- 03 Apr 23
As Richard Thompson celebrates his 74th birthday, we're revisiting George Byrne's classic interview with the iconic singer, songwriter and musician...
Originally published in Hot Press in 1999...
You could certainly never accuse Richard Thompson of being unproductive. Since 1968 the 50-year-old Londoner has released or had a major creative part in no less than thirty albums: six with seminal folk rock outfit Fairport Convention, one with assorted Fairport alumni under the name Bunch, seven with his then-wife Linda and the remainder under his own name. He has come to be regarded as one of Britain s finest songwriters while still remaining a cult figure, forever on the fringes of the sales spectrum. It's a back-catalogue which is oustanding in terms of both quality and quantity, and one which is enhanced even further by his latest outing, Mock Tudor.
Seated in the sun-drenched reception area of Bewley's Hotel the morning after the first of a two-night stint at HQ, Thompson is affable and vibrant, the mischevious glint which frequently comes into his eyes during our conversation completely at odds with the reputation he had, during the 70s in particular, as one of the spikiest interviewees in the business. His demeanour is also in stark contrast to the dark and frequently vicious emotions which have surfaced throughout his work, an edge the new record posseses in spades. Or at least I thought it did.
From an advance cassette Mock Tudor seemed to chronicle the downward spiral of a particularly fraught relationship, with songs like 'Sibella', 'Two-Faced Love', 'Hard On Me', 'Crawl Back (Under My Stone)', 'Dry My Tears And Move On', 'That's All, Amen, Close The Door' and 'Hope You Like The New Me' all sharing the bitterness and confusion of 1982's classic Shoot Out The Lights, the last album he made with Linda and the best account of a disintegrating marriage ever committed to record.
Then, when the album finally arrived, it came complete with a press release in which Thompson revealed that the songs in fact detailed his changing attitudes over the years to the city of London.
"That seemed to throw quite a few people," laughs Thompson. "There was a glowing review of the album from Nigel Williamson in Uncut and he saw it as a companion piece to Shoot Out The Lights, too. I've an interview with him next week and I'm afraid if I tell him the truth he won't like the record! It's perhaps the weight of previous material bearing down, purely because I've done those break-up albums before. To me, the songs have always been little stories and if people choose to interpret them as a manifestation of a relationship gone wrong then so be it."
One imagines that the younger, considerably angrier Thompson might not have taken such misinterpretation of his work so kindly, whereas now he seems almost chuffed that the songs are wide open to being seen from a different slant.
"I think that's fair enough," he says. "In fact I quite like the idea of people approaching my work in different ways. I think it's important that people grasp the mood and the energy first and only delve into the lyrics later. When I'm listening to albums, I try to avoid looking at the lyrics for as long as possible, because once you study the words, the songs become less variable to interpretation. With Mock Tudor there are relationships which feature in several songs but they're not too serious. 'Sibella' is about being confused by women and 'Two-Faced Love' is trying to figure out the female species, how you've been to grammar school and have had the odd date with girls but when you're in the adult world it's 'What's going on here?'."
Having been based in Los Angeles for some time it seems logical to suggest that Richard Thompson's self-imposed exile from his hometown gave him the perspective necessary to write Mock Tudor, but he insists that the distance had little bearing on the album's direction.
"It was really sparked off when I wrote 'Sights And Sounds Of London Town'," he explains. "There had always been a great tradition of songs about London going back down the years, although Ralph McTell killed that stone dead for a while because any song about the place was bound to be compared unfavourably to 'Streets Of London', which although massively successful, wasn't particularly good. People like Ian Dury and Squeeze revived the tradition to a certain extent in the late 70s and early 80s and I just carried it on. Being away from a place can give you a great boost if you want to write about it it certainly worked for James Joyce! but by this stage I've trained myself to be able to write anywhere. Y'know, kids screaming, people visiting the house and whatever. I can still shuffle off into a corner with a guitar and get on with it. In that respect Los Angeles is as good as anywhere for me."
One of Mock Tudor s most striking tracks is 'That's All, Amen, Close The Door', a tribute to the late Sandy Denny, the former Fairport Convention vocalist who died of a brain haemorrhage following a fall at a friend's house in 1978. The best of Denny's solo career is compiled on this year's Listen Listen (and she can also be heard in her prime on the Fairport anthology Meet On The Ledge, released by Island earlier this year). Denny had a wondrous, pure voice which ranged far beyond her folk roots. And to hear Thompson sing "She gave as much as she had to give/Please don't ask for more. That's all" is one of the most touching things you'll hear all year.
"'That's All' isn't a love song as such," Thompson is quick to point out. "It's more about being in love with Sandy's music and her voice. More than anything, it s decrying the fact that people disinter her in ways that I find upsetting. There's a near-deification of her and Nick Drake which is very distasteful. I just wish the music was heard more, and appreciated for just how good it is, rather than the perpetuation of this romantic notion of dead people. Nick Drake has far more fans now than he ever did when he was alive and that's because he died young, he was good-looking and he wrote these cryptic love songs. A lot of people find that very attractive, it s almost like a badge of hipness. I find it all a bit ghoulish to be honest with you."
