Take Me to the Dance and Hold Me Tight: Richard & Linda Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight at 50

On this day in 1974, the married Londoners put out their debut album as a duo and delivered a folkloric compilation of characters rueing their fate or desperately trying to escape it, clawing at the vestiges of hope among the cursed rubble.

Music Features Richard & Linda Thompson
Take Me to the Dance and Hold Me Tight: Richard & Linda Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight at 50

There’s a certain type of precocious young person that loves to wear the world-weary, nonchalance of someone much older than themselves. You know the type. I certainly know the type, because I kind of was the type. There I was in my affluent Philadelphia suburb, grasping at the existential yearning I so longed to make my personality—reading “important” books, watching art house movies, questioning the status quo of which I was only vaguely aware and, yes, listening to not-so-well-known 1970s folk rock (one of my favorite records when I was 16 was Al Stewart’s Past, Present and Future). I was cynical and pessimistic in the way only a privileged, unsatisfied young person can truly be: tired of a world I had to experience, searching desperately for a personality among the pointlessness.

Though he had experienced much more than my teenage self had, I got the sense that Richard Thompson’s viewpoint was not too far off from my own when he set out to write the songs that would become I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, his first album with his then-wife Linda. “If you see a box of pine with a name that looks like mine, just say I drowned in a barrel of wine, when I got to the border,” sings Richard on the album’s opener, “When I Get to the Border”—one of several songs on Bright Lights obsessed with death, both physical and emotional. Almost all of Richard’s characters are in some state of existential depression, rueing their fate or desperately trying to escape it, clawing at the vestiges of hope among the emotional rubble. Perhaps the best of this set comes in the form of “The Cavalry Cross,” a stirring, cursed march where black cats and pale-faced ladies haunt you at every turn. Thompson was 24 years old when these songs were recorded, with a new wife and a budding career in tow; he wasn’t a drunkard at the end of his rope, a lowly sex worker or a man looking fruitlessly back at a life unfulfilled—he just felt like one.

Of course, folk music has a way of doing that to you. As the great, fictional folk troubadour Llewyn Davis once said, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” To be steeped in folk music is to constantly look backward and throughout I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Richard situates himself somewhere between a mysterious medieval vagabond and a Victorian chimney sweep. It’s a skill he all but mastered during his time with Fairport Convention, a band who often reworked British traditionals for a modern audience—building a bridge between hundreds of years of British tradition and the art form of rock ‘n’ roll. That Bright Lights opening song alone features mandolin, tin whistle, accordion, concertina and krummhorn accompanying Richard’s iconic guitar work—a clear indication that he was slow to abandon the esoteric charm of his old band even as he worked to form a new musical identity with Linda.

Richard and Linda first met at John Wood’s recording studio, Sound Techniques, some time during Fairport Convention’s sessions for their fourth album, Liege & Lief, striking up a fast friendship. It wasn’t long until they found a foothold, both creatively and romantically, a phenomenon that seemed abundantly common within their growing scene. Musically, it’s difficult not to see the parallels between former Fairport Convention singer and songwriter Sandy Denny and Linda’s own contributions as a vocalist throughout I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. Few would welcome such an unenviable comparison, but Linda more than holds her own, raising Richard’s dusty dirges to the place of a lofty fairytale.

Nowhere better is this demonstrated than on the one-two punch of “Withered And Died” and “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” the latter being one of Linda’s best showings on the record. “This cruel country has driven me down, teased me and lied, teased me and lied, I’ve only sad stories to tell to this town,” she sings on the former, able to turn the dreary charm of Richard’s forlorn words into a lullaby of ghostly remorse. On the title track, all this regret is forstalled in favor of some good old-fashioned hedonism, the bright lights a flame for her devil-may-care moth to dance defiantly through. CWS Band from Manchester Silver band and Richard’s spindly guitar accompaniment goes a long way pushing this song to it’s single-ready heights—but it is Linda’s swaggering ease that makes the whole thing work in the first place.

Perhaps it is expected for someone so clearly captivated by the past, but Richard Thompson’s view of the future is often even more bleak than even the barbed nostalgia he holds for yesteryear. Of course, he could not have known the details of just what would come for him and Linda over the next decade. Though I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight did well enough—especially among critics—Richard was as dissatisfied as ever with the music industry and, to an extent, his life as a whole. Though the Thompsons would release four more albums as a duo between 1974 and 1979, things behind the scene were shifting significantly for the couple—catalyzed by their conversion to Sufi Islam shortly after the release of Bright Lights.

Richard and Linda would go on to live in a Sufi community in the East of England and, though the details of those few years are murky, both of them emerged significantly changed. Richard’s return to the music studio led to, as Joe Boyd put it, “very poor” sessions and the album First Light was a critical success but a commercial bomb—leading to Chrysalis Records dropping them from their roster. But thanks to Boyd and his small label Hannibal, the Thompsons weren’t orphans for long. And the record that would soon come, Shoot Out the Lights, found Richard and Linda approaching their life and art together from a slightly different angle: Gone were arcane tales of love and loss, of death marches and forgotten heartache in faraway lands, replaced instead by the humdrum grind of life, where love is reneged and the lights are dimmed by our own devices. Though it’s impossible to completely graft one’s art onto their real life, it’s hard not to see the dissolution of the Thompsons’ marriage reflected throughout Shoot Out the Lights.

Now firmly in his 30s, Thompson’s predilection for languid heartache had finally caught up with his real life. It is, truth be told, just the kind of development so grimly predicted by Thompson himself. There are few songs in rock ‘n’ roll history as thoroughly fatalistic as the spiritual conclusion to I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. “I feel for you, you little horror,” begins “The End of the Rainbow,” Thompson’s slinking guitar the bedding for this cursed lullaby in which a life is boiled down to nothing but a string of indignities. “There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow, there’s nothing to grow up for anymore,” goes the chorus. But he and Linda did grow up and grow apart, raising a family and making at least more classic record together in between before going their separate ways. Things might not have gone as planned for the duo but, by all accounts, bridges have since been all but mended. It’s the kind of thing even the most worldly 24 year olds can’t quite account for.

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