Summer reading: Richard Thompson: the first 25 years

Mike Phipps reviews Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice, by Richard Thompson, published by Faber

Richard Thompson has been a leading figure of UK folk-rock music for half a century. This thoughtful memoir of his days with pioneering group Fairport Convention and subsequent musical projects is likely to appeal way beyond his fan-base.

He developed a passion for the guitar at an early age.  Socially awkward, with a stutter, music and art defined him. He was in his first band at the age of 14. At age 16, in 1965, he began playing with Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol in a group, based in Muswell Hill, which would eventually become Fairport Convention.

Still at school, he now lived with his parents in Whetstone. “If I went to see the Who on a Tuesday night at the Marquee Club, I could watch the first set and catch the last train home. If I wanted to see the second set, I knew I would have to walk home – and it was usually worth it – a distance of ten miles, on a school night.” But then, as he admits, there is a story of Johann Sebastian Bach walking two hundred miles to another town to try out a new organ.

Just two months after their formation, Fairport were offered a record contract. Producer Joe Boyd knew the young Joni Mitchell, and gave the band some of her as-yet-unrecorded songs. Now they were recording, the group was expected to start writing their own material – this ‘novelty’ had come in with the Beatles just a few years earlier, but it endured.

Thompson reports all this with a certain nonchalance, but the rapid rise of Fairport was not a matter of luck. It was down to the writing and musicianship of its members – Thompson himself was from the outset a phenomenal guitarist –as well as the way they melded together as an ensemble.

Fairport began to pick up gigs in the underground scene in London.  Jimi Hendrix, recently arrived in London, once played with them on stage. They drove to bookings in a borrowed butcher’s van with no seats that was hosed down at the end of the working day and then rented to the band – but “it would still smell strongly of meat…  We then graduated to an old Securicor Commer van, which, though it had seating for all and room for equipment, also had a large hole in the floor where the rust had eaten through.” Thompson adds later: “If I have one abiding impression of the time we spent touring during the winter of 1967, it is of never being warm.”

The underground music scene met with hostility from the authorities. Later in their career, 170 police officers raided a club when Fairport were playing there, but were only able to charge two people with possession of cannabis.

Gigs abroad had their own perils at this time. The band were waiting to go on stage at an arena in Rome where The Move, one of Britain’s more anarchic groups were playing. When the band began began chopping up a TV set with an axe as part of their act, Italy’s riot police tore onto the stage, hitting everything that moved and arresting randomly. Long-haired musicians were not welcome.

In May 1968, Sandy Denny, “an extraordinary bundle of contradictions”, joined the group (while still doing solo performances and commercials on the side to subsidise her more lavish lifestyle), adding hugely to its vocal power. Thompson and the rest of the band were soaking up musical influences at this time, from the folk, rock and blues scenes. There are sketches here of contemporary musicians here alongside references to the increasingly experimental studio techniques Fairport were using in the making of their second and third albums, What We Did on Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking.

Everything was going brilliantly – until the horrific night when the band’s van crashed on the M1 motorway coming back from a gig, killing Richard’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn and the band’s talented drummer, Martin Lamble. Out of this tragedy, partly because the band could no longer bear to play the songs with which Martin had been associated, came a new project, the seminal folk-rock record which brought the band enduring recognition: Liege and Lief.

Fiddler Dave Swarbrick, who had guested on Unhalfbricking‘s eleven-minute version of the traditional song A Sailor’s Life, now joined the group. Auditions also had to be held for a new drummer: “We set up Martin’s kit and tested the applicants with Sandy’s song ‘Autopsy’, with its three different time signatures. Most of them fell at the first hurdle, unable to handle the 5/4 section…. Dave Mattacks, who had spent the last couple of years playing for ballroom dancing in Belfast and Glasgow with the Ray McVay Band… handled the time changes flawlessly… and got the job.”

To work without distraction and knit the band together musically and socially, Fairport moved into an 18th century former rectory in Hampshire for the summer. The material here on how the group selected and arranged traditional songs will intrigue the band’s followers. By the end of the year, Fairport had released their third album of 1969, notwithstanding the awful events of that year.

More personnel changes followed. Sandy Denny left to develop her songwriting and form her own band; in Thompson’s version of events, she was fired for missing one too many gigs. This seems shocking, but the trauma of the motorway crash was still being felt: “Our determination to persevere may have been our way of concealing our mental frailty.”

