Things are looking up today for four reasons. Firstly, it looks like the heatwave is going to end tomorrow and we are set for thunder and lightning from 9:00 in the evening. That will be six consecutive days where the temperature has been in the low 30s. “Here comes the thunder. here comes the rain.” Secondly, the forecast for Thursday morning is now dry but “only” 24 degrees so we should still be able to meet Ron and Sue in the dry arid space, formerly known as “the garden”. Thirdly, my computer was returned from PC World in pristine condition so my fears of having lost everything were ill founded. (Set my expectations low so I’m never disappointed). Lastly, Bruno graciously accepted my invitation to go for a walk this morning at 8:00 a.m. before the heat kicked in and, as an added bonus, he didn’t bite me. Today I am looking at a sunny vista. The view from here is spectacular. Hurrah.
Richard and Linda Thompson released six studio albums between 1974 and 1982. “Sunnyvista” is possibly the least well regarded of them but, bearing in mind Richard’s songwriting, guitar playing and flair for arranging and Linda’s astonishing voice, it’s still better than most other albums released in 1979. They were dropped by Chrysalis, the record label after the release of this album. The cover is very sardonic. There is a play on the word Thompson insofar as the writing looks like an advert for Thomson holidays (without the p). The photo is supposed to be enticing you to a holiday in the Alexandra and Ainworth housing estate in Camden, London which looks a bit like Bishopsfield in Harlow which, by all accounts (mainly Martin’s) was a great place to live. There’s a “perfect” couple with a happy looking child clutching a spade and bucket and they have yet to realise that their Thompson’s holiday is on a Camden housing estate. The pictures on the back are full of sarcastic comments such as “exciting environmental landscape” and “”fully equipped leisure complex”. R&L Thompson’s sarcasm, snootiness and superiority was a bit misplaced. In my opinion.
The music is great if the sentiments behind the songs are gloomy. The first song “Civilisation” is an upbeat opener with lots of great accordion from John Kirkpatrick. The lyrics concern a jaundiced view of civilisation. “They’re not human, they’re with the Woolwich/They eat food I wouldn’t give to my dog” etc. This is the view of an outsider trying to live a normal life and finding himself unable to fit in. The detachment of the lyrics doesn’t detract from the excitement of this special brand of folk-rock with the lovely harmonies that only Richard and Linda Thompson can create.
“Borrowed Time” is also upbeat. Richard Thompson takes lead vocals although Linda Thompson harmonises on the chorus. Someone’s on the run and there’s a warning that he or she is about to get caught. “They’ll hunt you down ‘cos you dare to tell the truth. A man ain’t safe these days under his own roof”. After the previous song, the protagonist has made a run for it. He is living outside the norms of society and paying the price.
“Saturday Rolling Around” employs a very British folk-rock version of Cajun music. The sound is joyous but the words are not. The singer is not happy at work and is dreaming of moving on. Linda “yee-haws” at one point, presumably sarcastically, given the unhappiness of the words she has been harmonising. In my interpretation of the story arc, this song should have been before “Borrowed Time”, not after. This is the song where he realises he has to leave and “Borrowed Time” is the song where he’s on the run.
“You’re Going To Need Somebody” is sung by Richard Thompson with Kate and Anna McGarrigle providing background vocals. It’s another uptempo song and is sung to someone who feels unloved but reminding them that “You’re going to need the one who was standing and waiting for you”. he’s on the run but he’s going to need a friend. The accordion playing is excellent.
“Why Do You Turn Your Back” is excellent. It’s more of a midtempo song with Linda Thompson taking lead vocals on the verses before Richard Thompson adds harmonies. The song feels like a follow up to the last song; the singer is wondering why they have turned their back on “the only one who ever really cared.” Wikipedia reckons that these two songs are explicitly religious and I guess you could interpret them like that. I prefer to regard the whole of this side as describing the journey of someone who is fed up with “civilisation”, seeks a way out and pays the price by becoming friendless and lonely.
Side Two starts with the title track. It reflects the picture on the front of the album. It’s very sarcastic. Welcome to the holiday resort of your dreams except everything is not what it seems. There’s bingo, dancing, community singing and theme parks. Best of all, the cemetery is very discreet. It sounds jolly with a great tune, lovely arrangement, perfect playing and singing but it’s all rather unsettling.
My favourite song on the record is “Lonely Hearts” which, like “Sunnyvista”, is sung by Linda Thompson. As always, her singing is emotional and heart wrenching. Richard Thompson plays beautiful guitar throughout the whole song. The lyrics concern two people (“two lonely hearts) living their separate lives “in an ocean of loneliness”; it seems that they will never meet.
“Sisters” is a much slower song and is, again, wonderfully well sung by Linda Thompson. As always, Richard Thompson plays marvellous guitar. For a long time I thought that the song was about looking back from adulthood to the jealousy between two sisters when growing up. Linda Thompson has subsequently stated that the song is about a Muslim polygamous relationship. It is worth noting that they had embraced a Sufi strand of Islam in 1974 and Richard Thompson remains a committed Muslim.
“Justice In The Streets” is much harder and funkier. Michael Spencer-Arscott’s drumming is well to the fore and Richard Thompson’s guitar would not be out of place on a James Brown song. Once again, the song concerns the misery of living a conventional life. “Tired of living in shame/Tired of a ball and chain.”
The record finishes with “Traces Of My Love” (there’s an additional song on the CD). This is a lovely song, with Linda’s vocals excelling again. She is lonely but everywhere she goes she can find solace in remembering her lover. “Inside my darkest day, when the world seems cold and grey, I seem to see traces of my love.”
I still have a sunny vista although it has been darkened slightly by exploring this album which sounds beautiful, wonderful and joyous but underneath is actually quite dark, sad and gloomy as Richard Thompson fails to get to grips with living within the confines of a normal life.
One thought on “Sunnyvista by Richard and Linda Thompson”
I remember going backstage to see the band around this time and I asked RT what they were singing on the chorus to You’re Going To Need Someone. He found a piece of paper and wrote “ Allah hu alhab” with the translation “God is love” underneath. Later, I saw that he’d written it on the back of the band’s bar order: orange juice and mineral water for Richard and Linda and beer and vodka for everyone else. Later, I stuffed inside the sleeve of my copy of Sunnyvista where it remains to this day.
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