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


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4 stars Folk rock didn't produce many concept albums, and this is a particularly unusual example. It details the story of a man wrongfully accused of murder in the nineteenth century and his experiences right up to his attempted execution and redemption. A strange story, but the music is compelling enough to carry it. Apparently this was a major flop, but it has survived the test of time. It was the first Fairport album in a while to be light on trad matierial- a sea shanty is the only non-original composition here. The originals are decent, leaning more towards pop/rock than folk at times, although Dave Swarbrick's fiddling and mandolin are always present. The songs have a lot of energy, a lot more rock orientation than the band had shown up to that point. There is even a an extremely psychedelic "Dream Song" which sounds like nothing the band had ever done up to that point. This lineup of the group was fairly weak vocally (Simon Nicol's vocal on "Breakfast in Mayfair" is a little wonky), but they harmonize well. The LP came with a fake newspaper booklet which was entertaining reading- I don't know if the CD reissue has anything like it. This album is worth a listen for fans of concept albums in general, but if you don't like electric folk, stay away. Horslips fans will like it a lot. This was the last really superior album Fairport would make for a while.
Report this review (#65465)
Posted Thursday, January 19, 2006 | Review Permalink
Sean Trane
Prog Folk
3 stars By the time FC came on with this album, most of the notable front persons of the band had left (Denny, Hutchings, Thompson and Matthews, Lamble, also more tragically) but Fairport kept on putting high standards record (look at this is a relative way from a proghead view) although not really reaching the heights of Liege or Full House. It was not for lack of trying as the remaining foursome (three of them will later play with Jethro Tull in the 80's) and only Simon Nicoll from the original line-up (this his last album, too as he will found the Albion Country Band) composing a concept album as their seventh record. Most fans will agree that this is the last classic album from Fairport, and I will agree too. Many fine moments on this record and maybe the most dramatic ones in all of FC's career in the lenghty closing chapter, this might just be the best description of a raconteur-troubadour folk rock has produced.

The concept is about a character John "Babbacombe" Lee's tribulations from the navy to jail and unjustifiably accused of murder of lovers, condemned to death penalty, escape etc. The first two chapters (we cannot speak of tracks here a 6 and 10 min long respectively) speak of the happier and "lawful" days of the hero, while the much shorter third chapter starts out with the brutal description of a murder and tells you how the hero gets accused. A rather duller 7-min fourth chapter represents the prisoner's lament but, as mentioned previously, the final chapter provides a loadful of drama and an increasingly tense and haunting climate regularly interrupted by verses and choruses. Clearly the album's highlight.

Musically, we are dealing with usual Fairport sound that remains somewhat constant that even the continuous personnel changes cannot change. Meandering between its fair share of jigs, Celtic ballads and their usual folk rock, one cannot say that this record is anything else than a worthy Fairport album as all of the preceding ones were.

Report this review (#68843)
Posted Thursday, February 9, 2006 | Review Permalink
Easy Livin
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.

Report this review (#74239)
Posted Thursday, April 6, 2006 | Review Permalink
Symphonic Team
4 stars The ABC is too long for a song!

Together with Full House, this is my favourite Fairport album of the 70's. It is not just the fact that Babbacombe Lee is a concept album, or rock opera, and that I happen to like conceptual albums. Everything about this album is far better than most other Fairport albums. The vocals are a lot better, there are more elaborated harmonies. The lyrics are better too. The melodies are strong. And most important of all, here they have written most of the music themselves instead of just upgrading old English Folk tunes. Compared to Liege & Lief and the other 60's releases by this band, Babbacombe Lee is also much better recorded and better produced. And much more progressive!

It is also the case that Babbacombe Lee is a Folk rock album with an equal emphasis on the Rock and the Folk, while some other albums by this band clearly emphasises the Folk over the Rock.

We should keep in mind also that this was released in 1971 and that it must have been rather groundbreaking at the time given the strong traditionalism within Folk rock.

My only complaint is that the alphabet is a little bit to long to make a song out of it!

A very good and enjoyable Folk rock album! One of the band's very best and most progressive. Recommended!

Report this review (#177528)
Posted Monday, July 21, 2008 | Review Permalink
4 stars This concept album tells the story of the man who was sentenced to death for murder. John 'Babbacombe' Lee known also as the 'man they couldn't hang'. It was impossible to execute him because of hanging mechanism failure, however John claimed his innocence. In early 70s Dave Swarbrick found couple of articles about that fact and it was a basic for this release. Originally Babbacombe Lee was album including 5 pieces. Remastered version is a compilation of 13 shorter cuts. It wasn't bad idea because the first version seemed a bit unnatural but in the other hand you listen to the whole album not skipping anything cos skipping short intrumental or speech pieces is sensless. Album starst with short speech and later we can hear typical British folk track. It sounds like something taken from Jethro Tull's Benefit (Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks joined Jethro in late 80s). Next we have some country stuff which isn't bad. I mean it's much better than Dylan's work from 60s. I don't think any American artist could stand the pace when British rock was at its peak. Speaking of Tull.... John Lee fragment amazes me cos it sounds like something taken from Too Old To Rock And Roll Too Young To Die (Pied Piper?). That Jethro album was released 5 years later! Breakfest In Mayfar vocal lines remind me of ELP's The Sheriff and this song was also recorded later (for Trilogy album). Trial Song and Cell song were one piece on original release. The first is a vivid folk rock track the second is very quiet and introspective. Last three pieces sum up the album. The Time Is Near is a gloomy song with lots of pathos. It works here fine. Dream Song somehow appears as psychedelic track but it isn't improvised. Suits just fine. Wake Up John.... yeah a waking song. This one is vital and sounds optimistic. It wasn't good moment for John Lee but knowing he wasn't killed we can listen to some good folk rock country piece. Remastered version includes aslo two bonus tracks recorded for BBC but I don't think it was needed. Babbacombe Lee is a concept and it ends with last sounds of Wake Up John. To me the best Fairport Convention release and not only because it's a concept album, it's beacuse it's the most Tull flavoured record and Jethro Tull is one of my favorite bands of all times. A classic.
Report this review (#179136)
Posted Thursday, August 7, 2008 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Babbacombe Lee is the seventh studio album by British folk/ rock act Fairport Convention. Fairport Conventionīs last two albums Full House (1970) and Angel Delight (1971) was not to my taste so I wasnīt exactly looking forward to listening to Babbacombe Lee either. Big mistake that one though because Babbacombe Lee is a great album and a real surprise for me. Itīs condidered the first folk/ rock opera in music history and as it is a concept album that description isnīt far from the truth IMO.

