Those hard luck stories
Two sides to every story, right? In one of the essays accompanying the wonderful new eight-CD reissue of the collected works of Richard and Linda Thompson, Richard suggests that the indifferent commercial performance of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight — the first of their six studio albums — in 1974 could be ascribed to Island’s A&R department, which didn’t know how to categorise them. “They didn’t understand Sandy (Denny), and they didn’t understand Nick Drake,” he says. “I think we were slightly marginalised — what genre is this? Where does it go in the record shop?” Here’s my side of the story.
After I joined Island as head of A&R in the autumn of 1973, one of the first things I did was ask around to find out what Richard was doing. I knew that Henry the Human Fly, his solo album, had been poorly received and sold badly. I also knew that I loved his guitar playing. In reply to my inquiries, I was told that Richard had since made another album, this one with his wife, Linda. The finished tapes had been played to my predecessor, who hadn’t been impressed. That had been some months ago.
My response was to get in touch with John Wood, who had engineered and co-produced the album with Richard at his Sound Techniques studio in Chelsea. John brought in the tapes for me to hear. I was hooked from the first skirl of the Stratocaster on the intro to “When I Get to the Border” , the opening track. The whole album sounded like a coherent and finished statement in a way that Henry hadn’t been, and it seemed obvious that it should be released as soon as possible.
The next step was to play it to the company, meaning the managing director, marketing director, promotion manager, sales manager and press officer. Their enthusiasm was unanimous. Richard was one of the group of Witchseason artists bequeathed to Island when Joe Boyd, who had nurtured them, left London to make movies in Los Angeles just before I joined. They were assets who inspired warmth (in the case of Sandy Denny, for instance) and respect (in the case of Nick Drake, who had already more or less withdrawn from the music world).
Vinyl was in short supply that winter as a result of the oil crisis, but Richard and Linda’s album was scheduled for release in April 1974 and its appearance was accompanied by the best efforts of all the relevant departments. Some people felt that the title track stood a chance of making a hit single, so it was duly released as a 45 and got some play. No one was discouraged when neither the album nor the single went double-platinum. The foundations of something worthwhile seemed to have been laid.
Then Richard came in and told me that he’d asked Jo Lustig to manage them. I knew Jo, who’d begun his career as a press agent on Broadway for Nat King Cole, the Weavers and the Newport Jazz Festival in the ’50s; he was old-school, and most relationships with him featured a phone-melting harangue at some stage. I was a bit surprised that Richard had approached him, but I knew that he got things done and that he’d done a good job for other folk crossover artists, including Julie Felix and Steeleye Span.
The problems began when Richard and Linda became affiliated to a Sufi community based in a squat on a stucco terrace in Maida Vale. Nothing wrong with that, of course. They delivered a second album, Hokey Pokey, which I didn’t care for as much as Bright Lights, but the same effort went into its release, and they were given a support slot on a Traffic tour, which was not small potatoes at the time. The third album, Pour Down Like Silver, was and remains an austere masterpiece: how many albums contain songs as great as “Beat the Retreat”, “Dimming of the Day” and “Night Comes In”? But it didn’t connect with a wider audience, perhaps because to new listeners that austerity would seem like dourness.
They went on the road with a band completed by the accordionist John Kirkpatrick, the bass guitarist Dave Pegg and the drummer Dave Mattacks: an ace line-up, and a perfectly integrated unit with its own sound. John Wood went to Oxford to record them live, and I used the epic versions of “Calvary Cross” and “Night Comes In” from that concert on a double album I compiled with John’s help and advice, rather eccentrically titled (guitar, vocal) and intended to refocus the public’s attention on Richard’s talents. For me, its other highlight was Linda’s delivery of a much stronger version of Richard’s great song “A Heart Needs a Home” than the one that had appeared on Hokey Pokey.
