Salute to Richard Thompson

Richard-Thompson1.jpgThe upcoming issue of Newsweek spotlights singer/songwriter/blazing guitarist Richard Thompson, promoting his five-disk box set, The Life and Music of Richard Thompson. Writer Malcolm Jones makes a bold claim for Thompson:

Nothing here—and the song list runs to about 80 songs—sounds dated. There is no disco period to live down, no glam rock to wince at, no electronica era to omit. Instead, the material has a consistency of intent and execution that puts it totally at odds with the faddish history of most other pop music. One has to look to the likes of Dylan to find someone who has written this many good songs over the same length of time.

Someone comparable to Bob Dylan you’d think might be as famous as Bob Dylan. But if you’re unfamiliar with Thompson, that’s not surprising. I don’t think his music was ever played on commercial radio — possibly excepting when he was a member of Fairport Convention in the late 60s, when pretty much anything got played on FM rock stations.  Otherwise, you would have had to read about him.

I have to admit, what originally got me interested in Thompson was gossip.  For several years in the 70s, Thompson was teamed with his wife, Linda, a gorgeous singer. Their final album together, Shoot Out the Lights, coincided with their breakup. 

The press glommed onto the juicy discomfort of their plight.  Here they were, already split, touring in support of an album of songs documenting the betrayals, paranoia and resentment they were both experiencing at that moment.  Sure, I’ll check that out. The songs were amazing, with titles like “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed,” “Don’t Renege on Our Love,” and the utterly beautiful, painful, “Walking on a Wire.”

An even greater revelation was Thompson’s guitar-work. His electric guitar solos are as piercing as Neil Young’s — except with much more technique (sorry, Neil.) His acoustic playing is not only virtuoso-level, it demonstrates a thorough knowledge of English and American folk styles.  His melodies are rooted in the modal sounds of folk music, even when the backing sound is conventional rock (with perhaps a button accordion mixed in.)  

His lyrics alternate from sorrowful to scornful, and this is probably why his gifts haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve. Thompson has many uptempo songs, but not upbeat. His outlook is a bit on the bleak side, though never lacking compassion. 

One of my favorite Thompson songs is “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven,” in which, over a dirge-like beat, a disabled beggar recalls his glory days during World War Two.

We were heroes them, and the girls were all pretty
And a uniform was a lucky charm
Bought you the key to the city
We used to dance the whole night through
While Al Bowlly sang, ‘The Very Thought of You’
Al Bowlly’s in Heaven, and I’m in limbo now

I gave my youth to King and country
But what’s my country done for me
But sentenced me to misery
I traded my helmet and my parachute
For a pair of crutches and a de-mob suit
Al Bowlly’s in Heaven, and I’m in limbo now

Hard Times, hard hard times
Hostels and missions and dosser’s soup lines
Can’t close me eyes on a bench or a bed
For the sound of some battle raging in my head

Old friends, You lose so many
You get run around all over town
The wear and the tear of it just drag you down
St. Mungo’s with its dirty old sheets
Beats standing all day down on Scarborough Street
Al Bowlly’s in Heaven, and I’m in limbo now

Can’t stay here, got to foot slog
Once in a blue moon, you might find a job
Sleep in the rain, sleep in the snow
When the beds are all taken, you’ve got nowehere to go

I can see me now, back there on the dance-floor
With a blond on me arm, red head to spare
spit on me shoes and shine in me hair
And there’s Al Bowlly, up on the stand
That was a voice, and that was a band
Al Bowlly’s in Heaven, and I’m in limbo now

There are few more eloquent anti-war songs. In fact, I don’t think it’s an anti-war song so much as a song about war’s tragedy. I love the specificity of the character’s memories: Al Bowlly was a beloved British pop singer of the times; a de-mob suit was the outfit British soldiers were given when they re-entered civilian life.

Thompson’s written dozens of songs as good as “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven,” and has recorded guitar solos every bit as thrilling as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page or U2’s the Edge.  He’s been successful enough to keep making records and touring into his mid-50s. So this isn’t a sad story about a neglected artist. It’s a sad story about the millions of people whose lives would be enriched by hearing Richard Thompson’s music, but who haven’t heard of him.

If you’re into iTunes, Yahoo! Music or Rhapsody, here are some additional songs (some with Linda Thompson) you might want to download if you can:

1952 Vincent Black Lightening; Beeswing; When the Spell is Broken; Walking on a Wire; Shoot Out the Lights; Tear Stained Letter; How Will I Ever Be Simple Again; Turning of the Tide; Waltzing’s for Dreamers; I Misunderstood; I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight; For Shame of Doing Wrong; Down Where the Drunkards Roll; Dimming of the Day; She Twists the Knife Again…. and I’d better stop there.

Harder to find is a 2003 live disk called, 1000 Years of Popular Music. Somehow Thompson takes us from “Sumer is Icumen in,” through “Shenandoah,” to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me,” then songs by the Who, the Beatles, ABBA, Prince and Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did it Again.” Yep. In his hands, it’s a pretty good song.

4 thoughts on “Salute to Richard Thompson

  1. Glad to see someone – anyone – writing about Richard Thompson. Don’t know if you’ve kept up with Linda’s career, but she’s recording again and sounds great. One perfect song of her’s – “No Telling” – will surely bring a tear.

  2. Yes, “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven” is a great one, but there are plenty of very good anti-war songs – yes, let’s not shy from so designating this category, it’s what they are, and I think charter members Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Buffy St. Marie would agree. Personally, I think only Eric Bogle’s unbearably poignant “And the Band Played ‘Waltzing Matilda'” comes close in pathos. Check out the lyrics and backstory, here:
    And for a bang-up cover version of an aces Richard Thompson tune, hunt down a copy of Julie Covington’s Phil Spectoresque production of “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.” One of the best hit singles that never was…

  3. 3. Also, check out *Beat the Retreat*, a superb compilation of Richard Thompson covers by the ecletic likes of Maddy Prior, Martin Carthy, Beausoleil, REM, Bonnie Raitt . . .

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