July 16, 2006, A History of Richard Thompson: Liner notes to a 5CD set

A History of Richard Thompson


A History of Fairport Convention: I don’t know the name of this song, but it’s obviously one of Ashley Hutchings’ “borrowings” from classic folk songs, in this case the Byrds’ “Renaissance Fayre.” I’m also not sure what year it’s from—I’m now thinking 1997, since it was recorded at Fairport’s 30th anniversary shows in Cropedy.

Reno, Nevada: I’m also not sure of the year of this recording, but my notes say 1968—which I doubt is possible, because that’s Judy Dyble on vocals, not Sandy Denny. If so, it’s very early 1968. I wanted to include one early track showcasing Richard’s teenage guitar style, the style that brought Fairport to Joe Boyd’s attention. Boyd describes going to see them one night and hearing the 18-year-old guitarist launch into a version of “East-West” with a solo unlike anything he’d ever heard. Boyd said he’d fled the U.S. because it was the time of wimpy singer-songwriters, but suddenly he heard these same songs by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, et al transformed into something very different. This recording is from at least a year later, but it’s unlike anything else I have on tape from Richard or the band. There is a 30-minute atonal guitar solo Richard performed at one of the early Fairport Reunion Shows, but I couldn’t find that, and it’d come much later, of course.

Genesis Hall: Rumored to be Richard’s first song. His father was a policeman who was part of the brigade who through squatters from their shanties. Thus the opening lines: “My father he rides with your sheriffs / And I know he would never do you harm.” Not a bad first song.

Meet on the Ledge: Or second one. Reportedly written following (and about) the crash of the band’s van on M1 that killed their original drummer (Martin Lamble) and Richard’s girlfriend, who is rumored to have died in his arms. Richard wouldn’t talk about this accident when I toured with him in 1990. This has become Fairport’s theme song, the last song they play in concert at every show.

A Sailor’s Life: From the opening imitation of waves via the cymbals to the psychedelic folk-rock jamming at the end, very few people were not transformed into true believers (me included) following first hearing this song. Looking back, there are lots of songs like this one now, at the time there was nothing like this, inventing, in many ways—British folk-rock bass playing and drumming, in particular. Bassist for the session was Ashley Hutchings, and the drummer was a young Dave Mattacks, and sometimes the blending of the violin and Richard’s electric guitar make them almost indistinguishable (to me). And keep in mind the average age of the band members at this point (leaving out Swarbrick) is under twenty. This is also one of Fairport’s first attempts to re-envision one of the Child Ballads (thank you, Ashley Hutchings), cross-pollinating it via the use of modern instruments, appearing on the LP prior to Liege and Leif. Originally I was going to put a rehearsal version of this song here because it showcases Richard’s guitar, since it was recorded prior to Dave Swarbrick’s joining the band, but this is the version that broke everything open, and I’ve chosen to include the rehearsal version on the final alternatives CD. A funny story: There’s been a lot written over the years about this recording—how it was a first take recorded live in the studio, showcasing an almost spooky communication between the band members, etc., but when Richard Thompson’s first compilation CD (Watching the Dark) was released, there was—to everyone’s surprise—a studio version without Swarbrick, presumably a rehearsal. And despite all the of the ink claiming that it was Swarbrick’s experience and vision that created the alchemy evident of the released version of “A Sailor’s Life,” it’s very difficult to tell the difference between the two versions, except for the lack of violin. By the way, for best effect, crank it up at 2:50 (I always do), and then again at 6:06. Bon voyage!

Crazy Man Michael: It wasn’t until the release of the latest Thompson compilation this year that Richard formally admitted that this song (the first he wrote following the accident on M1) was a way to address his feelings following the death of his girlfriend. It was his attempt (following Ashley’s encouragement) to write an original song in the Child Ballad idiom. The tune is traditional, but I’ve forgotten its title.

