I first saw Richard Thompson in a small bar in Baton Rouge in 1992. My friends Mike and Tommy had caught him in New Orleans a couple of nights before and had been so blown away that they convinced me and two other friends to drive down for the show, which amounted to a de facto quitting of my job. It was a lousy delivery job. The show changed my life.
I've tried to describe what it was like, but there's nothing more accurate than what it actually was: seeing the finest guitarist of the classic rock generation - who, by definition, is one of the greatest guitarists who has ever lived in the world because that generation bred ample numbers of actual guitar heroes - rock the shit out of a mid-size bar in a sleepy Southern college town on a Tuesday night.
I've since seen Thompson in concert a couple of dozen times. I've collected everything I could get my hands on. I wrote a goddamn book about Shoot Out The Lights, which one of his most transcendent albums. There's something about his music that is literally extraordinary, so full of wonder and surprise that it seems both superhuman and wholly human.
All of which is saying nothing new. Because it is exactly that sort of transcendence that all Richard Thompson fans feel. Thompson himself has pointed out that when he's really on, he's having an out-of-body experience of sorts. But Thompson is also such a consummate pro at this point that this listener, who has seen the man play live nearly 20 times and owns many bootlegs, can't tell the difference between a good night and a bad night.
Case in point: I saw Thompson play two consecutive nights in 2010, first in Nashville in a sit-down theater where I was right up front, then in Asheville in a crowded stand-up place where I ended up near the back being constantly bumped by an overenthusiastic greybeard. I thought the first night was insanely great and the second mediocre, but when I chatted with the soundman after the show, he felt the exact opposite. He'd been on board for the whole tour, so presumably he had a better insight into when Thompson was letting loose and when he was just hitting his marks. But I felt that I had some insight, too, which maybe just had a lot to do with my own comfort zone.
Anyway, here's my review of the music from the first part of Thompson's career.
1972: Henry The Human Fly (solo). Thompson's first solo outing is quite a departure from the seriousness and focus of Fairport Convention. Henry The Human Fly, notoriously the worst-selling album in Warner Brothers history (a claim that is surely apocryphal), has twelve songs, all in different flavors of folk-rock, most pointing a direct line to Elvis Costello's own genre-defying debut. Particularly great is "The Angels Took My Racehorse Away."
-- Richard and Linda Thompson era --
1972: Kew Bridge Folk Club October 1972 (bootleg). Linda Peters was one of the backing singers on Henry, which came out in April 1972, but by time of this October 1972 gig, she was sharing a billing and Thompson's last name. This boot has a number of fun nonalbum songs like "Shady Lies," "Dragging The River For You," and "Once Brave Napoleon," but the sound quality is utterly terrible.
1973: Once Brave Henry: Live At The Memphis Club 1973 (bootleg). Similar to the previous boot, this gig features a number of nonalbum songs, more songs from the about-to-be-released Bright Lights album, and an excellent cover of Hank Williams' last song "Angel Of Death."
1974: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. Bright Lights is a sublime album, a pinnacle of British folk rock. Every song bristles with energy, intelligence, and passion. It is also quite dark, with most of the songs contemplating a life haunted by death, drunkenness, and despair, which is pretty heavy for a guy who was 24 when it was recorded. There are ten songs on the album and not a clunker in the bunch. I couldn't say which are the best, although I admit that I love "We Sing Hallelujah" and "The Little Beggar Girl," which are, incidentally, the least dark songs on the album, a little less than the rest. Here's the final track, "The Great Valerio," a song of such astonishing otherworldly beauty that I'm willing to believe it sprang whole from the head of a forgotten Celtic deity. Note the coda, the Satie composition "La Balançoire."
1975: "Hokey Pokey (Live)" (from Over The Rainbow: Live at The Rainbow, March 16, 1975, a compilation album), Hokey Pokey (April), Pour Down Like Silver (November), and In Concert November 1975. 1975 was a big year for the Thompsons. Having released their debut as a duo the prior year, they opted to release two stellar albums and then, in December, disappear to live on a compound with their Mullah for the next two years. This was a hectic time. The couple converted to Islam (and Sufism, in particular) in early 1974, just before the release of Bright Lights, and found themselves spiritually drawn to retreat from the world. The first track here was from a compilation where the Thompsons, playing acoustic, shared a stage with such dissimilar artists as Procul Harem and Hatfield and the North. The Hokey Pokey album dropped the next month. While not as brilliant overall as Bright Lights, it featured several truly great songs, including the Thompsons' much-loved "A Heart Needs A Home." It should be noted that, for my money, the best version of this song is not on the album, but on the out-of-print best-of Watching The Dark. The version on In Concert is a close second. The studio versions out there, though, are much too sappy. Thanks to YouTube, here's the best version.
In November, the Thompsons released their third duo album, Pour Down Like Silver, an austere and icily beautiful album mostly about their newfound religious beliefs, which was made more stark by the lack of rhythm guitar. They had intended to have their friend Simon Nicol record the rhythm guitar parts, but he was unavailable and Richard simply never got around to overdubbing the parts himself. What is left is a collection of songs both majestic and remote. Even the ones that veer into power-pop territory ("For Shame Of Doing Wrong" and "Jet Plane In A Rocking Chair") have a solemnity to them that undercuts the happiness of the melody. The album ends on "Dimming Of The Day," a song so gorgeous that Linda tells a story about meeting the Everly Brothers, who held her hand and sang it to her. Instead of that, though, I'm going to link to the first studio guitar workout track that Thompson recorded since his Fairport days.
