“I don’t like praise. ‘This record is flawed and has good intentions, but I look forward to something better’ – that’s a great review”: Richard Thompson doesn’t believe in the ‘perfect album’

Richard Thompson
(Image credit: Richard Thompson)

In 2013 Richard Thompson released his studio album Electric, and reflected with Prog on why he’d done what he’d done – and how he felt about it all – in a career that already spanned 46 years.

When Prog asks Richard Thompson whether his labyrinthine catalogue – over a dozen albums as well as a heap of live, fanclub and boutique label releases, plus, of course, his influential work with Fairport Convention and the acclaimed records he made with his ex-wife Linda – is representative of someone who churns out music, he doesn't baulk at the idea.

“No, that’s fair,” he says in the bar of a hotel in central London, ever the polite but dry Londoner, despite having lived in Los Angeles for many years. “I churn stuff out. I churn.” Does he have at least one copy of everything he’s recorded? “No,” he says with a grin. “People come round and say, ‘Ooh, I haven’t got that one.’ So I say, ‘Help yourself.’”

He admits he has never counted how many albums he has made, and explains that many of them have fallen through the cracks as he has grown older and the staff at his various record companies have got younger. “No one knows who you are,” he complains good-naturedly. “It gets harder.”

Does he ever ponder the benefits for a musician of dying young, in the sense that it tends to seal your reputation and propel you from cult status to the legendary position where everybody knows your name? “I’m still planning to die young,” he  decides, sounding more boyish and mischievous than his 63 years, grey beard and OBE (yes, he was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2011), would lead you to expect. “I hope I haven't left it too late.”

Even if he’d never recorded another note after departing Fairport Convention in 1971, he would have earned a place in the history books for his mordant songwriting, dazzling guitar playing and invention of the idea of electrified British folk music.

The terminally modest Thompson – who regularly features high in greatest guitarist polls and whom some regard as a UK counterpart to Bob Dylan in terms of songwriting heft and vision – acknowledges that Fairport’s 1969 album, Liege & Lief, was “the quintessential British folk-rock record,” albeit with the caveat: “I don’t think it’s as perfect or definitive as it should be.”

He also accepts that, for all the accolades and epithets hurled his way over the years, being placed alongside the likes of John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and John Martyn in a progressive folk continuum is as reasonable as any. “All those people are groundbreaking in that they moved the acoustic guitar forward,” he agrees, drawing the distinction between his brand of progression with Fairport Convention and that of Genesis, Yes and ELP.

There was pretentiousness and pompousness to the prog bands… Fairport were reconnecting with the roots of British music; and that, to us, was as radical as John Cage!

“Prog rock was usually more classical-influenced – these were people who studied classical music and took it into the rock arena, with a harmonically intricate style. With Fairport, we couldn’t think of anything more radical to do than electrifying British roots music. We looked at what David Bowie was doing, or what proto-progressive bands like The Nice – who we used to go and see at The Marquee – were doing and we thought, ‘This is more radical.’

“There was pretentiousness and pompousness to the prog bands – even Led Zeppelin had an arrogance and pretentiousness about them, which was all part of the style. With Fairport we were reconnecting with the roots of British music; and that, to us, was as radical as John Cage!”

Electrifying this nation’s indigenous music and doing for Britain’s folk heritage – reclaiming it, revivifying it, bringing it slap-bang into the present – what Dylan and The Band had been doing in the States was, attests Thompson, “far more courageous because there was no immediate audience for what we were doing. It was never going to make us household names, or rich.

“We were a bunch of art school kids who thought, ‘Now is the time to do a conceptual record, make a statement... This is what we have to do: reconnect with our roots and in so doing provide a reconnection for the audience.’”

We sound hyped-up on something. Not that we were into pharmaceuticals. The only things we had on the rider were cheese sandwiches and Newcastle Brown

Thompson remembers going to the infamous 14-Hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace in April 1967, when he was 17, and having his mind blown by Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Pretty Things and more. Within two years he had helped blow some minds of his own.

“We had a big influence around the world, on bands in Spain, Sweden, Holland, South America,” he affirms. “Los Lobos in California heard Fairport’s way of interpreting their own tradition and they applied the model. It was a way of reconnecting to their roots for so many people because American music tended to dominate the local culture.”

Until Liege & Lief, give or take the occasional Waterloo Sunset, Strawberry Fields Forever or Penny Lane, there had been few British records that mythologised and “exoticised” this culture as romantically as the Americans had been doing with songs like Carolina Moon and Route 66. Fairport made it cool to eulogise our own land and its people with re-workings of homegrown ballads such as Matty Groves with their vivid sense of time and place and the suffering souls within.

How does he recall the reaction to this new take on traditional music, and that of their peers like the Incredible String Band and Pentangle (arguably the Stones and Kinks to Fairport’s Beatles)?

“It was great,” he says. “We were using electric arrangements and backbeats to make these folk songs vital in the media, these incredible stories of incest and murder – really riveting stuff. It was high-powered, almost like punk versions of jigs and reels, a decade and a half before the Pogues.

“Listening to live Fairport from 1970 is really terrifying. I couldn’t play that fast any more. We sound hyped-up on something. Not that we were into pharmaceuticals,” he adds, in case you were wondering. “The only things we had on the rider were cheese sandwiches and Newcastle Brown.”

