Inquiring minds seeking an explanation for Part 1, an August 2008 byline and a complete lack of Part s 2, 3 and whatever are respectfully pointed towards the volume of other material on the website.

But we’ll get there one day. Promise.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Retrospective: Richard Thompson Part 1

RT Retro

When I first started listening to and collecting music in the late sixties I was living in Townsville, well away from the mainstream of the Australian music scene, which was itself about the same distance from the mainstream of what was happening in London, New York and California.

It didn’t take long to realise that a sudden upsurge in my social life (We’re having a party on Saturday night, Hughesy. Do you want to come? .... Oh, and bring your records with you....) was completely unrelated to any personality issues. No one else at Pimlico High had Blue Cheer’s Summertime Blues and even singles and EPs by Hendrix and Cream were few and far between. And for high school students albums were almost out of the question....

The need to keep track of what was happening overseas meant that you needed to be reading music magazines, which, predictably, were almost exclusively British. The delay between the overseas release by anyone short of Beatles/Stones status and the Australian equivalent was, coincidentally, even longer than the time the magazines took to reach here by surface mail, which seemed to involve a slow boat routed via Tierra del Fuego....

In the hunt for some snippet that might lead off in a useful direction, it was a case of scrutinising everything in the particular periodical under perusal, with predictable attention being devoted to the album reviews.

Over the years, some things stuck in my mind although the precise details are vague. I seem, for instance, to recall an explanation of the somewhat unusual title of Fairport Convention’s third album Unhalfbricking.

I’d read about Fairport Convention before that and had them filed away as one of those acts that needed further investigation, something that happened once their albums started turning up in the discount bins at Woolworth's in Townsville, the avenue for much of Hughesy’s early exploration of the back streets, country lanes and sleepy bayous of popular music.

To be honest, my first impressions weren’t that favourable. The first incarnation of Fairport Convention was something like an English version of the Jefferson Airplane - a folk-rock band with male and female lead vocalists and a repertoire drawn from the works of the first wave of singer-songwriters (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley, Richard Farina on the reissued and expanded Fairport Convention) as well as original material written by the members of the band.

Their second album, What We Did On Our Holidays, increased the original material quotient without altering the style, and the third, 1969’s Unhalfbricking, continued the trend though by then they’d lost the male vocal (Ian Matthews) while recording the album and the writing had been reduced to four sources, Dylan, singer Sandy Denny, guitarist Richard Thompson and Trad. arr Fairport.

At this point, having refined a style, developed two quality writers and acquired an outstanding lead vocalist in Sandy Denny you’d imagine that things were looking very promising indeed. Three albums had been recorded in about twelve months and the setlist included songs of the quality of Fotheringay, Meet On The Ledge, Genesis Hall and Who Knows Where The Time Goes.

However, around the corner Fate was slipping the lead into the boxing glove. A month before the album was due to be released the band were returning from a gig in Birmingham when the roadie driving the van fell asleep at the wheel, the van left the M1.

The crash killed drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklin. Thompson and rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol were hospitalised and the surviving members decided that they would never play their old material again.

Unhalfbricking had contained, among other tracks, an eleven-minute workout on A Sailor’s Life, a traditional ballad that Sandy Denny had brought to the band, featuring guest fiddler Dave Swarbrick (a ten-year veteran of the English folk music scene). That track, along with the influence of The Band’s Music From Big Pink gave them an avenue to develop a complete new repertoire.

Liege and Lief, recorded over four sessions in October 1969, was predominantly traditional material with only three tracks written by the group, including Thompson’s Farewell, Farewell and the Swarbrick/Thompson Crazy Man Michael.

Sandy Denny’s departure to embark on a solo career was followed by 1970’s Full House which continued the combination of traditional material and collaborations between Swarbrick and Thompson. The album also featured sleeve notes by Thompson a bizarre take on a medieval sports and games almanac in the style of an hallucinating Tolkien (to quote founder member Simon Nicol’s notes on the 2001 CD reissue).

By this stage, since Fairport had failed to deliver more than one album by any given line-up, it probably comes as no surprise to discover that the next realignment involved Thompson’s departure from the band in 1971 preferring work as a session musician and solo artist to a regular gig with a band.

His first solo album (Henry the Human Fly) is, in my humble opinion, some of his best work, despite its alleged status as the worst-selling record released by Warner Brothers.

