This month John Scott breaks out Richard and Linda Thompson’s timeless classic from 1974.
In the annals of history, Richard Thompson will be recorded as one of Britain’s greatest and most distinctive guitarists, as well as being a first-class songwriter. By 1974, he had turned a schoolboy hobby, having played in a school band with future Strangler Hugh Cornwell, into a successful career with folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention. His playing on Fairport’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes is an early indicator of his inimitable style.
Initially focussing on covers of songs by American artists such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Michell and Bob Dylan, the band would evolve into a blend of traditional English folk music with contemporary rock instrumentation with Thompson’s guitar battling for prominence with Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle. After recording two genre defining albums, Liege & Lief and Full House, Thompson decided to leave the band to concentrate on session work and with vague thoughts of a solo career.
In 1969 Thompson had met singer Linda Peters. They married in 1972 and Linda guested on Thompson’s first album Henry The Human Fly which was released that year to a lukewarm reception.
Thompson’s second album, and the first to be credited to Richard and Linda Thompson was I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight which came out in 1974 to an equally tepid response from both critics and the general public but has, rightly, been subsequently regarded as something of a masterpiece.
I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight owns with When I Get To The Border in which Thompson contemplates his own mortality in the face of the mundanity of everyday life. “If you see a box of pine, with a name that looks like mine” he sings, “Just say I drowned in a barrel of wine, when I got to the border.”
This song sets the tone of the album in that it presents contemporary themes – we can all relate to the drudgery of the working week – using music and lyrics that have their roots in an earlier age. The narrators of these songs could easily live in either 1974 or 1497. Equally, the songs are as relevant today as when they were recorded. When I get to the border ends with an instrumental call and response section that pits Thompson’s sinuous electric guitars against mandolins, whistles, krumhorns and concertinas.
Calvary Cross opens with Thompson’s guitar spitting out a seemingly formless sequence of notes and chords like a dust-dry death rattle before snapping into a tale that brims with foreboding. Here, as elsewhere on the album, Timmy Donald’s drums are a masterclass in understatement, allowing the gaps between beats to contribute as much as his spare fills. The reissue of the album contains a live version of Calvary Cross that sees it expanded into nearly 10 minutes of excoriating guitar playing from Thompson while retaining that devastating economy from the rest of the band. Thompson’s solo on the live version is a thing of wonder, building from single exploratory notes and chords into a howling frenzy before collapsing back in on itself as if some personal demons have been confronted, battled and defeated.
Linda takes the lead on Withered And Died: “This cruel country has driven me down, Teased me and lied, teased me and lied, I’ve only sad stories to tell to this town, My dreams are withered and died.” Words that are probably as true now to many as they have been over the years since the song was written.
The title song continues the theme of escape from drudgery: “Take me to the dance and hold me tight, I want to see the bright lights tonight”. Despite some exalted singing and playing throughout, it could be said that there isn’t a single happy song on the album. Loneliness, betrayal and disillusionment permeate with things really come to head on End Of The Rainbow where Richard Thompson basically informs a new born baby – a “little horror” that his father is a bully and his sister is a whore. There is no point in growing up because he is going to get screwed over and there is nothing to grow up for. Songs don’t come much bleaker than that.
If this sounds like an album that is going to have you slitting your own wrists before you get to the end of side two, it really isn’t. Thompson’s artistry lies in blending these sorry tales with entrancing musical accompaniments that keep you enthralled and will have you returning to the album time and time again. I’ve owned it for over 30 years and never tire of it.
Thomson would go on to record many more fine albums, both with and without Linda. The couple’s final album Shoot Out The Lights was recorded before their marriage had begun to unravel but by the time it was released they had separated, appearing together on tour purely for the purposes of promoting the album. Ironically, that album represents another of their high points and is worth searching out.
Richard Thompson has continued to produce a varied and enthralling body of work. Linda succumbed to spasmodic dysphonia, a psychological condition that left her unable to sing for many years but produced a fine album, Won’t Be Long Now, in 2013 that included some contributions from Thompson on guitar.
If you haven’t yet discovered Richard Thompson, either with or without Linda, then I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight is a great place to start and I’m sure your discoveries won’t end there.
Read more Classic Album articles with John Scott