In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers (and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two) in the process.
The artist: Richard Thompson initially came to musical prominence while still in his teens, playing with the seminal British folk band Fairport Convention. In early 1971, Thompson decided to give it a go on his own, but after releasing his 1972 solo debut, Henry The Human Fly, he decided on a new musical collaborator: his new wife, Linda. The duo recorded several albums together during their marriage, concluding with 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights. Thompson has since forged a formidable solo career, recording 12 more studio albums, composing a handful of soundtracks, and performing numerous concerts around the world. A performance from Thompson’s 2010-2011 tour can be found on his new DVD, The Richard Thompson Band: Live At Celtic Connections.
“The Money Shuffle” (from 2010’s Dream Attic)
Richard Thompson: A tribute, I suppose, to those fine selfless people in Wall Street who’ve done such a generous, probably spirited job in the past few years. [Laughs.] What else can I say?
The A.V. Club: It’s the lead track on the Live At Celtic Connections DVD, which took place in the midst of your tour to support the Dream Attic album—and, as it happens, it also leads off that particular album, a collection of new material that you chose to record in a live setting.
RT: This is true. It was new material recorded in a live setting. We recorded a whole album live rather than using the studio process. This is a form of madness. [Laughs.] It’s absolute folly to do this, because you really limit your choices, you know? And we’re one of those types of artists—I’m using the royal “we” here—who takes the live takes and overdubs everything in the studio and still presents it as a live album. But this is as it was recorded. We didn’t change a thing. It’s very naked and honest, I suppose. But, yeah, it’s kind of a hair-raising process. I don’t know if I can do it again. [Hesitates.] Well, if I live long enough, I’m sure I’ll do it again.
AVC: Were you happy with the way it turned out, then?
RT: Yeah, I mean, I thought it turned out amazingly well. I love the fact that it’s down to the wonderful musicians in the band, who have to learn 70 minutes of music and play it fairly flawless. “Fairly” being the important word there. [Laughs.] In the studio, you get to break it down, and you learn one track at a time, and you play one track at a time, and you can overdub it and kind of fix things. If you’re out there live, then you really have to just play it properly the first time. But, yeah, the upside is that you get all that great energy coming from the audience as the payoff.
AVC: And it earned you a Grammy nod as well.
RT: Very nice, too. Thank you very much, indeed. I’ll take it. [Laughs.]
“Burning Man” (from 2010’s Dream Attic)
AVC: Of the material you recorded for Dream Attic, is there any song that turned out considerably different from the way you’d imagined it when first writing it?
RT: I don’t know about any dramatic transformation, but there are a couple of songs on that record that are kind of almost improvisatory, so there’s no telling where they’re going to go. “Burning Man” is one of those where there’s just a kind of a blueprint for the band, and from night to night I’m not quite sure where it’s going to go. It’s fairly open-plan music.
Other songs I kind of have an arrangement in my head. You mentioned “The Money Shuffle,” where I have this kind of riff for the saxophone and violin to play, and I kind of know what the structure is, and I kind of know how many verses there should be, and that kind of stuff, so that’s a much more tied-down type of song.
Fairport Convention, “Meet On The Ledge” (from 1969’s What We Did On Our Holidays)
AVC: This was one of the first songs you wrote on your own, correct?
RT: Yeah, I think it was. I think the songs I’d written before that were collaborations, where I was sort of hiding behind other people. I was slightly afraid to reveal my “true self.” [Snorts.] Oh, God, I suppose you’re going to ask me what it’s about and everything. Which I haven’t got a clue! [Long pause.] It’s a song about ideals, I suppose, and being true to one’s ideals. You know, it’s a song written when I was 19, when I’m going into the arts field. I suppose the song would be true whether it was going to be painting or drama or whatever. You have to stand true to certain principles. And I think the song questions if other people I knew had upheld those principles or if they’d fallen by the wayside. That’s about all I know about that song! [Laughs.]
