Richard and Linda were married and all of a sudden, they were an act.
They hit the jackpot with their first album ‘I want to see the Bright Lights Tonight’ was a masterpiece. Even after 44 years it still sounds great. This may well be attributable to the fact that while his contemporaries were squeezing into satin trousers Thompson was scanning his phone book to find a couple of Krummhorn players (which he used on ‘We sing Hallelujah’). It’s hard to sound dated when you start from the C15th.
Somehow Thompson managed to combine something that might vaguely be termed ‘folk’ with a whole lot of other influences. It could have been a total mess but it isn’t, largely due to the honesty of the enterprise. Thompson had gathered together a couple of mates, Timi Donald on drums (I don’t think he hits a cymbal for the entire recording)and Pat Donaldson on Bass. They had been playing with John Cale and created a fairly dour folk-rock rhythm section, a British version of The Band’s Levon Helm and Rick Danko. There’s a bit of colour from John Kirkpatrick’s squeezeboxes and there’s dulcimers and, yes, crumhorns and even a brass band on the title track.
Lyrically Thompson is hopping across centuries, ‘We sing Hallelujah’ sounds medieval, ‘The Little Beggar Girl’ conjures up the streets of Hogarth and suddenly in ‘Has he got a Friend for Me’ there’s a mention of telephones (which plenty of us didn’t have in 1974). At no point does this seem contrived which may be due, at least in part, to Thompson’s overarching pessimism and lyrical darkness. For someone recently married there’s a pall of despair hanging over the record, from wanting to go out, to see the bright lights but knowing its not going to end well with ‘Down where the Drunkards Roll’ Out of 10 songs only two approach anything that might be described as optimistic. The mood plummets to the pits with ‘End of the Rainbow’ where Thompson tells his firstborn
‘There’s nothing at the end of the Rainbow
There’s nothing to grow up for anymore’
There are clues were here for anyone who wanted to look for them, Thompson makes Ian Curtis look like; well, someone who is really happy. Quite how much of this attitude was a song writing device and how much of it was a reflection of Thompson’s state of mind, it’s hard to tell, but if, like Nick Drake, he hadn’t survived the 70’s the lyrics on display here would have been just too poignant
‘This is your first day of sorrow’
‘If I was a butterfly, live for a day
I could be free just blowing away.
‘A man is like his father
Wishes he’d never been born
He longs for the time that the clock will chime
And he’s dead for evermore’
And that before we even get to ‘End of the Rainbow’
‘I want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ is very much a product of the 70’s, a lovely warm sparse sound of ‘proper’ instruments largely recorded live with minimal overdubs. Best of all it’s 37 minutes and 14 seconds long, just 10 songs, we can’t make records like this anymore.
Finally there’s the role of Linda. Bear in mind at this point there was no Richard Thompson as an act and wouldn’t be for the rest of the 70’s this was Richard and Linda Thompson. Quite how Linda felt about the lyrics we just don’t know, here she is cast as the weary hedonist on the title track, the lonely girl trapped at home on ‘has he got a friend for me’ (a kind of folky update of Janis Ian’s ‘at 17’) and the defeated exile in ‘withered and died’. The only time she perks up is the cynical little beggar in the titular song (‘I love taking money off a snob like you ‘).
There’s a harshness but also a purity to Linda’s voice, if she was to appear on the X factor she would probably be described as ‘a bit pitchy’ but Linda herself has reported something along the lines of ‘I know I’m not the greatest singer in the world but when I sing, I’m not kidding’
And she’s right.
Despite all the above I don’t find ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ particularly depressing but then I have been known to laugh out loud at Leonard Cohen songs. What does amaze me is the fact that it’s not regarded as on a par with albums such as ‘Astral Weeks’ or ‘Blood on the Tracks’ or ‘Blue’ or ‘After the Goldrush’
So, here’s the final track a short treatise on fame and idolatry, Linda’s hard as crystal voice, Richard’s guitar and even a bit of Satie.
‘I’ll be your friend until you use me,
And then be sure I wont be there’