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’Twould be nice, more than a quarter-century after her death, to write that Sandy Denny no longer needs an introduction. She was, after all, lead vocalist for Fairport Convention, Britain’s premier folk-rock act, during its most fan-beloved and critically acclaimed phase. She also scored a gold record for her role in the 1972 stage production of the Who’s rock opera Tommy. And millions know the singer-songwriter’s seraphic voice from “The Battle of Evermore,” the mandolin-laden, Arthur-via-Aragorn war duet from Led Zeppelin’s multiplatinum IV.
Unfortunately, Denny, whom ex-Fairport guitarist Richard Thompson has called “the greatest British female artist of her generation,” is hardly a household name. She may be regarded as royalty by folks who mail-order Mellow Candle and Dr. Strangely Strange imports, but among bricks ’n’ mortar types she’s still only semipopular at best. “We don’t hear Sandy Denny on the radio these days,” Thompson laments in the heart-tugging foreword to Washington City Paper contributor Pamela
Murray Winters’ unpublished Denny biography. “Her records, few that they are, don’t fit the current formats, don’t send the programmers into paroxysms, don’t have listeners voting in.”
A best-of box set on a Brit-folk specialty label didn’t get Denny on the radio in 1986, when Hannibal released its now-out-of-print Who Knows Where the Time Goes?. And it might not ever happen—which is exactly why London indie Fledg’ling has programmed its new five-disc Denny set, A Boxful of Treasures, for double duty. Like Who Knows, Treasures guides listeners through the various stages of Denny’s 12-year career, highlighting crucial tracks from her many groups—Sandy & Johnny, Sandy Denny and the Strawbs, Fairport, Fotheringay, and the Bunch—as well as picking the best numbers from her often spotty solo recordings. Naturally, the program is a declaration of faith that Denny’s songs will attract new listeners purely on their own merits—and really, how could they not? But the Fledg’ling folks are realists, too, and have therefore included 30 previously unreleased tracks and almost as many rarities, in a gesture clearly aimed at pleasing the singer’s established fan base.
Thompson, whose bio essay is reproduced in the new box, notes that Denny “never had hits.” But as Treasures demonstrates, the singer recorded plenty of tunes that should have been—and perhaps still are—strong contenders. (After all, fellow Brit folkie Nick Drake, who died in 1974, had his first hit in 2000, thanks to a Volkswagen ad.) Autumnal ballad “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” is one such song. The early version included here, from a 1968 recording session with the Strawbs, is hardly definitive. (Denny’s 1969 reading with Fairport is the more elegant rendering.) Yet even in its nascent form, “Who Knows” is an Avalon-perfect example of Denny’s gifts as a songwriter and performer.
Over a rise-and-fall acoustic progression—a melody that the Allman Brothers repurposed for 1972’s “Melissa”—Denny evokes both the fear of isolation (“Sad deserted shore/Your fickle friends are leaving”) and the comforts of domesticity (“Before the winter fire/I will still be dreaming”), two themes that echo throughout her career. Her fair-as-the-rose-in-May singing is more of its time than, say, the traditionalist vocalizing of fellow Brit Shirley Collins, but it’s also sturdier and more authentic-sounding than contemporaneous performances by Yankee counterparts such as Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. And Denny’s phrasing, like her narrative, gives “no thought of time”: She hangs on to certain words as if embracing a loved one, lingering longingly while guitar notes flow around her.
Denny sang other folks’ songs, as well, and is perhaps best regarded for the electrified traditionals on Fairport’s 1969 watershed, Liege & Lief—arguably the first album to carve out a distinctly British folk-rock sound. Treasures contains plenty of Fairport’s fusion from this era (“A Sailor’s Life,” “Reynardine,” and a previously unreleased version of “Sir Patrick Spens”), but Liege’s climax, the seven-minute-plus “Tam Lin,” is the most authoritative and affecting of the bunch. The Scottish ballad tells of a young woman’s attempt to liberate her lover, Tam Lin, from the Fairy Queen, who’s not only magical but also more than a little evil, bent on using the poor guy to pay a debt to hell. “Oh, they will turn me in your arms into a newt or a snake/But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby’s father,” Denny sings in character as Thompson churns out a dark, swirling proto-metal riff.
