« Apple Tart | Main | The Glow of Impulse Purchase »

January 21, 2005

Richard Thompson is Different

Perhaps I have mentioned Richard Thompson once or twice before. No matter . I have another, much more chunky, music post to write -- but Richard Thompson has floated to the top of my musical consciousness three times this week, and there must be an article in that.

But first, a slight digression about the form of the musical posts here. I like the form of Mixtaper, a site where people put together virtual mixtapes from the sample mp3s scattered around the web. They normally add links to the mp3, the artist's website, perhaps a flash of cover art. It began in the days when eMusic was all-you-can-eat, but has drifted. But the idea is good, and when writing here I'll try to link to downloads when I can.

Back to Richard Thompson; I suppose I should make some attempt to describe his music overall, and I can't, not really. He's a singer-songwriter and he plays guitar. Languidly sitting on the grass at Trowbridge last year, our friend Doug explained how he gets bored about a third of the way into sets by singer-songwriters. There's the bloke, you see, and the guitar, and then it's another song, and there's a bloke and a guitar... "Right," I said cheerfully. "So you won't be staying for the Richard Thompson set, then?" "Ah. No. Richard Thompson is Different."

Richard Thompson is Different. An hour or so after that conversation, he came on stage, you know, just a bloke and a guitar (and a beret), and played a lot of songs, very quickly without a lot of faffing about because it was a festival set and he didn't have much time. And we were all entranced.

This has been going on for a while. Steven and I met in winter, and the following summer he persuaded me to go to Cropredy. For the good of my soul, and at least in part because Thompson was doing a solo set. I was not committed to the idea of spending weekends in muddy fields at that point. We fetched up with a pile of Steven's friends, none of whom I really knew. All quite mad, and all quite, quite mad about Richard Thompson, whom I'd never heard at all as far as I knew. By the time he came on stage, it was sort of cold, and dark, and a bit wet. And by the end of the set I was completely hooked.

So, ok. He's one of the greatest singer-songwriters. He's a brilliant guitarist. Audiences are spellbound. So why have so few ordinary members of the public heard of him? Well, he came out of the folk tradition, so that doesn't help, I suppose. Beyond that, I have no idea.

Until quite recently, the only free mp3 downloads of Richard Thompson's music were a couple of odd little rarities. But now there's a bunch, including a live version of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, or 'that motorbike one' as Flick calls it. Allegedly the most often requested song on National Public Radio, it's also one of my favourite Richard Thompson songs. And as Richard Thompson is one of my favourite musicians, that means it must therefore be one of my favourite songs of all. Not that I think about music that way.

I'm not very good at deconstructing music. "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is an incredibly powerful modern ballad, I think because it taps into the same vein as the Child ballads (that link is through to a fabulously useful site marred by hideous auto-MIDI; you've been warned). The basic plot feels like an ancient folk song, with the motorbike where the horse ought to be. Plenty of incident, grand themes, sex and death, lots of verses. Layer on a fine feeling of British nostalgia and of course that wicked guitar, and you're sorted. I suspect there's a huge swell of people out there who don't realise they'd like the themes and stories of the ancient ballads, because either they've never heard them, or the only ones they've heard have been given the pickled in aspic treatment and it's just too much for them.

Meanwhile, over on eMusic, where you do have to pay per track, but only 1/4 as much as, say iTunes, I've just been able to legitimise my copy of The Bones of All Men, which has been a bit of an embarrassment to me. I copied the mp3s as part of a batch of stuff from a friend, liked it from the first, and hadn't got round to buying it. Whoops. It's only been a couple of years... The eMusic genre lies; this is early music, not country/folk. Except sort of late early music, with electric guitar and half of Fairport mixing it with crumhorn and harsichord and so on. The Bones of All Men is a collaboration between Thompson and Philip Pickett, one of Britain's most renowned early music experts, and, well, secret rocker, clearly. The tunes are ancient English dance songs, and I'm so much more accustomed to hearing English music with rock overtones that I started to write that it was pretty unreconstructed before stopping to consider just exactly how reconstructed it was.

And finally, back on Shuffle, I heard a song for the first time while stuck somewhere in a tunnel; A Blind Step Away. This is from the French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson album Live, Love, Larf and Loaf, another recent eMusic acquisition. I listened to it thinking, gosh, this is good, gosh, if you're going to be randomly stuck in a tunnel then isn't it nice to be randomly listening to stuff like this, and gosh, this must be a Richard Thompson song I don't know. Though it turned out I have another version, a June Tabor that starts well, but loses the song in an over-fussy arrangement. Unusual for Tabor, I know, but there we go.

Posted by Alison at January 21, 2005 07:03 PM


The problem with Richard Thompason is that his songs are too slow. It's not that all songs have to be fast, it's just that the songs he writes *should* be faster. Like Wall of Death.

Plus, beret.

Posted by: Flick at January 22, 2005 11:45 AM

One of my great motivators for listening to live music is this: musicians get better at playing their music. I remember Steven telling me so at a time when I'd heard so little live music that I hadn't noticed for myself. Sometimes they record a live album that captures that; more rarely they go back to the studio to re-record tracks once they know what really makes them shine. 1952 VBL is fabulous live; the recording is a pale imitation -- but that live sound is what you get when someone plays a song over and over again, and then works really hard to make it shimmery fine every single time.

Posted by: Alison Scott at January 23, 2005 01:27 AM

Plus, beret

We forgive everyone one flaw, m'lady.

Posted by: Erik V. Olson at January 29, 2005 04:04 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

Your comment will be moderated unless you're using an authentication service and you've commented here before. You can use some HTML tags for style and links.