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Fairport Convention - 'Babbacombe' Lee CD (album) cover

'BABBACOMBE' LEE

Fairport Convention

 

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3.73 | 51 ratings

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Easy Livin
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
4 stars Don't hang "Babbacombe" Lee.

Surprisingly perhaps, this is Fairport Convention's only concept album. It tells the true story of young John "Babbacombe" Lee, who was tried for the murder of his employer Miss Emma Keyse, and found guilty. Lee protested his innocence, but was sentenced to be killed by hanging. After three attempts to complete the hanging, which were foiled on each occasion by the trap door failing to open, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, in accordance with the law of the land. What makes the case interesting is that the evidence against him did not really stack up, and thus the "act of God" that spared him is now seen as justice.

The album's concept came about after Dave Swarbrick had come across copies of Lee's papers in an antique shop, and the album is thus very much his baby. Swarbrick had been working on it for some time before it was finally released, hence the two bonus tracks on the remastered CD are by an earlier Fairport line up, and were taken from a BBC documentary on Lee. The tale is told by Fairport mainly in the first person (Lee) with little in the way of embellishment of the story beyond the facts.

After a brief pronouncement of the verdict, we are returned to the early days of John Lee, including his spell in the navy. This offers a good excuse for including the only non-band composition on the album in the form of the shanty "Sailor's alphabet". One of the best sections is the "I was 16/John my son" medley, which while hardly prog, does have an inventive structure and some good instrumentation.

Given the subject matter, the album is surprisingly upbeat, with the usual folk influences well to the fore. Tracks such as "John Lee" (where he leave the Navy through illness and takes up working for Keyse) and "Wake up John" (in which Lees describes the day of his abortive hanging) sound immensely positive.

There are of course softer tracks too, such as the lullaby like "Dream song", the reflective "The time is near", and "Breakfast in Mayfair" which includes the so-bad-it's-great lyric "put that paper down before your breakfast goes quite rotten". Instrumentally, while the fiddle and Mandolin of Dave Swawbrick are very much in evidence, recognition of the superb bass playing of Dave Pegg throughout the album is also due.

"Babbacombe Lee" was the first Fairport album where the line up, which has seen 20 plus members, was the same as on the previous album. It was released in the same year as "Angel delight", although by the time of its recording the group had vacated The Angel. When originally released, the album consisted of only two tracks, one on each side of the LP and was devoid of track titles. The remastered CD version however, breaks things up into their natural sections, and gives them titles for the first time. There is a continuity to the album which, while perhaps not rendering it progressive, does make the whole much greater than the sum of the parts. Indeed, "Babbacombe Lee" is in my opinion the most under-valued of Fairport's extensive catalogue. Because it does not contain the usual array of traditional songs, it is often perceived to be something of a fish out of water. What we have here though, is a wonderfully put together concept album, full of strong melodies, and first class performances. Recommended.

The remastered version includes an excellent booklet with lyrics and great detail of the story of "Babbabcome" Lee ("Babbacome" incidentally comes from the name of his home town in South West England). The two bonus tracks mentioned earlier were used in the BBC documentary about Lee. "Farewell To A Poor Man's Son" fits in well with the concept, but did not actually appear on the album, while the alternative version of "Breakfast in Mayfair" sees Sandy Denny taking lead vocal. Unfortunately, the BBC themselves did not have a version of the programme with these songs intact, so the versions included here are of a poor recording quality.

Easy Livin | 4/5 |

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