Richard Thompson, 2007
Photo: Anthony Pepitone | CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons [cropped]

Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’

Musically and lyrically, Richard Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is a provocative album that marks a radical advance in English folk rock.

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Richard and Linda Thompson
Island (UK)
30 April 1974

After he left Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson was determined to produce a body of original work that was steeped in the English folk tradition but which spoke to contemporary England. As he explains in his 2021 memoir, Beeswing, “I saw these songs as a kind of statement of intent: this was the way I thought British songs should sound from this point forward.” Thompson was determined to produce a native folk-rock that was not in thrall to American culture and did not imitate the sound of American pop.   

Thomas Hardy’s presence is evident in his early solo work. As far as he can remember, the recommendation came from his friend and fellow founder of Fairport Convention: “It may have been Ashley [Hutchings] who got me into reading Thomas Hardy’s novels. … They began to seep into my dream life and song-writing.”

Why Thomas Hardy? His novels are full of references to folk songs, the author having listened to them all his life – and played them too, being skilled on the violin. Hardy loved the village bands that kept the folk tradition alive in the area of England that he called “Wessex”, as seen in 1872’s Under the Greenwood Tree. Thompson was clearly drawn to Hardy’s dark vision of human life, whose work is considered pessimistic and fatalist. Certainly, his novels feature a remorseless “Will” that governs the universe, as seen in 1892’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Furthermore, Hardy conveys a deep sympathy for the victim, misfit, and outcast in his novels, as in 1895’s Jude the Obscure. His compassion is found in his poems as well, such as “To An Unborn Pauper Child”, “Tess’s Lament”, and “A Tramp-Woman’s Tragedy”. Those titles wouldn’t look out of place on the sleeve of Richard and Linda Thompson’s 1974 album, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.   

We might say that Thompson saw in Hardy a kindred spirit, although it’s more an imaginative affinity than a point-by-point influence. We can certainly find on this album a celebration of the folk tradition, a recurrent pessimism, and a concern for the victim. But these sentiments are Richard Thompson’s, and they find expression in a daring advance in the field of folk rock.

Musically, “When I Get to the Border’ is a perfect balance of folk and rock, with the strident electric guitar working in creative tension with the accordion, crumhorn, and dulcimer. Thompson has drawn attention to the “back-and-forth” conversation at the end ofWhen I Get to the Border”, which is “a kind of statement of intent … not lyrically but instrumentally.” He was, he reflects, “trying to suggest that the electric guitar could live seamlessly in the company of the other instruments, swapping phases, joining in unison, extemporising where possible. I was still on a mission.”

The point about the lyrics of this opening song is that where we hear the word “when”, as in the title and the chorus, we might just as well hear “if”. There is no guarantee of escape and liberation. Indeed, “When I Get to the Border” is as much about the world the protagonist is trying to escape from as it is about the “chosen land” that he hopes might lie beyond. Though he can dream of a road that is “Paved with gold beneath my feet”, he knows that his best chance of escape from his troubles is oblivion: “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.” Offered as a defiant jest, this nevertheless tells us how this imaginary journey might end.

If any song might count as the central statement of the album, “The Calvary Cross” is it. The slow, remorseless rhythm of the harsh, reverberating guitar sets the mood. We are given a series of symbolic utterances that resist easy interpretation. All we know is that our fortune is being told, if you will, and it doesn’t look good. We receive sinister portents that offer failure, darkness, and suffering. Under the cross of Jesus, who suffered to save humankind, the protagonist is tormented by the words of the “pale-faced lady” who watches him with her “one green eye”. Her only promise is pain. His fate is to serve her and ultimately to accept “My claws in you and my lights in you” – for “This is your first day of sorrow.” 

If “When I Get to the Border” is about a desperate search for liberation, “Calvary Cross” is an uncompromising denial of freedom. The two songs form an ironic pairing – a device that Thompson deploys elsewhere on the album.   

Sung by Linda Thompson, “Withered and Died” is a hauntingly melodic track. It is a lament over lost dreams, yet it manages to affirm some quiet dignity in the human struggle to survive. The singer has long since entered a “cruel country” which has “driven me down”, and now has only “sad stories to tell to this town”. The memory of former days that seemed full of promise – days in which she heard “kind words” and saw only “kind faces” – makes her consequent fall all the more pitiable. Abandoned by “a boy from the west” who had only stayed with her briefly, she reflects that this is typical of her life: “Count one to ten and he’s gone with the rest.” 