I left Island at that point, sometime in 1976, and a year or so later, after some seemingly unsuccessful attempts to incorporate Sufism into their music, Island dropped them. I don’t know the details of that, but I do know that they were so deeply into their faith that they’d moved to a community in East Anglia and Richard had given up playing the electric guitar, which I have to say didn’t seem like a very good idea. When they re-emerged, a year or so later, Lustig signed them to Chrysalis, where he’d had success with Steeleye, and the search a broader audience began again. The two albums they made for the label, First Light and Sunnyvista, now sound in parts like an attempt to turn them into Fleetwood Mac, which they were never going to be. But there are some good songs there — and in “Lonely Hearts”, on Sunnyvista, one of their greatest ballads, exquisitely delivered . What you can hear from the tracks included from the 1980 sessions produced by their friend Gerry Rafferty is that soft-focus AOR-style production did them no favours at all. Finally they returned to Joe Boyd, for whose Hannibal label they recorded the much crisper Shoot Out the Lights, which became — unintentionally, according to Richard — the soundtrack to their disintegrating marriage.
Hard Luck Stories is the title of the box set, and I suppose it reflects the feeling that some mysterious twist of fate prevented Richard and Linda from finding the audience they deserved. The six albums are all there, with various outtakes and demos and live versions, nicely packed with extensive (albeit poorly copy-edited) background essays. Two discs are devoted entirely to other material: the first to pre-R< tracks, such as the rock and roll revivals of the Bunch (with Linda and Sandy singing “When Will I Be Loved”) and a collaboration with the poet Brian Patten, the second to live material from the mid-’70s. It’s on the second that I found the biggest surprise: five long tracks recorded live at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for a Capital Radio broadcast in 1977, featuring Richard and Linda with a band of mostly Sufi friends: Abdul Latif (Ian) Whiteman and Haj Amin (Mike) Evans, both formerly of Mighty Baby, on electric piano and and bass guitar respectively, and Abdul-Jabbar (Paul) Pickstock on percussion, plus Preston Hayman, a useful drummer whom I remember joining the Brand X sessions alongside Phil Collins at Island at the start of his long career as a session musician.
What these tracks show is that Richard was on to something when he tried to blend folk-rock with Sufism, locating common ground between the two in the drones and modal structures that underpin the lengthy explorations of songs like “Layla” and “The Madness of Love”, and an excellent version of “Night Comes In” with Linda taking the lead vocal. “A Bird in God’s Garden” has a lyric adapted from the poet Rumi, delivered in beautifully layered three-part harmony by Linda, Richard and Whiteman, developing into a extended but never self-indulgent jam and coming back to the song before finding its resolution with a perfect sense of architecture. Richard later re-recorded it with Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser and John French, but the nine-minute version here is one of the loveliest things I’ve heard this year, almost worth the price of the box set by itself. It certainly makes you wonder what might have been, and in my case it makes me wonder what I might have done better.
* Richard and Linda Thompson’s Hard Luck Stories 1972-1982 was compiled by Andrew Batt and is released by Universal Music. The photograph is from an early Island Records publicity shoot.
** The original version of this post had Richard re-recording “A Bird in God’s Garden” with a group including Mayo Thompson. For some reason I’d included his name instead of that of John “Drumbo” French. Thanks to those who pointed out this episode of brain-fade.
A real pain that these live tracks with the ex Mighty Baby guys are not available on the streaming services. They sound really interesting but I’m not sure I can justify the expense of the whole box as I have all the original albums.
What an interesting story plus a sting in the tail re what might have been…..
Richard – Didn’t realize you were at Island while Nick Drake was still alive! Can you please share your memories/write another post of your experiences and interactions with him if you haven’t done so already? Many thanks!
Watch Nick’s sisters documentary on her brother … and read ” Remembered for Awhile ”
Cause in all honesty …. thats as close as you’ll ever get to Nick Drake’s history and personality … as even Joe Boyd … who worked one on one with Nick more than anyone else has admitted
Nick … was a genuine enigma … insular to a fault … and beyond all our grasp .. including his family’s
Wonderful analysis, Richard. Thank you. I interviewed Richard and Linda at the start of their career. They were so in love, and so talented. How could it all go wrong? I think you’ve explained it very well. It could also be that, like John and Beverley Martin (in my view), they’d have been better off staying as single artists. U noticed, incidentally, that Bob Dylan chose a Linda comeback record for one of his radio shows: they must have bumped into one another.
I’ve been dithering regarding buying this with reports of imperfect discs not helping. I’ve got all the albums on vinyl (and I really enjoy Guitar:Vocal which I played the other night) but your description certainly makes me lean in the direction of buying the set. It’s great also to read your first hand accounts of such long ago times.
