This story probably represents my most influential moment as a music critic and certainly my most committed moment as a fan. It's also a bit on the long side -- in those days I felt rock criticism should be monumental, and I was determined to build a monument to my favorite songwriter and guitarist, Richard Thompson. In 1982, Richard & Linda Thompson were relatively unknown but just starting to break through in the United States. Though the record collectors' magazine I then edited was quite tiny, my story was picked up as background in several magazines and newspapers over the next several years. Some lazy rock writers have slapped their own bylines on paragraph after paragraph of it, often without any attempt to disguise the material. Outraged friends would call me up regularly, alerting me to the latest outrage.
In retrospect, the borrowing was a compliment, I have no regrets, and interviewing Richard Thompson for a solid hour was the greatest privilege of my life -- a privilege more keenly enjoyed knowing that his then-manager Jo Lustig had forbidden small fry like me to talk to Richard but his then-publicist Gary Kenton had made it possible anyway, smuggling me into Richard's hotel room at lunchtime and even lending me a tape recorder. When Lustig returned from lunch, he glared.
I never did get to speak to Linda -- "out shopping," Richard explained euphemistically. Barely months after my interview came out in print, the Thompsons' first American tour dissolved in discord, along with their marriage, as Linda flung ashtrays and Coke bottles at her husband's head. The reason: Days before I interviewed him, he had played in California and fallen in love with the woman who would become his second wife, Nancy Covey. That same fall Richard repositioned himself as a solo act.
Today, of course, he enjoys an honorably moderate level of success, tours the States regularly, lives in California half the year with the excellent Nancy, and his discography is no longer out of print, remarks below to the contrary. Thanks to Gary Kenton, Edward Haber, and Dave Schulps for various kinds of assistance. -- MF
Originally published in the Trouser Press Collectors' Magazine, May/June 1982:
FREE RICHARD THOMPSON NOW!
by Mark Fleischmann
Richard Thompson is a prisoner of obscurity. Though his discography is one of the best reasons for owning a turntable, most of the fraction of it released in this country is out of print. Even in his native England they are slipping away, one by one. Yet he is one of Britain's greatest songwriters and most unique guitarists: honest, subtle and powerful.
Part of Thompson's obscurity stems from misunderstanding. He is sometimes called a "cult artist"; a cult artist, of course, is just a musician who makes less money than a rock writer. More harmful if swallowed and less easily shaken is the "folkie" label -- horrid visions of his skin splitting down the middle to reveal an English John Denver clutter the mind. But Richard Thompson is no more a folkie than Keith Richards is a bluesman; he is simply a smart eclectic who has delved into English and other traditional music with a common modal harmonic root, extracting its simplicity and emotional directness to create new songwriting and guitar styles entirely his own. Neither stringent revivalist or sentimental sap, Thompson is (in his own words) "a rock musician" -- one of the best and most original we have.
The word "bleak" has probably repelled potential listeners most. Thompson writes songs that penetrate to the heart of human experience. Inevitably, some of them are grim -- but his grimmest moments are often his most compassionate ones. He has also written some of the most beautiful and unorthodox love songs in the English language. And I'll never forget the sunny grin he greeted me with when we met for an interview in January. He'd also radiated warmth the night before in two sets at New York's Bottom Line, playing for a supportive, even affectionate audience -- an audience he'd never really known.
Thompson had come to New York for the first time since his appearances with Sandy Denny and with Fairport Convention 10 and 12 years before. He came alone, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and (during the early show) mandolin. He opened the late show with a new song, "Back Street Slide," and closed it with an emotion-charged "Meet on the Ledge." In between he played new songs from Shoot Out the Lights and instrumentals from Strict Tempo! ("rocketing up the Italian charts with a bullet") and took requests, closing his eyes and fingering the fretboard as he tried to remember them. He did Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis songs, recreating Lewis' piano runs on the guitar. His guitar often forged ahead alone, freeform, dancing around the chords of songs and the expectations of the audience.
He came ostensibly to promote Shoot Out the Lights, recorded with his wife and partner Linda Thompson, and to arouse press interest in his return with Linda and an electric band. But wheels turned within wheels: a decade of new LPs bearing his name had previously failed to coax Thompson across the Atlantic. Moreover, 1981 had found him in a veritable whirlwind of recording activity: He recorded Shoot Out the Lights with Linda. He joined the other members of Fairport Convention's Full House lineup on a reunion album, Smiddyburn, under violinist Dave Swarbrick's name. He played on and cowrote large portions of Pere Ubu singer David Thomas' solo album, The Sound of the Sand -- that's about as far as Fairport Convention as you can get. And, in his most dramatic move, he recorded a daring instrumental LP called Strict Tempo! and founded a label of his own on which to release it. Hearing all this, a friend of mine innocently suggested: "Maybe he got bored."
"Shafted" might be a better word. Chrysalis refused to release Sunnyvista, his previous album with Linda, in the U.S. When Gerry Rafferty produced an album for the Thompsons last year, Chrysalis sat on the tapes. [I later received word that it was Richard who sat on the tapes. -- MF] In America the Thompsons are nearly unknown; in England Richard says they are "treated as a novelty act." Though they have eluded mass success as carefully as it has eluded them, some of the Thompsons' best work has always remained before the public on both sides of the ocean. But times are hard and the man with the calculator doesn't want to hear about "cult artists."
He has always kept a low profile, but Thompson is too potently talented to disappear quietly. His spate of new records appear on four different labels, none of which is Chrysalis. Meanwhile, the 15th year since his first gig with Fairport Convention, the 10th since he released his first solo album, and the Thompsons' third child are arriving at once. With their future uncertain and their first full-fledged American tour imminent, Richard & Linda Thompson's fast-evaporating past has never been more relevant.
The years with Fairport
Richard Thompson was born in London to a Scottish father and English mother in 1949 and grew up around Archway and Highgate. He was playing guitar by age nine or so as he listened to his father's Les Paul and Django Reinhardt records. Like so many of us, he first heard rock & roll -- Buddy Holly, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis -- through an older sibling's bedroom wall. After leaving school he became an apprentice at a graphic-arts firm that designed stained-glass windows -- for about six months.
