Friday, July 07, 2006

Now the weekend's come, I'm gonna throw my troubles away

Last week, Ellis Sharp linked to my list of recent pop obsessions and provided a list of songs himself intended for a mix cd. It's an interesting list (I also like to look at other people's lists), with about half the songs by artists I'm very well acquainted with (Dylan, Cash, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams), even if the songs in question aren't necessarily ones I know all that well, and half by artists I've either not heard of (The Chordettes, Linda Scott, Dobie Gray) or whose music I am largely unfamiliar with (Connie Stevens, Nick Cave, T.Rex). But one of the songs on his list happens to be one of my all-time favorite songs: "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" by Richard & Linda Thompson.

In 1987, Rolling Stone came out with an issue compiling the "best 100 albums of the last 20 years". I was 17 and only in the previous couple of years had I started paying close attention to music, figuring out and forming my own tastes. I was listening to Led Zeppelin constantly. I didn't know that Rolling Stone had already become a shadow of its former self and would soon become entirely irrelevant. Since then, the magazine has continuously produced sad attempts at canon-making and re-canon-making, lists of top 500 albums or best 100 singles or whatever, and put out dumb issues devoted to "Women in Rock" and the like. But this one, this one I pored over like it was the Bible or something, which in some ways it was. I could take it seriously because the list devoted two slots to Zeppelin, who I already knew were great. And I took this stuff very seriously. For the most part, I treated the thing as a guide for music to look into, but I have to admit that I took the canonical aspect of it a little too much to heart in those days. One of the good things about it is that its cut-off year was 1967, which means it wasn't excessively overloaded with the Beatles and Bob Dylan, as these rock-heavy lists tend to be. Another is that it was a little hard-edged. No Eagles or Billy Joel here (they tended to show up on the later lists, no doubt in deference to Jann Wenner's friendships). I now see the list as having been hopelessly white, Anglo-American rock-centered (no Funkadelic or Can, to name but two). But, as such a rock list, it's still a pretty good one, and for me it was a treasure trove of interesting stuff to try to listen to: mixed in with Sgt. Pepper and Exile on Main Street and Ziggy Stardust and Hendrix and the Who and all that classic rock stuff I would have been hard-pressed to not have known about (although, with my steady diet of classic rock radio, it wasn't like I knew much more than the big hits; even Exile was unknown to me then), were such now-obvious artists as the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart who are now key for me but whom I'm sure I'd never heard of before. But even more obscure than those were Richard & Linda Thompson, represented by two records: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and Shoot Out the Lights.

It's difficult to remember how comparatively difficult it was to find records and learn about music (new or otherwise) as recently as the mid-to-late 1980s. I didn't live in a city. There was no Internet. At the time, I was buying cassettes and, soon, cds, and a lot of the stuff I was interested in was hard to find in those formats. Somehow it never occurred to me to try looking for much on vinyl, which might have made things a lot easier. Anyway, I was unable to locate anything by Richard & Linda Thompson until after college, when I finally found Shoot Out the Lights. This was their last record, and it was supposed to be their finest achievement. And I was....underwhelmed. To this day, I still have not quite warmed to it. There are some great songs on it, of course, but as a set of songs, it never clicked; it remains my least favorite album of theirs. Even with this disappointment, I was not deterred (if I can help it, I tend to give bands more than one chance). By then I knew that Richard Thompson was a critics' darling, and I wanted to have some idea why that was. I had to find I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.

All Music Guide tells us that I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, originally released in 1974, was first reissued on cd by Hannibal in 1991. I have no idea when I actually found a copy of it, but it was certainly a few years after that--these records were still not easy to come by, at least not in the record shops I tended to frequent at the time (or, um, work in). In any event, by the mid-1990s I had the cd, and finally I heard what all the critics meant when they praised Thompson to the skies. This is a great, great album. Bleak, darkly funny, beautiful. As with many albums, there are some songs I've only really fully heard until very recently. One such song is "The End of the Rainbow", sung by Richard and perhaps the bleakest children's song ever:
Life seems so rosy in the cradle,
But I'll be a friend I'll tell you what's in store
There's nothing at the end of the rainbow.
There's nothing to grow up for anymore
Richard sings lead on four of the album's ten songs, and his vocals are perfectly suited to the songs in question. Linda sings the rest, and her voice is strong and lovely. Many of the songs are sad or morose, yet often witty. And there's the funny class war "fuck you" in "Little Beggar Girl".

But it's the title track, of course, that has prompted me to write. The words are simple: the singer, working class, desires nothing more than a night or two on the town after a typical week of toil (in a factory?):
I'm so tired of working every day,
Now the weekend's come, I'm gonna throw my troubles away.
If you've got the cab-fare, then mister you'll do alright,
I want to see the bright lights tonight.

Meet me at the station, don't be late;
I need to spend some money, and it just won't wait.
Take me to the dance, and hold me tight;
I want to see the bright lights tonight.

