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Richard Thompson

+ {Richard & Linda Thompson} + {French Frith Kaiser Thompson}

A founder member of FAIRPORT CONVENTION from 1967 (until his departure early in 1971), RICHARD THOMPSON was an important catalyst in the translation of English folk music into a rock format. He contributed many of FAIRPORTs finest songs on the group’s earliest studio LPs: `Fairport Convention’ (1968), `What We Did On Our Holidays’ (1969), `Unhalfbricking’ (1969), `Liege & Lief’ (1969) and `Full House’ (1970). As a subsequent solo artist (including dual work with wife, Linda), THOMPSON became an accomplished guitarist as he wavered between seminal artist and cult legend in equal measure. In his time RT has influenced many guitarists, including Americans: Frank Black (of PIXIES) and Bob Mould (of HUSKER DU), and has come to be regarded as one of England’s greatest songwriting guitarists.
Born 3rd April, 1949, Notting Hill, London, he was partly raised by his Scottish father, an amateur guitarist whose music collection included jazz and traditional Celtic music; Richard was to play guitar in school band Emil And The Detectives, alongside future STRANGLERS frontman HUGH CORNWELL. Aged only 18, THOMPSON formed FAIRPORT CONVENTION along with ASHLEY HUTCHINGS and SIMON NICOL; IAIN MATTHEWS and SANDY DENNY would both be part of the folk group during their heyday. With THOMPSON’s untimely departure early ‘71, he sessioned for ex-FAIRPORT friends DENNY and MATTHEWS; the bearded guitarist finally issuing his debut album, HENRY THE HUMAN FLY (1972) {*7}. Featuring among others, DENNY, HUTCHINGS (both from R&R covers offshoot, The Bunch), ANDY ROBERTS, JOHN KIRKPATRICK, BARRY DRANSFIELD, Pat Donaldson and wife to be, LINDA Peters/THOMPSON on the guest list, the set was initially lambasted by music rags, although some would eat their words through time. In a break from trad-folk of the FAIRPORTs, THOMPSON treated the listener to a dozen originals, premier cues including `Roll Over Vaughn Williams’, `The Angels Took My Racehorse Away’, `The New St. George’ and `The Poor Ditching Boy’.
The following year, RT teamed up artistically with Glasgow-raised wife Linda, the couple becoming RICHARD & LINDA THOMPSON. Their first of several albums together, I WANT TO SEE THE BRIGHT LIGHTS TONIGHT (1974) {*10}, was acclaimed by many, and by rights should have provided them with a hit single via the glorious title track. A masterstroke by both parties concerned, Linda’s voice could match that of one-time FAIRPORT accomplice DENNY (or LAL WATERSON), while THOMPSON’s songs possessed autumnal passion and drama; check out `Down Where The Drunkards Roll’, `The End Of The Rainbow’, `Withered And Died’, `The Great Valerio’, `The Calvary Cross’, `When I Get To The Border’, and of course the aforementioned title track.
During the recording of their next album, HOKEY POKEY (1975) {*8}, the couple converted to Sufism, even initiating their own Sufi Muslim community. From the melancholic `I’ll Regret It All In The Morning’, `The Sun Never Shines On The Poor’ and `A Heart Needs A Home’, to the sprightly `Smiffy’s Glass Eye’ and the buoyant title track (plus MIKE WATERSON’s `Mole In A Hole’), this LP was quality, although not as good as its predecessor. Incidentally, the CD re-issue includes cover versions of BUDDY HOLLY’s `Wishing’, MERLE HAGGARD’s `I’m Turning Off A Memory’ and Jack Clements’ `It’ll Be Me’.
POUR DOWN LIKE SILVER (1975) {*7} followed not long afterwards, a fine, downbeat effort by the couple that depicted Richard in Muslim apparel on the front sleeve. There were several compelling songs on board here, none better than `For Shame Of Doing Wrong’, the 8-minute `Night Comes In’ and the equally lengthy and emotional medley `Dimming Of The Day – Dargai’. Folkies NIC JONES (violin), JOHN KIRKPATRICK as always (accordion) and ALY BAIN (fiddle), gave the set a meditative feel. An odds ’n’ ends solo LP, (guitar, vocal) (1976) {*7}, was a double collection of unreleased and rare material from 1967-1976, comprised mainly of half a dozen FAIRPORT tunes, solo stuff including a reading of Moman & Penn’s `The Dark End Of The Street’ and traditional instrumental `Flee As A Bird’.
Back after a self-imposed, 3-year religious sabbatical and on Chrysalis Records, FIRST LIGHT (1978) {*6}, was the fourth RICHARD & LINDA THOMPSON album. Obviously spiritual and amiable, the set was attempt to ease into the world of country-rock, a melodious record that housed just above-average tracks such as `Pavanne’, `Don’t Let A Thief Steal Into Your Heart’ and `Strange Affair’ (the latter penned with MARTIN SIMPSON and JUNE TABOR).