It must have been fellow guitarist Simon Nicol who led Richard astray from his budding career as a stained-glass window designer. Nicol lived in north London's Muswell Hill in a house called Fairport where Thompson and bassist Ashley "Tyger" Hutchings were frequent guests. There, the three formed what Richard calls "the nucleus of a lot of experimental bands from around '65 and '66. It was Ashley Hutchings' band. There was a jug band and a funk band and a blues band and a hard-rock band, depending on what kind of work we could get." The jug band, Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra, is sometimes described as a Fairport embryo though Thompson says never played in it.
Named after the house in which it was conceived, Fairport Convention was born in 1967 with the arrivals of drummer Shaun Frater, soon replaced by Martin Lamble, and singer Judy Dyble. It first played in spring of that year at London's Saville Theatre in one of Brian Epstein's "Sunday Concerts." Dyble, who also cut a few demos with the King Crimson forerunner Giles, Giles & Fripp, is best remembered for her habit of knitting socks and scarves onstage when she had nothing to sing. Ian MacDonald of Pyramid (later to become Ian Matthews) joined in November.
Fairport made its vinyl debut the following year with a self-titled album that reflects both the early Fairport's love of Bob Dylan and the Byrds and its bent for everything-but-the-kitchen-sink eclecticism. With two lead singers up front, Thompson was an almost-unheard voice in the chorus. He coauthored five songs including "The Lobster," cowritten with Hutchings, a promisingly progressive mood piece on which he shows off his jazz chops and graduates to violent slashing chords.
When Sandy Denny came in from the Strawbs to replace Dyble, bringing a repertoire that included traditional English songs, "we began thinking that this was much more our music," says Thompson. The band had been moving toward traditional music anyway, hanging out and playing in folk clubs as well as rock clubs. "It was a matter of taste -- that was what we liked to listen to. We must have been the first band in England to carry electric instruments into a folk club. It was pretty revolutionary at the time."
What We Did on Our Holidays (1968; Ian Matthews' last LP with the band) and Unhalfbricking (1969) show Fairport's schizophrenia slowly growing into a more mature diversity. They also include the band's first outings in traditional territory and Thompson's first real ventures as a songwriter. The 19-year-old Richard Thompson was fiercely alienated, but the passion that drives such songs as "No Man's Land" and "Tale in Hard Time" still inspires respect. In "Meet on the Ledge," Ian Matthews sings: "We used to say / There'd come the day / We'd all be making songs / Or finding better words / These ideas never lasted long." Thompson spent the rest of his career proving himself wrong. "Genesis Hall" finds him making his first observations about human foolishness, later to become one of the dominant themes of his writing: "One man he drinks up his whisky / And another he drinks up his wine / And they drink till their eyes are red with hate / For those of a different kind."
These albums also show Thompson growing as a guitarist. Sandy Denny's delicious, breathy voice -- a unique musical instrument in itself -- was then in full flower. To accompany it, Thompson shifted away from his hitherto-derivative guitar playing to create a new style based on subtle melodic invention. The Denny/Thompson voice/guitar dialogues of Dylan's "I'll Keep It with Mine" and Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" are the most auspicious such pairings in pop and rock. Thompson's session work on Nick Drake's first two LPs, interestingly, dates from around this time.
Death came to Fairport in June 1969 when its van ran off the highway on the way back from a gig. Martin Lamble and Thompson's girlfriend lost their lives. By September drummer Dave Mattacks and violinist Dave Swarbrick had joined and the group recorded Liege & Lief, its tightest and most coherent album. That all the material is either traditional or written in a traditional vein is almost secondary. Sobered by tragedy, the band embraced English folk music (and its fatalistic tone) with fervor and made the seminal English folk-rock LP. Thompson contributed the eloquently elegiac "Farewell, Farewell" and began a collaboration with Swarbrick with "Crazy Man Michael," a blackly ironic morality tale.
Denny and Hutchings left the band in November 1969. Dave Pegg joined on bass and Fairport recorded Full House, which includes three Thompson/Swarbrick songs among its traditional songs and dance suites. "Walk Awhile" is a light, bucolic ditty sandwiching a dance tune; "Doctor of Physick" is an amusing satire of Olde English sexual superstitions featuring the bogeyman "Dr. Monk." But only "Sloth," an epic-length antiwar song, reaches the intensity of Thompson's best work.
The Full House Fairport toured the U.S. in 1970 and recorded Live at the L.A. Troubadour [later re-released in a slightly different version as House Full]. Here the boys race through dance selections and smirk their way through "Banks of the Sweet Primroses," saving their lowest voices for the words of the "fair maiden." Thompson takes his first solo lead on "Matty Groves," racing ahead of the beat in his excitement, and trades pizzicatos with Swarbrick on a powerful "Sloth." "Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman," a Thompson/Swarbrick song on the injustice of capital punishment, was actually begun by Fairport for Full House and finished by Richard and Linda in 1975, the year before the Troubadour LP's late release. Three more Thompson/Swarbrick songs pop up: On Fairport's Angel Delight, the unremarkable "Journeyman's Grace" and "Sickness & Diseases" appear -- though Thompson himself doesn't. A single, "Now Be Thankful," surfaces on two Fairport compilations.
Thompson left Fairport Convention in January 1971. Why? "Much as I loved Fairport and the people in it, I had to leave. I wanted to change what I was doing, do more songwriting, and I couldn't see how I could do it within the band. I could hear something different that I wanted to do. One day, I just couldn't do another gig." Its arteries hardening fast, Fairport eventually became a folk-rock brand name under Swarbrick [though this obviously wasn't the end of the Fairport story]. Nicol left after Babbacombe Lee and the band recorded two albums without a single original member, though Thompson added guitar to the title cut of Rosie. Denny rejoined briefly for Rising for the Moon and the live A Moveable Feast, and Nicol returned to the band in its final incarnation. When Swarbrick's doctor advised him to give up electric music because it exacerbated a growing hearing impairment, the band recorded one last live LP that makes up in spirit what it lacks in substance: Farewell, Farewell. Fairport died in dignity in 1979 [only to rise from the ashes, following years of reunion gigs, in 1985!].