Then Ashley Hutchings had ideas for making the band a nine-piece playing wholly traditional music, which got a lukewarm reception from other members. He duly left to form Steeleye Span with the new recruits. On Dave Swarbrick’s recommendation, Fairport recruited the brilliant bassist Dave Pegg and the band moved into The Angel, a freezing disused pub near Bishops Stortford.

Did many groups live this way, all in one house, with partners, children and sometimes road crew? It certainly created a basis for musical creativity as well as some odd experiences. Having played a free open air concert in the local village for the church organ fund, the group were approached by the police to play for the police orphan fund, an offer they did not feel they could turn down. The show was mentioned on BBC Radio 1 that afternoon, and thousands of people headed out on the short drive from London, jamming the local roads.

Thompson is a fine raconteur with some great anecdotes – hilarious and menacing by turn – about the band’s first US tour and some disastrous festival performances back home. But behind the excitement of it all, he felt increasingly musically dissatisfied, principally with his songwriting partner Dave Swarbrick, who favoured a breakneck pace to the band’s music over Thompson’s more reflective approach.

So he left and began doing session work instead. This could either be tedious – “doing sixty-five takes of a Badfinger song” – or invigorating, working with other artists on the folk-rock scene. He also worked on a dozen of his own songs which he released on his first solo album “to universal indifference.” Today, Henry the Human Fly is ranked by Mojo in the top hundred greatest guitar albums ever produced.

It was at this time that he started a relationship with Linda Peters, whom he later married and made several records with, touring as a duo. In their early days, they toured the folk clubs, which was when I first saw them perform, in 1972, upstairs at the Nag’s Head in High Wycombe. It was an entirely acoustic set, very intimate, just the two of them, very eclectic with some of Richard’s own songs, as well as some Cajun, music hall and other influences.

Richard and Linda Thompson recorded I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight in the spring of 1971, but the record company did not release it for a year, ostensibly because of a shortage at the time of vinyl. But folk rock was by now a declining force in Britain and remained in a niche, while progressive rock dominated the albums market and glam rock the singles charts.

It was at this time that Thompson was drawn to Sufism, a branch of Islam. He gave up drinking and his lifestyle and friendships changed dramatically. “There was no conversion,” writes Thompson, however, “just affirmation that this was who I had always been, and this was the relationship with the universe I had always had.”

He also became a father for the first time and was soon back touring with Linda, whose mother also joined them on the road, to babysit backstage.

Their next album, Hokey Pokey, straddled two worlds, the English tradition and the call of religion. Their next record went further in this direction. Pour Down Like Silver oozes spirituality, and the tour that accompanied it produced some of Thompson’s best extended guitar work ever. But the tensions between religious contemplation and the rock singer lifestyle became too much and in 1975 the Thompsons decided to get off the treadmill. They moved to Suffolk and kept chickens. There would be no new albums for three years.

Tantalisingly, that’s pretty much where this memoir stops. In 1977, Thompson moved back to London and sold antiques for a year. He then toured with a Sufi band. I saw this line-up at the time: the band, in a two hour set, played only two songs from the previous album: all the other numbers were new and if they were ever recorded, they were never released.

In the 1980s, Richard and Linda’s marriage and stage act would both come to a halt. Thompson lives in the US now and is a solo performer, having released a further score of albums since the break-up.

There’s plenty of stuff here for his fans, but what might be of interest to readers of Labour Hub? Well, the late 1960s were an incredibly political time, with the Vietnam war a constant backdrop. This was still a time before idealism lost out to business ethics in the counterculture. What emerges from this account is just how small and closely connected was the world of anti-establishment musicians, however famous some were. One gets a sense of a very fragile alternative culture being born, before it was monetised for consumption.

Thompson himself is not seen primarily as a political songwriter, but he is sensitive, discerning and hostile to authority. Some of his work is directly political and all the more powerful for being understated, like his 1970 song Sloth, often the highlight of Fairport performances in those years. Much later, he would write one of the fiercest songs against the war in Iraq, 2007’s Dad’s Gonna Kill Me.

I found this book a real page-turner and not just because I like the music. Thompson has great insight and awareness about his subject: this surpasses the average rocker’s memoir by a very long way.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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