Great to read the context, when the biographies of RT didn’t, it seem to me, quite explain how things with Island weren’t satisfying. Coming up on almost half a century later, RW’s closing sentence is a real credit to him. The sleevenotes to LT’s compilation set a lovely tone too.
Many thanks for reminding me of just how good an artist Richard was and still is but we both know that commercial success has absolutely nothing to do with artistic talent and there are many, many examples of artists being really popular within the record business bot not the general public.
Thanks for letting me join the blog
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Fascinating insight into the disjointed careers of two of my favourite artists from the early and mid-seventies. Bright Lights remains a regular on my home playlists, not least because I met Richard T a couple of times through mutual friend, the late Keith Morris who took the cover photo for that album. Interesting to read the reference to Mighty Baby, who were and remain a much underrated band, Egyptian Tomb being an anthemic track that still haunts some of us with esoteric tastes.
Great insight into what happened at Island. I came to RT late, early 90s, courtesy of the sales manager at Omnibus whose company car (Sierra XR4i – went like the clappers) was full of his CDs. We drove around a lot together in that car, including trips to the Frankfurt Book Fair and he played RT all the time so I became hooked. Of all the RT CDs I now own my favourite is one recorded live in Austin, Texas, in 2001.
Thanks for your personal insights here Richard as always. To read behind the scenes insights to this very important period – Island Records/Joe Boyd/ Richard and Linda Thompson/ Nick Drake/John Wood/ etc…all in the mix remind me what a great period it was. Joe Boyd’s book WHITE TRICYCLE first brought this to light for me. Not surprised to find you were part of it as well. Thank you for this.
Excellent insight into the background behind the release of these albums.IWTSTBLT starting a lifelong love of Mr Thompson’s music.
Just one cavil ‘A Bird in God’s Garden’ was recorded by French, Frith, Kaiser and Thompson, the Thompson being Richard himself and not Mayo.
Thanks, David. Corrected.
” they were so deeply into their faith”
RT was, but read any interviews with Linda and she certainly was not!
Fascinating stuff, Richard. RT plays the guitar like nobody else. I remember seeing him and Linda on that tour with Traffic. The band was billed as Sour Grapes, though I don’t know if they ever used that name to record.
very interesting look back to my favourite artists (and favourite label). I’m an Italian music journalist, and if I would ever find a place to write about these subjects I would apply for an interview immediately! Alfredo.
I have just finished reading your very interesting piece as I listen to the new box set. Thank you for your insight.
I was rather surprised to read what you said about Richard’s version of “Bird in God’s Garden,” recorded with Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser and Mayo Thompson. If you are referring to “Live, Love, Larf & Loaf,” by French Frith Kaiser Thompson, then shouldn’t Mayo Thompson be replaced by John ‘Drumbo’ French? This is far from the first time that John’s efforts have been overlooked. He was left off the credits for Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica.”
Unless…you are going to tell me about another version of “Bird in God’s Garden,” that I have yet to hear?
Thanks again for the fascinating article.
Thanks, Andrew. I’ve corrected it.
Fascinating as ever, Richard. Although I’ve known the Bright Lights tale from aeons back, it still baffles me just how your predecessor as near as dammit passed on that as an album. Great that you mentioned the Pegg/DM/Kirkpatrick band – the Oxford gig was and remains one of the all-time phenomenal gigs of my entire gig-going life. A foggy night and, strangely enough, the first time I’d met John Wood too… but, thats another tale. A while ago when I talked to him for my Island Book of Records project, Peggy told me a lovely story relating to it: on long journeys, he has his iPod set to random and connected to the car stereo. Consequently and obviously, neither he nor his passengers have any idea of what’ll crop up next. From time to time, Calvary Cross from that Oxford Poly gig will start up. Other than a couple of John Martyn tunes, I don’t believe he has many other songs on which he played on his iPod. Here’s what he said ‘That was a very, very happy tour. The Oxford gig was something else again, in my opinion Richard’s playing was outstanding on that tour but, at that show, it just went somewhere else altogether. There is no one else who can play like Richard. Jeff Beck, Page, Clapton – all fantastic of course. But Richard… he’s just out there. Its quite incredible when you’re involved in it, those fifteen minute versions of Calvary Cross that we were doing, every kind of hint that he did on that Strat, then Mattacks and I… we’d go with it then there’s the added thing of having John’s accordion which’d take the music elsewhere. In a sense it was jamming but it was all on feel. Although there was an audience, it was like there wasn’t as we were in our own little bubble, feeding off one another. Mattacks and me underneath, then John and Richard soaring above. Sometimes in the car, Calvary Cross will come on when the iPod has been set to random. I listen along and I think, crikey, thats me playing there. Then it goes on a bit longer and I think, goodness, that really is fantastic. I become quite emotional actually, its really that good. Makes the hairs on the back of my neck, the few that I have left, stick up. What a privilege to have been part of that.’