After Fairport Thompson did "two solid years of sessions." Many of these were with other Fairport exiles. He coproduced and played on Sandy Denny's The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, even sharing the vocal on Dylan's "Down in the Flood." "I always enjoyed working with her," he recalls. Though he would also contribute guitar to future Denny albums, his understated guitar and dominant sense of restraint help make this debut LP her best. He lent his guitar to Ian Matthews' development of Fairport's pop tendencies on more than one album and donated "A Commercial Proposition" to Matthews' Sothern Comfort. The chorus of "everything's all right, everything's all right, everything's all right now" seems at least partly ironic. (Another song Thompson wrote but never recorded, the country-rock vehicle "Shady Lies," appears on Matthews' Valley Hi and Marc Ellington's Marc Time.) And when Ashley Hutchings left Steeleye Span to refine his vision of modernized English dance music, Thompson added discreet rhythm guitar to the one-shot band/album Morris On. He and Linda were also temporary members of the Albion Country Band, another Hutchings concoction, leaving behind the song "Albion Sunrise" on Battle of the Field.
While a complete analysis of Richard Thompson as a sideman will have to commemorate the release of some future Thompson album, it's worth noting here that his early-'70s guitar work shows a greater breadth and creativity that Fairport would never have fully used given Swarbrick's growing dominance and the increasing hegemony of traditional music. As a hired player in various folk-country-pop sessions, Thompson's guitar found open spaces in which to breathe and develop. The results are nearly always worth listening to. Savor the two fluidly dramatic breaks he plays on "Days Used to Be Much Warmer" from Ellington's Rains/Reins of Change; hear him rock out on the rockabilly "Dream Song" on Matthews' Southern Comfort (omitted from the U.S. issue).
Thompson's most aggressive rock & roll playing around this time appears on Rock On by the Bunch, a loose collection of musicians from Fairport and environs. Wanna hear Sandy Denny sing "Willie and the Hand Jive"? Have I got an album for you! Producer/organizer Trevor Lucas reduces Thompson's Stratocaster to a spindly tone and too often buries it in the mix, but here's some of Thompson's best straight-rock playing on record. He sings, too, though his Americanized vocal tributes to Chuck Berry ("Sweet Little Rock 'n' Roller"), Hank Williams ("Jambalaya [On the Bayou]"), and even Dion ("My Girl in the Month of May") are for fans only. Another notable participant is folksinger Linda Peters, who had studied at the Scottish Academy for Dramatic Art and worked in the U.S. with Peter Asher. She sings Goffin/King's "The Loco-Motion" and duets with Sandy Denny on the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved." In two years, she would change her name to Thompson.
The years with Linda
Twenty-three-year-old Richard Thompson established himself as one of the world's leading songwriters with the release of his debut album in June 1972. But he concealed his talent in selfconscious oddity just as he concealed his face on the cover of Henry the Human Fly, donning a fly mask and black leotards and strumming an acoustic guitar. Thompson revelled in eccentricity. British ads for the LP pictured him swimming in the leotards and what Malcolm Heyhoe of Liquorice magazine described as a pair of "baseball boots." The back cover sports Ambrose Bierce's definition of the fly from The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary and a whimsical dialogue bwtween God and the Archangel Gabriel ("'Bugger,' said God, 'raining again'."). In America, Reprise celebrated the record's release by deleting with unusual alacrity.
Thompson calls side one, cut one an "overture" that says, "beware of what you think of this record. You think it's this and it's not." "Rock Over Vaughn Williams" is testimony to Thompson's refusal to be pigeonholed. He intended to burnish his folk-rock fusion into a unique body of songwriting, but without becoming a cheery bucolic sentimentalist: "don't expect the words to ring too sweetly in the air," the song warns. References to "gentleladies," "gentlemen," and "dance cards" coupled with the repeated chorus of "live in fear" seem to hint at class warfare, though Thompson says this is not so. Vaughn Williams, whose named is punned upon, was a composer of treacly orchestral music. The track ends with a brooding guitar dance.
Some of these songs express themselves in an unfamiliar dialect. "Nobody's Wedding" is a "nonsense song," according to Thompson. "It's a sendup of the stuff I grew up with -- Scottish country dance music. I kind of enjoy it -- I can't enjoy it! I hate it! Love/hate. It's like growing up with country music." Obscurely Dylanesque lyrics precede a satirically corny performance of the traditional tune "Marie's Wedding"; Thompson's recordings of traditional material would henceforth be limited to instrumentals like this one [at least for many years to come].
"The Angels Took My Racehorse Away" was inspired by the Lanark Silver Bell, the oldest horserace in England. Though upbeat, it bears typically Thompsonian touches like the evil bookie who "put one in 'er pail." "The New St. George" is a political anthem written in the style of a Salvation Army standard, complete with "silver band" accompaniment. "Wheely Down" delivers a lyric reminiscent of Robert Burns floating in a dark brew of scraping violin, tooling piano, and bubbling electric guitar noises. Thompson seems determined to leave no style unplundered, though he treats them all with the respect and feeling that lent credibility to the early Fairport.
The songs that stick best are the ones about people. The album's title -- Thompson is a great believer in the value of names -- casts the composer as an unseen observer of human struggles that most songwriters ignore: the sexual malaise of "Painted Ladies," the eternally used "Poor Ditching Boy," the rural bag lady "Shaky Nancy." "The Old Changing Way" is one of Thompson's finest songs as well as one of his most effective arrangements. Setting off David Snell's harp with two acoustic-guitar tracks, one for rhythm and one for harmonics, it tells the story of two brothers who earn their living travelling as tinkers. They squabble and separate, embittered, as metaphors for the decline of the familial bonds that held together English working-class life. Songs like this one, so carefully crafted and emotionally authoritative, are what make the Thompson discography almost inexhaustibly rich. We finish with "Twisted," in which Henry the Human Fly lands at the bar as Richard the Human Thompson, too modest to remain the omniscient observer forever.
