…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.