Richard Thompson: Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice

With Linda, 1974. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

13 March 2021 | Jude Rogers | The Guardian | Read full article: Richard Thompson: ‘I had to put the pen down, take a deep breath, have a little cry’

James Porteous |

It’s nearly 55 years since Richard Thompson began his career in music. A pioneer of folk-rock, hugely influential singer-songwriter and one of Britain’s most astonishing guitarists, he was only a month out of his teens on the morning of 12 May 1969 when all promise was nearly stopped short. His band, Fairport Convention, had been signed on the spot in 1967 when producer Joe Boyd saw his talent with a guitar at 17, and their mission to reconnect British rock with the older, beautiful songs of their home country was well under way.

He’d already jammed with Jimi Hendrix and supported Pink Floyd; now Thompson’s band had recently finished their third album, Unhalfbricking, with new singer Sandy Denny. A work full of ambitious originals and covers that still regularly appears in best British album polls, it got to No 12 in the charts then; decades later, it became a touchstone for the Green Man festival-endorsed folk-rock revival of the 2000s when everyone who liked Joanna Newsom and Will Oldham raved about it.

That morning they were driving back to London from a Birmingham gig, approaching the last service station on the M1. Guitarist Simon Nicol was trying to sleep off a migraine, stretched out on top of the speakers in the back. Thompson’s girlfriend, fashion designer Jeannie Franklyn, was asleep. Thompson was dozing between her and roadie Harvey Bramham, who was driving. “It was starting to get light. Nearly dawn…nearly home,” Thompson writes in Beeswing, his forthcoming memoir.

Thompson noticed the van, travelling at 70mph, suddenly veering towards the motorway’s central reservation. In those days there were no crash barriers. He turned his head to Bramham – his eyes were closed. Thompson grabbed the wheel to avoid hitting a pole. The van came off the road.

“The only way I could get through writing about it was to think, ‘This is something that happened to somebody else,’” Thompson says now as we chat on Zoom. “It brought up all kinds of stuff. I had to metaphorically put the pen down, take a deep breath, have a little cry.” In one of the most arresting passages of the book, he describes crawling over to Jeannie a few yards away. He is bleeding, with broken ribs; he finds her upside down on a sloping embankment. “She was unconscious but frowning, as if she was struggling to remember someone’s name,” he writes.

They had been together a fortnight: he didn’t really know her at all, and then she died. Martin Lamble, the band’s 19-year-old drummer, also didn’t survive. Remarkably Nicol got out and walked down the road, flagging down a passing car. He is still the leader of Fairport Convention, 52 years later.

With Fairport Convention – (l-r) Thompson, Sandy Denny (seated), Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble, Ashley Hutchings – in 1969.
With Fairport Convention – (l-r) Thompson, Sandy Denny (seated), Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble, Ashley Hutchings – in 1969. Photograph: Gems/Redferns

But Thompson left in early 1971, still shell-shocked by the crash, to pursue a solo career that flew well beyond British folk. Ever since, he’s lovingly explored and excavated genres from rockabilly to flamenco, music-hall to pop (2003’s 1,000 Years of Popular Music did all this in one album, moving from 13th-century ballad Sumer Is Icumen In to Britney Spears’s Oops!… I Did It Again).

A favourite of both Robert Plant and Elvis Costello, Thompson has also been covered by acts as varied as feminist punks Sleater-Kinney, REM, David Byrne and, most recently, Mark Ronson, who covered the 1974 title track of Thompson’s album with first wife Linda Thompson, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.Ronson tweeted how much the song had given him comfort during lockdown. “It’s the ultimate song about a messy weekend night out… I miss that all very much.”

That period of Thompson’s career is especially rich: he met Linda in 1969, and they married in 1972, then made fantastic music together for the next decade. Linda is one of Britain’s greatest, but most overlooked, singers, possessed of a bold, beautiful voice that carried the songs Richard wrote for her, and accompanied dramatically with his guitar.

Their story outside music is dramatic too. It involves Richard’s conversion to Sufism, a move with their two young children to a rural commune without hot water and electricity, subsequent adultery during pregnancy, and a traumatic tour after their breakup where Linda kicked Richard in the shins while he played guitar solos (it’s known by their fans as The Tour from Hell).

Read full article; Richard Thompson: ‘I had to put the pen down, take a deep breath, have a little cry’

Beeswing: Fairport, Folk-Rock and Finding My Voice by Richard Thompson is published by Faber on 15 April (£20). To order a copy for £17.40 go to Delivery charges may apply


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