Richard and Linda Thompson

There’s something about the year 1974 that will trigger a sea change in the English musical landscape. A year before the rise of Thatcher and near the beginning of Labour’s inept descent into centrism, musicians were starting to feel the pangs of rebellion again. Before punk existed, there was one man in the neo-folk realm that always had that sense of doubt, and had to speak out. Richard Thompson, by now ex-Fairport Convention member, had found his perfect muse in Linda Thompson, a new breed of English singer whose cutting edge brought some much needed bite to neo-folk music. When you have a de facto curfew by 10:30pm, and you’ve got your mind set on going out and wildin’, sometimes all you want to do is see the bright lights tonight…

There was a time Richard Thompson was a bit of a wandering musician. When he left Fairport after Full House he struggled mightily to cement himself as a solo musician. Without the backup of his old mates, releases like Henry the Human Fly lacked the last bit of power needed take his songs past acerbic tomes. Songs like “Nobody’s Wedding”, “Wheely Down”, and “Cold Feet” are worth your time but the album as a whole didn’t pain Richard as someone you could bank on carrying an album all the way through.

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight album cover.

Hearing Richard’s session work with such artists like Nick Drake, John Martyn, John Cale etc. makes you realize that at this stage in his career his best work rightfully was feeding off the energy of others. Which makes his introduction to Linda Pettifer such a boon to his life. Just before recording Henry the Human Fly he had met and fallen in love with Linda, a session singer who had sung in a band called Hokey Pokey(!) with Simon Nicols (of Fairport Convention). This beautiful statuesque Londoner, was something Richard wasn’t, way more forthright and engaging…let alone a magnificent singer who reminded him of Sandy but with a certain acidity that foretold future punk singers. She sang in Fairport’s Rosie, giving Sandy herself a run for her money and lighting up Richard’s brain of something else.

Back cover of IWSBLT.

In October 1972, Richard and Linda married, and started their first fruitful years together. By then, after the failure of Henry the Human Fly, Richard had avoided judiciously picking up his solo career. By 1973, when he couldn’t avoid doing so anymore, Linda and Richard came up with the idea of performing and recording as a duo. That he liked. Not having to be at the forefront anymore allowed Richard to feel more comfortable in working out melodies that suite Linda’s vast further range, while allowing him to balance the more rebellious aspects of his lyrics out further across a whole album. Unfortunately, for them with such a tight budget and a short amount of studio time allotted to record their album in 1973, they had to keep things efficient.

In some way, this economy worked. Keeping things simple and concise allowed Richard to create such wonderful, extremely subversive new breed Folk-Rock pop songs. Songs like the “Cavalry Cross” which on an old Fairport record could have gone on for minutes on end now hone their power into a 3-minute bit of well-earned provocation. No longer having to focus on rounds, traditionals, and more, Richard taking on almost every instrument except drums (and his crew Simon Nicols on rhythm guitar especially) starts to create his own take on music that evokes a descending England. No longer the exhalted empire of before, he realizes that a new England needs to be humbled, and put on notice. Shit got so bad that you couldn’t but wish to start a new Albion, as songs like “When I Get to the Border” belted out brilliantly.

Ballads like “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” with its gorgeous chorus signaling a new kind of anti-hero who gets on with it, in a thoroughly tough modern world, is shockingly different for its time. Something that gets further fleshed out with the timeless trio of songs that end the album, from the “Little Beggar Girl” down to “The Great Valerio” all of them marrying a folk sound with a punk sensibility (in chords and melodies) which starts to highlight a new kind of English musician who sees the evils of the modern world. Spirogyra hinted at that important bit earlier in Bells, Boots, and Shamble‘s “In the Western World” and Richard brought it concisely to light in songs like “The End of the Rainbow“, one of the few sung by him here. However, the greatest song will always be its most defiant and its most heartfelt, the title track itself.

Over an almost funky mock-glam stomp, Linda sings a glorious ode to a time before Three Day Weeks, and before the rise of Conservatism, a time when if you had to, you had to get the fuck outta there. Drunk nights rolling on the floor, looking to get into toss ups, having fun and raising a raucous, has never sounded as magnificent as when Linda sings it over that CWS Band brass band arrangement. Linda’s previous shot at importance was singing commercial jingles, and now here she was singing one of the most inviting songs about tearing shit up. At a time, when you couldn’t see over the fog descending England, here were two musicians leaving a hidden message on the mirror that comes out clearly when the light hits it. Unfortunately, for Richard and Linda this genius album was shelved for a year due to oil shortages making vinyl pressings scarce, until being released in 1974, to a small herald of fans. Heck, one of the greatest tragedies was extended to the states who didn’t get a chance to hear this album until 1983! Lord knows how the Ramones would have changed their tune, if they had peeped this album first. Anyway, we’ll hear more of this new breed of English neo-folk music, that sees this message tomorrow…

Listen to I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight at Grooveshark.