Richard and Linda Thompson Shoot Out the Lights

The Dark End of a Bright Beginning: Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘Shoot Out the Lights’ 40 Years Later

Forty years later, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights retains its mystery and power no matter how much you read into it, or how often.

Shoot Out the Lights
Richard and Linda Thompson
15 March 1982

Like many LPs back in the pre-streaming days, I knew Shoot out the Lights from its cover long before I heard the album. It was in the apartment that my older sister shared with her partner, and she told me I wouldn’t like it. That was during my first year of college, when I was mostly into punk and what would later be called post-punk—The Clash, Gang of Four, Joy Division, Talking Heads, Television, X, etc.—so I probably would have liked it just fine.

The three songs from Shoot out the Lights that showed up on Beat the Retreat (the 1994 tribute album to Richard Thompson) were covered by X, David Byrne, and R.E.M. But my sister was probably thinking about the lyrics, which would have gone well over my head emotionally back then. I can’t remember exactly when I finally first listened to it or when it dawned on me that Richard Thompson was one of the reasons why I’d always loved the early years of Fairport Convention (1968 to 1970). Of course, that was before he went solo and soon hooked up with Linda. His legendarily poor-selling but enduring first album, Henry the Human Fly, was released in 1972 and featured Linda (then with the surname of Peters). From there, the pair would put out six albums together—four of them nearly perfect—between I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight in 1974 and Shoot out the Lights in 1982.

Whenever it was that gave me the good fortune of encountering this treasure trove of records, I know them exceedingly well by now. So much so that I was surprised to only recently notice that despite the creepy punk vibe of the cover, the LP doesn’t truly fit the unhinged violence you’d anticipate from a cursory glance at its look or lyrics. For instance, Richard is dressed neatly, right down to his shiny wristwatch. And he’s grinning. It may well be, as Nigel Schofield calls it in the booklet accompanying the 2006 RT box set, “a disquieting grin” that gives off an “inevitable sense of alienation”. To me, though, it’s more ambiguous than that.

Of the alternate photos from the same cover shoot that appear in the booklet to the 2020 Hard Luck Stories box, one shows Richard clutching his head between his hands in what looks like frustration or despair. Another shows him looking up at Linda’s picture with a bemused expression that’s difficult to read but is connected rather than alienated. The image they chose doesn’t quite match the album’s reputation as a document of how, as Time’s Jay Cocks once put it, “The Thompsons create a Powerful LP out of a Broken Marriage”.

Instead, that smile (to me) captures not just the edge of contained madness that characterizes the songs on Shoot out the Lights. I also see in it the thrill of creation and collaboration that one hears even in the most fraught performances of the “Tour from Hell” that followed the album’s release and sparked the Time feature. And I can’t help also but feel that the cover photo somehow caught Richard’s awareness that, whatever else was going on, he and Linda had just created a masterpiece. Even if, as Linda confessed later, they were “both were miserable and didn’t quite know how to get it out — I think that’s why the album is so good. We couldn’t talk to each other, so we just did it on the record”.

Richard Thompson is widely regarded as one of the great rock songwriters of the last 50 years, and it’s not hard to understand why. He specializes in the kind of extended metaphor that manages to tell a story by conjuring multiple intersecting levels simultaneously (without ever settling into any single conclusive meaning). Sometimes, this means a song like “Shoot out the Lights”, written in 1980 in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the killing of Mujahideen fighters (Richard had converted to Sufism during the mid-1970s). In the album’s context, those political origins take on the sinister domestic atmosphere invoked by the cover art. That could be insinuating a threat from a known or unknown stalker, or it could be the threat of violence that lurks in any relationship going off the rails.

This also results in tracks such as “Walking on a Wire” or “Wall of Death“, whose initial referent—especially in the duetting voices—feels like a tense relationship. Also, it equally imagines circus performances and sideshow rides as specific metaphors for art or life. And because the vocal and instrumental performances rise so perfectly to the occasion, these metaphors are devasting and terrifying while also somehow being satisfying and even inspiring. The vocalists, the guitarist, and the rhythm section never fall from the wire, just as the singers survive the “Wall of Death” and even appear to enjoy the ride. As a result, the songs here fully channel the worst misery relationships have to offer while simultaneously transcending those depths in the strength of the performances.

The key to this tightrope during Richard and Linda Thompson’s ten years (and six albums) together was the way that so many of the songs—written mostly by Richard—could be understood in multiple ways at once. Specifically, one could hear them as being written by Richard for Linda, as sung by Linda in Richard’s voice, as sung by Linda in Linda’s voice, or as sung by one or both of them about some other person or couple entirely. The gorgeous and heartbreaking “Just the Motion“, for example, borrows the rocking of ocean waves to capture the overwhelming force of everyday pressures. It concludes with the devastating but also consoling assurance: “Don’t worry / ‘Cause under the ocean / At the bottom of the sea / You can’t hear the storm / It’s as peaceful as can be / It’s just the motion / It’s just the motion.”

What’s worse, by the time they recorded the song for the album, Linda was pregnant with their third child, Kami, so the 1980 lyric “When the baby needs rocking” cut much closer to home. Yet, it’s Linda singing those words over Richard’s sparse accompaniment. She does several things simultaneously, including voicing her own dilemma and despairing or consoling herself with the dream of drowning (or perhaps the resignation to divine will or meditative mindfulness). She’s also singing Richard’s condescending or acknowledging tribute back at him, or she’s simply voicing Richard’s despair like a ventriloquist.

Similarly, when the duo sing “Wall of Death” as a duet, what could have been a glorification of masculine risk-taking instead becomes a shared expression of the inherent risks of relationships, or perhaps of performance, as a potentially deadly practice that is also “the nearest to being alive”. (For context, the Wall of Death was a carnival show involving high speed circling on motorcycles riding sideways in a vertical wooden cylinder. In Schofield’s words, it provides a “consciously-macho thrill”.) Whether meant to refer specifically to thrill-seekers or to describe an existential fact of life, that choice—like so many others in Richard’s lyrics—remains unresolved.

