Shoot Out the Lights became a legendary album not just on the basis of the brilliant music it contained, but for the circumstances that surrounded its creation. For years popular opinion has held that it was an album recorded by a couple in the throes of the disintegration of their relationship. The facts that some of the songs were several years old at the time of the recording, and that Linda Thompson was very much pregnant during the recording sessions do nothing to dispel the myth, and indeed if you listen to these songs with that myth in mind, you can make quite a case for marital discord.
Much has even been made of the album’s cover, on which Richard Thompson sits beneath a photo of his wife, as if she was no longer a part of his life. The explanation is perhaps less interesting than the conjecture, but truth of the matter is that the expectant mother simply didn’t want a photo taken in her condition, so she sent along a photo of herself that she liked along with a note instructing photographer Gered Mankowitz to “hang it on the wall.” He did just that.
No matter what the status of their marriage was at the time, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights (Deluxe Edition) (Rhino Handmade) comes on like a heavyweight prize fight, with the each pugilist landing their share of devastating blows. Richard Thompson lands an opening haymaker with “Don’t Renege On Our Love.” Oddly, according to Linda Thompson’s contemporary album notes (there are also album notes from Richard in 1982), she was originally supposed to sing the track, but the dysphonia (look it up) that has troubled her during her career was acting up. She has no such problem evening things up with the next track, the rueful “Walking On A Wire.” And so it goes, back and forth. Richard’s demanding “A Man In Need,” followed by Linda’s harrowing “Just the Motion.”
The parties seem to agree that the title track is about Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, but more intimate readings are certainly possible. Richard comes on strong again with the edgy rocker “Back Street Slide,” but Linda counters with the ominous “Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed” (“I can tell you right now she was pushed,” says Linda in her notes). Finally, the parties hang on for dear life in the desperate clinch of “Wall of Death.”
By the time that Shoot Out the Lights was released by Joe Boyd’s Hannibal Records (fascinating liner notes are provided here by Boyd himself), the Thompsons had split. No one expected Linda to be part of the US tour that was being planned, but she stunned Boyd by telling him “I’ve lost a husband. I’ll be damned if I’ll lose an American tour as well.” So off they went on an adventure that came to be known as the “tour from hell.”
The promotional tour included domestic violence, drunken rages, and nearly unbearable tension for band members Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Pete Zorn, and Dave Mattacks, who were stuck squarely in the middle of it all. Fortunately, it also included brilliant music, and some of the music from the tour is featured on this set’s second disc. There are recordings from The Catalyst in Santa Cruz, CA, and The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Unfortunately, Linda didn’t make it to the Santa Cruz show, which by necessity allows us to hear Richard’s vocal take on “Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed.”
The live disc is a wonderful revelation and includes some frighteningly good guitar work from Richard Thompson. He plays like a man with something to prove, and has sympathetic backing from a band that featured three members of Thompson’s former band, Fairport Convention. Oddly the best track here is the most poorly recorded, taken from a soundboard mix cassette. It’s a stunning take on Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine.” There is also an exquisite vocal rendition of “Pavanne” by Linda, accompanied only by Richard’s acoustic guitar playing. Richard shines on the undeniable “Borrowed Time.” In light of the history that we now know, it’s hard not to have your heart broken by “Dimming of the Day.”
Rhino Handmade has done their usual impeccable job of honoring great music. The sound of the recordings overall is superlative, and in addition to notes from both Thompsons, and producer Joe Boyd, there is an outsider’s view from Thompson fan Frank Kornelussen, a Richard Thompson interview about the album from 1982, man-in-the-middle reminiscences from drummer Dave Mattacks, bass player Dave Pegg, and tour manager Simon Tassano, and notes from reissue producer (along with Cheryl Pawelski) Edward Haber.
2010 has been another good year for reissues. There is still a lot of gold in the vault, and as long as there is, great rock and roll will live on. Even if you already own a copy of Shoot Out the Lights, you’ll want to grab this. If you don’t, well you should be clicking on the links even as you read this.