Yes they probably invented folk rock but also, on their landmark third album, Fairport Convention, presented a view of England that has now been lost… one of violent division along lines of class and gender but one that was also positive and questing, says Michael Hann
One autumn evening a couple of years ago, my friends and I were drinking outside a pub in behind Euston station. As the last of the sun bathed the tables, a group of men and women assembled in the street. They were wearing white shirts and trousers, red neckerchiefs around their throats, bells tied to their ankles. They carried sticks. As they took their places in formation, my friends started sniggering to each other: Here they are, the racists, UKIP’s morris-dancing wing. Continue reading →
Fergus he builds and builds, yet small is his erection. Fergus has a fine head of hair, when the wind’s in the right direction
Roughly five years ago, Richard Thompson wrote a Celtic folk ballad about an unscrupulous businessman and his shady dealings in Scotland.
It’s called Fergus Laing and, to say the least, is a little bit cheeky.
“Fergus he builds and builds, yet small is his erection. Fergus has a fine head of hair, when the wind’s in the right direction,” Thompson sings.
There was probably little doubt as to who Fergus Laing was inspired by, even if this rule-bending American businessman wasn’t president yet and the details about his controversial development of a golf course on environmentally sensitive lands were better known in the United Kingdom than North America.
But when Donald Trump took over the White House in 2016, Thompson thought the song might take on a new life.
“I continued to sing it a little bit as he rose to prominence in the political sphere,” says Thompson, in an interview from a tour stop in Wisconsin. “I very quickly realized that I could just not keep up. There was too much information every day. I’d have to write a new verse a day. I just had to stop singing that song because it was out of date immediately.”
A songwriter with a knack for sardonic humour and sharp storytelling, Thompson’s political output includes everything from 1991’s stinging Margaret Thatcher rebuke Mother Knows Best to 2007’s tormented Iraq-war anthem Dad’s Gonna Kill Me.
So it says something about the political atmospheres in both Thompson’s adopted country and his native England, which is currently engulfed in its own circus-like, Brexit-inspired chaos, that the songwriter feels unable to properly reflect them in song.
“The political situation in America and in Britain is so strange and so unprecedented in both countries, you have to be a very nimble songwriter to keep up,” says Thompson, who now lives in Los Angeles. “So far, I haven’t managed to. As much as I like writing political things and deflating political egos, I haven’t managed to keep up lately.”
LYRICS Fergus Laing is a beast of a man He stitches up and fleeces He wants to manicure the world And see it off in pieces He likes to build his towers high He blocks the sun out from the sky In the penthouse the champagne's dry And slightly gassy Fergus Laing, he works so hard As busy as a bee is Fergus Laing has 17 friends All as dull as he is His 17 friends has 17 wives All the perfect shape and size They wag their tails and bat their eyes Just like Lassie Fergus he builds and builds Yet small is his erection Fergus has a fine head of hair When the wind's in the right direction Fergus Laing and his 17 friends They live inside a bubble There they withdraw and shut the door At any sign of trouble Should the peasants wail and vent And ask him where the money went He'll simply say, it's all been spent On being classy Fergus' buildings reach the sky Until you cannot see 'um He thinks the old stuff he pulls down Belongs in a museum His fits are famous on the scene The shortest fuse, so cruel, so mean But don't call him a drama queen Like Shirley Bassey Fergus Laing he flaunts the law But one day he'll be wired And as they drag him off to jail We'll all shout, "You're fired!"
Still, Thompson is nothing if not prolific. So it’s possible these songs may be pending. In any case, biting political commentary is just one of many colours Thompson has in his songwriting palette. Next month, New West Records will release Thompson’s score for Erik Nelson’s Second World War documentary The Cold Blue. While Thompson is no stranger to soundtrack work, fans might be surprised that it features a relative dearth of guitar. Instead, Thompson enlisted a small chamber orchestra featuring French horns, a string quartet, double bass, oboe, clarinet, harmonica and percussion to musically back Nelson’s film about the brave pilots of the Eighth Air Force.
Meanwhile, as of this week, Thompson is also busily working on songs for both an acoustic album and his next full-band release.
“I’ve got two piles of songs,” Thompson says. “We’ll see which one wins, which one is the next record.” [ . . . ]
Special guest performers announced for Richard Thompson’s 70th Birthday bash at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
An incredible array of special guest performers has been announced for Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday celebration show at London’s Royal Albert Hall on September 30th 2019. This once in a lifetime concert will see eminent fellow musicians, friends and family grace the stage to mark the milestone birthday of this iconic and much-respected artist.