Though she can still be moved by the “silver moon shine”, she knows she will not find final peace in the human realm: “If I was a butterfly, live for a day, / I could be free, just blowing away.” A deep sense of sadness underlying all those attempts by human beings to find love, identity, and hope is beautifully conveyed.

In “Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight”, the mood shifts as Linda Thompson offers a defiant, earthy vocal against a strong, emphatic rhythm, evoking the sense of abandonment one might feel on a Saturday evening of drunken madness. The young woman we encounter here is determined to do whatever it takes to enjoy this life – even if it’s only for one night out of the week. The “crazy people running all over town”, the “big boys” who are “spoiling for a fight”, the “couple of drunken knights rolling on the floor”: this is “just the kind of mess I’m looking for.” The singer celebrates rejecting social norms and the urge towards total chaos. And yet … musically this is a powerfully uplifting song, thanks to the accompaniment of a brass band – also known in northwest England as a “silver band”, or sometimes a “colliery band”.  

In Beeswing Thompson explains the importance of this traditional form of music. “The British tradition gained strength from around 1800 and was very much tied to the Industrial Revolution. Every major coal mine, mill or steel works would have its own band, and there would be keen competition.” He also mentions that 1974 was a year of industrial unrest throughout England and that the silver bands played their part in inspiring the striking workers. The result for listeners is that, while they may feel superior to the drunken young men ready for a fight, they cannot, in all fairness, dismiss a whole culture that the music validates.    

We noted that “Calvary Cross” and “When I Get to the Border” form an ironic contrast; so too do “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” and “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight”. The young men out on the town in “Bright Lights” were determined to have a good time. Here, though, “the boys out walking, / The boys who look so fine” end up “bleary-eyed / Under a keg of wine.” The state they reach isn’t simply oblivion – which they may well seek – but despair: “See that lover standing / Staring at the ground. / He’s looking for the real thing. / Lies were all he found.” At the same time, as the drink flows, the lies become a state of total self-delusion:  “You can be a sailor / Who never left dry land, / You can be Lord Jesus, / All the world will understand.”

Here, the sheer absurdity of the roles played by these drunkards in no way prevents us from feeling compassion, perhaps even affinity. Which of us is above such pretence when normal rules of everyday communication are suspended, or we feel the world collapsing around us? Do we not often reflect that our culture is suspended on the edge of an abyss? 

A jolly, “come-all-you” tune complete with crumhorn, “We Sing Hallelujah” might seem to set the tone here, especially given the “Hallelujah” in the title – which can be used, according to most English dictionaries, to “express praise or thanks to God” or else to “express relief, welcome, or gratitude”. Although the song’s sound might be uplifting, the lyrics undermine all notions of a benign God or universe. The irony runs deep, and it refuses to let go. Life is a sad and sorry affair. Richard Thompson’s vocal is down to earth; life on earth is all deception and misery. Hardy would have certainly understood and appreciated the sentiment – though he would at least take pleasure in the rural folk format. 

“Man” here is likened to, in turn, a “rusty wheel / On a rusty cart”, a “briar” which “covers himself in thorns”, and a “three string fiddle” which serves no purpose unless “somebody scrapes on the bow.” So far, so vulnerable – but the devastating judgements on “man” go further: “He laughs like a clown when his fortune’s down / And his clothes are ragged and torn.” Ultimately, as Philip Larkin reminds us in a volume of poetry published the same year as the album’s release: “Man hands on misery to man.” Or, as Richard sings here: “A man is like his father – / Wishes he never was born. / He longs for the time when the clocks will chime, / And he’s dead for evermore.” 

Just to deepen the irony and to confirm the absurdity of the human condition, we end with the chorus: “And we’ll sing hallelujah / At the turning of the year, / And we’ll work all day in the old-fashioned way / Till the shining star appears.” We are going to have to wait a painfully long time for the unlikely manifestation of that heavenly body.

In “Has He Got a Friend for Me“, a comparatively simple song of everyday solitude and sadness sung with suitable yearning by Linda Thompson and accompanied by restrained guitar from Richard Thompson, we explore the ordeal that a solitary young woman might go through in a world where it seems that everybody else is pleased with their romantic attachments. She, however, is all alone on a Saturday night, which sets her thinking about a friend who will not be, as she has a good-looking boyfriend who’s “got it all there”. Addressing her friend directly, she begs her to find her someone who is “graceful and wise”, and doesn’t mind girls who are “clumsy and shy”. The poignant ending makes her sadness and feeling of inadequacy perfectly clear: “I don’t mind going with someone that I’ve never seen.” 

