Imagine encountering, here in the Eighties, someone who had never heard of Jimi Hendrix, who had never been moved by the great singers and session groups of golden-age Motown, or who, by whatever unimaginable means, had managed to remain incognizant of the collected musical masterworks of Lennon and McCartney. Apart from chance encounters with the deaf, the dead and the Pennsylvania Dutch, the actual existence of such a person is well-nigh inconceivable.
And yet, how many Americans remain unaware of the work of Richard Thompson, the richly gifted guitarist, songwriter and singer, and his erstwhile wife, Linda, considered in some quarters to be the finest white female vocalist in pop music? From 1974, when the Thompsons first joined their names on an album called I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, to 1982, when they severed both their marital and artistic ties following the release of the critically acclaimed Shoot Out the Lights, this extraordinary English duo issued six superb LPs. But for various reasons — radio's inability to slot their music, Richard's low regard for the rock-star role — word about the Thompsons didn't spread very far. One of their best records, Sunnyvista, was never even released in this country; and until recently, all of their albums, save the last, were out of print.
Now, however, this dismaying situation has been addressed by tiny Carthage Records, a subsidiary of Hannibal, the label run by former Fairport Convention producer Joe Boyd. Using both mail-order and more conventional modes of distribution, Carthage is putting the Thompsons' entire oeuvre back on the market in fresh, audiophile-quality pressings.
The first batch of reissues contains at least one timeless masterpiece, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. One of those rare LPs with not a single track that's less than luminous, it captures the Thompsons at the top of their artistic form: rooted in Celtic folk, reveling in the possibilities of rock and pop and radiant in the spiritual obsessions that characterize so much of their best work. Every guitar player should own this album, if only to hear Richard's skirling Stratocaster intro to "Calvary Cross," and his compact, utterly unpredictable solos on such songs as "When I Get to the Border."
Singers will be wonder-struck by Linda's stunning readings of "Withered and Died" and the sublime "Down Where the Drunkards Roll," not to mention the rollicking title track, a pure-pop pinnacle for the pair. And enemies of sentiment can savor Richard's hard-nosed lyrical stance, most striking on "The End of the Rainbow," a chilling lullaby in which he advises the dozing infant: "There's nothing at the end of the rainbow/There's nothing to grow up for anymore." Recorded a decade ago, Bright Lights still holds up as an album of incandescent artistry.
Pour Down like Silver, the Thompsons' third LP, doesn't quite match the seamless brilliance of Bright Lights, but is nonetheless essential for the lovely "Dimming of the Day" and its extended acoustic-guitar coda, "Dargai"; the stirring "Streets of Paradise," featuring one of Richard's grittiest vocals; and the breathtaking "Night Comes In," which blends the Thompsons' then-ascendant Sufi fatalism and their irrepressible joy in music into one of the truly unforgettable songs of the Seventies.
Like Pour Down, Sunnyvista, released in 1979, seems merely excellent when compared to Bright Lights. It is distinguished by some of the most emphatic rock & roll the Thompsons ever recorded, most notably "Civilisation" (with John Kirkpatrick's giddy accordion punctuations), the throbbing "Borrowed Time" and the exhilarating "You're Going to Need Somebody." Equally striking are "Why Do You Turn Your Back?" and the lilting "Lonely Hearts," the latter now a staple of Richard's live performances. Unjustly obscure until now, Sunnyvista is another gem in the Thompsons' jewel-heavy crown.
Hokey Pokey, their second album, originally released in 1975, and Henry the Human Fly, Richard's 1972 solo debut (featuring his soon-to-be spouse, Linda Peters, on vocals), both seem, in retrospect, slightly tentative. However, both also abound with superlative songs. The standouts on Hokey Pokey include Richard's rueful "Old Man inside a Young Man," Linda's glowing "A Heart Needs a Home" and the quietly frightening drinking ode, "I'll Regret It All in the Morning." Henry will endear itself to first-timers with the spritely "The Angels Took My Racehorse Away," the haunting "Roll Over Vaughn Williams" and a heart-tugging rendition of "The Old Changing Way" that's delicately illuminated by David Snell's Celtic-harp playing.
These five records offer Americans a second chance to savor two of the most marvelous musical talents ever to arise out of British rock. Paeans are also due for the sparklingly sympathetic musical accompaniment that graces each album (kudos, in particular, to drummer Dave Mattacks, bassist Dave Pegg and guitarist Simon Nicol, who, like Richard, are all former Fairporters) and the vivid sound of these new pressings. Also recommended are two other Carthage releases: Strict Tempo!, Richard's 1981 instrumental LP, and Morris On, a collection of mostly traditional English dance music that features his virtuoso playing.