I mean, the song has become anthemic in a way that songs do, where the original meaning doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s the way people see the song, how they interpret the song. A perfect example is the Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah,” where it’s obviously a song about sex, but people seem to want to just gloss over that and turn it into this sort of quasi-religious song that gets sung in front of small children. But there you go. That’s people for you: changing the meanings of things. [Laughs.] Once you throw it out there, then it’s kind of public property, in a sense.
“The Angels Took My Racehorse Away” (from 1972’s Henry The Human Fly)
RT: [Laughs.] What was I thinking? I don’t actually like betting particularly, but I like the world of horse racing. I like the colors and the smells, and the kind of people who get at horse races, you don’t see them anywhere else. You don’t see them walking down the street ever. They sort of crawl out from holes somewhere and turn up at racecourses. So I sort of liked that world, and I was happy to write a song about that world. There are strange starting points for songs, and some of those starting points are the title or even just a line. And that song started with the Lanark Silver Bell, which is a Scottish horse race, and it’s the oldest continuous horse race in Britain, possibly one of the oldest in Europe. And I just liked the name. And the song just came from playing around with that name.
AVC: You make a comment on the DVD about how Henry The Human Fly was the worst-selling album in the history of Warner Brothers. Do you have any idea if that record still stands?
RT: [Laughs.] I haven’t been keeping up with Warner Brothers’ prospects lately, but if they keep continuing with the same downward spiral, I think it may lose that record fairly quickly to many, many releases. I think it certainly was for a while, though, yeah. I was quite proud of that, actually.
AVC: That was your debut solo album, coming on the heels of Fairport Convention’s Full House. Was there a particular moment when you suddenly decided, “I need to spread my wings”?
RT: I think I’d been in bands since I was in school—since I was 11, really—and I was just wondering what it would be like to not be in a band. This is at age 21 or something like that. [Laughs.] And I think I wanted to experiment, to do more songwriting, and I didn’t want to be shackled to a band’s demands in the songwriting area, where you have to write something that’s accessible to the other people in the band. It’s unfair. So I just wanted some alone time, to kind of figure out who I was and what kind of style I could play.
Richard & Linda Thompson, “Wall Of Death” (from 1982’s Shoot Out The Lights)
RT: I suppose I see that song as a kind of memo to myself—I think that’s a valid use of stage time, to write yourself memos—to not be satisfied and to stay on the edge. Because the edge is where you have the best perspective. If you’re kind of in society, if you’re in the middle of it, if you’re participating in it fully, then you don’t have any perspective. Traditionally, the artist has been slightly outcast from society or has the outcast’s perspective. I think that’s an important thing. So the song is a reminder to me to stay on the edge, to take chances, to take risks, to not be complacent and self-satisfied.
AVC: Based on reports about the making of Shoot Out The Lights, an argument could be made that it might never have happened were it not for Gerry Rafferty.
RT: Well, I suppose so. We did an album with Gerry Rafferty a year before Shoot Out The Lights that we didn’t really like. It wasn’t released. It just sat in the vaults… and it’s still in the vaults. But probably four or five songs that were on the Rafferty album were also used on Shoot Out The Lights. We liked the songs; we just didn’t like the recordings. So we hung on to those songs and moved them over to the next project, really. So in that sense it’s true. [Pauses.] I dunno. That’s a funny way of looking at it, isn’t it? A bit backwards. [Laughs.]
AVC: When you look back at Shoot Out The Lights, do you find yourself musing on the fact that the album that’s often considered your definitive album with Linda is also the last one you made together?
RT: Well, at the time we were recording it, we weren’t breaking up. We were still together, and there wasn’t any sort of anything like that, really. But, you know, the way these things happen is that you record an album, and then six months to a year later, it’s released and you’re touring it. And at that point, things had kind of hit the wall. So if those are break-up songs—and I don’t think that they are—but if they are break-up songs, then it was all very subliminal and self-conscious.
“Tear Stained Letter” (from 1983’s Hand Of Kindness)
RT: That’s a handy song. [Laughs.] In the sense that you can open a set with it, you can close the set with it, you can save it for the encore. It’s a good kind of upbeat party song or dance song. Also a song that’s easy to cover. And it’s an easy song to jam on: It’s got a fairly easy chord sequence that’s just unusual enough that it’s easy for people to solo over. So, yeah, a handy song.
