Simon John Breckenridge Nicol (born October 13, 1950) is a guitarist, singer, multi-instrumentalist and record producer. He was a founder member of British folk rock, or electric folk group Fairport Convention and is the only founding member still in the band. He has also been involved with the Albion Band and a wide range of musical projects, both as a collaborator, producer and as a solo artist.
Born in Muswell Hill, North London, Nicol was the son of a General Practitioner, who died in 1964. He began to play guitar at age eleven and left school at fifteen. In 1966 he was asked to join local band the Electric Shuffle Orchestra by bass guitarist Ashley Hutchings, and soon left his job at a local cinema to play full time. They rehearsed above his father’s old surgery in Fairport house, which gave its name to the band he and Hutchings formed with Richard Thompson and Shaun Frater as Fairport Convention in 1967.
As Thompson emerged as the lead guitarist, Nicol moved towards rhythm duties and occasional backing vocals. After some line-up changes the band enjoyed a degree of commercial success in their early years, with three albums and appearing on Britain’s most popular music program “Top of the Pops” in 1969 with the single “Si Tu Dois Partir”, which reached Number 21 in the UK Charts. Nicol contributed his first composition to the band for the second album, What We Did on Our Holidays, the short instrumental “End of the Holiday”. Nicol was injured in the accident that killed drummer Martin Lamble on May 12, 1969, but when he and the band were recovered they recorded what is usually considered their masterpiece and the most important single album in British folk rock, Liege and Lief (1969), which is credited as the key recording in the creation of the electric folk genre and which helped institute a major surge of interest in British folk music.
Almost immediately after the release of the album Hutchings and vocalist Sandy Denny left the band, which was then joined full-time by Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and by bassist Dave Pegg. While Swarbrick, with his knowledge of traditional music, emerged as the leading figure in the band, Nicol had to shoulder a larger share of the vocal duties on the next album Full House (1970). When Thompson left soon after, Nicol also had to take over lead guitar duties. Although never entirely happy with this role, it was generally thought at the time that he acquitted himself well. He also demonstrated that he was a multi-instrumentalist playing bass guitar, viola and dulcimer. He began song writing on the next two albums Angel Delight and Babbacombe Lee (both 1971). “Breakfast in Mayfair” on the latter was his first solo song composition with the band and one of the tracks that made it onto the History of Fairport Convention compilation album (1972). He also took over some of the production duties on Babbacombe Lee, but his efforts were not well received by the band and this, together with unhappiness with having to fill Thompson’s shoes, led him to decide to move on and in 1971 he left the band, the last of the original members to do so.
Just about the time that Nicol left Fairport Convention, Hutchings had also quit Steeleye Span and began to work on the first incarnation of the Albion Country Band to provide backing for his then wife Shirley Collins. Nicol joined the long list of musicians, including former Fairport members Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks, to contribute to No Roses (1971), often considered one of the most important electric folk albums. Nicol then teamed up with Richard Thompson and Linda Peters (later Linda Thompson) to form the trio Hokey Pokey in 1973. In 1974 this trio expanded into the band Sour Grapes that was assembled to tour in support of the Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight album. Later that year Nicol played on and co-produced the Thompson’s Hokey Pokey album.
In 1973 he played on what is often considered one of the seminal folk/jazz albums of all time, John Martyn’s Solid Air. When Hutchings tried to reform the Albion Band for an album in 1973, Nicol joined again, but the resulting work, Battle of the Field was not released until 1976. Nicol took part in some of sessions for Hutchings’ next project, The Etchingham Steam Band, but never formally joined the group. In 1974-5 he played guitar on Cat Stevens’ Numbers (1975) and also formed a band with Chris Spedding, Pat Donaldson, Gerry Conway. However, this “supergroup” proved abortive before any recordings were made. Nicol also produced the album Rough Diamonds (1975) for the highly regarded Jack the Lad, and began to play with Swarbrick and Pegg in a low key trio, Three Desperate Mortgages, which toured student venues across Britain.
