Richard Thompson is the kind of guitar player other guitar players revere. It's not just his technique, nor the fact that he's equally at home with an electric or an acoustic guitar. He's also a songwriter of uncommon skill.
And over the past 40 years, he's written some classics. Now, in honor of Thompson's 60th birthday, Shout Factory Records has released Walking on a Wire, a four-disc overview of his career.
It's a career that has its roots in the Notting Hill section of London, where Thompson was born the son of a policeman who'd moved to London from Scotland to join the force. He started playing guitar in school, taking lessons from a friend, and then started writing songs with a couple of other friends. There was no question about what he wanted to do after that: falling in with a bunch of London musicians who were attracted by American folk-rock and lived in a house called Fairport, he joined their band when he was 17. Their first gig was in front of 15 people in a church hall, and it was the start of Fairport Convention.
Fairport has always been a rather fluid band, and after their first album, they changed personnel for the first time when singer Judy Dyble made way for another, Sandy Denny. She proved to be perfect to sing the songs Thompson was writing at the time — dark songs like "Meet on the Ledge," which became a kind of band anthem.
Late in 1969, though, Denny and bassist Ashley Hutchings quit, and the remaining members retreated to the countryside to think things through, emerging with a new take on British traditional music — and a masterpiece of an album, Liege and Lief, featuring extended guitar jams that proved that Richard Thompson was one of the best guitarists in England. Fairport toured America at this point, and Thompson held his own on stage with Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page at one show.
But when he returned to England, he quit the band and spent a lot of time doing session work for other artists. In the course of this, he met a backup vocalist named Linda Peters, who was recording a Kellogg's Corn Flakes commercial the day they met. They were married in 1972, and two years later, released I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, the first in a series of albums that showcased Richard's songwriting and guitar playing alongside their almost magical vocal blend.
In 1975, Richard and Linda became Sufis, appearing on the cover of their 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver in traditional clothing, but otherwise hardly changed. Sufism is a famously liberal branch of Islam, often cloaking its devotional texts in metaphors of love or intoxication — things Richard had written about in the past.
Over the next few years, Richard and Linda continued to record, but raising two young children kept them pretty close to home, despite a growing following in the United States. In 1982, they released Shoot Out the Lights, one of their strongest sets of songs ever. Maybe too strong.
Richard and Linda started a tour when the album came out, and it lasted just long enough to fulfil the American dates; after the London show, the Thompsons' marriage was over. It was about this time that word finally got out about Richard's songwriting and guitar-playing, and stars from Lou Reed to Neil Young were mentioning him in interviews. Alternating between acoustic and electric versions of his music, he continued to write great songs.
"1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is the song audiences clamor for now, from his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh, but there are many, many more where that came from: over 400 in his lifetime catalog, by one estimation.
Richard Thompson continues to put out great albums and play shows that are never anything less than amazing. It's been a long time since he knocked on the door of Fairport, guitar in hand, but he shows no signs of letting up.