Thousand years to sing about for Richard Thompson
There’s nothing to beat the buzz of performing live, folk music icon Richard Thompson tells Andy Coleman.
If you ask someone what their favourite song is, or to draw up a list of the best songs of all time, the outcome will be dictated mostly by age and musical tastes.
Almost everyone, barring a few exceptions, will only choose songs from the late 1950s onwards.
Take the 1999 compilation album Music Of The Millennium, for example. It was compiled from a poll of Channel 4 viewers and aimed to give us an album’s worth of our favourite songs ever.
The oldest song on the album was Ben E King’s Stand By Me, released in the dark ages of 1961.
“It’s amazes me people have such short musical memories,” says folk legend Richard Thompson.
“Musicians especially – their influences tend to go back about 20 years, and that’s it.”
Richard and his band hope to redress the balance a little. They’re at the beginning of a UK tour called 1,000 Years Of Popular Music, a show Thompson has been playing for the best part of eight years and which arrives at Birmingham Town Hall on January 29.
In it, the Fairport Convention guitarist performs songs and pieces of music from any point over the past, you’ve guessed it, 1,000 years.
“The title of the tour is a bit of a lie,” he begins.
“It should really be ‘1,000 years of songs we in the band like playing, not necessarily popular songs’ but that’s not quite as catchy.”
Performed in chronological order, Richard, modestly accompanied by keyboards and percussion, might start with “a jumpy little number by St Godric from AD1000” before moving on through medieval Italian ballads, Elizabethan madrigals, the work of Gilbert & Sullivan, The Who, Prince and Britney Spears. Richard and the band do a rather special rendition of Oops!... I Did It Again, although rumour has it it’s been dropped from the current set list.
He remains secretive on what audiences at the forthcoming shows can expect to hear, although he concedes that the show’s second half is dedicated to the 20th century.
“Things accelerate rapidly from that point onwards, plus I don’t know how many people can listen to some of the very early music we play in abundance,” he admits.
“Even me! But it’s definitely nice to give a taste of those styles.”
While on the surface, it might seem like an aria from 1520 will have nothing in common with a punk song from the late-1970s, Richard maintains there are similarities, thematically if nothing else.
“Broad topics tend to be there consistently, definitely,” says Richard, who was once voted one of the 20 best guitarists of all time in a poll by Rolling Stone magazine.
“There are love songs, political songs, songs of social comment, and there’s always been dance music. We don’t link songs together in the show, though, it’s pretty much all over the place.”
Despite having mastered the guitar and a range of styles, Richard still enjoys the challenge the 1,000 Years shows bring, and while it would be easy for an artist of his reputation to bring in experts in the various genres touched upon, he feels a level of fun and amateurishness is important for the enjoyment of the band and crowd alike.
He also admits to being pushed to the limits of his ability by some of the pieces and arrangements.
“We do something by Gilbert And Sullivan, and it’s best played by a small orchestra, or failing that, a piano,” he explains.
“To render some equivalent of a piano arrangement onto the guitar is very difficult. We also do a piece by Purcell that’s very hard to play. Not so much physically, but to get the spirit of it is very hard. It doesn’t quite sing the same way, but it means I’m learning all the time.
“The day you stop learning, you’re dead,” he adds, emphatically.
The idea for the 1,000 Years show came from a rather unlikely source.
In 1999, Richard, along with a host of other famous names in the world of music, was asked by Playboy magazine for a list of the 10 best songs of the millennium.
Rising to the challenge, and determined not to go for the obvious, he researched his list in detail and submitted songs from various points in time.
Unsurprisingly, the list wasn’t printed in the final magazine, but the fuse had been lit, and an idea was born.
“The original show was at the Getty museum at this occasional service they have,” he says in his hushed, gentle tone.
“They said ‘Can you do something that’s not your usual show?’ as the theme of the concerts was that artists did offbeat things.
“This was in 2001, so a year or so after the Playboy list, but I thought it could be an interesting show as a one-off, which was what I intended.
“It went well, so they asked if I could do it the following year, so I did, then we started doing it in other places, and it then became this irregular, regular thing it is now.”
Despite heading towards his 60th birthday in April, Richard shows no sign of slowing down, with three projects currently on the go.
He plans to record an acoustic album later this year, with an electric album in the pipeline, as well as an orchestral piece he’s been commissioned to write.
Add to that ongoing commitments with legendary folk rockers Fairport Convention, who also curate their own festival in Cropredy, Oxfordshire, each year, and there’s clearly no intention of taking it easy.
“I love all aspects of being a musician,” he says enthusiastically.
“But for me the greatest thing is playing in front of an audience and that joy of communication.
“Playing live is the absolute pinnacle of expression.”