I’m not, for a moment denigrating the rest of RT’s extensive catalogue, but Henry is, in its own quiet and inimitable way, as timeless as The Band’s second album (which since it was on high rotation on all the Fairport members' turntables in the early 70s provided a substantial influence on RT’s writing).

Subsequent albums may have included better songs, and there are several tracks on Henry that I tend to avoid, but, in Roll Over Vaughn Williams, Nobody’s Wedding, The Poor Ditching Boy, The New St George and The Old Changing Way the album contains some of my all-time favourite tracks.

Many listeners took issue with Thompson’s vocals on the album, and while I can acknowledge that point of view, the voice gives the impression of some ancient minstrel simultaneously trapped in some kind of time warp in various spots between the twelfth and twentieth centuries.

The issue was, however, easily solved. Thompson’s next bundle of albums, starting with the sublime I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, featured the voice of his first wife Linda, who he married in 1972, and, while Thompson still contributed in the vocal department, he probably felt much more comfortable out of the vocal spotlight.

Dating back to his time in Fairport, Thompson tended to write well for the right female voice.

I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and the albums that followed (Hokey Pokey, Pour Down Like Silver, First Light, Shoot Out the Lights and, to a lesser extent, Sunnyvista) all contain gems in the writing and vocal departments as well as RT’s stunning guitar work before the partnership dissolved in extremely ugly circumstances.

That, however, was more than twenty-five years ago, and in the intervening period Thompson has carefully built a career which will hopefully roll onwards into the future presenting his work in a variety of carefully crafted contexts.

Regardless of his electric guitar virtuosity, economic factors have meant that much of the past quarter-century has seen Thompson performing in solo acoustic mode, which has resulted in a couple of interesting developments.

As the sole focal point on stage, Thompson has been forced to overcome a couple of factors that had, up to that point, been negatives rather than positives. In the process he’s developed a wry on-stage persona that probably draws from a degree of discomfort in the spotlight with a mildly self-deprecating sense of humour that is, in its own quiet way, quite charming.

If the patter doesn’t vary greatly from night to night (a complaint I’ve heard expressed by people who’ve been in the fortunate position of being able to catch RT on multiple occasions on the same tour), at least it provides the guy with an on-stage persona that allows him to concentrate on performing rather than presentation. That’s fine with me. As far as I can see, the audience is there for the songs, the guitar work and the increasingly impressive vocals. Anything above and beyond that is a bonus.

As well, anyone who’s undertaken a basic course in Rock Criticism and Associated Historiography would be aware that Thompson is almost invariably filed under Unmitigated Doom and Gloom along with other exponents of the Eeyore School of Song-writing such as Leonard Cohen.

The content of much of RT’s best material certainly tends in that direction, a factor that doesn’t necessarily suggest a joyful concert experience, so, along with the patter, Thompson has carefully constructed a lighter side to the performance material. Songs in that mode (Madonna’s Wedding or Hots For The Smarts for example) tend to be filed away in the artist’s mind with Never To Be Recorded stamped on their foreheads.

In band format, however, the novelty numbers can be filed away and some of the limelight shared, though there again there are factors involved that reflect economic necessity rather than artistic considerations.

In the early part of his solo career, involvement with a major label helped subsidise the costs of touring with a band, and there were various incarnations of the Richard Thompson Band through the eighties and nineties, varying in number from a basic trio or quartet to the big band.

When his major-label contract lapsed in the mid-nineties, however things changed. Since the costs associated with rehearsals and recording were coming out of his own pocket rather than flowing downwards from a corporate sponsor, Thompson has operated on a much tighter budget.

As a result the band line-up has remained fairly stable over the past decade - RT on guitar, Danny Thompson (no relation) on bass, Mike Jerome or Earl Harvin on drums and Pete Zorn on everything else. Working with a stable line-up removes the need for extensive pre-tour rehearsals. At the same time, on the other hand, a perusal of RTB set lists ( suggests that, once they’ve worked out a functional set list there isn’t room for a great deal of variation from night to night.

If the solo routine and a regular touring band don’t provide enough variety, Thompson has added a third string to his bow, based on a concept he’s cheerfully lifted from an alleged request from Playboy magazine.

Much like the RTB set-up A Thousand Years of Popular Music works within a format that allows Thompson to tweak the finer details of the show while retaining the basic outline. Using two female offsiders, a Thousand Years show will start off somewhere in medieval Europe before skipping forward through the centuries to wind up on the verge of the twenty-first century with RT’s take on Britney Spears or someone favoured by the iPod generation.