1983, late summer. This is the early days of my musical explorations, when I am paying attention to anything not being played on the radio, on the chance that it might be good. I am often right. The local paper has a large record review section every Sunday morning. On this particular morning the largest chunk of it is devoted to The Polices Synchronicity. But buried at the end is something else; an album called Hand of Kindness by an artist Ive never heard of, on a label Ive never heard of (Hannibal). It actually sounds interesting: the review describes it as a combination of Cajun music, British folk, and rock and roll. Thompsons voice is compared to Neil Young (!??). It also mentions his involvement in an earlier band, referred to as "the late, lamented" Fairport Convention.
Something in the review piques my interest. A little digging reveals that Fairport Convention was a British rock band of the late 60s (and into the 70s) that drew considerable inspiration from British folk ballads. At 17, money and records are hard to come by, and despite my interest, I dont do what I would these days, and run down to the local shop and buy a Thompson or Fairport album. But I have not heard the last of Richard Thompson.
Instead, I seem to keep coming across him: a rave review in the late, lamented Record; an appearance on "Videowest," a locally produced PBS program (he is featured in a brief interview and a snippet of a clever video for a song called "The Wrong Heartbeat"). It turns out that Thompson, up until last year, had been half of a performing duo with his wife, Linda that they had released a series of acclaimed albums in the 70s and then a critical fave in 1982 called Shoot Out the Lights and that there are plans to reissue their 70s oeuvre. That happens by the following year. Rolling Stone runs a feature review of the entire catalog comparing Thompson as a songwriter to Bob Dylan, to Jimi Hendrix as a guitarist.
It is 1984 before I finally end up with a Thompson record in my collection. I end up choosing Shoot Out the Lights because it has won so many accolades.
It is nothing like I expect (though what I expected at the time, I couldnt say). It takes off with a sort of rolling guitar riff giving way to a charged rocker that recalls some of Pete Townshends early 80s stuff ("Dont Renege On Our Love"). Then the mood grows quiet. Shimmering, stately guitar chords lead into a song called "Walking On A Wire." Linda sings her voice is deep and somber. "I hand you my ball and chain/you just hand me that same old refrain." Only in country music would you find anything even close to this song for such bitter love-gone-wrong -ism, such total resignation. The song moves on, as her catalog of woes continues, "this grindstones wearing me/Your claws are tearing me/Dont use me endlessly its too long, too long to myself," the ringing chords punctuated by shards of stabbing noise from Richards Stratocaster. And finally, the whole thing builds to a climax, the Thompsons singing together, Lindas voice against Richards, their harmonies carrying the final, doom-laden lines "Im walking on a wire, and Im falling " into the stratosphere. When their voices fade, Richards guitar takes up the song, carrying it off into space in a solo thats lovely and disturbing at the same time.
The record rolls on. There is a paean to walking away and leaving ones responsibilities (love, marriage, family), a jaunty rocker called "A Man In Need," sung by Richard. Thats followed by "Just the Motion," another somber folk-rocker in the manner of "Walking On A Wire." It offers solace against the blasted landscape of "Wire" but only offers the deeper sadness of escape from reality; "cause under the ocean/at the bottom of the sea/you cant hear a thing its a peaceful as can be its just the motion." The warm sound of the Thompsons harmonies almost makes it comforting.
Side two opens with a nightmare. "Shoot Out the Lights" is a stomping rock number, a stolid beat that basically gives Richard a chance to cut loose with a storm of screaming guitar. The lyrics are equally chilling: "In the dark, who can see his face?/In the dark, who can reach him?/He hides like a child and he might laugh but he wont sin, as he stumbles through the night." The song has been taken to be about a serial killer, or a madman it was actually inspired by the Afghan guerilla war against the Soviets. This song is followed by a jaunty piece of cynicism called "The Back Street Slide" ("theyre gonna get you, dead or alive/Stab you in the back with a kitchen knife, doin the slide.."). Then another Linda piece, "Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed," a rather slow speculation on suicide with hilariously mean-spirited lyrics ("She was there one minute, then she was gone the next/Lying in a pool of herself with a twisted neck"). Finally, it all tumbles down to "Wall of Death," an ode to carnivals and side shows that compares the death-defying Wall of Death ride (to the best of my knowledge, this is one of those large cylinders in which a group of people stand against the wall as the cylinders spins around very fast, and then the floor drops out, the riders held in place by centrifugal force) to the risks and hardships of life. Richard closes out the song, and the album, with another patented screaming guitar solo.
