Richard Thompson left Fairport Convention after 1970’s Full House, his reputation secured as an excellent songwriter and guitarist. He released a spectacularly unsuccessful solo album, Henry the Human Fly, in 1972. He then married Linda Peters and they released six albums between 1974 and 1982; their relationship broke down before an ill-fated North American tour in 1982.
The duo’s music is often melancholic, and it’s a common trick of Richard Thompson to pair upbeat music with depressing lyrics. They often play acoustic folk-rock, especially on their early albums, but 1978’s First Light uses an L.A. rhythm section and 1982’s Shoot Out The Lights has few vestiges of folk remaining. Linda and Richard share the vocal duties – while Richard’s gruff voice is limited, Linda’s pristine voice is able to capture a range of moods, from joy on ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ to resignation on ‘Walking on a Wire’.
The pair’s first album, 1974’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and their 1982 swan song Shoot Out The Lights are generally considered as their strongest. In between they spent time in a Sufi Muslim commune, taking three years away from music. Richard has stated that he considers their late 1970s albums as weak, as he didn’t have his mind on the job.
I’ve also included Richard Thompson’s 1972 debut Henry The Human Fly on this page, as it fits into the period. I have a big stack of Thompson’s solo albums from the 1980s and 1990s as well, and I’ll cover them on a separate page in the future.
Richard and Linda Thompson Album Reviews
Favourite Album: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight
Overlooked Gem: First Light
Henry The Human Fly – Richard Thompson
After five studio albums with Fairport Convention, and then two years as a session musician, Richard Thompson had only just turned 23 when he released his solo debut. It was slammed by British critics and at one point the worst ever selling album on Warner Bros. Records in the United States. Yet in retrospect, it’s attained a far more hallowed status in Thompson’s catalogue, and while I don’t entirely agree with the stature it’s now held in, it’s a fascinating bridge between Thompson’s Fairport Convention work and his classic collaboration with Linda I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. The arrangements are much less rock-oriented than Fairport Convention’s, with the drummer counting time rather than providing propulsion, and there is less focus on Thompson’s guitar and more on his songwriting. Guest musicians include former Fairport Convention members Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings, and Thompson’s future wife Linda Peters, on backing vocals, while the rhythm section of Timmy Donald and Pat Donaldson and accordionist John Kirkpatrick appear on many subsequent Thompson projects.
Henry The Human Fly does have tangible glimpses of greatness, and its main flaw is simply that it ends limply. The excellent ‘Roll Over Vaughan Williams’, which marries Thompson’s stinging electric guitar to a jaunty folk melody, and ‘Nobody’s Wedding’, which borrows its instrumental sections from the traditional folk song ‘Maire’s Wedding’, are strong openers. The evocative folk melody of ‘Wheely Down’, with its minimalist approach, and the intertwining accordion and guitar in ‘The Angels Took My Racehorse Away’ showcase Thompson’s ideas to experiment with and update the folk genre in different ways to Fairport Convention. The second side is far less memorable, and the lack of energy makes it difficult to digest. The messy ‘Mary And Joseph’ is particularly awkward; cryptic both musically, with its unsettling horn arrangement and lyrically (“Mary is in stitches, she’s tied down on the bed/While Joseph plays a ukulele standing on his head”), an attempt at a contemporary, cynical carol.
Henry The Human Fly is an ambitious, but low key, debut from Thompson; there’s interesting material here, but I’d suggest starting with something more accessible, like I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight or Shoot Out The Lights.
I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight
Richard Thompson and Linda Peters married in 1972, and their debut album was with Island for a year before it was released. Whether it was the failure of Henry The Human Fly or the addition of Linda’s more conventional voice, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight is much more determinedly accessible than its predecessor, more conventionally folk-rock and with a more rock feel to the rhythm section. This more commercial approach is a positive step; Thompson’s writing is more focused here than on the experimental Human Fly, and Linda’s vocals are more conventionally pretty, in the vein of Sandy Denny. Timmy Donald and Pat Donaldson are the rhythm section, while Fairport Convention members Simon Nicol and Trevor Lucas also cameo.