Nicol came back to work with Fairport as a sound engineer on what was originally a solo project for Swarbrick and the album Gottle O’ Geer (1976). He played some guitar along with contributions from members of Fairport Convention and it was eventually released as a Fairport album to complete contractual obligations. Enjoying being with a band again, Nicol rejoined, but the times were inauspicious as Gottle O’ Geer was not highly regarded. Along with much of Fairport in this period he played on Julie Covington’s eponymous album (1977) including the surprise hit single “Only Women Bleed”, which reached Number Twelve in the UK single charts in 1978. In 1977 Nicol joined Hutchings’ reformed Albion Dance Band for the album The Prospect Before Us and in 1978 as The Albion Band they produced arguably the finest album of the group’s history, Rise Up Like the Sun (1978). In contrast the next two Fairport albums, The Bonny Bunch of Roses (1977) and Tippler’s Tales (1978), although well produced and played, and generally thought to have benefited from Nicol’s growing guitar technique and confidence in singing, sold so poorly that the record label Vertigo paid the band off. They eventually decided to disband and played a final concert at Cropredy in Oxfordshire on August 4, 1979.
As the members of the group went their separate ways, Nicol returned to the Albion Band to record two albums in 1983. He toured and recorded with Richard and Linda Thompson from 1979 to 1982 and then with Richard Thompson in 1983 and 1984. He also formed an acoustic duo with Dave Swarbrick, with whom he recorded three albums. He also continued to take part in annual reunions with Fairport at what was now the Cropredy Festival to growing crowds. In 1985 he joined in the recording of the Fairport album Gladys’ Leap, on which, as well as playing guitar, Nicol shared production credits, contributed the song “Wat Tyler”, arranged traditional tunes and acted as lead singer for the first time. The album was well received and led to the reformation of the band a year later.
The period 1986-97 was perhaps the busiest in Nicol’s career. With Swarbrick absent he finally became the front man for the new Fairport. Most commentators have tended to feel that his developing baritone voice was more than adequate for the task and his vocals on songs like “The Hiring Fair” have been particularly praised. Although Fairport embarked on regular recording and touring, Nicol produced two solo albums in this period - Before Your Time (1987) and Consonant Please Carol (1992). From 1991-96 he played on three albums by Richard Thompson. From 1993 he rejoined the Albion Band in a new acoustic line-up, recorded three highly regarded albums, the first of which, Acousticity (1993), he produced, touring extensively in Europe and America. He also continued to undertake work with a wide variety of artists, including a tour with Art Garfunkel in 1988 and playing on albums by Beverley Craven and Beth Nielsen Chapman. In 1990 he released a video of Singing Games for Children with his wife Sylvia.
In 1997 he left the Albion Band and began to focus more directly on Fairport Convention, but able to share vocal duties with Chris Leslie and taking over some of the responsibility for organizing the Cropredy Festival from 2005. He regularly rejoins the now suspended Albion Band for their Albion Christmas tours and continues to record with Fairport and other artists.
Nicol recently reunited with original Fairport Convention vocalist Judy Dyble, playing on two tracks on her 2009 album, Talking with Strangers. In the same year he performed in Alan Simon’s rock opera Anne de Bretagne, playing the role of King Edward IV of England.
Like Richard Thompson, Nicol uses a hybrid picking technique that uses a pick between thumb and forefinger and remaining fingers to pluck the higher strings, the pick can then be used to strum. Nicol described his technique as “percussive”. Although Nicol openly admits he lacks Thompson’s exceptional lead technique, he is considered one of the most reliable and versatile rhythm players available, as testified by his large number of credits with a wide variety of artists from different genres. In the view of Dave Mattacks, his fellow Fairport member for many years “he is the best acoustic supportive player I know.”
As part of Fairport Convention, Nicol received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” at the 2002 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. At the 2006 Folk awards he shared in the award for “Most Influential Folk Album of All Time” voted by Radio 2 listeners for Liege and Lief. At the 2007 awards he received an award with Fairport, along with the late Sandy Denny, for “Favorite Folk Track of All Time” for “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”.