Fifty years ago, in June 1972, Richard Thompson released his first solo album, the magnificent Henry the Human Fly. It sounded like a record of British folk standards, but Richard had written the songs himself.
Several lazy months later, Warner Brothers issued Henry the Human Fly in the States. A handful of folkie "weirdos" – Richard's term – snatched up copies. It may be the poorest-selling record in Warner history.
"As rare as hen's teeth," Richard said, in an interview with AllMusic. "Promoted zero, and not a suitable record for the American audience, really, because it's far too parochial, far too British. Worst-selling ever, in which I take great pride."
Richard Thompson ought to be rich and famous. He has roughly the same pedigree as Eric Clapton and David Gilmour and Jimmy Page, all gifted guitarists from England with sufficient songwriting chops to lead bands and sell records and invade America.
But Richard's ship never really set sail. He came of age in Fairport Convention, at the vanguard of a British folk-rock movement that produced many fine albums but no smash hits even in England.
The great Greil Marcus, writing in the old Rolling Stone Record Guide, termed two early Fairport albums "the most distinctive and satisfying folk-rock LPs since the Byrds' first." The second Fairport album, titled What We Did on Our Holidays in Britain and Fairport Convention in the States, boasted gorgeous songwriting from almost every band member alongside stirring covers of Dylan and Joni Mitchell. The third record, Unhalfbricking, leaned in on Dylan with stirring results. The band's uniquely British take on folk music old and new cut a fascinating contrast to the American electric-folk stylings of McGuinn and company. The fourth Fairport offering, Liege & Lief, took a hard turn toward traditional British folk. Rolling Stone dismissed Liege at the time, but many critics embrace it now as Fairport's glorious peak. All three albums endure as folk-rock classics. None cracked the Top 10 on the U.K. album chart.
"It was always our ambition to write songs that sounded like they were old," Richard said. "We felt, the Brits are gonna love this, they're gonna embrace it. But sadly, they kept listening to the Stones and the Moptops."
Richard made one more record with Fairport, the excellent Full House, before leaving the band and launching a short-lived solo career. After a single album, he expanded to a duo with his new wife, the former Linda Peters, one of the finest folk-rock singers in England. Richard and Linda Thompson fared worse than Fairport, at least in commercial terms. But the pair produced at least two landmark albums. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, released in 1974, swooped back and forth from jubilation to heartache, sometimes in the same song, as Richard celebrated new love and exorcised old demons in a brace of extraordinary compositions. Shoot Out the Lights, released in 1982, chronicled the couple's disillusion and stands as one of the great breakup albums. The closer, "Wall of Death," turns on a love-as-carnival-ride metaphor that would surely move Springsteen to tears.
Both of those records pop up periodically on lists of greatest rock albums. Fairport enjoys its own currency, born of endless touring and annual festivals: the band has remained active on and off since 1967.
Less celebrated, by comparison, are Richard's great solo recordings. He has released more than twenty full albums as a solo performer, a discography amassed before, during and after his decade-long partnership with Linda. Perhaps none quite scales the heights of the two famous "Lights" LPs. Yet, the best of them rank as classic exemplars of songwriting and guitar craft: They belong in any decent record collection. Here is a sampling, starting with Richard's first, doomed solo effort.
Henry the Human Fly, 1972
Richard's solo debut drew so little notice, it's hard to find archival evidence that it ever existed. I had to track down a "coming soon" reference from the May 27, 1972, Record Mirror to affix an approximate date on its U.K. release.
(I have some experience with poorly chronicled album releases, having searched hundreds of magazine and newspaper listings to assign rough dates to unheralded B.B. King albums for my biography King of the Blues. In Henry's case, I searched far and wide and managed to find two "coming soon" references from late May in British journals, Record Mirror and Melody Maker. Richard's memoir and an earlier Patrick Humphries biography do not give even approximate dates, presumably because the biographers did not have them. As for Henry's American release, the earliest review on the vast Newspapers.com database appeared in January 1973, in the Chicago Tribune. Many online sources give earlier dates, but I found no solid sourcing on any of them.)
Richard wrote the twelve songs with chord changes and lyrical themes that plumb the depths of British folklore. "I'm writing these very personal, very eccentric songs," he recalled. "I just figure, this album's for me. It's not for Fairport. I left Fairport because I couldn't see where these songs are gonna go."
They are beautiful songs: Here, as on the Fairport albums, Richard produced new material that stood up just fine alongside Dylan covers and centuries-old folk classics. Perhaps listeners thought these songs were centuries-old folk classics. They paid the album little heed. The opener, "Roll Over Vaughn Williams," announces the songwriter's purpose, name-checking a great British composer who celebrated Britannia's folk tradition over ringing dyads on a droning electric guitar.
Compositionally, little on Human Fly resembles actual British folk music. Richard tosses in rock 'n roll choruses, stepwise chord progressions and relative key shifts, making this very much a modern rock album. Yet, the lyrics sound ripped from someone's very old diary. "I'm Darby the tinker and my brother is Tam," he sings on "The Old Changing Way," one of the album's finest tracks. The beautiful "Shaky Nancy" progresses through a sequence of sublime, off-kilter chords -- think Joni Mitchell -- that set it firmly in the singer-songwriter '70s. "The Poor Ditching Boy," perhaps the strongest track, cuts through to your blood with four simple chords.
"Strange people tell me this is their favorite album, not just by me, but ever," Richard said. "That's just weird... But the people who do like it seem to really like it."
