We head to Los Angeles in the new issue of Uncut (dated March 2013), out now, to meet Richard Thompson and discuss his extraordinary new album, Fairport Convention and recording in Nashville with Buddy Miller. Here, in this piece from Uncut’s May 2006 issue (Take 108), Thompson talks us through the making of some of his finest albums, including Liege & Lief, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Rumor And Sigh. “It was the best way to lose our audience overnight…” Words: Nigel Williamson
Although he may be a guitarist of extraordinary gifts and a singer-songwriter of passionate intensity, Richard Thompson has the demeanour of an absent-minded house master from a Home Counties prep school. Despite living for years in LA, the former Fairport Convention leader and UK folk-rock pioneer remains the quintessential Englishman. When Uncut calls on him at his home in London, during one of his regular visits back to what he calls “the old country”, we nearly fall over the bats and pads poking out of his cricket bag in the front hall.
An essential Englishness has always pervaded his folk-inspired rock’n’roll, too, from his Fairport days via his starkly beautiful albums with ex-wife Linda Thompson (née Peters) and on through his solo career. When he talks about the influences on his current album Front Parlour Ballads, he mentions not only Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley but Charles Dickens and John Betjeman. “We put up for years with Americans singing about mojos,” Thompson tells us. “I thought we should create our own rock’n’roll language.”
FAIRPORT CONVENTION – WHAT WE DID ON OUR HOLIDAYS
The second Fairport LP was the first to feature Sandy Denny, who brought with her a haunting voice and a dramatic change of direction with trad-folk ballads. Thompson embraced the development, and the LP witnessed the birth of a specifically English take on electric folk-rock. Yet it was one of his own songs, “Meet On The Ledge”, that became Fairport’s signature tune.
Richard Thompson: “Fairport played its first gig on the day Sgt Pepper was released. We played all the psychedelic clubs, so that was the context of the first couple of LPs. But at some point we decided we wanted to be a lyric band and the people playing electric music with interesting lyrics were Dylan and The Byrds, and maybe Phil Ochs and Richard Fariña. That meant, for a while, we became very US-influenced. Being idealistic suburbanites, we felt that would make us different.
“What changed us was Sandy Denny’s arrival. She came with a repertoire from folk music, and the first thing we did to integrate her into the band was to wrap ourselves around some of her arrangements. So we did some of her folk-club stuff like ‘She Moves Through The Fair’. We wanted to be more homegrown and to play more traditionally rooted music but in a modern, meaningful way. Trad folk music was considered a bit of a novelty in rock’n’roll. It had lost its connection with the people and died out with the coming of the gramophone, radio and TV, and the importing of popular music styles. So it was a radical thing for Fairport to do – much harder than it was for Dylan, who was taking what was an American form anyway and connecting it with a bit of electricity.
“What We Did On Our Holidays was the start of that process; for us it was the great step we based everything else on. ‘Meet On The Ledge’, which has an anthemic quality, was the first song I wrote. At the time I never thought much of it, but I can still sing it to this day and skip over the adolescent sentiments and find something meaningful in it.”
FAIRPORT CONVENTION – LIEGE & LIEF
Fairport’s fourth was made in the wake of an horrific M1 crash which took the lives of the band’s drummer, Martin Lamble, and Thompson’s girlfriend. Thompson wrote about the trauma on “Crazy Man Michael”. But it was the explosive arrangements of such folk standards as “Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves” that provided the core, characterised by the dynamic electric guitar/fiddle duelling of Thompson and new member Dave Swarbrick. Thompson stayed in the band for just one more LP.
“Dave came into the band because we wanted to get an even stronger English edge. Previously we had been playing folk songs on electric instruments, but we had this idea to combine the ballad style of folk music with the freedom of rock’n’roll to create something new. What you hear on Liege & Lief was a trading-off of cultures between Swarb’s and mine. It was a great learning process that actually started with ‘A Sailor’s Life’ on Unhalfbricking [also 1969]. To me, that’s a more successful recording, but Liege & Lief is the landmark. We’d had a fatal motorway crash, which was traumatic for the group, and making Liege & Lief was our therapy. It was a concept album, really, and we poured ourselves into it as a way of keeping busy. To us, it was far more revolutionary than David Bowie, The Velvet Underground or heavy metal. It was the least popular thing we could’ve done, and the best way to lose our audience overnight.
“But our hope was that it would become a truly British popular music. Sadly, that never happened, though it became a cult. I have criticisms of it, although if you ask anybody about the records they’ve made, they tend to see the warts and the scabs and the sticky tape holding it together. But I do feel that on Liege & Lief we were too careful. We could have been wilder. But its influence was profound. I know people who took Liege & Lief as an example of what they could do within their own culture to revive their own traditional music.”
RICHARD & LINDA THOMPSON – I WANT TO SEE THE BRIGHT LIGHTS TONIGHT
The first in a series of recordings by the married couple that chronicled the bleakest human emotions, and gave Thompson his reputation as a purveyor of doom and gloom. Greil Marcus once wrote of his songwriting: “Straight out of the plague years, one imagines him following behind a cart-full of corpses, strumming a lute, laughing at the stupidity of man’s faith and cursing God with his next breath.’’ “Good old Greil certainly nailed me there,” says Thompson.
