The supremely talented guitarist, writer and singer of both grimly funny and beautifully romantic songs, co-founder of Fairport Convention and, with Linda Peters Thompson, one-half of the best married tandem in rock & roll, Richard Thompson has never really gotten his due. Fellow musician John Kruth has long held that view. He got a chance to talk with Thompson about it, and we present the conversation on PKM.
“Some cats know,” the saying goes. But “knowing” it turns out, is both a blessing and a curse.
The late/great multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk “knew” and played the entire scope of jazz or what he called, “Black Classical Music,” from African folk melodies to New Orleans music to bebop and beyond. But sometimes the burden of such prodigious awareness became too much to bear and he’d get fed up with always having to explain himself and commence to shout “Why Don’t They Know? Please somebody tell me!” as he did on his groovy bossa nova number, “Why Don’t They Know!”
As a friend, writer, musician, and DJ, I’ve spent nearly a lifetime trying to hip people to the majesty of Richard Thompson, one of the greatest songwriters and guitarists to emerge and survive from that deeply romanticized whiff of time, the Sixties. Yet despite being a founding member of the legendary Fairport Convention, recording dozens of albums either solo or with his ex-wife Linda Peters Thompson, while regularly concertizing, whether solo or with some of the most inspired bands around, here I am, once again hoping the rest of us will finally get why – despite remaining below the radar all these years, Richard Thompson is known as “The Great Man” amongst his many admirers.
As Kirk ad-libbed at the end of his tune: “Don’t you think they should know by now?! After fifteen years…After twenty-five years… They should know by now!…I’m sorry baby, I guess I’ll never know, ‘cause I just don’t understand!”
Although this pandemic has been disastrous on multiple levels, it has provided musicians, writers and artists everywhere with a rare respite, an opportunity to take a long look in the rear-view and re-visit their careers. Memoirs, old photographs and recordings have come bubbling to the surface with regularity. Which leads us to Island Records’ release last month of Richard and Linda Thompson’s Hard Luck Stories, a nicely appointed 8-CD box set [113 songs, including 32 that are just now seeing the light of day], a meticulous chronicle of ten years of living, loving, singing and fighting together from 1972–1982.
“Hard Luck Stories” – Richard and Linda Thompson, live in concert, Germany, 1980:
Whenever I’d hear a jaded voice dis the music of the Seventies, I would immediately inquire what they thought of the recent album by Richard & Linda Thompson. I was usually met with a blank stare or worse… “You mean the Thompson Twins?”
It’s perplexing how this music has managed to remain below the radar for all these years. Perhaps it has something to do with that four-letter word… folk. As Richard’s earliest producer Joe Boyd told author Richie Unterberger: “Most people in Britain are still, the average person is still horrified by the sound of their own folk music. I have friends who joke about someone who could arguably be called one of my most commercially successful associations, Richard Thompson, they refer to as the ‘room clearer.’ You know, if you want to get rid of people at a party, you put on a Richard Thompson record and watch them run to the door.”
One might also consider Thompson’s cryptic sense of humor, which vies with the peculiar artist/author Edward Gorey for the title, “Monarch of Morbid.” While Gorey’s classic Ghashlycrumb Tinies offers a rhyming alphabet recounting the untimely death of twenty-six hapless children, Thompson’s gloomy lullaby, “The End of the Rainbow” covers the same dark terrain in just under four minutes. Like a sardonic soothsayer Thompson serenades a baby in his cradle, whom he refers to as a “little horror,” while revealing the grim future fate has in store for this kid: “There’s nothing to grow up for anymore,” Richard warns. Chilling stuff.
Within the same album, I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974), he can be found at the foot of “The Calvary Cross” where a “pale-faced lady,” with “one green eye” casts a hex upon him… promising, “I’ll hurt you till you need me.” The tune opens with Thompson playing an ayre – a mystical drone – as he unwinds a series of anguish-laden riffs, until the rhythm section falls in, plodding along, like Sisyphus pushing that jumbo boulder up the never-ending hill.
