A treasure. Two short live sets from Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span at Ainsdale Beach on 30 June 1971.

29 July 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News

Fairport Convention & Steeleye Span on Ainsdale Beach (1971)

18 July 2022 | Alex Gallacher  | FolkRadioUK

Folk Song is a series of Folk Radio UK articles that take a closer look at Folk and Traditional Music over the ages, covering songs, key players and events and moments. Here, we head back to a sunny day on Ainsdale Beach in 1971.

Ainsdale is in the Southport area of Merseyside and boasts a large beach. The sand dunes support some 450 plant species, some of which are rare, although, in 1971, there was an altogether different kind of wildlife gathering on this beach thanks to Granada TV and two legendary British folk-rock bands.

In 1971, Granada TV decided to make a special 30-minute concert on Ainsdale beach featuring Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.

The story is that they just wanted a small audience of around 200, but a local paper got the details wrong and instead announced that it was a free festival. So, on 30th June 1971, when Steeleye Span took to the stage for their set, there were more than 200 gathered, and there were still many more arriving over the dunes.

A figure of 5000 has been mentioned (and double that); it seems that many turned up after the two short sets.

There’s also a story that the stage was burned down in protest after people realised there wasn’t a free festival, although I’ve not read any personal accounts that recall this.

Judging by the dress code, it can be safely said that the 30th June 1971 was not as hot as it is (or will be) today. First on stage was Steeleye Span.

The lineup featured Peter KnightTim HartMaddy PriorAshley Hutchings and Martin Carthy wielding an electric guitar. The band had not long delivered their debut album, Hark! The Village Wait the year before.

A few months before this performance, they released Please to See the King, from which they performed two tracks.

That album is still considered one of the folk-rock classics, and this was an exciting time for folk rock which had finally crossed over into the mainstream consciousness. However, the future of Steeleye was a lot less certain and contentious.

The band went through some significant changes early on. By this point, Gay and Terry Woods had left and were replaced by Peter Knight and Martin Carthy and uncertainty about what direction to take the band resulted in yet more changes. Ashley Hutchings left to pursue his love of English folk and married Shirley Collins.

He formed the Albion Country Band, and Shirley’s groundbreaking album (Shirley Collins and The Albion Country Band) No Roses was released soon after in October 1971, featuring an all-star cast (27 musicians and singers) including members of Fairport.

After Hutchings had left, Martin Carthy wanted John Kirkpatrick to replace him, but the band vetoed him. Martin Carthy would also soon leave and join Ashley in the Albion Country Band. Although that band lineup would also not last, splitting in 1973.

Their proper first album, Battle of the Field, was recorded in the summer of 1973, but Island Records wouldn’t release it until 1976.

There’s quite a contrast between the two band sets, not just the music but also the personalities. Steeleye’s set opens to The Lark in the Morning from their new album Please to See the King before a very laid-back Ashley Hutchings introduces a set of Irish reels in as few words as possible (believed to be – Dowd’s Favourite / £10 Float / The Morning Dew).

They end on another track from their new album, The Female Drummer. Hutchings shares that the song is from Yorkshire, “from the singing of The Watersons, that’s where we got it”.

With Steeleye now standing behind the speakers, it was the turn of Fairport Convention, whose set is more playful (on stage and behind), but then wouldn’t you be feeling the same if you’d just escaped death (more on that below)? Dave Swarbrick and Dave Pegg are livewires throughout (main image), joined by Dave Mattacks and Simon Nicol.

They kick off to Angel Delight – the song is named after ‘The Angel’, a former pub based in middle-class Little Hadham, Hertfordshire. It was also their home – a hippie folk commune complete with roadies.

Steeleye Span at Ainsdale Beach on 30 June 1971. Full performance in high quality.

They all have a lot to be happy about, as a few months prior, a Dutch lorry driver dozed off at the wheel and drove through their dwelling. The driver was killed, but luckily no one else was – including a fortunate Dave Swarbrick, who had decided to change bedrooms the night before.

They follow with the traditional tune, Bridge Over the River Ash, also from their Angel Delight album, over which they trade banter, including the tongue-in-cheek warning “watch what you say, we haven’t been paid yet”. A Bob Dylan cover follows with Country Pie before their Angel Delight finale, The Journeyman’s Grace.

On a note: One album that’s often overlooked around this period is Ray Fisher’s 1972 debut album, The Bonny Birdy, for which Ashley Hutchings wrote the amusing liner notes. Sadly, it has never been reissued.

The lineup for this debut, which was recorded in 1971, featured the above Steeleye Span formation except for Maddy Prior. One of my favourite folk songs on the album is Ray’s Johnnie Sangster, a harvesting song, the tune and text of which were taken from Miscellanea Part ii of The Rymour Club of Edinburgh.

The instrumental break in this version includes a jig called Kindred Spirit, specially composed for the occasion by Martin Carthy. Seek it out on vinyl if you get the chance.