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By James Wirth
Eeurgh! Folk music! Eeeuuurgh, the most uncool of all the musics in the world. More worthy than Andy Kershaw. Morris dancers. Crappy little clubs in 'ye olde' pubs held by English Literature professors.
No doubt about it, folk music will not help you impress the ladies (or the gentlemen), although it might have your parents beaming and saying that finally your taste in music has 'grownup'. It's one of the sad consequences of the American cultural domination of Britain that country music represents the epitome of doomed glamour: Hank Williams, Gram Parsons etc, whilst our own indigenous music is the sole property of the Arran sweater brigade, for the simple reason that nobody else really wants it. Richard Thompson, however, is ripe for rediscovery.
Robyn Hitchcock, if he can really be fitted into any musical tradition (nouveau psychedelia, power pop, etc) is as near to folk or folk-rock as he is to anything else. The Soft Boys' Live At The Portland Arms is unashamedly recorded in a folk club, whilst he is to be heard having a stab at Richard Thompson songs on various illicit recordings; 'Poor Will & The Jolly Hangman' on the recent Rout Of The Clones CD and 'Calvary Cross' on a number of different releases. Indeed, there are quite a few parallels between the two songwriters' careers, most notably that both are Englishmen who are the sole property of the American music industry. Both are also highly respected amongst fellow musicians but not by the record buying public - well, Richard Thompson is anyway; everyone thinks Robyn's shit apart from REM.
The story begins with Fairport Convention. Originally lauded as Britain's answer to the West Coast sound of Jefferson Airplane, they were signed at first to Kit Lambert's Track Records, recorded a self-titled album for Polydor, before finally settling with Britain's foremost then independent label, Island. The original Fairports combined Thompson's guitar with the ethereal and classically English vocals of Sandy Denny. As with many bands of their era, songwriting was not at a premium and their sets were supplemented with a range of traditional songs, Bob Dylan covers and the work of other American songwriters. Their first Island LP, What We Did On Our Holidays, is sporadically riveting and included the nearly-hit single 'Meet On The Ledge'. A popular live act, they soon became regulars at student unions across the country and as they grew in confidence. Their third album, Unhalfbricking, with its sleeve depicting Sandy Denny's rather aged parents, included Denny's torch song 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes' alongside innovative arrangements of Bob Dylan songs and the remarkable 'A Sailor's Life', a twelve minute arrangement of a traditional song which is as good a demonstration of Thompson's understated brilliance as a guitarist as any.
However, tragedy was to strike the group in the aftermath of this album. En route to a concert, their tour bus overturned killing the band's drummer Martin Lamble as well as Thompson's girlfriend of the time. Remarkably, in the wake of this disaster Fairport Convention produced what is widely acclaimed as their finest album, Liege & Lief. Containing only one Thompson-penned song, the astonishing 'Farewell, Farewell', this album was the defining moment in British folk-rock music. The vast majority of the album is taken up with re-workings of traditional songs with intricate arrangements of fiddle and guitar; if this sounds unpromising, then one listen to 'The Deserter' will dispel any fears. A triumph in adversity, Liege & Lief was to be the final statement from the classic Fairport line-up; Sandy Denny jumped ship to form Fotheringay with her future husband, Trevor Lucas. Her later albums were to feature Thompson cameos, and her untimely death from a fall down the stairs robbed British music of one of its truly great voices.
Fairport Convention staggered on although Thompson bowed out in the wake of the following LP, Full House. A more subdued effort than its predecessor, the group perhaps struggled to find an adequate replacement for Denny's vocals. There are great moments; Thompson's lengthy 'Sloth' and the eerie 'Flowers Of The Forest', but it was becoming clear that Thompson's interests lay elsewhere. The group carried on without him through endless line-ups, all a pale shadow of the ground-breaking late 60s formation.
A first solo album, Henry The Human Fly, failed to set the world alight, but the follow up, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, his first collaboration with his wife, Linda, proved well worth waiting for. From the opening clarion call of 'When I Get To The Border' to the tense 'The Great Valerio' at the end, it is difficult to find a weak moment. Perhaps the folkiness of 'The Little Beggar Girl' grates slightly, but you shouldn't be put off; I'll stick my neck out - no greater album was, to my extensive knowledge, between the death of psychedelia and the advent of punk rock. [Ahem! Don't bother writing in on this one, anyone - Aidan.] Guitar work, lyrics, truly exquisite arrangements; Bright Lights has it all and some to spare. Buy NOW!
It was a hard act to follow and, unsurprisingly, Hokey Pokey, the couple's next album was something of a disappointment. The old problem of excessive tweeness when couples record together reared its head (refer to any post 1973 John & Yoko albums for evidence). Indeed, the couple struggled throughout the late 70s to find the form of their first collaboration. Their conversion to Sufism (a religion; that's all I know) arguably didn't help. A stream of remarkably average albums; Pour Down Like Silver, First Light, Sunnyvista and a retrospective collection Guitar, Vocals saw Thompson struggling to maintain his songwriting impetus; punk had rendered his generation obsolete and, like all of his contemporaries, the late 1970s represented a fallow period.
At the turn of the 80s, it became clear that all was not well in the Thompson household; a home-made album of instrumentals, Strict Tempo, was significant only in that Linda Thompson played no part in its production and when the couple finally did get down to recording an album, it was to be their last as a duo. Released in 1982, Shoot Out The Lights is like a Mars Bar full of broken glass; beautiful pop tunes and a fine production job from Joe Boyd cover up a seething pit of anxiety and mutual contempt. Once more, Thompson found strength in adversity, and the album is an absolute gem. 'Walking On A Wire' literally tears me apart; as acute an insight into a collapsing love affair as any even 'Linctus House' and that's saying something. Conversely, 'A Man In Need' and 'Wall Of Death' (recently murdered by REM) are pop songs of the highest calibre. Once more, an essential purchase.
One messy divorce later and Thompson was a free agent again, and he celebrated his new found freedom on 1983's Hand Of Kindness; a schizophrenic album mixing light hearted songs like 'Two Left Feet' with more downbeat material, like the aching ballad 'How I Wanted To'. He went on to produce two patchy albums for Polydor before he was picked up by Capitol at the end of the 80s. These latter period albums Amnesia, Rumour & Sigh and last year's Mirror Blue are a mixed bunch.The transition from British legend to American college hero is fraught with compromises (as anyone who has heard Robyn Hitchcock's recent albums will know). Not to say that the material which graces his recent albums is poor; there is much to recommend to the casual listener, it's just that major labels tend to employ the most unsympathetic producers in America. Thus, the recent history of Richard Thompson is, like that of Robyn Hitchcock, one of decent songs suffocated by truly unnecessary production jobs. The culprit in Thompson's case is one Mitchell Froom who is deserving of a hefty kicking should any PVs readers happen to meet him. Witnessing a recent acoustic show at Sheffield City Hall proved that Thompson's recent work has been tainted by squeaky clean arrangements more suited to Eric Clapton and Phil Collins than to one of rock's great songwriters.
It is a national tragedy that a talent as exceptional as Thompson's is now rotting on the vine at Capitol. In many ways, his problem is the same as Robyn's; the man is inconsistent and a perennial under-achiever. One gets the impression with both that if they spent less time pleasing their paymasters and more time concentrating then something truly wonderful could happen. Maybe we should start a campaign to save our indigenous stars from colonial intervention; if you're reading this Froomy boy, watch your step.
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