The lyrics are very important on this album and I would suggest that you read ( if you have the CD version) John Leeīs story which is in the booklet before listening to the album. At least I got a kick out of doing it that way. It is a true story.

His story is actually a very sinister and bizarre one and well worth a mention. John Lee was wrongfully ( at least thatīs his version of the story) accused, convicted and sentenced to death for the brutal murder of his mistress Miss Keyse (whom he worked for at the time of the murder) in the town of Babbacombe ( hence his nickname which is also the name of the album). But on the day of his execution the release mechanishm in the scaffold didnīt work. Three times they tried to hang John Lee, but failed. The strange thing is that between those three attempts the release mechanism did work. After the three failed attempts to hang John Lee the queen commutes his sentence to penal servitude for life which in 1885 Victorian England meant twenty years.

Now the lyrics on the first half of the album is about John Leeīs life before the murder. His youth and his time in the Navy before he was invalided out by the pneumonia. The last part of the album is about the murder, the trial and the failed execution. The music is very well crafted folk/ rock which follows the mood in the story all the way through the album. I really like the shifting mood and I think itīs one of the seldom cases where a concept story doesnīt ruin ( at least to some extent) the music.

The musicianship is excellent and it finally sound like thereīs confidence in the vocals. Something I missed greatly on Full House and Angel Delight. The fiddle and flute parts are much more restrained on Babbacombe Lee and and it means that this album has a lesser degree of folk compared to its two predecessors. Some of the songs actually rock and Iīm almost reminded of Fairport Conventionīs excellent debut album.

The production is also much more powerful than on the two last albums from the band which is a great treat and something I really enjoy.

Babbacombe Lee is an excellent album and for me who had given up on the band after Angel Delight itīs a welcome return to form. Somewhere between a 3 and a 4 star rating, but Iīm gonna give Babbacombe Lee the 4 stars because I just canīt seem to stop listening to the album and that must indicate something. One of the best Fairport Convention albums I have listened to so far and very recommendable.

Report this review (#198440)
Posted Sunday, January 11, 2009 | Review Permalink
4 stars "Babbacombe" Lee gets good press in the PA reviews and that's no surprise. Fairport Convention's seventh studio album is an unusual concept album about an historical figure named John Lee. Lee was condemned to die on the gallows and escaped death three times when the trap door wouldn't open on every attempt. Strangely, the door worked fine whenever Lee was not standing on top of it. As English law decrees that no one will be subject to execution attempts more then three times, Lee's sentence was commuted to serving prison time instead.

Fairport's Dave Swarbrick thought that this turn of the century drama would make an interesting concept album and he was right. Enlisting all of the band members to writing the music, "Babbacombe" Lee starts off with a narrative song titled "Little Did I Think" and moves on from there, recounting his teenage wish to be a sailor but he was ultimately invalided out and eventually went to live and work for an elderly spinster named Emma Keyes, who he allegedly kills for some unclear reason.

The music on "Babbacombe" Lee is quite good as folk rock and well played by all but lacks any of the past progressive music passages that made albums like Liege and Leif and Full House so enjoyable. I can understand that the group focused on the narrative lyrics and did a wonderful job of clearly communicating the story to the listener, but the music seems to have suffered a bit in the process. Still the album has many wonderful highlights with the stand out songs being "John Lee", "Breakfast In Mayfair", "Cell Song" and "Dream Song." The last being especially good as it's a weirdly atmospheric song about a dream of Mr. Lee's in which a voice tells him that he will survive the attempts to execute him. It's quite out of character for Fairport but all the better for it.

As usual, guitarist Simon Nicol, bassist Dave Pegg and drummer Dave Mattacks excellently back Swarbrick's vocals and violin playing with their own instruments while greatly improving on their own lead and backing vocals through out the album. However, "Babbacombe" Lee was a very poor seller in the history of Fairport albums which led to one more departure from the group with Nicol bailing out soon after it's release.

This review is solely based on the 2004 remastered CD which, I understand, now has clearly identified names assigned to the album's songs as opposed to the vague narrative descriptions for the songs listed on the original album jacket. The sound of the CD is excellent and lets much of the nuance of the vocals and music shine through. 4 stars for this reminder that even folk rock had reached for progressive heights at one time, even if not always completely reaching them.

Report this review (#2086447)
Posted Thursday, December 13, 2018 | Review Permalink

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