As Fairport Convention alumnus and folk rock hero Richard Thompson tours his new album he speaks to Jude Rogers about 13 favourite records, from The Watersons to Squeeze, Moby Grape, Offa Rex, Marissa Nadler and Crowded House
Down the line from New Jersey on a bright Autumn morning comes one of the most polite, gentle English voices I’ve ever heard. “It’s a pleasure to talk to you – hello!” But don’t be swayed by that sweetness. Richard Thompson is folk-rock’s Che Guevera-capped, ultimate founding father, whose solid CV, now spanning more than five decades, should quash any prejudices about folk being placid and anaemic. The 69-year-old started out in a band with Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers, when both were in their mid-teens, for starters. After both amicably parted ways, Thompson started to fuse traditional sounds together with rock, on the rougher Fender Stratocaster guitar favoured by his musical heroes (these included rockabilly guitarist James Burton, Chicago blues player Magic Sam, and The Shadows’ Hank Marvin – and a battered Fender remains Thompson’s preferred instrument). An original member of Fairport Convention, he was a lynchpin of the band through the imperial Sandy Denny years, and a survivor of of the group’s horrific tour-van crash of May 1969, which killed his girlfriend, fashion designer and writer Jeannie Franklyn, and the band’s teenage drummer Martin Lamble. Thompson himself had not long turned 20.
In the 1970s, he became a stellar songwriter and performer with first wife, Linda (I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight remains one of the greatest ever folk-rock records) and he was a session player on some of folk’s weirdest, most wonderful releases, including Lal and Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus and Shirley and Dolly Collins’ Anthems In Eden. He’s been a brilliant, fiery, clever solo artist ever since, undertaking ambitious projects like 2003’s 1,000 Years Of Popular Music(which started with medieval round ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’ and finished with a cover of Britney Spears’ ‘Oops!…I Did It Again’) and being liked by famous alternative music figures. John Peel once called him “the best-kept secret in the world of music”, and when I sat watching Thompson for the first time at the 2011 Cambridge Folk Festival, and turned round to share a smile with the man in raptures next to me, I was delighted to discover it was Rough Trade Records’ Geoff Travis (it’s no surprise that Rough Trade have released some fantastic new folk records in recent years, I’m sure).
Thompson’s new album is a roar from the depths, too. Songs like ‘The Storm Won’t Come’ and ‘The Rattle Within’ sound like they could have sprung from the same well of rage as the work of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. “It’s about living in strange times,” Thompson says; tracks like ‘Bones Of Gilead’ have become oddly pertinent too. “I’ve been having a tough time domestically… some issues with my family [which he chooses not to go into]… but living ordinary life against this backdrop of an increasingly authoritarian world sets a certain tone. Not that this album doesn’t reflect the real world exactly, but presents a sort of fictional parallel to it.” As someone who has lived in the US for many years now, he describes the atmosphere in the country, with a hint of black humour, as “odd.” Then a gentle sigh comes down the line. “I mean, if you’ve got a petulant narcissist with his finger on the red button, it’s everyone’s issue, isn’t it?”
Compagnons De Chanson – Greatest Hits
My father was in the army during the Second World War, and he didn’t get demobilised until 1947. He spent three years in Antwerp, where he collected all these French records by singer-songwriters like Charles Trenet and vocal groups like Compagnons De Chanson. I heard them all the time when I was a kid, and I thought they were absolutely extraordinary – they had a huge influence on me in terms of their arrangements, their songwriting, their unusual harmonies.. There was a lot of music around in my childhood – my mum could do a pretty good Vera Lynn impression, and she looked a bit like her, actually. Dad was from Dumfries, more into his jazz, and was a bit of a bad guitar player. But he played me Django Reinhardt for the first time too – I still remember that now – and that was it for me, really.
Watersons – Frost And Fire: A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs
I first heard The Watersons at the Black Bull Folk Club in West London in about 1965, and they were like nothing else I’d ever heard. Folk harmony singing came a little later in the folk revival – first, you had the Ewan MacColl style, which was quite prescribed, usually solo, quite dramatic, then the influence of people like the Copper Family down in Sussex started to come through. The Watersons – I genuinely believe this – were and are geniuses. Mike Waterson [who died in 2011] was one of the truly underrated singers. I don’t know if he was schooled, but he had a very unusual style of harmonising and it was one of the most extraordinary sounds you could possibly hear. Lal also turned to to be one of the greatest singer-songwriters this country has ever produced. It was such an honour to be part of the recording of Bright Phoebus [Lal and Mike’s album in 1972]. I had flu for the entirety of the recording of it – I felt like shit – but it still was an amazing experience hearing those strange songs come to life. Lal should be an honorary Bronte. And the fact that it was recorded straight to stereo I think, or as live, with minimal overdubs, gave it a certain power. I was so happy when it finally got put out again [in 2017]. And Norma’s the greatest living Englishperson bar none. Put that in!
Moby Grape – Moby Grape
They were the most interesting band that came out of the San Francisco scene in the late 60s. They seemed less out of it, more focused, and less noodly than some of the others. It’s a record that gets forgotten a bit, this one, but it’s full of fantastic songs and really well played, with a great guitarist in Jerry Miller. At the time, we were starting out with Fairport, and we were more influenced by The Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful, and singer-songwriters like Phil Ochs or Joni Mitchell, than by psychedelic bands, really. But within a few years later, we were getting into the British contingent a bit more, like Pink Floyd and Soft Machine. Soft Machine gave us permission to improvise and try new things out. I’ll always thank them for that.
