“I’ve always lived in a mansion on the other side of the moon,” Sandy Denny sings in the last verse of the leadoff track to her 1974 solo album, Like an Old-fashioned Waltz, indicating the innate remoteness that may lie very close to the core of the British folk-rock singer’s appeal. But nothing was ever clear cut with Denny. She continues, “I’ve always kept a unicorn and I never sing out of tune,” making a winking fairyland reference before closing the couplet with a claim that even the most ardent fans of her band Fairport Convention would contest after hearing their freewheeling live album “A Moveable Feast” that was released the same year. But this song, ostensibly about the many comings and goings in the Fairport line-up, extends to a certain peculiar and universal pain. “I can’t communicate with you and I guess I never will/We’ve all gone solo,” she sings to no one and everyone and with the lead guitar of Richard Thompson (who had just delivered a piercing solo a minute before) chiming in, delivers the plaintive rhetorical cry of “Ain’t life a solo?” in the crystal-clear upper register that would be known to millions of rock ‘n’ rollers even if they never followed her solo career.
Please ignore the YouTuber’s cheesy slide show, this is a feast for the ears, not the eyes.
For those millions Sandy Denny will be remembered for her soaring, call-and-response duet with Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin IV’s “Battle of Evermore,” the great Celtic-flavored song that served as a table setter for the magnum opus “Stairway to Heaven.” By that time, Sandy had made her mark after joining Fairport for their second album, playing a large part in the development of the English folk-rock genre.
Early days yet. Sandy in a publicity shot from 1967.
Born in London in 1947, she had classical training on the piano and was likely influenced by a Scottish grandmother who was a singer of traditional tunes. When Denny auditioned for the then Jefferson Airplane-influenced group in 1968 after the departure of Judy Dyble, Fairport guitarist Simon Nicol said her effervescence and musical skills made her stand out like “a clean glass in a sink full of dirty dishes.” It was Denny’s traditional repertoire, already well-honed in folk clubs, that influenced the group to play the age-old material of their homeland (and original material in a similar style) in an amped-up style that culminated in the landmark Liege and Lief album, which hit #17 in the UK charts.
Like many English bands of the day, Fairport Convention moved to the country to “get it together.”
Denny had become friends with Zeppelin when Fairport had shared concert bills with them but by1971 she had left the Convention and put out her first proper solo album (recordings she had made in 1967 had been only haphazardly released). With unimpeachable vocal strengths, a deft hand at songwriting and her soft-featured good looks, Denny seemed poised for great success, perhaps an Anglicized Joni Mitchell. But there was never that breakout. Though revered by listeners in her core constituency, a persistent melancholy seemed to pervade her sound (despite her rep in Fairport as a bit of a hell-raiser) and her elliptical lyrics kept more casual listeners at arm’s length.
By the time of her third album, recorded in the middle of 1973 but not released until ’74, there appeared to be an effort (of which Sandy was part) to broaden her appeal. With her boyfriend (and Fotheringay bandmate) Trevor Lucas co-producing, Like an Old-Fashioned Waltz had a bright surface but a brooding interior. Art directors took the nostalgic title tune a bit too much to heart, putting Denny’s trademark long blond hair up in a bun for a prim Edwardian-style portrait that likely didn’t do much for impulse purchases. Still, it was a lovely collection of songs even if none of the originals can quite match the masterful “Solo.” Songs like “Carnival” and “Dark the Night” have their own counter-intuitive uplift and the Joni-esque closer “No End” has a slow-building majesty sure to please the base. Less appealing is the incongruous addition of two jazz standards (“Whispering Grass” and “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”) whose lounge-lizard production values break the quiet spell of the original material.
By the time LAOFW was released to little effect in the summer of ’74, Denny had re-joined the Fairport with her now-husband Trevor Lucas on vocals and lead guitarist Jerry Donahue replacing Richard Thompson, sort of a package deal trade as all three came over from the side project Fotheringay. What followed was the Rising for the Moon studio LP and the aforementioned Moveable Feast live album from the subsequent tour, re-packaged as Convention Live in the CD era. Here was Sandy in a more natural habitat, fronting a spirited band and delivering fiery vocals on both traditionals (“Matty Groves”) and her own material (“John the Gun”). But that edition of F.C. was not fated to last and there was on last solo album (1977’s Rendezvous) before her tragic death in 1978. Here Denny was figured as a pop chanteuse with covers of “Candle in the Wind” and “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” almost crowding out some fine originals like the all-too-fitting closer, “No More Sad Refrains.”
Sandy Denny died of a brain hemorrhage in April 1978, a few weeks after sustaining a head injury in a fall down a flight of stairs. One wonders if things would have been different in today’s world, where we are better versed in mental health awareness, and to have interceded with someone known to have body image and substance abuse issues, as well as depressive tendencies. Denny continued using alcohol and drugs during and after the birth of her daughter Georgia and became estranged from her husband after the accident, with Lucas—fearing for the safety of the child—even taking her back to his native Australia.
Richard Thompson and Sandy’s daughter, Georgia Lucas, in 2006
When we wheel back from those awful circumstances and look at this remarkably talented and ill-fated woman, the clues almost seem to be staring right at us in some many of her tunes (“Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” indeed) and we are left with the aching consolation of what was accomplished during the all too brief time she was here, going solo or not.