You mean you’ve never heard of Richard Thompson? Then prepare to meet one of rock’s ultimate cult heroes, and a man who regularly tops polls as one of the greatest guitarists alive. For evidence check out “The Way That It Shows”—a deep-cut album track with a soulful slant and a full three minutes worth of blazing, eloquent guitar work at the end.
Thompson’s musical history goes back to the '60s when he cofounded Fairport Convention—England’s first great folk-rock band, and a major influence on Led Zeppelin among many others. In the next decade he worked mainly with his then-wife Linda, before beginning a long-running, wide-ranging solo career that’s touched on pop, rock, folk and soundtracks (that’s his music in the Werner Herzog film “Grizzly Man”).
In recent years he’s toured a show called “1000 Years of Popular Music,” whose title means just what it says: Over two hours he plays everything from English madrigals to jazz standards to hits by the Beatles and, wait for it, Britney Spears.
In this interview Thompson talks about our DLC song, the “1000 Years” show and much more, including Fairport’s legendary onstage jam with the members of Zeppelin.
Brett Milano: I’ve seen how the solo plays in “The Way That It Shows” and it’s almost as hard as it was to play in real life, probably. [laughs]
Richard Thompson: Oh, good. [laughs] I’m glad it’s hard.
BM: I know that song is one of the buried treasures of your catalog. Do you think of that as being one of your landmark solos?
RT: It’s a fun chord sequence to play – there’s lots of minors, but they’re not all so obvious – it’s D minor to B minor to G minor to E major. And that just cycles around. And you can have a lot of fun with that. There’s all kinds of things you can do musically, but that you can’t always do in a rock song. It’s fun to play.
BM: When you do a solo like that , is it something you can just call on to do it on that level, or do the stars have to align or do you have to be in a certain place where you can really soar?
RT: I think with any solo that’s not under two chords you have to do some homework. When I wrote the song I was thinking, there’s all these possibilities, I wonder what they are. And I probably explored some of the harmonic possibilities as I was going over it. At various times after that I’d be thinking about the sequence and thinking about the possibilities. When it comes to actually playing it, you just play it. But you do some homework first.
BM: The mood of that song is kind of vengeful – do you have to get to that kind of mindset too when you’re playing it?
RT: I think it helps if you’re absorbed in the lyric. One of the nice things about being a singer and a songwriter and a guitar play is that you can use all three skills in a song. You can start out singing the narrative and then you can continue the narrative instrumentally. You try to continue the mood of what the song was. If it’s an angry song, you can keep playing angry. If it’s a love song, you can keep playing a sort of love emotion. If you can get inside the song, if you can absorb yourself in the song it shouldn’t be too hard to do.
BM: That period of your catalog – I noticed there were quite a lot of songs about human nature and the darker side and what people do to each other. Was that something you were preoccupied with at the time? I thought it was a pretty theme to explore, song-wise.
RT: There was a lot of material in that area of human nature. I don’t know what I was thinking at the time. I probably write a lot of songs like that, not just in that period. I must have put it out of my mind. [laughs]
BM: When you write something that goes close to the bone, do people in your life start to look at you like, “Hmm, what was he talking about there?”
RT: Well, people always want to know if it’s about them. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. I think in a song, you can take an experience and write a story that’s fiction. But that’s one skill. You’re basically being a story-teller. And there’s another kind of song where you’re taking it literally and you’re writing literally about events and circumstances. You might change the names but it’s all real stuff and it means something to you. I think the first kinds of songs are really interesting and valid.
BM: Do you tend to say things to people in songs that you wouldn’t or couldn’t say to them in real life?
RT: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Particularly revenge songs. As a songwriter you always have the last word, which is a great thing, of course. If someone does something to you, their few seconds of thoughtlessness will live on in eternity as a song. [laughs] Of revenge. You can kind of take your time and structure something you couldn’t have possibly said at the time. You couldn’t have thought of something that witty at the time. [laughs] You can actually come up with something without mentioning names, that’s a really good song. Perhaps people might be scratching their heads and saying, “I hope that’s not about me.” Sometimes it is.
BM: I also thought of that song as being more of a soul song – I can think of James Carr or somebody like that doing that song. Was that on your mind?
RT: Oh, that’d be fun. James Carr – he’s just fantastic. Not really, though. I wasn’t thinking of anyone else singing it – I was just thinking of me singing it. And whatever limitations I have, whatever kind of song I can pull off. Because I’m not Aretha Franklin and I’m not James Carr. I’m not a lot of things. Within the limits of who I am, I’m looking for a vehicle that I can sing.
BM: At that time in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, you were finally starting to get some airplay and some mainstream attention, which you probably deserved for a while. Did it have any bearing on what you did that people were finally starting to pay attention in that way?
