“When I drank, I was going to be the best drinker in the bar, or take the most drugs or whatever. When I did give up the drink I was going to be the best at that:” The bottom-end drive that made Danny Thompson’s name

Danny Thompson
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Virtuoso bassist Danny Thompson started his career with Alexis Korner, then helped found Pentangle before going on to perform alongside icons of many genres. In 2010 the true master of low-end theory looked back with Prog.

If, over the last 40 years or so, you’ve had any interest in the music scene at all, and this particular peccadillo has led you to buy singles, albums, cassettes or compact discs, then the chances are you’ve encountered the work of bassist Danny Thompson.

Go on. Check your music collection and see. Pentangle? Been there. Nick Drake? Done that. John Martyn? Bought the T-shirt. Talk Talk? Sorted. Alexis Korner? No problem. Richard Thompson? Of course!

The list goes on and on. Tim Buckley, Kate Bush, David Sylvian, Donovan, Dagmar Krause, Peter Gabriel, The The, Gomez, Paul Weller, Tubby Hayes, Everything But The Girl, Mary Coughlan, Sandy Denny, Julian Cope, The Incredible String Band, Moondog, Nigel Kennedy and Toumani Diabate are just a few of the artists with whom Danny’s worked, either on record or on stage.

About the only genre the bass-playing legend hasn’t dallied with in his impressive career is thrash metal. Even here, though, you suspect it can’t be long before the phone rings and Danny can tick another musical milestone is off the list.

“I never say I’m not going to play with someone because they’re working in a different kind of music to me,” he says. “I’ll always have a play, and it’s that which has led into all kinds of different hings. Back in the 60s I used to get a lot of grief from jazzers, asking me why I was bothering to play all that folk stuff. But I was never bothered what type of music it was. It was music, you know? Plain and simple. The only thing I cared about was if I liked it or not, and if I liked it, then I was going to play it. Simple as that.”

It’s an uncomplicated philosophy which has served him well, keeping him in demand for over five decades in an industry famed for its fickle, transient nature. Still best-known for his work in pioneering 60s group Pentangle – with whom he forged an innovative synthesis between folk and jazz – and his partnership with John Martyn in the 70s, he was the recipient of BBC Radio 2‘s Folk Awards Lifetime Achievement in 2007 (Thompson admits that he’s always slightly uncomfortable when such accolades and tributes are laid at his feet). 

The sound and style admired by so many didn’t come about by accident, but was the result of hours spent learning his craft, born in part from a competitive streak in his make-up. “I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did,” he says. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be the best footballer. When I first got my bass when I was 16, I was living on my own, and I put up a sign above my door which said ‘PRACTICE.’ It was there so that whenever I left the room to go out I’d see this sign, and it’d remind me what I was meant to be doing.”

When you hear the rich lyricism in his playing, or the rhythmic invention that informs his work, it’s hard not to go overboard with praise. His appearance on a track can be decisive without ever being obvious or unduly demonstrative. He can make Victoria – the double bass he’s played since he took up the instrument back in the early 1950s – sing as poignantly as the proverbial lark ascending, or thunder ominously, propelling the music into pensive, darker territory.

David Sylvian gave me free rein… I just do what I think is appropriate, and I hopefully serve the song

Listen to any of the numerous records which Thompson’s nimble playing has graced, and while there’s an often an undeniable virtuosity present, it’s unencumbered by any unnecessary showboating or vulgar displays of technique. Often he’ll turn heads with only the briefest of runs, or dazzle listeners with fleet-fingered twinkling harmonics. Best of all, his low- down slides reach deep into the soul of both music and listener.

His ability to get inside a piece and straight to the heart of the matter, with only the barest of information to go on, is legendary. When, in 1968, feted singer-songwriter Tim Buckley came to London to play a now celebrated gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (released in 1990 as Dream Letter), Thompson was drafted in at short notice and played the show without recourse to any sheet music.

“We met in the afternoon at the venue and we played through some the songs he might do that night,” he recalls. “I might have made a couple of notes about keys and so on, but mostly I just worked on my feet.”

Buckley’s propensity to depart from the musical script was handled with aplomb by the musicians working with him that night. Hearing Danny’s ability to respond instantly to the music coming at him is instructive. It’s that combination of lightning-sharp reaction and tasteful precision which has come in useful many times since.

That inner drive which has made Thompson such a distinctive player also exerted an altogether darker force upon his life. “I would drink any amount of booze or take any drug you put in front of me,” he admits. When I drank, I was going to be the best drinker in the bar, or take the most drugs or whatever. When I did give up the drink I was going to be the best at that.”

There’s only one opinion that really matters when people make records, and that’s the opinion of the artist

After emerging from his alcohol addiction in 1978, he could’ve been forgiven for resting on his laurels. But playing it safe has never been part of his style, and throughout the 80s and beyond, he’s maintained a rigourously eclectic programme of music-making.

