'You had to hold on to the furniture when Sandy sang'
Live fast, die young ... John Harris pays tribute to the one-woman
maelstrom that was Sandy Denny
Friday May 6, 2005
Kurt Cobain's mother called it "that stupid club": the enclosure,
presumably located somewhere in the here-after, in which Jim Morrison
clinks glasses with Brian Jones, Gram Parsons tries to avoid Sid
Vicious, and all those stars who suffered an early death toast the
revenue from posthumous record sales.
But where are the women? Given the inescapable fact that most
successful musicians are men, the gender imbalance - give or take the
likes of Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and Mama Cass - seems pretty
much inevitable. There may be another factor at work, however: the
fact that the romantic stereotype of the burned-out young star is
necessarily male. Critics use words like "Dionysian"; further down
the musical food chain, it's often a simple matter of callow young
men surveying the wreckage and deriving the usual vicarious thrills.
Either way, women need not apply.
The life, death and reputation of Sandy Denny are a perfect case in
point. Equipped with an incredible voice and an immense songwriting
talent, she was none the less plagued by the chronic insecurities
that led her into excess. Her drinking partners included the late
Keith Moon and John Bonham; the folk-tinged milieu from which she
came also included Nick Drake. She died aged 31, in 1978 - but
whereas lesser talents have been posthumously feted, she remains a
decidedly cult interest.
For some, that's a sign of her singular talent. "The thing that
always amazed me about Sandy," says her friend and contemporary Linda
Thompson, "was that she thought she actually could appeal to the
masses. Of course she couldn't - and who would want to? If you're
writing songs that people can shoot themselves to, you know you're
not going to be in the charts. Sandy's music was uncomfortable. It
demanded too much."
Alexandra Denny was born in 1947, and raised in Wimbledon. Her early
adulthood found her working as a nurse and then putting in time at
art school, while immersing herself in a nocturnal world centred
around the kind of London clubs - the Troubadour in Earl's Court,
Cousins in Soho - where candles burned into the small hours, and
aspiring musicians split their attentions between self-written songs
and traditional folk music. Her vocal abilities took in both a
seductive gentleness and strident power; away from the stage,
according to one of her acquaintances, "she was incredibly funny,
with a very quick mind ... a chaotic intelligence just poured out".
In the spring of 1968, Denny auditioned for the job of vocalist with
Fairport Convention, then fond of cover versions by Bob Dylan and
Joni Mitchell, and attempting to somehow align themselves with the
music drifting into the UK from the American west coast. "It was in a
room attached to a pub in west London," recalls Ashley Hutchings, the
band's then bass player. "We thought we were auditioning her, and she
took over. She told us what she would like us to play for her. But
she had the strong presence that we needed on stage. She had a
wonderful voice. And we immediately liked her."
Denny stayed with the group for three albums. She was instrumental in
nudging them towards the melding of old and new elements that would
mark their effective invention of British folk rock. Equally
importantly, her time with the band saw her take her first decisive
steps as a songwriter. What We Did On Our Holidays from 1969
contained Fotheringay, a evocation of Mary, Queen of Scots that now
sounds rather gauche, but served notice of both her talent and
ambition; the same year's Unhalfbricking featured Who Knows Where the
Time Goes, so brimming with poise and insight that it hardly sounded
like something authored by a 22-year-old.
Linda Thompson (née Peters), was a close friend of Denny, another
fantastically talented singer, and an associate of the group who
would soon marry their guitarist, Richard Thompson. "I can remember
Sandy saying to me, 'I'm going to try to write some songs,'" she
says. "And I thought to myself, 'That's ridiculous. She won't be able
to do that.' We were young, and there weren't many women writing
songs. And she played Who Knows Where the Time Goes, and I nearly
fell off my chair.'
Accounts of her life suggest that Denny was well aware of how good
she was, though her confidence and ambition could never offset her
seemingly innate insecurity. "I don't think she was ever truly
comfortable," says Ashley Hutchings. "She was a restless soul. And
very nervous: nervous about performing, nervous about travelling -
particularly flying. I think she probably needed the props of drink
and drugs. And she needed people around her, who she trusted and
loved, to keep her going; to tell her how good she was. The question,
of course, is how could you be that insecure when you have so much
talent? But she was."
Denny's fragile self-esteem was rattled by a particularly cruel part
of the 1960s pop whirl. One early Melody Maker profile of the band
blithely described Denny as "plump"; according to those who knew her,
the fact that she didn't quite match up with a skinny, mini-skirted
archetype caused her no end of unease.
