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Mike Houghton: I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny (Faber & Faber, £20) – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Mike Houghton: I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny (Faber & Faber, £20)

May 8, 2015 | by SRB

The inscription on Sandy Denny’s tombstone in London’s Putney Vale cemetery says simply The Lady. The title of one of her songs, there’s an argument it should have been a question rather than a statement.

To some who knew her, Denny was the charismatic, musically blessed high priestess of Britain’s burgeoning sixties folk rock movement. To others, she was a socially inept, mercurial and troublesome agitator who attracted mayhem and chaos like moths around a flame.

But no-one – no-one – could doubt her incredible vocal and songwriting talents. She remains to this day one of Britain’s greatest ever female performers, her crystalline voice and plaintive, enigmatic compositions still mesmerising those who hear her.

Sandy may have been a legend in her own tragically short lifetime, but she was never a star in terms of being a household name or a celebrity. Though championed to this day by many of her contemporaries as well as those who have come since, her music was always too intelligent, too emotionally complex and too melancholy to ever invade the top 20.

Like her contemporary Nick Drake, the passing of the years has led to a revival of her reputation and a growing appreciation of the quality of her output. Hence this new biography, I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn, by the music industry publicist and insider Mick Houghton. It follows on from two earlier works, Clinton Heylin’s No More Sad Refrains and Pam Winters’ unpublished No Thought of Leaving (all the titles, incidentally, are lines from Denny’s songs).

Houghton’s work – more comprehensive and reflective than Heylin’s strong but fast-paced earlier retrospective – sets Sandy firmly in the context of the multi-layered, often absurd, anything-goes culture of the folk and rock scenes of the late sixties and early seventies. Intelligent, middle class and well educated, she could be charming and was undeniably sensitive, but also as raucous, sweary and tough as they come. 

Other character traits include temperamental, stroppy, sarcastic and cutting: Billy Connolly is said to have once described her as the angriest woman he had ever met. But she was also loyal, needy, insecure and caring. As her life story unfolds in the pages of this new work, it is clear that those who loved her – and as Ralph McTell explains to Houghton “I don’t know anyone who didn’t” – and were frustrated by her were often the same people at the same time.

Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny was born in Wimbledon in 1947. Scotland was in her genes had a profound influence on her: her grandfather helped orchestrate the amalgamation of Glasgow with the burgh of Govan, where her father Neil was born. Rather than use her Sunday name, she was always going to be Sandy.

Her comfortable, highly conventional, middle class parents hoped she’d settle down to something safe and respectable, but a brief career in nursing was a total failure. She went on to Kingston Art School and then started to play at the London folk clubs of the time. It was her astonishing, clear, vibrato-free voice which marked her out though, as well as singing the well-known standards, she was also starting to write her own songs.

Denny’s talents were spotted quickly, and she was invited to join The Strawbs. It was at about this time, still very early in her career, that she wrote her best known work, Who Knows Where The Time Goes. Performed since by more people than you could count, it remains a brooding, ethereal classic, as haunting today as when it was first penned.

Unhalfbricking and the landmark Liege and Lief – the latter voted the best folk rock album of all time – launched and defined the genre. The combination of her talents with those of Fairport’s guitarist Richard Thompson (and, a little later, fiddler Dave Swarbrick) in particular was literally and metaphorically electric.

Then, scared of flying and sick of touring, she left and formed her own band, Fotheringay, along with her fellow musician and husband-to-be Trevor Lucas. They recorded some splendid material, took decisions collectively, picked up an enormous advance from the record company and spent most of it on an unnecessary and Leviathan-sized PA system they called, appropriately, Stonehenge. Her unconvinced and nervous management company persuaded her to break up the band and go solo: Sandy reluctantly agreed.

Through the 1970s, a series of solo albums followed, from the haunting, Gothic The North Star Grassman and the Ravens through to the string-laden, over-produced but still at least partially memorable Rendezvous. In between, there was a short spell back with Fairport and a band album, Rising For The Moon. She also became the only guest singer ever to perform on a Led Zeppelin album when she co-led the vocals on The Battle of Evermore. Her work continued to be critically acclaimed but, as Houghton recounts in detail, during these years her mood darkened and barely managed order began the descent into chaos.

