Richard Thompson’s Watching the Dark

cover artRichard Thompson is often described as a cult figure, a description that Thompson himself defines as meaning that he does not have hit records and, as a result, does not make a fortune from his art. Even adepts of the cult who have all of his officially issued recordings will find things to rejoice at in Watching the Dark (hereinafter WtD.) It is also a marvelous introduction to Thompson’s career for anyone unfamiliar with his work.

The boxed set consists of three CDs containing over three hours of music, and includes not only well-known songs (remixed where necessary), sometimes in rare or unpublished versions, but also pieces that have never been published before, plus an informative booklet.

The oldest recordings in this compilation date back to 1969 when Thompson was only 20 years old and a member of Fairport Convention, a group whose earliest influences were the Byrds, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane. In due course, the band began to include in its repertoire traditional songs from the British Isles or self-composed songs drawing on that tradition.

It would be risky to claim that Fairport Convention “invented” British folk rock. There were other artists in the early ’60s who were combining British folk sounds with blues or jazz, such as the Davey Graham and the band of musicians who eventually gelled into Pentangle, not to mention the “skiffle” players of the ’50s. Nonetheless, Fairport Convention was pivotal in the emergence of folk rock, a process encouraged by developments in the band’s membership. One of the founding members, Ashley Hutchings, became interested in English traditional music (later pursued with Steeleye Span and a series of Albion Bands). Then the original female singer with the group was replaced by Sandy Denny, who had worked on the folk-club scene. Soon afterwards, Iain Matthews, the other Fairport vocalist, who was less interested in the “folk” tendencies, left the group to follow a solo career.

The arrival in Fairport Convention of the established folk violinist Dave Swarbrick accelerated the process whereby—with their albums Liege and Lief (1969) and Full House (1970, following Sandy Denny’s departure)—the band espoused a traditional and “traditional-sounding” repertoire played on electric instruments and with rock percussion. Then Thompson too quit the band. Fairport’s subsequent development is another story, but his years with the group marked the young Thompson and when he left he had already become a sensational guitarist (mainly still electric), had shown an ability to write sensitive lyrics and haunting tunes and had started to sing, although his voice was not yet fully developed.

WtD includes three songs by Fairport Convention in this era. “Now Be Thankful,” a Swarbrick-Thompson composition from 1970, is a religious song, early signs of the search for enlightenment that later led Thompson towards Sufism. “Genesis Hall,” by contrast, is a humane but angry song written by Thompson alone. Both of these pieces sound “folkish,” while the third, “A Sailor’s Life,” is a genuinely traditional song given the full Fairport electric treatment, with soaring Thompson guitar-playing alongside Denny’s unique clear voice and lasting over 11 minutes.

It may be churlish to quibble but I would have welcomed one of Thompson’s “quasi-traditional” songs from this period. “Crazy Man Michael” (co-written with Swarbrick) and “Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman” are examples, while “Farewell, Farewell” uses a traditional tune (“Willie o’ Winsbury,” Child ballad #100). For most of his career, Thompson has continued to borrow from traditional British sources, even if they come packaged with the uncompromisingly electric treatment heard on his more recent recordings.

Henry The Human Fly, Thompson’s first solo record, was an eccentric collection of songs played in an eclectic collection of styles, with the folk influences evident, but displaying signboards to all kinds of other destinations and using musicians who crop up again on numerous later Thompson recordings. Thompson does most of the singing, showing a vocal confidence not always apparent in Fairport days and displays his skills on acoustic guitar more prominently than before. Although Thompson describes Henry as Warner Brothers’ worst seller of all time and sometimes claims to know everyone who bought it, it was truly revolutionary. It is represented on WtD by three songs illustrating the record’s quirky variety. “Nobody’s Wedding” is a nonsense song based on the Scottish dance music of Thompson’s paternal ancestors; “The Poor Ditching Boy” is another “composed folk” song, while “Twisted” typifies the depressive nature of many of Thompson’s songs. This quality, although frequently simultaneously comic, ironic or self-mocking, has led his work to be commonly described as “doom and gloom.”