RICHARD & LINDA THOMPSON’S SUNNYVISTA (1978) {*6} – to give it its full title, was a more upbeat record; gone were L.A. session players Willie Weeks and Andy Newmark, in came the returning rhythm section of Pat Donaldson and Tim Donald (plus Rabbut Bundrick on keys); the pairing of DAVE PEGG and Dave Mattacks was also on hand. The FAIRPORT/ALBION BAND connection was also boosted by the presence of KATE & ANNA McGARRIGLE, GERRY RAFFERTY, MARC ELLINGTON and Glenn Tilbrook (SQUEEZE). Romantic and warm at times, the album had a healthy dose of decent tracks, including `Civilisation’ (a flop 45), `Traces Of My Love’ and `Lonely Hearts’, the latter scribed with Irish folk-rock outfit HORSLIPS.
Richard’s next outing was a solo LP, STRICT TEMPO! (1981) {*5}, an instrumental array of traditional Celtic-folk (jigs, reels and polkas), multi-tracked and performed by the man himself on guitars (acoustic and electric), mandolins, basses, dulcimers, et al. Percussionist Mattacks was behind him on such novelties as `Scott Skinner Medley’, `Banish Misfortune’ and `Will Ye No Cam Back Again’ (plus a cover of Duke Ellington’s `Rockin’ In Rhythm’ and one original, `The Knife Edge’) – a tad self-indulgent for a man with so much talent.
With the THOMPSONs’ marriage in free-fall, they delivered their finale set before their divorce, SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS (1982) {*9}, a brittle and fragile record highlighted by the bittersweet tension on `Don’t Renege On Our Love’, `Walking On A Wire’, `Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?’ and the title track; the enduring `Wall Of Death’ was their appropriately-titled final track.
Picking up the pieces, RICHARD THOMPSON went solo again the following year (Linda didn’t start until ’85), releasing HAND OF KINDNESS {*7} for independent Hannibal Records, a set which included much-needed support from FAIRPORTs Nicol, Pegg and Mattacks; plus Pete Thomas and Pete Zorn (sax), KIRKPATRICK, BAIN and CLIVE GREGSON. Understandably bitter and lovelorn, with an autobiographical bias, the set features the penitent `How I Wanted To’, `Poisoned Heart And A Twisted Memory’, `Tear Stained Letter’ and the title track; the Cajun-injected `Two Left Feet’ gives the man some needed escape.
Recorded live/solo in New York, 1982 (as it states on the tin), SMALL TOWN ROMANCE (1984) {*7}, was a warts ’n’ all set, complete with a few minor coughs here and there, enough to annoy the guitarist, who convinced Hannibal to stop a second pressing run. `Time To Ring Some Changes’ opened the show, while others stemmed from THOMPSON’s extensive back catalogue, the Linda collaborations (including `…Bright Lights Tonight’) and FAIRPORT fare (i.e. `Genesis Hall’ and on CD re-issue, `Meet On The Ledge’) plus a cover of HANK WILLIAMS’ `Honky-Tonk Blues’.
Signing to Polydor Records and re-enlisting the services of Joe Boyd as producer (who’d worked on R&L’s final LP), THOMPSON’s next album, ACROSS A CROWDED ROOM (1985) {*6}, was another in the love-gone-awry mould. Pick of the bunch here were `Fire In The Engine Room’, `Walking Through A Wasted Land’, `Ghosts In The Wind’ and `When The Spell Is Broken’, all seeing a slight shift in texture, somewhat akin to a rootsy DIRE STRAITS album rather than folk-rock.
Characterised by Mitchel Froom’s pop-rock production work and the plethora of top session players (notably bassist Jerry Scheff, drummer Mickey Curry and a handful with sticksman Jim Keltner), DARING ADVENTURES (1986) {*6} comprised a dozen THOMPSON originals, best of the bunch being the uptempo `Valerie’, the heart-rending `Al Bowlly’s In Heaven’ and the brooding `Lover’s Lane’; fresh folk duo CLIVE GREGSON & CHRISTINE COLLISTER were on hand to provide some harmony.
