RICHARD THOMPSON - THE RESTLESS KIND
Richard Thompson finally seems poised on the edge of something resembling stardom, after a twenty five year climb featuring more artistic peaks than most artists dream of. Not only was last year's hour long offering "Rumor And Sigh" universally praised, it sold well enough to make it Thompson's most commercially successful album ever. Most importantly of all, it reached a wider audience than before, and this listener base show signs of continuing to grow.
It seems, suddenly, that Richard Thompson is hot property. Q Magazine recently awarded him Songwriter Of The Year status, while in the US he has just topped Rolling Stone's Critics' Poll in the Guitarist category. In October, in Seville, Spain, he played live alongside his early idols Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn.
Over a hundred covers of his songs are in circulation. Dave
Burland likes him so much he's just recorded an entire albums worth of
Thompson tunes with the man himself helping out. A star studded tribute
album is on the way from Capitol, and is due to feature artists as diverse
as Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Five Blind Boys Of Alabama, Joni Mitchell,
Pete Townshend and REM. His guitar work - long a relatively well
kept secret - is now a much coveted decoration on any album. Recent
recipients of this honour include Bonnie Raitt, Beausoleil, and Nile Rodgers.
For one thing Richard has a personel modesty and grace that is all too rare in one so talented. Never one to promote himself shamelessly, Thompson simply did his thing quietly all these years, seemingly unconcerned that he spent so long being ignored by the great unwashed masses. But then, he's never played the game the way Elton John or George Michael have - hogging the bright lights was never one of Richard's strong points.
Consider this incident at last year's Cropredy Festival, when he was one again on stage with his old cronnies Fairport Convention. During the closing song, his own classsic "Meet On The Ledge" (from 1968), Simon Nicol had to coax him out of the shadows for a low-key and unassuming guitar solo. He looked at Nicol with genuine surprise and pleasure on his face, that he should be called upon in this, Fairport's annual moment of glory. Or consider his attitude to the upcoming tribute album: "I'm left instructions not to be told about it. I don't want to get nervous, involved, annoyed, or embarrassed."
Flash back to 1967 - a young Thompson starting his career as lead guitarist in Fairport, along with Nicol, Judy Dyble, Ashley Hutchings, Martin Lamble, and Ian (McDonald) Matthews, - blissfully unaware of the singer/songwriter future that lay ahead of him. What brought them together ? "It was people who lived near where I lived, who played instruments," recalls Richard today. "We pretty much drifted into it really, I suppose there must have been some like minded intentions. I think we were a fairly intellectual sort of band. We defintely made, at various points, deliberate intellectual stylistic decisions."
Richard stayed with Fairport for forty months and forty weeks, during which time they progressed from doing inventive covers of songs by The Butterfield Blues Band, Leonard Cohen, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, and The Everlys Brothers to being the acclaimed inventors of British "folk-rock". Folk-rock in this case meant a happy marriage of electric instrumentation to traditional (and traditional sounding) tunes, often with their own lyrics.
Along the way Fairport gained veteran fiddler Dave Swarbrick, and what soon became the best rhythm section east of Land's End: Dave Pegg (bass) and Dave Mattacks (drums). They lost Dyble to Trader Horne, Matthews to a solo career, Hutchings to form Steeleye Span (and later head various Albion bands), as well as gaining and losing their greatest asset, folk singing legend Sandy Denny. On a more sombre note, in 1969 original drummer Martin Lamble died in a van crash which also claimed the life of Richard's girlfriend.
Despite the setbacks they suffered, Thompson looks back fondly on those days: "I'm proud to have been associated with the band, we did pioneering work. Fairport was very influencial, in this and other countries. It was absolutely the right thing to do, the right move to make. And it was a lot of fun."
Having said that he is quick to point out that his songwriting has come a long way since then. But if many of the twenty songs he (co)wrote and recorded while with Fairport have proved less than durable over the years, what remains includes "Meet On The Ledge", "Book Song", "Crazy Man Michael", "Genesis Hall", "Farewell, Farewell", and "Sloth" - an impressive legacy by any standards. Fairport biographer Patrick Humphries reports that Dylan himself was one of the first to cover Thompson, recording "Farewell, Farewell" for his "Self Portrait" set, though it was dropped from the released album.