“The Calvary Cross” – Richard and Linda Thompson:
But Thompson never relies on second-hand blues to express himself, like the pentatonic filigree learned and employed by the likes of his fellow Brits, Eric Clapton and David Gilmour. As Joe Boyd told Richie Unterberger: Thompson’s approach is “devoid of African influence.”
Since his early days with Fairport Convention, Thompson’s mission of radicalizing tradition has delighted a small but faithful audience, while keeping him from ever reaching a larger following. His six-string vocabulary stretches far beyond the limitations of American blues (although he counts the roots-rock master Chuck Berry amongst his earliest inspirations) to include bagpipe tunes and Arabic melodies as the basis for his unique approach to soloing.
As a songwriter, Thompson has been both fearless and (at times of lesser inspiration) formulaic (particularly throughout the mid 80’s – early 90’s period, when recording for Polydor and Capitol, who both struggled to break him commercially). Richard & Linda Thompson’s 1982 album, Shoot Out the Lights, considered by many to be their masterpiece, was an intriguing but gruesome public divorce, along the lines of Bob Dylan’s earlier Blood on the Tracks. But imagine Bob scribing brutally truthful songs for his wife, Sara, to sing back at him. Shoot Out the Lights included the haunting ballad “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed,” which portrayed the death/murder of Thompson’s former bandmate Sandy Denny, the wistful lead singer of Fairport Convention.
“Did She Jump or Was She Pushed” – Richard and Linda Thompson, from the True Detective soundtrack:
On the album’s closing number, Thompson captured the zeitgeist of being alive, as husband and wife would sing for the final time, “Let me take my chances on the ‘Wall of Death.’” But most folks missed the joke. The tune was not merely another morbid anecdote but inspired by a scene from Roustabout, the 1964 film in which a black leather-clad Elvis Presley plays a daredevil motorcyclist at a failing carnival.
Yet, keep in mind, this is the man who also wrote some of the most beautiful (and yes, tragic) love songs on the planet, from “Dimming of the Day,” to “Beeswing,” and “Galway to Graceland,” (speaking of ‘The King’).
Speaking with Thompson was enlightening. Whatever ideas or images I had before our conversation immediately disappeared into thin air. Years ago, after finishing my biography Bright Moments – The Life & Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk – I suggested to his producer Joel Dorn, that I might want to write a book on Mose Allison. “Don’t get me wrong. Mose is a great guy, but there’s nothin’ there,” Dorn replied frankly. “It’s all in the music.”
Thompson was straightforward, funny and focused. Our conversation (rather than “twist the knife again” on the decade he spent singing with and married to Linda) he mostly focused on his musical heroes, outlaws and romance, whether ignited by women or machinery, along with his ongoing writing process.
PKM: Let’s talk about some of your earliest influences. It’s obvious you were inspired by traditional British folk songs, but what country singers and early rock ‘n’ rollers first moved you?
Richard Thompson: Chuck Berry is such a definitive rock ‘n’ roll songwriter, a great inspiration to hundreds if not thousands of songwriters. You have to follow him or fail, really. His lyrics are kind of like machine-gun fire. They’re so rhythmic. They fit into the groove perfectly. [Hard Luck Stories contains a rollicking cover of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock & Roller”]. And Hank Williams was a country genius. He taught us all how to write simply.
PKM: They were both such great storytellers.
Richard Thompson: Iconic irreplaceable geniuses.
PKM: If you want to know what the American South was like in the 1940s, you just need to listen to Hank. Your song “Shane and Dixie” [From Mirror Blue, 1994] is a bit of a wild ride. It reminds me of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” Was it a total fabrication or did you see something in the newspaper that initially sparked it?
Richard Thompson: It’s based on a few different things but in the end it’s a fantasy. It’s basically about a couple of kids, kind of a British Bonnie and Clyde. They’re slightly wild, out for kicks, it all ends badly of course as these things often do. There are actually three different versions of that song. The story changed drastically with each on. I’m not sure if the version I recorded was the best.
PKM: How did you go about writing it?
Richard Thompson: I just started with verse one, line one.
PKM: Do you do that often?
Richard Thompson: Yeah.
