Richard Thompson’s teenage band had ambitions to be a British Jefferson Airplane. In a tumultuous 1969 Fairport Convention underwent line up changes, a terrible fatal car accident & released 3 LPs. A growing maturity & a move away from American West Coast influences led to if not the invention of British folk rock then the best that blend of traditional & modernity was ever going to get. There was not a group anywhere that would not be diminished by the loss of Sandy Denny, a vocalist of unrivalled purity. “Full House” (1970) saw Thompson collaborate successfully with fiddle player Dave Swarbrick. The live show became an exciting showdown of the pair’s virtuosity but, I think, at the expense of the nuance, the subtlety of the earlier line up. Soon after the release of the record Richard Thompson left the group that he seemed to be leading to make his own records.
“Henry the Human Fly” (1972) contains many of the elements & themes which abide throughout Richard Thompson’s career. This debut solo LP, 12 self-written, often mournful songs of tinkers, painted ladies & ditching boys, challenges the folk-rock orthodoxy. The arrangements feature traditional instruments as he refused to play up to his reputation as the genre’s guitar hero. Lyrically he attempts a modern, class conscious, contribution to the canon . “Don’t expect the words to fall too sweetly on your ear.” he sings in “Roll Over Vaughan Williams”. Williams, the classical composer, had been an eminent curator of English folk songs. The folk audience were becoming more conservative & “Henry…” broke too many Fairport conventions. While Steeleye Span & other easier on the ear singer-songwriters sold well the record was not well received at the time. Listening back from now to then it’s a little beauty.
Buddy Holly, Elvis & Chuck Berry were as influential for Richard as his father’s Celtic folk records. In 1972 he was part of an ad hoc folk supergroup (though with no current Fairports), The Bunch, which released “Rock On”, a one-off LP, their own moondog matinee of rock & roll covers. The Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” became a duet between Sandy Denny & Linda Peters, another outstanding singer. Richard & Linda got hitched &, over the next decade, Mr & Mrs Thompson pursued & perfected their contemporary take on an established national idiom. With the title track of their first LP they stepped out of the crease & hit the bowler over his head for six. (That’s a cricket thing…like a home run only with more style).
“I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” (1974) is a classic British LP, folk, rock, whatever. At Sound Techniques studio in Chelsea producers Joe Boyd & John Wood were overseeing some enduring, beautiful music. Nick Drake, John Martyn & the Thompsons were hardly ripping up the charts but their records were built to last. The release of “Bright Lights” was delayed for a year either as a consequence of a vinyl shortage (Ah, those 1970s, the 3-day week, you won’t get me I’m part of the union…good times ) or because Island Records were not too sure just who would buy such a distinctive, individual LP.
Richard Thompson’s pursuit of a folk music less grounded in an agrarian tradition references religion, fairs, the circus, even beggars. It’s a landscape of past times, of the newly industrial Britain, times when pubs were still called taverns. The emotional honesty of the songs means it really doesn’t matter whether he is writing about 1850, 1950 or 2014. Today, in the Friday night bright lights of British towns & cities there may not be “a silver band just marching up and down” but “the big boys are all spoiling for a fight” & hard-earned money is being spent. Richard’s lyrics are often categorised as brooding, melancholic, other stygian adjectives (“there’s nothing at the end of the rainbow”). In Linda he has the perfect foil, a singer who confirms the beauty & the humour in this wonderful set of songs while Richard’s guitar floats like a butterfly, stings like…you get me ?
I could include any of the songs from the record. The epic “The Calvary Cross”, the dark “End of the Rainbow”, any of them. It is “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” that always does it for me. Now I’m a man with a heart of gold, the ways of a gentleman I’ve been told but I did used to be fond of an ale or two. There may not have been kegs of wine in some of the dives I frequented but you could “get the real thing, it will only cost a pound” (those were the days eh !). I miss all day sessions in the alcohol-fuelled company of strangers where “You can be a gambler who never drew a hand. You can be a sailor who never left dry land. You can be Lord Jesus all the world will understand”. I’ve met those people, listened to their stories & their lies. There have been times when the storyteller has been me. Perfect.
“I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” is now recognised for it’s undoubted quality. This was not the case in 1974 & there are no contemporary clips of Richard & Linda performing these songs. There are Y-tube clips from the 1980s when the title song was almost a “greatest hit” but a lot had changed for the couple by that time. They made at least 4 records together that would grace any collection but the other 3 deserve just as much consideration as these outstanding songs so, another time for those. If you are not familiar with the music of Richard & Linda Thompson then their debut LP is a fine introduction to some time well spent.