I have a real fear of commitment when it comes to declaring my love for an artist. It’s born from bitter experience, I’ve been let down too many times, someone you think is a genius will then release an absolute stinker and then all your friends laugh at you. Take Rod Stewart as a classic case, fantastic artist in the early 70’s but at some point he recorded those American Songbook albums and that’s what half the population of Britain know him for, I cant I’m a Rod Stewart fan anymore (I keep a sneaking admiration of him though).
And there’s the fact that Clapton seems to have released a Christmas album !
And so, while I am happy to say how great an album is or a single or even a gig but unless they are dead or disbanded I cant really commit to support of an artist or band.
But there are a few notable exceptions and the most notable of those is Richard Thomson. In fact, I can’t deal with him in just one post, this is going to take a while. Think of this as my Ulysses
My initial impression was not good. Thompson first came to my attention when he was performing as a duo with his wife Linda. They seemed to get wheeled on as a support act as they were essentially two voices and an acoustic guitar and as such were of no more interest to me than Keith Christmas or Lesley Duncan or one of the legions of singer songwriters who would pop up at a moment’s notice to occupy the front of the stage for half an hour while the audience got ready for the main attraction.
Thompson wouldn’t go away though, I became aware he had been the brilliant electric guitarist in Fairport and also that a lot of people who I respected seemed to rate him, there was more to him than the acoustic troubadour apparently but it was the 70’s and apart from listening to John Peel I had no way of finding out more about his music.
The breakthrough came with the release of a compilation album Guitar/Vocal which received a rave review in the New Musical Express and this, uncharacteristically, was the catalyst for my friend Phil actually purchasing the record. Guitar/Vocal was essentially largely outtakes and live tracks but it showed the way forward into Thompson. Firstly, it proved there was more substance to the music he made with Linda than I had suspected, notably an acoustic version of ‘Dark and of the Street’ which could make you forget James Carr (relatively easy for me in 1975 as I had never heard of the great soul singer at this point). The two tracks that’s that really captured our imaginations though were ‘Calvary Cross’ and ‘Night Comes In’, two live tracks where Thompson let rip with his improvisational skills creating a guitar style that was unique being rock but also not American, he even had an accordion playing with him but even that couldn’t spoil it. Our eyes were open to new possibilities.
Thompson has started his musical career as a gawky north London teenager. Blessed with a mild speech impediment and an introverted nature, had he been born half a decade later he would have taken to his room to play video games and peruse online conspiracy theories for for the rest of his life. Luckily this wasn’t an option and he took up the guitar, pouring his life and soul into it. By the time he joined Fairport he was already one of the best guitarists around but as he didn’t smash up his instruments or play with his teeth not everyone noticed this. He was gaining in confidence though, occasionally he would look at the audience, very occasionally he would sing, and now he was writing songs, most notable of this Fairport tunes was ‘Meet on the Ledge’, it was about death. Also, of huge significance was his playing on ‘A Sailor’s Life’ which was the first full realisation of the Thompson guitar style. By now he had moved away from what he termed ‘a bad version of Buddy Guy’ to a style that was unique.
Thompson was bending notes that weren’t usually bent, he was picking modal scales that weren’t usually used in rock and he was starting to combine earlier influences such as James Burton with sounds he had picked up from listening to his father’s record collection notable Jazz and Scottish music. While on his only ever non-musical job making stained glass windows, he also listened to a lot of what was then the ‘Third’ Channel i.e. classical. As a result of this he was being influenced by composers such as Debussy. Suffice to say there was a lot going on musically in young Thompson’s head.
Having defined folk rock Thompson eventually left Fairport with enough confidence and songs to start a solo career. ‘Henry the Human Fly’ was a bit of disaster. I don’t know why but I’m a fan of first records, it’s usually where the artist hasn’t decided who they want to be and will often contain some of their quirkier stuff. Such was the case with Henry, it’s quite a folk sounding record with fiddles and accordions and a relative lack of electric guitar. It’s a dense muddy sounding record but I love it, most people didn’t though, it sold very few copies when it first came out.
Linda Peters was one of the singers on the record. Here previous boyfriend had been Nick Drake so she probably thought Thompson was laugh a minute. Their relationship developed during drunken sessions for the Bunch recordings and before you could say “I want to see the bright lights tonight” they were married.
And that’s it for tracking Thompson for now more next week (probably) but for anyone with more time than is healthy for them you can compare and contrast the guitar playing on these two tracks.