At the end of 1982, the critics at Rolling Stone magazine felt unable to identify just one record as the winner of their coveted album of the year accolade. In the end, the award was split between the haunted 'Nebraska' by Bruce Springsteen and the emotionally raw 'Shoot Out the Lights' by Richard and Linda Thompson.
In an era that is forever remembered as being engulfed by sleek pop ('Thriller' was released in November '82, MTV had launched the year before), these are anomalies, stark and true to life tales in a world of escapism. Springsteen, although one album away from the stadium seducing 'Born in the USA', was recording alone with a few acoustic guitars and a four-track tape deck and the darkest stories from the edge of town (we'll deal more fully with 'Nebraska' later in this series), whilst the Thompson's offering had been recorded, (after an aborted attempt with Gerry Rafferty as producer), in a matter of days by the illustrious Joe Boyd. The result was taut and unfussy, a fond reminder of his work with Richard when he was with Fairport Convention. There is an urgency to the recordings that still resonates, it frequently feels like it was all recorded live.
It's impossible to discuss 'Shoot Out The Lights' without alluding to the collapsing relationship of its creators. Although the pair had made music together for the best part of a decade (with the exception of a sabbatical spent in Sufi Muslim communities in the late seventies), but now the mood was far from harmonious. Furthermore, they have now made an album that opens with a song called 'Don't Renege On Our Love' whose opening line is: 'Remember when we were hand in hand?/Remember we sealed it with a golden band?' The tension in the recording studio is palpable, there is blood on the tracks.
The common assumption that 'Shoot Out The Lights' is a record about the state of Richard and Linda Thompson's marriage and although it's is a neat attention-grabbing line, it is largely untrue (despite their tone, the majority of the songs predate their marital woes), and a distraction. The album is not a British version of 'Rumours' with the singers taking lyrical swipes at one another. As artists, they are so much, much better and more dignified than that!
What is most obvious though is the rawness of the emotion that Boyd's recording captured. The sadness that Linda Thompson brings to 'Walking on a Wire' feels genuine, the remorse in the line 'Where's the justice and where's the sense/ When all the pain is on my side of the fence?' always stings. It's Linda's vocals on three of the eight songs on 'Shoot Out The Lights' that gives the record such depth. 'Just the Motion' is one of the few comforting songs in their collection, her voice offering reassurance in a time of heartache (and if Mark Knopfler wasn't thinking about it when writing 'Why Worry' for 'Brothers in Arms', I'd be very surprised).
Linda Thompson's only co-write on the record though is the eerie 'Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed' which may be about the death of former Fairport Convention singer, the sometimes wayward Sandy Denny. ('...She thought she'd live forever, but forever always ends'), there is something chilling in her detective fiction-like delivery. Richard's unsettling guitar soundtrack makes you wonder why he's never considered writing film scores.
There is a sense of needing to move on in the album's last song: 'Wall of Death'. The assertion that the ride is '...the nearest thing to being free' and that the plea from the singer to 'let me take my chances on the wall of death'. As songs about fairground rides as metaphors for the disorientating parts of a relationship, only Springsteen's 'Tunnel of Love' (1987), comes close. Maybe, just maybe, he was taking notes when 'Nebraska' tied with 'Shoot Out The Lights' for the Rolling Stone album of the year five years earlier.
'Shoot Out The Lights' may have led to a wider appreciation of the Thompson's work but, as Richard embarked on a celebrated solo career, Linda succumbed to the condition spasmodic dysphonia which would rob her of her singing voice for many years, her 'Fashionably Late' album in 2002 marked her long-overdue return, however sporadic, to music. And so, their final album together was the moment that perfectly captured Richard and Linda Thompson's art. Some say it's Richard Thompson's finest moment and, considering the brilliant work that he has been responsible for ('...the finest rock songwriter after Dylan and the best electric guitarist since Hendrix' according to the LA Times), is the highest of all possible praise, and one that I'd be inclined to agree with.
Jay Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jay's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.
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