Richard & Linda Thompson. Two of the UK’s finest singers/songwriter’s ever. Their Complete Works – and more! A veritable Thompson Treasure Trove.
Release Date: 11th September 2020
Label: UMC / Universal
Formats: 8xCD Box set with 72-page hardback book
First then, the headlines.
This incredible new box set from UMC / Universal has just about everything that could ever be desired by the unsated Thomophile. There’s 113 songs (31 of which are previously unreleased), there’s a disc for each of the six studio albums that Richard & Linda Thompson released during their 10-year tenure. There’s non-album singles and B-sides, a stack of rarities, unreleased live recordings and a compilation of tracks that plot the genesis of this massively influential duo. There’s also a 72-page hard cover book featuring new essays from biographers Patrick Humphries and Mick Houghton, along with a raft of rare and previously unseen photographs.
So – it’s quite a package and one that is, I believe, long overdue. The career of Richard Thompson has, of course, been well documented and curated: First there was Island’s (guitar, vocal) double album set in 1976, then, in 1993, Rykodisc came along with the triple CD Watching The Dark, before Free Reed added to the mix with their 4-CD boxed compilation, RT.
Richard & Linda Thompson were together as a performing duo for ten years, they released at least three – some would say four – seminal albums containing bucket loads of classic songs and they set the course for British folk/rock that is still being followed to this day, so it really is wonderful to see their output and influence honoured in this way.
Even if it didn’t quite turn out to be a marriage made in heaven, the partnership of Richard & Linda Thompson was certainly a musical match from heaven, combining as it did the peerless songwriting talents and exquisite guitar playing of Richard with the Linda’s angelic voice – in an era full of wonderful female vocalists (Sandy Denny, Karen Carpenter, Maddy Prior, Linda Ronstadt et al) I rate Linda as the best.
The problem I face as a reviewer is; Where do I start?
Well – let’s get the easier bits done first. The triumvirate of Island Albums, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver surely hold their places in the collections of any follower of Richard, Linda, Fairport or the wider genre of folk/rock and, as such, they will be familiar to many (I’m already on my 3rd copy of Bright Lights after the vinyl original and the first CD release were superseded by the 2004 extended CD). Each of these albums is crammed with songs of outstanding quality, lovingly and thoughtfully crafted and delivered with taste and precision. It’s worth spending a few minutes to consider each of these classic albums in turn.
Every one of the ten songs that formed the original content of 1974’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight is outstanding.
There are the bright, sing-along-out-loud numbers like When I Get To The Border (when I had this album on continual play during the late 70s, I would bellow along with this each Friday as I drove back home to God’s own County from my job in Yorkshire), We Sing Hallelujah, The Little Beggar Girl and, of course, the infectious title track. Then there are the deep and ponderous ones – The Calvary Cross, Down Where the Drunkards Roll and The Great Valerio. And then, probably best of all, there are the desolate heart wrenchers – Withered and Died and, perhaps the most desperately hope-crushing song ever written, The End Of The Rainbow. Even during the political and social upheavals that defined the 1970s, I considered this last song to be overly pessimistic! It’s only now, during this era of crisis mismanagement, Brexit and Boris Johnson that I view the song’s concluding lyric, “There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow, There’s nothing to grow up for any more,” as a summary of the prospects available to many of the upcoming generation.
If the original content alone of the Bright Lights doesn’t knock you for six, then a couple of the bonus tracks on the Bright Lights disc surely will… Mother And Son, would not be out of place on Mike and Lal Waterson’s Bright Phoebus album – indeed, Linda appears to have taken control of Lal’s body and vocal chords for the duration of this oddly disturbing song, and then, we’re treated to a phenomenal alternative take of End Of The Rainbow, this time with Linda taking the lead vocal, which she does with great passion, managing to achieve a sinister edge to her voice which is entirely in keeping with the song’s theme.
