‘I want to see the Bright Lights Tonight’ was a respected record, just as respected as the latest release by Kevin Ayres or John Cale or any other artists who had a respectful following but not a huge amount of sales. It was followed up by ‘Hokey Pokey’. Probably a record that is fit for appraisal now but at the time it passed through out lives in a low key way, I’m sure the like of Bob Harris would have played the odd track or two. I even have a vague memory of the Richard and Linda playing the title track on one of the crappy pop programs that would appear like mushrooms overnight. In some respect Hokey Pokey was a more coherent record than the Thompson’s debut. Probably informed by the Edwardian themed sleeve the music toys with music hall sensibilities. In the 70’s music hall was still a memory for our grandparents. ‘The Good Old Days’ on BBC television drew massive ratings with a recreation of, well, the good old days and their recreation of the music theatre.
On Hokey Pokey there are a surprising number of comedy songs although naturally with Thompson there is a macabre twist such as the song about a young boy with a glass eye or the sexual innuendo of the title track. Such is the lure of the music hall is I find the mention of a Chevrolet car in ‘Georgie on a Spree’ a bit irritating. All in all though Hokey Pokey pointed towards the Thompsons possibly having some fun together.
‘Pour Down Like Silver’ poured cold water on what was a barely smouldering fire. The Thompson’s were down beat with a collection of skeletal songs.
The chronology is confused as some of the records took a while to be released so when they were realised, they didn’t necessarily reflect where the Thompsons were at at the time of release, if that makes sense. Sometime around the release of Hokey Pokey the couple had made a conversion to Islam. Apparently, Thompson had been hanging round with Mighty Baby, a rather good band who had transitioned from Tamla orientated material to being our own version of the Grateful Dead. Somewhere around the end of their career most of the band embraced the Sufi faith. Both the Thompsons followed and ‘Pour Down Like Silver’ could be considered their first Muslim record.
In this context the record makes perfect sense, the couple’s photos on the sleeve leave little doubt as to where they were coming from. Although Linda was soon to tire of keeping her head covered Richard is a Sufi Muslim to this day. You wouldn’t guess it from his lyrics now but on PDLS Thompson is working towards writing songs that are low in ego and high in spirituality. In the light of his faith the love songs become devotional songs. Lyrically things can get a bit sketchy ‘Beat the Retreat’ is almost hymnal there’s resignation and peace at the heart of the album.
That was almost it for Richard Thompson the musician. He dropped off the radar for a while as the couple lived in Muslim communes, one in Norfolk one in London. When he did emerge, Thompson was fairly dismissive about his songs, he was conflicted about the bright lights, perhaps his religion disapproved of show off guitar solos.
The fact remained was that like a lot of musicians he wasn’t that good at anything else. He was tempted back into session work and after a Julie Covington (due for a FIP post sometime) record he found himself with studio time and a pool of musicians so decided he may as well record another album. ‘First Light’ contained a few good songs including ‘Don’t Let A Thief Steal into Your Heart’ that was later covered by the Pointer Sisters but it is a mess. Instead of his old chums there are quite a few American musicians on hand and ‘First Light’ is pretty slick with loads of backing vocals and a mix that sounds like it was done by the drummer’s mum. At times Richard and Linda sound like they are fighting to be heard on their own record, Richard seems to emulating Mark Knopfler and the album’s opener ‘Restless Highway’ could be the most pointless thing he’s ever recorded. I bought the LP pretty soon after release , it was a good experience preparing me for disappointment in later life, thanks Richard.
At some point ‘Sunnyvista’ was released. I had lost interest by this point and only bought the record a few years later. It contains at least one classic ‘You’re going to need somebody’ and it seemed like the couple were at least being themselves again. The record was patchy though and it was now the late 70’s, not a good time for singer songwriters. ‘First Light’ and ‘Sunnyvista’ are lost albums, not on Spotify and barely on YouTube it’s not possible to hear ‘Layla’ (not that one!) which at one time was going to catapult the couple into the charts. It’s as if the late 70’s didn’t exist for Thompson.
They had certainly dropped off my radar. Apparently over this period Gerry Rafferty had been trying to make a record with them. It didn’t work out but they had some songs to work on and eventually those songs became ‘Shoot Out the Lights’. This might be the greatest Richard and Linda record if it had been timelier but for a while it looked like guitars might not survive the millennium. The future was keyboards (and possibly saxophones) not balding folkies and their wives.
‘Shoot out the Lights’ is great of course a dark brooding mistrustful record. There was a reason for this of course. Linda had been pregnant and ill and not fully participating in the record due to breathing problems which is why the album is a bit heavy on Richard vocals. In order to earn a few bob Thompson was off on a solo acoustic of America and fell in love with the promoter.
Returning to tell Linda the good news it was becoming apparent that ‘Shoot Out the Lights’ actually had the potential to be a popular record despite Richard and Linda Thompson, the act, not existing anymore. On the back of encouraging sales Linda insisted they undertook a short tour of America. To be fair she probably deserved a trip out but the subsequent tour has entered the history books for the wrong reasons. Gathering together a band of uptight Englishmen to back them the shows were apparently ‘edgy’ due to onstage tensions and Linda’s fondness for alcohol and valium.
It was a relief to get back to England where Linda threw away the valium and got on with her life although apparently unable to sing for psychological/physical reasons for several years. Richard and Linda Thompson, the act, were no longer an act.