Joining Thompson on Henry are a core of musicians who would accompany him on much of his best work: accordion player John Kirkpatrick (a folk musician who played a lot with Ashley Hutchings), bassist Pat Donaldson (John Cale, Zoot Money, Poet and the One Man Band, Sandy Denny's shortlived Fotheringay), and drummer Timi Donald (John Cale, Blue, Pathfinders, White Trash, Cody). Also appearing on backing vocals is Linda Peters, with whom Thompson toured folk clubs, colleges, and universities in England, Holland, and Belgium throughout 1971 and '72. Liquorice depicts them with "Richard hunched over his acoustic, fingers weaving in and out, prodding a pair of bass pedals, with Linda swaying to and fro at his side." In 1972 they married. By May 1973 Linda was pregnant, so Richard & Linda Thompson took the summer off and recorded their debut together: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.
With Bright Lights, Thompson's impassioned pessimism and melodic fluency reached all-time highs. Some of these songs are so intense that he cannot perform them. But to call this music "depressing" would be like standing in front of a great painting and exclaiming, "My! How decorative." There is more to this record than its somber tone. It introduces Linda Thompson as a scrupulous, transfixing interpreter of Richard's songs, more than half of which she would sing from then on. It shows Richard's knack for blending simple folklike melodies with rock instrumentation while insulating himself from the cliches of both genres. And it carries the conviction of both the Thompsons.
"When I Get to the Border" and the title cut are both about escape. The first is about "total freedom," according to Thompson, "about escaping into a state rather than a geographical position. You're free of attachments. People can't get at you and things can't touch you." He acknowledges that lines like "If you see a box of pine / With a name that looks like mine / They'll say I drowned in a barrel of wine / When I get to the border" might lead people to believe Robert Christgau's suggestion that death is the real subject of the song -- "but I never saw it that way." The instrumental segment at the end, alternating singeing guitar statements with countermelodies from a cornucopia of unusual instruments, was written to showcase the gifts of John Kirkpatrick. "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" bares the other side of the thematic coin, first celebrating escape from 9-to-5 drudgery and then revealing its futility: "A couple of drunken nights rolling on the floor / This is just the kind of mess I'm looking for."
Henry the Human Fly is back. This time he sees "The Little Beggar Girl," a cocky little customer, goes "Down Where the Drunkards Roll," and visits the teenage girl of "Has He Got a Friend for Me," a song about loneliness and despair, full of pathos. "All my songs are love songs," Thompson says, and the compassion he shows here gives him the right to say that. He calls "Withered and Died" "a real sad love song. Sad love songs -- I love 'em. A lot of country music and Scottish ballad music has the same sentiment." He cites Hank Williams and the Scottish bans tradition as influences. In adopting a tragic outlook, Thompson remains true to his sources.
Two of Thompson's most intimidatingly powerful songs end the LP. In "The End of the Rainbow," a father eyes his newborn son and muses dejectedly: "There's nothing at the end of the rainbow / There's nothing to grow up for anymore." Though Thompson's electric guitar drops in attractive gleaming harmonics, this is not an easy song to listen to. I once played it for a friend who began exclaiming in the middle, "No. He's wrong. It isn't true." Were those Thompson's own sentiments or was he just sketching an embittered narrator? "Those were my own sentiments -- at one moment," he stipulates. Onstage at the Bottom Line, he had called a request for the song "morbid" [though he later reconsidered and began the performing the song after Elvis Costello covered it]. "I've never really sung that song," he says, and it's best heard in privacy anyway. Used properly, it can be an excellent antidepressant: "It's like the blues. It's one of the roles of music." Thompson has never wallowed in nihilism for its own sake.
The subject of "The Great Valerio" is a tightrope walker (who may or may not be a songwriter). "It's about heroes," says its author. "It's about who you follow in life. 'The Great Valerio' is an allegorical way of stating this ideal: this man who's very perfect, very balanced. If he falls down, he falls off; he understands how precarious his position is. He lives on a tightrope." So knowledge is dangerous? "No, not necessarily. He's just awake because he has to be awake. He can't drift through life. He's got to be right there all the time, to have that awareness." Linda sings over Richard's acoustic with enough somber, riveting precision to make the listener feel like a jackrabbit six inches from the tires of a Mack truck. The track ends with an instrumental coda in which the guitar joins the bass in a pedal point underpinning a ghostly hammer-dulcimer melody that perfectly captures the timeless, airless void through which Valerio walks.
Though its impeccably glossy musical surface is nothing if not accessible, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight escorts the trivializing side of pop convention gently but firmly to the door. It is a landmark.
It is also a cutout, available as the first half of Live! (More or Less), to be discussed later. Thompson just got his own copy of this U.S. double-LP reissue in January; a copy with a $3.99 sticker lay on a table in his New York hotel room. With Bright Lights and a treasure trove of sterling live material and odds 'n' ends, More or Less makes a perfect starting point for those unlucky enough to be unfamiliar with this music. If you haven't already, acquire it with all speed while you still have the chance. [The same material is now available on two CDs, the reissues of Bright Lights and the compilation Guitar/Vocal.]
The Thompsons returned to the road in November 1973 as Hokey Pokey, a trio with Richard's old Fairport buddy Simon Nicol. Hokey Pokey had been the working title for Bright Lights, but the Thompsons' management and record company vetoed it. By the following March the trio had expanded to the rock band Sour Grapes with the addition of bassist Steve Borrell (ex-Spirogyra) and William Murray (ex-Kevin Ayers), supporting Traffic in the U.K. and Europe. True to its name, Sour Grapes dissolved a couple of months later; Thompson told Liquorice he wouldn't work again with the same rhythm section. Nicol, in contrast, proved an empathetic partner. He joined the Thompsons on their next album, Hokey Pokey (what else?), even replacing Richard as coproducer with engineer John Wood.
Richard and Linda caught "a lot of criticism about Bright Lights. People would say, this record's too desolate. We probably shouldn't have bothered to react to it, but we did. We tried to brighten up our act." Part of the brightening came from Nicol, who filled in many of the silent spaces that made Bright Lights so delectable with lush but well-balanced rhythm-guitar and keyboard tracks. And part came from Richard, who seemed to be making a conscious attempt to write picturesque narratives about memorable characters in such songs as "Smiffy's Glass Eye," "The Egypt Room," "Old Man Inside a Young Man," and "Georgie on a Spree." "I was into [English] music hall then," Thompson recalls. "I listened to a lot of music-hall stuff: George Formby, British stuff from the '30s. Really camp" -- though none of these little stories has a happy ending.