PKM: Do you routinely write as a discipline or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
Richard Thompson: (Laughs) It depends. If it’s flowing, it’s flowing. I don’t have to do anything. I just wake up in the morning and continue on something I’m already working on. For instance, this morning I’ve got four or five songs in various incomplete stages and I’ll just work on those, and in working on those I might get ideas for some other songs. But if I’m going through a flat period and can’t think of something I want to write, I’ll unlock the stream of consciousness with kind of disciplined things, or tricks to get myself going. For instance, if I have a week off, I’ll write a song each day, in a different key and a different tempo – Monday through Friday. On Monday I start with E, Tuesday is going to be F. Wednesday would be F# – Good luck with that one!
PKM: F# minor is a good key, particularly on the mandolin, which sadly you don’t seem to play very much anymore. Your mandolin picking on “When I Get To The Border” [from 1974’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight] was rather nimble.
Richard Thompson: Thanks. I still play it all the time at home and use it on record if I can.
PKM: It seems that no matter how hard you rock you never lose your acoustic side.
Richard Thompson: I have an electric career and an acoustic career. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to render that, in terms of record releases. These days I tend to separate them and make either all electric records or all acoustic records. There’s too much of a switch sometimes and they can get unbalanced [going back and forth between acoustic and electric tracks on the same album].
PKM: A lot of your songs have a dark emotional quality. Sometimes they remind me of Alfred Hitchcock films where the leading man is innocent and suddenly finds himself cast into a nightmare, not of his own making. In “Borrowed Time” [Sunnyvista 1979], you don’t really know what crime the protagonist may have committed. All you know is that time is running out, there’s a price on his head and he’s being tracked down.
“Borrowed Time” – Richard and Linda Thompson, from the album, Sunnyvista:
Richard Thompson: It was deliberately vague in its setting. You can’t say where it is. It’s more metaphorical than the other songs. It’s more about a situation in which you feel you’re being pursued like a criminal. It’s a brooding kind of song, full of paranoia.
PKM: It feels like the walls closing in, like in a Vincent Price movie. Speaking of spooky guys from the Fifties, was Roy Orbison ever an influence on you at all?
Richard Thompson: Orbison as a singer was just amazing. He toured many times in the UK.
PKM: It was a second home to him. His British fans were probably more devoted than they were in the US.
Richard Thompson: I didn’t see him until years later at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. He was playing on a riverboat with Jerry Lee Lewis, and maybe Johnny Rivers. They were doing a three-hour excursion up the river and back. So, you had this great music along with crawfish etouffee. It was just sublime, fantastic for a British chap coming to America. I had never seen him live before. The power of those songs were extraordinary, the way the tension kept building and building and building, and then he goes for the note and hits it. It’s ridiculous. It just put everyone in ecstasy. It was the bee’s knees. I was aware of my hands clapping by themselves. I couldn’t stop my hands. He was so utterly brilliant.
PKM: Other than Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins, he was one of the few rock ‘n’ roll singers at the time that played his own lead. Nothing was improvised. All of those riffs were carefully worked out in advance.
Richard Thompson: I think his guitar playing was very workmanlike, what you might expect from Sun Studios in those days. We didn’t get those early records when they first came out. We got Carl Perkins and Elvis records. But it was not until much later, until we heard the other stuff on Sun and it was like a re-discovery in the late Sixties, early Seventies.
PKM: Orbison songs really were unique for their emotional impact. Your “Vincent Black Lightning 1952” is a very powerful and romantic song along the lines of great traditional British folk ballads like “Willy O’Winsbury” and “Renydine.”
“Vincent Black Lightning 1952: – Richard Thompson, in concert:
Richard Thompson: Those are some of the greatest songs I think you could ever sing. Extraordinary songs. The language in them are incredibly economical and vivid. Great imagery. A good place to go to learn about songwriting.
PKM: Having played those songs for many years in Fairport Convention must have helped in writing “Vincent Black Lightning.”