Hot on the heels of Bright Lights came 1975’s Hokey Pokey – another album brimming with classic songs. Although not as critically well received as its predecessor, Hokey Pokey continued the formula used to such critical (if not commercial) success. Songs that were, at least at first appearance, jolly singalong numbers included The Hokey Pokey Song, Smiffy’s Glass Eye, Georgie On A Spree and The Sun Never Shines on the Poor. On further investigation, each of these songs contained the dark subject matter that remains a mainstay of Richard’s compositions (note The Hokey Pokey Song’s references to transsexuality and the disturbing outcome of the bullying suffered by Smiffy…)
Other standouts on this second album included the dour and deep Egypt Room and Never Again and the magnificent A Heart Needs A Home – definitely one of Linda’s finest vocal performances. The Hokey Pokey disc also includes the searing alternative take of A Heart Needs a Home that appeared on the (guitar/vocal) compilation and it’s great that it has once more been exposed to daylight.
Disc four of Hard Luck Stories features the Pour Down Like Silver album – the second of the duo’s 1975 releases and the album considered by many to be the pair’s best.
Again, there’s an abundance of classic material here – Streets of Paradise, For Shame Of Doing Wrong, the soaring Night Comes In, the indelible Jet Plane in a Rocking Chair, Hard Luck Stories (the song that gave its name to this compilation) and the majestic Dimming Of The Day/Dargai – a song of such brilliance that it still surely features high in the list of Richard’s best ever songs. It’s one of the few songs from the Richard & Linda period that Richard still regularly includes in his live set but I always believed that the performance of the song captured on Pour Down Like Silver could never be bettered. Now, having heard the demo take, included as a bonus track with this latest version of the album, I’m not so sure about that! Linda’s close-up vocal (it sounds almost as though she’s singing directly into your ear!) induces shivers down the spine.
Other bonus tracks included with the Pour Down Like Silver disc include three live takes from a 1975 Oxford Polytechnic show (not the tracks included on the 2004 CD reissue) and Wanted Man, a dirge to a fugitive and prisoner which contains some startling guitar work – an out-take that would surely have taken pride of place in running order of many a lesser artist’s album.
Well – so much for the easy stuff!
By disc five, the collection starts to get even more interesting! It’s a collection of live tracks, five taken from a concert at the South Bank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in April 1975, and six from a show at London’s Theatre Royal in May 1977. I was fortunate to catch the Thompsons live on one occasion (in August 1980, when their set was promoting the Sunnyvista album and previewing material that would feature on Shoot Out The Lights) but I have always felt that I missed them at their very best. Indeed, I’ve always admitted to pangs of jealousy of my friend who saw them support Traffic at Manchester Free Trade Hall when they were making their first, tentative steps! The …In Concert, November 1975 album offered some compensation for this shortfall in my experience and these two sets serve to reduce the deficit still further.
The tracks from the 1975 concert are all acoustic and feature a lineup that is paired right back to just Richard and Linda. The songs are a mix of material from the then current Hokey Pokey and previews of items under consideration for the planned next album and the highlights include fantastic versions of Never Again and Beat the Retreat and a storming take of Chips Moman and Dan Penn’s Dark End of the Street (the same take that appeared on the …guitar/vocal set).
For the 1977 concert, Richard had once again plugged in his electric guitar and Linda, he and the band delivered blistering versions of Night Comes In, along with a string of songs such as The Madness of Love and A Bird in God’s Garden which didn’t make the cut on Pour Down Like Silver and Layla, which finally surfaced on 1978’s First Light album.
After Pour Down Like Silver, Richard and Linda withdrew from public view to pursue their commitment to the Sufi faith. Their lives during this period revolved around activities in squats, communities and communes, first in London and later in the wilds of Norfolk. Richard was discouraged from involvement in music by certain members of the community and Linda developed a growing mistrust of the practices and attitudes that prevailed. I won’t go into the details here, but anyone thirsting to understand what went on during that period should read Patrick Humphries’ excellent biography, Strange Affair (Virgin Books, 1996.) Suffice to say that the experiences during this 2-year hiatus almost certainly exacerbated the dysphonia from which Linda was already starting to suffer and contributed to the condition that was to devastate her career and life for many years.
So that leads us handily to another chunk of this huge collection – the lost albums – 1978’s First Light and 1979’s Sunnyvista. Thanks to this latest compilation, both albums are once again available in any format for the first time in many years – just in time as far as I am concerned as my original vinyl copies are just about worn through. Both were released by Chrysalis Records and both were blatant in their attempts to fall in with the then fashionable musical styles.
