… is the title of an “official bootleg” released on cassette many years ago, featuring the work of Richard Thompson, both with and without his former wife Linda and other collaborators. The choice is an ironic collusion between RT and the compilers, given that a lot of non-fans describe his music as depressing. And it’s true his lyrical content includes war, death, failing relationships, jealousy, bleak encounters below the Calvary Cross etc. But it’s also true that it’s informed by traditional music, whose lyrical content often includes war, death, failing relationships, jealousy, witchcraft and magical transformation, encounters with the Devil etc. On a personal level, his is the body of musical work which means the most to me. But I am not here to convert you. That either will or will not happen. 90% of those who sample his catalogue either hate what they hear or become complete converts … there seem to be very few non-committal responses. This post is not quite as much of a digression as some, as it’s about how, by the time all my chums were heading off to university and I wasn’t, music was becoming incredibly important to me. Although I will drone on a bit about RT as well …
Earlier in my childhood it had always been important to me, but not in any thought out way … I just liked what I liked! I obsessively played records on our Decca Deccalian gramophone, with a red pickup for 33/45RPM records and a green one for 78. It looked a bit like this, only off-white. My grandmother also gave me a defunct wind-up gramophone, which I still have (keep meaning to get the spring replaced). Later, like many in the UK, we graduated to the fabulous Dansette, our model quite like this but pink with long, spindly detachable legs.
You may recall my dad scared me off pop music for a while around the age of nine. If you sampled my list of top tunes around that time it would have include a whole bumch of different stuff, including:
- early Beatles;
- the Monkees;
- Sandy Nelson’s single Let There Be Drums (still fab);
- a bit of Cliff Richard and the Shadows;
- Beethoven’s Für Elise (heard a fellow pupil play it at school and was thrilled when I could play it myself);
- Barry Gray’s stirring music for Gerry Anderson‘s TV puppet adventure shows;
- Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop‘s electronic realisation of the Doctor Who theme, a legitimate work of genius hidden in plain sight on mainstream television. Strike that – actually a work of genius embedded in another work of genius (the programme itself);
- and pretty much the full contents of Lonnie Donegan‘s A Golden Age of Donegan Volumes One and Two on Pye Golden Guinea.
A fairly mixed bunch of stuff – I just followed my ears. So there had always been stuff I liked, and I have described how I became a bit more interested in pop and rock in my early teens and had, by the fifth form one genuine musical obsession (The Beach Boys). At around that time I started to buy the music press – NME (New Musical Express) always and Melody Maker quite often – and was informing myself by listening around more widely and reading the NME, in particular writers such as Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray (CSM) and Mick Farren. If you weren’t reading it at the time, read Nick Kent’s book Apathy for the Devil to get a flavour. Punk was also just on the horizon – I’ll say more about that another time.
OK, this could become link city so I’ll try and calm things down. But it’s hard to understate how, feeling detached from my parents and confused about my identity, music became so important to me (an experience a lot of non-trans kids also have around that age of course). But also this “meta-discussion” about music from people who seemed to have informed opinions – the NME writers, John Peel on the radio, Bob Harris on the Old Grey Whistle Test – I devoured it all. From a fan perspective at the time both performers, writers and DJs seemed to reek of certainty and confidence. I think that’s one of the reasons I idolised them, because I felt so powerless and they seemed to be having enjoyable, mould-breaking lives. From an adult perspective I now know it wasn’t as simple as that, but then … also the notion that this music, or at least some of it, was important, that it meant something and stood for something. Equally though, Nick Kent and CSM were something like rock stars themselves, and a lot of what they liked I didn’t like at the time. I was looking for something to call my own …
Then two things happened very close together. Peel was a bit eclectic, but there were often even more aural surprises on BBC Radio London’s almost forgotten show Breakthrough, presented by a chap called Mike Sparrow. I had always been vaguely interested in good guitar players – as opposed to the ones who are either all technique or all sentiment. My school chum P– played guitar and was always trying to get me into Led Zeppelin, which was OK but, you know … Then while idly listening to Breakthrough one evening the most arresting guitar instrumental track I had ever heard wafted across the ether. I’d never heard playing like it, and my ears pricked up immediately. Afterwards Mike Sparrow said this was by somebody called Richard Thompson. I missed the title of the track but it was almost certainly The Pitfall/The Excursion, which is only to be found on a now long-unavailable compilation.