While the dissonance between tone and intent often defeats Hokey Pokey's effectiveness, Thompson retains his fondness for the ironic twist. The title cut (with some of Richard's most memorable playing on record) uses ice cream as a metaphor for sex; "The Sun Never Shines on the Poor" conceals its seriousness in hyperbole and an easygoing show tune until the very end, which I won't give away. A handful of songs break with the LP's lighter tone: "I'll Regret It All in the Morning" does not compare sex with ice cream. "Never Again" draws its sense of desolation from experience. It was written in 1969 following the crash of Fairport's van. Thompson: "It's a song about losing people -- a lament. It took me that long to get around to playing it because it was too close to me." And never could sing it -- Linda did. [During his succeeding solo years, Richard has managed an occasional performance of "Never Again."]
"A Heart Needs a Home" marks the coming of the spirituality that would simultaneously lead some to write Richard off as a crackpot and lead his songwriting onto a new plane, answering some (though not all) of the desperate emotional questions that the first half of the Thompson songbook poses. He and Linda had become involved in Sufism, an Islamic sect also known as the "Creed of Love." "A Heart Needs a Home" was "the first song I wrote after I embraced His love," Thompson says. "Again, it took me a long time to actually perform that one. I did it once and it was difficult. It was my own love song and I didn't want anybody else to hear it. It's about love between creator and creation, but you can take it as you like. It's written in the terms of a love song because it's stronger that way." Richard's double-edged intent charges each of the song's deceptively simple romantic words with meaning that goes far beyond words as Linda sings, "I know the way / That I feel about you / I'm never going to run away . . . Some people say / That I should forget you / I'm never going to be a fool." It shouldn't work -- but it does. Probably because they mean it.
Hokey Pokey was released in March 1975. A scant eight months later came Pour Down Like Silver. "It wasn't released," says Thompson -- "it escaped." The front-jacket photo is an arresting head shot of a bearded, beaded, turbanned Richard -- mouth pursed thoughtfully, clear blue eyes focused somewhere beyond the camera. Linda appears on the back, her head swathed in cloth, defiantly eyeing the camera. The track listing on the jacket and inner sleeve is in the wrong order and omits two selections on the record [succeeding LP and CD releases corrected the errors]. "I don't know if I ever really thought about it much as an album," says Richard; the cautious professional musician who recorded Hokey Pokey seemed to have vanished.
He was distracted: "I was involved in a lot of other projects at the time, not necessarily all musical -- social things, community things, trying to become a different kind of person." Involvement in a community of Sufists absorbed much of his time. "And there was this thing called a record contract [with Island]. We had to go and make a record. So we just went in and made a record, very basic. A lot of stuff was done on short notice and we couldn't get hold of musicians, so we did a lot as a trio -- guitar, bass, drums." It might well have turned out a disaster, but Pour Down Like Silver is Richard & Linda Thompson's most personal statement, and many feel it's their strongest.
The shift in priorities augured by "A Heart Needs a Home" had done its work, though Thompson stresses that "there was no conversion. It's not like you change dollars into Swiss francs. You're the same person. I just accepted something that I saw in myself and decided to affirm it, that's all. I don't see any change. I was always that person." In the anthemic "Streets of Paradise," he desires transcendance so badly he can taste it: "Just hand me my telescope / And a bullet I can chew / And I'll be walking down the streets of Paradise." The sound is supple but forceful: Kirkpatrick's button accordion swims around Thompson's warm, quivering rhythm guitar as Dave Mattacks and Dave Pegg, who replace Timi Donald and Pat Donaldson on several tracks, tack down the bottom with rock & roll punch.
Thompson continues the romantic double entendre in several songs. "For Shame of Doing Wrong" leavens unabashedly sentimental language with caustic skepticism ("I wish I was a fool for you again"). Here and in "Jet Plane in a Rocking Chair," Kirkpatrick's accordion and a pair of guest fiddlers combine together to interlace the melodies with rippling countermelodies that give the music a keening, metaphysical quality. In the yearning "Dimming of the Day," Linda is joined only by Richard's acoustic guitar and banjo, later joined by Ian Whiteman -- normally known for his chugging rock & roll piano -- on Japanese shakuhachi and concert flutes. "Dargai," the guitar instrumental at the end, is a centuries-old pobroch (a Highland bagpipe tune) written by Scot Skinner.
"Beat the Retreat" is another double-edged love song -- Thompson's simplest, and perhaps his most moving -- as well as a lustrous first take. His acoustic guitar, Donaldson's bass, and Donald's drums enmesh in an eerie trio, each musician effortlessly complementing each other. Though slightly leaden, drummer Donald had always accompanied Thompson perfectly with spare rhythm patterns and a minimal use of high-hat and cymbals that left Thompson's guitar room to rove through the nooks in his melodies. But here Donald goes further, leaving gaping holes that Thompson's guitar fills in to carry over the beat. When Thompson sings "I'll follow the drum / Back home to you," it sounds as though an invisible hand (or subtle arrangement) had guided the musicians, maintaining the song's swaying, slow-motion rhythm when one or another of them left it hanging. But according to Thompson, "Those holes and stuff just happened -- the drums would play the hole and the guitar did it, and it just worked. We listened to it afterward and liked the way it happened." How did it happen in the first place? "These were musicians we'd worked with."
"Beat the Retreat" also documents Richard's growth as a singer. Drawing confidence (undoubtedly) from Linda's example and stylistic ideas from John Martyn, Richard expanded his lower range, relaxed his upper range, and learned to linger over certain consonants, using his voice as a musical instrument of nearly the same caliber as his guitar. When he recorded his first album, Thompson was a competent singer. By his next, he was effective. Here, he's dramatic and moving.
1975 was a busy year for the Thompsons. They both did sessions, and they toured twice to promote Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver with Kirkpatrick, Mattacks, and Pegg. The first tour culminated in a concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall; the second included a November live-recording date that bore fruit on Guitar/Vocal, released the following year.