Matty Groves: For those who follow the band, the all-male version that toured the U.S. in 1970 (known as the Full House band, following the title of the live LP released documenting their now-legendary stay at L.A.’s Roxy that year, where this track was recorded) is regarded instrumentally as the best version of the band for their muscular, no-nonsense, sentimentless, full frontal assaults, devoid of anything but testosterone and machismo virtuosity. I’ve included this version of “Matty Groves” because, in addition to being one of Richard’s first vocals with the band, is unbelievably brutal compared to the original’s elegant grace. The tune is from one Child Ballad (again, sorry, I’ve forgotten its title) and the lyrics from another, and the jig at the end is a traditional tune known as “Fur and Feathers.”

Okay, here’s where you put in I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonite, the first LP as Richard and Linda Thompson, and one of the two LPs that should be heard it its entirety. After the 1970 tour, Richard left the Fairport Convention, released the idiosyncratic Henry the Human Fly (reportedly the lowest-selling LP ever released by Warner Brothers Records), met singer Linda Peters at the sessions for “Rock On,” the British folk aristocracy’s collection of classic rock and roll songs done in British folk rock style. Richard and Linda married and recorded I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonite. Who knows what would have happened if this LP had been a success?

Beat the Retreat and Dimming of the Day: As I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonite failed to set the world on fire (although the title song was a brief British hit), Richard became more and more interested in Sufism, eventually retiring with Linda for four years to a Sufi homesteading group, where he put his guitar down and for all intents and purposes left music altogether, selling trinkets on London streets for food money until returning to music in 1978. But before he left, he recorded two LPs, Hokey Pokey, and one of my favorites, Pour Down Like Silver, which featured on its cover full-size close-up photos of Richard and Linda in full Sufi glory. The songs on Pour Down Like Silver are mostly written in classic Sufi style, as poems to God, addressed as a lover. “Dargai” is an ancient Sufi dirge, here played as the final bit of music on the LP, and, for all he knew, his goodbye to the music business.

Personally, I wish this period had lasted forever, as I find the passion, grace, and sincerity of these recordings among the most powerful musical experiences I’ve ever had—or maybe they just touched me a particular time in my life. (Full disclosure: Although I was a huge Fairport Convention fan in real time, I didn’t become aware of Richard’s solo work until 1980’s Shoot Out the Lights, and then worked my way backwards.)

Anyway, there was a farewell live performance featuring some old friends and some Sufi musicians at Drury Lane in London in 1975 that is perhaps my favorite live recording of all time. Many of the original songs performed that night have never been officially released (although, oddly enough, a reworked version of “A Bird in God’s Garden” was recorded by French, Frith, Kaiser, and Thompson), but studio versions of “Night Comes In” and “Calvary Cross” (from a recording from Oxford Polytechnic the same year) first appeared on Pour Down Like Silver.


It’ll Be Me: As I mentioned elsewhere, after an evening of restrained passion and deep spiritual longing comes the physical release, via Jerry Lee Lewis. The Grateful Dead used to have this same dynamic when Pigpen was in the band. After elaborate explorations of the musical spheres, out would swagger Pigpen, microphone in hand, and the band would back up against their speakers, raise their heads and rock as hard as they could, driving Pigpen into sustained, coiled sexuality, as he prowled the proscenium, a lethal mixture of r&b and sheer bravado. Hallelujah!

First Light, Strange Affair, Sweet Surrender, A Heart Needs a Home: After retiring from music in early 1975, Richard and Linda returned in late 1978 with “First Light,” a less-conflicted and more relaxed exploration of classic Sufi themes of the Beloved, spiritual surrender, and the heavenly mixture of sex and spirituality. “Strange Affair” (and maybe “First Light,” I forget, but certainly not “Sweet Surrender,” whose refrain of “Allah, Allah, Allah” would have gotten a Sufi killed not that long ago) is a modern translation or adaptation of a classic Sufi poem, as was at least one other track on the LP. I have a tape somewhere of the demos of the songs for this LP, with just Richard on guitar, and they are vastly superior to these released tracks (other than “A Heart Needs a Home,” for which I’ve included a live version) which sound over-produced and less sincere in comparison.

