I first started this series, “The Real Eighties”, at a time when I was getting fed up with my kids’ schools throwing “Eighties”-themed parties that went as deep as “Flock of Seagulls”, Members Only jackets, and “Walking On Sunshine”.
And I’ve written about an absolute ton of music in this past three years. Check it out for yourself. And there’s a bunch more to come.
But the original motivation for the entire series was my inner monologue responding to some bobblehead who’d sniveled that “eighties music was so stupid”.
And I thought “then you haven’t heard Shoot Out the Lights, by Richard and Linda Thompson which, as it happens, came out thirty years ago today.
And that day, June 8 of 2009., I started the whoooole three year long series by starting the article you’re reading. This piece has been sitting on the schedule for 33 months, now.
Rock and roll is full of breakup songs; boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy pines for girl.
What rock and roll is not full of is music that slices into the bloody mess when the real, true love of one’s life slowly erodes, and then quickly collapses, into a mocking ruin.
There’s a reason for that; it’s easy to write breakup songs. Breakups come and go; they’re the stuff of a million songs.
But music about the breakup of a relationship with some mileage – marriage, children, commitment, a shared body of life’s work? Not so much. The pain doesn’t lend itself to three chords and a hook line – and the pain and loss is just the beginning, leading to layers of recrimination, crippling self-doubt and worse.
It was thirty years ago today that Richard and Linda Thompson released “Shoot Out The Lights”.
The album and attendant tour happened as the couple’s nine year marriage spiraled into the toilet; by the time the album was released, The couple – who’d met in one of the middle incarnations of the classic British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, of which Richard was a founding member – had put out five albums before. All were commercial outliers and critical blockbusters, capped by 1974′s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, generally regarded as one of the great accomplishments of either of their careers.
The previous year had been a period of immense stress; the Thompsons’ marital breakup was exacerbated by professional turmoil; they’d been released from one minor-label contract, had recorded an entire album floated by Thompson’s friend, the late Gerry Rafferty, a process that led to the end of the guitarists’ friendship. But in the aftermath of the Rafferty fiasco, the Thompsons – their marriage foundering, with Linda pregnant with the couple’s third child – went into the studio with producer Joe Boyd, and produced an album that was…
…not about marital discord. So they said. And that’s been their story for thirty years, and they’ve stuck by it religiously.
And yet there are mixed messages, as the album ping-pongs between the battlin’ Thompsons. The album opens with “Don’t Renege On Our Love”
Remember when we were hand in hand?
Remember we sealed it with a golden band?
Now your eyes don’t meet mine,
you got a pulse like fever.
Do I take you for a lover, or just a deceiver?
Well simple is simple and plain is plain,
if you leave me now, you won’t come back again.
Don’t renege on our love, don’t renege on our love…
(Pardon the terrible sound quality)
It was followed by Linda’s “Walking On A Wire”:
I hand you my ball and chain,
You just have me that same old refrain.
I’m walking on a wire, and I’m falling…
Too many steps to take, too many spells to break,
too many nights awake and no-one else.
This grindstone’s wearing me, your clothes are tearing me,
Don’t use me endlessly,
it’s too long, too long to myself…
Where’s the justice, and where’s the sense?
When all the pain is on my side of the fence,
I’m walking on a wire, and I’m falling…
The songs bounce back and forth, each of them a subtle nuance on the theme, each a classic in its own way; Richard’s bouncy, funny ode to crushing frustration “A Man In Need” led to LInda’s gaunt “Just The Motion“…
When you’re rocked on the ocean, rocked up and down , don’t’ worry
when you’re spinning and turning round and round don’t worry
’cause you’re just feeling seasick, you’re just feeling weak,
your mind is confused and you can’t seam to speak,
it’s just the motion,
it’s just the motion…
…about the seasickness that comes from having your world completely submerged in stress.
There are two observations you can make about Shoot Out The Lights. For starters, Richard Thompson is the world’s greatest living guitar player. No, I know – you’ve got your Steve Vais and and your Yngwie Malmsteens, and they’re all great – but nobody on the planet teases the warped psychological nuance out of a Strat plugged into a Twin Reverb like Thompson, as here on the album’s brutal title cut…:
…with the same version of the Richard Thompson Band I first saw at First Avenue in 1986, with the lovely Christine Collister filling the Linda role.
The other? That was a harrowing dissolution – as you read between the lines of the so many songs, especially Linda’s “Did She Jump (Or Was She Pushed)”. I can’t find a video with Linda – but Richard does it great justice:
There’s enough cheating hearts to sink a hundred country western albums; enough emotional shrapnel to make Robert Smith say “sack up buddy”, were it not delivered with either a nudge or a keening wail…
…or with “Wall of Death” capping the whole thing off.
It’s nothing as trite as “It’s better to have loved and lost than never loved at all”…
Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
Oh let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
…but it’s in the ballpark.
If you don’t own a copy, it’s an injustice to music.