The subject matter may be D&D-goofy, but Denny manages to make “Tam Lin” sound like the serious stuff it must have been to the ballad’s earliest listeners. Her sirenlike keen is the focal point, overwhelming both Thompson’s nimble-fingered fret-work and Dave Swarbrick’s distorted fiddling. It’s an ominous, hair-on-end performance—a far, far cry from that smile-and-strum “Tom Dooley” crap. And yet, even though Denny excelled at such interpretations, she soon opted off ye olde-tyme path: In November 1969, a year and a half after joining Fairport, Denny quit the band to focus on her own songs and to spend more time with her beau, guitarist/vocalist Trevor Lucas.
Unsurprisingly, Denny’s immediate post-Fairport writing sounds much like her pre-Fairport writing. Moody, aqua-obsessed Treasures tracks such as “The Pond & the Stream” (1970), “The Sea” (1970), and “The Sea Captain” (1971), are all midtempo and stone-sparse. On Denny’s albums of the period, Fotheringay and The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, her unhurried acoustic-guitar and piano playing is anchored to the solid, straightforward rhythm section of Lucas, bassist Pat Donaldson, and drummer Gerry Conway. All of these songs—indeed, all of the Fotheringay and North Star originals—are linked, as Denny sings on 1971’s “Late November,” by a sense of “the pathos and the sadness.”
For the rest of Denny’s career, that wouldn’t change. What did change, however, were the production values. From 1972’s Sandy forward, Lucas assumed the producer’s chair and gave each successive album a more accessible, middle-of-the-road sheen. Whereas Fotheringay (produced by Fairport manager Joe Boyd) and North Star (produced by Thompson) are marked by an appealing—albeit undynamic—rawness, Denny’s Lucas-produced discs get downright syrupy at times, with a sound that Denny likened to putting her “fur coat on.”
1973’s “Solo,” one of Denny’s most memorable compositions, is typical of this furriness. From the album Like an Old Fashioned Waltz, the recording starts out OK: “There’s a time to be talking and a time when it’s no use,” Denny sings against her own slow, descending piano chords. “Right now I think the things you say are liable to confuse.” As soon as she gets out that last syllable, though, things go downhill: Conway’s ham-handed drum fill tumbles and stumbles dramatically into the chorus (“I’ve just gone solo/Do you play solo?/Ain’t life a solo?”), which is all but smothered beneath Lucas’ gooey layers of reverb, faux strings, and massed vocals.
John Wood, the engineer on much of Denny’s ’70s solo work, has claimed, “She was not necessarily doing what she wanted” on her last two albums, Waltz and 1977’s Rendezvous. And doing what Lucas wanted hardly paid off: Rendezvous, Denny’s slickest full-length, and its single, an ill-advised cover of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” sold poorly enough that Island Records dropped the singer in the autumn of that year. If the Treasures disc that covers this period is the weakest of the lot, hooky Rendezvous tracks such as “No More Sad Refrains” and “One Way Donkey Ride,” included here in an unreleased demo version, prove that Denny still had some good songs in her. Unfortunately, she never had an opportunity for a comeback: On April 21, 1978, Denny died of a brain hemorrhage, reportedly the result of a fall in a friend’s flat.
Such a private, non–rock ’n’ roll death was perhaps a fitting end. By her own admission, Denny was no fan of the road, and Thompson suggests that the singer was torn between pursuit of fame and “freedom of lifestyle,” unwilling or unable to commit fully to either. That conflict may explain why none of Denny’s songs are as well-known as “Pink Moon” or “Both Sides Now.” But it also means that there is too much unfinished business—and too many potential fans out there—for any true Denny partisan to release a box of demos and be done with it. Denny is an artist who needs not a reintroduction, but her first real exposure to the mainstream. Fledg’ling is likely too small to give anyone that kind of spotlight, but the mere existence of A Boxful of Treasures, the second set of its kind, says plenty about how much the label would like to try. If it’s an effort doomed to fall short, so be it: There ain’t no money in this game. Only love.CP