Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.
On this day in 1969, John Peel hosted a benefit concert for the families of Fairport Convention drummer Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn, who had both been killed in a motorway accident while traveling with the band.
Britain’s answer to The Band, in many ways, Fairport Convention experimented with the fusion of traditional English folk music and rock and roll, just as bands in the U.S. were rushing to blend rock with country and folk.
While never as well-known as their North American contemporaries like The Band, The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, Fairport Convention were massively influential, not least for launching guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson.
Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol started it all in London 1966 as the Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra. When guitar prodigy Thompson joined in 1967, they became Fairport Convention and added drummer Martin Lamble and a female singer Judy Dyble. Signed by producer Joe Boyd to Polydor, they added another singer, Iain Matthews and issued their self-titled debut album and were quickly dubbed the “British Jefferson Airplane.”
After Dyble was replaced by Sandy Denny, the band put out two critically adored albums, What We Did On Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking.
Thompson was rapidly finding his songwriting muse with tracks like “Meet on the Ledge” and they all began to dig deeper into English folk for inspiration. BBC DJ John Peel championed the band and they even managed a minor hit with “Si tu Dois Partir,” a French cover of Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now.” The future looked bright indeed.
Then, one night, after a gig at Mothers in Birmingham, most of Fairport were travelling back south in a van when they crashed on the M1 motorway. It would prove a tragic and devastating accident that would change the band forever. Nicol, who often helped the road manager with the driving, was ill on this particular day. Instead of driving, he was laid out in the back of their van with a piercing migraine.
He remembered what happened next and wrote on the Fairport Convention website:
“I was stretched out on the floor with a blanket over my head trying to sleep off this terrible headache. When I woke up, the van was doing things which didn’t involve the wheels being in contact with the ground: when it stopped moving, I was the only one left in it. All the gear had gone out of the back and all the people had gone out through the windows and doors. It was about half-three in the morning. We’d gone down an embankment beside near the Scratchwood service area.
“Everyone was spread out: some moving as they came to; some not moving at all. The emergency services rescued us pretty quickly. Jeannie Franklyn, Richard’s girlfriend, was dead by the time the ambulance arrived. At the hospital, they weren’t able to bring Martin Lamble back to life.
“Ashley looked terrible – his face was smashed up and, as with any scalp or face wound, he was covered in blood. Richard had broken his shoulder and Harvey had gone through the windscreen and ended up ninety feet away in a very bad state.”
As for the already sick Nicol, he suffered “bruises and mild concussion.”
The tragic accident affected all involved very deeply. Nicol recalls that despite Sandy Denny not being at the crash she was, “devastated. When she visited us the day after in hospital they nearly had to admit her too because she was so distressed. I remember she was very upset about Martin for ages.”
Lamble was only 18 years old when he died and already tipped by many who’d seen him as a future great with the sticks. Nicol says: “He would have gone on to have been so much more than just another drummer, another musician: there was something very special about him.”
Eventually the band did recuperate enough to record their classic Liege & Lief album that reached #17 on the U.K. album chart. But soon the band’s co-founder Hutchings would leave to pursue his growing interest in traditional music. It was something Nicol feels was caused in part by the accident and death of Lamble.
“I believe the crash hung over the band in unseen ways. I think it was one of the unspoken reasons for the next big change, when Ashley decided to leave the band later that year after we had recorded Liege & Lief and relaunched the band to some fanfare and acclaim,” he wrote. “Whatever the upfront reasons about musical differences and wanting to concentrate on traditional material, I think the accident was the underlying reason why Ashley felt he couldn't continue with us.”