Saturday, 28 March 2015

A Part Unto His Own Hat - Richard Thompson

"Now my name, it is Mulvaney
And I'm known quite famously
People speak my name in whispers
What higher praise can there be?"


Those lines come from a song by a man too few have heard of although he is both famous and acclaimed. Not only is he a successful singer/songwriter but also a highly gifted guitarist whose skills first came to notice during his time with Fairport Convention. The band was compared favourably to Jefferson Airplane. I fail to see the comparison.  It was with them his talent gained attention. The name of the man is Richard Thompson, a name usually associated over here in the UK with the folk scene. He is so much more than that.
As is so often the case with many British performers, Richard Thompson is bigger over there (USA) than he is here. His talents as a songwriter are now legendary and the artists who have recorded his songs are many. Thompson first came into the public’s spotlight in 1967 when he was just 18. He and fellow Fairport Convention band members were seen by record producer Joe Boyd who, having heard Thompson’s guitar solo, was so impressed he asked if he could produce the band's next album.
Thompson was born in Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill, London in 1949. His father, a Scott, was a policeman who worked out of New Scotland yard but was also an amateur guitar player who had a love of jazz. It was that passion, and also having heard his father’s collection of old Scottish reels along with his burgeoning live of rock and roll that influenced Thompson’s guitar technique.

Joe Boyd: He played a solo which quotes from Django, from Charlie Christian, you know, an incredibly sophisticated little solo. And that really amazed me, the breadth of his sophistication...
As I am writing about both his guitar work and his songwriting skills I'll start with his guitar work. I have to say what impresses me is his concise, understated ability to play a fury of notes with consummate, effortless ease but without any flashy, stereotypical rock or blues clich├ęs. It is his economy of style that somehow manages to convey so much by playing so little. Jazz combines with folk that melds with bluegrass but always sounds as though he invented it.  The music he plays is of him, his influences can be detected but still remain somehow sounding of his creation.

His technique of “pick and fingers" allows for a very fluid, mercurial sound. It comes across sounding as though there is more than one guitarist playing. This is achieved by playing bass notes and rhythm with a pick between his first finger and thumb which adds melody and punctuation by plucking the treble strings with his fingers. It reminds me of Rockabilly but this is probably just me. It manages to weave among the melody and the rhythm before soaring above them. His guitar reminds me at times of the violin in Vaughan Williams 'Lark Ascending:' something of this world that defies gravity. 
They say he is one of the UK's finest songwriters. They say that his guitar work is the other side of incredible. They say that without him the face of popular music would be a sadder place but there are still people out there who haven't heard of him. So just who is this Richard Thompson?
Richard Thompson was born on the 3rd April 1949 in North London. His career in music began at an early stage when he helped to form the now legendary Fairport Convention. He was only seventeen. This was 1966. From then until 1968 they rapidly built a following and a reputation for being the 'new' Jefferson Airplane. They were, of course, nothing like them but they were as equally innovative and they were certainly one of the bands, if not THE band, to invent Brit Folk-Rock.

Together they released five albums. One in 1968, THREE in 1969 and one in 1971. During this period, Richard not only worked with The Fairport’s but also The Incredible String Band, Marc Ellington, Nick Drake and Gary Farr. An incredible work rate.
Following a tour of the states along with Traffic, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Richard left Fairport Convention and went solo. He didn't release anything for almost two years but when he did it was something that many critics have now  declared to be a 'classic'. At the time though it was roundly derided. In fairness, it has not so much stood the test of time but grown in acceptance and stature so maybe the 'classic' status is appropriate for "Henry the Human Fly".

As his solo career was just beginning, Richard married Linda Peters, a folk singer with an immaculate voice. The marriage didn't work and ultimately failed, ending in divorce. However, before the break up they recorded and released six highly acclaimed albums together. Difficult to say which one was best as they all are good. My favourite is probably the first. 'I want to see the Bright Lights Tonight'. It was released in '74. I still play it today.

