British traditional music purists, their knickers already in a twist over the more radio-friendly sound of Daring Adventures, howled like banshees when the blessed Richard Thompson signed a deal with that devil called Capitol Records.
For those of you who missed it, the reference to banshees is a dig at the Tans courtesy of my latent Irish blood. “Those Brits are always olagonin’ about something,” my grandmother warned me.
In this case, they were olagonin’ (complaining, whining) about a sell-out. In their eyes, Richard Thompson had become seduced by the allure of American dollars and the bright lights of Hollywood. They bemoaned what they felt was a shift from artistic commitment to commercial appeal in the form of “slick” production and rock-driven arrangements. Already appalled by his artistic expansion beyond the boundaries of traditional British folk, they were absolutely mortified by his decision to make records with (gasp!) American musicians.
Hey! I used to be an American! During my thirty-odd years in the USA, I got to know hundreds of Americans—intimately! Based on my quality-of-fuck-o-meter, 60% of Americans are A-OK!
History tells us that folk purists are the health Nazis of music (see Dylan, Bob at Newport Folk Festival, The). They’re also generally full of shite. Look at just five songs Richard Thompson wrote during his Capitol years and tell me again how this represents artistic decline:
- “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”
- “God Loves a Drunk”
- “King of Bohemia”
- “Cooksferry Queen”
Any songwriter in the known universe would have sacrificed either a nut or a nipple to have written one of those songs, and I didn’t even include the great songs from this first Capitol effort, Amnesia.
Amnesia is a good title for this album, because all the songs deal with experiences in our lives we’d love to forget: one-night stands, getting played for a fool, lost love, our soulless society, aging, machismo, the American empire, bad advice, arrogant elites, more lost love and the uncomfortable truth that behind a veneer of democracy, we’re all still working for the Pharaoh. As is usually the case with Richard Thompson, the songs are unforgettable. Amnesia features some of his strongest poetry and his complete mastery of rock-style guitar. The only general criticism I have of the album is the overuse of reverb and echo, a common issue with 80’s recordings. Once you get past the occasionally bass-weakening production, though, the quality of the songwriting and energy of the performances are indisputable.
Amnesia opens with an exceptional integration of poetry and music in “Turning of the Tide,” an incisive look into the experience of a woman who banked it all on giving the guys what they want, forgetting that physical beauty as defined by the culture is the most ephemeral state of all, and that the physical practices associated with love do not create it:
How many boys, one night stands?
How many lips, how many hands have held you?
Like I’m holding you tonight
Too many nights, staying up late
Too much powder and too much paint
No, you can’t hide from the turning of the tide
Did they run their fingers
Up and down your shabby dress?
Did they find some tender moment
There in your caress?
The boys all say, “You look so fine”
They don’t come back for a second time
Oh, you can’t hide from the turning of the tide
The picture is stark, unfiltered; the image of “too much powder and too much paint” intensely pathetic; the “tender moment” both fleeting and empty. In describing the object of his temporary affection in such brutal terms, the man in question is also expressing deep self-disgust, as well as helplessness that his need for companionship and relief from the sexual urge has brought him so low. Ironically, the music is upbeat, driving and rather snappy, a musical analogy of how the culture views “casual” sexual encounters. Though they call them “good time girls,” the truth is most casual sexual encounters are awkward at best and intensely painful at worst. Richard is in fine voice throughout the song, subtly adjusting his tone to express the diverse emotional content. His electric guitar fills are typically nimble, making me ache for one moment in my life when my fingers might move as quickly and beautifully as his. “Turning of the Tide” is top-tier Richard Thompson, and an outstanding opening number.
Note: While Amnesia is 90% high-powered-electrical-romp, the videos I’ve chosen are all solo acoustic renditions, designed to prove two things: one, that Richard is a master of all forms of guitar; and two, that great songs lend themselves to diverse treatments.