1987 saw Richard take on outside collaborative work by way of BBC-TV soundtrack, `The Marksman’ (with Peter Filleul), and as part of an avant-garde supergroup, (John) French, (Fred) Frith, (Henry) Kaiser, (Richard) Thompson, the former three arriving via CAPTAIN BEEFHEART, HENRY COW and Invite The Spirit respectively, while their `Live, Love, Larf & Loaf’ set featured a clutch of THOMPSON contributions (`Killerman Gold Posse’, `Drowned Dog Black Night’, `A Blind Step Away’ and `Tir-Nan-Darag’ – latter with French). The same ensemble delivered a second and final instalment, `Invisible Means’, at the start of the next decade (four RT songs here, `Peppermint Rock’, `March Of The Cosmetic Surgeons’, `Begging Bowl’, `Killing Jar’, and Scottish trad cut `Loch Lomond’!).
Finally achieving a more widespread recognition, THOMPSON moved to Capitol Records and made significant inroads with AMNESIA (1988) {*7}, another record with Froom at the helm, while session people include the aforementioned Keltner, Curry, Scheff and KIRKPATRICK, plus Tony Levin, Phillip Pickett and DANNY THOMPSON. Angst-ridden and at times intense, THOMPSON displays fearsome guitar licks on `Gypsy Love Songs’, `Jerusalem On The Jukebox’ and the psychotic `Don’t Tempt Me’, but it was `Waltzing’s For Dreamers’ that showed his prowess as a folk-rock songwriter.
THOMPSON gained a belated UK Top 40 solo success with his next set, RUMOUR AND SIGH (1991) {*8}, a wonderfully eclectic set running the gamut of his influences, highlighted by the punchy and COSTELLO-like `Read About Love’ plus the acerbic and aggressive `I Feel So Good’ (ditto `Psycho Street’). There was wit and irony through `1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ and `Don’t Sit On My Jimmy Shands’ (rhyming slang for “hands”), the latter’s accordion polka performance finding his earliest influences resting proudly on his shoulders.
THOMPSON’s debut movie soundtrack, an Australian film starring Bryan Brown, SWEET TALKER (1992) {*5} – with the regular and keyboard-generated orchestrations of the title theme and `The Dune Ship’ – is a more conventional one. What it lacks in the cohesion of a song cycle, it makes up for in sheer diversity, and at least two tracks stand confidently among the most accomplished of his solo career: BIG COUNTRY-meets-MIKE OLDFIELD opener `Put Your Trust In Me’ is dyed-in-the-beard THOMPSON, stout-hearted, generous to a fault, erecting a granite-hewn bridge and chorus around that trademark trebly guitar, swapping the guitar for a mandolin on the Celto-bluegrass reprise, `Harry’s Theme’. `Persuasion’ makes sublime use of that same guitar sound, straying into “Local Hero” territory but never losing its sense of self on what has to rank as one of THOMPSON’s most instantly evocative instrumentals, a track that Tim Finn was so taken with that he dreamt up lyrics to it. With the likes of NICOL, Mattacks and KIRKPATRICK on board, there’s also a fair amount of traditional-minded material, while the part-symphonic `Conviction’ finds the man playing acoustic guitar and hammered dulcimer as FRAN BYRNE keeps the tempo on bodhran.
1994 saw the release of MIRROR BLUE {*6}, another critically acclaimed set produced by Froom, including highlights such as `Mingus Eyes’, `For The Sake Of Mary’ and `The Way That It Shows’. Drummer Pete Thomas was again on hand, adding much-needed vigour and oomph on earthy tracks like the comical `I Can’t Wake Up To Save My Life’, the narrative `Beeswing’ and rock’n’roller `Shane And Dixie’.
THOMPSON’s next release, YOU? ME? US? (1996) {*5}, was served up as one disc electric (“Voltage Enhanced”), one disc acoustic (“Nude”), a slightly average affair that nevertheless scraped into the American Top 100 (Top 40 in Britain). The set also introduced his son, Teddy, to the proceedings and offered up further classic tracks in the shape of `Cold Kisses’ and `Woods Of Darney’, while `Razor Dance’ and `Hide It Away’ were worth further examination.
Accredited with jazz-folk double-bassist DANNY THOMPSON (ex-PENTANGLE and no relation), the pair delivered INDUSTRY (1997) {*5}, a concept piece concentrating on the industrial age from the 18th century to modern-day times. Backed by Mattacks and COLLISTER from Richard’s side, and Danny’s uncles Harry and Albert Thompson on trombones performing alongside. Whatever, the set comprised half a dozen RT songs (check out the Batman-like `Big Chimney’) side by side with five DT indstrumentals (including `Sweetheart On The Barricade’).
His home city of London was the lyrical core of Richard’s next work, MOCK TUDOR (1999) {*7}. His witty tales of the capital’s downside, `Walking The Long Miles Home’, `Cooksferry Queen’ and `Sights And Sounds Of London Town’, could’ve been written years ago (although weren’t!), but somehow Richard gives them a modern-day sheen that his contemporaries can only dream of.