Among the backing singers on Henry was Linda Peters. Her subsequent marriage to Thompson began an artistic partnership in which Linda’s sensitive and accurate performance of her husband’s songs produced five albums of mostly outstanding quality. Even the two generally thought to be of a lower standard (First Light and Sunnyvista), contain some timelessly excellent music. The “Richard and Linda Thompson” era began in 1973 with I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. Among diehard Thompson fans, this is often described as his second-best recording. For your reviewer, Bright Lights is actually Thompson’s finest disc, combining aspects of rock and folk and even a touch of music hall, already a trace element on Henry The Human Fly. Like Henry, Bright Lights is full of unexpected instrumentation and teasing musical arrangements. The two Thompsons’ voices blend perfectly, and Richard plays stunning guitar, often acoustic.

The two songs from this album featured here, “Withered and Died” (plenty of doom and gloom) and “The Great Valerio” (also sinister) are excellent showcases for Linda’s voice and Richard’s playing. Strangely, the title song, with its infectious bounce and the bonus of a brass band, is not included. Indeed, several songs on Bright Lights are so central to Thompson’s oeuvre that their omission is puzzling; “When I Get to the Border,” “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” and “We Sing Hallelujah” have all been performed by other artists and make fascinating use of folk-derived ingredients. A 1983 live recording of this album’s “Calvary Cross,” with one of Thompson’s coruscating electric guitar solos, is also included here.

The title track from Richard and Linda’s following album, Hokey Pokey (1974), with its gloriously ambiguous lyrics about ice cream that might just as easily be about sex, appears with three other songs from the disc, including one of Thompson’s greatest love songs of all, “A Heart Needs A Home,” in a previously unreleased live version. It is preceded on WtD by a selection from Mr and Mrs Thompson’s overtly Muslim record, Pour Down Like Silver (1975), including “Dimming Of The Day,” a further example of Thompson’s profoundly moving lovesongs.

Regrettably, WtD does not include Thompson’s Sufi song “Night Comes In,” a line from which gives Pour Down Like Silver its title. This song too has frequently served in live performances as a vehicle for virtuoso guitar playing and would have been an interesting inclusion. However, this anthology does have a storming, unreleased version of “For Shame Of Doing Wrong” from this record, as well as both the idiosyncratic “Jet Plane in a Rocking Chair” and “Beat the Retreat,” a song of a lover’s resignation.

Although the next two Richard and Linda albums are generally considered of lower quality, both yielded some excellent songs and performances, two of which appear here. “Strange Affair” from First Light is a wistful song with Islamic overtones and gave its title to Patrick Humphries’ biography of Thompson. “Borrowed Time” from Sunnyvista is as sinister as any of Thompson’s songs, with its atmosphere of undefined menace.

Richard and Linda’s final album, Shoot Out The Lights, is widely held to be Thompson’s finest work. With hindsight, many listeners hear these bitter, resentful, regretful songs as a chronicle of marital breakdown, even though Thompson claims that the title song is not about the end of domestic happiness but the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Thompson often says that his songs are not particularly “about” any specific time, place or event, even when they contain specific references. Then again, he likes to tease his audience by giving contradictory accounts of the same song.

The pre-eminence of Shoot Out The Lights in Thompson’s oeuvre is shown by the fact that five songs from it appear on WtD, sometimes in unfamiliar versions. The entire compilation (whose title comes from a line in “Shoot Out The Lights”) begins with “A Man in Need” and the album’s title song concludes the whole collection in a devastating live version. In between, the selection offers two songs about living with risk, “Walking on a Wire” and “Wall of Death,” plus an unreleased version of the bitter-comic “Back Street Slide.”

Even before he left Linda, Thompson had begun to play acoustic shows in more intimate venues than those suited to a fuller band. This collection includes the bleak, unhappy title track from a solo live album recorded in the USA in 1982. The record, Small Town Romance, was commercially unavailable when WtD was released; Thompson was allegedly unhappy at the quality of some of the performances (the vocals are indeed strained in places) and had the recording withdrawn from sale. However, when copies started changing hands for $100, he relented in 1997 and allowed the album to be issued on CD.