Most of Guitar/Vocal was also released in the U.S. as Live (More or Less) with I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (hitherto-unreleased in the States) added and four cuts deleted: two live Fairport tracks "Mr. Lacey" and "Sweet Little Rock 'n' Roller"), an alternate version of a Fairport 45 ("Throwaway Street Puzzle"), and a rollicking live Richard & Linda Thompson cut ("It'll Be Me"). To complicate matters even further, Richard says one of the live Fairport cuts also appears on the British bootleg Heyday, a cassette of BBC-recorded live Fairport material. [Heyday is now a legitimate CD release.]
The material overlapping on the two legit albums offers myriad pleasures. The Liege & Lief-vintage cover of the Byrds' "The Ballad of Easy Rider" shows the Denny/Thompson collaboration at its peak; Richard and Linda's cover of "The Dark End of the Street," with Richard's acoustic the only accompaniment, provides a stark but equally affecting contrast. "Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman" reappears (same version), as does an alternate take of "A Heart Needs a Home" -- slightly poppier this time, colored by Ian Whiteman's electric piano and harmonium in lieu of the harp that appeared on the original. Thompson also includes two instrumentals: the traditional "Flee as a Bird" for acoustic guitar and his own "The Pitfall/The Excursion" for acoustic guitars and dulcimer.
But the best reason for tracking down one of these compilations is that both include the 12-minutes-plus live versions of two Thompson classics -- Pour Down Like Silver's "Night Comes In" and Bright Lights's "Calvary Cross," both recorded with the Kirkpatrick/Mattacks/Pegg band at Oxford Polytechnic on November 27, 1975. If you'd like to hear one of rock's top-rank guitarists at peak intensity, here's your chance. But don't expect cock-rock pyrotechnics from Richard Thompson. He isn't just playing guitar -- he's playing an entire band.
"Night Comes In" is a prelude that establishes the instrumental mode of operation. Thompson describes it as "a dance of invocation. You can take it as a love song. It's about the sweetness of good company." Good company in this case means the band, who wrap themselves around Thompson like a second skin and amplify his shifting moods as he gently fingerpicks a set of circular-sounding figures probably intended to imitate the Sufi dancing that inspired the song. A lull, another chorus: "Dance until my feet don't touch the ground / I'll lose my mind and dance forever / Turn my world around." Following this passionate hunger, one more verse and another dance. This time Mattacks and Pegg break into r&r doubletime for a few bars, then work their way through a surprising set of rhythmic variations before the song winds slowly down. There is enough drama in these dozen smoldering minutes for an entire LP, but the best is yet to come.
On Live! (More or Less) "Calvary Cross" follows directly. A quiet, foreboding intro picked on a high tremolo setting ushers in the three-chord rock pulsebeat of the song -- itself an obsessive, surreal, Dylanlike doomsday prophecy. The verses completed, Mattacks delivers an abrupt bass-drum-and-cymbal smash that signals the start of a slow, deliberate buildup. A climax, another climax -- how high can they fly? The song rides out on its own obsessiveness at fever pitch: Thompson's quavering guitar screaming, warping notes into barely recognizable shapes, tearing them to pieces; Mattacks in a frenzy, rolling and punching and kicking his bass-drum pedal like a madman; Kirkpatrick desperately maintaining the melody like a torch singer on a sinking ship; Pegg leaping and punctuating from the bottom. After the last climax, the guitar burns quietly on like a guttering candle and finally flickers out -- from a whisper to a scream to a whisper again.
After that, Richard Thompson hung up his baseball boots. "I didn't want to play music anymore. Basically, I didn't for about two years."
On the comeback trail
"I just wanted to change what I was doing" -- again. "It's hard to be a professional musician -- it's a forced profession in some ways. If I went out to lead a band, I always had to do other things to balance it. I finally reached the point where I wanted to cut it off."
For 17 months Thompson ran an antique shop and involved himself more heavily with the Sufist community. "At that time we were planning to build a village in the English countryside. It took a lot of planning. Eventually we were stopped legally from doing it. At this moment that community still exists in London, a town in Spain, and America."
But in April 1977 the Thompsons were off on another tour. What drove Richard back into music? "I realize I couldn't turn it off. I couldn't switch it off like a tap. I am a musician. I play music, whether I play it professionally or as an amateur -- it doesn't matter. That's what I need to do. It's part of me. I have the talent -- it's been given to me. I have to use it." 1978 brought a record contract (with Chrysalis), another tour, and a new LP.
The Thompsons recorded First Light simultaneously with a self-titled album by Julie Covington which Richard produced, splitting the bill and the hack rhythm sectiion of Andy Newmark (drums) and Willie Weeks (bass). Covington's MOR ambitions seem to have rubbed off on the Thompsons: cluttered with instrumental deadwood, First Light is unsatisfyingly sweet, a bit like downing a gallon of corn syrup. The Thompsons' virtues are present in abundance, but concealed in a blizzard of saccharine. One reviewer suggested the album was recorded for a Fleetwood Mac FM audience, and Thompson admits that "we were trying to do this thing called 'being commercial' under a certain amount of pressure. It's not as if they said, listen, you've got to come up with an FM album. It was just in the air tht they'd invested a lot of money, so we were obliged to go that way. We had too big a budget. We tended to be indulgent. It's not an album I'm really happy with."
To those with the patience to listen, however, First Light yields a few rewards. It's the first LP to reflect Thompson's shift away from the Anglo-Saxon model structures on which most of his earlier work is based toward more recognizable pop forms: "There is a real danger in England of being typecast as a folkie," he says. "It's the danger of living in other people's opinions." "Restless Highway," an eloquent account of Richard's return to music, moves toward an Americanized ballad style. "Don't Let a Thief Steal into Your Heart" mingles his effervescent guitar with a straightforward dance rhythm: "I wanted to do something like 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine,' that kind of rhythm, but Andy and Willie started playing it like disco and I was quite enjoying it, so we did it that way." The romantic "Sweet Surrender" and political broadside "House of Cards" continue established Thompson thematic ideas in poppier settings. So does "Died for Love," which unfortunately drowns in its own sentimentality despite the final instrumental, "The Choice Wife," introducing it.
