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’!
I wish to express my deepest gratitude to the people who maintain the Mainly Norfolk site, a treasure of information about English folk music.
Though born and bred in the self-proclaimed Greatest Fucking Country to Ever Grace the Planet, I’ve never really cared much for American folk music . . . but when it comes to music with British and Celtic roots, I’m there. I find the melodies and core rhythms much more engaging, the wisdom more relevant and the stories . . . well!
It seems our cultural ancestors spent a great deal of time and energy fucking, thinking about fucking, murdering each other over fucking or trying very hard to apply the tool of clever argument that would allow the fucking to proceed apace. When you consider that these roots also gave birth to American folk music, you realize that something strange must have happened when that music crossed the Atlantic, draining it of much of its drama, passion and eroticism. I’ll leave it to the cultural historians to determine if the Puritans were at fault, but it’s safe to say they’d be at the top of the list of likely culprits.
Fairport Convention may not have been the first to combine British and Celtic roots music with rock, but Liege and Lief was certainly the most effective and successful thrust in that direction, opening the ears of the music world to a new kind of sound. Surprisingly recorded while some of the members were still recuperating from injuries sustained in a horrible auto accident that killed their drummer and Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, Liege and Lief sounds as fresh and alive today as it must have sounded when released in late 1969.
“Come All Ye” opens the festivities, an original piece written by Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings that serves as a clarion call to contemporary minstrels everywhere to join together in this new and exciting exploration of musical possibilities:
Come all ye rolling minstrels
And together, we will try
To rouse the spirit of the earth
And move the rolling sky.
The opening build on this song is simply marvelous, a model of thoughtful planning and perfect execution in less than fifteen seconds. First the acoustic guitar establishes the basic pattern and rhythm. A slightly-crunched electric guitar then provides punctuation to enhance the rhythmic tension that explodes when Dave Mattacks enters with a drum skip accompanied by a more powerful electric guitar riff. This brief introduction then becomes pure perfection when Dave Swarbrick enters with a soaring mini-run on the violin/fiddle. All this happens before Sandy Denny sings a note, and when she enters with her airy and welcoming opening vocal, I get chills from the sheer perfection of the moment. The song moves forward with a celebratory feel, with verses introducing the various musicians and the sounds they make, separated by the repeatedly energetic performances of the chorus. “Come All Ye” has that unique marriage of strong structure and improvisational feel that make music come alive, and is one of my favorite opening songs to any album, ever.
Switching to traditional adaptations, the band tackles the story of “Reynardine,” a character who morphed over time from a seductive highwayman into a werefox, establishing a lineage to the French archetype for the trickster figure. There are several songs about these characters, and all serve as a warning to young women to beware the man who views women as prey. Some things never change! Fairport’s version moves through an ethereal, other-wordly soundscape that highlights the teeth-bearing evil of the character as opposed to reluctant admiration for his seductive power. Sandy Denny delivers the song in her more airy voice, with occasional hints of the power that will be on full display in the next song.
That song is “Matty Groves,” and if the listener had harbored any doubt about Sandy Denny’s expressive range based on the first two tracks, those doubts are obliterated in a tour-de-force performance of awesome power. Like Steeleye Span’s “Alison Gross,” this is a song adapted from The Child Ballads, a collection of 305 ballads from England and Scotland. The original is actually a song called “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” or variants thereof, and the verses vary between versions. Fortunately, Fairport chose not to use the 34-verse version that ends with a lesson about the evils of lust. In Sandy Denny’s voice, “Matty Groves” is the ultimate expression of the right to sexual expression, made more impactful by the fact that both lovers die for the cause. The story is one of mutual attraction spoiled by an eavesdropping servant who rushes to Lord Donald to spill the beans; Lord Donald returns and kills both lovers after a series of tense and dramatic interchanges. We pick up the story after the unlucky pair have indulged their pleasures:
Little Matty Groves, he lay down, and took a little sleep,
When he awoke, Lord Donald was standing at his feet.
Saying, “How do you like my feather bed and how do you like my sheets?
How do you like my lady who lies in your arms asleep?”
“Oh, well, I like your feather bed and well, I like your sheets,
But better I like your lady gay who lies in my arms asleep.”
“Well, get up, get up”, Lord Donald cried, “Get up as quick as you can!
It’ll never be said in fair England I slew a naked man.”
“Oh, I can’t get up, I won’t get up, I can’t get up for my life
For you have two long beaten swords and I not a pocket knife.”
“Well, it’s true I have two beaten swords and they cost me deep in the purse,
But you will have the better of them and I will have the worse.”
