RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson


Richard Thompson is one of the great musicians and songwriters of the last 40 years. He's not nearly as well-known and as popular as many of his contemporaries (who include everyone from Eric Clapton and Neil Young to Beck and Jack White--yes, he has longevity on his side), but his influence on other musicians and on contemporary folk and rock music is immeasurable. He may not be a big mainstream hit, but every musician and critic worth his or her weight owns at least a half-dozen RT works and relishes a chance to see RT perform live (a great experience, by the way--highly recommended). He's an incredible songwriter, able to craft characters and phrases almost effortlessly; he's also one of the best guitarist you're likely to hear, with a keen ear for adapting his guitar prowess to the tone and theme of each song he performs. While much has been made of his dark, often morbid lyrics and his penchant for dwelling on the bitterness of love and loss, his music is equally about hope and survival and the very real balance that we must all negotiate between good times and bad. His oeuvre is indeed a rich, complex tapestry of emotions, characters, stories, and passions.

Back in 1993, the 3-CD retrospective Watching the Dark was released. It was a wonderful release, filled both with Thompson's major works (many in alternate or live form) and tons of unreleased or rare recordings. It told RT's story with all its complexity--his early years with Fairport Convention, the seminal British folk rock act (where he wrote some of his greatest songs, like "Genesis Hall," "Tale in Hard Time," and "Now Be Thankful"); his collaboration with then-wife Linda Thompson (including Shoot Out the Lights, one of the great albums of all time); his major-label works from the 80s and 90s (which feature some of his greatest songs, like "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," "Hand of Kindness," "I Feel So Good," and "I Misunderstood"); and it showcased RT's storytelling ability ("Al Bowlly's in Heaven"), his love songs ("Valerie"), and his awesome live performances (highlights are "Can't Win" and "The Calvary Cross"). And I haven't even mentioned the great essay by Greil Marcus in the liner notes, where he crystallizes RT's music and legacy in a way no one else ever has! In sum, Watching the Dark is a great set--and I recommend that you get it (in case you don't have it yet).

But guess what? It's nothing compared to RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson, a mammoth 5-CD boxed set just released on Free Reed Records. While initiates to Thompson might be advised to get Watching first, the rest of us--those of you out there who didn't need me to explain RT's impact and influence on music because you already knew it--will be listening to and studying and celebrating RT for years to come with the same ferocity and intensity that Joyceans (like myself) study and celebrate and dissect Ulysses (or, if you want a more popular analogy, the way Trekkies study every scene in every Star Trek episode/film ever made).

This collection has just about anything you can imagine: five disks of unreleased tracks, alternate takes, covers, or live performances of RT's greatest works, grouped thematically (more on this later); a mammoth, 150-plus page booklet that includes a complete biography, an interview with Thompson, and track-by-track annotations; a postcard to send in for a free bonus disk of RT music; and an extra-liner note booklet about the 1952 Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle. There are few boxed sets that are so thorough with their subjects, and the care and planning that went into this set are evident in every little detail.

Disk one in the set is entitled "Walking the Long Miles Home--Muswell Hill to L.A." It's meant to be a sort-of musical biography of Thompson's life. Really, though, the title is deceptive, as the focus for most of these songs is not on Thompson himself but rather on Thompson's perspective of the world around him ("The world according to Thompson," as the liner notes explain). Among the many wry observations found on this disk are some of Thompson's greatest songs, like "Genesis Hall" (about a conflict between squatters and policemen, one of whom was Thompson's father), "Shoot Out the Lights" (written specifically about the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, but so universal in its treatment of pain and death that it has been interpreted in numerous ways), and "Walking on a Wire" (a heart-wrenching song about the pain of separation, written while Thompson himself was going through a divorce with his wife and musical partner, Linda Thompson). Thompson's lyrics are (as I said before) often tinged with bitterness, and a lot of this bitterness is on display here; he's also very funny, however, as indicated by songs like "Madonna's Wedding," which is a tongue-in-cheek dig at Madonna's marriage to Guy Ritchie and her attempts to become English. In short, the first disk presents a pretty interesting look into Thompson's worldview, a view that is far more complex and interesting than casual listeners are likely to realize.

Disk two is entitled "Finding Better Words--The Essential Richard Thompson." This list was actually compiled by RT fans and colleagues, who were asked to list three songs they would use to introduce a novice fan to Thompson's music. [Personally, my choices would be "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," "Just the Motion," and "Can't Win."] What's interesting about this list is the fact that there are songs from every single part of the artist's career--from his 1960s work with Fairport Convention ("Meet on the Ledge") to his 2003 release, The Old Kit Bag ("Gethsemane"). In fact, unlike a lot of artists who emerged in the 60s, much of Thompson's greatest music has been released in the last 10-15 years, including nearly half of the songs on this disk. To me, that's what makes Thompson such an incredible artist--his music continues to improve. Every song on here is presented in an alternate form from the studio release (a mixture of live, demo, and alternate takes). In some cases, these alternate versions are superior to the original ("I Feel So Good" and "Wall of Death," for example); in other cases, I prefer the original (or an alternate live take from a different disk, as in the case of "Tear Stained Letter," which features RT whistling a few lines and rather annoying audience participation). Another thing to watch out for is sound quality--some of these recordings are a few decades old, meaning that there's background tape hiss and occasional distortion. These problems don't really detract from the overall experience of the album, however, as the music's greatness overcomes the "fuzzy" sounds. And, for the record, the top 5 Thompson songs are: "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," "From Galway to Graceland," "Crazy Man Michael," "Dimming of the Day," and "Beeswing." For those of you counting, three of those songs were created and released in the 1990s, including #1.

