The thought receptacle

Stephen's mental dustbin

Sat, 06 Sep 2014

Sandy story

In November 2002, I was in Parrot Records on King Street, in Cambridge. Exhaustively browsing the record stacks, as was my newfound wont, I stumbled on a CD whose cover bore a dated-looking black-and-white photograph of a young woman holding a whisky glass, eyes downcast, looking inconsolably sad. This was Sandy Denny, and the CD was Island's 1999 compilation “Listen, Listen: An Introduction to Sandy Denny”.

At that point, I knew only a few things about Sandy Denny. One was that she had been a member of Fairport Convention for a time, including the time of John Peel's favourite line-up. Peel had offered this opinion when playing a couple of tracks from the Free Read label's “Fairport unConventional” rarities compilation when it came out earlier that year. One of these, a session version of Tam Lin, had particularly captivated me. (Currently, you can listen to the album version here, dubious legality notwithstanding.) The other thing I knew was that in an article I read about the Delgados—a favourite band of mine at the time—the author had likened Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward's vocal partnership to Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews in a the immediately preceding Fairport line-up.

In hindsight, these two facts can be generalised a little to reveal quite a lot about Sandy Denny. Firstly, she made some music which is remembered fondly by most people who knew it. Secondly, she's a cult figure of the kind to which journalists will make a knowing nod whenever they want to appear knowledgeable. Even before I happened upon that CD in Parrot, these had conspired to create a place for Sandy on my mental list of artists to investigate. “An Introduction” was exactly what I wanted, so from that moment it was inevitable that I would buy the CD, even suppressing my nascent dislike for compilations.

I didn't buy it right then, though. The price was a little high (£11.99—which was a lot of money in those days) for my meagre student budget. It also seemed premature: I should probably listen to Fairport Convention first, I reasoned. During Lent term I bought a few Fairport records and enjoyed them a lot. Some time in Easter term I bought the compilation. (If memory serves, I got it by mail order from Action Records—it was listed on their web site, but the process for getting it actually involved writing down on paper what you wanted, and posting it to them together with a cheque. Yes, children.)

I listened to it literally once or twice before the vacation, and remember being distinctly disappointed. Something about it was extremely uneasy on the ear. The five songs from “The North Star Grassman and the Ravens”, which began the compilation, were particularly difficult. They move with obstinate awkwardness, shifting from one morose harmony to another and never gratifying the listener with an easy cadence (never mind a cathartic breakdown... I could go on). They sound like a listing ship caught in heavy piano-seas during a sleet-storm in November. It was a long way from the easy melancholia I had been so shallowly hoping for.

Later in the summer, I picked up the record again, and started to get something from it. Partly it was that I finally persevered, attention unwavering, right to the end, which has one solid gold pop song (“I'm a Dreamer”) and various rather different-sounding things (not least “All Our Days”) to lighten the gloom of the opening. Partly it was that I got used to the uneasy, shifting sounds of those earlier tracks. (I'd later learn that the opening selections were an unfortunate distillation of the gloomiest parts of the album they were taken from—and that's why you should never trust compilations, kids.) Partly, also, I was carried along by the wanting to find what I felt I'd been promised in her music. I can remember walking to work one summer morning with the lyrics of “No More Sad Refrains” going through my head, and having as much of an epiphany as it's possible to have at 9.05am in Irlam—as though I'd unlocked some meaning from them, a deep truth about Sandy's life as an Unhappy Person, and the kind of personal, personable connection which is one of the appeals of singer-songwriter music, at least to little old me.

There is a knack to appreciating Sandy Denny's music, and it has to do with taking its weaknesses the right way. Once you recognise that it's not uniformly great, it becomes a lot more enjoyable. The media talk it up not because of its world-beating supremacy, but because it has great moments, historical relevance, and a cultural cachet that comes from being well-loved in spite of various flaws. Sandy's story is very much one of an underachiever, someone who struggled, and who never really capitalised on her talents. (My reading of “No More Sad Refrains” is that it articulates this very fact, in a clever and subtle way—the intentionally disbelievable resolution to leave one's “old” self behind.)

Over the following year or so, I picked up various other Sandy Denny records, including her four solo albums. These weren't easy to find on CD, which was my format of choice in those days. The later two had only been released briefly on Hannibal in the mid-1990s, and were then long out of print. With patience, I got lucky with “Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz”, eventually finding a copy going for £6 plus postage, which wasn't bad considering that one Amazon seller was asking £100 at the time. “Rendezvous” was slightly more plentiful on US import for some reason, so I coughed up 15 quid or so. Not long afterwards, there was the reissue of the Fotheringay record (a mostly-Denny project from 1970), then the Fledgling boxed set in 2004. After devouring all these, I'd sampled Sandy's work quite extensively. As is the way of these things, while I never stopped listening to Sandy's records once in a while, nor Fairport's, my focus moved on to other things.

However, it turned out that the Fotheringay reissue and Fledgling box were only the beginning of something of a revival. Island reissued all four solo albums in 2005, and a steady stream of additional reissues and compilations appeared over the following few years. This included a revamped compilation of BBC sessions, to replace the Strange Fruit “release” which had been withdrawn on its day of its Kafkaesque “release” (which hadn't preventing me from obsessively searching, eventually picking up not one but two copies, but both of which turning out to be fakes). An impressive 19-disc boxed set on Universal appeared to be the final word, appearing in 2010 and swiftly going out of print. (Don't you just love “limited edition” releases? A copy can still be yours for a mere £600.)

In recent years, someone with a lot of commercial savvy has got behind her back catalogue. Not so many years ago I was eager to lap up any and all material, so it's churlish of me (what else?) to complain. But I can't help feeling that it's all being milked a bit too cynically. I'm unsettled by the anonymous commercial fingers which type behind “Sandy's” new Facebook page, magically appearing to send me advertisements once in a while after I innocently listed her name in my musical artists (before “Like” was even a feature, kids). And I'm both impressed and perturbed by the slick “official” web page that now advertises all these various wares.

Sandy is very marketable—a tragic figure, a charismatic personality, somehow hiding her self-destructiveness and fragility behind a quick smile and looks that are at once both striking and girl-next-door. And that is not to mention the astonishing talent of her voice. It all makes so much commercial sense. The English baby-boomer generation that witnessed her first time around is now at an age where it has a lot of spare time and money. Tempering my cynicism slightly, I'm sure there is not only money, but also love, behind this revival effort. Besides, it has enabled a lot of recordings that really deserve to be on sale to be cleaned up and re-released. (My Hannibal CD of “Like and Old-Fashioned Waltz” is the worst-mastered CD I've ever heard. It sounds like it's playing from the inside of a vacuum cleaner.)

But... to truly be a treasure, don't you have to be just a little bit obscure? People gushing tributes on “Sandy's” Facebook wall sometimes complain that she never had a hit single, bemoan that she never became a “major force” (or, heaven forbid, “more like Joni Mitchell”). To my mind, these people's viewpoint is completely wrong. Sandy could and (perhaps should) have been around longer and treated us to more of her creations. But her music was always a mixed bag, some weak and some strong, always more dill pickle than cheese—and that's the way I like it.

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