Richard Thompson is a long way from being a household name, except perhaps among rock critics, musicians, and hardcore music lovers. He has won accolade from every major music journal. He has numbered among his fans Bob Mould, Lou Reed, R.E.M., Elvis Costello. Shoot Out the Lights has been numbered among the hundred greatest albums of the 80s by Rolling Stone. He has been the subject of two tribute albums, his songs covered by Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, David Byrne, and a host of British folk-rock luminaries. He has been the subject of a full-length biography from an American publisher. He is recognized as among the finest guitar players and songwriters in rock and roll. He has never had a hit single or album. He has a major cult following, but is by no means famous, or even a star. Instead he is a legend.
The legend starts in the late 60s with the forming of Fairport Convention. Richard at that time had been playing guitar and gigging since his early teens. An eclectic musician whose influences ranged from Django Reinhardt to Leadbelly to Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis (he remains a rockabilly fan to this day) to Lightnin Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and the Goons. And also trains he collected recordings of trains. Fairport started off as a sort of "skiffle" influenced (jaunty folk music powered by washboards and kazoos) folk group, but then mutated into something more unique, a folk-rock band heavily influenced by the sounds of West Coast folk-rock such as The Jefferson Airplane. Early sets lists include covers of Dylan, the Airplane, the Left Banke, Mimi and Richard Farina, Phil Ochs and even a little down`ndirty blues courtesy of Buddy Guy. Their first album was amusing but ultimately forgettable, revealing a band with no particular style or focus. Within a few months a line-up change had brought Sandy Denny in on lead vocals, and seen Richard start to emerge as a songwriter. The late-`68 single, "Meet On the Ledge," went on to become Fairports signature song and, in its aching world-weary resignation, set the tone that would still be heard in "Walking On A Wire" and "Just the Motion" 14 years later. Thompson would contribute further gems to the Fairport canon the ominous "Sloth," "Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman," "Farewell, Farewell" classic songs of doom and loss. He also garnered a reputation as a red-hot guitar player. Thompson left Fairport in 1971 after the release of their groundbreaking Liege and Lief album, the first to fully explore their British folk roots (as Thompson would later say, it made more sense to explore British folk roots than American blues) and Full House, the less-striking follow-up, and an extensive, Sandy Denny-less tour, captured on the album House Full which features Richards rave-up duel with Dave Swarbrick on "Matty Groves." Fairport has continued in various configurations to this day.
Richard did lots of session work, and along with fellow former Fairporters indulged his love for American rock`nroll (as The Bunch, on their eponymous album) and for British folk music (Morris On, a collection of traditional dance tunes). Finally in 1972 he released Henry the Human Fly, a bizarre record that remains the favorite of many Thompson fans to this day. Despite its extreme eccentricity, it serves well as a tone-setter for Thompsons whole career, combining aching folk laments ("The Poor Ditching Boy"), folk music ("The New St. George"), twisted takes on country music ("Twisted"), pure whimsy ("Nobodys Wedding," and the loopy liner notes, not to mention the cover), and pure rock`nroll ("The Angels Took My Racehorse Away"). Oh, and a demented guitar workout that may contain Richards most succinct career statement: "dont expect the words to ring too sweetly in your ear," he warns before spinning into the chorus: "live in fear live in fear live in fear " Henry was a flop in England, where the press blasted it (" beside the stylized cool of Steely Dan, there wasnt much space for an album with some bloke dressed as an insect on the cover" said biographer Patrick Humphries. In America, it did even worse; it was awarded the honor of the worst-selling record in the entire history of the Warner Brothers label.
Despite it all, Thompson persevered. He married Linda Peters and the two of them began making the rounds of the folk clubs together. They recorded two masterpieces together; I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1973), and Pour Down Like Silver (1975), and one near-miss (Hokey Pokey, 1974). After Silver, a stark, plain-spoken album of religious devotional songs in the guise of love songs, the Thompsons, who had committed to Islam, moved to a Muslim commune and all but dropped out of music. Little more was heard from them until 1978, when they returned with First Light, an ill-conceived attempt to sell the Thompsons to Americas "soft rock" market. Sunnyvista, which followed, was another disappointment, this time due to the relative weakness of the material.
But Richards muse began to stir again. The songs that would later become Shoot Out the Lights were first recorded with pop-rocker Gerry Rafferty in 1980. Richard was unhappy with the results and later re-recorded the material with Joe Boyd, released in 1982. This time things were different. The album scored big with American critics, and Thompson toured the states as a solo acoustic act at the end of 1981. The following spring, he and Linda toured the U.S. for the first, and last time. The marriage had dissolved, and their performances were punctuated with bickering, onstage and off.