When First Light appeared in 1978, the reaction of the mature sections of the Music Press was very positive. The production was slick and the musicians featured included Californian rhythm section of Andy Newmark and Willie Weeks, alongside stalwarts such as Simon Nicol, John Kirkpatrick and Dave Mattacks. Although later disparaged by Richard for its apparently “muddy” sound, it’s an album that certainly does have its high points, notably the opening track, Restless Highway, the Muslim-inspired Sweet Surrender and First Light and the faux-disco Don’t Let a Thief Steal into Your Heart.
Perhaps the high points of the original album were the disturbing Layla and the luscious Pavanne on which Linda once again excels in the vocal performance. The First Light bonus tracks included with this compilation comprise interesting demo versions of Strange Affair, Layla and First Light and a couple of other home demos of songs that were taken no further.
1979’s Sunnyvista was an altogether more lively affair on which the influences of punk and new wave were clearly detectable. Despite the critical mauling it received following its release and its subsequent disowning by Richard, it’s an album I’ve always had something of a soft spot for, maybe because it’s the album they were promoting on the one and only occasion that I saw them.
It’s an album that’s very much of it’s time, with songs such as Civilisation, Borrowed Time and the title track all reflective of the struggles being faced by ordinary people in the wake of the Winter of Discontent and the onset of Thatcherism. Saturday Rolling Around is a Cajun-like frolic that stayed in Richard’s live set even after the other songs on the album had been long forgotten, Why Do You Turn Your Back? gave a taste of the bitter recriminations that were to form a central feature of the next album, Shoot Out The Lights, and Traces of My Love once again allowed Linda to showcase her vocal prowess to optimum effect.
The Sunnyvista disc includes several of the collection’s most interesting bonus tracks. The 7-inch single version of Hokey Pokey’s Georgie on a Spree is light and bouncy, with a sound that has been updated and filled out. It sank without trace, of course, but, listening to it again today, I’m convinced that, with luck and airplay it could have been the breakthrough hit that the couple deserved. Lucky in Life and Speechless Child (a song written for an aborted project on the subject of autism) are devastatingly good songs that, again, would have been the focal point of any lesser artist’s album, and the demo version of Traces of My Love is more intense and intimate than the comparatively lush finished version. However, the main interest (at least for me) amongst the Sunnyvista bonus tracks lies in the three tracks extracted from the Gerry Rafferty-produced sessions for the Shoot Out The Lights album.
The story of these, ultimately abandoned, sessions has passed into legend and, again, is told in full detail in the Strange Affair biography. For the purpose of this review, all we need to know is that Richard and Gerry clashed mightily over Gerry’s production style and the sound of the emerging product, which was considered to be over-fussy.
Indeed, Richard took the view that the production process was misapplied and that the artists were made “peripheral to the recording.” I wouldn’t want to reopen any debate about the final quality or otherwise of the aborted album, but the tracks included here sound, at least to my mind, excellent. There’s a re-take of For Shame of Doing Wrong, a song which first saw light on Pour Down Like Silver, a version of The Wrong Heartbeat (which eventually emerged on Richard’s 1983 Hand of Kindness album (this time with Linda delivering yet another storming vocal) and a version of Back Street Slide which admittedly does pale in comparison to the full-on take which made it onto Shoot Out The Lights.
And so, to Shoot Out The Lights, the extended version of which forms the eighth disc in this set.
Shoot Out The Lights is, by anyone’s standard, an absolute gem of an album and it sits high in the rankings even of an artist as accomplished and prolific as Richard Thompson.
Richard and Linda’s contract with Chrysalis was not renewed after Sunnyvista’s failure to make commercial headway and, after the Gerry Rafferty production conflicts, a new version of the album was recorded under the auspices of the former Fairport mentor Joe Boyd and issued as the first product of Joe’s new Hannibal label in March 1982.
Every one of the eight tracks on original album is top-notch. There’s rockers – the funky opener, Don’t Renege On Our Love, the soaring title track, the punchy Back Street Slide and the anthemic Wall Of Death, a song that Richard continues to perform live and which surely sits in the top five of every fan’s Richard Thompson favourites.
