Richard Thompson on the flowering of Fairport Convention

Richard Thompson book

“There was a musical explosion – you could play almost anything and be accepted”

The current issue of Uncut – in shops now or available to buy online by clicking here, with free P&P for the UK – features an exclusive extract from Richard Thompson’s forthcoming memoir Beeswing in which he recalls how, in 1967, the newly formed Fairport Convention took their first tentative steps into London’s burgeoning underground scene. In addition, Thompson talks candidly to Uncut about the process of writing the book and how he feels now looking back at those naive and exciting early days…

RICHARD THOMPSON: “The ’60 and ’70s continue to be musically of great interest to people. Although we thought it was very ordinary at the time, it does turn out to have been an exceptional period – a great musical crossroads. I thought I’d just chuck down some reminiscences before I popped my clogs, as they say. Not that I intend to any time soon!

“You think that you remember everything, but when you actually sit down and start to write, stuff comes out that you’d forgotten. I think it helped me, actually. There was a kind of catharsis in writing about that time, which was part joyous – as it is when you’re a teenager – and part painful. You forget about the painful stuff, but that mix is in there, and it was quite extraordinary to go back and really think about it.

“I suppose I was fortunate in the people I gravitated towards. Meeting Simon [Nicol] and Ashley [Hutchings], who became the core of Fairport, was a wonderful thing, and a crucial thing. Very early on, about 1967, I could tell we had some kind of musical future, even if it only lasted a year. That was good enough for me, and I could put off thinking about getting a real job until I was at least 22. Then when Sandy [Denny] joined, that made us a really good band – we felt this was actually something quite transcendental. All we wanted to do was play music to an audience, and it just happened to be that time when the floodgates were opened and so many bands could pass through. We felt that circumstances dragged us along. There was a musical explosion in London – so many different styles were emerging that you could play almost anything and be accepted. You could play folk-rock and be accepted by an audience that also listened to The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown and Pink Floyd. It was all just part of the hippie culture, this underground musical revolution.

“The scene was a real community – people would help each other out, lend each other gear, tow each other back down the M1. Now people say, ‘My God, you played with Hendrix?’ But at the time it didn’t seem that exceptional because he would jam with a lot of people. Musicians weren’t really celebrities back in those days; that came later.

“I had to be cajoled into starting the book, but once I started I really enjoyed the writing process. You can write a song in 10 minutes – I’m not saying it’s always that quick, but it’s a much swifter and less detailed process. You can be a lot more abstract and poetic in songwriting, you don’t have to fill in the gaps. Writing prose, you have to be more linear. It takes structure, more discipline. I tried to write for at least a few hours a day. And as much as I enjoyed the writing process, I hated the editorial process – handing it over to other people. Having not been edited ever as a songwriter, that came as a bit of a shock. Suddenly you have to justify yourself to other people!

“There are a couple of songs I’ve written since finishing the book that seem to be reflective of that time period. I often refer back to earlier times because songwriting is almost a decoding of your own life. So I’ve done a couple of things that have been, I suppose, brought up by the process. I don’t know about laid to rest, that sounds a bit too final – or pretentious! But it’s helped me to put some events from the ’60s and ’70s into perspective.”

You can read the full extract from Richard Thompson’s Beeswing in the May 2021 issue of Uncutout now with The Velvet Underground on the cover!

Source: Richard Thompson on the flowering of Fairport Convention | UNCUT

Richard Thompson on the Fairport Convention years: ‘I probably never went on stage sober’

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.

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Sandy

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”

Richard Thompson’s famous fans choose their favourite songs

Admirers from Robert Plant to Rachel Unthank pick the tracks from the master songwriter that mean most to them

Robert Plant

How Will I Ever Be Simple Again?
from 
Daring Adventures (1986)
“Richard’s frenetic, beautiful guitar style freed British music in the 60s from the slog of the blues. He melded his influences so impressively to history. This song speaks to me about my life, surveying myself from above and below. Richard, if you’re reading, we’ll have to stop not meeting like this.”

Shirley Collins

A Heart Needs a Home
from 
Hokey Pokey (1975)
“Richard’s still extraordinary, such a bold and muscular presence on stage, and his voice is still gorgeous. I played this again and again when Ashley [Hutchings] and I broke up. It helped me heal.”

Hugh Cornwell

Meet on the Ledge
from 
What We Did On Our Holidays (1969)
“The ledge was a limb of a tree on Hampstead Heath. I remember hearing this on the radio for the first time, that special meaning came through.”

Carrie Brownstein

Hokey Pokey
from 
Hokey Pokey (1975)
“I love the double entendre in the lyrics, the hint of darkness in the words contrasting with the music-hall feel of the tune. A good songwriter leaves you neither here nor there but someplace new, searching for more.”

David Byrne

The Calvary Cross (live)
from 
I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974)
“Brian Eno recommended this, which led me down a rabbit hole. It’s ominous, full of dark portents. [On playing live with Richard in 1992] I remember trying to glean anything I could from a master writer and craftsman.”

Rachel Unthank

Has He Got a Friend for Me
from 
I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974)
“A song about a girl desperate to meet someone, anyone. It’s not straightforward. It’s uncomfortable. Richard’s brilliant at capturing a moment and its emotion.”

Mark Ronson

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
from 
I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974)
“It’s just a perfect song. It starts with this drumbeat that just makes you want to get up. The vocals are really bratty, on the verge of punk-rock and folk. It’s been my wistful dance around the kitchen in lockdown on a Friday night, so I wanted to pay tribute to it.”

Linda Thompson

How I Wanted To
from 
Hand of Kindness (1983)
[Its chorus runs: “Oh how I wanted to/ Oh how I wanted to/ To say I loved you”] “I chose this because it’s about me. Ha ha. Also, I love it.”

Source: Richard Thompson’s famous fans choose their favourite songs