Happy Miserable 50th Anniversary to Richard and Linda Thompson’s Influential Debut Album

Posted on April 30, 2024

by Eric P

Among rock groups there’s a tradition of entanglements that go beyond merely being bandmates – essentially coworkers with amps and hearing damage – and extend into more personal, complicated, familial relationships: spouses, lovers. The intimacy of artistic collaboration – and of being confined together for months on a tour bus – naturally spawns a different kind of intimacy. These connections, with their passionate highs and vicious lows, have the benefit of inspiring incredibly powerful, deeply felt and relatable music – and the downside of ending the collaboration entirely when a romance ends in an explosion of acrimony and recriminations. Which is rough for the artists involved, but the rest of us get some great tunes out of the deal.

Fleetwood Mac built an entire oeuvre on a pattern of hooking up and falling out and then singing at one another about it. Fictional bands like the one in Daisy Jones and the Six and the one in the current Broadway sensation Stereophonic squeeze a lot of dramatic juice out of that model. And then there’s Richard and Linda Thompson, whose critically revered debut album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight came out 50 years ago today.

Richard and Linda were struggling folkies coming off runs of bad luck when they met and married. Their luck continued when the release of this album was delayed a year because of vinyl shortages during the oil crisis. And then, when the record finally did come out, nobody really seemed to notice.

But the couple’s profile eventually rose as people caught on to the virtuosic intricacy of Richard’s guitar playing, the stately beauty of Linda’s vocals, and the eloquent bleakness of their songwriting. Few of the Thompsons’ songs are feel-good romps, and the track listing of this debut is no exception. “Withered and Died” is a straightforwardly hopeless declaration of surrender made bearable by the resigned sense of endurance in Linda’s voice. “The Great Valerio” is a dirgelike celebration of a circus tightrope walker, drawing a connection between the fumbling earthbound admirers below and the elevated performer’s isolation and inevitable fall. And even the superficially festive title track isn’t a simple weekend party song, tinting the debauched merriment of its lyrics with a self-abnegating sordidness and an edge of menace – a tactic that recurs almost twenty years later in Richard’s song “I Feel So Good.”

It’s not all tuneful misery – songs like “The Little Beggar Girl” and “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” find a resilient and even cheerful dignity among society’s downtrodden. But there’s definitely a weathered fatalism to the record that presages the eventual disintegration of the Thompsons’ marriage – affairs were had, bottles were thrown. Music fans continued to benefit from the Thompsons’ talents thereafter – as well as the musical gifts of their son Teddy – but some would argue that nothing the couple accomplished separately can transcend what they created together.

Liege and Lief

Music CD

One Clear Moment

hoopla audio

Rumor and Sigh

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The Best of Richard and Linda Thompson

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Separate Ways

hoopla audio

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