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This article was originally published in issue #17
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When I think of Richard Thompson I think of energy, intensity and passion.
Folk guitarist? Rock guitarist? Singer? Songwriter? Richard Thompson is as gifted as he is uncategorisable. Hailed as one of Rolling Stone's top 20 guitarists of all time, his unique style sees him equally at home on a Strat as on his signature Lowden acoustic. Lee Hodgson meets one of the all-time great guitarists.
When I think of Richard Thompson I think of energy, intensity and passion. With a career spanning almost 50 years, his undoubted authenticity makes him one of the world’s most credible artists still recording and performing around the world today. His quirky, moody - or should I say mood inducing? - songwriting is much loved and well respected by fans and critics alike. Oh, and he can play the guitar rather well too! So much so that Rolling Stone has rated him as one of the Top 20 Guitarists of All Time and in 2010 Richard received the Mojo Les Paul Award - during our interview Richard spoke of how he used a certain pick that, having been used by Les then it was good enough for him.
We caught up with the man who currently fronts the Richard Thompson Experience before his performance at London's O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire concert in late February 2013 and I must say how warm and open Richard was (he thinks of himself as rather a shy character).
At the point we met, Thompson had just released a new album called Electric, and sure enough, he had, amongst other electrics, a trademark Fender Strat and Fender combo set up on stage. But for our interview he brought up a lovely Lowden acoustic guitar (not the signature model) to graciously play at my request. As we settled down, he started noodling on some chords… some very strange chords indeed… Check out the video interview for the kind of thing I’m talking about!
Was it a coincidence that his schoolboy band (with Hugh Cornwell, later of The Stranglers) was called Emil and the Detectives and that Richard’s father worked at Scotland Yard as, you’ve guessed it, a detective?) I didn’t push Richard on that point; he brusquely referred to his father as “a very bad amateur guitarist”. Still, speaking more positively of the man, he said how his father’s Jazz record collection was more than a little influential and he spoke knowingly about Django (Reinhardt), Charlie Christian and many more, some of whom were, I confess, previously unknown to me. So here’s a man that knows his Jazz – and his Jazz chords! As I said earlier, Richard played some weird and wonderful sounds, while revealing how he prefers to finger them, in our video interview. (And as you watch it, please bear in mind that Richard was tuned to “dropped D” - from low to high: D, A, D, G, B, E for the duration of the interview.) So the Jazz aspect of Thompson’s playing is undeniable: in 1983-84 he even fronted the Richard Thompson Big Band, featuring two saxophones and an accordion.
But influenced or not, Richard Thompson is not what you would call a Jazz player. Far from it, as he came through Rock'n'Roll and Rockabilly – he speaks enthusiastically about both James Burton (Ricky Nelson and Elvis among many others) and Cliff Gallop (Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps), which gives you the clue to background (and, it's worth noting, are also two huge influences on two other notable Brits of his generation - Messrs Beck and Paige! - Ed) . As the fifties gave way to the sixties he became enamoured of Hank Marvin of The Shadows (who himself was an avid James Burton fan).
By the time we reach the middle 1960s ('67 to be precise) Thompson found himself in a covers band; but it wasn’t just any old covers band, it was a nascent Fairport Convention who, of course, went onto great heights and it was surely Richard’s insistence that they start writing their own material that assisted in that ascent to fame. However by 1971, with his songwriting flowing so strongly, he felt it was time to begin a solo career and so it was, with a great deal of session work as a guitar player keeping him extremely busy (in our interview he speaks of his time in the studio with the late, great Gerry Rafferty - he played on Gerry’s 1979 album release, Night Owl), he decided to leave Fairport Convention. That said, on occasion he has appeared either solo or alongside his fellow Fairporters at their annual Cropredy Festival, so the circle may be kinked but not unbroken!
Thompson’s first solo album, Henry the Human Fly, was released in 1972 and was the first of many in an illustrious recording career, which was always centred on artistic integrity, never on fame and fortune. Still, the Grammy-nominated Rumor and Sigh (1991) did sell very well, featuring many fans’ favourite Thompson song, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’.
Speaking of that song, it being a technically challenging guitar feature of course, Richard mentions in our interview how it is one that he prefers to use a thumbpick for (as well as a capo), and it came as no surprise to hear that Richard was influenced by both Merle Travis and Chet Atkins in this respect.
Yet Richard’s influences and inspirations go way back before the days of Chet and Django. He devised an ambitious project, 1000 Years of Popular Music [1068-2001], which he recorded in 2003 and toured for a while thereafter. Indeed, he can speak with great authority on troubadours and joglars - please check out the etymology and history of this subject area for a fascinating read! - and he surely sees himself as a descendent of sorts, still carrying on that variously noble and ignoble tradition.
As I wrapped up the video interview, I cheekily prompted Richard by asking, “what would you play over this (chord progression)?” Lesser mortals would have demanded that the camera be stopped, while protesting that they were unprepared for such a spontaneous challenge, but not Richard; he has ears, a keen sense of adventure, and he can play the guitar a bit. Oh, and he had that plectrum that was good enough for Les Paul, so he just couldn’t go wrong! Check out the video to see the result.