Throughout the years, Richard Thompson s reputation as a singer, songwriter and guitarist has grown to encompass musicians from all generations. Mark Knopfler and Tom Verlaine have cited him as a seminal influence on their playing styles, Elvis Costello has frequently covered his songs live, The Stars Of Heaven featured a version of his 'Calvary Cross' on the recent Unfinished Dreaming collection and the line-up for the 1994 tribute album Beat The Retreat included contributions from REM, Bob Mould, David Byrne, Los Lobos, Graham Parker, Bonnie Raitt, Dinosaur Jr and The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama.
And yet, despite all these accolades, Thompson has never had what you could class as a successful album. 1994's Mirror Blue peaked at No.23 in the UK charts, while a week at No.97 was about as good as it got for 1996's You? Me? Us? in the US listings.
"I make nothing from my albums, zero, and never have done," he says candidly. "I make my real living from solo acoustic tours and I've accepted that."
So, given the fact that you're hardly a banker, does it come as a surprise that you're still signed to a major label in Capitol?
"It does in a way, yeah, because I don't play mainstream music. I don't play White Blues, which is the accepted form if you want to sell. I'm a bit on the edge, there's a funny traditional twist in there and sometimes the lyrics are a bit too dark for people, so the audience have to make a bit more of an effort to come into it. So, because it's a hard-won audience, they're more likely to stay the course."
And yet, no doubt helped by gracious mentions from the likes of REM, Thompson finds himself in the strange position of being a far hipper act across the Atlantic than in his homeland.
"There's no doubt that I've a far younger audience in America than I do over here," he explains. "I get on college radio a lot so I get more twenties and teens whereas here it's a more, ahem, mature crowd. You must remember that I've been doing this since I left school, with no gaps. It's like the same tour has been going on since 1967, so I reckon it's only natural that sometimes you lose track of who's actually listening to you."
And, talking of school, it s one of those little-known pieces of rock n roll trivia that Thompson's grammar school band included a certain Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers (there are only a couple of months in age between them) as a member. The Detectives, if memory serves.
"We had a different name every week," recalls Richard with a laugh. "It was the classic thing where you rehearse for half an hour and then spend three hours thinking of a name! We were a covers band, The Who, The Beatles, The Yardbirds all that stuff. Mind you, Hugh did tend to keep that part of his musical career quiet during the Punk era! I wonder why?"
One of the many highlights of Richard Thompson's brace of shows in HQ was the immaculate version of 'Persuasion', a song he co-wrote with Tim and Neil Finn and which showcased the superb voice of his son and co-guitarist Teddy. Surely it's a bit strange having your young lad playing in the band?
"It was odd at first, alright," he concedes, "but it's very nice now. I must stress that he's in the band on merit. In fact, he's overqualified now because he's been signed to Virgin as a solo act, so he'll be going off to do his own thing at the end of the year . . . probably won't speak to me after that!"
Given that he must have grown up exposed to the music business, would it be fair to say that Teddy is more sensible than his father was in his early 20s?
"Well, he's basically just a more sensible person anyway. Kids are a lot more savvy these days as regards the business, and because he's a soloist he's in a strong position, because he doesn't have to do the whole big equipment buy thing that bands find themselves lumbered with. He's certainly had better business advice than I did. I'm still signed to publishing deals from the 60s, which are so hideous I couldn't even bear to tell you about them."
So, Teddy Thompson carries on the family tradition, as indeed do Adam Cohen, Chris Stills, Emma Townshend, Liam Finn, Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Bet you never thought that'd happen when you started out?
"Well, rock n roll turned out to be multi-generational, much to everyone's amazement. I like to see it happen, I have to say, because I believe in dynasties to some extent. Throughout folk music there were always great family groups, and there was this sense of them being repositories of tradition, human libraries who kept songs and stories alive. In the communication age we're living in now that's obviously not as important as it was a couple of generations ago, but it's still a good thing."
And speaking of information, does Richard Thompson feel that it was difficult for musicians of his generation to come to terms with the possibilities of digital recording and the impact the internet would have on communications?
"No, not at all," comes the immediate response. "Once people got a handle on exactly what was going on the smart ones were always going to use it to their advantage. And the curious thing is that some of the people who are making maximum use of the internet are the small folk labels. They've been able to make themselves more viable by bypassing distributors to a certain extent and getting their stuff directly to the network of people who want it.
"If you re a small label you're effectively a cottage industry and the internet is a godsend for an operation like that. I feel that the major labels are working like mad to try and figure out a way to control it, but it does offer people like me, who have a small but loyal fanbase, the opportunity to continue making low-budget albums for my fans should I be dropped. I love the internet. It's given the old farts a lifeline!"