'Roots to Fruits' with Richard Thompson
8/24/2005 (updated 8/24/2005)
Here's a comprehensive piece that aired on 'Roots to Fruits' (South African radio), and will be printed in the October Audio Video Magazine. (also SA)
RICHARD THOMPSON by Richard Haslop
At the risk of perpetuating a cliché way beyond its useful life, let me get this out of the way at the outset. Richard Thompson has had the phrase "best kept secret in rock" applied to him many more times than he cares to remember, and he doesn't much go for the description. "It almost says, 'This guy's obscure,'" he complained when I interviewed him recently for the SAfm radio show, Roots To Fruits. "'Let's keep him that way so we can be in his club.'"
The point is well made, and taken, and anyway the description no longer applies as snugly to a man whose recently released Front Parlour Ballads has transcended the almost universally positive reviews that have become pretty much standard for a new Thompson record, and enjoyed the kind of initial chart action that has been anything but. Indeed, the disc's first few sales weeks have suggested that his highest ever Billboard US Top 200 position - a lofty No 97 by 1996's you? me? us? - might be under threat.
Even if it doesn't turn out that way, any mainstream chart placing at all is impressive for an album that Thompson himself refers to as "small songs sung in a small setting . an intimate, minimal record, recorded in my garage, with not a great deal on it."
Though widely touted as his first totally acoustic record since 1981's instrumental set, Strict Tempo, Front Parlour Ballads is not quite that. Firstly, one of the two discs that comprised you? me? us? was described, on its label, as "nude" in order to distinguish it from its "voltage enhanced" twin and, secondly, there is, in fact, just a little electric guitar on Front Parlour Ballads . just enough, in fact, to let you know it's there, and to remind you that it has been as a highly distinctive electric guitar stylist that Thompson has garnered a good deal of his hugely loyal following.
That following, equally attracted to his exceptional and decidedly individual songwriting, has included many of the great and the good from the interesting end of what might be termed semi-popular music. Among those to have contributed to two Richard Thompson tribute albums have been R.E.M., Los Lobos, X, Victoria Williams, Tom Robinson, Bonnie Raitt, David Byrne and Bob Mould. Add to that his consistent placing in a range of lists of favourite artists, best albums and greatest guitarists - he's equally adept on acoustic and electric - and it's not hard to see where the idea came from that Thompson might, in fact, be the best kept secret in rock.
Richard Thompson started out in public as the teenage guitar ace in the influential Fairport Convention and made five albums as a member of that group, including the groundbreaking Liege And Lief, widely regarded as the first great record in a truly English folk-rock style. It was certainly the most impressive to present traditional British folk song in an electric rock setting. In contrast to some of their contemporaries, Fairport always sounded, at least when Thompson was in the band, like a rock band playing folk songs, rather than folk musicians playing traditional songs on electric instruments.
Some of Fairport's finest traditional sounding songs, like Crazy Man Michael, Walk Awhile and Sloth, had been written or co-written by Thompson, and he left the band after the release of Full House to pursue a solo career. His first album, 1972's Henry The Human Fly, was touted by a record company that seemed determined to make a cult artist of him as "the worst selling record in Warner Brothers history". However, subsequent generations of record buyers and perennial critical acclaim for a very singular album have conspired to raise Henry's profile to the point where a remastered edition has now been released.
Over the next decade Thompson made half a dozen albums as part of a duo with his wife Linda, whose fabulous vocals thrilled the critics as much as Richard's songwriting and guitar playing, and at least three Richard & Linda Thompson releases - I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Pour Down Like Silver and the searing Shoot Out The Lights - deserve to be on any list of the period's finest albums. The last-mentioned in fact made Rolling Stone magazine's Best Ten of the '80s. It was, by some distance, the poorest selling album on that list.
Thompson describes himself as a "niche artist very much on the edge of the music industry", an industry, by the way, for which he has little but contempt. Row Boys Row, from the new album, is a scathing comment on a business that, a few dedicated music lovers aside, "tends to attract a bunch of sharks and charlatans . and treats the musicians, as Courtney Love was saying a few years ago, like sharecroppers. We do our work, but at the end of the day we don't really own anything. The record company owns pretty much everything."