The classic opener ‘When I Get To The Border’, is in the same vein as the previous record’s ‘Roll Over Vaughan Williams’, a jaunty folk melody enlivened by Richard’s imaginative guitar solos and Linda’s harmonies, showing the potency of their musical partnership. The title track is another instant classic, with its upbeat horn arrangement. Of course, these two slices of positivity are uncharacteristic for any project written by Thompson, and the rest of the album is far darker. This is especially true of the two stunning closers; the downright glum ‘The End Of The Rainbow’, where an extremely pessimistic Richard tells a newborn infant of the horrors that await it (“Life seems so rosy in the cradle/But I’ll be a friend I’ll tell you what’s in store/There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow/There’s nothing to grow up for anymore”) and the haunting dramatic, Spartan ‘The Great Valerio’. It’s not all first-class – the Linda-fronted ‘The Little Beggar Girl’ comes across as a condescending Dickens caricature, while ‘Has He Got A Friend For Me’ is too maudlin to take seriously.
Quibbling aside, there is a generous handful of legitimately great songs here, and I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight is completely essential for any Thompson fan.
Hokey Pokey was recorded about a year before it was released. It’s quite a different album from its predecessor, there’s less folk influence and as a result it’s less unified. A lot of the songs are character studies of struggling or disturbing people, and after the sharp Bright Lights it feels much more disengaged.
As a result, many of these songs are second-tier in Richard Thompson’s catalogue, but there’s one glowing highlight in the form of the elegant, sparse ‘A Heart Needs A Home’, with a warm Linda Thompson vocal – maybe the one point in the album where the writing is personal rather than detached. The title track is as close as the perennially dour couple come to sounding like they’re having fun, while ‘Georgie On a Spree’ effectively matches pessimistic lyrics to jaunty music. I’m less convinced by the closing cover of Mike Waterson’s ‘Mole in a Hole’, while my mind finds it hard to do much beyond snigger at ‘Old Man Inside A Young Man’.
After the superlative I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Hokey Pokey is often good, but only occasionally great.
Pour Down Like Silver
Pour Down Like Silver is the record album equivalent of medicine – it’s music that you know is good, rather than music you enjoy listening to, and it’s possibly the least fun album ever made by anyone. Converting to Islam after making of Hokey Pokey, the Thompsons decided to leave the music business and joined a Sufi commune in East Anglia. While Thompson has remained a Muslim throughout his career, the influence of his beliefs is most obvious here and on his next couple of albums, where many of the songs are based on Sufi scriptures, while the cover images of the Thompsons in traditional Muslim garb adds to the dour atmosphere. A further contribution to the austere nature of Pour Down Like Silver comes from the sparse arrangements – Thompson states “It was a stark record, but I think it was by accident in a sense – we were intending to have Simon [Nicol] come and play rhythm guitar but he wasn’t available so everything ended up sounding very stark and I was always going to overdub rhythm guitar and stuff, but we thought we’ll just leave it, what the hell.”
As a result, the overall tone of Pour Down Like Silver is dank and low key, even if some of the individual pieces would sound more accessible outside the context – ‘Hard Luck Stories’ is energetic and cynical rock song, while ‘The Dimming Of The Day’ is a sweet, low key love song. And in comparison to the rest of the album, ‘For The Shame Of Doing Wrong’ sounds positively ornate with its violin and rhythm guitar, and Richard’s echo vocal in the chorus. ‘Beat The Retreat’ is quietly insistent with its low key arrangement and stirring melody, while ‘Night Comes In’ gives more space for Thompson’s extended guitar workouts. There’s plenty of good music here, but Pour Down Like Silver is like a rainy day or oatmeal, even within the context of Thompson’s generally serious oeuvre.
Thompson didn’t retire from music permanently – after discovering he wasn’t any good at anything else, he returned three years later with Linda on First Light.
After three years away from the music business, an eternity in the 1970s, my theory is that a creative record executive envied the commercial behemoth of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and decided that the closest British substitute would be to marry Richard and Linda Thompson to a slick and incongruous Californian rhythm section (Andy Newmark and Willie Weeks), slick up the production a few notches, and sit back and watch the dollars roll in. While Richard has later dismissed this phase of his career, going as far as to state: “I was too flaccid in the 1970s…Especially the later 70s, where I made really indifferent records, I just didn’t have my mind on the job,” he’s a consistent and conscientious enough writer that First Light is far from a bad album. Its main issue is simply the weird sensation of two musical worlds colliding; I doubt that Newmark and Weeks often play in the same band as an accordion, and I likewise doubt that Thompson is accustomed to his rhythm section working into disco territory. Despite my conjecture, the strange pairing actually happened because Weeks and Newmark were recording with George Harrison and Julie Covington, and expressed an interest in also recording with Thompson.
