Monthly Archives: February 2015

The musician whom I’ve been a fan of for the longest time…



…is Richard Thompson.

When you are young many of your tastes are encouraged by others. When I was first introduced to the world of serious popular music, in my mid-teens in the first half of the 1970s, the popular artists, whose records were carried, swapped and discussed, were Led Zeppelin, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Pink Floyd; then a little later, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Alice Cooper, Genesis.

Through Radio 1’s Sound of the Seventies, our essential music homework, and the weekly music papers, I also picked up an interest in what was called folk-rock. Artists who performed, in a mixed acoustic-electric style, traditional songs as well as their own original material. The most significant group in that genre was Fairport Convention, of whom a leading member was the guitarist/singer Richard Thompson.

A valuable taste-maker was History of Fairport Convention. A selection of tracks from earlier Fairport albums which highlighted the key contributions of lead vocalist/pianist/guitarist Sandy Denny, violinist Dave Swarbrick, and Thompson, in his electric guitar playing and in his song writing,  on “Meet on the Ledge” and “Crazy Man Michael”.

By the time I was listening to History of Fairport Convention, Thompson had actually left the band, but the music papers were now excited by the 1974 album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight which he recorded with his wife Linda.

When I heard that record, I remember being amazed by how shiningly clear and obvious it was, even on the first listen, that this  really was exceptional music. The songs were so well-made, with lyrics which either described contemporary life or drew on older tradition; the singing of Linda Thompson either on her own or in harmony with her husband was so strong; the band playing was so simple and rich and crisp, yet powerful.

The only other Thompson album I heard in full around this time was another compilation, (guitar vocal). It was designed as something of a sop for completists with its Fairport rarities and cover versions. However, I became fond of the cover of “The Dark End of the Street” with its acoustic guitar and skin-chilling harmonies.

The single time I have seen Thompson live was with Linda in a small acoustic arrangement in Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre, around 1982. The intimacy of the venue was exciting, but from memory both choice of material and performance were weaker. This was around the time when their marriage was breaking up and they were coming to the end of their time as a performing unit.

A few years further on, I became a fan of the new young Radio 1 DJ Andy Kershaw. Kershaw’s name quickly became associated with his championing of world music but his musical tastes also included some post-punk guitar bands and other artists who were part of the folk, blues and country traditions. One of the latter was Richard Thompson. Thompson appeared frequently on Radio 1 over the next few years either via Kershaw’s programme or on those of one or two others’, such as Johnnie Walker.

As the 1980s moved into the 1990s, there was some controversy and complaint about Thompson’s career. An artist who had been seen as very English and whose music had drawn heavily from the English folk tradition and English idioms had now moved to America. His albums were being recorded in America with what was felt to be a more commercial sound.

However, those records yielded some brilliant songs which have become some of the classics of the second half of his career:  “I Feel So Good”, “Beeswing”, and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”.

Towards the turn of the century, I saw a live TV concert by Thompson and that excitement I had felt during the first listen to I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight arose again. A song I had never heard before struck me instantly as something I would want to hear frequently for the foreseeable future: “Cooksferry Queen”, with its flawless up-tempo rhythm and lyrical ideas drawn seemingly from the 1860s as much as from the 1960s.

As I caught up with some of Thompson’s previously unheard back catalogue, I found out, of course, that not every song was as good as those from  I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.

What has kept me interested in Thompson, however, especially during the past couple of decades, is that although his musical and lyrical territory has changed little, yet his skill and craftsmanship regularly seems to yield fresh riches. Whenever I hear some new song, although it may not be as great as some of the aforementioned, writing, playing and singing still always seem to retain a warm and reassuring authority.  Yes, this is familiar, but it is still eminently worthwhile. In interviews, meanwhile, he always speaks in a concisely co-operative and self-deprecating way. Happily, YouTube provides plenty of evidence for all of the above points.

Richard Thompson. Even if you only listen to music rather than play it, a great role model.


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Mysteries of the past English countryside


For me, the strength of the Man Booker-nominated novel Harvest by Jim Crace is its depiction of place and time. The date is unspecified but the mid-17th century seems plausible.  For instance, the landowner Master Kent has plans for land enclosure and has recruited the services of “Master Quill” to survey and chart his property in anticipation of this; common male dress is identified as quilted cap, breeches and leather jerkin.  We are far from town or coast  and “anyone who is not blood is married to someone else who is”.  Christianity is established but the old pagan influences are still strong. The village does not have a church although Master Kent aspires to build one. Visitors are immediately presumed to be witches and demons, wrong-doers punished in a pillory.

Crace’s narrator, Walter Thirsk, is an outsider, who has lived and worked in larger places. In both direct and indirect speech, his eloquent prose suggests a semi-literate person whose main linguistic sources are the Bible and the physical world around him. The narrative is full of references to the sky, the land, birds and  animals,  vegetables, tools, crafts, work : “garths”, “muniments”, “fumiter”, “manchet”, “heddles”, “loggats”, “platters”,“stirruping”, “fletchings”, “dunnocks”, “tilth”, “longpurples”, “pickthread”, “copotain”.