When it was over, Thompson was now a solo act again, with virtually the entire (and powerful) U.S. critical machine behind him, and a growing cult following in the U.S. He celebrated with Hand of Kindness, a joyous album of Cajun-influenced rock`nroll and powerful ballads, and a rollicking "big band" tour that cemented his reputation as a live performer. He returned to the major label business in 1985 with Across A Crowded Room and since then has continued to produce exciting music, and to expand his cult (he even managed a Grammy nomination in 1991, for Best Alternative Rock album (!), a strange slot for a British folkie in his late 40s).
The greatest musical artists are unique. To label Hank Williams as a "country singer," or Howlin Wolf as a "blues singer," or Woody Guthrie as a "folk singer" is to limit them. The appeal of their music, and the source of it, goes far deeper than that. Lesser artists toe a line; they stay within the limits of their chosen genre because they lack the imagination or the courage to push them. Greater ones trash those limits to follow their own muse. So it is with Thompson. He is unique in the same way that Charlie Rich or Van Morrison are. His music is at once rock and roll, and folk music, and Cajun music; and he is likely to fuse in country, or r&b, or Arabic music or just plain weirdness at the drop of a hat. He can write convincing rock`nroll stompers that do honor to his early love of Jerry Lee Lewis or he can knock out a chilling and beautiful ballad straight out of Francis James Child or he can crack you up with his dry wit and humor, or he can do something as bizarre and disturbing as "Love In A Faithless Country," combining art-song with art-noise and meeting somewhere in a nightmare-scape uniquely his own. It is this distinction that elevates him to greatness. There are those who favor his dark moments, who would rather all his songs be chilling and sad. Others like him for his silliness, his humor, the danceability of "Two Left Feet" or "Tear-Stained Letter."
But really, you have to absorb the whole picture. If Thompson only focused on the dark side, he would still be an estimable artist, but like many brilliant artists whose work stays permanently in the shadows (think John Cale), it would diminish him. If he stuck strictly to his rockers, he would still be a great rocker, but he would lack the depth that he enjoys now. His fast and funny songs bring his nightmares into sharper focus; his bleak songs make his rockers earned, and all the more joyous for it. If he resembles anyone, its Bob Dylan. Like Dylan, he grew up a rock`nroller but came up through folk music. Like Dylan, he alienated folkies with his love for non-traditional music and loud electric guitars. Like Dylan, he is a celebrated songwriter and noted eccentric. Like Dylan, he has undergone and returned from a major religious conversion. That, however, is where the comparison ends. He has never followed Dylans surreal lyrical moves; he has been far more celebrated as musician. He has never allowed his own output to slip to such a low level that good work was no longer expected from him.
As a guitarist, he is without peer. Quite simply, he sounds like no one else. Except on rare occasions when he has deliberately pulled out a traditional rock`nroll or honky-tonk riff, he generally does the last thing you expect; he crams his solos so full of bent notes and screaming runs they seem to explode off the record. He is as physical as Dick Dale and as loud as Link Wray, but he sounds like neither. Listen to the ominous rumble and twang that opens "Cavalry Cross," or the way he carries "Walking On A Wire" out into the distance as the song comes to its close.
As a songwriter, he ranks among the finest. He has mastered the melodic beauty of British/Celtic folk music, the pure drive of rock`nroll. His lyrics can range from the kind of clever wordplay that marks Chuck Berry as one of the greats, to a telling gift for metaphor and attention to detail; a man enters a room walking "like a lion looking for a lonely Christian;" romantic (or spiritual) longing pulls on a lover "like the moon pulls on the tide." He has ranged from scathing (and funny) put-downs ("Hard Luck Stories") to songs of deep longing ("Dimming of the Day," "A Heart Needs A Home") to ominous threats and portents of doom ("Cavalry Cross," "Shoot Out the Lights"), to humorous asides, to double entendres ("Hokey Pokey") and to pure rock`nroll ("Tear-Stained Letter"). And always, there is his famous "darkness." It has followed him from the beginning. Greil Marcus described Fairport Convention as "folk-rock out of Bleak House Richard Thompson wrote straight from the plague years." It could not be stated more accurately. One of his earliest songs for Fairport ("Tale In Hard Times") begins: "Take the sun from my eyes/Let me learn to despise." "Meet On the Ledge," his most famous contribution to Fairport, is an ode to death, grief, and loss of innocence ("too many friends of mine/Swept off this mountain with the wind"), ending with a sense of resignation that is complete and total ("youll have your chance again," he tells the listener, "then you can do the work for me"). For many years, his most celebrated and requested song was "The End of the Rainbow," a curse on childhood in the form of a sort of anti-lullaby that opens by addressing a child with the words "I feel for you, you little horror/Safe at your mothers breast" and goes on to warn "Ill be your friend/Ill tell you whats in store theres nothing at the end of the rainbow/Theres nothing to grow up for anymore."