“Gypsy Love Songs” is a dramatic monologue with Richard taking the part of a guy “young enough and dumb enough” to fall for a gypsy dancer who relieves him of either his masculinity, money or both. Whether the Mickey Finn in the tale is real or metaphorical hardly matters; this is a tale of man smitten by “Stillborn love, passionate dreams, pitiful greed” and he would have fallen for the babe with or without pharmaceutical assistance. The “pitiful greed” describes both the manipulator and the sap, the man out of his league in a strange culture and the “third generation Transylvanian” hostess eager to feast on his lifeblood. Even the mythical powers attached to the “seventh son of the seventh son” fail him—another male myth blown to smithereens. This is one of two songs where music plays a central role; here the emphasis is the power of music to evoke painful memories (“Don’t sing me no more gypsy love songs”). We all know that experience from the moments when we’re out-and-about and the song that you and your ex called “our song” comes up in the radio rotation. The music backing the lyrics is rough, tough and masculine, with a repeated declining guitar figure setting a tone of ultimate failure.
After a couple of fairly intense songs to get things moving, we dial it down a bit with “Restless Kind,” a mid-tempo number about a failed relationship where the narrator plays the role of the guy who catches a girl on the rebound, only to learn that she’s still hankering for the original. This is not the girl in “Beeswing,” who makes it absolutely clear she can never be tied down to place or person, but the insecure type who has no identity without a man in her life. What’s special here is the arrangement, with soft background vocals and flanged guitars establishing a mood of gentle regret.
To counter the argument that Richard Thompson had “gone yank,” we have “Jerusalem on the Jukebox,” a song that only a native Englishman could have written and only a resident of the British Isles can fully understand. The opening line, “Jerusalem on the jukebox, they talk in tongues on Coronation Street,” refers to the song popularly known as “Jerusalem” (sort of a backup national anthem) and the longest running soap in history, Coronation Street. Having set the table with kidney pie and ale, Richard launches into a commentary on the then-current state of British society in the waning years of Thatcherism, describing a society committed to the pursuit of wealth and image:
At poolside picnics they chant for Ferraris and furs
Their muscle-tone sharpens but their hold on reality blurs
You can have your cake and eat it, and never have to puke up a thing
Jerusalem on the jukebox, little angels, beat your wings
In the bathroom mirror they try that Joan of Arc look again
Two parts Ingrid Bergman to one part Shirley MacLaine
The wounds of time kill you but the surgeon’s knife only stings
Jerusalem on the jukebox, little angels, beat your wings
Ironically, several of the verses could apply to life in La-La-Land, where he recorded most of the songs on Amnesia. In introducing the song at an acoustic concert at the Bumbershoot Arts Festival in Seattle back in 1990, Richard told the audience that the song was about hypocrisy. Since all modern societies share that characteristic to some degree, the song is more universal than it might seem at first glance. Richard’s vocal is a combination of wonder and outrage, sung over a strong, steady beat and a bright soundscape.
Actually, the song on the album with the strongest British flavor is “I Still Dream,” featuring musicians from The Fairey Band, a longstanding brass band who have worked under several different names and are now more famous for their acid brass explorations. The brass band brackets the song, appearing in the intro and fade, giving the song a certain tone of mourning. Unfortunately, that tone is lost in the transition to the more classic studio band arrangement, leading me to side with the purists just this once—this song about an unexpected encounter with an old flame could have been more powerful with much less (the horns, acoustic guitar and hand-percussion, for example).
I have no regrets when it comes to “Don’t Tempt Me,” a brutal exposure of toxic masculinity. Here we find a macho jerk narrator experiencing a panic attack because another guy is dancing with a person he calls “my gal.” My gal? Sorry, fuckhead, but slavery has been illegal for over a century, and a woman is not your fucking property! The little prick (probably true from all angles) goes into a lengthy fantasy of all the violent possibilities at his fingertips:
Oh, I’m a patient man, but it’s out of hand
If there’s one thing that I can’t stand
Get your mittens off my gal
Or you’ll end up as mincemeat, pal
I’ve got friends, mean sons
They’ve got knives, chains, guns
Gas grenades, knuckle-dusters
Lazy Susans, blockbusters
Don’t tempt me, don’t tempt me, don’t tempt me
I’m half way out of my seat
I know nothing about guns except I hate them, so I had to look up the reference to “Lazy Susans,” something I always thought was a turntable for food used by fat people so they could just spin the sucker around to get what they want instead of expending a speck of precious energy on obtaining nourishment. Much to my amazement, the principle has been applied to gun racks, so you Americans can buy all the guns you want and place them in a convenient, spinning carousel, making selection of the murder weapon a less grueling, more efficient process. God bless America!
