The old man and the discography 

Shuffling Richard Thompson's odds and sods

A musical career as diverse and distinguished—not to mention long—as Richard Thompson’s is bound to provoke some heated discussion among fans when it comes to telling the uninitiated where they should get started. Thompson’s recorded output may be a little erratic, but even the oddest selections in the Thompson discography have their vociferous champions. Besides, any discography that includes Okinawan folk songs, exploded Beefheartisms and Celtic dirges on the same album is likely to look a little patchy in places when you get up close. Give the brother a break.

Maybe you’re a Thompson fan and maybe you aren’t, but assume the following hypothetical position anyway. You’ve allotted yourself the price of only one CD to satisfy your curiosity about the man you’ve heard called a “singer/songwriter extraordinaire” and “one of England’s greatest guitar players,” and you’re standing in the record store waffling back and forth between about five of them. Shoot Out the Lights is the one that always lands on critics’ top ten lists, but do you really want to hear the sound of Richard and Linda Thompson’s marriage falling apart when you’ve never even been to their house for dinner? Rumor and Sigh and Mock Tudor are both a little newer, but maybe the newer records aren’t the ones the rock critic mugwumps are talking about when they talk about the amazing Richard Thompson.

And that’s not even getting into all those albums by Fairport Convention, the cornerstone group of the British folk revival that Thompson co-founded when he was still a teenager. Should you try Liege and Lief? Unhalfbricking? Or cave in and buy the greatest hits album? If you go with the latter, will you come down with a touch of post-purchase depression when you realize you now need to own all the Fairport Convention albums? And will you even be able to track them down, considering there are over 30 of them (though not all with Richard Thompson)?

And how frustrating would it be to find out that all the Richard Thompson and Thompson-collaborated records for your perusal at the average or even very good record store add up to merely one thin wedge in the musical pie chart of all the projects and recordings the guitarist has been involved with over the years? And that most of those other titles have long since been deleted or are nearly impossible to find? Thirty years after Thompson’s Fairport Convention hitch, any halfway-complete collection is going to look like the collector has been scouring the nickel bins at pawn shops and flea markets for half of it and buying the other half off Amazon. All that rooting through grubby Mantovani records just to come up with this busted-spine copy of Pour Down Like Silver, Thompson’s third record with his then-wife Linda, the one with “Streets of Paradise” on it. And look at the grimy white ring that 25 years of getting rubbed between lesser records in the used bin have worn into this Thompson completist’s prize specimen of Starring as Henry the Human Fly! That one, too, is the best and only copy he could find of Thompson’s first solo album, released in 1972, the year after he left Fairport, the record with “Shaky Nancy” and “The Angels Took My Racehorse Away” on it. At one time, Starring as Henry the Human Fly! reputedly had the distinction of being Warner Brothers’ worst-selling record ever, but oh, well—it’s sure not around to bother anybody anymore. As far as the record business is concerned, this incredible gem of an album never even existed.

And what, at this great Imaginary Richard Thompson Yard Sale in the Sky, is the young initiate to make of a Morris On record with a young and beardless Thompson and friends dressed up like a medieval self-flagellating minstrel Black Death parade on the cover? How and where does a Morris On album fit into the Thompson canon, and should you listen it before or after Live, Love, Larf and Loaf, which lists Thompson on a last-name basis with some other guys named French, Frith and Kaiser and shows them all clowning around on the cover?

At last report, Live, Love, Larf and Loaf was still available on the Shanachie label. Starring as Henry the Human Fly! and Pour Down Like Silver might be gone for good. And that’s a pity, because at the risk of sounding overly melodramatic, for every Richard Thompson album that goes out of print, there are a thousand or more would-be fans who might have been won over to Thompson’s side by it but are now just the poorer for never having heard it. And probably never getting to, and in most cases probably never having known about it in the first place.