Thompson left Fairport at the start of 1971 just as they were set to record the studio followup to the Denny-less "Full House" album, on which he'd been obliged to carry a larger share of the vocals than he'd ever bargained for. The next year was spent writing and polishing the songs that would make up his "Henry The Human Fly" debut, as well as playing for both Denny and Matthews.
"Henry" was on Island, just like the old Fairport records, but was ignored
by and large. The sleeve can't have helped its cause, which was unfortunate,
because even if the singing was a bit dodgy, this release heralded the
arrival of a truely new and exciting writing force.
Another song, "The New St. George", continued the "new English revival" theme, and was soon taken up as a trumpet call by Ashley Hutchings & friends, among others. The trademarks of the Thompson sound are all here for anyone with ears, though they have been discovered afresh from other releases many times over by future generations of fans. Notable in addition to the occassionally bleak or mischievous lyrics, is the subtle use of unusual instrumentation, including brass and harp.
If the imagery and vision of "Henry's" songs escaped the public's attention, the same cannot be said of "I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight" (1974). This is the first of a stunning series of albums of Richard's songs recorded with his new wife Linda (nee Peters), with whom he had worked a little in the previous two or three years. Immediately hailed as a classic, "Bright Lights" is immaculate from start to finish.
Having a voice as superb as Linda's available to sing many of the lead parts gave Richard a flexibility in writing that he hadn't enjoyed since working with Sandy Denny in Fairport four years earlier. The refrain "I'm only a poor little beggar girl" just wouldn't sound the same sung by Richard, even though his own voice *had* improved dramatically ! In the chilling and oft covered "The End Of The Rainbow" he tells a newborn that "there's nothing to grow up for anymore" - and he sounds like he means it.
If first rate songs and production help, having accordianist John Kirkpatrick and the CWS Manchester Silver Band on board clinches it. What marked this, and many of the following albums, apart from other contemporary releases was the extraordinary blend of new (electric) and old instruments. While the dominant sound was acoustic, be it dulcimer, mandolin, or krumhorn, Richard's trusty Stratocaster was never too far away.
How do you follow perfection ? "Hokey Pokey" was a good try, and "Pour Down Like Silver" even better. By 1976, Richard had returned to playing electric guitar live, and the critics were falling over each other praising his guitar pyrotechnics, which reached new heights on long workouts of songs like "Calvary Cross" and "Night Comes In" (fine live takes of which can be found on the odd'n'sods double set "Guitar, Vocal").
Around this time Thompson had developed an interest in Islam which he
maintains to this day. The couple took a break from performing and
recording. An album was started in 1977 but immediately shelved.
"It wasn't working, it didn't sound right," remembers Richard. "Wrong musicians,
and I wasn't in the right state to record". Moving to Chrysalis,
Richard & Linda Thompson finished off the 1970s with two more fine
albums, "First Light" and "Sunny Vista", joined increasingly by Fairport
folk from down through the years, with vocal assistance from the wonderful
talents of the McGarrigles, Dave Burland, Dolores Keane and Gerry Rafferty.
1981 was a remarkable year for Thomspon. His influence with record companies was at an all time low, he had a sizable collection of strong songs he couldn't get recorded or heard to his satisfaction, and whether he knew it or not, his marriage and professional partnership was about to come asunder. Yes this very same year also saw a staggering output of recordings, ultimately leading to no less than seven albums on which he was a leading player.
The dust having (apparantly) settled on Fairport's grave, Dave Swarbrick started the year off by recording two albums, "Smiddyburn" & "Flittin'", with *his* first bandleader Beryl Marriott, aided and abbetted as always by the last Fairport lineup, as well as Dave Mattacks. This brought Richard back together with the Fairport he had left exactly ten years earlier, for some superior instrumental workouts. He has since quipped, quite correctly, that "Smiddyburn" was the best album the "Full House" lineup ever made.
