RICHARD & LINDA THOMPSONSometimes I sit here, on the verge of typing something out, pondering what on earth I should write about in this blog, when I wonder to myself: what bleedingly obvious artist or band have I not written about? And when I say bleedingly obvious, I mean in the sense of bleedingly obvious to me: someone or something I've enthused about for many years, but never right here. Hearing Richard Thompson on the radio this afternoon, amongst others such as Amon Duul 2, Led Zep and Captain Beefheart - yep, we do have some good radio down here - the obvious struck me. If you haven't cottoned onto what I'm about to write about by this point, you're probably reading the wrong blog.
I first got into the music of Richard Thompson in 1994 via a cheap, secondhand copy of a Best Of Fairport Convention 2LP. In the second last issue of Forced Exposure, from 1991 (the one w/ MX-80 on the cover), Eddy Flowers wrote a list of "inspirational artists": Can, Sun Ra, Beefheart, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, Hawkwind, MC5, etc. For a few years there, I used that as my guide to buying, even though I've still never owned an Allmann Brothers disc. Fairport were listed, and I'd recently been tuned into the possibilities presented by the music of Richard Thompson via Peter Laughner's a-fucking-mazing cover of "Calvary Cross" on the now out-of-print Take The Guitar Player For A Ride 2LP on Tim/Kerr, released at the time. Actually, I still rate Laughner's cover as better than the original, but that's another story. Some of the Best Of 2LP set concentrated on the post-Thompson work from the band - music which pales in comparison to their earlier work - though there was definitely a solid LP in there of killer material.
Richard & Linda Thompson's I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight was the next logical move, since even in the pre-internet world, when researching such a topic usually meant having to go to a library and check out a Record Guide Book or somesuch, it was easy to figure out that this 1974 effort was likely his high point. It is, though I'd also hate to ignore records like Fairport Convention's What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and Liege & Leaf - three of the most defining records which bridged British psychedelia and folk-rock - as well as Thompson's efforts such as Henry The Human Fly, his debut solo album from 1972, Pour Down Like Silver, Shoot Out The Lights and Smalltown Romance - some of these recorded w/ Linda, some of them not. Pour Down Like Silver was recorded and released just when he and his wife were getting heavily involved in the esoteric branch of Islam, Sufism. He and his wife even lived in a Sufi commune from the years 1975-'78. Smalltown Romance, which may or may not still be available, is taken from a live radio broadcast from 1982 and later released on Rykodisc. It's Richard solo doing many of his well-known songs from years past, a greatest hits package, and it may well be his best recording. And Shoot Out The Lights? That was the last record Richard & Linda recorded together before their split; it is, as has been noted, their divorce record, and for my money is the best articulation of this anguish outside of Dylan's Blood On The Tracks. It also contains the only song I know featuring the word "renege" in the title.
And whilst I'm rambling, I shouldn't forget the compilation Island released in 1976 - a period when he was essentially AWOL whilst soaking up the spiritual vibes at the retreat - Guitar/Vocal. It's a collection of live stuff and outtakes from his Fairport and solo period up to then, and again, it's essential if you're going to dig deep into his catalogue. It's also has a killer live version of "Calvary Cross", which I can only assume was the template for Laughner's rendition. "Calvary Cross" was originally released on I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, and good as the studio version is, the live one is where Richard's unique, spikey guitar solos come to the fore.
Some have listed I Want To See... as being an album which firmly fits within the proto-punk canon, and whilst I'd agree that its bitter, almost nihilistic sentiments fall within the framework, the music is much more in that classic early-'70s Island "sound", alongside other favourites (of mine, at least) as John Cale, John Martyn and Nick Drake: a depressing, colourless and distinctly English sound (and I'm aware of the Scottish/Welsh blood present, thanks) which was the perfect antidote for the times. Thompson was also a vocal champion of punk, acknowledging that it was a logical and correct reaction to the boredom and bad music which had set in as the '70s progressed. I saw him play live 10 years ago, and he was in excellent form. I've not made much of an effort to hear any of his post-1982 works, as the tracks I have heard seem to be marred by overly slick production (much like John Martyn's), though in a stripped-down live setting, it was obvious the songwriting was still very much intact.
Other than Neil Young, whose catalogue is possibly too eclectic to be categorised as such, Richard Thompson was the first singer/songwriter whose music really hit home w/ me. His best records from the '60s/'70s/'80s still sound remarkably contemporary, undiminished in their lyrical and musical power by the passing years, and contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be a middle-aged MOJO reader to dig his ouvre (though that doesn't hurt). Particularly during the supposed "lost years" of rock music - which I guess many would say was 1970-'75 (though I'd rate this era as anything but "lost"), his music was a shining light. Dig it.