But there’s also a piercing and mellow side to this most excellent of albums and Linda once again manages to squeeze our hearts to bursting point with her renditions of Walking On A Wire, Just the Motion and the (autobiographical?) Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?
Legend has enshrined Shoot Out The Lights as the ultimate relationship “break-up” album, but like most legends, the truth isn’t that clear or simple. In actual fact, the album had been written and recorded before the Thompsons’ relationship seriously began to disintegrate and the legend really has its roots in the turmoil of the American tour which followed the album’s release. Again the more graphic details of this episode are adequately recorded elsewhere but the headlines include Linda drowning her sorrow and anger in vodka and on-stage screaming and fighting.
Despite all this, they still managed to hold the music together to put in some memorable performances as evidenced by the live versions of Pavanne – with an understandably impassioned Linda vocal – and Jerry Lee Lewis’s High School Confidential. Also amongst the bonus tracks are a couple more of the Gerry Rafferty productions – a superlative take on Sandy Denny’s I’m a Dreamer (from her 1977 Rendezvous album) and a version of Walking On A Wire which frankly (at least in my opinion) is a match for the Joe Boyd version which made the original album.
And so, in typically perverse fashion, let’s end the review right at the beginning of the story. Disc one of this extensive collection compiles a set of tracks from Richard & Linda Thompson’s earliest days of working together – before they became an “item” and before they had the thankfully tremendous idea of forming a duo.
The couple first met in Sound Techniques Studio in London, where Richard was in the process of recording Fairport’s seminal Leige and Leif album, and Linda was, coincidentally, laying down a vocal for a Ski Yogurt advert (Ski – the full of fitness food…). Linda was a friend of Sandy Denny’s from their mutual folk club days and Linda gravitated into the Fairport orbit. The first time Richard and Linda were together in the same studio was during the recording of The Bunch’s Rock On album, a collection of rock and roll standards featuring members of Fairport and friends, recorded at The Manor in Oxfordshire. Four tracks from those sessions are featured here, including an intriguing duet of Linda and Sandy Denny on the Everlys’ When Will I Be Loved and a Richard vocal of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Rock and Roller, this time without the dubbed-in crowd noise that so marred the Rock On version.
Elsewhere, we’re treated to Shaky Nancy and The Angel’s Took My Racehorse Away, both from Richard’s criminally under-rated solo debut album, Henry the Human Fly, plus a fascinating out-take from that same album, the pulsating rocker, Amazon Queen, two tracks from Liverpool poet Brian Patten’s Vanishing Trick project, for which Richard provided guitar accompaniment and The World is a Wonderful place and Restless Boy – two Richard compositions from a proposed musical about the prodigal son, in which Linda was invited to perform.
Hard Luck Stories is a massive collection that has been lovingly assembled by UMC / Universal. The content is peerless; the three Island Studio albums and Shoot Out The Lights are must-haves for any fan of good quality popular music, the two Chrysalis albums make their welcome and long-overdue return and the bonus tracks, particularly those that are seeing commercial release for the first time, are frequently breathtaking.
This collection is, indeed a fine testimony to the work of two majestic musicians. Does the proposed £70 price tag represent value for money to the core of Thompson fans who probably already own the six original albums (plus Rock On and Henry the Human Fly) that form the core of this collection? That’s really a question for each individual to consider – what the collection does achieve is that it gathers the output of these wonderful musicians together in one place, it provides access once more to a raft of long-unavailable material and, perhaps, most of all, it tells the WHOLE story.
Watch the 1975 Old Grey Whistle test performance of A Heart Needs a Home below.
You can also watch Richard Thompson’s stunning 2019 performance from Fairport’s Cropredy Convention here.
Zach Phillips recently wrote about Richard Thompson for our Why I Love column. You can read his great piece, here.
Richard Thompson also has some exclusive live streaming events coming up. You can find out more through his website.
Linda Thompson: Website / Facebook / Twitter
Richard Thompson: Website / Bandcamp / Facebook / Twitter
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Thank you for the extensive review, John, and for giving “Sunnyvista” a fair shake. I so often forget that it’s the album that contains “Sisters” and “Lonely Hearts” — two of Linda’s most magnificent performances.
Many thanks Zach. Good to hear from you! The review was a genuine labour of love!