His encounter with David Sylvian during the recording of the singer’s 1984 solo debut, Brilliant Trees, typifies Thompson’s attitude. Though he’d known of Japan, he didn’t know Sylvian by name. Arriving at Wessex Studios, he was greeted by producer Steve Nye, who took him through to the room.

“There was this guy sitting on the floor playing guitar, and Steve said ‘This is David.’ We said our hellos, and I said, ‘All right, what key is this in?’ because I hadn’t heard it beforehand or anything, and he said, ‘I don’t know.’ I remember saying to him, ‘Not another guitar player who doesn’t know what chords he’s playing!’ There was a look, but he was very sweet and we both laughed.”

That album’s Ink In The Well finds Thompson abandoning himself to his muse. “David just gave me free rein. I just do what I think is appropriate, and I hopefully serve the song. I did take a few liberties, and if you let me, then I’ll definitely get stuck in. When we went into the playback I thought some of what I did was a bit over the top, but they loved it.”

The addition of respected brass player Kenny Wheeler on the album was a result of Danny’s suggestion. At first glance, the pairing of the aesthetically-inclined Sylvian and the famously garrulous bassist might seem incongruous. Yet Thompson was invited to participate on Sylvian’s 1987 album, Secrets Of The Beehive. Whereas the first recording date with the singer hadn’t seen any parameters imposed upon Danny, this recording was different. Was that a problem?

Kate Bush was definitely in control. I saw her recently, and she was just that same beautiful person. It’s so refreshing

“No. Not at all. David is a remarkable bloke, totally unaffected, and he knows exactly what he wants. I’d do something and David would come back and be very, very explicit with his directions and in what he wanted. On tracks such as The Boy With The Gun, Orpheus or Mother And Child, I didn’t have the kind of free rein as much I did with previously. But I’ve got absolutely no criticism of that at all.

“There’s only one opinion that really matters when people make records, and that’s the opinion of the artist. In that kind of setting, I’m really just a screwdriver in the toolbox, which is a role I really enjoy.”

Kate Bush was another writer with an individual sound who made great use of Thompson’s dynamic playing. She too presented the bassist with guidelines when he worked on The Dreaming (1982) and Hounds Of Love (1985). “It was just a great creative process. She was definitely in control. I saw her recently, and she was just that same beautiful person. It’s so refreshing.

“When you meet people who have an attitude on their way up in the profession, it’s a real shame. And it’s usually the people who are not all that great, who just want to be famous. Whether you meet footballers, boxers or actors, the really great ones are always ‘normal’ – they’re not different at all or affected by it all. They’re not touched by all that’s going on around them; they’re just doing something they really love.”

What Bush, Sylvian, and all the others who’ve wanted Thompson to play on their records have in common is their admiration for his work with John Martyn. While stories of the duo’s near-industrial consumption of alcohol and associated scrapes and japes are legion, it’s the telepathic empathy of their work together which they are rightly remembered for. 

Aside from the unexpurgated cockney-geezer banter heard on the recently released deluxe edition of Live At Leeds, the music they made is steeped in risk-taking, oozing camaraderie and mutual respect. “I loved John,” says Thompson of Martyn – who, despite many attempts, never quite managed to kick the booze, and who died in 2009. “What can I say? I miss him.”

Still busy as ever, he pauses to reflect on his work. “If I listen to some of the stuff I did in the early days I think, ‘Blimey! I was all over that!’ Whereas maturity brings a bit of simplicity. It’s harder to be simple. Hopefully, I’ve matured as a player. 

“When people ask you to play on something, and they may be fans who’ve heard me on something, you go in and do something which you think is perfect for the song; but they’re expecting you to fly about like a demented lunatic because they’re paying what they think is good money for this bloke who has this unbelievable reputation.

“Well, the bloke with the unbelievable reputation is just trying to keep his reputation by playing what he finds suitable for that song. He’s not showing off his prowess on the bass. So sometimes people are thinking ‘is that it?’ but the few notes you are playing are absolutely spot on for the track.

“What they’re getting is the heart and soul, and total dedication. When I go into a studio it’s not like another job. It’s a creative process that you want to get involved in. You still have the enthusiasm as you did when you were 16 years old, playing with your mates in a garage, and that’s never changed for me.”

His willingness to engage with things new or different has taken him well beyond the expected comfort zone of his peers in either jazz (his first love) or his adoptive homelands of the folk scene. His career can be viewed as a series of tangled family trees, intersecting lines, chance meetings and surprising connections – often as entertaining as they are unexpected.

You apply yourself because you want to do it out of pure enjoyment, and it leads onto other things

“I played with Alexis Korner for three years and through that I got to play with Little Walter and fantastic people like Josh White. It was probably through Alexis that I met John Renbourn on a TV show and that in turn led to Pentangle.

“You apply yourself to all these different things because, first of all, you want to do it out of pure enjoyment; and, secondly, it leads onto other things.That doesn’t just apply to music, but to daily life.”

Any advice for aspiring players? “Don’t have any prejudices!”

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.