Richard plays the part to perfection, with his bullshit bravado just falling a tiny bit short of hysteria. Mickey Curry pounds the drums like a caveman on this high-powered rocker and John Kirkpatrick’s accordion adds a piquant and welcome counterpoint to the rock instruments.
Keeping the heat on high, the ensemble gives us “Yankee, Go Home,” and I think my readers are smart enough to glean that this song might just qualify as fervent statement of anti-Americanism. Richard sings the piece with the same intensity he brings to anything he finds outrageous, and the arrogance of the American empire certainly qualifies. The story is told from the perspective of a teenage kid considering the havoc wrought by American military presence. Since there are currently 800 American military bases in more than 70 countries, I think the song should earn the label, “current, relevant and universal.”
G.I. Joe put your gun away
The sun is setting on another day
Why don’t you leave me alone
Yankee go home . . .
You can’t just kiss and run away
There ain’t enough money on a sergeant’s pay
When the dance hall girl you banged’s in the family way
You turned my sister into a whore
With a pair of silk stockings from the P.X. store
Why don’t you leave us alone
Yankee go home
The number one adjective I’ve heard applied to Americans abroad is “oblivious,” but I disagree with that assessment. “Entitled” would be closer to the truth, as many Americans stroll into another country and act like they own the fucking place. As noted above, I would apply the label only 40% of the American population and, hey . . . isn’t 40% the general estimate of the size of Trump’s base? Well, there you have it. This is another hard rocking song, but I’m not complaining, largely because Richard Thompson is usually spot-on in selecting an approach to a song that syncs with the lyrics—and there is no way “Yankee, Go Home” would pass muster as an acoustic ballad.
The acoustic guitar is prominent in “Can’t Win,” but here the full band backing serves a purpose in amplifying the righteous anger in Richard’s lyrics and vocal. A damning indictment of a social structure that protects the privileged few at the expense of the many, there are few songs in Richard Thompson’s catalogue that express disgust with such clarity—especially the disgust with those members of the masses who encourage their fellows who dream of a better life to shut up and take it in the ass:
Oh what kind of mother would hamstring her sons?
Throw sand in their eyes and put ice on their tongues
Ah better to leave than stay here and grieve
And play the game
Don’t waken the dead as you sleepwalk around
If you have a dream, brother, hush, not a sound
Just stand there and rust, die if you must
But play the game
Oh, if we can’t have it,
Why should a wretch like you?
Oh, it was drilled in our heads,
Now we drill it into your head too
They said “You can’t win
You can’t win
You sweat blood
You give in
You can’t win
You can’t win
Turn the cheek
Take it on the chin . . .”
The insertion of the Christian message “turn the cheek” is the ultimate bitter pill, reminding listeners that religion is not necessarily a sanctuary but often another form of oppression. Each section ends with the repeated lines, “The nerve of some people,” lines that Richard snaps off with justifiable bitterness. The background singers form a “chorus of the many,” deepening the expression of righteous indignation at the injustice of it all. Unable to express such boiling anger through an acoustic guitar, Richard rips off an electric lead solo in the fade, mingling blues bends, stutter notes and descending runs that sound like electric tears. “I Can’t Win” is one of the clearest indictments of the fundamental structural issues in modern society, a wake-up call to sleepwalkers everywhere.
Although I love the amplified power that dominates Amnesia, the most powerful song is purely acoustic. “Waltzing’s for Dreamers” is an ageless, aching beauty of a song, one that never fails to bring a tear to my eye. There are many songs about lost love, but no other sad song expresses the debilitating experience of rejection and the desperation of loneliness in such a compelling, heart-searing way.
