After three decades in the music business, you'd hardly think that Richard Thompson would require an introduction. But despite the fact that several of his records show up like cats 'round a tuna tin every time critics put together a "Best-Albums-of-all-Time" list, Thompson has largely escaped the attention of the general record-buying public.
Serious popular music fans, however, know Thompson well. As a founding member of Fairport Convention, Thompson helped revolutionize English folk music on such '60s albums as Liege and Leaf and Unhalfbricking. And in the 1970s and early '80s, Thompson made a series of emotionally gripping and unconventionally romantic albums with his then wife Linda Peters Thompson. Among these I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight and Shoot out the Lights are universally regarded as classics. None of these records sold a lot of copies in the grand scheme of things, but they paved the way for Thompson's solo career and earned him the deserved reputation as a profoundly talented singer/songwriter and guitarist. Further proof of Thompson's fine musicianship comes in the form of Capitol Records' new 19-track retrospective. Entitled Action Packed: The Best of the Capitol Years, the album stands as an excellent introduction to the past 13 years of Thompson's career. "I was happy with the selection," Thompson says of the songs chosen for Action Packed.
"I made a few suggestions that (Capitol) listened to strangely enough. I think one could nit-pick forever. I'm glad someone made some executive decisions."
Thompson suggestions to Capitol were mostly over which versions of tracks would appear on the compilation. "They had included in-concert versions of some songs instead of the album versions," Thompson says. "I just thought that was diluting the intent of the record in many ways. And I thought, 'well, the recorded versions are kind of definitive. The live versions are more for people who like that sort of thing.' Having said that, there is a live cut on the end, of course. A live version of "Persuasion." "Persuasion" is Action Packed's lone unreleased track. (The two other rarities, "Mr. Rebound" and "Fully qualified to Be Our Man," are from the vinyl version of Thompson's 1999 release, Mock Tudor.) Anyone who saw Thompson on tour in 1999 will probably remember "Persuasion, " sung with Thompson's son Teddy Thompson, as one of the highlights of the set. And its inclusion on Action Packed may give Thompson fans whom already own all of his Capitol recordings reason enough to plunk down 14 bucks for this new collection. Thompson explains the song's rather complicated history.
"It started out as an instrumental piece for a movie called Sweet Talker, an Australian film that did such stunning business at the box office that they were forced to take it away from cinemas to prevent people getting crushed and killed," jokes Thompson. "Then Tim Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House) put some words to it, and he put it on his solo album of five or six years ago. And then when I was thinking of things to sing with Teddy, Teddy said, "How 'bout Persuasion? I know it anyway, because I'm a Tim Finn fan. I've got all of Tim's records.' And I thought, 'Well that's OK,' (laughing), cause I know that one as well and it's an easy rehearsal process. And It became very popular in concert. It seemed to go down very well."
Another perennial Thompson concert favorite is "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Originally recorded for Thompson's Grammy nominated Rumor and Sigh LP and also included on Action Packed, the song holds the curious distinction of being the most requested song in the history of National Public Radio.
As often is the case with "Best of" or "Greatest Hits" albums, Action Packed: The Best of the Capitol Years signals that Thompson's tenure with the label has come to an end. After five albums, it seems that Thompson was no longer a priority with the label. "Well it was really the end of the contract," says Thompson of leaving Capitol. "At this point, I can't see that any major record company is going to be serving the interests of someone at my level. It was an amicable split, but I really have to look somewhere else, I think."
And just what is Thompson's level? He may not sell a lot of records, but there is a certain amount of prestige that comes with having an artist of Thompson's caliber on a label roster. But being seen as a prestige act, as Thompson has found, can be a double-edged sword. "I've been a prestige act on several labels," he explains. "I've gotten the strong impression or I've been told that 'this is the reason we signed you. You're such a great artist, blah, blah, blah. We love having you on the label. You know, just make records forever.' But that doesn't necessarily mean that they will promote you at all. So sometimes you're better off with a smaller hungrier label that is actually going to do some work. Or perhaps you're better off sticking the stamps on them and mailing them out yourself. Sometimes the person that signed you as a prestige act gets fired a week later and you have a six year contract, and that's not very good either."
Not surprisingly, Thompson has left Capitol to find numerous offers waiting for him. In any event, he plans on having a new album out sometime next year. In the meantime, Action Packed is a good listen for longtime fans and a good primer for those who are unfamiliar with consistently excellent work of Richard Thompson.