Sister, you're a poet

A mysterious album called The BBC Sessions, on the Strange Fruit label and featuring the voice of Sandy Denny, was released for…

A mysterious album called The BBC Sessions, on the Strange Fruit label and featuring the voice of Sandy Denny, was released for a period of 24 hours last year. Various lawyers from various record companies had it pulled from the shelves of the record shops after its all-too-brief availability, but still The BBC Sessions made it on to many a critic's "best albums of the year" list. The fascination with Sandy Denny continues apace.

Called the finest British female singer of the last three decades (and when the competition includes Maggie Bell, Norma Watterson and June Tabor, that ain't half bad) she helped break down the "folk" and "rock" boundaries, mainly through her work with Richard Thompson in Fairport Convention, and was seen as a home-grown answer to Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. Now cited by both Blur and Sonic Youth as "the best female rock singer ever", her life has disturbing parallels with that of Nick Drake: both were English singer-songwriters, both were fixated on morbid themes, both died at an early age and both have only been truly acknowledged decades after their death.

It wasn't just her awesome voice that propelled her into "retro cult", it was the quality of her song-writing - lyrical and romantic but always with a Emily Dickinson type twist, she's probably best remembered for Who Knows Where The Time Goes (famously covered by Judy Collins) but there's a lot more to her than that. Born in 1947 and attending the same art college as Jimmy Page, she first made a name for herself on the thriving folk club circuit in London in the 1960s. Singing Tom Paxton covers as well as a rake of her own stuff, she soon tired of the folkie purists, or the "ethnic folkies" as she called them, and after one too many solo tours of Britain, she joined the then-unknown Strawbs (way before their Part Of The Union mini-success). Tiring of their limited sound, she auditioned for the band that were then the talk of the town, Fairport Convention.

Innocently, she presumed the band to be American due to their West Coast sound of soft folk-inflected rock and Byrds-like arrangements, but Sandy's strong, earthy voice soon brought them to a different level; she is credited with curbing some of their "ethnic" excesses and helping the band to cross over to contemporary music territory. Interestingly, she left the band when they decided they would take the purist path at the expense of original material, and she went on to form Fotheringay, who may only be a footnote in the history of popular music, but a pretty impressive footnote they remain.


Her song-writing came to attract as much, if not more, attention as her voice, mainly because of her other-worldly lyrical ability. "The songs are biographical but only about 10 people can understand them," she once said. "I just take a story and whittle it down to essentials. I wouldn't write songs if they didn't mean something to me, but I'm not prepared to tell everyone about my private life like Joni Mitchell does. I like to be more elusive than that. Take John Lennon, I think he really blew his cool when he explained exactly how he wrote Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds."

Towards the end of her life, she resumed her solo career, and albums like North Star Grassman And The Ravens (1971), which features the song John The Gun, remain as evocative and eloquent as ever - her powerful voice and poetic lyrics would probably have her sounding like Portishead, or maybe Garbage, if she was around today. On the eve of a massive American tour in 1978 and aged just 31, she fell down the stairs of a friend's house and lapsed into a coma from which she never awoke. A 1977 live album has just been released and is doing very nicely, thank you; and as more and more people get switched on to her wondrous voice and words, expect more and more of her material to be re-released, pending lawyers sorting everything out. Shameful that it took us 20 years to realise just how good she was.

Gold Dust - Sandy Denny Live At The Royalty has just been released by Island/ Polygram Records.

A bit strange but it works in the end: Divine Comedy (Neil Hannon) has teamed up with reggae artist Elvis Da Costa on his new single, Need Your Love So Bad. Recorded in Kingston and featuring Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, it's out now on the Redbridge label . . . The Kerrang!-approved Redwood, whose debut album Colourblind is interesting in a sort of post-Wildhearts sort of way, are at the lovely Temple Bar Music Centre next Tuesday and The Limelight in Belfast the following night, while The Men They Couldn't Hang play The Olympia (late) tomorrow night . . . You really wouldn't want to be missing The Smashing Pumpkins who play an unplugged gig at The Olympia on Sunday night which I think is going out live on radio as well. The new album is Adore, out on Tuesday.

Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes mainly about music and entertainment