AVC: Were you surprised when it became a country hit twice over?
RT: Yeah, quite surprised. I’m glad that something that’s a kind of twisted, cultish rock song translates to Nashville. [Laughs.] That’s great. And I’m quite grateful to Jo-El Sonnier and Patty Loveless for making it a hit a couple of times.
“Al Bowlly’s In Heaven” (from 1986’s Daring Adventures)
RT: I suppose that song started from trying to figure out who I am. And in trying to figure out who you are yourself, you think, “Well, who are my parents? How did I end up as me? A lot of that’s probably because of who my parents were and their situation.” So then you start thinking about your parents and their generation, and what they went through, what their lives were. And for that particular wartime generation, World War II was this big thing, and then after the war, the way they reacted to their kids was important in molding us as sort of rock ’n’ roll rebels, or whatever you want to call it. So this is a song that really deals with the wartime generation, and it follows a disabled war veteran from the ’40s through the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, up to Mrs. Thatcher’s uncaring brood. And it’s a song about what happens to veterans. You know, veterans get discarded by their government. They get forgotten. Patients get cut. Once they’ve outlived their usefulness, often they’re kind of thrown on the scrap heap. It happens in many countries. So I suppose I was drawing attention to that, talking about the generations, and what shaped the generation of my parents.
AVC: Daring Adventures was your first production collaboration with Mitchell Froom.
RT: It was, yeah. Fans find, uh… [Laughs.] They find Mitchell’s productions on my records— I think they’re controversial or something. I like Mitchell’s ideas. I always enjoyed working with him. We always have fun working in the studio. But, you know, there’s a whole bunch of things that I’d remix at this point, and I could say that about almost every record I’ve ever done. There’s no end to the amount that you can go back and remix, so you might as well just not even begin. [Laughs.] It’s just too monumental. There is no satisfaction. You have to just put it behind you, say, “Okay,” and move on.
“Can’t Win” (from 1988’s Amnesia)
RT: It’s a song, I think, about leaving the U.K. I’ve never truly left the U.K., because I’m always going back, but I suppose I’m a U.S. resident now. I go back to the U.K. two, three, four, maybe six times a year or whatever, but for work. So I’m always back there, and I’m never there just for the culture. These days, you can be sitting in America or Reykjavik or Cape Town and you’ve got English newspapers online, you’ve got English culture online. I mean, you can just be totally connected to your own culture, which I think people are doing more and more as they move around. So, yeah, it’s a song about leaving the U.K. and the reasons for being dissatisfied with the U.K. And it’s seeing Europe as being somewhere almost defeated, somewhere very traditional where new ideas are not welcome, where innovation is not welcome. Which I think is generally true.
It’s probably changed a bit in the past 10 to 15 years. Actually, I think Europe has caught up a bit and now embraces a bit more innovation, and America has dried up a bit. But at the time the song was written, you felt that America was the place where people would say, “Oh, sure, we can do that! Yeah, come on in! No problem!” Whereas in Europe, they’d say, “Erm, no, sorry, I don’t think so. We’ve just run out. I’m sorry, but we close in five minutes. I’m very sorry.” [Laughs.] I suppose you could say that in Europe the people are more interested in lifestyle than they are in earning money, and in America they’re more interested in earning money than they are in lifestyle. But that would be a silly little thing to say, wouldn’t it?
“1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (from 1991’s Rumor And Sigh)
RT: That’s the song that starts with an object. I was trying to come up with—you know, American songwriters have it so easy. You just mention a Cadillac, and you’ve got half a song title. Do you know what I mean? Mention a town—well, obviously not Scranton, New Jersey, but if you mention Abilene or something, that’s half a song title. And “Abilene Cadillac,” that’s a whole song title. I can hear the song right now! [Laughs.] But if you come from Britain, it’s harder, because the place names aren’t as romantic. They don’t have the association with popular song that American place names do. And objects aren’t as romantic, because they haven’t been used in songs over the years and don’t have that kind of reverberation in people’s minds. So I was trying to come up with kind of an object that would have some romance to it. And the Black Lightning motorcycle was that object.