"She had this amazing talent, this incredible voice - but she always
wanted to be pretty and fanciable," says Linda Thompson. "And she
was! But she never thought she was, because she wasn't conventionally
pretty. And these were the 60s, when no one ate anything and they
were all stick thin. She'd go on these daft diets - we were all on
slimming pills, and God knows what - and she'd get thinner, but she'd
put it on again. And she never quite got over that. It was so
ridiculous: we were all slaves to it, but it was a real burden for
"But some of the things people said were unbelievable. They'd say
things like, 'her sweet, chubby face'. I think that was very hard
indeed. But also, she could always leave the room with the most
interesting guy around - if he had a brain. Because not only was she
attractive, she was so smart and so talented. I think she had decided
long before that she was more witty and talented than any of these
dolly birds. And that's how she wowed men. She had a thing with Frank
Zappa, whenever he was in London. She went out with some pretty
Denny left Fairport Convention in late 1969. Her exit, in later
accounts, seems to have been prompted by two factors: her unease with
the band's increasing tilt towards folky orthodoxy, and the fact that
touring led to long spells away from her future husband. Trevor Lucas
was an Australian-born folk musician (variously described as "another
alpha male in her life" and "a real ladies' man") who quickly joined
her in the short-lived band they named Fotheringay. In contravention
of the rigid sexual politics of the time, he was happy enough to
allow Denny the starring role.
By 1971, with Lucas's encouragement, she had reluctantly gone solo,
commencing a run of four albums: that year's The North Star Grassman
and the Ravens, Sandy (1972), Like an Old Fashioned Waltz (1974) and
Rendezvous (1977). The first and second, home to songs as
accomplished as Late November, John the Gun and the wondrous It'll
Take a Long, Long Time, frequently crystallised her talent to
marvellous effect; thanks partly to her background in traditional
music, she could make her songs sound as if they were rooted in a
wisdom that was palpably timeless. From thereon in, though she could
still scrape incredible heights, she was rather hampered by soupy
arrangements (she was particularly partial to the string sections she
described as her "fur coat"), and, on her last album, the fact that
her voice was showing the strain that came from her fondness for
drink and drugs.
Commercial success consistently eluded her, though a fleeting place
in the mass market was assured by her appearance on Led Zeppelin IV,
on which she was invited by Led Zeppelin to duet with Robert Plant on
The Battle of Evermore. "She used to hang out with Led Zeppelin,"
recalls Linda Thompson. "Robert and Jimmy [Page], and John Bonham and
Keith Moon - they all knew how fantastic she was. Robert Plant was
the loudest singer on the planet at the time, and Sandy could blow
him off the stage. You'd have to hold on to the furniture when Sandy
was singing. So these guys knew what a star she was. And like a lot
of girls who are unhappy about the way they look, she became one of
the boys. You had to go some to drink with John Bonham. You couldn't
keep up with those guys. But Sandy could."
Inevitably, this was not all the stuff of rock'n'roll high jinks. Her
propensity for excess eventually turned pathological; worse still,
her appetites extended way beyond what was available in the off
licence. In 1977, she became pregnant; it was then that her closest
friends began to feel truly anxious. "I was worried when she was
pregnant, because I knew she was doing drugs and drinking," says
Linda Thompson. "And later on, she was crashing the car and leaving
the baby in the pub and all sorts of stuff. And that was worrying.
I've said it before about Nick Drake: these days, we might have done
an intervention or something. But back then, you thought people would
grow out of it.
"When I went to see her in the hospital after she'd had the baby, I
was terribly worried. The baby was premature. She'd abused herself
during pregnancy - and she said, 'They're giving me such a hard time,
telling me off. What about me?' And I thought, 'God, that's so
peculiar.' When you've just had a baby, you don't think about
yourself at all. By that time, I thought it was a little bit
In March 1978, Denny and her newborn daughter Georgia took a holiday
with her parents in Cornish cottage. She fell down a flight of
stairs, and subsequently complained of severe headaches, for which
she was prescribed a painkiller called Distalgesic. If mixed with
alcohol they can be fatal. A month later, she was dead, thanks to
what the coroner later called a "traumatic mid-brain haemorrhage". It
is one of the more tragic aspects of her death that when she fell
into a terminal coma, her husband and baby were elsewhere; fearing
for his daughter's safety, Trevor Lucas had travelled with Georgia to
his native Australia. As with so many musicians' stories, the tale is
more a matter of grinding dysfunction than of any hedonistic romance.
This month sees the re-release of Denny's four solo albums, augmented
with an array of bonus tracks, and contextualised via sleeve notes
that make the case for her promotion to the part of musical history
reserved for accredited pioneers. "She's been namechecked by some
high-profile people," considers Ashley Hutchings. "But she needs to
be re-evaluated. She wrote a kind of song that's very rarely written
now - emotional, musically interesting, sung really well - serious
songwriting. She was head and shoulders above the rest. And she
· The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, Sandy, Like an Old
Fashioned Waltz and Rendezvous are out now on Island/Universal.
Burning Bright, Ashley Hutchings' box set, is out on Free Reed Music.
Linda Thompson appears with Martha Wainwright in Strange How Potent
at the Lyric Hammersmith (box office: 08700 500 511), London W6, on
May 12, 13 and 14.