After finally being dropped by Capitol, THOMPSON took the opportunity of going back to basics on THE OLD KIT BAG (2003) {*7}, casting an even more economical hand over the writing, recording and production than on its predecessor. With only DANNY THOMPSON, drummer Michael Jerome and singer Judith Owen working alongside him and producer John Chelew in the studio, the resulting album was simultaneously more intimate and more self-possessed. Lyrically, RICHARD THOMPSON was also at the top of his game, taking an unflinching look at the more extreme elements of his faith on `Outside Of The Inside’, alongside `Gethsemane’, `A Love You Can’t Survive’ and `I’ll Tag Along’.
2005 was a relatively busy year for the guitarist, with a soundtrack to Werner Herzog’s award-winning documentary, GRIZZLY MAN, and an all-acoustic solo album, FRONT PARLOUR BALLADS {*7}, released within months of each other. The latter was THOMPSON’s first set of wholly acoustic material since the traditional STRICT TEMPO!, roundly praised as among the finest of his long solo career. Kicking off with the wry celebrity yarn of `Let It Blow’, the record was as humane as it was acerbic, resolutely English in its conception and execution despite being recorded in the man’s L.A. garage. THOMPSON maintained his main inspiration was classical, yet in penetrating character studies like `A Solitary Life’ the fog-bound glower of vintage folk was as pervasive as it was on the more obviously trad-influenced `Row, Boys, Row’ and `Old Thames Side’.
For the soundtrack to GRIZZLY MAN {*6}, THOMPSON enlisted ubiquitous avant-gardists Henry Kaiser and JIM O’ROURKE and spent two days improvising over footage in Berkeley’s legendary Fantasy Studios. The reputation of said musicians might have predicted a departure out of left field in the mould of late-80s ensemble French / Frith / Kaiser / Thompson, but GRIZZLY MAN is composed and performed largely within a modal folk-blues idiom, faithfully evoking the endless horizons of an Alaskan summer. Opener `Tim & The Bears’ and the main title suggest a more abstract “Local Hero”, ironic given that Treadwell was anything but. It’s an initial impression compounded by the inclusion of `Glencoe’, a very Scottish lament last heard as part of a medley on THOMPSON’s aforementioned album, STRICT TEMPO! It’s only when Danielle DeGrutolla’s cello makes its lugubrious entrance on `Parents’ that the gravity of Herzog’s film begins to make itself felt. She soundtracks the movie’s queasy finale with frenzied, atonal abrasions, and the players generate their own existential symphony on `Big Racket’.
Flitting labels from Cooking Vinyl to Proper Records, SWEET WARRIOR (2007) {*7} continued his run of charting albums, another value-for-money record running to more than an hour. Self-produced (augmented by Simon Tassano), the set also features old mucker DANNY THOMPSON, sharing studio time with bassist Taras Prodaniuk, guitarist Michael Hays and drummer Michael Jerome. The rousing themes of war and politics addressed `Dad’s Gonna Kill Me’ and `Guns Are The Tongues’, are compelling as ever, although love and romance were always on hand where THOMPSON was concerned, as `Needle And Thread’ and `Francesca’. Turning sixty in 2009 has seen something of a downturn in THOMPSON’s recording output, but by the following year, he was back in the UK Top 20 (US Top 100) with concert set, DREAM ATTIC (2010) {*7}.
Six years on from his previous acoustic studio album, the applicably-titled Buddy Miller-produced ELECTRIC (2013) {*7} struck the right notes for the introspective THOMPSON. Garnering plaudits as usual from the British buying “folk” (while it soared into the Top 20), RT breathes fresh life into roots music as he spins out contrasting vibes between the swirling `Stony Ground’ and `Sally B’, to the lilting `Salford Sunday’ and `The Snow Goose’.
As said in the basic title, ACOUSTIC CLASSICS (2014) {*6} was the singer-songwriter in retro-reflective, unplugged mode. You name it, it’s on board here; a handful (including `I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’, `Down Where The Drunkards Roll’) were given fresh treatments since his halcyon days with former wife Linda, whom he cameo’d for on her most recent of sets, `Won’t Be Long Now’.
Choosing again to let someone else do the subtle studio graft, in this case JEFF TWEEDY, 2015’s STILL {*7} married a hybrid of finger-picking folk-rock and blues, wound tightly with rhythm section Taras Prodaniuk and Michael Jerome on the likes of `Patty Don’t You Put Me Down’ and the head-nodding `All Buttoned Up’. On either end of the rock spectrum, the trad-like `Josephine’ contrasts night-and-day with THOMPSON’s homage through the styles of LES PAUL, DJANGO REINHARDT, HANK MARVIN, CHUCK BERRY et al on the concluding cut, `Guitar Heroes’.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-GRD/LCS // rev-up MCS Jul2012-Jun2015

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