Thompson followed that with a total change of direction, recording "The Sound Of The Sand" with Pere Ubu's David Thomas as a member of his new aggregation The Pedestrians. This was no one-off session, not only did Richard cowrite four of the songs, he repeated his far from pedestrian role on another Thomas lead album ("Variations On A Theme") two years later. Indeed this new form of expression for Thompson was to resurface in his subsequent albums with both the Golden Palominos, and French, Frith & Kaiser. Just listen to "Bird Town" from the second Pedestrians' album - a hilariously offbeat lyric and vocal over an *almost* straightforward Carl Perkins influenced riff. Cleveland's son David Thomas being a lot closer in spirit to Captain Beefheart than Gerry Rafferty, Richard may well have left the bulk of his fans behind on that one.
August 1981 at Cropredy, Thompson not only got back on stage with a Fairport lineup that even included Judy Dyble, he also played a set of mostly obscure oldies but goodies (Buck Owens, Hank Williams) with Ralph McTell, Peggy and Mattacks - under the name The GP's. Both shows resulted in live albums, though we had to wait a full decade for The GP's rollicking "Saturday Rolling Around".
Somewhere along the way Thompson found the time to record an all instrumental album "Strict Tempo!", comprised largely of acoustic renditions of tunes from around Britain and Ireland. Released on a small label (Elixir), this charming album showcased a virtuosity and depth of knowledge merely hinted at on the previous song dominated albums. For added enjoyment, Richard threw in Duke Ellington's "Rockin' In Rhythm", and his own fine (electric) "Knife Edge". Will he ever record a followup to this ? "Actually I do have another ready to record," he revealed recently. "If I can ever find the time to fit it in. This one will probably be more electric."
Having hardly performed at all with Linda that year, Richard got the go ahead in November from Fairport producer of old, Joe Boyd, to record what would be the last Richard & Linda LP, for Boyd's new label Hannibal. "Shoot Out The Lights" was not only the pair's most acclaimed outting since "Bright Lights", it was the album which finally got them some serious attention in America. Too late: like many another professional couple - from John & Beverly Martyn to Terry & Gay Woods - their time together was just about up.
The considerable praise the album drew, eg., Rolling Stone declaring it 1982's "Album Of The Year", is somewhat ironic, as musically a lot of the material sounded like rethreads of familiar territory. The lyrics, on the other hand, were a different story. At times every bit as articulately fierce as John Martyn's contemporary "Grace & Danger", many of the songs were actually left over from the Rafferty sessions, which predated the Thompsons' marital troubles.
After one stormy US tour in the spring of 1982, and a handful of UK gigs, Richard & Linda went their separate ways. Fifteen years into his career, Richard Thompson went solo for the second - and last - time.
As his activities throughout 1981 indicate, Richard wasn't entirely dependant on Linda for musical company at this point. While pondering his next move, he engaged in what would soon become a regular feature of his life: a solo acoustic tour of North America. A live album "Small Town Romance" was recorded at this time. By the start of 1983 he was ready to roll with his new "big band", Pete Thomas & Pete Zorn on saxes, along with regulars Kirkpatrick, Nicol, Pegg & Mattacks.
Some of the song titles on the resulting Hannibal release "Hand Of Kindness" are very suggestive: side one alone features "Tear Stained Letter", "How I Wanted To", and "Poisoned Heart And A Twisted Memory". Yet Thompson has always insisted that his songs are works of fiction, and not autobiographical. That said, one can only assume that having been through the wringer himself not long before helped to sharpen his imagination.
Polydor Records came knocking on his door shortly afterwards, and two slightly dissappointing albums, "Across A Crowded Room" and "Daring Adventures", take the story up to 1986. It was quite simply taking time to find his feet as a recording artist where each Richard lead vocal was followed by another. Live he occassionally used Christine Collister on backing vocals, but he knew better than to even think of installing anyone as a surrogate Linda in the studio.
Another problem was perhaps caused by being on a major label: Thompson's songs were for the mostly up to scratch, but his albums were starting to sound ever so slightly mainstream, an unthinkable accusation in former times. While he'd succeeded in distancing himself from the sound he pioneered in the 1970s, he'd yet to find a durable, worthwhile substitute that his record company was happy with.
Not that Richard didn't branch out successfully in new directions on his own records: witness the superb jazz tinged "Al Bowlly's In Heaven" from "Daring Adventures". It was the title of another track from that LP, ironically the most sparse and 1970s sounding track, that said it all: "How Will I Ever Be Simple Again?".
