The 80’s were a pretty grim time for me musically. I had fallen out with the New Musical Express so I didn’t really know what was happening on the music scene anymore. Also, being unemployed for quite a while I didn’t have the money to purchase records without a fairly good reason to do so. Luckily my local library was willing to lend me an LP for 20p or so. I was tending to listen to jazz but one day came across ‘Hand of Kindness’ by Richard Thompson and decided it was worth the investment.
Post break up with Linda, Richard seemed back on form, reuniting with a bunch of old mates including the ever-faithful Simon Nichol. ‘Hand of Kindness’ was simply a very good record and introduced us to ‘Tear Stained Letter’ which was to remain in his set for ever and would provide him with a chance to use it as a platform for his guitar skills, piling layer upon layer of jaw dropping electric guitar licks with seemingly no limits to his imagination.
Gaining employment with the probation service I discovered a semi-secret enclave of Thompson fans, generally a couple of years older than me, they were happy to pass on tapes they had made for me and so ‘Across a Crowded Room’ and ‘Daring Adventures’ entered my consciousness. This was a period of classic Thompson songs electric and acoustic.
Daring adventures ushered in the Mitchell Froom years. According to a friend of mine who is more interested in these things, producer Froom is often cast as the villain seeking to widen Thompson’s sonic palette with ‘interesting’ keyboards and American session players. Froom’s production dominated the late 80’s and early 90’s. It felt like a process that Thompson had to go through but it also produced one of his best albums in ‘Rumour and Sigh’. This in turn contained one of his best loved songs ‘Vincent Black Lightning’ which, in my opinion, has become a bit of a millstone which I am sick of hearing but I am, as usual, very much in the minority.
The second time I saw Thompson live was sometime in the 80’s when his band contained self-contained act Clive Gregson and Christine Collister doing extra guitar and vocals. It was a fairly jolly affair high on songs and aimable stage patter. The next time I caught him he was at the height of his partnership with double bassist Danny Thompson. They had a lot in common, the same name, male pattern baldness, beards and music history. Slightly bizarrely they were also both Muslims. It was probably good for Thompson to have someone to share the load with for a while, they even made a joint record ‘Industry’. Although it was a good show (of course it was) I did feel he could benefit from having a band that would push him a bit rather than Thompson (D), ex Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks and muti instrumentalist (however much they paid this guy it wasn’t enough) Pete Zorn.
It’s easy to underestimate the sheer scope of Thompson’s writing, although he’s capable of writing a well-crafted song that the likes of Nancy Griffiths could co he can also go completely off piste with a song like ‘psycho street’ off ‘Rumour and Sigh’. More recently he has honed his ‘1000 years of popular music’. Emphasising that 1000 years means more than the last 50 he has re-enacted Elizabethan Madrigals, Music Hall tunes, Jazz, Rock and Pop. He’s worked with David Byrne from Talking Heads and Fred Frith from Henry Cow, in fact he’s collaborated with more people than I would care to list (it’s on Wikipedia- go see).
And, of course he’s continued to make his own records. I have to admit I have lost track of them but I will check out ‘Still’ which was produced by Jeff Tweedy from Wilko.
The 4th time I saw Richard Thompson was at a festival where he was playing an acoustic set which was to prompt his ‘Acoustic Classics’ ‘Acoustic Classics II’ and ‘Acoustic Rarities’ albums. I didn’t particularly want to see him. Thompson has always ben very candid about his ability to size up or down according to the economic climate. I had assumed that at this point he was making easy money for his retirement fund. The thing I had failed to fully take in was the man’s work ethic, for the next few days he was cropping up on radio and television constantly to promote his work, I caught him 3 times and I virtually never listen to the radio. Presumably this was the tip of his workload Iceberg and ,of course, all this time he was playing one night stands all over the place.
The gig was great of course (of course it was).
The absolutely amazing thing about the guy is not just his work rate but also his success rate. As I mentioned last week ‘First Light’ is a bit of a stinker and you could argue ‘Mirror Blue’ or ‘Amnesia’ might not be his greatest records but they’ve all got high spots. There are records by Dylan or Young that I would hate to listen to (again) but not so Thompson. There’s a lot of similarity with Neil Young, less so with Dylan as neither Young or Thompson really captured the Zeitgeist in the same way. Thompson has never really made the same mistakes as either which I attribute to his faith. Thompson has never wasted his talents with drink or drugs and has never really wasted years or his talent and surely that is because his Sufi faith is a bedrock of who he is.
So, Thompson is still working harder than a man of 69 should be, he doesn’t hang out a lot apparently, he stays in his tour bus plays the gig and moves on. It’s a strange life for anyone especially for someone who almost gave it all up in the 70’s because the music business was so ephemeral.
The last time I saw Thompson was at the Shrewsbury Festival this year. My fears of musical retirement had been unconfirmed, he now had a three-piece electric band who knew how to support and how to push. With Michael Jerome on drums his new band is closer to the Experience than his folk rock bands of the 80’s. To be honest there were quite a lot of walk outs, it was pretty ferocious stuff with plenty of guitar solos, the audience would probably have preferred his acoustic classics. On his latest recording 13 Rivers he seems to pushing his material further than ever ‘You Can’t Reach Me’ could be an early Jam song, it makes you wonder why he is playing folk festivals when this is rock material. But that’s the way it works, especially in Britain, don’t try getting out of your box.
Except Thompson has; angrier, noisier and more talented than ever. 46 years after his first solo record 13 Rivers could even be his best record.
Tell that to Dylan.