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WIRE FROM THE BUNKER: Meet Sandy Denny

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Houlon2BY JONATHAN HOULON This week’s Wire concerns the First Lady of British Folk, the late great Sandy Denny. At the outset of this series of Wires, I promised to focus on music of which you are likely unaware. I felt confident in this regard because I am cooler than you. But I should also point out that my ability to do these deep dives, as it were, is largely based on my privileged white male privilege (no, that is not redundant: I grew up in Rockville, Maryland). I have been blessed with enough leisure time and resources in my half century or so on this Hell we created called Earth to chase my interests with little limitation. Trust me: you can’t just look this stuff up on Wikipedia or you-tube or Apple Music (which everyone insists I need to get … actually I don’t, thanks) or whatever “platform” you employ. You won’t arrive where I have. You need a map and an attention span and you won’t find the former in a hand-held device and, from what I can tell, you post-humans don’t even possess the latter. In other words, don’t try this at home.

The point I’m trying to arrive at is that Sandy Denny may actually be known to some of you. At the very least, there is a strong likelihood that you have heard her voice, whether you were aware of it or not, as Sandy sings a duet with Robert Plant on the ubiquitous Led Zep IV (or Zoso as it is also known). Apparently, and this is a tribute to her peerless vocal talents –Peter Townsend once said of Sandy, “She was a perfect British folk voice. Not a trace of vibrato. Pure and easy.” — Denny is the only person to ever appear on a Zeppelin record other than the Zep guys themselves. Heavy, man!

Moreover, Sandy sings a song — “The Battle of Evermore” — on the Mike Damone-approved side one of Zoso. You cinephiles will recall that in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Herr Docktor Damone instructs his protege Rat as per Point Five of his Five Point Plan re: dating that “when it comes down to making out, if at all possible, put on Side One of Led Zeppelin IV.”

Generally sound advice, I think. Shall we review the first side of that particular platter? The first track “Black Dog” begins with this morsel of poesy: “Hey, hey mama said the way you move // gon’ make you sweat, gon’ make you groove.” Now if that doesn’t draw the fairer sex in, I don’t what would. Next up we’ve got “Rock’n’Roll” where Plant proclaims: “Open your arms, baby, let my love come running in.” Pure aphrodisia, I’d say. Side one ends with that war-horse, “Stairway to Heaven,” which includes the following: “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now.” I suppose this could be considered a form of consent if you, uh, get my drift. But track three (Sandy’s duet with Plant on “The Battle of Evermore”) is the outlier in terms of inducing any sort of sexual congress. The song opens with this couplet: “Queen of Light took her bow and then she turned to go // The Prince of Peace embraced the gloom and walked the night alone.” Now there may be some Renaissance Fair ladies who go in for this sort of thing but, honestly, Evermore strikes me as a real non-starter in terms of “making out” or anything else. Perhaps I’m taking Damone too literally here. For all I know, he meant to suggest a merger of the Lacanian feminine and masculine in the otherworldly meld of the Denny/Plant vocal. At times it is hard to distinguish between the two!

So, yea, you may have actually heard Sandy’s voice before. You folkies out there would surely be familiar with her from her days in Fairport Convention. In short, Sandy Denny is hardly obscure: she has been the subject of two full length biographies and, in England at least, maintains a mighty cult following (warranting no less than a 17-disc box set in this century alone) which has continued to grow since her tragic death in 1978. Sandy, who fought a long and brutal battle with the bottle, allegedly sustained a brain hemorrhage following a fall down her parents’ steps. Richard Thompson later asked the musical question regarding said fall: “Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?” Dunno, Rich!


My own route to Sandy was via Elvis Costello who recorded Thompson’s “Withered and Died” as the b-side to his 1984 Imposter single “Peace In Our Time.” I remember, in 1984, riding my Schwinn up to Yesterday and Today Records on Rockville Pike and picking up said 45 (the clerk who sold it to me would later join Fugazi). Costello is responsible for introducing me to so much great music — Gram Parsons, Merle Haggard, James Carr, George Jones just to name a few — but turning me onto Richard Thompson is probably the referral for which I’m most grateful. EC’s solo acoustic cut of “Withered and Died” (still my favorite version of the song) sent me to Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight LP containing the original version of that number which then led me to Fairport (Richard’s first band) which was fronted by Sandy during their best period (1968-69). This is what I mean by a map, folks.