This is where you would put in Shoot Out the Lights.

After the release of Shoot Out the Lights, Richard came to the U.S. on a solo acoustic tour, where he’d meet Nancy Covey, who was booking talent at McCabes, a hip music venue in L.A. They fell in love, and Richard returned to the U.K. to prepare for a full band tour for the LP, which was an unexpected hit, as well as to tell Linda that their marriage was over. Ironically, at the height of Richard and Linda’s greatest success was their emotional low. But the show must go on, despite the tensions. There was a show in Washington D.C. where Richard came back onstage with blood dripping from a gash in his head after Linda clocked him with a beer bottle backstage (Richard later toured for several years with a white guitar strap splashed with red paint drops as some kind of sick joke, I imagine), or the night Linda, completely smashed, stole a car and was stopped by a policeman who, when he heard her story, returned her to her hotel and let her go.

When they got back to the U.K. after the tour, their marriage dissolved. In the next year they would each release their own solo LPs, both of which did well. But Linda’s “Telling Me Lies” was covered by EmmyLou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt, which would have more or less set her up for life … if falling in love with and marrying the owner of a famous jazz club (whose name escapes me now) and multi-millionaire record label owner didn’t. But, interestingly enough, Linda then came down with a rare psychological disease where she completely lost her voice, and wouldn’t sing or record again for almost twenty years, when I would see her and son Teddy perform at a small local venue, where her voice sounded just fine.

Great Balls of Fire: Richard, meanwhile, toured with various assemblies of musicians, and formed the short-lived GPs with Ralph McTell and the usual post-Fairport crowd. How the band got their name is the source of some confusion. Ashley Hutchings claims that their drummer Dave Mattacks named the band after the attack on the Pope in that year—the Grazed Pontiffs. But their first performance was in Ireland, and so they had to abbreviate it in order not to upset the locals. But as their repertory included songs by Bob Dylan, the Band, et al, I (and everyone else I know) assumed they were named after Gram Parsons, if not his LP “GP.” At any rate, I almost included their versions of “Going, Going, Gone” and “Don’t Do It” here, but, to tell you the truth, they’re not very good. But Richard always feels at home when he’s singing Jerry Lee Lewis.

As I didn’t want to repeat any songs from the live CDs and this history, there is a gap of the songs of the height of Richard’s electric 1980 tours, which are my favorite performances of his. At this point I became (as my girlfriend at the time named me) a “Dickhead,” and would travel around to see the band as many times as I could. And with every guitar solo in every song being a complete improvisation, and the songs as strong as they were, can you blame me? There were times when the people in the audience during the 1985 tour almost outnumbered the number of people onstage. One memorable night there were nine people in the audience and seven people onstage when someone yelled out a question (“Where’s Simon [Nicol]?”), and Richard dropped his guitar on the stage (kerr-rrang!) and jumped offstage and walked up to the audience member and had a conversation with him, at the end of which he said, “Well, I gotta go. You see, I’m in the middle of a concert here.” Anyway, here’s some songs that don’t show up on those live disks.

A Poisoned Heart and a Twisted Memory: Along with “Tear-Stained Letter” (included on the live CD), the nasty songs addressed to Linda begin.

God Loves a Drunk: Richard’s attitude toward alcohol is complicated. As a devout Muslim (who chants from the Koran alone for twenty minutes before each show), he does not, of course, drink, but his friends in Fairport Convention drink more than anyone I’ve ever seen, and he is obviously comfortable and enjoying himself in their company in a pub (and keeping up with the wit and jokes). When I asked him directly about his feelings about alcohol he said that he believes, as Muslims do, that for an alcoholic, alcohol is a substitute for spiritual fulfillment (as is sex, food, love, work, money, success, etc. for others) and, as such, it is merely a SYMBOL that has been confused by the alcoholic with the ESSENCE of their longing. Muslims believe the real desire in an alcoholic is for oneness with God—something the alcoholic shares with everyone else while alive on the earth and separate from God—and so in a way his very drunkenness is a SYMBOL of the essence of his spiritual fulfillment. But since we will rejoin God when we die, it doesn’t really matter what we do here.