Joining Richard Thompson on an exceptional night will be: Alistair Anderson, Ashley Hutchings, Bob Mould, Christine Collister, Danny Thompson, Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, David Gilmour, Derek Smalls (formerly of the band formally known as Spinal Tap), Eliza Carthy, Hugh Cornwell, Jack Thompson, James Walbourne, Judith Owen, Kami Thompson, Kate Rusby, Linda Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Maddy Prior, Marc Ellington, Martin Carthy, Olivia Chaney, Simon Nicol, Teddy Thompson and Zara Phillips.
The show sold out swiftly when it was announced in April.
Richard Thompson’s enduring musical influence and accomplishments are unparalleled. Having co-founded the groundbreaking group Fairport Convention as a teenager in the 1960s, he and his bandmates invented a distinctive strain of British folk-rock. He left the group by the age of 21, followed by a decade long musical partnership with his then-wife Linda, to over 30 years as a highly successful solo artist. Thompson’s genre defying mastery of both acoustic and electric guitar along with engaging energy and onstage wit continue to earn him new fans and a place as one of the most distinctive virtuosos and writers in folk-rock history. Powered by evocative songcraft, jaw-dropping guitar playing, and indefinable spirit, this venerable icon holds a coveted spot on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” and counts Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Americana Music Association in Nashville and the UK Americana Music Association, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the BBC Folk Awards, a prestigious Ivor Novello Award and, of course, an OBE, among his many accolades.
A wide range of musicians have recorded Thompson’s songs including David Gilmour, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., Sleater-Kinney, Del McCoury, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Jones, David Byrne, Don Henley, Los Lobos, and many more. His massive body of work includes many Grammy-nominated albums as well as numerous soundtracks, including Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Thompson’s latest album 13 Rivers (Proper Records) was released to widespread acclaim last September and appeared on many 2018 ‘best of the year’ lists. His accompanying tour was met with glowing reviews, including The Observer, in its Artist of the Week spread, who concluded, “Half a century after his first gig with Fairport Convention, folk-rocker Richard Thompson – trademark Stratocaster and beret intact – is as cool, energetic and contemporary as ever.”
“Wall Of Death” puts quite a spin, literally and figuratively, on the idea of marriage as a wild ride.
There are many albums that are called “breakup” albums even though the biographical circumstances don’t quite ring true. Bob Dylan would remain married to wife Sara for several years after Blood On The Tracks, just as Bruce Sprinsgteen’s first marriage wouldn’t crumble for almost a full year after the release of Tunnel Of Love.
Still, the music on those albums seemed to reveal the fissures of those relationships, fissures that would eventually become irreparable cracks. So it was that Richard Thompson wrote the material for Shoot Out The Lights, released in 1982, a year prior to the actual dissolution of his marriage to Linda Thompson. And yet, as Linda eventually told Rolling Stone, “It was kind of a subliminal thing. I think we both were miserable and didn’t quite know how to get it out. I think that’s why the album is so good. We couldn’t talk to each other, so we just did it on the record.”
The structure on the album, which has come to be regarded as one of the finest of the ’80s, plays into that narrative, with Richard singing one song to seemingly give his side of the story, and Linda then answering with her own take. But it culminates in the two harmonizing on “Wall Of Death,” which, despite the ominous title, sends the album out on an almost celebratory note. For it suggests that a relationship brimming with vibrant emotions, even the negative ones, is preferable to one that grinds along amiably without the highs and lows.
In the world of carnivals, the Wall of Death is an attraction that features motorcycles wheeling around a silo-shaped structure, seeming to defy gravity because of the cylindrical force. Richard makes it a kind of metaphor for liberty: “On the Wall of Death, all the world is far from me,” he and Linda sing in the bridge. “On the Wall of Death, it’s the nearest to being free.”
A mid-tempo rocker with typically tough and lyrical lead guitar from Richard, “Wall Of Death” compares the titular ride to other popular attractions. “Well, you’re going nowhere when you ride on the carousel,” the pair sing in the second verse. “And maybe you’re strong, but what’s the use of ringing a bell.” Also: “The Tunnel of Love might amuse you/And Noah’s Ark might confuse you.”
The most dangerous rides might cause the most tumult but, ultimately, they’re the most invigorating, or so the song implies. “You can waste your time on the other rides,” they sing. “But this is the nearest to being alive.” If you are indeed going to read Shoot Out The Lights as a kind of meta commentary on a crumbling marriage, the last song suggests that there might be recriminations and rebuttals but ultimately there are no regrets.
Note also how the lyrics ask, “Let me ride on the Wall of Death one more time.” Looking at the song on its own, it seems the narrator just wants to go around again. But in the context of the entire album, that line could be read as two people indulging in this last queasy, yet thrilling, go-round before they move on. In any case, “Wall Of Death” puts quite a spin, literally and figuratively, on the idea of marriage as a wild ride.