Richard Thompson: There’s a long tradition in British folk music of outlaw songs that goes all the way back to Robin Hood. Some of those ballads are very, very long, up to forty to fifty verses and are basically the exploits of an outcast, someone who has been cast out of society and survives on the fringes, as in Robin Hood’s case, by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. This is a common theme through the ages. “Vincent Black Lightning” is a song that’s built around an object, the motorcycle which is the mythological core of the song around which the characters revolve. James is kind of a likeable criminal as most criminals in songs are unless they are outright murderers like Tom Dooley. They are championed. They are characters with which one sympathizes.
PKM: Isn’t he rather desperate? He’s brought in for armed robbery and as you sing, he “killed many a man to get [his] Vincent machine.”
Richard Thompson: I suppose he’s a bankrobber, isn’t he? That’s not too good now that I think about it.” [Laughs] James is desperate, but in spite of that he still winds up as a sympathetic character. You don’t get a detailed description of everyone’s character in a song. You don’t get to interview the families of the people he killed.
PKM: He’s a romantic figure for sure. Bad man ballads often have a way of taking it to far, like Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” which had little to do with the real outlaw.
Richard Thompson: No, that’s not a very balanced view of Pretty Boy Floyd.
PKM: How did you start writing the song?
Richard Thompson: The opening line was probably the first line. The idea of the motorcycle was the beginning of the song. I was trying to find something British that was both romantic and mythological. In American popular music, it’s much easier to find mythology. In a lot of cases all you need is a place name. There’s a whole romance attached to names.
PKM: You mean like Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind?”
Richard Thompson: Like “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” or “Memphis in June.” In Britain, you don’t have that, not in the recorded music era. If you mention place names in a song in England, it’s often thought of as a novelty, or even laughable.
PKM: I think growing up in America, was just the opposite experience, listening to bands like Fairport Convention and Pentangle made England seemed exotic, the distance and differences in culture made it intriguing.
Richard Thompson: Well, singing about London of course will have more resonance than say, Scranton perhaps. But just saying “the West” or “the South,” is pretty cool and gives you half a song right there. Just mention Cadillac and you have half a title of a song – “Cadillac Dream…” With “Vincent Black Lightning” I was looking for an object that had the same resonance for a UK audience and the Vincent is a rare motorcycle. When I was a kid it was a much-desired object, very beautiful, black and sexy looking. I thought it would be an interesting theme to build a song around.
PKM: It’s like old an English folk song about the hero and his horse, or his steed, but in this case it was updated to a motorcycle. Speaking of romanticizing machines, your “MGB-GT,” [from Mirror Blue] was like the British equivalent to Brian Wilson’s “Little Deuce Coupe.”
Richard Thompson: In a sense that’s what I was trying to do, but I still get mail from British fans saying that I shouldn’t write about such a crap car.
PKM: That’s hilarious. That was a dream car for me growing up. I always wanted one. “MGB-GT” just fit into the lineage of cool car songs like T. Rex’s “Jeepster” and a dozen others. That was a fun song but “Vincent Black Lightning” packs such a deep emotional punch. Do you think it’s solely the romantic story of Red Molly and James, being young and in love and riding “fine motorbike” or is there anything particularly about the melody and the chords that creates this response?
Richard Thompson: I really don’t know. I’m the last person to comment on it as I’m too close to it.
You write songs and sometimes they click with the audience and you never know which one it’s going to be. If the audience hadn’t reacted in a positive way to “Vincent,” then I probably wouldn’t keep singing it. I wouldn’t believe in it.
PKM: Perhaps it’s the romance of Young James’ death. He’s having this glorious Blakean vision of angels in “leather and chrome” swooping down from heaven to carry him home while he’s handing her the keys, giving her her freedom, as he is leaving the body, the ultimate release or freedom.
Richard Thompson: I guess. I was just writing the song. I wasn’t thinking of any of that stuff, I assure you. When you write, it’s a semi-conscious exercise. I usually have kind of an idea of what I want to do at the start. Songwriting can surprise you. It’s usually good not to think about the theory behind a song. You’re basically trying to just pull the stuff out. Then you edit it a little bit. The whole process is instinctive, at least it is for me. If I like a song, I don’t always go into the reasons why. My instincts just tell me whether I should persevere with it.