Leaving Fairport Convention

02 February, 2023

Leaving Fairport Convention

In this extract from Thro' My Eyes, Iain Matthews describes the moment he was asked to leave Fairport Convention.

I’d been uneasy and feeling a little like a fish out of water in Fairport Convention ever since Sandy had joined the band. It wasn’t enough for me to want to leave, but I was never sure where I stood, or even sometimes where to stand. Sandy brought a wealth of unsung traditional material to the table and I was both puzzled and threatened by that. The music was alien to me and the band were embracing it wholeheartedly, absorbing it, while I had been perfectly happy with the direction we were moving in. Sometimes Sandy would begin to play and sing a traditional tune and the others would join in playing. I wasn’t an instrumentalist back then, I only had my voice to fall back on. The music was strange to me, I didn’t care for it without knowing why and I didn’t know where to go with it. It became more and more apparent that the band was quietly but positively morphing towards that style and it started to become a bone of contention for me. One night, Sandy played something backstage before a show, it could have been ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ or ‘A Sailor’s Life’, and the rest of the band said, ‘Let’s put it in the set tonight. Sandy knows the song and we can all busk around it.’ The band had no fear of improvisation, so it was left to me to thump around on a conga drum, trying to contribute something of my own to that alien music. The cracks and the writing on the wall were beginning to appear.

When we travelled to concerts we’d usually meet at the Witchseason management offices on Charlotte Street in the West End. One day I arrived at the agreed time, but I was the only one there apart from Joe Boyd. It later transpired that I had been told one time to arrive and they had been given a different one. Joe asked me to come into his office and sit down.

‘We need to talk Ian,’ he said.

He didn’t beat around the bush, that’s how Joe was.

‘The band have asked me to tell you that they want you to leave.’

It was a huge shock, I didn’t see it coming, after all I was singing with them most nights and sharing a house with two of them and no one had implied anything of the kind. As uncomfortable as I was with the direction, deep down I loved being in the band and in my naivety when Joe said leave, I presumed he meant soon. It never occurred to me that I was expected to leave immediately, within the hour.

While Joe and I were talking, the rest of the band began to arrive. When they went down to the van, naturally I followed and took my usual seat. There was a hushed silence until Ashley turned to me.

‘Where do you think you are going?’ he said.

‘With you of course.’

‘No you’re not, you’re out of the band.’

Sandy swivelled in her seat and narrowed her eyes at Ashley.

‘You cruel bastard,’ she said.

I sat there for a moment or two, stunned, trying to take it all in, before climbing back out of the van. I heard the door slide shut and off they drove. I stood rooted, trying to make sense of what had just happened. In the blink of an eye I was out of the band. I took a walk around the West End to let it all sink in. It was raining. Then I went home.

We were young and ambitious. I see now that they did what had to be done and I had become expendable. For the band, it was about forward progress and it needed to be made at all costs and as quickly as possible. As far as I’m aware, there was never any malice intended. We were in a musical dogfight to be recognised and to quote a well-worn phrase, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ Fairport Convention were tough and going places.

Thinking about it now, fifty years later, I still feel that same huge, gut-wrenching sense of disappointment and failure that I felt at the moment of impact on that chilly February afternoon. It’s the first and only time in my long career that I’ve ever been asked to leave a band. I silently vowed there and then that it would be the last.


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