While we all waited for the answer to that question, Thompson recorded "Life, Love, Larf, Loaf" with an unlikely trio of like minded souls: John French, Fred Frith, and Henry Kaiser. More a studio outfit than a touring entity, this quartet nevertheless managed to come up with a cohesive album of diverse material. Like its 1990 followup, "Invisible Means", it also offered Richard an opportunity to air first rate songs he chose not to put on his own albums.
One more label switch in 1988 brought him to Capitol, and that year's "Amnesia" showed that with the help of producer Mitchell Froom, he had had finally found his groove as a solo artist. The cover even showed him juggling confidently - it seemed he had finally figured out how to balance the demands of his art with those of his record company.
Since then he has fitted in the second album with French, Frith & Kaiser, and collaborated with Peter Filleul on a few soundtracks, as well as writing and recording the wealth of material found on "Rumor And Sigh". The "Hard Cash" soundtrack album includes the startling sound of June Tabor singing "Mrs Rita" which would be at home on any Richard and Linda album, though Richard assures me that the song is of recent vintage. Coming your way soon (so Capitol claim) is the "Sweet Talker" soundtrack, already two years in the can, which should dispell for once and all any rumours that there's an anti-mandolin clause in his contract !
What distinguishes the Thompson catalogue from any other is the ecleticism and sheer adventurousness of his recordings. The man's musical vocabulary is vast - he draws freely on the deep wells of Irish & British traditional forms when it suits him, but is just as likely to throw in a cajun, persian, north african or good old psychadelic motif - and often within a rock song. His great command of language allows him to economically and convincingly express melancholy, humour, and tenderness, as well as the bleakness he is famous for. Not to mention tell a good yarn.
Now that he's on a really big label, does he feel under any pressure ? "No, not at all. The only pressure is ... other people's expectations are unrealistic. I try and do what I want to do, in the perhaps misguided belief that somebody can market it. I please myself, that's the only way I can be true to myself, nothing else would be real."
Yet, I persisted, some of the songs that turned up on the FFKT albums, or Hokey Pokey's fine "Circle Dance" set, would hardly show up on a Capitol Richard Thompson album. Was this planned, and could we look forward to more of these "harder to spot" songs ? "Well, the albums are aimed at a larger audience," he conceded. "I always have songs that don't get used for some reason. So, I suppose, yes."
Yet a strict self-imposed quality control has always been one of Thompson's ways of insuring that nothing he'd later regret slips out. The aborted 1977 sessions, the abandoned 1980 ones, and several "Amnesia" outakes are examples where he turned his back on recordings he wasn't 100% happy with. He worries about a song's ability to communicate: "I often dump a batch of songs close to recording time", he admits, "I get dissatisied with them".
I asked Richard if he ever in his wildest dreams thought when he left Fairport in 1971 that any of them would be where they are today ? "When you're younger you don't think like that, you don't think beyond three months or even one month. I certainly didn't, I'd no idea, I didn't have a clue. When you're twenty, five years is an incredibly long time, you might think `Gosh, I wonder if I'll still be doing this in five years time,` and you think `No, something else will happen.` But you don't worry about it. At the age of forty, you think `Will I be doing this in ten years time ?` ... Maybe !" Undoubtedly !
One last nagging question remained: what does Richard think of the current UK "folk rock" scene? "The Pogues gave it a leg up. It was a great idea, exactly what was needed, a punk approach to traditional music. The spirit of the Sex Pistols lives on." So he's is a Pistols fan? "Absolutely". I enquired if he'd liked the Pogues from the start, or had it taken him a while to convert ? "I never liked them, I still don't! But Shane writes some great songs. Of course if you're young and do something different, everyone hates you - if you're old and do something different everybody wants to know why you're not doing what you used to do!"
If the 1980s showed nothing else, they showed that Richard Thompson is unlikely to do what he used to do - just because he used to do it very well. Who knows where his muse will take him next ? But based on recent years experiences, it's fairly safe to assume that by the turn of the century he'll be featuring fewer and fewer songs from "Rumor And Sigh" (or earlier) in his live set. So if it's "God Loves A Drunk" or "I Misunderstood" you fancy, catch him this June on his solo UK tour.
If you still hanker for the old Richard & Linda days, you'll have
to make do with the upcoming "Live at the BBC" album.
Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.