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1 May 2024

Revisiting Richard and Linda Thompson’s folk-rock masterpiece

Fifty years on, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight retains a spartan beauty – and a feeling of power in reserve.

By David Hepworth

In April 1974, Richard and Linda Thompson’s first album, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, was released, Richard Nixon was still in the White House and Alf Ramsey was in his last days managing England. At the time, the shop workers’ union were campaigning for a £35 wage for a 35-hour week, which was more than I was making in a West End record store. New albums were £2.99 – not investments to be taken lightly, even with a staff discount. But Thompson was my man, and had been since appearing as the lead guitarist and songwriter with Fairport Convention in 1967, and so there was no question of not diving in.

The pair married in 1972, and their debut album was delivered to Island Records in 1973 but was only released, thanks to the enthusiasm of journalist-turned-A&R man Richard Williams, a year later. Its reception was favourable if some way short of clamorous. The more cock-eyed optimists in its corner hoped that the silver band on the title track might even tempt some radio programmers to put it on heavy rotation when it was released as a single. This didn’t come to pass. I did as much as anyone to sell copies, assuring easily led overseas customers that it was the hot new sound the London kids were digging and even slipping copies into shipments destined for discos in the Lebanon or radio stations in the Arctic Circle.

What they would have made of it I cannot imagine. Bright Lights had been presided over by producer-engineer John Wood, who understood the importance of giving the instruments enough air to breathe. By modern standards the album sounds positively spartan, which is part of its power. Since there are a few things in popular music which can’t be spoiled by taking more time over them, the record gains immeasurably from having been recorded in just a few days for an estimated budget of £2,500, which could have bought you a flat at the time, providing that flat was somewhere other than Chelsea, where it was recorded.

The studio, Sound Techniques, which was housed in a former dairy just off the Kings Road, is now, like most of the capital’s formerly legendary studios, housing for millionaires, and yet the records made there all endure. The world in which they were made may be one with Nineveh and Tyre, but still the great albums of the early Seventies (Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark and Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys were also released in 1974) remain incorrigibly great. Richard and Linda Thompson’s debut was every bit as unflinchingly grown-up in its view of the world as the aforementioned records, albeit never quite so widely celebrated.

Bright Lights then all but disappeared, as happened to most records in those pre-streaming days. As the people who had made it were at the same time vanishing to live in a Sufi commune in Suffolk, disappearance was a near certainty. Interviewed at the time, Richard seemed to have given up hope of growing his following. Not that there was much sign of this happening. Despite the best efforts of more than one record company and further good records, nothing moved the dial governing the Thompsons’ profile until they split up during an American tour in 1982, at which point they found themselves more famous for being acrimoniously apart than they had been for being tensely together.

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But still the record’s legacy was far from certain. When Paul Gambaccini published his book The Top 100 Rock & Roll Albums in 1987, Bright Lights came in at number 35, which was probably something to do with my being the sole contributor who had made it my number one. Like most rock snobs I very much loved the idea of a record being apparently underrated and could happily have paid the publishers to have my choice of the best albums ever made featured in a proper book which you could read in WHSmith.

In that same decade Richard remarried, made America his base of operations and built up the career he previously thought was impossible. Linda also remarried but was unable to pursue a proper musical career because of problems with dysphonia, which affects the muscles a singer needs in order to sing.

In the 50 years since its release, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight has been the beneficiary of the slow wave of revisionism which began to steal over a new generation of rock snobs in the Nineties, fanned by magazines such as Mojo and Uncut. This was further enabled by the internet and reached its undreamed of apogee in the streaming era, thanks to which even the most uncelebrated old long player is just a click away.

This is why the three absurdly talented young guitar players that by 1970 were all signed to Joe Boyd’s Witchseason Productions – Nick Drake, John Martyn and Richard Thompson – are all more famous today than at any stage in the last half-century.

Young listeners now have access to an immeasurably greater range of recorded music than any previous generation. The absence of any sense of chronology is a small price to pay for that privilege. In May 2020, in the early days of Covid lockdown, the record producer de jour Mark Ronson, born into a music business family in 1975 and therefore likely to have been exposed to this record at an early age, found there was only one song which could properly express his profound need to get out and paint the town, and that was “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight”. Hence he recorded a new version with the British singer Raissa.

Listening to it, you couldn’t help pondering the contrast between Ronson’s 21st-century idea of a night out and the universe represented in Richard and Linda’s masterpiece – wherein stoic souls raised in a mustn’t-grumble world took their pleasure for as long as the cash in their pockets would allow, and then walked home. With that in mind I got out the old record and played it again. How would songs like “The Little Beggar Girl”, “The Great Valerio” and “We Sing Hallelujah” , redolent as they were of cobbled streets, circus tents and the agricultural calendar, seem in the world of smartphones? What price its hard, bright sound against what the New York Times has just called “the amniotic throb” of the new Taylor Swift album? Does it stand up?

In 1974, the year of Abba’s “Waterloo” and Country Life by Roxy Music, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight didn’t sound like anything else. Fifty years later the same still applies. Theirs is not an act you can pinch. The handful of guitarists who would like to emulate Richard Thompson’s style are realistic enough to know they wouldn’t have the skills.

In a field which believes in laying it on with a trowel, Richard and Linda’s records were notable for what Hilary Mantel called “a feeling of power in reserve”. The songs may be about people in extremis but the delivery never seems to recognise this. At times Linda has the hard clarity expected of session singers, singing about her dreams having withered and died with the same precision she previously applied in the service of MacDougall’s flour, which she had assured us was “flour so fine it flows”. Performing Richard Thompson songs was always like playing Pinter. It wouldn’t do to turn up the colour and brightness.

So yes, Bright Lights stands up and it remains one of the least ingratiating records ever made. If I were approached for another edition of the top 100 rock albums in 2024, I might even leave it at number one.

[See also: The tortured Taylor Swift]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March