WHEN founder member Richard Thompson left Fairport Convention shortly after the release of the Full House album in July 1970, he announced that he would be concentrating on a solo career. Yet before his debut album Henry the Human Fly came out in 1972, he threw himself into an orgy of session work, contributing to at least a dozen albums by other artists.
These included: Bryter Later, by Nick Drake; Bless The Weather, by John Martyn; If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes, by Ian Matthews; No Roses, by Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band; The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, by Sandy Denny; Rock On, by the Bunch; Morris On, with Ashley Hutchings, John Kirkpatrick, Dave Mattacks and Barry Dransfield; Rains/Reins of Changes, by Marc Ellington; Smiling Men with Bad Reputations, by Mike Heron; Stargazer, by Shelagh McDonald; Strange Fruit, by Gary Farr; and Street Singer, by Mick Softley. Of these, the first five all count as classics in my book. It was a golden age for English music – and for Thompson himself.
By the time Henry the Human Fly took wing, he had become one of the giants of the rock scene. And he was all of 23 years old.
Richard John Thompson was born in Notting Hill, West London, on April 3, 1949. His father John was a Scotland Yard detective and keen guitarist; his mother Joan had worked at the head office of Dorothy Perkins before her marriage. The young Richard was influenced by dad’s record collection – a mixture of jazz and traditional music from Thompson senior’s native Scotland – and his elder sister’s rock and roll records. He took up the guitar at an early age and at William Ellis School in Highgate he formed a group with classmate Hugh Cornwell, the future Strangler, on bass. This despite being terribly shy and having a pronounced stutter.
At 18 Richard joined Fairport Convention and it was his playing which led the American producer and manager Joe Boyd to sign them up. In an interview with the BBC, Boyd said: ‘There was this group of very nice Muswell Hill grammar school boys and a girl playing American music. Leonard Cohen and Richard Farina and Bob Dylan songs, all being done in a kind of West-Coasty rock style. And then Richard just played the most amazing solo, with quotes from Django, from Charlie Christian, you know, an incredibly sophisticated little solo. And that really amazed me, the breadth of his sophistication, so at the end of the gig I was in the dressing room saying, “Would you guys like to make a record?”.’
Here his Scots influence is apparent as he gets a skirling bagpipe sound from his guitar. Next is the droll Nobody’s Wedding followed by the excellent The Poor Ditching Boy, (I was looking for trouble to tangle my line, but trouble came looking for me), Shaky Nancy and The Angels Took My Racehorse Away.
Further highlights include The New St George and The Old Changing Way, more new compositions cunningly disguised as traditional. Not to mention Painted Ladies, which shares its theme of solitary male pursuits with the Who’s Pictures of Lily and Jackson Browne’s Rosie, among others. The overall feel of the album is a bit ramshackle, as is Richard’s cheap fly costume, and he was unhappy with the way his voice was recorded. It was panned by the critics and sold zilch. But after a few listens I learned to love it, and still think it stands the test of time.
One of the guest vocalists on Henry was Linda Peters, a former girlfriend of Nick Drake and Joe Boyd who had worked with Thompson on the Bunch album – who could forget her magical duet with Sandy Denny on When Will I Be Loved? She was born Linda Pettifer in Hackney, East London, in 1947. Her Scots parents were both vaudeville entertainers – father Harry a magician and song-and-dance man while her mother performed as Vera Love, Speciality Dancer. ‘I don’t know what that meant exactly,’ Linda confessed in an interview with Rolling Stone.’
The family moved to Glasgow when Linda was six and she was sent to drama school, working as a child actress on TV shows including the original Avengers. However she found her calling as a singer after moving to London and at the age of seventeen performing at a folk club called the Troubadour. She was able to make a healthy living from session work, especially singing advertising jingles.
She and Richard clicked when they found themselves next to each other at a Chinese restaurant. ‘He was a very intense young man and I was a flibbertigibbet,’ she told the Independent. ‘And you know how that goes.’
She told Rolling Stone: ‘Richard was unbelievably introverted then. Basically, he went out with women who picked him up, put him over their shoulder and took him home. I like men like that, ’cause I’m quite forward.’
The couple were married in October 1972 and began work on their first album together, the superb I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. Although it was recorded in haste and on a shoestring, it hangs together perfectly with Linda’s vocals taking Richard’s songs to new heights. My favourite tracks are Withered and Died, the title song and the immensely pessimistic The End of the Rainbow.
It begins: ‘I feel for you, you little horror, safe at your mother’s breast’ and continues: ‘There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow, there’s nothing to grow up for any more.’ The Thompsons’ first child, Muna, must have been gratified to learn that her father wrote the song immediately after she was born, reflecting the emptiness he felt about life at that time. While it was completed in May 1973, there was a vinyl shortage caused by the oil crisis and for that and political reasons within Island Records Bright Lights didn’t see the light of day until the end of April 1974.
By this time the songs had been written for the next album, Hokey Pokey, which was recorded that autumn. It begins with the jolly, smutty title track.
Hokey Pokey was a general term for ice cream in the Victorian era and is thought to be a corruption of the Italian ‘Gelati, ecco un poco!’ (Ice cream, here’s a little!’). It was sold from carts by Italian emigres who had fled poverty in their native land and had learned nothing about hygiene. The product was prepared in filthy conditions, even in lavatory bowls, and was responsible for countless cases of typhoid, scarlet fever and acute diarrhoea. No wonder the song goes: ‘Everybody runs for Hokey Pokey’.
Continuing that cheery theme, I’ll Regret It All in the Morning, The Egypt Room and Never Again all reflect Thompson’s sombre outlook – the latter having been written after the fatal Fairport crash in 1969. However the penultimate song, the beautiful A Heart Needs a Home, reflects a new-found faith. At Richard’s insistence, the couple had embraced Sufism, an ascetic strand of Islam, and joined a commune. Linda later said it was a very ‘culty thing’ to do at the time. She admitted they were ‘white, over-educated and looking for some meaning to life. And so, we sort of stumbled upon this.’
Linda was scathing about this phase of her existence in the interview with Rolling Stone. ‘We went to it in a very punishing way: no laughing, no drinking, no talking, no loving – nothing, you know? We denied ourselves everything, hoping that outer contraction would cause inner expansion. I went into it with the thought that it was like cough medicine – that it hurt me so much that it had to be good for me. Which is stupid. Stupid.’
The Thompsons were encouraged to hand over their assets to the commune while living in a succession of squalid London squats. ‘We just basically gave all our money away,’ said Linda. ‘Or he gave all our money away.’ I must add that, in interviews over the years, Richard has made it plain that he has no time for Islamist extremism, telling the Guardian, for example, that ‘I like western civilisation. Charlie Parker. Einstein. Shakespeare. Not all bad . . .’
The couple continued to raise cash by touring and I saw them at the Free Trade Hall Manchester in March, 1975. Linda’s voice gave out early in the set and she left the stage, much to the audience’s disappointment and Richard’s unconcealed disgust. I think the official reason given was that she had a cold, but in retrospect this could have been an early instance of spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological condition which would periodically rob her of her voice on stage.
Hokey Pokey was released in April 1975, by which time Richard was under pressure from the leader of the commune, an Englishman who styled himself a sheik, to give up music. The couple had a contract with Island to deliver a third album, however, so the sheik agreed they could record it so long as the songs were about God. The result was the divine Pour Down Like Silver, about which more next week.