“Uninhabited Man” (from 1999’s Mock Tudor)
RT: In the late ’60s, early ’70s, I knew a lot of… casualties. And I suppose casualties more from drugs than anything else. You saw a lot of quiet people starting in about 1967, and I didn’t always put two and two together, but people were basically taking too much acid or something. And there were people who got very scarred from drug accidents, I suppose you’d say. And I suppose that was the starting point for the song, although the song is more of a love song. It’s about being deeply scarred by love, to the point of being almost comatose in one’s grief.
“One Door Opens” (from 2003’s The Old Kit Bag)
RT: With the show that I did called 1000 Years Of Popular Music, I did a lot of research for that show, starting with the oldest stuff you can find. Theoretically, from 1000 AD. [Laughs.] And listening to earlier music forms, especially dance-music forms, was I think the inspiration for this song, because I basically took four different parts, four different tunes, and put them together in a rather Renaissance kind of way. Although the tunes aren’t Renaissance tunes, they’re kind of a nod to Renaissance tradition. They’re also kind of somewhere between folk and earlier influences in the tune. The lyrics are kind of singable lyrics, in the sense that the words have to have a certain shape to be sung over that kind of tune. It’s just a love song, though, isn’t it? I think it’s a love song. I could be wrong.
“Oops!… I Did It Again” (from 2006’s 1000 Years Of Popular Music)
AVC: Since you opened the door to 1000 Years Of Popular Music, perhaps you’d be willing to discuss your decision to tackle a Britney Spears tune.
RT: A friend of mine—the guitar builder Danny Farrington—saw the first 1000 Years show that I did, and he said, “Oh, you have to do this song.” And I said, “Are you serious? Britney Spears?” He said, “I’m bringing over the DVD.” [Laughs.] Or the VHS, as it was at the time. And he comes over and he plays it, and Britney does this great sort of dance routine, and this really sort of bombastic recording with thumpy drums that are just right in your face. And I said, “Well, actually, it’s a great song.” I hadn’t realized that, in fact, it was a good song. But you kind of have to strip away the Britney-ness of it—sadly, sadly—to reveal a really good pop song underneath. And I think was written by those Swedish guys…
AVC: Max Martin and Rami Yacoub.
RT: Yeah. Who’ve got that kind of ABBA pop-smart thing. They know how to construct a good pop song. The lyrics have a nice little irony to them, and the tune is interesting. And in the 1000 Years Of Popular Music show, one of the nice things about the tune is that it’s not that far distant from an Elizabethan-era dance tune. And what we do in the show is we play it kind of in the style of Britney, and then we play it in the style of a 1590s Elizabethan dance tune. And the audience sort of scratches their head or cheers, depending on who gets it or who doesn’t get it. [Laughs.] But it’s fun to play it in the different styles, and it actually sounds pretty authentic when you play it Elizabethan style.
“I’ll Never Give It Up” (from 2007’s Sweet Warrior)
RT: I suppose it’s a song about not being deflected from one’s course. Perhaps this is another memo to self, in a sense. I think the song started out with some threat I received. It was after 9/11, and I think because of my religious beliefs or whatever, I received an email threat. Which I thought was very strange. So the song was in response to that. But, really, the song is about determination and setting goals and, when you get deflected, resetting goals. Sometimes, with some things, you have to do that all the time to get to where you want to be. I expect Madonna’s really good at that. [Laughs.]
AVC: Sweet Warrior was a self-financed effort, correct?
RT: Yeah, I think my last three or four have been self-financed. I think there’s one before that as well. Yes, The Old Kit Bag was also self-financed.
AVC: Has that proven financially viable for you, then?
RT: Just about. [Laughs.] If I can scrape the money together. You know, I try to make albums cheaper than I used to. In the old record-company days, we had larger budgets. Doing it with that kind of budget, I wouldn’t be able to afford to, but if we do kind of slightly cut-price records, then I can just about do it. But who knows what the future will hold? [Sighs.] If intellectual property keeps being raped and pillaged at the rate it has been, then I might not be able to sell enough records to warrant the investment.