In Concert November 1975 is an official live album that came out a few years ago. As with the bootlegs from the previous years, there are a few covers and a nonalbum track, but the sound quality is excellent, as is the performance. Here's their cover of Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me" attached to a fairly literal-minded video.
1976: (guitar, vocal) (compilation). With the Thompsons holed up in their Maida Vale Sufi commune, their label, Island, threw together this compilation of live tracks, outtakes, and Fairport studio outtakes. The Fairport tracks are actually pretty wonderful, as is the live cover of "The Dark End Of The Street," but the other tracks are better served elsewhere.
1977: The Madness Of Love (bootleg). By 1977, the Thompsons were growing weary of the life in their retreat. Apparently, the women did all the work while the men sat around discussing their faith. As Linda put it, the mens' room was full of English guys sitting around in flowing white robes while the ladies' room looked like a scene from a Kurosawa movie. Richard had been forbidden to play guitar by his Mullah, which is much like taking paintbrushes from Picasso. This bootleg is from the infamous Sufi tour, where the Thompsons decided to compromise by taking to the stage with a semi-competent all-Sufi band. The band is not terrible. But they're not good, either, and that makes all the difference. You'll note, too, that there is an awful lot of electric piano on this track. Weirdly, a part of the Thompsons re-emergence into the music scene involved attempts to incorporate more contemporary sounds from the late 70s, which dates the next two albums in a way unusual for the duo.
1978: First Light. Some of these songs are pretty good, especially "Don't Let A Thief Steal Into Your Heart" (which later was a hit for the Pointer Sisters, if you get my point), but the production is so blah-disco-bullshit that I find this album a chore to listen to. Thompson needed to sell some albums after his self-imposed exile, but this was absolutely the wrong path. He sounds unengaged and the pseudo-Arabic flourishes cheapen his deeply-held beliefs. That said, First Light at least sounds like an experiment of sorts, unlike...
1979: Sunnyvista. This is the nadir of Thompson's career. There are some revisionists out there who will try to tell you that this is a good album. They are lying, possibly to themselves. There are, as always, some good songs, but the production is terrible. The songs that are naked attempts to ingratiate with a mass audience are terrible. "Civilisation," which is arguably Richard Thompson's response to punk music, is a godawful mess of poorly-articulated misanthropy. The best you can get here is "You're Gonna Need Somebody," which is thematically similar to Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" from the same year.
Incidentally, my book tells this same story, but it's much better than this post. Figured I should say something about that.
1980: Before Joe Pulled The Trigger, Rafferty's Folly, and Strange Affair (bootlegs, all). The first two of these are more or less the same album with varying sound quality between them. The Thompsons were basically at a point where they needed a hit or to accept that they were washed up, so they contracted with Gerry Rafferty to produce their next sessions. Rafferty liked big, fake-sounding productions, and both of these bootlegs, the forerunners to Shoot Out The Lights, sound like Rafferty productions. They are as fixed in time as the sound of the late 70s as Rafferty's own 1978 album City To City. The Strange Affair bootleg collects several tracks from the 1977 Madness of Love concert along with some radio tracks recorded in 1980. Sound quality is suspect and the material is lackluster.
1981: Strict Tempo! (Richard solo). Linda's pregnancy in 1981 was difficult and their marriage was strained. They were working on the sessions that would become Shoot Out The Lights, but those were slow-going. To pass the time Richard recorded Strict Tempo!, an all-instrumental album where Richard recorded all the non-drum tracks himself. It's pretty entertaining. Here's a British folk version of Duke Ellington's "Rockin' in Rhythm."
1982: Instead of doing this whole year, let's just hit the Richard and Linda Thompson duo parts and save the solo dates for the next post. Shoot Out The Lights was a tough session for the Thompsons, and then Richard embarked on a solo tour of the US between the recording of the album in 1981 and the release in early 1982. During that tour, he met and fell in love with another woman. There's a pretty good book in the 33 1/3 series that details this part of the story. Let's just jump to the music.
Shoot Out The Lights. Like Bright Lights, SOTL is a perfect album. Eight songs with minimal overdubs, as raw as any album ever recorded. The greatest is "Walking On A Wire," a devastating look at things falling apart. I don't know that I can say more about this album (I mean, you know there's a book with some 100-odd pages about what's great about this album, right?). It is perfect. Anyone who likes rock music should know it intimately. Which goes without saying, actually, because one can only know this album intimately.
May 19, 1982: Live at the Paradise, Boston and May 20, 1982: Live at Hunt's, Burlington (bootlegs, both). When he got back from his tour, he told Linda it was over and then they embarked on a club tour of the US together. This was less an opportunity for hijinks than an emotional hell-ride across thousands of miles of heartache. Funny thing about working on songs of death and despair: the hate, hurt, and confusion really worked in their favor. These bootlegs sound amazing.
Next time: Richard dusts himself off and picks up his solo career.