The highlight of this eight-CD box set is 31 previously unreleased tracks
Box sets often exist merely to evacuate the wallets of the faithful. Here, though, over eight CDs (or a big download) is the story of one of the most intriguing partnerships in British music: the silvery folk-rock duo Richard and Linda Thompson. It is a tale worth retelling – and shelling out for.
As vocalists, the Thompsons shared a startling contralto directness that, squared, offered up a vision of often spare, unfussy beauty at one remove from convention or theatricality. This chronology kicks off with the pair’s first casual rock’n’roll experiments for a low-key ensemble project. It ends with the duo’s live immolation, when the Thompsons fulfilled lucrative 1982 tour dates despite their relationship having, as one of their most famous songs goes, “withered and died”.
A little like Fleetwood Mac – a more lucrative British late-60s outcropping – these former soulmates sang songs about their curdled love at one another across blasted North American stages. But Stevie Nicks never gave birth in a Sufi squat without hot water or electricity, or stole a car in Canada on a bender; she may never have kicked Lindsay Buckingham’s shins while he soloed – unlike Linda Pettifer, who, pre-Richard, performed as Linda Peters.
“After I hit Richard on the head with the Coca-Cola bottle it was fine,” Linda Thompson reminisced about that final tour to Rolling Stone in 1985. “I suddenly went from being this lady with three children – covered in scarves, with my eyes turned to the ground – to stealing cars and living on vodka and antidepressants. And I felt fabulous! Hitting everybody. You know, people’d say good morning to me and I’d say, ‘Fuck off.’ It was great therapy.”
The ballad of Richard and Linda has been rehearsed a great many times before of course, and the Thompsons’ work has been amply bootlegged and box-setted previously. But there are many great verses here not previously aired.
Key to the excitement of this collection is its 31 unreleased tracks – such as Amazon Queen, an early Richard Thompson psych-pop outtake, or the demo of Dimming of the Day, unadorned and devastating, on a CD devoted to the duo’s 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver and its outtakes.
Having met in the heady swirl of the British folk-rock scene in the late 60s, Richard (formerly of Fairport Convention, then solo) and Linda (folk singer and jobbing jingles vocalist) first toured under the tongue-in-cheek name Sour Grapes before formalising as a duo with the 1974 release of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.
Included with the remastered Bright Lights album is Mother and Son, a truly spooky, freak-folk outtake, and a revelatory version of the none-more-bleak The End of the Rainbow. Sung mostly by Linda, this warning of life’s grief and peril to a babe-in-arms is, perhaps, even more unsettling than the canonical Richard original.
Around the time of Pour Down Like Silver, however, Richard – always a searching, unconventional creative – convinced Linda to retreat further from the mainstream and embrace Sufism. As they moved between communities, ridding themselves of possessions and adhering to strict gender roles, Richard stopped playing guitar entirely in a bid to renounce worldliness. So when, in 1977, the duo reunited on stage with a new band composed of Sufi-community fellow-travellers, it was an occasion – one captured in the terrific live performances of disc 5, subtitled The Madness of Love.
A handful of excellent unreleased songs, never recorded in a studio, from their set at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane capture Richard’s spiritual immersion, his understanding of Arabic and north African music and some novel, almost funk fusions, electric piano to the fore. Linda is in magnificent voice, despite previous and subsequent battles with the vocal cord condition spasmodic dysphonia.
The immense A Bird in God’s Garden makes plain the connections between the harmonic drones to which the couple were already partial and the devotional music of the near east. The song’s words are derived from Rumi; in 1972, a British band of Sufi convert folk musicians called the Habibiyya, some of whom ended up in the Thompsons’ live band, recorded a song of the same name. But this taut almost-jam stands alone – lyrical and hypnotic.. But this taut almost-jam stands alone – lyrical and hypnotic.
It’s accompanied by a beautiful, near 13-minute version of Pour Down Like’s Silver’s Night Comes In, sung here more by Linda. Bearing all the hallmarks of a love song, Richard’s devotion is directed not towards his partner, but to the divine: the leader of their sect had given his permission for the duo to record and perform, but only if it were in the service of God.
Shoot Out the Lights (1982) was the couple’s final, most celebrated album, in which the end was harrowingly obvious to everyone but the Thompsons themselves. The bounty on CD 8 includes outtakes and a spellbinding final-tour version of Pavanne, a Thompson co-write about a female assassin.
It is tempting to read a great deal into this song’s portrait of female agency and bloodthirstiness. But the draw here is Linda Thompson’s voice – clear and non-judgmental, unhitched from her inner critic thanks to the vodka and antidepressants. Richard Thompson’s guitar is uncharacteristically restrained – almost respectful.