All this has given Thompson something of a reputation as gloomy and disturbed. In fact, it is far from the truth. On stage, he is sly and jolly and funny, punctuating his songs with self-deprecating asides and jokes. He reliably winds his shows up with a rockabilly medley that, on even on average night is likely to get even the most sedate folkies out of their chairs and onto the dance floor, or the table-tops. He is a tremendous stage performer, whether solo, or with frequent compatriot Danny Thompson (no relation) on bass, or with his band (usually made up of ex-Fairporters). One of the great myths that rock journalism has given is the notion that all rock songs are autobiographical, that they represent the writers real feelings or experiences. Certainly, some are and some do. But it is an insult to the imagination of creative people to think that the characters and situations in their songs may not be as fictional as any novel or story, and that the songs may be sung from those characters point-of-view.
Since returning to the major labels in 1985, Thompson has made sacrifices that have cost him musically. He has left behind the musicians that he regularly worked with from 1972-1982 (for recording purposes; they reliably show up in his touring bands). He has allied himself with produced Mitchell Froom and allowed the dictates of the market to influence his artistic output. Unlike his early masterworks with Linda, or his solo work on Hannibal, his albums have filler. They are often loaded with pop-rock songs that seem to be his attempt to write Top 40 music. Sometimes, they are memorable; a few even rank among his best work. Most of them are forgettable. Its hard to imagine an audience shouting for "Nearly In Love" or "I Cant Stand Up For Falling Down." His razor wit is often turned on easy targets ("Fast Food"). The trademark "psycho-on-the-loose" persona which first appeared on 1991s Rumor and Sigh has worn out its welcome. That is not to say he has lost it. Each of these albums has its share, sometimes more than its share, of classics. "When The Spell Is Broken" (Across A Crowded Room, 1985) shows what he can do with a pop-rock song, "Al Bowllys In Heaven" (Daring Adventures, 1986) is one of the finest songs in the Thompson oeuvre, as is "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" (Rumor and Sigh, 1991) which has replaced "End of the Rainbow" as his most-requested number. Even 1993s Mirror Blue, his weakest album since First Light, contains "King Of Bohemia," a moving ballad which lifts the curse set by "End of the Rainbow." None of these albums could be called awful, per se. Even his filler has something to recommend it. They are disappointments by the standards set by Thompsons own work. It is a problem every great talent must deal with. Kurt Loder, during his days at Rolling Stone and prior to his days as an MTV hack, wrote of Across A Crowded Room: "Rare is the artist from whom such excellence can come to seem a letdown."
The most recent Thompson album illustrates the problems and the joys of his current music well: a double CD set entitled You? Me? Us? -- one disc with a full band, one acoustic solo with minimal backing on some tracks by Danny Thompsons bass. The first side is Thompson by-the-numbers "The Razor Dance" is another "Wall of Death," "She Drives By Lightning" sounds like The Feelies (nothing against The Feelies, but I expect more from Thompson). Theres a couple more jumpy pop-rockers with clever lyrics ("Business On You") and too much percussion (an annoying feature added on 1993s Mirror Blue); a withering (and tiresome) put-down ("Put It There Pal") and chance for Richard to cut loose like crazy on the guitar ("Bank Vault in Heaven"). All of it is perfectly enjoyable, at least one song ("The Ghost of You Walks") is a gem, but its getting old.
