Happy Thanksgiving from The Hobbledehoy
Chronicling the magnificent career of bassist Danny Thompson, this article focuses on his work in the 1960s, including Pentangle, Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band and others.
I have been toying with the idea of writing an article about Danny Thompson for a while. His playing is a common thread across so many albums I cherish, that dedicating an artist profile article to him seemed inevitable. But where to begin, what to cover? There are over 400 album credits with his name on it, spanning almost six(!) decades. The task seemed monumental, given my inability to avoid digging deep into my chosen subjects. I finally decided to take the plunge and go for it. So here is the first article in a series (what else?) that will cover a few decades of his unique career. This one here is dedicated to his work in the 1960s.
Danny Thompson was born in 1939, taking his name after ‘Danny Boy’, the song his miner father loved to sing. He tried his hand with various instruments including trumpet, mandolin and guitar, but the first serious instrument was the trombone, an instrument of which he said: “It is the only one I had much success with, probably because it’s an instrument of judgement, just like the bass.” He gave up on the trombone due to his love of boxing: “I lost my first fight and swore I would never lose another one. And I didn’t, in 22 fights. That was one of the reasons I gave up the trombone, because a smack in the chops is not very good for that.” His desire to play with his mates in a skiffle band led him to the bass as a DIY project: “I made my own tea-chest bass and at 14 I would get on the London buses with it to go to gigs and play.” The entrepreneurial lad had the foresight to build hinges into his bass, making it collapsible and easily transportable on a bus.
At the age of 15 Thompson bought Victoria. Don’t leave in disgust, no basic human rights are violated in this story. Victoria is a French bass circa 1860 built by Gand, a famous string instrument builder. This was the beginning of a beautiful love affair with a musical instrument. Thompson tells the story: “I bought her for a fiver from an old man who I promised to repay at five shillings a week. I collected her and the same night did a gig in a Wandsworth pub for fifteen shillings [three weeks’ money!]. On the way to the pub it was drizzling and she got quite wet and when I started to wipe the rain from her, all the beautiful varnish came through making the trumpeter remark: ‘blimey it’s probably a Strad or somethin’!” Victoria is not a Strad, but its worth was many folds what Thompson paid for it: “The next day he took me to Foote’s bass shop in Brewer St, Soho and they offered me £130. I took her back to the man and said ‘this is worth £130, not a fiver’. But he said ‘look son, if you want to play it, just give me the £5’. I think back to that a lot and think that it was meant to be, especially as it turned out that this was an extraordinary instrument that I now cherish. She’s been on countless recordings from the 1960s until now – and she is beautiful.” Danny Thompson remarked that for him to play on a different bass “it’s as though I’m being unfaithful. It feels like I was sleeping with some other woman while my wife is in hospital delivering my baby!” Continue reading
In an extract from his new memoir Richard Thompson remembers how the iconic band came about, recalls their early gigs and looks back at the motorway crash that killed his girlfriend and their drummer
How the band came together
I met Ashley “Tyger” Hutchings through my schoolfriend Brian Wyvill, who lived a few doors away from him in Durnsford Road, Muswell Hill. Brian had been recommending us to each other for a while, so it was inevitable that we should cross paths eventually, and it finally happened one sunny afternoon across a suburban garden gate. You could bet your life that any band run by Tyger in 1966, of which there were several, would have an obscure repertoire. For Dr K’s Blues Band, he used to track down and play B-sides by artists who had been mere footnotes in blues anthologies, and for the Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra he revived the 1920s repertoires of Gus Cannon and the Memphis Jug [ . . . ] Subscribers to THE TIMES continue
The ex-Fairport Convention songwriter on booze, Irish folk and ‘volatile’ Sandy Denny
Veteran folk-rock guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson is the quintessential journeyman musician. Now 72, his achievements can be best summed up not by Grammy nominations or OBEs (though he has both), but his setlist, a back catalogue that includes classics such as Persuasion, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Wall of Death, Shoot Out the Lights and – perhaps his finest composition – Beeswing, a masterclass in melody, narrative and guitar artistry.
Beeswing is also the title of Thompson’s new memoir, subtitled Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice 1967-75, which is published this month.
“I think it reflected some of what I felt about the ’60s and ’70s,” Thompson says on a Zoom call from his home in Los Angeles. “There was a rejection of the traditional paths of life: you have to go to university; you have to get a job in a bank; you have to become this straight citizen. There were kids dropping out, saying, ‘I’m not gonna do that, I’m gonna go live in a commune in Denmark.’ You saw people like Vashti Bunyan, who’d get her gypsy caravan and her horses and go off wandering. The chapter called Beeswing is a summation of that spirit, and it seemed a logical title for the whole book.”
The song itself bears such a feeling of authenticity, of lived experience, this reader felt sure it must have had autobiographical origins. Not so, says the author.
She was a tremendous singer. She could do that thing that opera singers can do where they can go from almost a whisper to really loud without any difficulty in the whole dynamic. Also, her voice was incredibly expressive. Expression is something some people can learn, but with her it was just there. Then, Sandy was a very emotional human being. That came across when she was singing. She could inhabit a song completely. In many cases, she could make a song so much her own that no one could sing it afterwards. She even did that with some traditional songs, and she certainly did it with her own songs. What’s the point in doing an interpretation of a Sandy Denny song? You’re never going to sound as good.Richard Thompson “Beeswing”