I remember I Want to See named as Melody Maker’s Folk Album of the year which led to me buying it
“Richard later re-recorded it with Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser and Mayo Thompson”
I think you are referring to the version by John French with Richard, Fred and Henry?
Thanks, Steve. Now corrected.
I doubt I was alone in going to Amazon to see what price this box-set would be, despite having much of it already. What I found there worried me — many of those leaving feedback were angry about the quality of the actual CDs — and now RW mentions the sloppy editing of the sleeve-notes. I may still buy it, but it sounds like Universal have some explaining to do. If they read this blog, as someone there should be doing, perhaps they could comment on the situation?
All 8 discs seem fine in my set, Phil. Don’t let the silly mistakes in the text (eg “plum the depths”) put you off. I paid £75, by the way.
I find the remastering really remarkable and the book astounding (some typos apart). A fantastic box set, didn’t have any problems with the discs.
Phil…. I’ve seen those reviews as well . All coming from the US ( and a couple from Canada ) And as of today … Amazon is saying they’re out of stock … no price .. no ETA .. nada ( not that I’d buy it from Amazon mind you ) … as well as all the major distributers pretty much looking down stock …
… Which … leads me to think …. hmmmm .. perhaps there’s a glitch in the box sets that were shipped to / manufactured for the US . Not that that has ever happened before …. wink wink …
e.g. SNAFU !
Hmmm .. time will tell
You’re remarkably humble regarding your involvement with the Thompos, Richard. It sounds like you did more than enough to get them before the public. Realistically, what more could you have done?
I’m always baffled when people talk of artists like Richard as being ‘underrated’ and so on. The likes of Richard – and my own favourite from ‘folk music’, Bert Jansch – are not ‘underrated’, quite the opposite: they are ‘rated’ very highly by those who do such rating in the media, and always have been. It’s simply the case that they have always sold records at a level that the raters kept wishing was greater.
There are certainly a few genuine ‘hard luck stories’ in the rock era – popular music from the 1950s to 2000, for sake of argument – and Badfinger probably win the prize there, but it can’t be said that Richard and/or Linda Thompson’s level of success in the 70s or since is one of them. Likewise, Bert Jansch. Likewise, Nick Drake et al.
.. under rated as in … under rated by the general public . Which unfortunately .. or fortunately … depending on your view of fame … all ‘ cult ‘ heroes … including if I may be so bold .. myself ( my past solo albums now sell for in excess of $200 US across Japan etc etc et al ) . most definitely are
So pat yerself on the back for having discerning taste …. while acknowledging the majority of the world could not give a rats posterior about quality or artistry
As far as hard luck stories … Suffice it to say … as I have no doubt Richard would agree with … there is no making sense out of the vagaries of the market place …. especially when it comes to the arts .
And having tasted fame to a fair extent … I’m prey confident we’re ( cult heroes ) the real winners in the end .
I really enjoyed this blogpost. In June 1967 I was rooming with a friend whose brother was at school with Richard Thompson and was Ashley Hutchings’s neighbour. On his recommendation I spent a night at the then Electric Garden in Covent Garden (later Middle Earth) watching a buch of his mates, Fairport Convention, performing one of their earliest gigs. I was blown away. A fan of Richard Thompson ever since, I already had, naturally, all the published material (and some officially unpublished) in the boxed set but consider the extras well worth paying for. Living in Belgium, I ordered it from Amazon France, €67.54.
Boast: I once drove RT from a gig in Belgium to a gig in the Netherlands.
please correct buch to bunch!
I’m still in touch with one of your predecessors at Island, Ian Coates. He moved on to do sports journalism. Spooky, eh? Did your paths cross?
Thank you Richard, once again.
Just finished listening to Pour down like silver, so great!