stage-fright.” Photograph: Steve Wood/Evening Standard/Getty Images
I've Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny
Faber & Faber
Like a signal losing strength with each passing year since she died 37 years ago, the legend that is Sandy Denny has begun to fade. But her friends and fans continue to call out her name. Richard Thompson, who played with her in pioneering British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, introduces this sympathetic and solidly comprehensive survey of her life and work with a cry from the heart.
“As decades pass, and fashions in music come and go, I realise more and more that Sandy Denny was not only the most important singer of my generation, but that no one has come along to touch her since. Who has her dynamic range, from unbelievable power to a whisper, all with the utmost expression? Who has her musical intelligence, her ability to sing the right thing at the right time? Who has her command of the dramatic, and her ability to tell a story by inhabiting the song? Then there is the unique and distinctive songwriting . . . and her great charisma as a performer – it leaves the rest of the field forever struggling to catch up.”
Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny was born in Wimbledon, London on January 6th, 1947 into an unremarkable middle class London family. Sandy was at times “mischievous” and “headstrong”, she was described by a grammar school friend as “bubbly, self-confident, happy and full of life”. Natural talent When Denny accepted a scholarship in 1965 from Kingston Art College – she was a talented artist – she was already playing support slots at some of the folk clubs then mushrooming around 1960s Britain.
Her natural talent would never desert her nor would her almost overwhelming stage-fright. But she was driven to succeed.Singer Julie Felix also recalled that she “liked a drink, so did everybody, that was the culture. It was pre-women’s lib but not in the folk scene. You had to have the strength of a man to get by.”
Denny left art college after a year and dived full-time into music and a world of boozy late nights and loose relationships. There were solo shows, stuttering budget album releases and the gradual build-up of a reputation before she joined up with Dave Cousins and the Strawberry Hill Boys, later abbreviated to The Strawbs.
However, just after their debut album was recorded, with the first version of her most famous song, Who Knows Where The Time Goes?, she left abruptly, later joining Fairport Convention. The reason, said then Fairport guitarist Richard Thompson, was that she wanted to leave the folk world and “we were a rock’n’roll band”. The irony was she would help them embrace folk.
And so began an association that would, on and off, endure the length of her short life. Her first stint lasted 18 months, from May 1968 to late 1969 and included three albums, What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief.
Her singing and songwriting reached new heights as the band carved out a fresh folk-rock sound based on English traditional music. But the death of drummer Martin Lamble in a crash, and the pressures of the road took their toll. She was also in love and wanted more time with her future husband Australian singer Trevor Lucas, but she displayed clear signs of volatility, often fuelled by alcohol.
Together they formed Fotheringay and the eponymous album yielded a number of fine performances. But this band came to a premature end when, with prompting from the influential Fairport producer Joe Boyd, Denny decided to go solo. Solo albums This produced four more albums of which arguably the first, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, is the most impressive. (She rejoined Fairport midway through 1970s but could not rekindle the same spirit). However, if her work warranted a mixed critical response, commercially they were all bitter disappointments and as the money ran out, her confidence seemed to drain away.
Her relationship with Lucas was always fraught but it shaped her career. Increasingly both fell apart as her reliance on drink and drugs increased. There were times when redemption seemed a possibility, none more so than when she became pregnant, but even this could not haul her back from the precipice.
Views are mixed on what happened next but Lucas’s decision to take his daughter back to Australia in April , 1978 for her safety is generally applauded even if the timing was unfortunate. In the Denny narrative he is often portrayed as something of a bed-hopping rogue, but Houghton balances both sides of the story. Alone, Denny sought solace with a friend in London. On Monday, April 17th, she was found unconscious at the foot of the stairs in her friend’s flat. The following Friday she was pronounced dead. She was 31.
Her friends were shocked but not surprised. The official cause of Denny’s death was traumatic mid-brain haemorrhage, most likely triggered when she fell down stairs during a visit with daughter Georgia to her parents in Cornwall weeks earlier.
Denny’s death seems a waste and her short life is ultimately a grim tale. But Houghton’s well-researched, balanced and deeply felt biography – his affection for his subject is clear – illustrates life’s cruelty and complexity. She had a great, even unique voice, one we can still hear today as if frozen in time, but she also led a dreadfully unhappy life. Yet it was this bleak introspection which inspired many of her best songs. She paid a high price for our pleasure.
Joe Breen is a journalist and lecturer