Throughout the history of modern music, there have been duos whose work feels like it could only have happened under very particular circumstances-specifically, the crossroads of their respective musical associations. You only need to look at the music of Simon and Garfunkel, Eric B. & Rakim or The Everly Brothers to see how the intersection of ideas and influences between duos can result in some truly memorable sounds. There is no more relevant example than Richard and Linda Thompson, a husband-wife duo who made some of the greatest folk-rock of the ’70s. Their quirky, complex arrangements marked a departure from the bland rock platitudes that flooded radio waves and venues of that era.
As a team, they pulled at raw nerves and explored the emotionally viable side of rock ‘n’ roll, and the fact that Richard was (and is) one of the most versatile guitar players of the past 50 years doesn’t hurt. And though their tenure didn’t last, they had a string of records that stand as some of the strangest and most beautiful releases to come out of the ’70s. His intuitive playing was matched only by her effortless vocal inclusiveness; with each syllable uttered, she breathed life into words that reached down into your heart and applied pressure to each chamber.
Richard was born in an area of Notting Hill in West London and was surrounded by music from an early age. His father was an amateur guitar player, and other family members had played music professionally at some point. He formed his first band, Emil and the Detectives, while attending William Ellis School in Highgate, with classmate Hugh Cornwell (later of The Strangers), and they mostly covered other artists’ work. By the time Richard turned 18, he was performing with the newly founded Fairport Convention and was able to further explore his distinctive guitar playing.
After a handful of eccentric and successful folk records with the band, Thompson departed Fairport Convention after a car accident that left his then-girlfriend and drummer Martin Lamble dead. He released his debut solo record, “Henry the Human Fly,” in 1972, although it was quickly panned by critics, leaving him on uncertain ground in regards to his solo career. But it was also during this time that he first met session singer Linda Peters, who had performed on “Henry the Human Fly,” and the two began an intense courtship. They were married later that year, and they began performing together, with Linda basically taking the role as the duo’s lead and Richard acting as her backing band.
Their first record together was “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” and it marks a significant high point for Richard’s work up to that point. His contributions to Fairport Convention were wonderfully pastoral and often pointed in their direction, but they were a precursor to the genius he displayed across the length of this album. His guitar playing is subdued when it needs to be and whiplash-quick when called for, allowing for a greater range of motion than in his earlier music. Linda’s voice is also stronger and more confident, even as its wispy nature plays coyly with his delicate plucks and incendiary riffs. A fire and electricity are built into these songs.
It was recorded in 1973 but wasn’t released until April of the following year, owing to the unlikely oil shortage in Britain that led to a lack of vinyl being shipped for production purposes. The record possesses a mordant outlook on the world, which led some to think that this downbeat lyrical ideology was the cause of the album’s poor chart position. It was lauded by critics (the few who heard it), but at the time, it just never found a footing in terms of commercial appeal. Opening with the kiss-off track “When I Get to the Border,” the record reveals a sardonic but playful persona that Richard would come to fully adopt on subsequent releases.
Across these songs, Richard was able to harness the inherent darkness of his understated guitar lines, creating a world that presses alongside the shadows and leaves a tangible mark with its presence. Linda’s voice is a light in this swirling gloom, a forceful spirit that is there to pull Richard back from the edge where he would so carefully balance before eventually stepping back into her arms. Songs such as “The Calvary Cross” and “Withered and Died” focus on the calm and collected arrangements that can easily slice through your defenses with a simple phrase or melody.
Among the glut of riches is the album’s title track, a deceptively upbeat song that serves as the perfect example of the quicksilver lyricism that seeps into every recess. It is a middle finger to the trudge and shuffle of working life and sees both aching for a release that may never come. The horns provide a buoyant foundation upon which Richard and Linda pour their frustrations and wants. There’s an illumination that rings in each of these songs, a halo of musical necessity that urges them to follow their instincts no matter where they lead.
“I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” is a monument to the adaptability of two identities merged to form a single musical vision. Richard and Linda would continue to mine this fertile emotional ground on subsequent records with varying results. But here, they set a clear and persistent direction to their work. After this, there was never a question as to whether they could attain the depth of clarity that so many others failed to reach-it was simply a matter of how. These songs set out a clear and intricate blueprint that lays the groundwork for the inspiration of countless musicians to come. This was an important noise that forever altered the landscape and trajectory of folk-rock.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.