Small Town Romance, 1984
Richard recorded this live set in 1982, before and after an American tour with Linda as their partnership crumbled. Hannibal Records released it in 1984 amid a professional divorce from Richard, who was moving to a major label. Richard didn't like the sound and persuaded the label to delete the record, but relentless demand forced its eventual rerelease.
"I think I mostly don't like the guitar sound," Richard said. "It just sounds a little brittle, like it's a pickup rather than a real guitar. For me to listen to it, it's a slightly annoying process."
For the fans, Small Town Romance offered a breathtaking overview of Richard's career to date: "Genesis Hall" from Fairport, "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" from the first Richard-Linda album, "A Heart Needs a Home" from the excellent Hokey Pokey, "Beat the Retreat" and "For Shame of Doing Wrong" from the superb Pour Down Like Silver. I, for one, had never heard those songs when I bought a copy of Small Town Romance: The older records were not particularly easy to find in the States in 1984. Three of the best tracks, the rousing "Time to Ring Some Changes," the hilarious "Love is Bad for Business" and the heartbreaking "Small Romance," weren't on any prior R.T. album. No wonder his fans clamored for its return to the racks.
Across a Crowded Room, 1985
This record marked Richard's return to a major label, Polydor, after a run of extraordinary work on the Hannibal imprint. It's a mature, pitch-perfect, warmly produced rock album, mercifully free of the mid-'80s studio atrocities that marred so many recordings of that vintage. (Thank you, Joe Boyd.) Lyrically, the record plays like a diary of a man recovering from a bad breakup, which Richard was. "You can't cry if you don't know how," he sings on "When the Spell is Broken." His narrator voices hope on "You Don't Say," more hope on "I Ain't Gonna Drag My Feet No More." And then, hope dies: The title of "She Twists the Knife Again" speaks for itself. In a parallel universe, George Jones might have covered these songs.
After the relaxed recordings on Hand of Kindness and Small Town Romance, the sleek production and contrapuntal harmonies on Crowded Room sound like the work of an artist looking for a breakthrough. Richard was. Sadly, he would not get it.
"You're lucky to find yourself in a situation where the record company is behind you," Richard recalled. "And they weren't."
Rumor and Sigh, 1991
Richard finally reaped some major-label love on this album, which charted in Britain and spawned a single that charted in the States. Hale Milgrim, a big fan of Richard's work, had ascended to president of Capitol Records.
"Just a great music guy," Richard recalled. "They do exist in music, thank God. Hal was one of those real music people. While he was at the company, it was like paradise."
The big single, "I Feel So Good," ranks with Richard's smartest and catchiest compositions, airy and jubilant -- until you listen closer and realize the narrator is a released prisoner with anger issues.
"They gave me a video budget, which had to be spent," Richard recalled: $75,000. "I could make four records for that, now." The money funded videos for "I Feel So Good" and "I Misunderstood," probably the finest electric tracks on the album, along with "Keep Your Distance," which, come to think of it, should have caught on as a Covid anthem.
Most Richard Thompson albums include at least one heartbreaking acoustic number in waltz tempo: On this disc, we get "God Loves a Drunk," an ironic commentary from one of the industry's few teetotalers.
The most enduring track on Rumor and Sigh, though, was "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," a fingerpicked gem about a boy and a girl and a motorbike. There was a time when you could walk into the acoustic showroom at any Guitar Center and hear someone playing it, usually after warming up on "Harvest Moon."
All in all, Rumor and Sigh "was probably the biggest-selling record I did," Richard recalled. "Still, it was like a blip to Capitol Records. It sold less than half a million, which is where they start to pay attention."
Mock Tudor, 1999
One evening recently, I challenged a record-collector friend to populate a list of great musical artists who released albums after age forty-five that equaled the high bar of their best earlier work. Aimee Mann came to mind. Lucinda Williams. Tom Waits. There aren't many others. One is Richard Thompson.
Mock Tudor offers one of the strongest sets of songs in the Richard Thompson canon, and he recorded it a year shy of fifty. The title alludes to a revival of the half-timber, Ye-Olde-England architectural style that gripped England between the wars.
"It's the suburbs," Richard said. "It's growing up in the suburbs. I can't claim to have grown up in a slum, I can't claim to have grown up in a palace." In fact, Richard grew up in and around North London.
The opener, "Corksferry Queen," stomps along like a rockabilly rave-up. "Bathsheba Smiles" unfolds as an intricate rock-guitar workout built on a minor-scale riff that invokes Neil Finn and Crowded House, one of Richard's favorite fellow travelers. "Hard on Me" winkingly sound-checks "Shoot Out the Lights," perhaps the most famous Richard-and-Linda song, and holds up quite well on its own. "Crawl Back (Under My Stone)" and "Dry My Tears and Move On" chronicle romantic failure like Richard's best work from Across a Crowded Room and Daring Adventures, his post-post-breakup LP. "Uninhibited Man" sounds a bit like a slowed-down reimagining of "Roll Over Vaughan Williams," the opening track from Richard's very first solo effort.
"I think you have to not believe in the rock 'n roll curve," Richard said, on the topic of aging artists. "The rock 'n roll curve says you have to be burned out or dead by twenty-seven. It was teenage music. The Beatles, interviewed in '65, would say, 'We can do this for another couple years.' That was the career trajectory at that point. But it doesn't have to be that way. If you look at the curve of a filmmaker or a novelist, you wouldn't get going till you're forty. Some people, like Tom Waits and Aimee Mann, have really taken the longer view, and said, 'You don't have to burn out, you don't have to die.' You don't have to kill yourself on the road. Back off just 10 percent and you'll live longer."
Daniel de Visé is a frequent AllMusic contributor and author of King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King.