One of the great watersheds of late 20th-century pop music, so far as I’m concerned, came in 1970 or so, when Richard Thompson sold his goldtop Gibson Les Paul (1955? 1956?) to John Martyn and switched to playing a Fender Stratocaster more or less exclusively.
Thompson’s first band, Fairport Convention, had begun as a quasi-folkish outfit playing covers of Dylan and Joni Mitchell and doing nice Hollies-esque harmonies. Under the influence of their trad-obsessed bassist Ashley (Tyger) Hutchings, Fairport had taken a decisive turn towards indigenous British folk – Child Ballads, morris dances, etc. Thompson had set himself down and learned his way thru books & books of jigs, reels, strathspeys, etc. – all on that goldtop Les Paul.
The Les Paul, however, even the single-coil pickup version RT was playing, is a rather blunt instrument for traditional dance tunes, as you can hear on Fairport’s otherwise sublime Liege & Lief (1969). I’d compare RT’s switching to the Strat to the moment when the medieval/renaissance revivalist Phil Pickett laid down his modern oboe and picked up his first crumhorn. Finally: the right tool for the job.
RT had been two years out of Fairport, living on session work, before he released his 1st solo record, Henry the Human Fly (1972), and a strange and wonderful record it is. Oft-repeated legend has it that Henry is the worst-selling album Warner-Reprise ever released in the United States. The dire cover design – RT, in all his gangly mid-20s-ness, a halo of flyaway curls projecting from behind a half-face fly mask, posed with his guitar in quintessentially English, über-panelled Jacobean interior – certainly seems designed to drive away casual browsers.
But Henry, 34 years after its release, and maybe 2 decades since I bought my first vinyl copy, remains one of my favorite records: in part perhaps because of its sheer awkwardness. There’s only one song in here that “rocks” in anything like a conventional manner: “The Angels Took My Racehorse Away,” which begins with utterly sublime sounds of an English country dance on accordian & fiddle, over which RT proceeds to play a note-perfect Chuck Berry solo. (The album’s opening track is another Berry allusion: “Roll Over Vaughn Williams.”)
The other songs are for the most part experiments in what RT was calling “British rock music,” electro-acoustic music that would marry the energy of American rock ‘n’ roll with the melodic and lyrical traditions of the British Isles. Thompson’s BRM isn’t just a matter of electrifying traditional songs & tunes, as Fairport had done & as Hutchings was doing with his new bands Steeleye Span and the Albion Country Band, but a matter of writing original songs that melded the contemporary & the traditional, that would reinvigorate the emotion & forms of centuries-old “folk” music with new instrumentation and the savvy songwriting that Dylan had set as a benchmark in popular music.
What “British rock music” amounts to on Henry the Human Fly is a series of mordant, witty, highly literate, and generally quite depressing songs which seem to hover somewhere between the 17th & 19th centuries. “Roll Over Vaughn Williams” and “The New St. George” feel like marching songs for a new Levellers movement, tho without the millennial optimism of those early proto-communists. “Twisted,” “Nobody’s Wedding,” & “Cold Feet” are drinking songs whose Python-like humor conceals a pathos as dark as that of any George Jones tune.
Most memorable of all, perhaps, are a quartet of ballads: “The Poor Ditching Boy” is echt 19th-century self-pity, while “Shaky Nancy” – as TS Eliot said of Guido the younger in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood – haunts one’s imagination. “Painted Ladies” is one of the great sex songs of RT’s considerable sex song repertoire: “Those film stars and beauties may please you tonight / If you go to bed with a book / But they can’t hold a candle to something that trembles / When you need to do more than look.” Best of all is “The Old Changing Way,” its stair-stepping trad chord progression dusted with an incongruously lovely harp; it’s the first (& for my money the best) of Thompson’s string of narrative ballads (cf. “Beeswing” & the crowdpleasing “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”). It’s the story of the itinerant Darby the tinker & his brother Tam, whose fraternal partnership – described in terms that would place them anywhere between the 17th and 19th century (“We’ll fix up your kettles / Please dear Missus / We’ll sharpen your knives”) – is broken by the forces of economic change, precipitating them into the “spikes and brothels” of the 20th century.
RT’s Strat is at times scarcely audible on Henry the Human Fly – the only points where he really stretches out are the traditional tunes in “Roll Over Vaughn Williams” & the stinging solo of “The Angels Took My Racehorse Away.” The big workouts like the modal intro to “Calvary Cross” and the long ending of “Night Comes In” would come later. But in Henry, one sees all the elements in place that would distinguish Thompson as the single greatest figure on the folk-rock scene for at least the next 3 decades.
The doctor gave me a cleanish bill of health yesterday, so I suppose I’m recovered just in time for the maelstrom of activity that surrounds the holidays. We’re Florida-bound this time around – bound to stay in Florida, not bound for Florida – except for a flying visit on my part to Philadelphia for the MLA. Not a prospect I’m looking forward to.