I had just also become a fan of the music magazine Zigzag, which hovered between fanzine and prozine (a place where I would find myself hovering, some years later!). A bit of a bad time to become a fan actually as its distinctive approach to seventies rock was about to be swept away when it was relaunched as a punk rock zine. And yes, I will still have something to say about punk later. Not today, reader …
The very last pre-punk issue of ZigZag cover-featured Richard Thompson. Inside was not an interview, but an article about the records he had made to this point, solo and with Linda, since leaving the band Fairport Convention. The description of them, and particularly their lyrical content and themes(I had only heard his guitar playing at this point) sounded so intriguing that I fairly rapidly acquired the five albums in question. After devouring Brian Wilson’s back catalogue in the mid-seventies, these records (all of which I found stunning in different ways) were another huge musical education. But obviously just saying that I cannot make them so for you – it was a particular time, place and experience.
Thompson has Scottish roots, but he grew up in North London, not far from where I lived as a child, and became a teenage musical prodigy in the sixties. I know a lot of obsessive fans from all over the world, but I wonder in some ways whether that slightly shared background gives my appreciation of his stuff a particular perspective. He grew up in same kind of suburbs I did, and in interviews has often talked about the importance of escaping them. So maybe that idea is a big part of it for me, because in the summer of 1977 I could see no way out of the ‘burbs for me, but his adventurous music perhaps represented that possibility of escape to me most of all.
Besotted with the Thompsons, I then worked backwards to Fairport. I noticed that the key Fairport albums were produced by a chap called Joe Boyd, and followed his name to albums by other (sometimes connected) artists … The Albion Band, John Martyn, Nick Drake (who I stumbled across in 1979, you latecomers). Boyd, an American, returned to the US in the mid-seventies to work for Warner Brothers and the end of the seventies found me following that further aural trail. That led me to Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Maria Muldaur. Great songs and great musicianship were the mark of a Joe Boyd record – I think he used to say his role as a producer was to get out of the way of the performance, so as much of it could make it onto vinyl as possible. And Warners had lots of other interesting artists not produced by Boyd – Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks, Little Feat, Loudon Wainwright (actually Loudon was on virtually every other label under the sun but I have to mention him) … and I just kept on exploring.
Many of those artists, as well as writing their own songs, were closely connected to the various strands of Anglo-Saxon (and sometimes Celtic) traditional music, an amazingly rich seam which English people in particular know very little about. But these are amazing songs, you should know about them. History is written by the victors they say, but folk songs are written by the rest of us. So from Fairport and the Albions off I went to those who mined the English tradition even more deeply … Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris.
This rich tapestry of inter-related artists and music means more to me than I can say. At my most isolated emotional time their stuff was all I had to hang on to. The Thompsons, Wainwright/McGarrigles and Waterson/Carthy are musical family dynasties within this wider group of musicians. Their own family lives have been rocky from time to time but another haunting element for me was the sense nonetheless from them of supportive family bonds, and what I felt as the absence of such bonds for me. As it happens Linda Thompson was the first professional musician I chatted to, in 1978. Tale for another time, but a lovely woman.
Full circle … a few weeks ago, as part of the fantastic Meltdown music festival in London which RT curated, I attended the concert staged in memory of Kate McGarrigle, who died last January. Many McGarrigles and Thompsons performed in all sorts of (sometimes very unexpected) combinations, as did Jenni Muldaur (Geoff and Maria’s daughter), and Emmylou Harris, and Nick Cave, and Neil Tennant, Lisa Hannigan and Krystle Warren … It was brilliantly performed but incredibly emotional for both artists and audience. You can sample a slight taste of the night thanks to fan videos here.
When I spoke to Linda in 1978, she was warm, and lovely and funny, and I was shy and starstruck, and little suspected how yet more difficult my life was to become. Since then I have seen Richard play many, many times. The two of them split up around 1982 but I have also been to some of her (relatively rare) solo concerts. But when I saw all those amazing performers at Meltdown in June, I was sitting in the Royal Festival Hall, proudly myself at last, blessed with a loving family and friends and the most at ease I have ever been, after all these intervening years. So that night held special resonance for me and I’m sure for lots in the audience in many different ways. Rarely can there have been such a direct emotional connection between those on stage and off. Tears were shed by almost all – you should have been there.