Having had success with Fairport Convention and then to go on and repeat that success with Linda was, in itself remarkable. After his divorce, Richard returned to his solo work and produced 'Hand of Kindness'. This was released in 1983 and saw, for the first time, a brass section added to his sound. This 'big band' sound was a huge success both in Europe and America and included into their live set was music by Glenn Miller and Lord Rockingham.

Throughout the '80's Richard's albums took on varying shades and tones and his skill as a songwriter grew at a pace. His guitar work also became the envy of virtually every other guitar player with its subtle notes and wondrous fingering.
His songs cover a range of themes but can be at times darkly melancholic, introspective. There are dark mysteries found within these songs where melodic lyrics come wrapped in haunting melodies. Sometimes his words, matched perfectly by the tune, rake the heart with their dark, pained, bruised hurt as they reveal sides of love rarely seen.

"That's all. That's all there was.
Say Amen. Close the door.
She gave as much as she had to give
Please don't ask for more
Please don't ask for more
That's all. The curtain's down.
The lights are up. Go home.
Did I care?
Was I in love?
In love enough to know
In love enough to know

There's precious few that line that road
She welled from deep and overflowed
There's no cup to hold the past
Too rich to drink, too rich to last
That's all

Well, you wish
But don't wish for me
As if a wish
Could cheat the fall
Oh just believe
And leave it be
There's beauty in what's brief
There's beauty in what's small
That's all

There's some who dare and some who shine
And some who only drag behind
And some who reap what others sow
When memories fail well who's to know.


That's all. That's all there was.
Say Amen. Close the door.
She gave as much as she had to give
Oh please don't ask for more
Please don't ask for more
That's all"
 

Using only the deftest of touches bereft of adornments or embellishments Richard Thompson manages to almost surgically examine the break-up of a relationship before putting it into song.

Then there is his near as damn it psychotic, introspective studies that leave the listener feeling the short hairs raise up on their arms and necks. A study of almost nightmarish depth.

"I stole your style, hope you don't mind
I must try to be all I can be
It suits me more than it ever suited you
Hope you like the new me

And I stole your laugh so bright and breezy
It stops parties in mid-air
It makes me feel more devil may care
Hope you like the new me
Hope you like the new me

We all need friends to lean on
Any time, any place, anywhere
Feel free to lean on me
But please, don't do it right now
Yes, I'm much too busy right now

And I stole your walk, the one with purpose
It says there is no mountain I can't climb
It fools people all of the time
Hope you like the new me

And I stole your jokes, just the good ones
How the gang all laughed with glee
I also stole the way that you tell them
Hope you like the new me
Hope you like the new me

To steal is to flatter, what a compliment to pay
All those things that I stole from you
Well, I might give them back someday
Yes, I really might someday

And I stole your wife, hope you don't mind
She was looking bored, don't you think?
Soon have her back in the pink
Stop by and see us for tea

And I stole your soul when you weren't looking
I reached inside and cut it free
It suits me more than it's ever suited you
Hope you like the new me
Hope you like the new me."
  
The '90's were, if a little slower in terms of output, still a decade of quality material. Again he not only produced his own material via solo albums but also worked and contributed to a range of other artists’ albums too. The likes of Maria McKee, Henry Kaiser, Ian Matthews, Bonnie Rait and Willie Nile. Having said his output slowed down, he did manage to release, some remastered, sixteen albums. No mean feat whichever way you cut it. More than that was the release of what is my favourite of all his albums 'Mock Tudor.' Rock perhaps but still with a folk sensibility. And besides, isn't 'Rock' just a sub-genre of Folk?

Thus far, in this new century, Richard has released, under his own name, eight albums. Of these, two have been old live recordings. His backlog is well worth investigating but the best place to start as far as I am concerned is with the album I mentioned - 'Mock Tudor.'

Not bad for someone who few have heard of is it?
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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

2 comments:

Wastedpapiers said...

Loved the early Fairports mainly because of his guitar playing. Had the great pleasure to see him live at the Festival Hall in London around 1989/90 doing a solo gig. Not heard much of his recent work but I shall be looking out for it.

Russell Duffy said...

Still good. ;)