Friday, August 19, 2005

Rock’s best kept secret
Why Richard Thompson is a musician's musician

"Personally, being somewhat envious of Richard's songwriting and guitar playing, it's somewhat satisfying he's not achieved household-name status. It serves him right for being so good." This is David Byrne (of Talking Heads) typically understating his case.

He's not alone. R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Robert Plant, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Los Lobos, Dinosaur Jr. and Elvis Costello are just a few who place Richard Thompson somewhere near the top in popular music. As a guitar-player, both electric and acoustic, many take his name in the same breath as Hendrix's or Clapton's. As a songwriter, it is not hyperbolic to bracket him with Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young and The Beatles. The best musicians in the world, his peers, acknowledge his brilliance despite his relative commercial obscurity.

Apparently, it's not easy to get his music even in America, forget India. Still, sometime in 1995 in Mumbai, I was lucky enough to come across Beat The Retreat - a Richard Thompson tribute album. It had contributions from many of the artists mentioned above (all of whom sell more albums than Thompson does) - which was probably why the album was released in India in the first place. What was surprising about the album was not just its variety (good tribute albums invariably have this) but a peculiar common sensibility that seemed to bind the songs together, despite being performed by very diverse artists. This sensibility was palpable. R.E.M's superb version of "Wall of Death" had a strange sadness to it, despite R.E.M.'s characteristic catchy jangle. David Byrne's "Just The Motion" too sounded melancholy despite being quirkily infectious (like Talking Heads' music). "When The Spell Is Broken" was quintessential Bonnie Raitt, yet somehow related to the track by Los Lobos. There seemed a brilliant songwriter at work here, and I had to hear the original songs. So I spent a good part of my yearly bonus on his 3 CD box set that had previously been released in Britain. It turned out to be a superb investment. Watching The Dark (1993) showcased his awesome talent, throughout his 25-year-old career. His electric guitar work was totally distinctive - as recognizable as a human voice. Sometimes lilting and melodic, often staccato and crisp, always urgent…his voltage enhanced guitar sound was also unique for the sense of approaching danger it seemed to warn against. His acoustic work was breathtaking too - technically perfect yet amazingly innovative. And this virtuoso guitar-playing never came in the way of the songs, but added to their power which was very considerable to begin with. This box set, which had several of his great songs, affecting live performances and even some previously unreleased material, put me on a Richard Thompson trip I'm still on. Gradually, one has been able to source out a lot of his albums and through the internet understand their contexts.

Richard Thompson - the son of a policeman, was brought up in the suburbs of London. For a schoolboy who learned to play guitar through impromptu lessons from his older sister's boyfriends ("luckily she took hours to get ready for dates"), he made very rapid progress. By 17 he'd left school and joined a band where he was several years younger than anyone else. This band, Fairport Convention, became one of the most important bands of the sixties. They were the only British band that didn't look westwards for their musical inspiration. Instead they delved into their own heritage and culture and fused English folk to electric rock. Their first two albums were eclectic and the band were yet to find their sound. Yet, they were highly engaging and masterful in their grasping of different folk styles. Even the several Dylan and Joni Mitchell covers they did sounded very different. By their 3rd album - the brilliant Unhalfbricking (1969), this unpredictability had become their hallmark. The band's only hit, in fact, came from this album - a Dylan cover sung in French! The band was quickly garnering a cult audience when tragedy struck. Late one night, while returning to London from a show, their van overturned and their drummer Martin Lamble died. Deep in shock, the band broke up. But within weeks, they'd figured out the need to keep going and were galvanised into action when they heard an album called Music From Big Pink by The Band. Across the Atlantic, this Canadian band was delving into their North American traditions to create their brand of rock. Lamble was replaced, experienced English folk fiddler Dave Swarbick joined the band full-time and the explorations began in earnest again. The result was the album Liege And Lief (1969), which would become Fairport's most successful album. The material was now more focussed than before - English folk music, electrified, as it were. Thompson's guitar-work apart, it was his co-songwriting with Swarbick that stood out in this and the next album Full House (1970). Both albums are considered classics to this day.

However, the band's innovative forays were leading it into contradictory, even opposing directions that kept resulting in line-up changes. Thompson too, began to feel that he wasn't being able to express himself fully as he always had to write songs with the band in mind. In 1971, he left Fairport Convention to see what he could do on his own. But financial constraints forced him to guest on other people's recordings for a while. On one such assignment he met a singer called Linda Peters. They were drawn to each other and soon married.

After Richard's solo album Henry The Human Fly (1972), which was remarkable for its use of the English brass band sound, the couple became a musical duo. They released 7 albums as "Richard & Linda Thompson" between 1974 and 1982. At least 3 of them were exquisite, 1 was an all-time classic and the others had some excellent material too. Linda's ethereal voice offset Richard's ominous pessimism beautifully. Richard wrote all the songs and merged Celtic traditions to rock formats immaculately, perfecting what he'd already begun with Fairport Convention. Their first 2 albums - I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Hokey Pokey (both 1974) displayed their awesome range of moods, from playfully happy to reflectively sad. Some of the sparse melancholic songs he wrote for her to sing were just breathtaking. Songs like "Withered And Died" and "Dimming Of The Day" evoked great beauty through the sadness, without ever being sentimental or mawkish.

Then, the Thompsons got interested in Sufism and soon embraced the faith. To Richard, Islam was just a way of life, not something he converted to. It found expression on their 3rd album - the outstanding Pour Down like Silver (1975) where he wrote ambiguous love songs and like he'd always done - gave vent to his fascination for traditional forms of music, in this case by using Arabic and middle-eastern melodies and instrumentations. The songs were still recognizably his, just the context had changed a bit. Both Richard and Linda then involved themselves more closely with the creation of a Sufi community. They performed with Sufi bands and seemed to be moving away from their original sensibilities. Their album First Light (1978), despite some interesting moments had heavy religious themes that somehow diluted its overall power.