Disk three is entitled "Shine in the Dark: Epic Live Workouts." This is a collection of live recordings of popular Thompson songs that, when played live, often outstrip their studio counterparts in length, passion, intensity, and sheer musicality. A song like "Calvary Cross" is a perfect example. It first appears on 1972's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight as a tentative, delicate song rampant with what seemed like too-overt symbolism. In concert, however, this song is transformed into a battle between light and darkness, Thompson's guitar navigating a way through the chaos. The song often stretches to 10 or 12 minutes in length, a real journey and a great experience if you happen to see him perform it live. There's a great version of "Calvary Cross" on Watching the Dark, and there's another one on this disk. I'm not sure which one is better, but they both offer very distinct interpretations of the song. The one here features a much larger backing band, complete with an unusual organ melody that is pretty unusual for Thompson's music. In fact, what makes all eleven tracks on this disk memorable is the fact that they are all major or minor reworkings of the original works. Some reworkings are more dramatic than others (like "For Shame of Doing Wrong," which has an awesome guitar riff towards the end that is nowhere near anything I've heard from RT on this or any other song--it might be my favorite track in this entire collection), while others are simply extensions of the basic song. All are fascinating, though, and reveal a lot about Thompson as an improvizational artist of the highest order. What's more, the sound quality here is almost uniformly excellent.

Disk four is called "The Songs Pour Down Like Sugar--The Covers & Sessions." This is probably the most unusual disk in the set, as Thompson has an amazingly eclectic taste in covers, which are represented here by such diverse songs as The Who's "Substitute," "Danny Boy," Squeeze's "Tempted," "You'll Never Walk Alone," Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," the French punk song "CA Plane Pour Moi," and (of all things) Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again." The last two were actually performed as part of Thompson's "1,000 Years of Pop Music" concert series, which included everything from Medieval dance songs to Italian troubadour songs to 20th century pop. Every one of the works here demonstrate what an amazing artist Thompson is, managing to make even Britney Spears sound interesting when the material is placed in the right hands. More than this, however: the covers reveal Thompson as an artist able to root himself in just about any tradition, genre, or musical culture that he wants--and perform spectacularly in each. Along with the many great covers, there are a few Thompson originals performed by other artists and featuring RT as a backup (or session) musician. Among these, the standouts are "The Angels Took My Racehorse Away" by Dave Burland and "Poseidon" by Judith Owen (which is basically a duet with RT). This isn't my favorite of the five disks, but it does a great job of presenting a side of Thompson's career that is almost wholly undocumented.

Finally, disk five is called "Something Here Worth More than Gold--Real Rarities." This is the real treasure for die-hard Thompson fans, as it collects fifteen brand new, unreleased songs from the artist's vast collection of unreleased work. The songs range from a 1971 demo of "Albion Sunrise," a work originally written for The Albion Band (which featured many of RT's friends from Fairport Convention); to "How Many Times Do You Have to Fall," a song recorded by Fairport in 1985 but originally recorded (but not released) by Thompson in 1980; to his fun (and historically accurate) tribute to the great Scottish-American inventor, "Alexander Graham Bell"; all the way to 2004's brilliant throwaway "Dear Janet Jackson," a song about...well, here's the chorus: "if you must shove your titty in somebody's face / then shove it in a baby's." There's some really amazing music on this disk (especially that last song--really!), stuff that is equal to anything that is on the other four.

In all, this is a monumental release, certain to broaden Thompson's musical legacy--and, considering that Thompson has never gotten his due (Aerosmith is in the rock & roll hall of fame but not RT?!), anything that will broaden his appeal is a good thing. But the real question is: should you buy it? Well, that depends upon who you are. If this article is your introduction to Richard Thompson, then hold off on getting this until you buy Shoot Out the Lights and Rumor and Sigh. If you have those works and are eager for more but you're wary of the "alternate take" or "live" label, then you might consider getting Watching the Dark, if only because it features a lot more album tracks and fewer demos and live thing (even if the demos and live work is actually superior to the album stuff). However, if you want to hear Thompson at his best, most complete, then RT is the choice for you. Every great Thompson song is here, along with tons of undiscovered gems that reveal this artist as far more interesting and complex and nuanced than most people (even critics and fans) realize. This is, in other words, a career retrospective that actually reveals Richard Thompson as a musician who has had about seven or eight different types of careers--each of them wildly successful. If the point of a boxed set is to provide a broad context for an artist's importance, then RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson is about as successful as a boxed set can possibly be.

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