It’s good to write about extreme emotions… you stick it on a record and immediately you feel better and you can get on with life

Fairport may not have “particularly been acid heads,” but they shared a stoned and/or wigged-out audience with the psych and prog bands of the day. “Absolutely,” he grins. “We were just trying to be different, original. We were intellectual North London suburban kids.

“The music wasn’t that rural, it was urban. And we did what we did because it was necessary. If we’d grown up in New Orleans we’d have just absorbed the local music and got on with it. We had to reconnect the severed telephone wires.”

Thompson by no means peaked with Fairport Convention. Yes, his debut solo album, Henry The Human Fly, was panned on its release in 1972, but since then he has become one of those few elder statesmen who rarely, if ever, get anything less than glowing reviews.

I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, his 1974 collaboration with his then-wife Linda, was a dark, brooding affair that was hailed as a masterpiece; while 1975’s Pour Down Like Silver – also recorded with Linda and the first they made following their adoption of the Sufi faith – saw an increased emphasis on the guitar playing that had helped make Thompson’s name. 

Even punk failed to derail him, and in 1982 he and Linda produced Shoot Out The Lights, an all-time classic in the pantheon of bleak break-up albums that captured the Thompsons’ own disintegrating marriage.

He was one of the few 60s rockers to remain relevant in the 90s, with Rumor And Sigh (1991) earning him new respect among the alternative, college-rock crowd in the US; while Mock Tudor (1999) was widely regarded by the Thomerati as one of his best. Since then there has been a steady stream of releases.

The Old Kit Bag (2003) proved he had lost none of his lyrical bite, and 1000 Years Of Popular Music (also 2003) demonstrated an arch eclecticism, featuring as it did covers of popular songs through the ages, comfortably traversing the period 1068 to 2001 and culminating with versions of Britney Spears’ Oops!... I Did It Again and Abba’s Money, Money, Money.

And there’s no sign of slowing down, with this year’s Electric another fine collection of ragged rockers and elegiac ballads. “I try and mix up the complex stuff with more simple things,” he explains. “Speaking of progressive, I just did this musical play, set in the underworld, a song cycle, with a 12-piece string section, five singers, some giant puppets and dancers.

“It was called Cabaret Of Souls [issued in album form in 2012] and we did it over three nights in Los Angeles... I wrote the music and was involved in the staging. That was complex. But then, having done that, I thought it would be great to do a solo record that people can sing, with proper choruses,” he says of Electric. “So it goes backwards and forwards.”

He has been cited as an inspiration by guitarists from David Gilmour to Mark Knopfler and Tom Verlaine of Television. If pushed, how would he capture the tonal appeal of his playing? “There’s a liquidity to it,” he says. “And it should be lyrical; it should sing, hopefully.”

The perfect record is probably accessible, and communicates ideas without making you want to skip over any tracks

How about his actual lyrics, which tend to explore the darker side of life and love – his treatment of relationships can be a little tart – is misanthropy too strong a word? “No!” he laughs. “Sometimes you just have to say it. It’s good to write about extreme emotions. Because everyone gets to those points sometimes; it’s unavoidable. So you stick it on a record and immediately you feel better and you can get on with life. It’s a useful thing. Some people will paint in a rage – it’s powerful.”

Just as much as he writes about himself, he pens portraits of characters. He tries, he says, to give people who aren’t normally represented a voice. “I think one of your roles as an artist is to reflect society and I probably tend to side with poor people, the downtrodden and disadvantaged,” he says.

Can the themes in his work be handily reduced to a catch-all two or three leitmotivs? “Probably,” he replies, “but I don’t like to think like that, because then I’m writing on a very narrow canvas.”

Neither does he like being narrowcast in reviews, even – especially – when it’s surrounded by fulsome praise. “I don’t like praise,” he admits. “‘This record is flawed and has good intentions, but I look forward to something better in the future’ – now that’s what I’d call a great review. Rather than, ‘This guy’s a genius; why doesn’t everybody know about him? I give him five stars; he’s fantastic.’ I’m there thinking, ‘No, he’s not.’”

Those reviews of Henry The Human Fly must have really stung... “Well, the first Fairport Convention single – which at the time I thought was fantastic and would set us on the road to fame and fortune – did really badly. At that point I thought, ‘I’m never going to invest in other people’s opinions to that degree again.’ And I’ve kind of kept to that.” 

There are things that I’ve done that I can’t stand the idea of people thinking this is what I do

Prog already knows how he’ll reply to the next question, but it’s worth asking anyway: has he ever made what he considers to be the perfect record? “There is no perfect record,” he says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “The perfect record is the one with faults.”

How about his favourite by anyone else? “It doesn’t exist. There are records I hold in high regard, like the first Left Banke one, or Revolver, but even there I’d leave off Yellow Submarine. Perfection is a false goal... Mistakes are good, valid.

“The perfect record is probably the one that’s accessible to people and communicates its ideas without making you want to skip over any of its tracks, that people play from end to end. Like Dark Side Of The Moon.”

Thompson says he’s far from creating such a work, admitting that he’s “dissatisfied with everything I’ve done.” Herein, perhaps, likes the key to his longevity and long-standing critical regard: this very dissatisfaction and determination to keep striving for greatness, if not perfection.

“I think so,” he says. “I’d say it’s just realistic. There are things that I’ve done that I can’t stand the idea of people thinking this is what I do. I’ve got to work harder; I must do better.”

Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.