LAST week we left Richard and Linda Thompson preparing to make their third album together, to fulfil a contract with Island Records. The self-styled ‘sheik’ who led their Sufi Muslim commune reluctantly agreed to the project so long as the songs were ‘about God’.
Pour Down Like Silver was recorded in London in the summer of 1975. Many fans who were unaware of the couple’s religious conversion were stunned by the sleeve photos of them in traditional Islamic togs. But all were won over by the quality of the music.
All powerful songs but then comes one of the peak moments of Richard’s career, the bleak yet beautiful Night Comes In, which is an account of his initiation into the Sufi faith. He takes the vocals himself and there are several transcendent guitar passages over a spell of eight minutes.
The mood is alleviated by the jocular Jet Plane In A Rocking Chair – (I’m a fool with a size one head) and sardonic Hard Luck Stories, but it’s back to darkness and starkness for Beat The Retreat and Dimming of the Day/Dargai.
‘It was a stark record,’ Richard admitted to his biographer Patrick Humphries. ‘But I think it was by accident in a sense – we were intending to have Simon [Nicol] come and play rhythm guitar but he wasn’t available so everything ended up sounding very stark and I was always going to overdub rhythm guitar and stuff, but we thought we’ll just leave it, what the hell.’
Linda added: ‘Dimming of the Day, Beat the Retreat, Night Comes In, they’re all about God, and considering they’re all about God some of them aren’t bad.’ Not bad, indeed. Although they sold poorly at the time, this album and Bright Lights, along with Fairport’s Full House, are rightly seen as the high points of folk rock in the Seventies. Pour Down also gave rise to one of the worst headlines I have ever seen in, I think, Melody Maker. It read: Sufi, so good.
To promote the album, the Thompsons went on tour (wearing Western clothes) with a band comprising Fairporters Dave Pegg on bass and Dave Mattacks on drums, plus Kirkpatrick on concertina and accordion. They were brilliant, as evidenced by various tracks which came out on compilations over the years, plus the album In Concert, November 1975, which was not released until 2007. Richard’s guitar is in great nick on Night Comes Inand an epic 14-minute version of Calvary Cross, originally on the Bright Lights LP. In a rueful plug for Pour Down, Richard tells the audience that the album is ‘in your shops now, and likely to stay there’.
After the tour, the Thompsons turned their back on music, moving with the sheik and his entourage to a mansion on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. ‘Richard didn’t want to work any more, he didn’t want to earn money,’ Linda told Rolling Stone magazine. ‘He wanted to turn his back on the world, and he did.’
The pair soldiered on with the Sufis for a couple of years, Richard clearly happier with the ascetic life than his missus. She told Rolling Stone: ‘The men and the women were separated and if you talked to a man, you had to keep your eyes down.’ She said the children were not allowed toys, and the Muslim schooling they received was ‘a lot of guilt’.
The Thompsons already had a daughter, Muna, and Linda gave birth to a son in the commune. He was given the name Abu Dharr, which was later anglicised to Adam although he became known as Teddy. Linda said the birth was ‘f***ing awful. No doctors, no hot water, nothing. It was just a nightmare.’
Child care, cleaning and cooking were all women-only areas. There was a lot of fasting. The commune was, said Linda, ‘white middle-class people trying to punish themselves, and everybody else. It taught me a lot. To stay away from sects, mostly.’
In June 1976, Island released Guitar, Vocal, a Thompson career retrospective with many unreleased tracks including Fairport’s lovely cover of The Ballad of Easy Rider, a live version of Dark End of the Street and, praise be, Night Comes In and Calvary Cross recorded live at Oxford Polytechnic in 1975.
Island executive Richard Williams, who had the idea for the album, told Humphries: ‘I thought those two long things were the best he’d ever done. He just tore the guts out of them.’ In his book Richard Thompson, Strange Affair, Humphries writes: ‘The reviews accorded Guitar, Vocal were the first intimation that Thompson was finally being recognised as some sort of buried treasure of British rock.’
After two years in the Norfolk wilderness, Richard decided for reasons unknown to return to music, although he retains his faith to this day (a strictly non-confrontational version of Islam. He told a Guardian interviewer: ‘I’m not a scholar, but Islam certainly teaches tolerance of Christians and Jews, people of the book.’ In the spring of 1977 he and Linda began a short and unsuccessful UK tour with musicians chosen for their Sufist beliefs. A friend of ours saw them in a lecture theatre at the University of Essex in Colchester. He reports: ‘The show was not very rock and roll. I seem to remember the musicians being seated most of the time and very little interaction with the small audience. It all felt rather gloomy but Thompson’s guitar playing was as electrifying as ever.’