Starring As Henry the Human Fly! is the Richard Thompson album, in my opinion, thrilling from start to finish, and the perfect place to begin. Now good luck trying to find it. The fact that copies are so tough to come by makes the innumerable pleasures of the record superior in some ways to those of, say, Shoot Out the Lights, which anyone can put a hand to just by letting his fingers do the walking through the T section of the CD racks. But having one also makes you feel sad like you’d feel sad for an obscure language that no one had ever heard of or even much cared about until the last of its speakers died in a nursing home. Sad, as Thompson sings in “The Poor Ditching Boy,” like a river too weary to flood. It’s bittersweet—the musical version of the great auk or the dodo. I was almost happier about the record—happily ignorant, maybe, like a pre-missionary South Pacific islander happy with no news of the gospel—before I even knew it existed than I am listening to it several times a week now, but knowing that it’s commercially extinct and if it weren’t for an old roommate making a lucky score when a record collection was liquidated, I might never have heard it at all. How many other records are there like that, and not just Richard Thompson records? You can go crazy thinking about how so many of the world’s great treasures elude you every day because you don’t know what to be looking out for.

You could argue that as long as one person at a party still has an air guitar routine worked out for the electrifying guitar reveille on “Roll Over Vaughn Williams” (you just have to go hang out with the right people) or another walks around with David Snell’s celestial harp accompaniment on “The Old Changing Way” stuck in his head for three days, Starring as Henry the Human Fly! will live on forever. But I’m not entirely convinced. Several of the tracks have been anthologized elsewhere in the Thompson catalogue, but hearing them all uprooted-sounding and without the previous tune in the Human Fly running order still ringing in the ears seems wrong somehow. Too greatest hits-y, maybe.

It’s not Richard Thompson’s fault, and it must pain the guy. Having some of your most amazing music go out of print must be like having family members sent into Siberian exile until they can be ransomed and released—in Thompson’s case, using as leverage the fame and respect that grow modestly with each passing year but still, apparently, aren’t enough to bring back Starring As Henry the Human Fly! Hang in there, buddy. We’re pulling for you, if that’s what you want—a bunch of people clamoring for your old records instead of buying the newer ones.

It’s also true that not every Thompson project is right for everyone. 1987’s Live, Love, Larf and Loaf, his collaboration with John French, Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser, is an acquired taste even for diehard Thompson fans. Maybe the reason it seems like such a deformed child in the already odd Thompson discography is that it’s so all over the place style-wise. It runs a gamut—you could even say a gauntlet—of styles, from the wobbly and wonderful “Wings a la Mode” to the Beefheartian “Disposable Thoughts,” with a mighty Thompson-penned dirge, “Drowned Dog, Black Night,” in between, but the mix still seems a little undercooked. It’s not for lack of trying—the foursome even enlisted the aid of a language coach for the Okinawan vocals on a jaunty version of Shoukichi Kina’s fishing song “Hai-Sai Oji-San”—but there are moments on the album when the hi-jinks just sound tiresome. A version of “Surfin’ USA” is supposed to be sardonic, but it just sounds jokey and tedious.

But Thompson probably won’t be playing any of John French’s stuff during Wednesday’s concert in UM’s University Theater. He’ll be playing solo, in fact, which even for a guitarist as capable as Thompson means he’ll have to rein in some of the more intricate, ambitious and better-known arrangements of songs recorded with backing musicians in favor of numbers that highlight his skills at going it alone. Thus, though he might pull out “Man in Need” from Shoot Out the Lights, fans of the album version will have to do without the wonderful two-tracked guitar solo. Maybe he’ll play “Backstreet Slide,” also from Shoot Out the Lights, but no horns on the solo version.

Pure speculation, of course. The odds are good for Human Fly material, including “Shaky Nancy” (minus the tinwhistle solo, sad to say) and “The Old Changing Way,” which harp or no harp deserves a spot high on the list of the most beautiful songs in the Thompson catalogue. But you can’t know if you don’t go—and maybe a Richard Thompson concert, rather than a particular album, is the best place for the uninitiated to get started after all. I’ll be the guy in the third row dressed like a Morris On record.

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