Sandy Denny: The Tragic Story Of Britain's Unsung Folk Heroine

Len Brown welcomes a sensitive new biography of tragic British folk singer-songwriter Sandy Denny.
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Len Brown welcomes a sensitive new biography of tragic British folk singer-songwriter Sandy Denny.

Sandy

In his introduction to Mick Houghton's I've Always Kept A Unicorn (The Biography of Sandy Denny), Richard Thompson reflects on working with his Fairport Convention colleague:  "I realise more and more that Sandy Denny was not only the most important singer of my generation, but that no one has come along to touch her since".  High praise indeed from a man whose guitar worked so beautifully beneath Sandy’s distinctive English voice on tracks such as 'Autopsy'.  Thompson's view is backed up by Robert Plant, who performed with her on Led Zeppelin's 'The Battle Of Evermore': "Sandy Denny was the best of all those British girl singers".

For the uninitiated, and alas there still seem to be many, as a vocalist and songwriter Sandy Denny influenced and inspired many of our greatest female performers.  Kate Bush is a fan (she mentioned Sandy in 'Blow Away') and Denny’s most famous song, the extraordinary ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?' has been covered by diverse talents such as Eva Cassidy, Nina Simone, Nanci Griffiths, Cat Power and Kate Rusby.

During her too-brief life - she died in tragic circumstances in April 1978 aged only 31 - Sandy worked with many key artists in folk and rock music including Paul Simon, Pete Townshend (she was in the stage version of Tommy), Fairport Convention, The Strawbs, Fotheringay, Richard & Linda Thompson and Led Zeppelin.  In the late Sixties and early Seventies, she was twice voted NME's top female artist ahead of household names such as Janis Joplin, Dusty, Cilla and Lulu.

With I've Always Kept A Unicorn, Mick Houghton isn't venturing into uncharted waters.  There have been flawed or over-judgemental studies of Sandy's life before, such as Clinton Heylin's No More Sad Refrains and Pamela Winters' unpublished No Thought Of Leaving.  But, thankfully, Houghton brings a different skillset and a higher level of sensitivity to this story.  This is partly because he saw her onstage with both Fairport Convention and Fotheringay, allowing him a better understanding of her strengths and insecurities as a live performer.  Also, as a well-respected music PR man of many years standing, he's also worked with many great and difficult artists over the years, including Echo & The Bunnymen, Julian Cope, Jesus & Mary Chain, Sonic Youth etc.  He knows  the troubled artist territory well.

Unsurprisingly, given the detailed interviews with Sandy's friends and colleagues (including producer Joe Boyd, Richard & Linda Thompson, Dave Cousins and the various key players in Fairport and Fotheringay), the insights into her musical journey are fascinating and continually drive you back to the pure beauty of the music.  You get a strong sense of her middle-class background, her great talent, her warm but awkward character, and also the challenges she faced as a pioneering female artist in the male-dominated music industry of the early Seventies.  Speaking of the perception of women in music at the time, the Glasgow singer Shelagh MacDonald says that "travelling to clubs and stopping over who knows where, you were branded a woman of easy virtue".

One part of the story reveals that Sandy was insecure about her own body image; someone refers to her as "this dumpy blonde girl" and it seems her mother may have wanted her to be thinner.   Significantly, Richard Thompson suggests that "what made her a great artist were the inner conflicts and emotional complexities that drove her".  With the talent and the success came the spotlight and the criticism.

Far from the pure princess-in-the-tower image often conveyed by her virginal vocals and the lyrics of traditional songs, Sandy lived the folk & rock & roll lifestyle to the full, at times drank heavily and also experimented with drugs.  The pressures of performing and touring (particularly flying) took an increasingly heavy toll on her, and, ultimately, her "classic tempestuous" relationship with Trevor Lucas failed to save her.  At the time of her death Sandy was estranged from Trevor and their one-year old daughter Georgia.  Houghton deals with all this in an extremely dignified and respectful way.  "Grief makes one cruel," wrote Ibsen, and there was clearly a degree of bitterness and blame in the aftermath of Sandy Denny’s death, particularly towards Trevor Lucas at the graveside in Putney Vale Cemetery on April 27 1978.  But, as Houghton discovers, "opinions have since changed".

It's not just the direct quality of the writing and the sensitive telling of this story that draws you into I've Always Kept A Unicorn.  It's partly Houghton's honesty about his own musical fickleness as a teenager and also the great emotional undercurrent of regret that sweeps through all interviews within the Sandy Denny story.  "It now seems a lot of us deserted her after 1973," he writes.  And, when he found out she'd died from a brain haemorrhage after a fall in April 1978, "it was like hearing about the death of a friend you hadn't bothered to keep in touch with".   Clearly Mick Houghton has taken on this biography with great zest and a deep commitment to do Sandy Denny’s life and music justice and get all the salient facts right.  It’s a relief that he achieves his goal because, as he admits himself, "the weight of responsibility is huge".

Perhaps inevitably (or perhaps lazily) Sandy Denny gets branded as the "female Nick Drake" in the media.  Yes, they both died relatively young, were both on Island Records and were both produced by Joe Boyd, but at least Sandy experienced critical and commercial success, audience recognition and the huge respect of her peers during her lifetime.  Nick Drake's famous fruit tree didn't flower until far from his dying day. Forty year’s on from his death, Drake’s reputation continues to rise and his music is passed from generation to generation.  So let’s hope that, with help from Houghton’s book, so much more of Sandy’s music (particularly the lesser-known solo work) makes its way into the mainstream.

Mick Houghton's I've Always Kept A Unicorn - The Biography of Sandy Denny (Faber & Faber) is published this week.