The Left Banke – Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina
This is a classic album from the late 60s that always gets forgotten, and I’m on a mission to change that! It’s classical rock, really, very much of its kind. The Left Banke’s keyboardist, Michael Brown, had a father that was a conductor or a composer or something like that who helped with arrangements [this was Harry Lookofsky, a bebop jazz violinist and symphonic orchestra player with classical training, who also co-produced ‘Walk Away Renée’]. I like the way he just throws in a flute. Apparently half the songs on this album are about Renée, not just the song everybody knows that got covered by the Four Tops. There were also various jealousies going on all the time within the band because nobody had decided whose girlfriend she was!
Squeeze – Cool for Cats
To my mind, there are two really interesting post-Beatles bands who’ve done something with the melodic tradition The Beatles got going. One of them’s Squeeze. They’re so underrated in that glut of ’70s British bands. I followed The Stranglers too, of course, having been in a band with Hugh [Cornwell] when I was young. They were great! It’s funny, but Hugh and I literally didn’t see each other after 1967 until about six or seven years ago. I don’t know how that happened – life’s like that sometimes – but it just did. After we bumped into each other at that festival in Spain, we’ve been in touch ever since, though, which is really great. I like Squeeze a lot because they manage to do something very clever: make songs with complex lyrics and complex melodies that sound very effortless, and are full of great hooks. Glenn Tilbrook’s a great singer, full of character, as is Chris Difford, and their songs are full of honesty and humour which sounds very South-East London to me. Their music sounds very much from its time and its place, and I go back to it often.
Crowded House – Woodface
I knew Crowded House from very early on because I was on the same label as them, and had the same management, which doesn’t sound very exciting! But they were just brilliant. I played four shows with them in the late ’80s [and played a solo on ‘Sister Madly’ on 1988’s Temple of Low Men] and I was just so impressed with their songwriting from the off. They have this ability to write songs that sound so simple but are still so original – I mean, they can play three chords but it sounds entirely new. How is that even possible? Listen to something like ‘Fall At Your Feet’, and the melodic writing in it, it’s just beautiful. They were big in America in their early days too, one of the last really big melodic pop bands in the charts before dance music and hip hop took over here. A last hoorah for the melodic tradition! What a hoorah.
Dan Reeder – Dan Reeder
I really don’t know a great deal about him, I’m afraid. He’s a great singer, a great writer, quite outrageous at times. A bit raw. I just thought I’d drop him in as someone your readers might not have heard. I’m always online looking at lists of recommendations for records by people, and this came up this way. [laughs] Give him a go!
Marissa Nadler – Songs lll
I wasn’t very aware of the revival of interest in folk music in the early 2000s, really – I guess that’s what happens when you’re just in your own world, making music, being too close to everything. But I am aware now of how much more folk music is accepted by younger audiences, and that’s absolutely fantastic. It used to be that you’d be playing folk music in folk clubs for twenty years, and nobody outside of that scene would have ever heard of you. Now people like Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby play big venues. I hope that keeps going. My youngest son, Jack, introduced me to Marissa Nadler. Her music is really strange, lovely stuff. I think it’s a little bit linked to shoegazing, or that sound, although I don’t know a lot about that. I find it very mesmerising and very dreamy, especially the way she harmonises with herself. I’m also never quite sure what she’s talking about – there’s lots of ambiguity in her lyrics, which I like. Songs and stories don’t always have to be straight.
Various – Music From Saharan Cell Phones Vol. 2
This is another album I found rummaging around online. I just Google “my top 20 albums of the year” or something like that and see what strange stuff comes up. This is literally an album of people from the Sahara recording music in a very basic, simple way – and it’s very different, very raw, and very exciting. It blends together musical ideas I’ve never heard in a way that sounds very new to me. I enjoy lots of African music, but I’m no expert – and I’m no musical colonialist. But I get very inspired when I hear a record and think, wow, where did that rhythm come from? How did that riff come out that way? The fact I have no idea is very exciting. I love it when music takes me by surprise after all these years.
Wildwood Kin – Turning Tides
I played with Wildwood Kin a few years ago and thought they were great – they create interesting sounds, they’re always swapping instruments, they’ve got a good blend of voices. They sit outside folk, but you still hear their interest in it in their music. I thought I’d pick a few recent folk-rock-inspired records I’ve loved from recent years, so that’s why this is here!
Offa Rex – Queen Of Hearts
Olivia Chaney is fantastic. Offa Rex are her and The Decemberists, and I’ve been aware of them as separate entities for years. Olivia’s done a lot of things with traditional music, including this, and her voice is just wonderful. [I mention her performing at Shirley Collins’ 80th birthday celebrations at London’s Southbank Centre a few years back]. Oh, Shirley! I haven’t seen her for years! I’m so so happy she’s back singing again, and encouraging younger musicians. That’s absolutely the way it should be. And I love this record, basically, because it’s folk-rock – taking those old tunes and sounds and making them really sing again. I know it’s a genre been around for decades now, but people are still making beautiful music from it.
The Rails – There Are Other People In This World Not Just You
[laughs] Well, yes, I’d heard of The Rails somewhere before [they consist of his daughter Kami Thompson and her husband James Walbourne]. I bred The Rails! But genuinely, I’m very proud of my musical children. All of them [Teddy and Kami Thompson are his children with his first wife, Linda Thompson; Jack is his son with his second wife, Nancy Covey]. I’ve picked this album because it’s very up my street in terms of its sound – it blends rock and folk in a very British-sounding way. And it reminds me, in some ways, of what I was doing in the 70s with Linda. I love playing with my family, which we do from time time [including on 2014’s project, ‘Family’, which included Linda on record]. When families sing together, there’s often something quite magical that happens, I think – something about the similar shape of your skulls or your mouths means that your voices just seem to fit together. Do we ever argue when we play together? Amazingly, not really. [laughs] Really. Or rather, it’s because I command respect from all of them, obviously!