Friday, May 03, 2024

Bright Lights

It's hard enough for me to wrap my head around the idea that a record I first listened to when I was in my twenties is now fifty years old, and even more remarkable that the people who were responsible for it are still around to reminisce about its creation. Richard and Linda Thompson's album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight was released on April 30, 1974. Though the recording process, which had taken place a year earlier, had been a breeze, relatively speaking, Island Records was unenthusiastic with the result and it took a change of management to get the album out of the can. When it did come out it failed to sell. A decade or so later (about the time I discovered it) critics began to talk it up and by now it's widely considered a milestone.

One of the finest electric guitar players of his generation, Richard was a veteran of the British folk-rock combo Fairport Convention and had produced one quirky solo album, Henry the Human Fly, which also initially failed to find an audience. Linda Pettifer had some experience doing musical odd jobs and had recorded a few singles. They met, eventually married, and began performing as a duo. Richard was developing his songwriting gifts (hers would lie dormant until much later, after they split up); Linda was the better singer. He played the primary instrumental parts and wrote out most of the rest. Corporate involvement in artistic decisions appears to have been nil. What suit, after all, would have approved a record that featured a guitar solo imitating a bagpipe, that made use of an eclectic array of instruments including krummhorns, a dulcimer, and a silver band, that boasted not a single love song, and that ended with an instrumental part lifted from Erik Satie? Or that began a lullaby with lyrics like the following?
I feel for you, you little horror
Safe at your mother's breast
No lucky break for you around the corner
'Cos your father is a bully
And he thinks that you're a pest
And you sister she's no better than a whore
The album's few relatively upbeat songs include one about looking forward to death, another about heading out to a dive to watch drunks get into fights, and this cheeky, in-your-face ditty sung by a one-legged panhandler:
I've been down to London
I've been up to Crewe
I travel far and wide
To do the work that I do
Cause I love taking money
Off a snob like you
For I'm only a poor little beggar girl
All of this grimness and despondency would be insufferable if it wasn't simultaneously funny. The witty, unsparing lyrics draw on the repertoire of the British music hall and other national vernacular song traditions, but it's only superficially a "folk" record. It's a mature, nuanced artistic statement about life from a couple who, incredibly, were still in their mid-twenties. There isn't a bad song in the lot.

The Thompsons made five more albums together and had three children before their marriage went up in flames. (They are now on friendly terms.) Richard still performs and records regularly. Linda eventually had to give up singing because of dysphonia but she has remained involved as a songwriter, most recently by means of a record entitled Proxy Music, on which friends and family handle the vocals. The website Life of the Record has put together an hour-long program devoted to Bright Lights; it features extended commentary by Richard and briefer remarks by Linda (read by their daughter Kami). Other fiftieth-anniversary appreciations can be found below:

Pop Matters
New Statesman