I adore ‘Don’t Let A Thief Steal Into Your Heart’; even though the funky West Coast rhythm section break is the most awkward collision point on the record, it’s still one of Thompson’s best songs, although purists swear by his solo acoustic version on the live Small Town Romance. Richard rocks through ‘Layla’ (not an Eric Clapton cover), where the funky rhythm section works, while Linda croons her way through the elegant title track and the pretty ‘Pavanne’. ‘The Choice Wife’ is a pared-down folk instrumental, and ‘House Of Cards’ is a folk sing-along in the vein of what Thompson was performing with The Albion band around the same time, with backing vocals from Fairport alumni Trevor Lucas and Ian Matthews.
The sound is uncharacteristically slick, and outside ‘Don’t Let A Thief’ and the title track there’s a shortage of really great material, but First Light is more consistent and worthwhile than its reputation might suggest.
After the slick L.A. rhythm section of First Light, Sunnyvista returns to more conventional backing arrangements, with familiar faces like accordionist John Kirkpatrick, Dave Pegg, and Dave Mattacks contributing. The McGarrigles provide guest vocals on ‘Sisters’, while Glenn Tilbrook and Gerry Rafferty also provide vocal backing. But despite the comfortable supporting cast, Sunnyvista is unfocused, and some of these songs are failed genre experiments. As with parts of 1975’s Hokey Pokey, happy Richard and Linda Thompson doesn’t work for me – this unusually perky album feels forced and hollow.
Examples of the failed pieces include the uncomfortable funk of ‘Justice In Streets’, the creepy social commentary of the title track, and the grating ‘Civilization’, which is a strange hybrid between folk and new wave. The unusual pieces overshadow some competent usual fare for the Thompsons – ‘Traces Of My Love’ is a pretty, sparse Linda spotlight, while ‘You’re Going To Need Somebody’ is a straight-forward Richard rocker, with accordion and snappy guitar. The second half is stronger than the first, with solid tracks like ‘Sisters’ and ‘Lonely Hearts’.
The failure of Sunnyvista caused the Thompsons to lose their recording contract, focusing Richard’s writing for their final masterpiece, Shoot Out The Lights.
Shoot Out The Lights
Sunnyvista was sub-par and unsuccessful, leaving the Thompsons without a recording deal. Gerry Rafferty offered to produce an album for them, but was unable to sell the recordings to a label, and the album was scrapped. Joe Boyd signed the pair to his new Hannibal label, and quickly recorded a new version. Shoot Out The Lights is commonly known as the Thompsons’ divorce album, although most of the songs were written for the Rafferty sessions in 1980, before any relationship difficulties. But after a couple of unfocused albums, it’s certainly more urgent – songs like ‘Don’t Renege On Our Love’ and ‘Man In Need’ are driving and fast. Despite the fact that the backing band’s similar to 1970 Fairport Convention, with Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks, and Simon Pegg, there are few vestiges of folk, outside ‘Back Street Slide’, and it’s essentially a guitar driven modern rock album.
There’s a distance between the material handled by the two vocalists – Richard takes all the fast songs, while Linda handles the slow-burning ballads, the pretty ‘Just A Motion’ and ‘Walking on a Wire’ and the Sandy Denny speculation of ‘Did She Jump (or Was She Pushed’. Richard fronts the pounding title track, which features some of his most memorable soloing, and the romp of ‘Back Street Slide’, while the duo harmonise on the closer ‘Wall of Death’.
Shoot Out The Lights might be the most accessible album that Thompson has released; largely discarding his British folk roots without sounding compromised, and it’s a good starting point in his sizeable discography.
Ten Favourite Richard and Linda Thompson Songs
When I Get To The Border
Shoot Out The Lights
A Heart Needs a Home
Don’t Let a Thief (Steal Into Your Heart)
I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight
End of the Rainbow
Dimming of the Day/Dargai
Wall Of Death
For the Shame of Doing Wrong
Did She Jump (Or Was She Pushed)?
Back to 1970s Album Reviews….
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