“When I left Fairport Convention, it wasn’t over personal differences; I just knew I wanted to do something different musically. I was feeling claustrophobic being in a band, so I got out. It was a gut feeling. Going solo didn’t occur to me. I’d met Linda during the making of Liege & Lief, because she was in the next-door studio recording a cornflakes commercial, and I enjoyed working with her and having her voice as a vehicle. But even that wasn’t really planned. It was simply that it was a fantastic way to hear the songs I’d written.
“We looked at who we were and what we were doing and decided the only way we could survive was in the folk world, and so for at least a year around I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight we played the clubs. It was great fun because it was novel for me to be independent. I don’t think we ever stayed in hotels – we’d sleep on the promoter’s floor. Although, at a certain point, we felt we’d outgrown the folk circuit and got a manager to book us bigger gigs.
“People talk about ‘doom and gloom from the tomb’, and I think I’ve always gravitated towards that side of things. It’s partly to do with my growing up. I’d been raised in a part-Scottish household with Walter Scott’s novels and the poetry of Robbie Burns and the border ballads on the bookshelves. The language of all that stuff was on the heavy side. But I don’t really see it as doomy. It’s just taking things seriously…”
RICHARD & LINDA THOMPSON – SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS
The last of the six Richard and Linda albums is suffused with anger and dread. During its making, Richard had fallen in love with someone else and moved to New York. Already separated, the couple were forced to do one final US tour and promoted the record with a series of bitter, cathartic concerts amid backstage tales of drunken despair and ashtrays thrown at heads. Discussing the album is the only time Thompson seems uncomfortable during the entire two-and-a-half hours Uncut spends in his company.
“I know people call Shoot Out The Lights a break-up album, but I can honestly say that was never the intention. ‘Don’t Renege On Our Love’, ‘Wall Of Death’ and ‘Walking On A Wire’ are dark, I suppose. But they were all written a year before we split up, so people can think what they like. Songs can be about a state you pass through which isn’t where you live. It’s a condition, and sometimes you have to drop in to see what condition your condition is in. I sometimes listen to Shoot Out The Lights for reference. It’s weird, because as a singer-songwriter you keep revisiting your work, whereas an artist can paint a canvas, sell it and never see it again. Some songs don’t have a shelf life, because the emotions don’t last and the world view is too immature. Then there are other songs where you keep finding something new in them.”
RICHARD THOMPSON – RUMOR AND SIGH
Thompson’s solo career went into overdrive in the ’80s with innumerable songs about ruin and despair. By the early ’90s, although he was still writing about death, drinking and twisted love, his sojourn in America made his work sound even more British. On Rumor And Sigh, Thompson challenged UK songwriters’ embarrassment at fetishising England and Englishness head-on, and routed it forever.
“We put up for years with Americans singing about mojos and wondering what they were on about, so I thought we should create our own rock’n’roll language. The Beatles sang about ‘fish and finger pie’, which was a very British expression, and a song like ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ was about trying to do the same thing. There’s a lot of American songs about Harleys heading down the highway, and I wanted a British equivalent. It was an attempt to create a British romantic object as the lodestone around which the song revolves. So was ‘Don’t Sit On My Jimmy Shands’. But you have to avoid sounding like Chas & Dave. I like to be taken seriously.
“Paradoxically, living in LA allows you to be as English as you want, as it’s a very bland place. It’s full of Brits, pubs, tearooms and plenty of fog to remind you of the old country. The irony is that English fans got very upset that ‘rumor’ was spelt in the American way. It was supposed to have the ‘u’, but the artist had already painted the cover, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her to change it.”
RICHARD THOMPSON – FRONT PARLOUR BALLADS
(Cooking Vinyl, 2005)
Thompson’s solo albums are invariably greeted with acclaim. Yet the appearance of this ‘homemade’ album (recorded in his garage studio) won him his most enthusiastic reviews in years. Uncut concurred with the consensus, concluding: “In his mid-50s, Thompson is now producing his most rounded, fully realised work.”
“It was quite charming, really. The songs are small and intimate. If rock’n’roll is something that hits you over the head in a stadium, that album is the opposite. It’s almost a one-to-one transaction between the performer and the listener.
“I still feel part of a tradition and am very influenced by traditional music. But I was listening to a lot of composers like Debussy, Satie and Ravel while making it. I was interested in the way they would treat a song and the structures they would use, and I pursued that to see if it could apply to the style I use. I think you can hear that in the bridges and some of the non-repeating aspects of the songs, rather than a folk music influence. It’s always fun to play with structure to see if it leads down a fruitful alley and takes you somewhere worth exploring. But I’m surprised the album got such great reviews. I didn’t realise it was my comeback because I didn’t know that I’d been away. Now there’s been the boxset, too [RT: The Life And Music Of Richard Thompson], so I can probably do nothing for the next five years.”