Befitting their traditional imagery of circus and carnival, “Walking on a Wire” and “Wall of Death” are the only two of the album’s eight tracks that sound a lot like pop songs (that is, if you don’t pay much attention to the lyrics). The former has the rising melody of Linda’s chorus and Richard’s elegiac guitar solo, whereas the latter features Richard’s ringing rockabilly lead. Not surprisingly, they’re probably the songs that changed the least since the abortive 1980 sessions with Gerry Rafferty (who was hoping to parlay his hitmaking success on “Baker Street” into success for the Thompsons). Both Richard and Linda had done session work on 1979’s Night Owl, Rafferty’s follow-up to his breakout album, City to City. And the stripped-down, live-in-the-studio versions Joe Boyd produced for his new Hannibal Records label were the finally released versions. Evidently, Richard felt that Rafferty’s slick multitracking style vitiated the power of his songs, while Linda actually preferred the way her voice sounded.

Richard has spoken in interviews of Fairport’s desire to find a British counterpart to the Band‘s unprecedented and influential mix of rock and roots on their first two albums, Music from Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969). (Obviously, there’s also The Basement Tapes with Dylan, which was first officially released in 1975. However, Fairport had already covered “Million Dollar Bash” in 1969.) As Richard remembered in Beeswing, his 2021 autobiography of the early years, “The Band’s style was in one sense what we had always aimed towards—roots-based popular music, with few concessions to popularity. Yet when we were presented with such a perfect synthesis, it was clear that their roots weren’t the same as ours.”

Those roots, he continued, turned out to be “home-grown music—playing Sandy [Denny]’s arrangements of traditional songs from England, Ireland and Scotland and composing our own music” with both traditional and rock instruments. Especially in Richard and Linda’s less traditional version of this mix in the 1970s, they also incorporated a generous slice of England’s music-hall tradition both lyrically and musically. Richard was equally conversant with the States’ roots, pop, and rock music as with those of the UK; however, his musical sensibility remains strongly grounded in the latter. The music-hall sensibility is mostly strongly heard on Bright Lights and Hokey Pokey, but its traces in Shoot out the Lights still offer a striking counterpoint to the punk-and-rock heavy songs that dominate the album. And this grounding may also explain why Richard reacted so much more strongly than Linda against Rafferty’s studio production: the pop sensibility of “Wall of Death” only makes real sense in a music-hall tradition.

Lyrically and musically, both “A Man in Need” and “Back Street Slide” play like hard rock boogie. Down to its horn charts, the latter could almost be on a Robert Palmer album next to the 1985 “Addicted to Love”, except for the jagged, angular, and almost atonal guitar solo (and the accordion fill that take it into less familiar territory). That same guitar fully takes over the galloping rhythm in the final minute of the opener “Don’t Renege on Our Love“, before a fading drumbeat marks the exit. It dominates the album’s darkest and most violent songs, “Shoot out the Lights” and “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed” (co-written with Linda) from the get-go, too.

These last two songs, in particular, suggest the resonance Shoot out the Lights had with punk and post-punk musicians in the US. Exene Cervenka and John Doe covered the title song with X in 1994. Released later the same year as Shoot out the Lights, their album Under the Big Black Sun had moved from their punk roots into a more mixed country-punk sound. This change can be felt in songs not only about the death of Cervenka’s sister in a car crash but, in “The Hungry Wolf” and “Because I Do“, the kind of ambiguous and ambivalent relationship songs Richard specialized in. It features lead vocals by Doe and Cervenka, respectively, and harmonies by the other half.

Beyond that, Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould has covered “Shoot out the Lights“, R.E.M. covered “Wall of Death“, and David Byrne covered “Just the Motion”. Still, because Linda had one of the best voices of her generation and Richard has few peers on either acoustic or electric guitar, it’s indeed difficult to touch the original performances. As their son, Teddy, sang in 2014: “My father is one of the greats to ever step on a stage / My mother has the most beautiful voice in the world.”

Shoot out the Lights broke Richard and Linda into the US market after ten years of futility; however, it was Richard’s solo career that would most benefit from it. The “tour from hell” they took to support the album, Richard’s first American tour in twelve years, was by all accounts a difficult one. “High drama,” Richard has said, “doesn’t always mean good music.” On the other hand, Linda recalls: “I was too annihilated on that tour to care about singing, so I was free of the effects of dysphoria.” They divorced later that year. Afterward, Richard embarked on a solo career full-time that continues to this day, with some 20 studio albums and at least as many live ones spread out over thirty years. Both Richard and Linda remarried in 1985, the year Linda released her first solo album (One Clear Moment) before her ongoing condition of hysterical dysphonia sidelined her career. She returned to recording in 2002 and has released several albums since.  

In 2010, Richard and Linda had performed an aching live acoustic version of “Go Leave” for a tribute concert to Kate McGarrigle. His guitar playing is eloquent, but he left the singing to her. Two of their children—Teddy and Kami—have also made musical careers, and all four collaborated on the 2014’s Family. Full confession: Shoot Out the Lights isn’t my favorite of the six albums; that would be 1975’s dark and meditative Pours Down Like Silver, followed by their explosive debut, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.

However, that’s merely an indicator of how good a run they had; as the title indicates, Shoot out the Lights was self-consciously imagined as the culmination and also the dark end of a run that, well, began so brightly. “People love to read stuff into records,” Richard has said about the album’s reception. Yes, they do, but like all the best recordings, Shoot out the Lights retains its mystery and power no matter how much you read into it or how often.