The Very Guest Of… Richard Thompson

Written by Music, The Very Guest Of...

What does it mean to be a musician’s musician? Maybe you’ve never heard of Richard Thompson — but you’ve probably heard him play. After hearing a few choice cuts from a forty-year discography, you’ll know him next time.

Richard Thompson has kept busy with sideman work throughout his long and prolific career. It only makes sense; being a well-loved songwriter opens a lot of doors — and when you’re also the finest white guitarist of your generation, able to tear it up on half-a-dozen instruments in a multitude of styles, you’ll never have to scramble for an invitation. He has guested with various fellow alumni of the British folk-rock scene, as you would expect;  but he’s also worked with free improvisers, noise rockers, trad jazz bands, early-music ensembles — you name it. Hell, he’s recorded with both J.J. and John Cale. And that’s not counting the dozen of musicians who’ve covered his songs, from Maria McKee to Jo-El Sonnier to the Pointer Sisters. Thompson’s most recent invitation was from Queen Elizabeth II; he will be made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in ceremonies later this year — if he can clear his schedule to accommodate Her Majesty, that is.

What follows cannot help but be a highly selective set of highlights of forty-some years of recordings. If I’ve missed your favorites, by all means talk them up in the comments!

Nick Drake, “Time Has Told Me” (from Five Leaves Left, 1969)
Thompson guested on the opening cut of Drake’s debut whilst still a member of Fairport Convention. His subtly bluesy electric guitar adds a bit of grit to Drake’s poor-little-rich-boy performance. (This fan-made video is composed entirely of still images, because no film or video of Drake as an adult is known to exist. Dude was a ghost even before his untimely death.)

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French Frith Kaiser Thompson, “To the Rain” (from Invisible Means,1990)
This one is a bit of a cheat, since FFKT was technically a band, meaning Thompson is not a guest per se. But it’s not a Tin Machine setup; the shared songwriting duties often found Thompson in a supporting role. An avant-garde supergroup of sorts, FFKT featured Fred Frith (formerly of Henry Cow) and free-improv guitar wiz Henry Kaiser. “To the Rain” is written and sung by John “Drumbo” French, who cut his teeth translating Captain Beefheart’s primitive musical ideas into rigorous full-band constructions while still giving the impression that his drumkit was falling down a flight of stairs. (French exited the Magic Band after Beefheart — for whom the term “cruel taskmaster” is not nearly a damning-enough epithet — in fact threw him down a flight of stairs.) Given French’s background, it’s a bit of shock that he provides the most radio-friendly song in FFKT’s repertoire. In an alternate universe, this was a big hit, and Thompson’s gorgeous guitar sells it beautifully.

BeauSoleil, “Sur le Pont de Lyon” (from Cajun Conja, 1991)
An English folk-rock guitarist on a record of Cajun dance music? Thompson makes it sound natural, lending a little sinister atmosphere to this minor-key folk ballad.

The Golden Palominos, “The Haunting” (from Drunk With Passion, 1991, out of print)
Thompson popped in and out of Anton Fier’s downtown musical collective throughout their 1985-1991 heyday — after their free-jazz beginnings but before the shift into hard club-funk and trance music, when they flirted with rock accessibility. He soloed on their two radio hits, “Boy (Go)” and “Alive and Living Now,” both of which featured Michael Stipe on vocals. His fretwork on this track, written and sung by keyboardist Amanda Kramer, is some of his loveliest and most lyrical.

Tim Finn, “Persuasion” (from Before and After, 1993)
The erstwhile Split Enz singer — and, coincidentally, fellow OBE — set lyrics to a Thompson instrumental (from the soundtrack to the 1991 flop Sweet Talker) and re-recorded it for his own solo album. The collaboration has ended up a staple of Finn’s live act — and, in a rather more downtempo version, of Thompson’s.

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Teddy Thompson, “Days in the Park” (from Teddy Thompson, 2000)
Music has long been a family affair for Thompson. He performed with then-wife Linda throughout the 1970s and 80s. Even after their marriage ended — with infidelity on his part and smashing a bottle over his head on hers — he continued to write songs for her and play on her solo records. More recently, their son Teddy served a stint in Richard’s band before launching his solo career. His debut album featured many songs dealing with the divorce and its aftermath, including this track about growing up with a part-time father, and the sense of loss he carries into adulthood. Richard Thompson is a fearless musician, in the way he plunges into any situation, any style, and makes it utterly his own; but it take a special kind of fearlessness to play on a song that so thoroughly and damningly calls him out for his failings. It’s a devastating performance from Teddy, made moreso by Richard’s understated lead guitar, standing in for the words he’ll never have the chance to say.