The previous song was about a woman at the mercy of others, always wondering if she is attractive and confident enough. By contrast, “The Little Beggar Girl” – again sung by Linda Thompson – is an extended shout of defiance by a woman many people look upon with contempt. She refers to herself as “only a poor little beggar girl” who will only be interested in a passing “gent” if he is prepared to “show me you’re sorry if you think it’s a shame.” Apparently crippled, referring in passing to her “peg leg”, she can nevertheless play the accordion and “please a gent such as thee.” 

There may be a subtext that she is also a prostitute, but either way, her aim is made clear toward the end of the song: “I travel far and wide to do the work that I do / ‘Cause I love taking money off a snob like you.” This is a woman who knows how to survive in a difficult and desperate world.     

The penultimate track of the album, “The End of the Rainbow”, is the darkest of all. It offers no hope, no guarantees. It could be said to undermine even the beggar girl’s determination to survive at all costs and her defiance of the odds. With a rhythm like a heavy and inevitable tread, this is the most uncompromisingly bleak song that Richard Thompson ever wrote.

Sung with some bitterness by Richard Thompson, it is a warning to someone whose life is only just beginning: “I feel for you, you little horror, / Safe at your mother’s breast. / No lucky break for you around the corner.” Why? Because the child’s father “thinks that you’re a pest”, while “your sister she’s no better than a whore”. Well, that’s not a promising start – but it gets worse as the newborn has his life mapped out in the rest of the song. As this desolate narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that the major problem will be the rest of the human race. “‘Tycoons and barrow boys will rob you / And throw you on the side.” Why? In one brilliant line, Richard explains: “And all because they love themselves sincerely.”  Violent assault will become the norm: there will always be a man waiting to hold a knife up to your throat – “And he’s anxious just to show you what it’s for.” 

Recurrently, the chorus clarifies: “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.”  That word “anymore” might suggest that once upon a time life was not the ordeal depicted here; it might even suggest that social reform might bring alternative possibilities. But the sound and tone of the song is so relentless, that we’re clearly in a world that Hardy would recognise. It’s spelt out clearly: “all the sad and empty faces” that pass you on the street are “all in a dream”. How to survive? “Every loving handshake / Is just another man to beat. / How your heart aches just to cut him to the core.”

Does “The Great Valerio” – sung slowly and dramatically by Linda Thompson – offer some sort of response to the preceding one? “The End of the Rainbow” sounded like an unanswerable ending – the final judgement of the human race. But now we have a song that seems to relish the capacity of one human being to overcome all challenges. 

In a circus performance, Valerio, the tightrope walker, stands above the crowd with his foot upon a rope: “The rope seems hung from cloud to cloud, / And time stands still while he is walking”. This kind of daring has not been featured in the rest of the album, but the chorus of the song seems to affirm it as a possible dimension of human life: “How we wonder, how we wonder, / Watching far below / We would all be that great hero, / The great Valerio.” We become “acrobats of love” – in our own minds, that is.

That said, the drift of “The Great Valerio” isn’t so reassuring. We might yearn to transcend our everyday humanity, but aren’t we still in a state of delusion? We’re all fallible – including Valerio: “Who will help the tightrope walker / When he tumbles to the net?” As the song ends, the theme shifts from heroism to betrayal: “So come with me to see Valerio / As he dances through the air. / I’m your friend until you use me, / And then be sure I won’t be there.” How are we to cope with such uncertainty?

Richard Thompson reflects on the ambiguity in “The Great Valerio”: “I think our final track, ‘Valerio’, leaves the listener dangling, which isn’t a terrible thing. It is the other musical choice, the opposite of satisfying, but I see lack of resolution as almost poetic, as keeping the questions coming, as keeping the listener returning for another crack at tying the strands together.”

In late 1973 – about the time the recording of the album was complete – Richard and Linda became interested in Islam – specifically, the mystical core of that religion, known as Sufism. According to Beeswing, they joined a Sufi community well before the release of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight the following year. It might, then, be possible – in the light of its composer’s comments – to say that in “The Great Valerio”, Richard Thompson was becoming open to the possibility of spiritual awakening.

That said, we should not look in his subsequent work (whether solo or with Linda) for songs that avoid confronting the pain of life. As a Sufi, he may have seen the “bright light” of divine revelation, but he knew very well that the earthly darkness never goes away.

Works Cited

Larkin, Philip. High Windows“. Faber. 1974.

Thompson, Richard. Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice 1967-1975. Faber. April 2021.