In any case, today’s Wire focuses exclusively on Sandy in the 70s. While I appreciate her Fairport work — tho, at the risk of a citation from the Folk Police, I will say that it occasionally veers into Dungeons and Dragons territory — Sandy’s post-Convention work is what defines her genius. Songwriting wise and vocally, the only female purveyor of the popular song who ranks with her is Joni Mitchell. Joni gets the edge as a songwriter, although who knows where the time goes and what would have happened if Sandy had lived beyond 31. As a singer, Sandy slays Joni and everyone else. I am amazed at how little attention Sandy’s solo work has garnered here in the States where she seems to have completely disappeared from the public consciousness, even among fans of such celebrated artists as Beth Orton and Thea Gilmore who literally would not exist without Sandy’s example.

Shall we have a listen?

“Solo” from Sandy’s third LP, Like An Old Fashioned Waltz whose title track would later be memorably covered by another great singer, Emmylou Harris. “Solo” is arguably Sandy’s finest composition and serves as a statement of purpose of sorts. One might argue that producer (and husband) Trevor Lucas overshot the intention of this song (particularly with the wanky guitar solo) but perhaps the bombast of the chorus coupled with the gentle verses makes sense: this song is both a defiant call for self-sufficiency and also a recognition of longing for others. Check out the beautiful chords in the chorus and how the melody pushes against them. Pure Sandy. The only way I can describe it is “sweet dissonance” or, heck, let’s call it what it is: Genius. Sandy sings “I’ve always kept a unicorn and I never sing out of tune” which neatly encapsulates her appeal: ethereal and impossible but also firmly rooted in the Earth, in tune.

“I’m a Dreamer” from Sandy’s final record, 1977’s Rendevous. They say Sandy lost a step vocally but I sure don’t hear it on this, yet another of her masterful compositions. Again, husband/producer Trevor Lucas may be guilty of overproduction here. The arena-rock guitar solo at the end of this number is especially heinous. The strings, however, are another matter entirely: listen to them swell and the bed they create for Sandy’s devastating lyric and vocal. Yes, Sandy, you certainly were a dreamer of the first order and this, in part, may account for your untimely demise … whether you jumped or were pushed.

“It’ll Take A Long Time” from Sandy’s second LP called simply Sandy. Here Lucas achieves a very stripped down production reminiscent of Richard and Linda Thompson’s aforementioned classic LP Bright Lights Tonight: utterly dry, almost brittle sounding but beautiful too. [Bonus question: if you took the ridiculous reverb off of Jim James’ voice, would anyone care about My Morning Jacket?] Somehow, Flying Burrito Brother “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow appears on this number and pulls off a lovely solo and then cool outro interplay with Richard Thompson. Sandy was, at least outwardly, an apolitical songwriter but, man, her words ring true today cuz it will take a very long time indeed. Unfortunately, it got cut short for Ms. Denny.

“Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” from Sandy. I normally detest this sort of thing, i.e. a singer overdubbing themselves, looping, auto-tune or whatever these fucking millenials do. But, damn, Sandy nails it on her take of Richard Farina’s paean to brotherhood. “Love is lord of all,” Farina (another secret hero who died way too young) wrote and surely he’s right about that (I love those millenials!). Of her arrangement, Sandy said “I’ve got some really discordant harmonies. I’ve been very much influenced by some of those Eastern European groups like the Bulgarian State Ensemble.” Sandy had big ears.

“Too Much of Nothing”: Alright enough gloom and doom from the tomb! Let’s finish up with a video of Sandy’s post-Fairport band, Fotheringay (how’s that for an awful name? Shall we get our Morris On down at the Cecil Sharpe House then?). That’s Trevor Lucas singing lead on this Basement Tape-era Dylan song. Trevor’s ok, not great. (To be sure, his facial hair is great!) But you gotta see Sandy’s smile at 2:18 and hear her chuckle at the end of the video. I know. I know. I said in the last Wire that it isn’t cool to smile on stage. But (a) this is folk rock vs. rock’n’roll and (b) Sandy Denny can do whatever the fuck she wants. And apparently fuck whoever the fuck she wanted as well: she would later consort with Fotheringay bass playing giant, Pat Donaldson, who dwarfs little Sandy in this clip.

Anyway, friends, hold onto your unicorns and I’ll see you soon for a Wire on the New Dylans, foremost among them Bob himself!

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