Richard cowrote "Pavanne" with Linda. "It was her original idea. It came to her in a dream she had about a woman terrorist, though it's more a picture of a psychopath rather than a terrorist." The slow, circular melody is one of his more memorable ones, and the portrait of a murderer is detailed and chilling. "Layla" provocatively depicts spirituality as a temptress, though Thompson says "I didn't write the lyrics. They were a translation from Sheik Al-Alawi. He was a great Algerian teacher in the early part of the century. It's part of one of his songs. The translation is pretty accurate." The title cut is a kind of prayer, translated from a small part of a poem by Shiek Muhammad Iba Al-Habib. And "Strange Affair," a lament for the dead much in the vein of "Never Again," takes its words from Si Fudul, "a follower of Sheik Al-Alawi. He was a great scholar. He wrote that song about his teacher. He's alive still -- he's quite an old man."
The year of First Light's release also saw the Thompsons donate backing vocals and a song of Richard's, "Time to Ring Some Changes," to Rise Up Like the Sun by Ashley Hutchings' Albion Band. They toured in 1978 and '79, this time with Sue Harris (oboe) along with Kirkpatrick and Pegg, all of whom joined the case of thousands that recorded 1979's Sunnyvista, another unfortunate big-budget spectacular.
Like its predecessor, Sunnyvista is as frustrating for what it could have been as for what it is. Whenever Richard has something to say, his search for a new pop idiom cloaks his meaning in cliche, as per the cloying Nashville treatment of the otherwise excellent "Lonely Hearts." And when his trial-and-error method of tunesmithery hits musically, the lyrics miss: the buoyant "You're Going to Need Somebody," for instance, is too stridently evangelistic for just about anyone's taste.
The title track, however, is Thompson's most audacious piece of songwriting to date. It's written as a tango (!). Richard calls it "a picture of not too far into the future, when everything becomes more Euro. No Britain, no France -- it'll all be Euro. There'll be a strong central European power and everything will be very bland." The song etches this world in microcosm as a planned community that controls the lives of its inhabitants from cradle to grave. The lyrics are satiric ad copy for this awful place, pictured on the front and back jacket as an ugly prefabricated concrete housing project based around a mall. Thompson won't reveal the site of the photos [I later found it in north-central London, on the eastern border of Hampstead Heath, just south of Highgate] but says, "People live there. It's a highly thought-of piece of architectural design. There're are lots of 'em." A few other gems among the broken glass: "Saturday Rolling Around," a cheerful nonsense song, and "Civilisation," a song about "people's debased, boring, lousy lives" enlivened with a whirling-dervish guitar solo.
The latter was the flip of a single that also included a newly recorded "Georgie on a Spree" (originally from Hokey Pokey) with rewritten lyrics that refocus attention from Georgie's shadiness to his infidelity to his girlfriend. It was the theme song from a BBC-TV serial, Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry. Onstage at the Bottom Line, Thompson played what he then described as "an English-cum-Cajun romp" that takes the Kinks' "Lola" one step further -- he falls in love with the song's transvestite character at the end. "'Was She a Woman or a Man' was an outtake from Sunnyvista," he would explain later. "I do it [live] with Simon sometimes for a laugh."
Following a European tour on which the Thompsons opened for Gerry Rafferty (who'd sung backing vocals on Sunnyvista), they went into the studio with Rafferty as producer. Chrysalis, which had already balked at releasing Sunnyvista in the States, suppressed the tapes entirely. [This is not entirely true -- Thompson didn't care for this forerunner of Shoot Out the Lights and didn't allow any tracks from the sessions to be released until the '90s, in the boxed set Watching the Dark.] When RCA pulled the same stunt on Daryl Hall after he recorded Sacred Songs with Robert Fripp producing, Hall proceeded to wage a two-year guerilla war against his record company. The chorus of journalists who'd been passed cassettes of the master tapes threatened to rise to a scream, RCA relented, and that fine, innovative LP saw the light of day. Caught between the rock industry and a hard place, Thompson had a different solution: he plunged into session work and quietly prepared two new albums of his own.
Thompson's appearances on about a third of Vivian Stanshall's Teddy Boys Don't Knit are all but buried in the mix by producer Malcolm Brown, though the guitar track on "Smoke Signals at Night" is unmistakable. Aficionados might also listen for the nice Spanish guitar on "Bewilderbeeste" and the rock & roll lead on "Flung a Dummy." But the show really belongs to Stanshall, who hasn't sounded so lively in years.
Thompson is much more active on Pere Ubu singer David Thomas' The Sound of the Sand, playing on most of the LP and coauthoring about half. Thrown into a maelstrom of avant-garde eccentricity far from the familiar terrain of Julie Covington and Ralph McTell, Thompson is like a heap of iron filings arcing around a magnet, gently illuminating melodies that Thomas' waywardly son-of-Beefheart voice is content to imply like a Dutch master having a friendly chat with an impressionist. Those in search of memorable solos need look no further than the title cut, where Thompson echoes Thomas' image of murmuring sand with lines full of whispered beauty, or the quasi-Oriental glimmering on "The New Atom Mine."
Fairport fans would be delighted with Smiddyburn, another recent Thompson session -- if they could find the damn thing. [It remains hard to find. The LP was an imported rarity; no CD has been issued as of early 1996.] It was released last August in Britain on Logo Records. Unconfirmed reports have it that Logo has gone out of business, and my informal canvass of importers failed to turn up anyone handling the album. It came out under the name of Dave Swarbrick, who chose and arranged all the mainly traditional material, but cock an eye at the fine print and you'll find Swarb in familiar company: Richard Thompson (guitar, mandolin), Simon Nicol (guitar), Dave Pegg (bass, mandolin), and Dave Mattacks (drums, percussion). Ten years after Thompson left Fairport Convention, Fairport's Full House filled up again. He describes the LP as "the best Fairport album ever made" -- an overstatement given the dearth of original songs, but understandable in light of the familial glow that suffuses the whole affair.
Swarbrick had always been a problematic performer. A folksinger/violinist who'd recorded several albums with British folk institution Martin Carthy before joining Fairport, he dominated the band with showmanship in its later years without ever replacing the emotional credibility that made the early Fairport great. After one failed attempt to break into the pop mainstream with an LP as "Fairport featuring Dave Swarbrick," he readopted the old band name, welcomed Simon Nicol back into the fold, and turned Fairport into a doctrinaire folk-rock band that lived on newly arranged traditional material and its audience's old memories.