Denny’s marriage to Lucas, a lanky, easy-going Australian, was meant to provide support and security, but that didn’t take account of his philandering (Sandy, to be fair, wasn’t much better). The book recounts how she once remarked: “Trevor finally decided to make an honest woman of me. Sadly, it didn’t work the other way round.”

Financial problems also grew and, despite promotional backing from her record company, Island, commercial success continued to elude her. Glyn Johns, the legendary producer who oversaw Rising For The Moon, remembers her to Houghton as “such a sad girl and really very lonely”.

Then there were the drink and drugs. She’d always been fond of the booze, and could out-do the boys when it came to knocking them back. Then tranquillisers, sleeping pills and cocaine went into the mix, increasing her paranoia, mood swings and loss of control.

A move to a cottage in Northamptonshire with Trevor, distanced her from friends in London and fuelled isolation. She briefly joined the Scientologists and gave them her money: the ever-suffering Lucas, to whom the book is broadly sympathetic, went round and got it back.

Troubles came not as single spies, but in battalions. A lack of touring meant she fell out of the public eye and then Island Records ditched her. Punk came along, and intelligent, thoughtful singer songwriters were blown off the hill by Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. And the years of self-inflicted abuse were taking their toll: her voice maintained its power and individuality, but the once soaring, crystal clarity had gone.

Houghton recounts that, amid this collapse, she fell pregnant, giving birth to a daughter, Georgia Rose – “my beautiful, most precious child” – almost two months prematurely. She tried to be a responsible mother, but the drinking and drug taking continued. Unsurprisingly, she couldn’t cope, driving home drunkenly from the local pub and leaving Georgia in the back of the car more than once. There was a clear sense this was all going to end very badly indeed.

Sandy fell downstairs at her parents’ home, smashing her head on the stone floor and gashing it. The incident wasn’t properly investigated, allegedly because she was drunk at the time and her horrified mother was too embarrassed to take her to A&E. Then, back at home, she did it again. Trevor, aware of the risks to Georgia of Sandy’s irresponsible behaviour, had had enough. He took his baby daughter, left and secretly flew back to Australia with her in his arms.

Distraught, Sandy went to stay temporarily with an old friend in London. She complained of headaches and while alone collapsed on the stairs. Once found she was rushed to hospital, but she never recovered consciousness and succumbed to a mid-brain haemorrhage. Trevor turned straight round and arrived back from Australia to be at her bedside just before she died, on Friday 21 April 1978.

No-one has ever really been able to answer exactly what caused Sandy’s death and if she could have been saved. Houghton does not really seek to investigate this, which could possibly have provided some revealing new information and is one of a generally very solid, comprehensive and readable book’s few lapses.

It was a sad and unfitting end to a life which still had so much more to give. This book’s in-depth exploration of the time and circumstances in which she lived is revealing and  starkly illustrates how the past really can be a different country.

Sandy felt she had to comply with the tough, boozy, male-oriented rock culture of the time, in a period when there were really no role models, mentors or established pathways for a female British singer-songwriter with remarkable but volatile talents. All those around her, and especially the Fairports, were sympathetic and long-suffering. They cared and tried to help, but we were still a long way from the therapy and medical intervention culture which has grown up since and which might just have saved her.

To this day, her spirit lingers, and not just because her music has found new acceptance in the last few years. Fairport Convention still tour and attract enthusiastic crowds, but there remains a tangible feeling of painful sadness and uncontrived melancholy, of an unfinished life, when they perform her songs.

Sandy Denny may have left us half a lifetime ago, but her music remains as fresh, alive and vibrant today as ever – perhaps, in fact, even more so. A song she wrote but never recorded, London, was sung by Thea Gilmore and used by the BBC for the 2012 Olympics. More poignantly, next month (June) Fotheringay will re-assemble and go back on the road for a series of tour dates for the first time in nearly 45 years.

And she still has the power to spark friction. “I couldnae stand the lassie”, one still-active Scottish music veteran who knew her recently told me. “Foul mouthed and unpleasant. I tried to stay out of her way.”

Those who worked and lived with The Lady, those whom she loved and annoyed, berated and blessed: this is their story, too. If there is a lesson in Houghton’s book, it is that Sandy Denny may have physically gone, but she remains with us, in the here and now. She will always keep her unicorn, and she will – still – never sing out of tune.


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