Quite soon during Harvest I found myself recalling another re-imagination of the same period, in Red Shift by Alan Garner.  That novel runs three concurrent Cheshire narratives, set in the present (1970s) day, in Roman Britain and during the English Civil War. Unlike Crace, Garner concentrates on  dialogue rather than description. He makes his Roman soldiers especially sound bluntly contemporary. They have names like Logan, Face, Magoo and Macey and say things like,  “Don’t push it!” “Bollocks!” and “I don’t give a toss”. His 17th century characters speak a language which is a little more expansive, a little richer, although still clipped and cursory. Garner is keen to give the past a visible, fast-moving grittiness.

The countryside as a place of the mysterious pagan past, not yet sharing all the values of modern society,  has often been the perspective of David Rudkin. Yet, as the vicar in his 1974 TV film Penda’s Fen points out,  “pagan” simply means “belonging to the village”, and the human scale of “the village” is something that may well remain particularly attractive in the future as the world elsewhere becomes crowded, noisy, overwhelming.

Rudkin’s lead character in Penda’s Fen,  Stephen, is a visionary rather like the three characters called Tom in Garner’s Red Shift.  At the start, school-leaver Stephen’s Christian beliefs are strict and conservative, but by the end he is accepting the blessing and the mission bestowed by the pagan King Penda: “cherish our flame, our dawn shall come”.

Crace’s “Master Quill” immediately recalls The Draughtsman’s Contract, Peter Greenaway’s film set in a slightly later period where the hiring of a stranger to chart their property disrupts a middle-class family.  In Greenaway’s world, Christianity is firmly established, and the religious elements in his script deal with internal tensions between two arrogant men of comparable ages: the Protestant German son-in-law Talmann and the draughtsman (probably Catholic and of either Scottish or Irish family) Neville. Like Crace, Greenaway’s language evokes his historical period eloquently.

Although the countryside of The Draughtsman’s Contract is thoroughly enclosed and cultivated, the older mysteries prevail. The grounds of the Herbert property are adorned by classical statues of pagan gods, while prowling around the periphery of the drama is a mysterious moving statue, at the start perusing the alfresco diners from the roof above and by the end spitting pieces of pineapple onto the ashes of the dead Neville’s last drawing.

Stephen Prince’s A Year in the Country website, “an exploration of an otherly pastoralism…(the) underlying unsettledness to the English bucolic countryside dream”  works some of the same artistic ground covered by Crace, Garner and Rudkin, and looks strikingly as if it was produced in 1969 rather than in the last couple of years.


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Golden ages?


Nostalgia is a more common tendency, but media people sometimes also feel that the period in which they are currently living and working is uniquely  blessed.

In 1977, the year when punk music gained a mainstream audience, many radio presenters and journalists felt already able to judge it as a key moment. I remember, for instance,  the presenter of a Radio 1 documentary series about “The Summer of 67” suggesting that year, 1967, had been widely seen as the most creative in pop/rock music before the current, 1977. A year later,  during his fondly-remembered stint as  TV critic in “The Observer”, Clive James enthused about the drama series The Voyage of Charles Darwin by describing it as the best programme made in Britain that year, and, going on to say confidently that,  as British TV was the best in the world, that must mean that that programme was the best in the world that year.

It is generally accepted that we are in a golden age of cinema animation. Produced by Pixar and Dreamworks as well as Disney, films are felt to have improved significantly during the last 20 years, in both technical and artistic quality. Full-length animation films have had their own Oscar category since 2001. Not only do they make more money than in the past, but more famous actors regularly take part and often publicise them as vigorously as their more conventional roles. However, since my own childhood fondness of animation did not generally continue into my adult film watching, I personally feel somewhat undazzled by all this  gold. The same applies to natural history documentaries.  My interest in these, presented by David Attenborough and others, waned in adulthood, even though it is easy to appreciate the technical skills displayed in the close- up, slow-motion photography and rich colours.

TV writer/director Dominic Savage suggested in “The Observer” last year that we are also in a golden age of British TV drama. I have heard this point made by others, but eulogists always ignore the fact that most of these high-profile dramas are centred around the old chestnut plot of crime and investigation.  This description covers four examples quoted by Savage –  Accused, Happy Valley, The Fall, Top of the Lake –  plus the equally often praised  BroadchurchSherlock, Line of Duty and The Missing. Their stories may be told with better casts than 20-30 years ago, with greater detail in the characterisation, and certainly with a more eye-catching cinematic style, but they still employ a rather familiar narrative template.

Why this concentration on crime and investigation? The work of the police has been a TV drama staple for decades , through Z Cars, The SweeneyThe Bill and New Tricks, although it was rarely the stuff of prestige productions. Whereas award-winning TV dramas in previous eras might cover such topics as national and local politics, the work of the intelligence services or various male-dominated professions, post-war social changes or the personal hypocrisy and corruption of the middle-classes,  the current thinking seems to be that violent crime and its detection is the genre which allows writers and directors the clearest lens through which to examine other areas of contemporary UK life and behaviour. Although at the heart of the drama there will also be an old-fashioned puzzle whose solution will eventually be revealed.

One golden age which I can readily agree that we are in is one of easy availability of free video and audio – also previously known as TV, cinema, music and radio. But with the typical caveat of a person of a certain age: does the quality of content match and justify the quantity?


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