Richard Thompson

TrackAlbum
The Angels Took My Racehorse AwayHenry The Human Fly
1952 Vincent Black LightningRumor And Sigh
When The Spell Is BrokenLive At The BBC
Al Bowlly’'s In HeavenDaring Adventures
Waltzing’'s For DreamersAmnesia
BeeswingMirror Blue
Let It BlowFront Parlour Ballads
The Poor Ditching BoyThe Chrono Show
Walking The Long Miles HomeMock Tudor
Where’'s Home?Electric

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Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

Richard Thompson is a living legend. How do you summarise his career in 10 songs?

The answer is that you can’t. Here are the ground-rules. Nothing that he recorded with Fairport Convention (see TopperPost #56) and nothing recorded as Richard & Linda Thompson which warrants its own TopperPost (see TopperPost #107 for an appreciation of Linda Thompson’s solo work). I have also excluded 1,000 Years Of Popular Music, this being essentially an album of covers and the original soundtrack albums. I also decided to give up trying to be representative but to select 10 of the tracks I would want, and then arranged them as I would want to hear them.

Thompson’s father was Scottish and was a detective with the Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard, he also played guitar in the house (not very well according to his son). At home Thompson’s father listened to jazz, in particular Django Reinhardt, and also to traditional Scottish music. The story is that on leaving school the young Richard was apprenticed to a stained glass window maker where they had the classical music output of Radio 3 on all day (there is apparently an example of Thompson’s apprenticeship in the stained glass in Lincoln Cathedral). It is this mix of styles together with rock and roll that influenced him and the distillation of these into his guitar solos that so impressed Joe Boyd and convinced him to sign Fairport Convention.

When he met Dave Swarbrick and started playing live with him, their on-stage sparring, pushing each other to play jigs and reels faster and faster, further developed Thompson’s skill as a guitarist. Swarbrick was once quoted as saying that until he met Richard Thompson he couldn’t imagine jigs and reels being played on an electric guitar. Incidentally, in a school band named after the boy’s adventure story Emil and the Detectives, the bass player was classmate Hugh Cornwell who later formed The Stranglers.

Thompson also had a childhood stammer that made him incredibly shy and he used his musical skills as his ‘voice’. This shyness can be heard on the live album Small Town Romance and the development of his confidence on stage is evident in documentaries and film of later live performances where he is bantering with the audience.

Following his departure from Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson recorded his first solo album in 1972. Henry The Human Fly was released to less than critical acclaim and, subsequently, poor sales. It has some very good tracks and The Angels Took My Racehorse Away with backing vocals from Linda Peters (the future Linda Thompson) and Sandy Denny has always been a favourite. I could easily have selected The Poor Ditching Boy or Nobody’s Wedding. There is a spoken cover of Wheely Down by Ivor Cutler which makes the lyric sound like a poetic insert into a current affairs radio programme.

Rumor And Sigh was released in 1991 on the US Capitol label, hence the American spelling of the album’s title. 1952 Vincent Black Lightning is my most listened to song from the Richard Thompson album I listen to the most. The pedants amongst us will point out that British bikes of that era didn’t have keys. Rumor And Sigh was the last album I bought on vinyl.

Over the years, Thompson has recorded many sessions for the BBC; When The Spell Is Broken was released on 1985’s Across A Crowded Room and possibly speaks of the break-up of his marriage to Linda. The whole album is quite dark – even by Richard Thompson’s standards. This version recorded live for broadcast by Andy Kershaw on 1st July 1985 retains the sense of hurt. It was covered by Bonnie Raitt with the Five Blind Boys from Alabama and included on Beat The Retreat, a compilation of Thompson covers.

Daring Adventures in 1986 was the first album that Thompson recorded in America and contains his most covered song, How Will I Ever Be Simple Again, but I simply love the jazz feel of Al Bowlly’s In Heaven. It speaks to me of seedy speakeasies in the Prohibition era; quite wonderful.

Waltzing’s For Dreamers is a simple song of lost love on Amnesia from 1988, another of my most listened to albums by any artist. Beeswing, from 1994’s Mirror Blue, has to be one of the finest English love songs of the modern era, so these two go together.

Let It Blow is a rare upbeat Thompson song and Front Parlour Ballads in 2005 has a good feel about it. The album also features Old Thames Side which lost out on the toss of a coin.

The Chrono Show is one of Thompson’s ‘official bootlegs’ recorded during a 2004 tour of the USA. We return to the Henry The Human Fly era for a stunning version of the aforementioned The Poor Ditching Boy with just Richard Thompson and an acoustic guitar.

Mock Tudor in 1999 was not a commercially well-received album but the critics loved it. To be honest, I think that it’s variable. However, Walking The Long Miles Home is a very good 1960s inspired pop song.

Electric was released to critical acclaim in February 2013. I continue the ‘home’ theme with Where’s Home?, a song that is reminiscent of all that’s best about Thompson’s composition from 1967 onwards.

Richard Thompson official site

Richard Thompson biography (iTunes)

Here are the links to the Fairport Convention and Richard & Linda Thompson and Linda Thompson topperposts.