Mother Knows Best: I think it was Mitchell Froom who produced this session, and he committed the most egregious error a producer in the days of analog recording could commit—not having enough tape in the machine in the event that your guitarist gets inspired and takes off on a longer-than-expected solo. This song is addressed to Margaret Thatcher’s England, of course. Richard’s social politics are a curious mix. He hates and dreads government in general (the songs he premiered at a recent solo concert in Boulder are among his most politically pointed), but the way he treated his wife Nancy Covey on our tour was enough to turn me off of him in general. His distaste for the common rabble is also pretty strong and bitter. Yet he can be sweet and tender to his wife and shy and modest among his fans as well. Go figure.

Shepherd’s March/Caroline: I’m missing a word in the title here—it’s Caroline’s something … Apron, I think. This is misplaced, as it was recorded during the 1980 solo tour, Richard’s first as a solo performer. It was released on an LP (Small Town Romance) and then as a CD and Richard was so distraught that he had the CD recalled (along with a version of Shoot Out the Lights, which for a short time was released with an additional b-side included. Richard had that one re-released with a special label: “New improved version: Does NOT include “Living in Luxury.”). Later, when Joe Boyd’s Hannibal master recordings were sold to another label, they re-released Small Town Romance and, after the first pressing was sold out, Richard successfully barred its re-release. Anyway, what Richard does not like about the CD is that he feels his playing is horrible and his singing an embarrassment—as it was his first solo acoustic tour. As you can hear on this track, the mistakes and missed fingerings are evident, but the passion in his playing and his groanings and moans make this a very special recording, unlike anything else he’s ever released. Those mistakes came from his passion, and that’s what people (like me) fell in love with. The later tours where he’s so accomplished he’s almost self-consciously slick are much less interesting than these early shows. But also, like the band tours, often you were one of only a few people in the audience, and so you felt he NEEDED your support, which was a very touching and personal way to relate to a solo performer sitting close enough that when he looked up, he looked into your eyes with shy embarrassment.

Tir-Nan-Darag and Same Thing: Richard was part of a short-lived supergroup that recorded and released two CDs, along with John French (Drumbo from Capt. Beefheart’s classic line-up of the Magic Band), and avant-garde guitarists Fred Frith (who plays bass on most tracks) and Henry Kaiser. “Same Thing” was a “bonus track” only available on the CD release. The reason I think it was relegated to being a bonus track is that they thought it nothing special alongside the other material on the CDs, which was way, way weirder.

Put It There Pal: Bob Dylan was one of Richard’s greatest passions from his earliest days in Fairport Convention (when a photo of Bob Dylan graced the walls of their rehearsal studio). So when Dylan’s manager put in a call for Richard to accompany Bob Dylan during a live show in Seville, Spain, in the mid-nineties entitled something like “Classics of the Guitar,” Richard immediately said yes. He flew out on short notice and found on his arrival that Dylan refused to see him or rehearse before the show, and so they met onstage. Richard had no idea what songs Dylan was going to perform, or even what key the songs would be in, and so spent most of his time retuning his guitar onstage and feeling like a fool. But, hey, we get one of Richard’s most passionately bitter vocals and angry and blistering guitar solos.

My Soul My Soul: By the time I returned from touring with Richard and Fairport in 1990, I had completely lost interest in Richard, mostly due to his condescension toward his wife, but also because his songs weren’t as interesting to me from that point on—and still aren’t. Most of my favorite songs from the last decade are included here and on the live CDs that follow, but here’s the sole song I like off his last studio effort, “Front-Parlour Ballads.”

