Listen to this track by British folk-rock storyteller and guitar hero Richard Thompson. It’s “Beeswing”, a cut off of his 1994 album Mirror Blue. That record had him working with producer Mitchell Froom, who helmed the boards for his celebrated record Rumor & Sigh. This time, though, the quirks that characterized their approach came to the surface a bit more, and it was not to everyone’s taste, critically speaking.
But even under these conditions where the album’s production is concerned, “Beeswing” is a giant of a tune by anyone’s standard. It comes straight from Thompson’s deep knowledge and superior command of British folk songwriting traditions dealing in well-traveled themes of tarnished love, character flaws, lost potential, and (to be frank) unhappy endings. This song adds a contemporary dimension to all of that, really sounding like a personal story as well as presenting characters that embody those well-understood and relatable themes.
Most importantly, it’s a song that hits on another resonant theme with which humanity struggles in any era or generation; the balance between personal freedom, and the obligation to others whom we choose to love, and who in turn choose to love us. Read more
Listen to this track by guitar demigod and British folk-rock granddaddy Richard Thompson. It’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, a song about a boy, a girl, and a motorbike, taken from Thompson’s 1991 record Rumour & Sigh, a gem, and a perennial live track from his best-selling record to date.
This record was something of a mid-career high point for Thompson, who’d been making records for a pretty long time by this point; over two decades, if you include his work with Fairport Convention, and the multitude of times he served as a sessioner for other artists. But, just because an artist of his experience had had a few records out, it didn’t mean there wasn’t a masterpiece still left to deliver. And that’s what I think this song is; it’s a masterpiece.
It’s a song that gathers all of his strengths as an artist in one place. It features his superlative guitar-playing skills. It demonstrates his capacity for compelling storytelling in the style of traditional English ballads. And, most importantly of all, it shows his flair for emotionally connected undercurrents to a song’s narrative that makes you care about the characters, just as you should in any story.
But this song is important beyond what it represents in terms of Thompson’s output. It provided an important stylistic bridge, or rather pointed the way to one, from one musical tradition to another.
Here’s a clip of British folk guitar demigod Richard Thompson with his song “the Sights and Sounds of London Town” as taken from his 1999 album Mock Tudor. He’s accompanied here, among others, by ex-Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson (no relation), a frequent collaborator since the 1960s, and mandolinist Pete Zorn.
This tune is one of my favourites of his, one that not only showcases his guitar-playing, but also frames him as a consummate storyteller. This is an original tune, yet you can tell it’s rooted in an older approach and series of themes common to folk music. This is a modern tale of the downtrodden in the big city. These are stories of poverty, of victims, of opportunists, that make up the landscape of a town without mercy, a place so big that it’s easy for the innocent, the naïve, to get swallowed up.
Richard Thompson is something of a phenomenon in his home country, having been a member of the classic line-up of British folk-rock outfit Fairport Convention, as well as putting out albums under his own name as well as those along with his one-time wife Linda Thompson in the 70s and early 80s. Along with his remarkable skills as an instrumentalist, Thompson came into his own as a songwriter as well, often exploring the darker side of the human condition, true in many ways to the folk traditions out of which he built his own body of work.
Thompson is venerated among guitarists, celebrated by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the top 100 guitar players of all time. And as a songwriter, he’s been covered by artists as diverse as REM, Shawn Colvin, and the Corrs, among many others. Along with his time in Fairport, he was a sought-after session musician who contributed guitar on Nick Drake’s first two albums, among many others. By the early-to-mid 70s, Thompson collaborated with, and married, Linda Peters with whom he would make several albums up until the early 80s, including the critically celebrated I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Pour Down Like Silver, and their final album Shoot Out the Lights, which is known as their ‘divorce’ album.
From here, Thompson continued to record as a solo artist, along with contributing to the work of others, including Gerry Rafferty, Crowded House, Bonnie Riatt, Norma Waterson, and his and Linda’s son Teddy Thompson. He frequently appears at Fairport Conventions’ annual music festival Cropredy Festival, and tours as a solo artist with frequent releases.
A more recent project, Richard Thompson – 1000 Years of Popular Musicis a 2 CD & 1 DVD Set which does what it says on the box, with material that ranges from folk tunes dating back to the days of the Norman conquest (“Sumer is Icumen In”), to the industrial revolution (“Blackleg Miner”), the Kinks (“See My Friends”), and Britney Spears (“Oops I Did It Again”). It’s a varied, ambitious project that ultimately shows the similarities in pop writing across the ages, more so than the differences.