BBC Radio 4 has this neat show–Master Tapes— where they bring in some artist to discuss one of their important albums. It’s a Q&A for the interviewer, John Wilson, and the audience to find out what makes artists tick in some manner, and to discuss why they do what they do in the way they do it. It’s a cool idea, and this past year they’ve had Suzanne Vega discussing Solitude Standing, Ray Davies discussing Muswell Hillbillies, Paul Weller discussing The Gift (The Jam’s final album), Billy Bragg discussing Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, and (my favorite) The Zombies discussing Odyssey and Oracle (one of the many, many seminal albums of 1969.) And last night they had Richard Thompson discussing Rumour and Sigh, from 1991.
Now, I wouldn’t even say that this is RT’s best album, by a long shot, but it’s certainly up there in the top half dozen. (Imagine an artist about whom you could confidently say something like that. There aren’t many.) But it’s got some of his best known songs on it, including 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, which has been covered everywhere, including by Del McCoury, a version which won it a Bluegrass Song of the Year award, which Thompson thought was a hoot. (Interestingly, it’s not even his most covered song—that would be Dimming of the Day, covered most recently by Tom Jones, which Thompson thought was an even bigger hoot.) It’s also one of his most representative albums, in that Thompson as a songwriter draws from an alarmingly broad range of sources and traditions, and a whole lot of them are here. We range from straight up rock and roll to ballads to the uncategorizable, including an honorarium to Scottish singer and performer Jimmy Shand, and the totally weird song Psycho Street, which Thomson admitted probably didn’t even belong on the album. It’s an album that got a whole lot of airplay in the Wufnik family Saab on long trips to Maine and Vermont.
So we trundled in out of the rainy cold and stood in the hall for a while, and then got ushered into the studio, where, in some sort of cosmic coup, we got some of the best seats in the house, along the front row next to the stage. So the photo above, courtesy of Mrs W, was pretty much our view for the entire evening. And it was all great fun—Thompson sang some songs from the album (Vincent Black Lightning, of course, along with Read about Love, It Feel So Good, Why Must I Plead, God Loves a Drunk, and closed the set with I Misunderstood.) So that was cool. Even better was just the interaction. Wilson would ask a pretty good question, and Thompson would answer it. It’s amazing how well this works when the questions are sensible and articulate. And the audience questions were even better. So we learned quite a lot about how Thompson writes his songs, his growing up in North London (his father was a detective at Scotland Yard,) why he still mostly writes about London and Britain even though he lives in Santa Monica, how he orders tracks on a record, and lots of other stuff that essentially spanned his career.
Thompson has been doing this for five decades now, from his start in Fairport Convention in 1967, to a long and successful solo career. He admits to writing over 400 songs, and not being able to remember all of them. He’s got some favorites, He’s also got some songs he refuses to sing. He gave us a version of Meet on the Ledge, the song with which Fairport Convention still closes its annual Cropredy festival, with 20,000 people singing it, but it’s clear he doesn’t like it that much. He wrote it when he was 19, he said, sort of apologizing for it. (Well, it’s still a good song for 20,000 people to sing the chorus of.) He doesn’t think his songs—many of which are about misfits of some sort and the socially marginal—are that weird; he grew up listening to English and Scottish folk music, which of course is full of murder, incest, and early death. So he feels he fits right in.
He really lit up when talking about a couple if musical eras—someone asked based on his project 1000 Years of Popular Song, which he toured on a few years back, what musical eras would he like to live in? Well, the time of the troubadours, Tudor England, and the 1920s. And he really went off on the Moorish music of Spain (one of my favorites as well). Thomson converted to Sufism decades ago, and he doesn’t drink, and it occasionally seeps into his music. In response to a question about how he wrote such good songs about drunkenness when he doesn’t drink, Thomson responded with the fact that he didn’t always not drink. He discussed about where stuff comes from—One Door Opens resulted from his studying John Dowland for his 1000 Years of Song project. He talked about how rooms, wooden rooms, soak up notes, much the way guitars soak up notes, and change their sound over time. He’s got about 15 guitars—no more, because he wants to make sure that they get played.
And I’ve never been part of a radio audience before. This is two half hour shows when broadcast (May or June sometime), culled from the two hours plus that we were there. So we got to do things like applaud and cheer wildly on cue, many times, especially when they had to do repeats. There was lots of impromptu between Wilson and Thompson, and lots of mugging by Thompson, neither of which will be usable—the former because it will be cut, the latter because it’s radio. Since it was the BBC, they wouldn’t let Thompson use his forty year old amplifier because it had a crack in the plug—health and safety. The crowd was great—old farts like us, and many (like us) with their kids (and kids spouses, no doubt.) Overall, a good age range, but you can tell that most Thompson fans, like me, go back a ways.
So a great evening. I haven’t picked up the new album (Electric—fantastic cover!) yet, but will soon—and we’re heading back to see him in two weeks at the Barbican. Happy days!
(If I were just starting out on Thomson, this is where I’d start, in addition to Rumour and Sigh: Live from Austin, Hand of Kindness, and Amnesia; with his ex-wife Linda, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and Pour Down Like Silver; and with Fairport, Liege and Lief. There are also numerous sets, and some great covers, including Beat the Retreat. And, of course, the Live in Providence DVD. Here’s a complete list.)