Richard also played on Sandy Denny’s album Rendezvous and the Thompsons moved back to their flat in Hampstead, North London, which Linda had wisely insisted on keeping despite her husband giving all their furniture away. Former Fairport manager Joe Boyd, returned from America where he had a staff job with Warner Brothers, invited Richard to play on the debut album by Julie Covington and when this was completed ahead of schedule he and Linda used the available studio time and American session musicians to record the LP First Light, released in 1978 on the Chrysalis label.
Some of the songs are direct translations of Islamic texts. The two best for me are thetitle track and the wonderful Strange Affair: ‘Oh, where are my companions? My mother, father, lover, friend and enemy. Where are my companions? They’re prisoners of death now and taken far from me.’ I played June Tabor’s version of this while sitting alone in my flat on the day my dad died in 1980 and it still breaks me up.
First Light is frankly not a patch on its predecessors. In Richard’s own words it ‘sounds like it’s trying to be commercial in a really kind of pathetic way. To me the record sounds kind of wrong and I’m not mad about the songs.’ But worse was to come with 1979’s Sunnyvista, whose truly terrible cover satirising a Thomson holiday commercial hints at the quality of the contents. There are some blatant attempts at commercialism and even funk which sit most uncomfortably with the rest of the Richard-and-Linda oeuvre. However there is the odd nugget, specifically Lonely Hearts, with its lyrical nod to Dark End of the Street.
Linda told Humphries: ‘The cover was a mistake. But then all our covers are mistakes. I don’t know how we do it, but we seem to have the worst record covers in the universe.’
Unsurprisingly, Chrysalis chose to drop the Thompsons but their cause was taken up by Gerry ‘Baker Street’ Rafferty. He took them with him as ‘special guests’ on a tour to promote his 1980 album Night Owl, which featured Richard on guitar. And he financed the recording of their next album to the tune of at least £25,000, promising to hawk it around the record companies. Rafferty was heavily involved in the production and his perfectionism irked Richard, who basically liked to be spontaneous in the studio with as few overdubs as possible. The resulting LP was, in the words of John Kirkpatrick, ‘easy listening’ and every label it was offered to turned it down.
Next, Richard recorded an instrumental album, Strict Tempo, with Dave Mattacks, featuring some of his favourite tunes including this sprightly version of Duke Ellington’sRockin’ in Rhythm.
It was released on his own Elixir label and made a healthy profit on the recording costs of a mere £800. He also played a few gigs in summer 1981 with a group named the GPs, the others being Mattacks, Dave Pegg and Ralph McTell.
By this time Joe Boyd had set up his own label, Hannibal, and invited Richard and Linda to record for it. They used songs from the Rafferty studio sessions to produce their defiant comeback album Shoot Out The Lights. There are some excellent songs on here, including Walking on a Wire, Just the Motion, the title track and Wall of Death. It received rave reviews in the UK and US and became by far their best-selling album, but Linda, who had recorded it despite being heavily pregnant with a third child, was not fit to go on a promotional tour.
Fatefully, Richard agreed a short visit to America, set up by a 33-year-old Californian named Nancy Covey who ran a music club, McCabe’s, in Santa Monica. They hit it off and he returned to tell Linda, who was nursing their daughter Kamila: ‘I’ve got somebody else.’ She replied: ‘Can she sing?’
Richard told Humphries: ‘I was completely the instigator and the mover in breaking the marriage up. It was a terrible time to do it – we had a young baby. It’s not something you want to do, it’s just like you get hit by a truck I suppose.’
Nancy Covey said: ‘The irony of the whole thing is that Richard is a very moral person. It was unfortunate timing and I was not interested in being with a married man. He wasn’t interested in fooling around on his wife. But people fall in love when they do, at inconvenient times.’
Although the marriage was over, the Thompsons’ manager Jo Lustig committed them to a promotional visit to America in May 1982 to consolidate the success there of Shoot Out The Lights. It became known as the Tour From Hell because of the couple’s constant bickering, although a concert recording I have of the band at the Bottom Line in New York is great, mainly because of Richard’s stellar guitar playing. While he maintained his Muslim beliefs, which included abstinence from alcohol, Linda was determined to make up for lost time and proceeded to get roaring drunk, repeatedly. ‘I used to trip him when he was going by onstage,’ she said. ‘I belted him at one point. And of course the audience loved it. People would say, “I know you’re splitting up, but you should go on working together.” Which I actually would have done, but I know Richard wouldn’t have entertained the idea.’
So there we leave the Thompsons – next stop the divorce courts. I’ll return to their story at some point but that’s probably enough legendary British folk rock to be going on with for the time being.