But in 1979, they released Sunnyvista, where Richard stopped writing about Islam altogether (though he continued being a Muslim). His brand of quirky rockers suggested that he was getting back to old territories. An uneven album overall, at least the recognisable Richard Thompson was peeking out again. Its follow-up had them working with British pop star Gerry Rafferty (of "Baker Street" fame) as producer. But Richard wasn't happy with the finished product as he found it "too smooth". He asked Fairport producer Joe Boyd to have a re-look. One of the things Boyd did was to reduce Linda's pure, fragile vocals and increase Richard's overall sonic bearing (guitar and vocals). A peculiar creative tension was palpable as Richard's menacing, edgy tone contrasted with the familiarly melancholic bits. The truth was that their marriage was very rapidly disintegrating, and this was to be, unwittingly perhaps, the musical document of its breakdown. The album was Shoot Out The Lights (1982). Every song was stirringly emotional and impassioned, the musicianship immaculate (and exciting), the mood grim (yet strangely inspiring). The Thompsons split up after soon after this, ending their partnership with a huge bang. The album was a true masterpiece; later Rolling Stone even placed it at #9 in a list of "100 Best Albums of The Eighties".

When Richard had left Fairport Convention, no-one had expected his songwriting skills to develop so dramatically. When he split up with Linda, no-one could have known that he'd barely hit his stride. However, his immediate solo efforts were uneven, despite several sparks of brilliance. Then, with Daring Adventures (1986) he touched new heights. The songs were tuneful and superbly crafted, his voice more assured than ever before. Interestingly, at this juncture, he changed record labels by switching to Capitol, who seemed committed to increasing his much-deserved popularity. He did an unintentional trilogy of albums thereafter - each one more jaw-droppingly beautiful than the other - Amnesia (1988), Rumour And Sigh (1991) and Mirror Blue (1994). Their commonality was in the use of LA-based rhythm sections within which Thompson experimented with texture and technique. Amnesia showcased the explosive glory of his electric guitar through some scorching solos and his gentler, ruminative side with superlative songs like "Waltzing's For Dreamers" - touchingly romantic with more than a tinge of regret. And he was just warming up with this album.

"Richard Thompson can say more in one line than I can in a whole song." This is John Mellancamp, possibly referring to Thompson's nineties work. Indeed, with Rumour And Sigh, he touched yet another peak. His songwriting was at an all-time high - refined, literate, pithy and entertaining. The arrangements here were accessible, with a slicker, commercial angle perhaps (relatively speaking). But what a magical album it was - songs about a young boy learning about the birds and the bees, a social misfit out to create trouble, misunderstandings, betrayal in love and so on… dark, humourous, angry, wistful, playful… covering the entire gamut of moods. "Keep Your Distance" was the masterpiece - a heartfelt, even catchy song of doomed love (perhaps about his marriage to Linda), but with an emotional resonance only the finest art can achieve. Mirror Blue, too, lived up to the dizzy standards Thompson had set for himself. The album was perfect in every way, from the songwriting to the execution, even though it didn't break new ground.

With You? Me? Us? (1996) - Thompson's first studio double album, he changed his format. Half of it was performed electrically, with a band; the other half was acoustic - almost entirely solo. The songwriting and musicianship were still totally brilliant - demonstrating both sides of his genius. His amazing consistency in the nineties culminated with Mock Tudor (1999) - a concept album with songs about living in suburban London. Despite not being as uniformly excellent as his other nineties albums, it had enough moments of sheer brilliance to warrant a "highly recommended" review.

"No review of a Richard Thompson album is complete without a plea for a larger audience to discover his rare virtues." This is Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis, a huge fan of Thompson's work. Despite having done to English Folk what Eric Clapton did to American Blues, Thompson's lack of commercial success is among life's greatest mysteries. His live shows have always drawn crowds though, for those in the know.

"Whether it's electric with a band, or acoustic solo, on a good night Thompson can make you believe he's the best in the world." This is writer/musician David Sinclair, echoing the feelings of whoever's attended a Richard Thompson gig. But we're still talking quality here, what about the quantities? Some theorise that Thompson's fascination for social misfits and psychos as subjects for many of his songs put people off. Hell, what about Tom Waits, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen then - they write about fringe weirdos too but they sell more, don't they? Some wonder if it's because he gives the finger to trends, markets and expectations…but hey, Dylan and Van Morrison do that too, but they're still considered living legends, aren't they? Some suggest that he's not an artist whose work appeals to you instantly, but tends to grow on you. Maybe. But what does the artist himself feel?

"I suppose there's music I want to hear that I don't hear other people doing, and because it doesn't exist, I have to do it. Or else become a seething psychopath." This is Richard Thompson himself, getting closest to the truth. As always.

March 2000

Shoot Out The Lights (with Linda Thompson)-1982
Rumour And Sigh -1991
Watching The Dark (box set) -1993
I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (with Linda Thompson) -1974
Mirror Blue -1994


Blogger DarkoV said...

I stumbled upon this entry when I was trying to link to a site regarding Mr. Thompson.
Mr. Varma, this is one of the most eloquently and informative pieces I've read regarding Richard Thompson. You've captured him perfectly.
Keep up the great profiling

10:40 PM  
Anonymous Kat said...

I stumbled here too - actually, I've been here before 'cause of your r.e.m. posts. Hope you don't mind I linked your post to my lj
because your profile is perfect.

Do you like Robyn Hitchcock? Seems like he'd fit your list as well.


6:58 AM  

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