The 33 1/3 Odyssey: The Sound of Falling Apart

Part 16: Shoot Out The Lights by Hayden Childs (#58 in the series)

review by Chris Estey

I’m really happy that in filling in for Spike in this series of reviews spotlighting the 33 1/3 book series I am able to write about an album that is probably in my top fifteen records of all time; arguably in my top ten. Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out The Lights was an anomaly in early 80s rock, an LP that hid nothing in the spectrum of human emotion. It didn’t dabble a bit in the studio trickery of its time, being full of heart-on-sleeve playing and emotions, and contains the classic songs “Walking On A Wire” (can a lamentation be this brutal?), the title track (a musical atom bomb covered by Bob Mould and X and many others), and the bracing, timeless “Wall Of Death” (can jangle be this dark or rock this hard on the bridge?).

With its beautiful and haunted vocals from both Linda and Richard, and the latter’s shimmering, often senses-slamming guitar lines, the eight song cycle sounded like the social experiments of the two previous decades coming to a nervous, shattering personal end. This sounded like seasoned playing from two people completely falling apart. Which was appropriate because the relationship of these two immensely talented veteran folk-psychedelic players was indeed dissolving, in marriage and in professional collaboration.

Richard had been at the center of Scottish legends Fairport Convention, raising that band’s best work above parochial playing-out, with Linda coming on board to accompany classic British folk-singer Sandy Denny near the end. As (High Hat website founder and blogger) Hayden Childs eloquently makes clear, the couple hooked up and turned to religion, which did less to liberate them from the drug-fueled madness of the times but instead turned their skepticism about the world into a sort of morbid cynicism about reality. Linda got the tougher end of the stick spiritually, due to their community’s misogyny, leaving Richard for a time after they created a couple of the best folk-rock albums ever recorded, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Hokey Pokey. (And a few less inspired works Childs doesn’t hesitate to briefly assess and dismantle.)

A 33 1/3 book could easy have been written around 1973’s Bright Lights (which I confess is actually my favorite album of all time), but as author-critic Michaelangelo Matos said to me, “Yes, it’s probably a better album even than Shoot Out The Lights, but the latter has a better story behind it.” And more critics know about it as well, as it came in a time when many of the best writers at Spin and Rolling Stone were getting into the scene, picking up on the lavish praise given by the music scribe elite of its time.

That story was the perfect kind of shit-talking rock and roll mythology, with Linda pouncing on Richard physically during their last few shows, and Richard pouring his torn heart into every note he played. And God, the songs. They had tried to record them with Gerry Rafferty (yes, the “Baker Street” dude), but I take an awful lot of weird pleasure in reading how they were discarded, so their meanings could match their sound in a later round of less commercial-aspiring session work.

That is some of my favorite parts of Childs’ book, and the kind of rock geek investigation that drives my own personal interest in reading the 33 1/3 series. I wish Childs had been able to interview Richard Thompson, but the other quotes are fine. Childs adds a fictional narrator, a philosophical folk rock doppelganger who assesses the moves of the declining couple as his own life spins out of control, in mordant comparison to Dante’s Inferno and Virgil’s Descent. I have to admit that I found this part of the book a little distracting, and a mash-up of perhaps more personal creative writing with a remarkably solid analysis of the Thompson’s output ends up feeling too ambitious. (Childs is similar to conceptually extrapolative Camden Joy, but gives a lot more of the archetypal solid rock write trivia and insight.) Fortunately, this interwoven subplot is pulled off enough not to ruin the spot-on observations and criticisms that fuel the rest of the book. It shouldn’t keep you from reading it, and you should buy the album Shoot Out The Lights immediately if you haven’t got it.

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