Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out The Lights

The outlook for the couple appeared grim, yet despite having no record contract, their marriage being on the rocks and Linda finding it difficult to sing, their sixth and what would be their final album together is now hailed as a British folk rock classic...

After a decade of recording and touring as a couple, Richard and Linda Thompson found themselves dropped by Chrysalis Records when their 1979 LP Sunnyvista flopped. They had made five albums in total, and brought two children into the world, with another one on the way. Clearly, it was time for a radical re-think.

Scottish singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty, going through his most commercially successful period, helped them keep afloat by booking the Thompsons as the support act for his 1980 tour. He also used Richard as a session player on his Night Owl album. So enamoured of the duo was Rafferty that he offered to finance and produce a new Richard and Linda Thompson album. Problem solved? Well, not quite.


While Richard was pleased with the songs he had composed, he couldn't stomach Rafferty's painstakingly detailed production methods. The result was that he fell out with him before the sessions were fully completed. With classic British understatement, Richard told Rolling Stone magazine, 'I don't think it was wholly successful'. Linda, however, said he hated it.

A Fresh Start
Nevertheless, Rafferty dutifully pitched the album as it stood to several companies, all of which turned it down, leaving Richard and Linda with an album's worth of material, but no contract.

Remarkably, out of this disaster, they were eventually able to fashion what is now widely regarded as the best album of their career. The story begins about a year later, when Joe Boyd [HFN Oct '16], who had produced Fairport Convention when Richard was their guitarist (and who had previously been engaged to Linda) signed the duo to his small indie label, Hannibal.

They reached an agreement to produce a new album quickly and cheaply in order to save money for an American promotional tour. Happily, as far as Richard was concerned, quick and cheap was a method that suited his spontaneous virtuosity right down to the ground.


The new album, Shoot Out The Lights, included re-recorded versions of six of the songs done with Rafferty plus two new compositions, and was said to have been mostly completed over just three days in November 1981 at Olympic Studios in West London.

The band assembled for this project was impressive, and included several of Richard's former bandmates from Fairport Convention – Simon Nicol (rhythm guitar), Dave Pegg (bass), David Mattacks (drums) – plus folk stalwarts The Watersons and Any Trouble mainman Clive Gregson (backing vocals). This familiar and amiable crew should have made for a comfortable few days in the studio, but Linda was suffering from breathing problems which made it difficult for her to sing more than a couple of lines at a time.

'It was bit out of the blue that Richard called me,' Gregson told Triste magazine, 'but in retrospect I kind of think he probably knew there were changes in his life and somewhere down the line changes were needed.' In another interview, Gregson was more specific, saying, 'Linda was very heavily pregnant, and I think she was physically feeling a bit ropey, and they just felt it would be nice having a couple of people propping up the croaking'.


From the outside, the sessions showed every sign of success. Hannibal Records' publicist at the time, Bernard Doherty, told Thompson's biographer Patrick Humphries, 'My abiding memory is of each day Joe coming back with a new mix, which we'd play on the ghetto-blaster in his office, and each one sounded wonderful. I think they knew they were onto something'.

Emotional Turmoil
Nevetheless, much has also been made of the emotional turmoil Richard and Linda were apparently undergoing, usually ascribed to an affair Richard was conducting with American talent booker Nancy Covey, but even at this distance it's hard to work out how much Linda knew of the affair while the album was being recorded. According to Richard, 'The songs were already written, the album was already recorded and it wasn't really until we took it on the road that the marriage stopped happening'.

Bitter Overtones
But Linda has said, 'I think we 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'.