Another eccentric Thompson venture from this period was his instrumental album Strict Tempo!. It is multi-tracked, with Thompson plucking a variety of stringed instruments in virtuoso manner, accompanied only by drummer Dave Mattacks, on pieces ranging from Scots and Irish dance tunes to Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” The latter, which follows the big-band original with breath-taking precision, might have been a good choice for WtD. Instead, we get a Thompson original, “The Knife Edge,” on which he plays five different instruments, demonstrating once again his immense instrumental skill. From the same period but with only one acoustic guitar, WtD includes a pair of Scots tunes, “Shepherd’s March” and “Maggie Cameron,” recorded live in New York in 1982.

Since the split with Linda, Thompson has released a series of albums on which he sings lead vocals and demonstrates his remarkable skills as a composer and guitarist. Hand of Kindness from 1983 showed that Thompson without Linda could still write and perform highly original songs in a rock format but with a band including folk musicians. WtD includes the album’s title track as well as the jocular “Two Left Feet,” still a staple of Thompson’s concerts. This compilation also features three songs from Hand of Kindness in previously unreleased versions. There are alternative takes of “The Wrong Heartbeat” and “Devonside,” and, most remarkable of all, a live version of “Tear Stained Letter,” recorded eight years later with an outrageous Thompson solo on electric guitar that goes on for three minutes longer than the studio version.

The studio recording, Across A Crowded Room (1985), contains a strong set of songs, some of which regularly reappear in performance. WtD includes “Walking Through A Wasted Land,” as well as previously unreleased versions of the marvelous “When The Spell Is Broken,” “Little Blue Number” and “I Ain’t Going To Drag My Feet No More,” all in live recordings and featuring the perfectly appropriate backing vocals of Christine Collister and Clive Gregson.

Crowded Room was Thompson’s last recording produced by Joe Boyd, who had been collaborating with him since he signed up Fairport Convention in 1967. The next album, Daring Adventures from 1986, saw the beginning of an association with the producer Mitchell Froom, who would be responsible for the next five studio albums and brought a more mainstream sound to the music. Although the old folkies and unusual instruments were still to be heard in places and Thompson’s still overwhelmingly gloomy songs continued to be influenced by traditional and early music, Froom’s rhythm sections used regular rock musicians. He also exploited studio electronics to obtain a “brighter” sound.

Daring Adventures is sometimes described as Thompson’s attempt to emulate the success of Dire Straits. Unfortunately, listeners to WtD cannot judge the attempt, since the two songs from the record included are both live recordings: “Al Bowlly’s In Heaven,” in which a disabled war veteran evokes the music of Thompson’s father’s generation to a suitably jazz-inclined backing, and “Jennie,” another song of unhappy love, played solo.

The following Froom-produced album, Amnesia (1988) is represented on *WtD* by two songs, “Waltzing’s For Dreamers” and “I Still Dream,” neither of which remotely typifyies the slicker end of Froom’s style. “Waltzing” is performed with total simplicity, making its sad references to “losers in love” all the starker, while “I Still Dream” has brass band musicians. Another song from Amnesia, “Can’t Win” (an archetypal Thompson title), is presented here in a strong and bitter live version with the 1988 touring band. The same live session yields “Crash The Party,” good-time rock music with Eddie Cochrane-style hooks and a roaring band. This song has never been released anywhere else.

Rumor And Sigh (1992), the third album of the Froom era, contains several Thompson concert staples: “I Feel So Good,” “I Misunderstood,” “God Loves A Drunk” and “Don’t Sit On My Jimmy Shands” (like “Tear Stained Letter,” this last is one of Thompson’s “audience participation” songs). It also includes one of Thompson’s most noteworthy vehicles for virtuoso guitar playing, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” without which no solo performance is complete. However, none of these is on WtD. Instead we get “Keep Your Distance,” a title that typifies Thompson’s talent for bringing out the menace and foreboding that lurk in everyday phrases.

Among the most recent recordings included in WtD there are acoustic live performances of the touchingly depressing song about Elvismania, “Galway to Graceland,” with elegant guitar, and two traditional Scottish songs, “Bogie’s Bonnie Belle” (more unhappy love) and “Poor Wee Jockey Clarke” (which Thompson accompanies on hurdy-gurdy).