Poseidon: Judith Owen is the woman singing with Richard on the 1000 Years shows. It’s interesting to me that for the first 4-5 years of his recording, Richard refused to sing (in fact, his first lead vocal—on “Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman”—was pulled off his last LP with Fairport and remained unreleased for almost 15 years because Richard hated his voice)—but just listen to him hear here—he’s crooning!

Psycho Street: I was with Richard during the days he was putting together songs for his next LP, and his manager, his wife, and his label wanted him to pull this song off what they considered his best shot at stardom (it didn’t work and the LP failed to chart). But Richard insisted on including this track—which he agreed to move to the end of the CD, so I have done the same here. By the way, Richard’s favorite author is Jim Thompson, the author of really twisted murder stories like “The Killer in Me.” This, according to Richard, is a series of soap opera stories for an imaginary show something like a popular British soap opera called “Neighbours” as written by Jim Thompson.

CD3: Mostly Acoustic and Live

Now That I Am Dead: This was written by John French and his wife, and originally recorded by French, Frith, Kaiser, and Thompson. Thompson used to perform this with scary Halloween lighting and seemed, as he always did, more enthusiastic when he was singing someone else’s lyrics.

Lotteryland: The darkness and condescension of songs like “Lotteryland” doesn’t bother me as much as some of his other lyrics that are scornful and disdainful of “the common rabble.”

1952 Vincent Black Lightning: I’ll tell you, this was my last and closest call, and I only included it because you specifically requested it. This and “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven” are the songs that Richard is obligated to sing at every fricking concert, and whenever he begins to sing “Black Lightning” I immediately space out until the guitar break, which is usually pretty interesting (this one, I think, is particularly nice). Yeah, okay, the lyric is an absolute marvel—written in the classic ballad style but in a completely inspired modern setting, and the setting is elevated and sure. But every show I’m dreading those first notes, and the audience’s roar, and me going slightly sulky. It’s like in the Sixties when I was into “Strawberry Fields Forever,” man, and my friends were all gooey over “Yesterday.” It takes real maturity to appreciate what’s popular, and with a catalog as deep as Richard’s, I don’t have to.  I just realized, however, that I didn’t put “From Galway to Graceland” anywhere on here. That’s a huge mistake.

Down Where the Drunkards Roll: A song from his days with Linda. Another ambivalent song about drinking and drunkards.

Valerie: This was written at the point where I began to get slightly uneasy around some of Richard’s lyrics, which seemed to me to be getting nasty, judgmental, and mean-spirited. Remember, I came in when Richard was singing translations of Sufi love poems. But this is one of the songs that transcended its electric roots when Richard was touring with just an acoustic guitar.

I Misunderstood/Two Left Feet. The break on “Two Left Feet” with references to Magritte, etc., was something that Richard worked up in concert.

Waltzing’s for Dreamers: That’s Shawn Colvin on back-up vocals. She toured with the Richard Thompson band in 1991 and during that tour she fell in love with Richard’s soundman, who is who I got all of my soundboard recordings from (which ended at this point, coincidentally enough). Later, Shawn and Michael fell out, which was the impetus behind Shawn’s break-through, break-up CD, about coming come one day and throwing him out.

Don’t Let a Thief Steal into Your Heart: Another song from the Richard and Linda days. This was covered by the Pointer Sisters, interestingly enough, although it was, as Richard puts it, the sole Pointer Sisters LP that didn’t go gold.

Beeswing/A Love You Can’t Survive/Who Medley: Richard used to go to the see the Who in small clubs in London when he was first starting out. Although Dylan was the official inspiration, Richard secretly envied Townshend’s songs and lyrics. He’s often done “Substitute” but this is the only time I know of him to string a bunch of Who songs together into a medley.

I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Richard got to meet Phil Ochs’ widow not that long ago and asked her if he could update the lyrics to “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.”

Killing Jar: Another song written for French, Frith, Kaiser, and Thompson, and one of Richard’s darkest lyrics.