“And you will strike the very first blow and strike it like a man.
I will strike the very next blow and I’ll kill you if I can.”
So Matty struck the very first blow and he hurt Lord Donald sore,
Lord Donald struck the very next blow and Matty struck no more.
And then Lord Donald he took his wife and he sat her on his knee
Saying, “Who do you like the best of us? Matty Groves or me?”
And then up spoke his own dear wife, never heard to speak so free,
“I’d rather a kiss from dead Matty’s lips than you or your finery!”
Give it to him, sister!
Sandy Denny is more than up to the task of handling all three roles in the play, subtly imbuing Matty with the tone of the common man, Lord Donald with the arrogance of the landowner and the Lady with defiant bitterness. The band provides marvelous backing and refreshing interludes, as well as an extended coda that demonstrates just how well this traditional form fits with modern rock intensity.
A very young Richard Thompson wrote the lyrics to the next song, “Farewell, Farewell,” a sweet and sad ballad based on a melody borrowed from one or more traditional sources. Here Sandy returns to that airy voice that calls up images of a breezy late afternoon in England’s green and pleasant land as the sun marches slowly towards the horizon.
“The Deserter” tells the tale of one of the unluckiest people who has ever lived. A victim of impressment into the British Navy, he tries to escape but is turned in by a comrade, for which he receives three hundred and three lashes (not of the erotic variety). A persevering little cuss, he tries to desert again and his girlfriend rats on him. This time the punishment is death, from which he is rescued in this song by Victoria’s Prince Albert in an ex deus machina role. Sandy Denny pointed out that the song’s origins went further back than the Victorian era and that it was common for broadside printers to “bring songs up to date.” The most poignant aspect of the song is the deserter’s commitment to forgiveness; after the whipping and the death sentence, the line, “May the Lord have mercy on them for their sad cruelty,” reminding us of an aspect of Christianity that has entirely disappeared from the current American version of that religion. Dave Swarbrick’s string work is marvelous on this piece, as are the paired guitars that add a certain sweetness to the tale, reflecting the essential sweetness of the deserter’s soul.
Swarbrick is responsible for the arrangements of the next two tracks, and a brilliant arranger is he. “Medley” is a rollicking mix of various jigs and dances that not only allow him to demonstrate his dexterity with the fiddle but also to draw attention to the rhythm section as they move through varying tempos and time signatures with apparent ease that must have taken weeks of intense practice. It is so easy to lose yourself in these wonderful patterns that I often repeat this track for good measure. More than any other track on Liege and Lief, “Medley” communicates to the listener the musicians’ passionate belief in the music.
The Scottish ballad “Tam Lin” is Swarbrick’s second arrangement. While the story falls short of the drama of either “Matty Groves” or “The Deserter,” Sandy Denny does a marvelous job with this magical tale, providing a touch of enchantment to her vocal. The sharp off-beat power chords do a fabulous job of driving the dramatic tension of the music, a technique that Steeleye Span and Jethro Tull would use in many future efforts.
Liege and Lief ends with “Crazy Man Michael,” a collaboration between Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick. A heavily symbolic parable, it deals with a man who unknowingly kills his lover while believing he is attacking a sorcerer in the form of a raven. My take is that this is an exposé of male fear of female power, a concept most frequently manifested in the image of the witch. The raven’s eyes are “black as coals,” symbolic of the dark dangers of female enchantment. Others have different interpretations that focus on Michael’s “original sin” and search for redemption. Whatever your take, “Crazy Man Michael” is a touching, tragic song, for whatever Michael’s fears and motives, it is sadly common in the history of human affairs that we wind up destroying the one we love through various forms of madness, ranging from jealousy to self-loathing.
The deeper tragedy was that Liege and Lief was the last Fairport Convention studio album with this lineup. Sandy Denny would move on to Fotheringay and a solo career before her too-early death. Ashley Hutchings would go on to become a founder of Steeleye Span, and Richard Thompson would continue to hone his incredible guitar and songwriting talents through various channels, culminating in an artistically rich solo career. Dave Swarbrick made significant contributions to the genre through various channels before his recent passing; Dave Mattacks is now a respected studio musician and producer; Simon Nicol stayed with Fairport the longest, adding other credits to his name along the way. We are blessed that these fine musicians came together on Liege and Lief, for the album is a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration that was not only enormously influential, but stands out as an essentially timeless work. Even if it happened only once, it happened, and the music world will never be the same because of what these wonderful artists accomplished.