There's crazy people running all over town;
There's a silver band just marching up and down;
And the big boys they're all spoiling for a fight;
I want to see the bright lights tonight.

Couple of drunken nights rollin' on the floor
Is just the kind of mess I'm lookin' for.
I'm gonna dream till Monday comes in sight;
I want to see the bright lights tonight.
I've seen the song described as upbeat, and I suppose in a sense it is, in the context of the album. There is a real joyousness to the song, but there's more to it than that. The singer doesn't imagine anything beyond the hedonistic pleasures of drink and dance and sex, before work must begin again on Monday. There is Richard's guitar, of course, and cheerful horns and drums keeping a stately beat, but it's Linda's voice that carries the song. And there's real desperation in her voice, for example when she sings the "I" in "I need to spend some money and it just won't wait". I love this song. I love singing along to it; I even sing along to the trumpet parts.

After that meandering build-up, you might be forgiven for expecting that I was going to spend some more time discussing the actual song than I have. Sorry, I don't want to gush. I said that it is one of my favorites, and it is. I've certainly put it on more mixes for friends than any other. When I saw it on Ellis Sharp's list, it made me think how unexpected it was for him to have linked to that post of mine (of all posts). I thought about how my musical tastes have changed and expanded over the years, and I remembered that edition of Rolling Stone (I still remember buying it, on a visit to my father's in Connecticut). I wrote above that I took the canonical aspect of the issue too seriously. This is true, but it wasn't too long before I developed a real counter-canonical streak, a tendency to seek out lesser known records from the past, as well as getting into the present-day underground to varying degrees. I've always liked making mix tapes and cds, for myself and others, and I've often thought about a given album or song in terms of how it might factor into certain thematic mixes, whether I've made the mix or not. One sort of mix I have in mind is a kind of "anti-classic rock" compilation--songs that ought to have been on the radio right alongside the Stones and Zep and Dylan but instead ended up consigned to obscurity. Richard & Linda Thompson's "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight", though in one sense obviously "canonically approved" by Rolling Stone magazine, in another sense (its relative rarity; its absolute lack of any radio play in the US) fits right into this project. More on this in some future posts.


Scraps said...

Bright Lights is one of my favorite dozen albums. The title track is not one of my favorite songs on it, but every songs is at least good, and most of them are great.

Since you like other people's lists: I recently did an exercise of compiling a sort of hundred favorite albums, by picking two albums (one "pop/rock" one not) a year from 1965, one album a year back to 1956, then filling in the dozen or so spots left. That didn't really end up with my hundred favorites, because some years are much better than others, but it was fun.

Scraps said...

Incidentally, while I agree that Shoot Out the Lights, excellent as it is, is somewhat overrated, do you really like it less than First Light and Sunnyvista? Those seem to me genuinely weak albums. I think that's part of why the enthusiasm for Shoot Out the Lights: it signaled a creative revitalization after the weakness of the previous two albums, and since his cult had been growing over the previous decade, people were eager to hail a Richard Thompson album (and proclaim it to the masses).

(By the way, have you ever heard the scrapped Gerry Rafferty-produced sessions for Shoot Out the Lights? They have circulated on a bootleg called Rafferty's Folly, and I can copy it for you if you want. The differences are interesting, if you're a fan; the Rafferty sessions aren't bad, but they definitely lack the edge of the album that finally emerged.)

To me, the real underrated gem in the Richard/Linda catalog is Hokey Pokey, another album on which every song is strong, with a variety of moods and some of his most effective bleak ones ("Old Man Inside a Young Man," "The Sun Never Shines on the Poor," and especially "Never Again".

Richard said...

Hi, Scraps. I saw your list, actually. It was interesting and made me think of trying that exersize for myself (and I liked what I saw when I checked out the rest of your livejournal)...

I meant to clarify: I only have four of the Richard & Linda Thompson albums. I love Hokey Pokey, too, and, since it's been reissued, I only relatively recently found Pour Down Like Silver, which I like quite a bit. The others I've never seen, anywhere. I gather that First Light is pretty bad, and Sunnyvista slightly better, though I'm still curious to hear what they actually sound like. Your theory as to why Shoot Out the Lights was so wildly praised makes sense. I sort of think, also, that it sounds somewhat more American than the others, so perhaps that has made it more appealing to American critics. I would love to hear the Rafferty-produced sessions...

Scraps said...

email me at


Anonymous said...

I was in college when that list came out and bought Bright Light and Horses strictly from their descriptions, never having heard of either artist. Still mad about the Kinks absence, though.

Richard said...

Yeah, I bought a lot of music as a direct result of the list. I seem to recall that whoever wrote the intro to the list said that some bands got inexcusably left off because votes were split among their albums. The Kinks in particular. (Partially as a result, I'm sure, for the longest time I didn't really have a clear idea how to approach the Kinks, certain obvious songs aside.)