Apart from the three Fairport cuts mentioned, WtD does not do justice to Thompson’s wide-ranging recording collaboration with other musicians throughout his career, except for one long track from one of the two “avant-garde” albums that he cut with John French, Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser, “Bird In God’s Garden/Lost And Found,” recorded in 1987. This piece, with strong Islamic influences, illustrates the willingness to experiment that has always kept Thompson’s music fresh and exciting.

The greatest problem with a retrospective compilation of a living artist who is still creative is that it is necessarily incomplete. WtD contains nothing from Thompson’s last two albums with Mitchell Froom (Mirror Blue and You? Me? Us?) or, obviously, from his 1999 CD Mock Tudor, where new producers have achieved a more “live” sound than Froom.

Thompson has continued to play in a wide variety of contexts and still has the capacity to surprise. Plainly, he does not lack ideas. They are present throughout this compilation and are put into practice to produce a remarkable variety of songs and tunes, performed in very diverse ways. It seems unfair that one man should be an astonishingly gifted guitarist, a brilliant songwriter whose compositions have been recorded by many other musicians, and an accomplished singer whose voice has grown more assured and listenable as it has matured. Incidentally, you will not hear this maturation as you listen to Watching the Dark, since the songs are grouped by periods in an apparently random order. What you will hear is a selection — not the one that I might have made, but perhaps no two Thompson fans could agree on a definitive “top 47” — of performances by one of our era’s most outstanding and distinctive musicians, with a natural instinct for the loaded and chilling lyric, the appropriate tune and the right guitar licks to knit the two together. We can look forward to further surprising delights from Richard Thompson. Meanwhile, if you do not have this collection, seek it out and buy it immediately.

(Rykodisc, 1993)

You can find the official Richard Thompson website is at this location.

About Richard Condon

Richard Condon, Senior Writer, grew up in the south-eastern suburbs of London, where he was in the same grammar school class as Mick Jagger, with whom he shared a youthful passion for blues music. The first folk music that he heard, apart from the genteel kind taught in school music lessons, was American rather than British, but enthusiasm for the early recordings of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez brought him back to the British sources from which they derived some of their material and he began listening to the singers of the British folk revival. This led on to a lifelong interest in traditional music which has broadened to include musical forms from all parts of the world.

At the same time he continued to enjoy rock music, and when in mid-1967 a college room-mate’s brother told him that he should go and hear a brand-new band called Fairport Convention that some friends of his had just set up, he discovered the burgeoning folk-rock scene and followed the development of Fairport towards a more traditionally oriented repertoire and the emergence of Steeleye Span and the Albion Band with interest and approval. Folk, folk-rock and related genres remain his dominant musical passions, and it is rumoured that he would trade his grandmother for a Richard Thompson bootleg. He also listens to jazz and classical music and wastes a certain amount of money on vainly trying to master the guitar.

After five years studying at Oxford University, Richard Condon became a university teacher of political science in Birmingham, UK, but in 1977 he moved to Brussels, in Belgium, to work as a civil servant for the Commission of the European Union, where he currently holds a management job in the budget department.

Living outside the well worn concert and club circuits of North America and Britain, Richard relies on recordings for most of his musical pleasure, although Belgium and neighbouring regions of France and the Netherlands are occasionally blessed by the passage of musicians from further afield. Richard is a member of the Brussels Galician Center, which regularly hosts musicians from a variety of roots traditions, and is a sponsor of the annual Brosella Folk and Jazz Festival. He is also a member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Apart from music, he enjoys strenuous hiking in the mountains (of which there are unfortunately none in Belgium) and used to run marathons until he decided that he was too old. Richard and his wife Cathy have three daughters, two of them grown up, the eldest of whom has now attained sufficient wisdom to enjoy the same sort of music as her Dad.

Richard Condon lives in downtown Brussels and welcomes contacts from anyone who shares his passions. If you are passing through town, you can call him on +322 242 8226. You can e-mail him at this address.