Filler: A Trio of Novelty Songs of Wit and Humor

(The Story of) Hamlet: This is a cover of a song by Frank Loesser, who wrote “Guys and Dolls” and other broadway hits in the early ’60s.

Madonna’s Wedding: Written to the melody of “Nobody’s Wedding,” one of Richard’s first compositions.

Dear Janet Jackson


Ca Plane Por Moi: This is the song that set this project off. Check out YouTube for a performance by the singer of Plastic Bertrand from Top of the Pops 1978.

Ghosts in the Wind/MGB-GT: I was parking at the Y the other day and parked next to a MGB-GT—it was hot!

Gethsemane/Uninhabited Man/Outside the Inside: Richard wrote “Outside the Inside” shortly after 9/11, in the voice of a radical Muslim fundamentalist, and began performing it almost immediately.

The Way That It Shows/Morris Dances/Flying Saucer Rock ‘n’ Roll/Crash the Party/Crawl Back Under My Stone/The Israelites: I almost left off “The Israelites” part in the track listing because it’s such a pleasant surprise, especially after the recent death of Desmond Dekker. As far as I know, this is a one-off, and I’m not sure what inspired it.


Sloth: This is the officially released LP version. I have dozens of live versions, and went back and forth about what to include, but timing decided it for me—the live versions were all much longer than this one. But it was interesting to me that I wasn’t very impressed by this song after putting together the other songs on this set. There wasn’t any version that I felt moved as seamlessly as, say, any performance of “Night Comes In” or “Calvary Cross.”

For Shame of Doing Wrong: As I put together these sets, my intention was not to duplicate any songs on the two live CDs from 1985 and 1988. But I had some room here and this is, without a doubt, my favorite Richard Thompson guitar solo of all time … along with the live “Jerusalem on the Jukebox” from 1988. Unfortunately the recording quality isn’t professional grade. Interesting note: The ending of the live version of “Jerusalem on the Jukebox” from that 1988 show is edited out, which is funny because it’s almost my favorite part. Richard finishes the solo, and the song is over, when suddenly the drummer and bass player continue to play and Richard, after a pause, begins to play again and the three of them go at it, faster and faster until they bring it to a frantic fevered climax and the song ends. I was going to include the unedited version on the alternates CD, but the first 9+ minutes are the same, and the “final” ending is less than a minute, so it seemed indulgent. Then I was going to substitute it for the edited version on the 1988 CD but it wouldn’t fit, which may be why they edited it in the first place.

CD5: Alternates and Others

A Sailor’s Life: A pre-Swarbrick rehearsal.

Time Will Show the Wiser: This was a song that appeared on their first LP, sung by Iain Matthews, I think. Anyway, Richard got to sing it at a Fairport reunion show.

MGB-GT/Uninhabited Man/Gethsemane/Outside the Inside/Ghosts in the Wind/Shoot Out the Lights: I knew from the very beginning that I was going to include acoustic and electric versions of some songs, to show how Richard handles the songs in different settings.

Substitute: Although this appears as part of the Who Medley on CD3, here it is on its own.

Put It There Pal: The studio version was nasty enough, but check out this vocal and solo. This is the guy who wouldn’t sing for the first five years of his recording career. I would have included this on the electric live set but the recording quality (like that on “For Shame of Doing Wrong”) just doesn’t cut it. But its worth hearing, I think.

Treadwell No More: I don’t know if you’ve seen the film “Grizzly Man,” but Thompson’s music is basically one long electric guitar solo. This comes near the end, and it brings together a lot of the earlier themes in one extended track.

Killerman Gold Posse: This was an actual group that robbed people in the subway and such, for political purposes. Richard decided they needed a theme song.

Matty Groves: Just for fun, and typical of Fairportish humor. This version reportedly includes passages from each of the versions of Fairport Convention, even some that were solely live configurations that never officially released any recordings.

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