This month's Band of the Month post has a good deal less autobiography than most of them. Richard Thompson appeared somewhere in the background, on the radio in the mid-80s, but I didn't really start paying attention until the end of the 80s, when I started listening to Fairport Convention. (Probably by way of the Waterboys, who I was very big on in those days.) Unhalfbricking and Liege and Leaf mainly, and I listened to them a lot, especially Liege and Leaf. That happened just before I stopped listening to rock and started listening to jazz - though during the jazz years, I kept breaking those records out now and then. I mentioned last month that I came out of my jazz obsession by way of jazz guitarists - Sonny Sharrock and Bill Frisell and James "Blood" Ullmer and John McLaughlin - a guitar obsession that led me to Richard Thompson. I picked up the Watching the Dark box set and listened to it obsessively for a year or so. Then started buying all his back catalogue, solo, Fairport, etc. And of course buying all his subsequent releases - which though underrepresented on my lists, remain satisfying pieces of music, with occasional moments of transcendence.
Those no real mystery why he's one of my favorites - he's one of the best guitar players rock music has produced (my favorite by a country mile.) He's also one of the most consistent and intelligent song writers in the business. And a unique and powerful singer - though there's no denying that his material sounded even better when he had Linda or Sandy Denny to sing it. It's impressive - based on his songs, his records, he would deserve to rank very high - especially considering the music, the accompaniment, the arrangements... But when you factor in his soloing - he's in the elite.
There are obviously other guitarists with a claim - Hendrix anyway - but basically, he's a finalist for the best rock guitarist of them all. And he's absolutely my favorite. You can start by being surprised by his versatility - he can rock; he is a master of lyrical, folk and jazz inflected extended solos; and he is capable of moving into avant grade territory. He can surprise, even shock, with his solos, as well as playing the most beautiful and perfect pieces. He's inexhaustible. His most characteristic style, I suppose - those long, beautiful, lyrical, tonally precise solos, like Calvary Cross, Night Comes In, When the Spell is Broken - define his greatest strengths - his melodic, harmonic and rhythmic sense; his patience, the ability to build long, slow pieces with mounting tension and drama; the tonal command, the drones and overtones and fingerpicked multiple parts. And he can ratchet it up - those wild folk rock excursions in the Full House/House Full era - Matty Groves and the like - sped up and pushed out, seemingly with no limits on what he can play. Though it's when he really cuts loose - the songs that shift away from the pretty solos, that get strange, biting - like on A Sailor's Life, Shoot Out the Lights (especially the later versions), Can't Win - that he moves from greatness to something jaw-dropping.
There were a lot of guitar players in the 60s, sometimes after, trying to imitate jazz saxophonists - Roger McGuinn, Tom Verlaine (or their fans) name drop Coltrane and company often enough. Thompson earns it. He uses the guitar like they played - full of overtones, slurs, the notes played on top of drones, the incorporation of Asian or celtic musical influences. Much of his career was spent in the folk-rock, singer-songwriter universe - but at the beginning he was playing with Hendrix; by the 80s he was playing with David Thomas (and a host of avant grade musicians), with John French, Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser - he kept a connection to that side of rock... And it turns up in some of the solos - and was there in the early ones.
In the end - I think he is something of a model for guitarists like Tom Verlaine, Glenn Mercer, the Velvet Underground fans who wanted to solo. Thompson is a pretty strong influence on their style. Songs like Marquee Moon, 1880 or So, Slipping (Into Something), Find a Way are all built on something like a template of Thompson's songs. And other guitarists (I mean, who are heroes of mine) covered him directly - Peter Laughner covering Calvary Cross; Bob Mould doing Shoot Out the Lights. I never get tired of any of them...
And so - one list won't do, for Thompson, since he is so good in such different aspects of the music. So - 3 might do it. First - the overall best (no matter who wrote it):
1. A Sailor's Life
2. For Shame of Doing Wrong
3. Dimming of the Day
4. Calvary Cross
5. Night Comes In
6. Matty Groves
8. From Galway to Graceland
9. Sir Patrick Spens
10. Bird in God's Garden
Then his originals:
1. For Shame of Doing Wrong
2. Dimming of the Day
4. From Galway to Graceland
5. A Heart Needs a Home
6. Hokey Pokey (The Ice Cream Song)
7. Night Comes In
8. Jet Plane in a Rocking Chair
9. Shoot Out the lights
10. Never Again
And finally - the guitar parts. Mostly solos, but a couple are here for the riffs. These are also more specific in the version I mean:
1. A Sailor's Life - version on the Watching the Dark set, without the fiddle - though the fiddle version is a thing of immense power. It's a magnificent ensemble piece - glorious as Thompson's playing is, Lamble's drumming is almost as captivating; Nicol lays down a monster riff behind Thompson - and Denny is almost overwhelming. Swarbrick's fiddle somewhat cuts Thompson's solo, but it creates a thrilling blend - I could list the two versions of that song 1-2 here easily.
2. Shoot Out the Lights (Live from Austin)
3. Calvary Cross (the Watching the Dark version, again)
4. Matty Groves (House Full) - as blood curdling a tune and performance as you will hear.
5. Night Comes in (Guitar, Vocal)
6. For Shame of Doing Wrong (Concert November 1975)
7. Time Will Show the Wiser - here seen live on French TV in 1968!
8. Can't Win (watching the dark)
9. Sloth (House Full)
10. When the Spell is Broken (watching the dark version)
And Video - I found more of this than I expected, especially those really old clips. This post will take an hour to load. Oh well.
Here's another clip from that French TV show - "Reno Nevada" - Thompson playing a Les Paul, and ripping it. Looking younger than his 19 years. It's rather startling to think how young they were - Thompson, Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble and Judy Dyble were all still just teenagers in 68. It's probably part of why the early version of the band seems a bit too derivative, with their American covers and somewhat affected vocals. But Thompson isn't derivative - this solo leaves the rest of the song miles behind. And the same is pretty much true for Lamble as well. (Nicol, too, who is a superb rhythm guitarist, already, here.) I'm not sure Thompson has ever managed to find someone to match Lamble's drumming in his later career (other than collaborating with others, like John French or Chris Cutler on the Thomas records.) Anyway - it is nice to see some cool footage of Lamble here, too...
Here is the House Full era lineup playing a half hour set on French TV - including a fantastic Sloth:
And two gorgeous songs featuring Linda Thompson - Dimming of the Day from 1981:
And A Heart Needs a Home, 75 or so:
And a perfectly thrilling version of Shame of Doing Wrong, Germany 1980:
And of course, Thompson's still going strong. Here he is with the Liege and Leaf era band doing Tam Lin in 2007:
And Calvary Cross, playing with Dawes on a cruise ship, 2013:
And finally, Can't Win, with his Electric trio, 2013, featuring very energetic drumming, and one of his more avant-garde inspired solos: