Album of the Week, October 7: Shoot Out the Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson
October 7, 2012 Leave a comment
This week Music and Meaning launches a new Sunday feature, the Album of the Week. It’s only fitting to kick things off with my favorite album of all time.
In many ways, Shoot Out the Lights is an album that should never have happened. Richard Thompson met Linda Peters at a one-off recording session called the Bunch. Mutual friends — many of whom had been in Fairport Convention with Richard — were making an album of 50s covers. The two soon became a couple. Linda performed backing vocals on Richard’s first solo album after leaving Fairport. They recorded two albums together before retiring from music to a Sufi commune. Music continued to call, however. They released two more wonderful albums as they transitioned away from the commune.
|Title||Shoot Out the Lights|
|Act||Richard & Linda Thompson|
|U.S. Chart||n/c||U.K. Chart||n/c|
Their fifth album, Sunnyvista, was a commercial and artistic disappointment. Gerry Rafferty had sung on the album, however, and he used his post-Baker Street star power to help finance the sessions for a sixth album. The sessions were tense and the results were mixed. Rafferty was unable to find a label for the disc, and the project was shelved. Long-time friend and Fairport producer Joe Boyd had just launched a small label, Hannibal, and invited the duo to start fresh with the Rafferty session material. Sadly, their marriage was disintegrating, and the sessions, while productive, were tense at best. The result, perhaps fueled by the drama and energy, was one of the finest albums ever made. Accompanied by former Fairport colleagues, future Richard bandmates, and vocal wizards the Watersons, the assembly of talent was amazing, and the results managed to exceed that promise.
Although only eight tracks long, it’s a perfect view into the darker realms of the human heart and mind. These were not new themes for Richard and Linda, but they emerged with striking clarity and musical power. Man In Need emerged as Richard’s desperate plea as the past decade collapsed. Did She Jump? was one of only two tracks co-written by Linda during the duo’s musical partnership; like the previous Pavanne, it showcased a woman on the edge, flirting with crime and dark forces to make her life meaningful. Back Street Slide was one of Richard’s earliest forays into a straightforward dissection of cruel human interaction, devoid of the folk trappings and metaphors of his previous songs. The title track, on the surface a look at the mind of a serial killer, is an effective look at human darkness in its many forms. It also features a powerful guitar solo which has shown up on many best-of lists. Don’t Renege On Our Love is a stunning plea for reconciliation or separation. Just the Motion and Walking On A Wire are two of Linda’s finest vocal performances and show two sides of coping — looking for hope in the wreckage and trying to rise above it, however hopeless. The final track is the starkly uplifting Wall of Death. This is one of my favorite songs of all time. Using a carnival metaphor, it’s a wonderful duet vocal with a make-the-best-of-it message that redeems the dark path blazed by the other seven songs.
Richard and Linda divorced as the album was released, barely touring to support its release. Shoot Out the Lights emerged on many 1982 best-of lists. Since that time it has appeared on dozens of all-time-best lists, including Rolling Stone‘s 500 Best Albums of All Time. Richard has spent the three decades since its release carving out a respected career as a singer, songwriter, composer, and music historian. Linda, suffering from a vocal paralysis that limits her ability to sing, has nonetheless released a handful of wonderful albums and worked closely with son Teddy and daughter Kami as they launched their recording and performing careers. Thirty years on, however, Shoot Out the Lights remains the masterpiece, forged in a crucible of circumstance that caused two great talents to reach amazing and powerful levels.