I woke up this morning with a Richard & Linda Thompson song playing in my head. It was “Civilisation”, the first track from “Sunnyvista”, a song I’ve not listened to since I wrote about it on August 11th. How does this happen? Why did it surface this morning? Nonetheless, as I attempted to comb my long locks, I was singing “All across the nation. Civilisation.” I remembered that I still haven’t played Disc 8 from the “Hard Luck Stories” box set and I thought it would be interesting to compare it with the “Rafferty’s Folly” bootleg that I bought many years ago and have probably only played a couple of times.
As I was reading the sleevenotes, I heard our “paper boy”, Reg, who is older than I am, pop “The Observer” through the letterbox. I skimmed through the bad news, read the cricket preview and turned to The Review. As they say, “imagine my surprise” when I saw a picture of Richard Thompson on the front of this section. He has an autobiography coming out soon and there was a long interview with him. Spooky.
I listened to “Rafferty’s Folly” and marvelled, as I always do, at Richard Thompson’s electric guitar playing. What I never understand is how much of one of his solos is improvised and how much is rehearsed. I remember reading about the guitar solo on “Never Going Back” by John Stewart on his magical “California Bloodlines” album. Fred Carter Jr., who was an amazing session guitar player, asked John Stewart if he could play a particular guitar solo that he’d been wanting to play for years. It is a wonderful solo but (or and) it was obviously carefully rehearsed. The guitar solo on “I’m Only Sleeping” by The Beatles on “Revolver” came about when George Harrison recorded a solo, then played the tape backwards, then transcribed the backwards recording and played it forwards. That’s clever but it’s certainly not improvised.
To complete the serendipitous events of this morning, I listened to a great podcast called “Cautionary Tales”, presented by Tim Redford. One of the remarkable things I heard was that research carried out by Sherry Turkle (from M.I.T.) into texting. One student told her “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation. It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” He was scared about simply talking and seeing what happens and that’s why he preferred to text, which he could proof read before sending. I have to say that I’ve never regarded a conversation as an improvisation. It’s mind boggling.
On the other hand, I have got to the point where, recently, I have prepared for phone conversations. When I phone Dave, we exchange agendas beforehand. With other people, I sometimes jot down things that I want to discuss. When I was teaching and I had marked a test, I normally write a few bullet points on the board, reminding me of the points I wanted to make. “Show your working”; “Read the question after completing it to make sure you’ve answered every part” etc. That means I wasn’t improvising but I certainly didn’t write out every word I wanted to say.
In a musical example on the podcast, Tim Radford discussed Miles Davis who once said that improvisation was “the freedom and space to hear things“. To be more open to the sound of your own instrument and the sound of your group. Improvisation unleashes creativity.
In a phenomenally interesting part of this podcast, Tim Radford discussed Martin Luther King Jnr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. He was in the habit of spending up to 15 hours preparing his weekly Sunday sermon and then committing it to memory before delivering it. He knew that when he was invited to give a speech to a quarter of a million people at the Washington March in February 1963, it was important to get the words right. He had to connect with the black minority, the liberal white and the Kennedy administration. He spent a long time preparing a speech which he called “Normalcy Never Again”. Towards the end of his speech, he looked at what he’d written and felt it was pretentious and limp so he started to improvise and create, on the fly, one of the most famous speeches of the century about a dream that the future would be better.
After “Sunnyvista” was released in 1979, their record company, Chrysalis, dropped Richard & Linda Thompson. Sales of 10,000 were not deemed good enough. They continued to tour and in 1980 they were the supporting act on Gerry Rafferty’s eleven date U.K. tour. He suggested that he could finance the recording of a new album which they could hawk around record companies. This recording took place in Chipping Norton in September and October 1980 with Gerry Rafferty producing. The results were good but Richard Thompson found that having a demanding producer stifled his creativity. He said “What worked so well for Gerry – lots of multitracking and layering – seemed to work against us. We had fine musicians, but everything was triple tracked and dense. There was no air in the music. It felt claustrophobic.” This reminds me of Miles Davis’ quote in which he said that he needed “freedom and space” to produce his best music.
The recordings remained unreleased and Richard & Linda Thompson recorded “Shoot Out The Lights”, with Joe Boyd producing, in 1981. The album was released on Hannibal records, which was owned by Joe Boyd. The sleevenotes to “Hard Luck Stories” states that “the new version was the antithesis of those previous multi-layered recordings. It was more to Richard’s taste, thanks to the sparse arrangements and sharp-edged execution that gave him free reign”.
Six of the tracks from the Gerry Rafferty sessions were recorded again for “Shoot Out The lights”. They are “Don’t Renege On Our Love”, “Walking On A Wire”, “Just The Motion”, “Shoot Out The Lights”, “Back Street Slide” and “Wall Of Death”. However, Linda Thompson was pregnant during the later recording and found it hard to regulate her breathing during “Don’t Renege On Our Love” and so Richard Thompson sung the lead part. In addition, “Wall Of Death” was a duet and they decided to swap parts.
Four songs from the Gerry Rafferty recordings were not released. They are 1) “The Wrong Heartbeat” which Richard Thompson recorded for his solo album “Hand Of Kindness”, 2) “For Shame Of Doing Wrong” which had been released on “Pour Down Like Silver”, 3) “Modern Woman” which was later released on “Live At The BBC” and 4) “I’m A Dreamer”, a fantastic Sandy Denny song.
Two new songs were recorded for “Shoot Out The Lights”. They are 1) “A Man In Need” and 2) “Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?”
There’s not much I can say about these songs without using words such as “magnificent”, “awesome”, “fantastic” etc etc. “Walking On A Wire” is a slow emotionally draining song with a stunning vocal by Linda Thompson and beautifully sympathetic guitar playing from Richard Thompson. The guitar solo from the Gerry Rafferty session sounds more constrained and is less affecting. Here’s a version from their last USA tour (more about that later).
“Just The Motion” is equally lovely. “When you’re rocked on the ocean, rocked up and down, don’t worry. When you’re spinning and turning ’round and around, don’t worry. You’re just feeling sea-sick, you’re just feeling weak, your mind is confused and you can’t seem to speak. It’s just the motion.” That’s beautiful. The singing and playing on the album and in this live version are stunning beyond words.
From the Gerry Rafferty session, Linda Thompson’s vocal on “Don’t Renege On Our Love” is equally wonderful and this is probably the only duplicate song where I prefer the earlier version.
“For Shame Of Doing Wrong” is a wonderful song, as released on “Pour Down Like Silver”; the Gerry Rafferty version is less raw – it’s different and, arguably, just as good.
Joe Boyd was keen to promote the album in the USA and with Linda Thompson unable to perform due to the imminent birth of her daughter Kami (who is now half of the excellent duo The Rails with James Walbourne), Richard Thompson embarked on a solo tour. It was on this tour that he met Nancy Covey and when he returned to the U.K., Richard & Linda Thompson’s marriage was over.
Nevertheless, they had a commitment to tour in the USA and Linda Thompson insisted that, having lost a husband, she wasn’t going to lose another touring opportunity. Tensions were high on this tour. She kicked Richard Thompson on stage, hit him over the head with a Coke bottle in an airport and got arrested after stealing a car. The tour ended in chaos.
These days, Richard & Linda Thompson are friends. They have recorded together and in today’s Observer she says, “Working with a husband and wife is tricky. Those were different times. So often we acquiesced to things we shouldn’t have”.
Every Richard & Linda Thompson album contains many magnificent moments. Improvisation unleashes creativity.