Opening with two rounds of a simple acoustic pattern in downtempo three-four time, Richard delivers the static melody of the opening line with little variation, a deep cry of mourning that works beautifully with the descending melody of the second line where the narrator expresses his anguish:
Oh, play me a blue song and fade down the light
I’m sad as a proud man can be sad tonight
All he wants is to escape, to become a victim of amnesia, to lose himself in the healing power of music:
Just let me dream on, oh just let me sway
While the sweet violins and the saxophones play
The resolving lines of the verse expands our view of the scene to include the other—a faceless, nameless woman he can turn to for a moment of false comfort:
And Miss, you don’t know me, but can’t we pretend
That we care for each other, ’til the band reach the end
One step for aching, and two steps for breaking
Waltzing’s for dreamers and losers in love
One step for sighing and two steps for crying
Waltzing’s for dreamers and losers in love
The introduction of Aly Bain’s “sweet violin” in the chorus enhances the feeling of melancholy, and his sensitive counterpoints throughout the rest of the song continue to tug at the heartstrings. The second verse deals with the eternal risk associated with falling in love and the search for relief in the sedating power of alcohol and the soothing sounds of music:
Now they say love’s for gamblers, oh, the pendulum swings
I bet hard on love and I lost everything
So don’t send me home now, put a shot in my arm
And we’ll drink out old memories and we’ll drink in the dawn
And Mr Bandleader won’t you play one more time
For I’ve good folding money in this pocket of mine
Once again, the second line is reserved for the narrator to express his sense of loss, but it’s the third line that I find most touching—for it captures the desperate wish to avoid being alone with nothing more than a sense of failure as company. The presence of the woman, bartender and band hardly compensate for his losses, but anything is better than being alone.
In the instrumental passage, Richard takes the first pass with a gentle, respectful acoustic guitar solo before Aly Bain returns with his warm violin. The discipline of these two musicians in respecting the mood and meaning of the song is remarkable. Richard then returns for a partial verse and chorus, ending the song on the final line of the chorus using a diminishing tempo that cues the listener to accept that there really is nothing more to say, no matter how hard we wish for a happy ending. Combining poetic economy, artistic discipline and a moving vocal from Richard Thompson, “Waltzing’s for Dreamers” is one for the ages.
It was probably a good idea not to make “Waltzing’s for Dreamers” the last track, as the lack of resolution would have been deeply unsatisfying. “Pharaoh” resolves that sticking point with a compelling metaphor for modern times. Written during the years when Thatcher-Reagan economic and anti-labor policies transferred most of the power in those two democracies to the financiers and their elite brethren, “Pharaoh” is Richard Thompson’s attempt to wake us the fuck up and realize just how little control we have over our lives. “We’re all working for the pharaoh” may seem an exaggeration in our more modern, civilized, creature-comfort oriented societies, but the painful truth is that the only substantive differences are in dress and in the means of oppression. Physical slavery has been replaced by wage-slavery, and the whip has been replaced by more sophisticated techniques of control—adopt a veneer of competent certainty, scare the shit out of people, fill their ears with bullshit and give them just enough to leave them fat, dumb and drunk:
A thousand eyes, a thousand ears
He feeds us all, he feeds our fears
Don’t stir in your sleep tonight, my dears
We’re all working for the Pharaoh
Call it “culturally-induced amnesia.”
The message is delivered using a fresh soundscape that features a shawm (precursor of the oboe) in the opening passage and a relatively spare but diverse arrangement integrating recorder, splashes of electric guitar and primitive drum beats that call up images of shackled slaves marching to the pyramids. As a closing piece, “Pharaoh” passes all the tests.
We began this piece with an anti-puritan rant and will end with a final argument against such a world-limiting view. Richard Thompson belongs to no particular genre and he owes nothing to any particular tradition. His work has integrated jazz, rock, blues, folk and the traditions of several world cultures. On Amnesia he successfully integrated many of those influences, and if the album comes across as “too rock” for some tastes, get over it. There is more than enough diversity in Richard Thompson’s catalog to satisfy rockers, guitar hounds, avant-garde types . . . and even folkies.
Celebrate the man’s remarkable talents and stop all your olagonin’!
[…] Amnesia […]
My favorite RT album of all time was Across the Crowded Room, which was not reviewed. What do you think of that album?
I’ve been zig-zagging through RT’s catalog for a few years and have several holes to fill. I’ll probably get to Across the Crowded Room this year; it’s kind of important as a sort of farewell to England.
Thanks for the thoughtful review. “There is more than enough diversity in Richard Thompson’s catalog to satisfy rockers, guitar hounds, avant-garde types . . . and even folkies” says it all. Always try to see Richard when he comes to town…