Disc Two is almost perfect. Except for the rather pointless "Cold Kisses" (which is yet another re-hash of the psycho persona of "I Feel So Good" and others) and two remakes of songs from Disc One ("Razor Dance" benefits and is stronger for the solo treatment "Hide It Away" does not). The rest is Thompson at his best stark ballads full of fear, longing, romance and mystery. It all rolls down with "Woods of Darney," an eerie folk ballad about a soldier who takes a wedding picture off his fallen comrade. He falls in love with the woman in the picture. After the war, he goes to her, breaks the news, consoles her. They fall in love and marry. He remains haunted by the ghost of his predecessor; "is it him that you see when war fills the sky? Was he there as you stood in your grandmothers wedding dress/As we made our own vow, you and I?" As the song closes, war has come again. The man prepares to go off to battle again: "and Ill carry your picture, the one that he carried and take my chance, on a frozen plain." He wonders if he will survive, or will he join her first husbands ghost "perhaps well lie in the darkness together/With your love to bind us in the Woods of Darney." The song is haunting and creepy, and moving. It is pure Richard Thompson. Whether Thompson ever makes another album as consistent as his 70s and early 80s-era is really irrelevant. To those who have heard and responded to the depth of his songcraft, his remarkable guitar-playing, and his glorious musical-imagination, the rewards of even his weakest works will always balance out the throwaways. He remains one of the great ones.
A complete and exhaustive Thompson discography can be found at Henry the Human Fly Caught on the Web, the only full-on Richard Thompson site on the net at this time. So instead I'll list some of my favorites here.
with Fairport Convention: The first Fairport album (Fairport Convention, 1968) is a disappointment. Far better is the follow-up, What We Did On Our Holidays, which contains "Tales in Hard Time" and "Farewell, Farewell" -- one of Richard's best early ballads. Liege and Lief is a classic of British folk-music meets rock and roll. House Full is a rollicking live album from recorded in 1970 and featuring Richard on lead vocals on about half the songs. High points include a guitar/violin duel on "Matty Groves" and a storming version of Richard's ominouse "Sloth." There is an excellent Fairport Covention anthology entitled Fairport Chronicles which contains "Meet On the Ledge" and selected moments from various Fairport offshoots (The Bunch, Fotheringay) as well as Fairport stuff. Most of Fairport's stuff is available from Hannibal records but I think Chronicles is out of print.
Richard and Linda: Henry the Human Fly is a weird, and often great album. I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight is the Thompson's definitive statement, but Pour Down Like Silver is my all-time favorite; stark and haunting songs of devotion in the form of love songs. Many find it depressing, but to me it's their finest hour as a duo. Hokey Pokey is mostly forgettable but does contain "The Egypt Room," "I'll Regret It All in the Morning," one of Richard's bleakest workouts, and the title track, an extended double entendre with raging guitar. Shoot Out the Lights runs a close second to Bright Lights. Doom and Gloom from the Tomb Vol. 1 was released by the Richard Thompson fan club, and features bootleg material from 1969-1983. Among this are a number of gems that deserve release: early versions of songs from First Light that show the album it could have been; a great live version of "I'm A Dreamer" from 1982, and some ravers from the 1983 big-band tour including "Together Again," "Tear-Stained Letter," "How I Wanted To." Hopefully someday this will see an official release. A second volume was released which I've not heard.
Richard Solo: Hand of Kindness (1983) is a great rock`n'roll record. Small Town Romance (1984), which captures an `81 acoustic gig is one of my all-time favorites, but it has been withdrawn from circulation. Grab it if you can find it. Across A Crowded Room (1985) and Daring Adventures (1986) have many fine moments, but things slip a bit with 1988's Amnesia despite "Gypsy Love Songs" and "Turning of the Tide" and "Waltzing's For Dreamers." Rumor and Sigh (1991) is an improvement Mirror Blue (1993) a major step back. You? Me? Us? (1996) is back up again, thanks mainly to the second half. Watching the Dark (1993) is a three-disc collection aimed mainly at hardcore Thompson fans, consisting mostly of outtakes and rarities and live tracks. As a career overview, it's pretty lousy. For a fan, it's great and contains "From Galway To Graceland," easily one of his ten or twenty best songs, and "Crash the Party," a first class rock`n'roll raver I thought was a cover when I first heard him do it onstage in 1988.
Other Works: Richard's most recent release is a collaboration with Danny Thompson entitled Industry. It's a mixed-bag; consistently interesting musically, but only ocassionally striking enough to hold my interest. One such ocassion is "Sweetheart On The Barricade," a winner. He has also recorded two interesting albums with John French, Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser: Live, Love, Larf and Loaf (1988) and Invisible Means (1991). Invisible Means has his great rave-up version of "Loch Lomond." There are many other collaborations, soundtracks, and session appearances.
The official biography of Richard Thompson is Richard Thompson: The Biography by Patrick Humphries, from which I drew most of this material.
Also see our Richard Thompson interview
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