An Introduction to Richard Thompson
Three albums that capture the English singer/songwriter at his best
Photo by Tom Beygrowicz
Richard Thompson is something of a legend, but one often observed in the abstract. He’s a name a lot of people have heard, whether or not they’ve actually heard his music. His catalog is widely acclaimed, and his 1991 song “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” was included in Time magazine’s “All-Time 100 Songs.” There’s even a scene in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity in which the music-obsessed, socially awkward Dick mansplains to his new girlfriend why Richard Thompson is the greatest guitarist of all time, further reinforcing a comically stuffy old rock-critic trope.
That’s not really fair to Thompson, though. Indeed, he’s been a favorite of an overwhelmingly white, male rock critic cognoscenti. But the acclaim is also entirely warranted. He’s a brilliant guitarist, a witty and articulate lyricist and storyteller, and a frequent innovator. And while there’s often a darkness to his songwriting that puts him out of the realm of mainstream popular music, he has a sense of humor and fun about his music that’s downright infectious. Back in 2002 he released an album titled 1000 Years of Popular Music, in which he tackled everything from medieval ballads to Britney Spears. And onstage, he’s prone to crack jokes, take the occasional random audience request and, somehow, manage to remember hundreds of songs he’s recorded throughout his 50-year career.
Still, Thompson’s catalog is massive—between his solo work, his ’60s-era band Fairport Convention, and recordings with ex-wife Linda—and getting into his music can be a little intimidating. So while this is by no means anywhere near an exhaustive list, it’s a recommended starter’s guide for those interested in inviting Richard Thompson into their headphones.
Liege and Lief (Fairport Convention): Thompson has often been wildly successful when paired with a female vocal foil, perhaps the most famous of whom was Sandy Denny in the English folk-rock group Fairport Convention. Denny later famously appeared on the epic, folky Led Zeppelin song “The Battle of Evermore,” but her powerful and raspy voice helped to drive the signature sound of Fairport Convention’s records in the ’60s and ’70s. Thompson’s guitar playing was the other major part of that equation, merging influences from English folk music, blues, and rock ’n’ roll into something that sounds like the most badass Renaissance faire you’ve ever been to.
Shoot Out the Lights (Richard and Linda Thompson): Richard had another significant songwriting and performing partner in his wife Linda in the ’70s and early ’80s, though their best album happened to coincide with the end of their marriage. As such, this is essentially a breakup album, one less salacious than Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, perhaps, but just as strong a set of songs, the most affecting and stunning of which is “Wall of Death,” which was later covered by R.E.M.
Rumor and Sigh: More than two decades after first debuting in the English folk-rock scene, Thompson released a string of outstanding solo records in the ’90s, beginning with this, a diverse and complex set of songs that reveal just how versatile a songwriter he is. There are rock anthems (“Read About Love”), slow burners (“I Misunderstood”) and an intricate English folk ballad about a motorcycle-riding rebel who died young (the aforementioned “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”). There really aren’t any bad albums in his discography, but Rumor and Sigh began a lengthy hot streak that hasn’t let up since.
Other recommended shows this week:
Kris Kristofferson and the Strangers (January 22, Balboa Theatre): It doesn’t quite look right on paper to say that Kris Kristofferson is underrated. He’s written a long list of incredible songs, including “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” and was a member of the Highwaymen along with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. That said, his influence on outlaw country can’t be overstated, and while none of his albums have gone platinum (which just seems wrong to me), his catalog is just littered with classics.
Peter Murphy and David J (January 24, Observatory North Park): UK band Bauhaus, along with the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees, are synonymous with goth. And this year, goth is officially in its forties. Bauhaus released their debut single, the campy, spooky nine-minute dirge “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” 40 years ago, and founding members Peter Murphy and David J are (halfway, I suppose) resurrecting their old band to perform classics from their late ’70s and early ’80s catalog, including the entirety of 1980’s In the Flat Field. Goth is alive—or, if you prefer, undead.
Bill Frisell (January 23, Price Center East Ballroom, UCSD): Bill Frisell is the kind of artist whose music a lot of people will have heard without actually knowing it. The prolific jazz guitarist has collaborated with everyone from R&B legend Allen Toussaint to Paul Simon, and music database Discogs credits him on a staggering 400 recordings. As a bandleader, however, he’s recently taken on the TV and film score canon, and his band will be performing their own unique interpretations of selections such as “Speak Softly, Love” (the theme from The Godfather) and “Moon River.”