Richard and Linda Thompson – 1980

In the same year as Kate Bush was heralding a new apex for neo-folk music, one of its original visionaries was turning off all the lights from its prior impetus. You see, in 1982, Richard and Linda Thompson released probably one of your parents or cool elder’s favorite English folk-rock album ever. That’s not a knock on Shoot Out the Lights but an affirmation of all the noted history on display here. While it marked the end of a truly unique relationship it did so by birthing into fruition some of the best musical binds you’ll ever hear. Joining a select group of brilliant break-up records — records like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or ABBA’s Visitors — Richard and Linda were willing to air everything out, then move, on a surprising high note.

There’s a bit of intriguing history to be found here. Originally, recorded in 1979 with the aid of Gerry Rafferty this album was supposed to be a solid push into some kind of public solvency. You see, by the late ’70s, as bright as their relationship started off in time and space with 1974’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, a genuine reflection of the loving optimism they had in each other in opposition to everything else going around them, little things started to chip away at their fortifications. At the end of 1974, Richard had started his conversion to Sufism, and Linda in tow would slowly be absolved into his new temperate way of living.

Living in a commune was different. Richard took a liking to it because it was driven by his heartfelt beliefs in piety, and communion with his faith. For three long years he’d swear off performing and only sparingly release albums full of meditative reflections of his own life and Linda’s in reaction to the world. Not quite as openly superficially personal as before, albums like 1975’s Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver, were more affirmations of a relationship finding comfort and love in each other. For all of life’s pains, monies, notoriety, and fame, all of it which was swiftly eroding around them, they had some kind of respite in each other, holding each one up above it all. As genuinely ascetic as Pour Down Like Silver was, few albums wear as beautifully their spirituality on its sleeve quite like this one, out in the corporal world as time went by, these bonds were slowly separating.

These are the glimpses of real life that you hear come pouring out in Shoot Out the Lights. Linda’s once supportive view of a communal, spiritual life had turned into sourness for what it entail. When Linda had parted with Richard to live in an East Anglia Sufi commune she did so out of interest and communion with her husband. However, as reality started to creep in, this once much wilder child, rather than remain an active companion in her husband’s world, was struggling coming to terms with a life resigned to homesteading and boredom. While Richard was becoming devoted to his new found role as Sufi, Linda was more than ready to turn a new leaf somewhere else. In their day to day life, she steadily convinced Richard to finally have their own place together. Nearly broke and penniless, Richard had to do session work to pay for this change. Two releases that attempted rejuvenate their career and appease Linda in a way, 1978’s First Light and 1979’s Sunnyvista were rightfully panned for being too smooth and openly commercial (in spite of not knowing how to do so!). Every fan of theirs was wondering what happened to the acerbic duo who had retreated from the light so many years ago. Although Linda felt some personal positive change, Richard was in reality feeling all sorts of insecurities with himself and his musical playing.

Real life is what happened to them. After being dropped by their record label, Gerry Rafferty, a friend of Richard Thompson, offered to pony up some money and produce them. They all did so with the intent of creating a more palatable mix of English folk-rock that would get them signed again. This early chronicle, recorded in 1980, detailed in lyrics what was becoming increasingly clear…Richard and Linda were no longer the couple they sang about before. As dismal the world was that Richard and Linda sang about before, and tried to separate themselves from, on this recording they finally were awakening up to the fact that perhaps they were the biggest problem hanging over their shoulders.

Shoot Out the Lights album cover.

Originally, conceived as a collection of break up songs of sorts. The demo songs had an ounce of the pound of the angst found much later on. As Richard, then, grew increasingly disdainful of the shinier production work and recordings he heard from Gerry, he grew increasingly distasteful of the whole album itself. Lord knows why, but Richard was realizing that these songs were truly cut from a harder stone than anything they’d done before.

When Gerry unsuccessfully tried to get them signed, and failed in doing so, in 1981 he had to eat the loss. A year later, Richard once again signed with Joe Boyd, hoping to complete a new album. By this time, Linda pregnant with their first child, had started to resign further from Richard’s life. Finding it harder to sing, due to her pregnancy, she started to sing shorter, far more stinging vocal phrases to compensate. New arrangements with a whole slew of Fairport Convention luminaries like Simon Nicol and Dave Mattacks, were joined with some unheralded harmonizing provided by the Watersons. Everyone seeming to provide a lot of the vigor to what amounted in being a musical intervention.

Ingeniously structured, what you hear on this album is a relationship going back and forth. Richard might start off pleading about loyalty’s being broken and sympathies being needed in the opener “Don’t Renege On Our Love”, but Linda would come right back with “Walking On a Wire” about having to sacrifice too much to keep their bond together. Every song as great as it may be, having an equal one, in stature and poignancy, striking back at it. The two standouts being the title track, and Linda’s “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed”. Both showing Richard mixing some truly amorphous guitar playing with whatever intent was being presented. However, my pick for the best track belongs to capper.

Linda and Richard Thompson – 1982

For the first time, singing together through this whole ordeal in “Wall of Death”, they recognize the dance of love we all get into. A swaddling guitar melody carries them both through a bracing idea that many people, even in failed relationships, recognize. In one of the most English phrasing ever, as Alfred Tennyson put it: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” They may have metaphorically turned off all the lights shortly after this album, but they ended a back and forth separation album, together on one of the most uplifting notes ever and a glorious solo to boot (around the 2 minute mark). They were together on that passionate ride for a while, but for them it had to end some time. Ironies of ironies, is that the album that rekindled the world’s love affair with them became the album, and its subsequent tour/infidelities, which broke them apart.

Somehow, their relationship became a product of Shoots Out the Lights time. Something that could have reconciled everything became a fitting landmark to its history. Its a ride that they saw to its end though. That’s something of course, we won’t know until we brace yourself in. For all of us though, let’s not end the neo-folk ride just yet though…

Listen to Shoot Out the Lights at Spotify.

Bonus track, a trailer for the fantastic Thompson Family, debut family album. Time heals most wounds you see…