But age and adversity have given Swarbrick new stature. With old friends gathered round, his homely folk-inflected violin fills slow airs like "Wa Ye Wha I Met the Streen," "Wishing," and "The Young Black Cow" with longing and gravity. When the band swings into the faster dance tunes, the drag-race fiddling that enlivened many a Fairport show takes on an extra relish. Thompson accompanies him with luminous rhythm playing and occasionally races along with him on the quicker selections. Swarbrick's vocal on the concluding cover of Sandy Denny's "It Suits Me Well" is the high point of his career. His voice lacks the youthful resilience of old, but it matters not. There's no substitute for the homespun nobility he gives this ode to the travelling working-class Englishman: he's singing about himself. Thompson rises to the occasion by framing the vocal with an eloquent guitar counterpoint; the entire band closes ranks around Swarbrick with affinity and affection.
With Strict Tempo! (subtitled "Traditional & Modern Tunes for All Occasions"), Thompson founded Elixir Records and satisfied a whim dating back many years. Except for percussion and a little piano by Dave Mattacks, Thompson plays everything on this all-instrumental LP: electric and acoustic guitar, dulcimer, mandolin, dobro, accordion, flute organ -- and those are just the ones I can pick out. Strict Tempo! is a useful thing to have if you're overdubbing a lot, but an ironic name for an album with so many expressive moments. Excepting Duke Ellington's "Rockin' in Rhythm" (crisply rendered on multitracked acoustic guitar and mandolin) and one original, all the material is traditional.
While a few of the reels and hornpipes threaten to drown in their own quaintness, the mid-tempo and slow numbers are jewels that continually surprise with fresh juxtapositions of texture and mood. The wiry Stratocaster and metallic bottleneck slide on the medley starting with "Will Ye No Cam Back Again" are noteworthy for the sheer beauty of their sound. And Thompson proves over and over again that he can fill a slow melody with depth and meaning. His mastery of phrasing injects "Banish Misfortune" (solo acoustic) with strength and wisdom, and "Do It for My Sake" (acoustic guitar and mandolin) with warmth and poignancy. Thompson's own "The Knife-Edge" finishes the album with sparkling virtuosity -- guitarists, eat your hearts out.
Each of these projects helped Richard re-establish the equilibrium that his inactivity and the disastrous Chrysalis years had conspired to shatter. When he and Linda went back into the studio late last year, they emerged with their best LP in years. Part of the credit must go to the eternal Fairport Mafia: Simon Nicol's complementary rhythm guitar accomplishes enough of the obvious to prod Thompson's lead toward the unexpected. Dave Mattacks, the Richard Thompson of the drum kit, returns to full-time status in the rhythm sectioin. And former Fairport producer (now Hannibal Records president) Joe Boyd captures his first Thompson production -- recorded virtually live in the studio, like the best of Thompson's solo work -- with admirable clarity and attention to detail.
The title track is hard rock without crassness, underscoring its chilling thumbnail-sketch of an infantile gun-toting psychopath with power chords from Nicol and a flaming Stratocaster danse macabre from Thompson. "Back Street Slide" should titillate rockers in more unusual fashion -- if given half a chance -- with its truculent Highland dance, almost a Scottish answer to heavy metal. For popsters there's "Living in Luxury," a non-LP B-side of a British single that uses the same silver-band-style brass that sounds so forceful on "Back Street Slide" to sweeter effect. Journalists were permitted to hear an interesting outtake, "Listening to the Wrong Heartbeat" -- an out-and-out poptone with honeyed vocal from Linda and conversational guitar from Richard. Radio stations might love something so light and irresistible; let's hope it doesn't remain up Hannibal's sleeve.
The real A-side of that U.K. single is "Don't Renege on Our Love," its drama conveyed by Richard's urgent vocal and contrasted against his nimble guitar. "Walking on a Wire" is a dramatic showcase for both the Thompsons: Linda sings the song's palpable despair and anger, and Richard resolves it at the end with a soaring, extended solo. The central question of the gospelly "Man in Need" ("Who will cure the hear of a . . . ?") has a subtle, unspoken religious answer -- rather a leap forward for the cranky author of Sunnyvista's "You're Going to Need Somebody" and "Why Do You Turn Your Back." "It's Just the Motion" is Thompson's best spiritual song since "Beat the Retreat." Gently and reassuringly, he likens the serenity of the believer to the calm of the ocean floor without ever explicitly referring to any creed.
There are clinkers. "Did She Jump or Was She Pushed" defenestrates into a static arrangement, lying dead in its heap of sensationalistic detail. And "The Wall of Death" wastes its singsong tune and Byrdsian guitars on a lyric that pointlessly romanticizes the risk of death for its own sake ("This is the nearest thing to being alive"). This seems a tad inappropriate at a time when deadly weapons are proliferating and the human race is edging toward the Roach Motel of history; Thompson would have us march in single-file. Get on the stick, Richard! Dead people can't collect records. [Here and elsewhere, I wince at sentiments I held 14 years ago. With 20/20 hindsight I can identify this as a great specimen of Richard's "nonsense" songs, with a sense of humor I missed completely at the time. Well, no youthful 9,500-word opus can be perfect.]
But with those exceptions, Shoot Out the Lights is the comeback LP First Light should have been. Richard Thompson's songwriting has regained its surefooted lucidity and is forging confidently ahead into accessible territory without sacrificing a shred of its integrity. His guitar has moved into the spotlight with gusto, and his voice has never been put to such versatile use. And Linda Thompson remains rock's most poised female singer, a graceful performer who can distinguish pop from pap every time. In short, this is how mainstream rock and pop should sound.
The Thompsons have produced a well-rounded album and taken the great step sideways that can turn an artistic success into an artistic success with an audience. And this summer they will tour the U.S. for the first time -- Nicol, Mattacks, Kirkpatrick, and new bassist Pete Zorn in tow -- looking for that audience. Now they lack only one thing: recognition.
Over to you, Time and Newsweek.