Folk-rock's guitar hero on Fairport, Trump and 13 Rivers

When Sandy Denny left too, surely you must have wondered whether to remain as well?
We knew Sandy was going to leave. Her biggest problem was Trevor [Lucas], who was a notorious womaniser. I think Sandy thought that if she was closer to Trevor, in a band with him, then she could keep an eye on him better. She didn’t like flying – we were about to do a US tour and she wasn’t sure she could handle that. And she didn’t turn up for a gig in Denmark. I think at that point we actually fired her, which is insane – but the feeling at the time was that she really wasn’t going to be able to continue with the band. She had been high maintenance, she was quite a package, a bundle of joy and a bundle of nerves and a bundle of other things as well. But we felt Sandy was not really replaceable, so we said, “Oh, never mind, lads, let’s carry on.” Swarb [Dave Swarbrick, fiddle player] said, “I’ve got this mate who’s a bass player up in Birmingham.” [Laughs] We said, “Swarb, you’re an expert on bass players, are you?” We didn’t trust him at all, but it turned out to be Dave Pegg, who was fantastic. We drew straws for the vocal chores at that point.

You all then moved to a disused pub, The Angel, in Little Hadham, Herts – how was that?
It was on the market a couple of years ago, but I wasn’t tempted – too many memories! I was there for a year. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable place to live – it was cold, and there was one bathroom between 14 people! We only officially had one roadie, but we acquired these other people – acid casualties and cast-offs from other bands. The problem was that the pub was at the end of this hill, on this tight bend, on the A120. So you’ve got all these trucks going to Harwich, and one night a truck driver fell asleep and just went right through the house. Swarb described sitting up in bed and there was this truck coming two feet away from him. He’d moved his bed into the corner the day before, because it was too draughty, and it saved his life. The driver was killed.

You had met Linda by this point?
She was a friend of Sandy’s, and she came down to a Fairport recording session in ’69. I used to see her at Sandy’s flat all the time – it was a mecca for musicians. Endless games of Scrabble that never seemed to get finished, with ludicrous rules.

You and Swarb wrote most of [1970’s] Full House together…
Yeah, we did, which was nice. Swarb would come up with these really interesting, weird tunes. “Sloth”, say, is a weird tune. I’m not quite sure where his influences came from – I’d ask him and he’d say, “Ooh, The Alexander Brothers.” And I’d think, ‘Who the hell are The Alexander Brothers?’ Then I’d come up with some harmonic structure for his tunes, and write the words afterwards. We wrote some good songs.

[Richard and Linda’s debut] I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight is one of my favourite albums…
You need to get out more! Get dancing, get a bit of rhythm in there. Yeah, sorry…

Did you realise it was so strong when you made it?
At the time it felt lucky. There are lucky records – you go in and record fairly quickly and nothing really holds you up too much. There’s no red-headed stepchild of a track, that you labour over for hours and never really get. The budget was £2,500… that’s all the musicians, all the studio time! So we did it quick. I think we recorded it in ’72 or ’73, but it didn’t come out until ’74 because of a ‘vinyl shortage’. Our A&R person at Island just didn’t like the record, so I think they were hoping it wouldn’t come out. But then he got replaced and [Uncut contributor] Richard Williams got behind it – magically the oil shortage was over and it got released. Politics, politics…

Linda’s voice is so good on that record.
Yeah, fantastic. I think she’s one of the triumvirate of great folk-rock singers – there’s Sandy, there’s Maddy Prior and there’s Linda. I shouldn’t sound like a Svengali, but she was very malleable. I could give her musical direction. I couldn’t do that with Sandy. Linda, as well as being a folkie, knew how to sing straight pop. She’s somewhere between Shirley Collins and Connie Francis in her influences.

[Bright Lights closer] “The Great Valerio” is a fascinating song. What do you remember about writing it?
I was thinking of people like Maurice Ravel, who’d have a simple tune, almost a pentatonic tune, but with unusual harmonies underneath. As for the lyrics, I think I was in a Glasgow art gallery and saw a painting of Blondin crossing Niagara Falls. I don’t know what it’s about – maybe false idealism, investing your faith in figures that you perceive to be higher than you, and that’s dangerous. But Valerio in the song is kind of a hero, he comes through. But there’s plenty of false prophets who fall off, who lose the focus. If you don’t keep your eye to the end of the rope, if you waver, that’s when you’re in trouble.

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