TopperPost #120

12 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Nov 8, 2013

    Congratulations on distilling so much! I’ll try your playlist. It’s a little-known story, but Richard has confirmed that in the 1980s he was invited to join The Band as guitarist / songwriter. He wisely declined as his Englishness would not have fitted, and he knew it. It was a testament to the high esteem in which he is held among guitarists though. My current “2013 Selections” playlist of my favourite songs this year picks out “Salford Sunday” from Electric, and also a cover, “The Band Played On” from “The Beautiful Old” album in which he sings with Christine Collister. I have a suspicion that now we’ve done Linda, and Richard separately, their very best work is due on the Richard & Linda Toppermost when it appears. The “Beat The Retreat” compilation of The Songs of Richard Thompson (1994) has covers by Los lobos, Bonnie Raitt, REM, David Byrne, Graham Parker etc, but it’s noticeable how heavily it draws on his songs from the Richard and Linda period, though they are his compositions. Bonnie Raitt does When The Spell is Broken, and Beausoleil turn in fun version of Valerie.

    • Rob Millis
      Nov 9, 2013

      RT was asked to join Traffic in 1971, too…

  2. Merric Davidson
    Nov 8, 2013

    Happy Birthday Bonnie Raitt 64 years young today.

    My current most-played Thompson song (after Beeswing of course!) is Josef Locke which Norma recorded on her beautiful album, The Very Thought Of You. If someone knows the easiest (cheapest) way to acquire Richard’s version … don’t particularly want to pay £50 for the 5CD box set but would like to download that song! One of Ian’s picks, Al Bowlly’s In Heaven, is also on this fine collection by Norma Waterson.

  3. Keith Shackleton
    Nov 8, 2013

    If I was forced, under pain of death, to exclude 1952 Vincent Black Lightning from my selection, I’d have to go for Why Must I Plead, a fine song from Rumor & Sigh, the closing solo of which is absolutely perfect. The temptation for any other guitarist covering it would be to over-egg it and go for the big finish, but not RT, oh no. The restraint.. not a single note out of place, tense, moody, reflective, regretful. Just perfect.

  4. Ian Ashleigh
    Nov 8, 2013

    Many thanks Peter, it was a labour of love! Merric, Bonnie Raitt’s version of When the Spell is Broken is as good a cover as you could wish for. Keith, I know what you mean about Why Must I Plead, as close to perfection as you can get. I would have had the whole of Rumor & Sigh as a single continuous track but that would not have been helpful at all. Have you heard Coope Boyes & Simpson’s cover of Keep Your Distance from their album As If, it’s magnificent. This video doesn’t do the album track justice.

  5. Rob Millis
    Nov 9, 2013

    Great stuff. Rumor and Sigh figures highly still in my playing times at home; always thought that I Feel So Good was a perfect rootsy rock song with the accordion and all that … should have been a hit in the just-post-Wilburys era.

  6. Stephen Lawrence
    Nov 10, 2013

    I’m only a casual RT fan with a few Fairport albums & some of the Linda stuff, though my favurite cover is “Here Without You” from the “Time Between: a tribute to The Byrds” album that came out at the back end of the 80s, an absolutely heartbreaking song of loss & loneliness. I’m going to enjoy checking out some of these songs from this page that I’ve yet to hear.

  7. Martin Palmer
    Nov 15, 2013

    What a great selection, and some fascinating background. I couldn’t argue with any of those choices. I’ve seen him quite a few times, in a variety of scenarios: solo, with different versions of his band, and the ‘1000 Years’ show. In all these, he never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. I am a sucker for his electric forays. He’s a true original, with a unique style particularly in the solos. I find it hard to draw comparisons with any other guitarist. I’d have included something from the “Live from Austin TX” album – probably “Shoot out the Lights” which ends with a monstrous electric solo, but don’t ask me which of Ian’s selections I would jettison…

    • Ian Ashleigh
      Nov 15, 2013

      Thanks for your kind words, Martin, I will have to check out Live in Austin TX. Shoot Out The Lights was excluded because it was originally released by Richard & Linda Thompson and the original album track is shortlisted for a potential topperpost for the albums released by the couple.

    • Rob Millis
      Nov 17, 2013

      I agree Martin, an absolutely unique stylist on guitar; I too could listen to his fiery electric leads all day. People often look at me weird when i show a lack of enthusiasm for an electric folk band knowing I like Fairport/RT. They ask what’s wrong with it and I tell them it is only really people like RT that know how to fuse folk and rock’n’roll properly. Either it comes out sounding too reverential or not “woody” enough when many try.

  8. Ian Ashleigh
    Apr 28, 2014

    Some else has got in on the act, this appeared in the Daily Telegraph’s culture section today.

    (Yup, they started with an Isley Brothers 10 of the best on 7th January 2014, some 6 months after Toppermost was launched. However, in the certain knowledge that there is nothing new under the sun, the excellent Stereogum website in the US were at it way before then – and in fact Ian, they did a Pretenders best 10 in December 2012! Where I hope we might be a wee bit different is that we’re reflecting the great “lost” songs too, and of course building a “big beast” in the process! Ed.)

  9. Andrew Shields
    Sep 20, 2014

    Can I put in a word for ‘From Galway to Graceland’. There is a great live version of it here. There is also a fine cover version of it by the great Irish singer, Sean Keane, here.

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