RT: With music, I’ve always felt that I have to do what I do. And on the occasions when I try to be a bit of a whore and give the record company something they could really use at radio, it hasn’t really worked. And I thought, “Well, I’m not Brian Wilson.” I can’t come up with this sort of lush, beautiful sound that people are going to love. And I’m not Metallica or something. I can’t be that sort of crowd-pleasing, if you like. So I just thought I have to quietly do what I do and if people notice, that’s fine. And if they don’t notice, I’ve got enough fans to keep food in my stomach and a roof over my head. And that’s ok because for me the interesting thing is to explore the music that I do. I don’t need to be famous. I don’t need to be rich. This is what interests me.
BM: I think there’s quite a few people out there that wanted to see you get rich and famous just the same.
RT: If that’s incidental that’s probably something that I can deal with, but that’s not the reason that I play music.
BM: It’s been a while since the last album and I’m told you’re not planning another one for another year or so. Is this more of a woodshedding period for you right now?
RT: What I’m working on at the moment is a project that’s formed June the 9th at Penn State college in Pennsylvania. A song cycle. It’s a musical play is the way it’s designed. And this is a commission from the International Society of Bassists. It’s a song cycle that features the double bass extensively. It also features a string orchestra that I’ve been writing string parts as well. It’s a fairly big project. Basically, it’s long songs and another 14 or 15 set of short songs. It’s been a pretty intensive thing to work on.
BM: Is this going to sound like Richard Thompson music, or is it going to be off in a different vein?
RT: Hopefully it’ll sound a lot like me. The songs are thematically linked and they’re probably a bit more dramatic than the things I usually do.
BM: So it’s kind of a concept album – a rock opera album maybe?
RT: A rock opera – ah, the dreaded word! [laughs]
BM: [laughs] Yeah, it’s about time you did one of those.
RT: [laughs] Everybody should do at least one. It’s a thing that falls between a lot of schools. It doesn’t have to be much more narrative to be a musical play, but it’s more than a song cycle, more dramatic than a song cycle. Boy, it’s hard to say what it is. It’s not really rock music. There are no electric instruments – it’s acoustic guitar, bass, drums and a string orchestra. And a lot of voices as well. I don’t really know what it is.
BM: I assume you’re still performing the two thousand years of popular music on occasion, right?
RT: I just finished a tour of that in the UK. We just did a month, which was extremely successful. We were saying, “Recession? What recession?” because we basically sold out the whole thing, and that was fantastic.
BM: Now when I saw it, it started off with the English madrigals and Gilbert O’Sullivan and wound up with Britney Spears and Bowling For Soup. Do you think there’s a moral in that, that we wound up at that point?
RT: [laughs] If there’s a moral, it’s a very ugly one. I suppose one conclusion you could draw from the show, not necessarily a moral, is that music’s basically the same through the ages. Things keep repeating but the themes both lyrically and musically seem to keep recurring. Nothing changes that much. Sometimes it gets simpler, sometimes it gets more sophisticated, but really it keeps coming back to the same elements.
BM: Were the Britney Spears-type songs as satisfying for you to sing as some of the other stuff in that show?
RT: Well, yeah. I think we wouldn’t do a Britney Spears song just to mock Britney. I think the song we do is actually a good song. It’s a very well-structured pop song that has a good intelligent, humorous lyric.
BM: It’s catchy.
RT: And it works for that reason. If it was just to make fun of or to parody Britney that it wouldn’t be successful, it wouldn’t hold up. But I think it is a good song.
BM: Last year was Bowling For Soup. What was the modern song you did in this last run of shows?
RT: The last song we did was “Maneater” by Nelly Furtado. Which I really like as a song. It’s a really good song. We perform it mostly in the style of Nelly Furtado, but in the middle we sing it in Latin in the style of thirteenth century church music. Just because we can.
BM: Just because you can…So one thing from the past I’ve gotta ask you about – can you tell the story of Led Zeppelin rushing your stage when you played with Fairport Convention in L.A.?
RT: Well, they didn’t exactly rush the stage. We were playing at the Troubadour and we were there for a week. And Led Zeppelin came down one night, because of their old friend Dave [something Peg? 12:02] and they were all from Birmingham – not here, Birmingham, England. And I think Robert Plant jumped up and sang something first and then Jimmy Page got up as well. And then Bonham took out a drum stool. It was kind of a jam. I remember playing “Hey Joe” and some other things, anything that came to mind. There was a tape of it, but I think it disappeared years ago. It was in the A&M vault and then suddenly it wasn’t in the vault anymore. Somebody somewhere has got it. But it’d be great to hear a recording [of it]. [laughs]
BM: [laughs] Did you and Jimmy Page wind up getting into any kind of guitar duels?
RT: Eh, I don’t think so. I think we might have traded solos at some point. It was all very good-natured. And I think we went off to some bar afterwards and there was a police riot and everyone had to hide under the tables while the police flashed their torches around. It was all very exciting.
BM: Well, I hope that tape gets found in our lifetime.
RT: I hope so too. The last time somebody looked, [it] had just disappeared. There was a whole week of Fairport at the Troubadour, and there were other guests like Odetta that got up and sang.
BM: Linda Ronstadt too
RT: Linda Ronstadt got up and maybe Maria Muldaur. It was quite a document of an era in some ways.
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