Review by Annabel
There are still people who doubtless haven’t heard of Richard Thompson. To those of us in the know though, he is one of the most influential guitarists and singer-songwriters to have come out of the 1960s folk scene; a much-respected musician’s musician. He’s often compared to Bob Dylan, indeed they both have distinctive voices, but Thompson is also a virtuoso guitarist and has the edge on his Bobness there as far as I’m concerned!
Thompson’s memoir has been a long time coming. The book is dedicated to his friend, writer Scott Timberg, who persuaded him to write it and helped shape the manuscript, gaining a co-writer’s credit, but sadly Timberg died during the process.
Thompson takes us chronologically from his schooldays through being a founding member of Fairport Convention into solo work and singing with his wife Linda, from 1967-75 and a little later in the epilogue.
Born in Notting Hill, moving to Highgate later, Thompson was lucky enough to go to a good school in Hampstead, (where he met Hugh Cornwell later of The Stranglers; they would be together in a first band). He was exposed to music at an early age, his father, a policeman, played guitar and loved jazz and all the show tunes, especially those of his Scottish homeland. His older sister’s boyfriends introduced the young Thompson to the joys of Buddy Holly and rock’n’roll.
Thompson was devouring all styles of guitar music. He had classical guitar lessons as a teenager, and you can see that legacy in his intricate guitar style. He was just sixteen when he met Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol, at whose mum’s house ‘Fairport’ they would convene – and a band name was born. Judy Dyble also sang with them and they became an item.
Hair was growing longer – my own was barely an inch longer than school regulations but I was only a month away from leaving school for ever, so was working on it. I never wanted to be predictable enough to be part of a ‘scene’, and looked on with detached amusement at the antics of my generation. At the same time, I was keen not to stand out as a ‘square’ – that would have taken more courage than I was willing to muster. I also wanted a love life, so I realised that I needed to look a bit contemporary in this new hippie way.
I loved Thompson’s need to join in but remain an observer. He recounts going to the famous Technicolor Dream at Alexandra Palace, a marathon hippy happening with Pink Floyd and all the British big psychedelic bands – he was bemused, but also bored, one senses. He also turned down an invite to Paul McCartney’s birthday party in 1968.
It shows how much of a musical snob I was at the time that I decided not to go – to me, the Beatles were a ‘pop’ band and not to be taken seriously.
By this stage Sandy Denny had joined Fairport and the band’s dynamics changed. Thompson tells how they all fell in love with her when she auditioned them after they auditioned her. She was already established on the folk scene, and they were keen to move in that direction. Thompson paints her as a woman who played hard but was also needy and sensitive.
May 1969 brought tragedy when on their way back from a gig in Birmingham, their roadie fell asleep at the wheel and their van crashed, killing drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn. Heartbroken, the survivors decided not to carry on playing songs made with Lamble; the result was Liege & Lief – the seminal British folk album that rocked.
Fairport finally made it to the USA, playing a week of shows at the LA Troubador, where in true band fashion, their bar bill exceeded their $1000 fee by $500! Later, Thompson would give up alcohol as a convert to Sufism.
Eventually Thompson got the itch to go it alone and played as a guitar for hire for a while. Then came his first solo album, Henry the Human Fly, followed by several with his wife Linda, which take us up to the end of this memoir. The book rightly concentrates on his formative Fairport years during which he learned the business as well as honing his song-writing and guitar-playing skills. He says,
I’m glad I spent years in a band, and I’m glad I spent a year or two playing in other people’s bands and being for hire on records, because when I became a bandleader I knew the feeling of being employed, and never put myself above those I was employing.
His humility is refreshing now, but I feel Linda put up with a lot when he converted, however he doesn’t really go into his family life of the time in this book, it’s more about the music and the life of being a musician. However, unlike some musician’s memoirs, Thompson keeps the detail of the recording process brief.
My proof copy of this book didn’t have the photos that appear in the final edition, but did include the appendices – one of lyrics of the Thompson-penned songs mentioned in the text- including the titular Beeswing which was inspired by folk singer Annie Briggs. The strangest thing though is an appendix of some of Thompson’s dreams, which is rather unnecessary!
Thompson is a genial memoirist with a wry sense of humour, but he always gives credit where due to all those who have been part of his career. There are some great anecdotes in these pages, and nothing could be as exciting as coming of age in the 1960s and early 1970s, could it? Will there be a second volume? I’d wager not, or at least not in a conventional format. Thompson at 72 is still writing and still performing. He’ll be touring this autumn: I’ve not seen him play since the late 1990s, and I admit I am very tempted to go to his single London date at the Palladium.
Annabel is co-founder of Shiny, and one of the editors. She was a teenybopper in the early 1970s, finally finding her folkie feet in the 1980s once her prog flirtation was over.
Richard Thompson, Beeswing (Faber, 2021). 978-0571348169, 320pp., hardback.
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