Album of the Week, March 20: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight by Richard and Linda Thompson

ThompsonBrightLightsRichard Thompson and Linda Peters met in 1969, while he was still in Fairport Convention and she was working on a folk music career. With mutual friends including Sandy Denny and Simon Nicol, they spent occasional time together, finally working on joint projects in late 1971. With many Fairport members and alumni they were part of the Bunch, recording fun covers of a dozen 50s hits for the album Rock On. The couple toured with Simon Nicol as Hokey Pokey, and Linda provided backing vocals on Richard’s solo debut, Henry the Human Fly, released in 1972. They married later that year and began working on their first project as a couple. The result, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, set a high bar for both their careers.

Album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Act Richard & Linda Thompson
Label Island Release Date April 1974
Producer Richard Thompson and John Wood
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. When I Get to the Border
  2. The Calvary Cross
  3. Withered and Died
  4. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
  5. Down Where the Drunkards Roll
  6. We Sing Hallelujah
  7. Has He Got A Friend For Me?
  8. The Little Beggar Girl
  9. The End of the Rainbow
  10. The Great Valerio

The album featured vocals from both partners. As with Henry, Richard played guitars, mandolin, dulcimer, and a variety of other instruments. His guitar work is more restrained than on many of his other recordings, but no less powerful for it. The rhythm section of Timmy Donald (drums) and Pat Donaldson (bass) — both part of the Bunch — provided a solid backing, and a sizable lineup of folk friends pitched in as well. Building on the distinctly English folk-rock of Richard’s work to date, the ten tracks shimmer with modern energy while steeped in something deeply traditional.

Things start off aptly with a journeying song. When I Get to the Border features Richard’s best vocal to this point as he describes an effort to escape the mundanities of life. He may literally wander the dusty street or simply push the borders by drowning “in a barrel of wine”, but he’ll find a way to transcend the tedium. It’s a fun, grim, almost optimistic song, hinting at the lyrical themes that would become RT staples. The Calvary Cross is a darker, mystical song, reminiscent of his writings with Fairport fiddler Dave Swarbrick. Linda takes the lead vocal on Withered and Died, a mournful song of loss that gains humanity and tentative warmth from her sympathetic delivery.

The title track is a masterpiece, another bit of escapism with more hope and determination. A bright horn section gives it delightful energy, and the Thompsons almost frolic through their demands for a great night on the town. Continuing the masterful sequencing, Down Where the Drunkards Roll looks at those whose fate after the bright lights is less than giddy. With a stunning harmony vocal from Trevor Lucas (soon to join Fairport), it wraps up side one in powerful — if dark — style.

Side two opens with another song of transition, celebrating the “turning of the year.” We Sing Hallelujah is a secular hymn, a hope for better days, given power by the interweaving of the Thompsons’ vocals. Linda turns in a gorgeous lead on Has He Got A Friend For Me? a song of longing that would have fit perfectly among the hits of Linda Ronstadt. Quietly aching, it’s one of her finest performances — no mean feat. The Little Beggar Girl is a smart bit of modern folk propelled by John Kirkpatrick’s sprightly accordion. A delightful celebration of the strength of the oppressed, it gains power from Linda’s fun vocal.

Richard goes to one of his bleakest places — also no mean feat — on his anti-lullaby The End of the Rainbow. A dark reflection on the pain and suffering in the world, it’s a cheerless warning to a small child, brimming with humanity but offering little hope. Things wrap up in stunning fashion with The Great Valerio. A stirring acoustic number, it features a powerfully subtle guitar line from Richard and an enchanting vocal from Linda. A metaphor for living life fully and honestly, it’s a standout in both catalogs and a perfect closer to a great album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Spending a couple of years away from music in Sufi communes in the 70s, the Thompsons only released six albums in just under a decade before their marriage detonated. All six are interesting, although the results are curiously inconsistent. After Bright Lights, they released

  • Hokey Pokey (1975), a decent follow-up that is fairly consistent but never rises to the level of its predecessor.
  • Pour Down Like Silver (1975), the first album to openly embrace Richard’s turn toward Sufism, eight stunning tracks without a falter.
  • First Light (1978), their return to music, an amiable set with some great songs and some unfortunate production.
  • Sunnyvista (1979), interesting and adequate, but largely uninspired. Richard and Linda never recorded a bad song, but this is their weakest set.

After this, they lost their label and recorded a disastrous set with Gerry Rafferty producing; the results were mercifully shelved. Long-time friend Joe Boyd signed them to his tiny start-up label, Hannibal, and helped them salvage that material, resulting in one of the finest albums ever recorded, Shoot Out the Lights (1982). The couple famously imploded both on and off stage during the following year before splitting for good. Richard has maintained an impressive solo career, racking up honors and critical acclaim while pursuing his distinctive musical and lyrical vision. Linda started a solo career as well before vocal problems sidelined her for years. She continues to turn out occasional, lovely albums. Two of their children — Teddy and Kami — are also in the business, often working with one parent or the other. Richard has provided guitar work on a couple of Linda’s songs, and the whole family got together for an amazing album in 2014.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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