Linda Thompson – The dawning of the day
She was born Linda Pettifer in London in 1948, the daughter of a couple who had dabbled in vaudeville. After a few years the family moved back to Glasgow, where Linda lived till she left for university.
“We grew up in a housing estate in a working-class neighborhood, but my parents were besotted with anything show-business-related, because it was a way out,” she says. “If we showed any interest, they supported us. If you said, ‘I have an audition but I have an exam the same day,’ they’d say, ‘Oh, do the audition.'”
With this sort of encouragement, Linda became an actress, and as a teenager landed a recurring role on a televised soap opera. But her heart wasn’t in acting; it was in music. Her parents, like so many of that World War II generation, loved everything American — American movies, American cigarettes, American records. They played Hank Williams at home, and Linda’s school friends listened to Fats Domino and the Everly Brothers.
In her teenage years, however, Linda discovered Glasgow’s folk clubs. “For a long time, I thought music was American,” she relates. “But then I heard Matt McGinn and Archie Fisher in the folk clubs; even Martin Carthy came up to Glasgow. I was really taken by the storytelling in the songs. I like really long, really bleak ballads; I mean, I can listen to Martin Carthy sing 28 verses of a song and never get tired.
“Scottish people have a certain doominess,” she says. “We share Celtic connections with the Irish, but whereas the Irish balance out the sad stuff with happy songs, we don’t have that. We just have the sad. Bagpipes send some people running for the hills, but I love them. I don’t know why; maybe I was just born that way. When eugenics comes into its own, people like me will be ironed out.”
By 1968, Linda Pettifer had changed her name to the easier-to-pronounce Linda Peters and was singing the usual mix of Joni Mitchell songs and ancient ballads in London clubs such as the Troubadour, Cousins and Bunjies. She released two singles with her duo partner Paul McNeill, but they sank without a trace. It didn’t matter; she was 20 and enjoying life immensely.
“The Troubadour was a cellar, a dungeon really, but it was fantastic,” she remembers. “Everyone sang there — Sandy Denny, Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Paul Simon, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, and the Incredible String Band. We’d get five quid a night for singing, so no one had any money, and everyone slept on each other’s floor. We felt like we were doing something whose time had come. It was a bit naive, for folk music, even amplified folk music, will always be a minority taste.”
When Denny joined Fairport Convention, Linda found herself hanging out with folks such as the band’s virtuoso guitarist, Richard Thompson, and the band’s producer, Joe Boyd. She wasn’t too impressed with the guitarist, an earnest vegetarian who lectured her on the evils of eating meat. She was far more impressed by Boyd, the suave American — so impressed, in fact, that she dated Boyd for several years and even moved to Los Angeles in 1970 as his fiancee.
But when that relationship fell apart in 1971, Linda found herself back in London, where she sang a vocal duet with Denny on Rock On an album of rock ‘n’ roll covers by the Bunch, an ad hoc group that also included Richard. He and Linda soon became a couple and were married in 1972. Richard had left Fairport by then, but his debut solo album, Henry The Human Fly, had been hampered by his underwhelming vocals, and he began to see that Linda’s voice could be a vehicle for his songs as Sandy’s had once been.
“Richard’s singing voice has gotten a lot better over the years,” Linda says, “but I didn’t think he had a very good voice then. Someone had to sing those songs, and I certainly wasn’t his equal in the writing. I phrased things very differently from the way Richard did, but he was very generous; he would listen to any idea I came up with. If he hated it, he’d tell me, but he used a lot of them.”
The couple made three brilliant albums for Island: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1974), Hokey Pokey (1975), and Pour Down Like Silver (also ’75). Two less remarkable albums for Chrysalis, First Light (1978) and Sunnyvista (1979), followed. Richard & Linda supported these releases with modest British tours — sometimes with a band, usually as an acoustic duo — but never made it to the United States.
During this period, Richard, Linda, Muna and Teddy (then known as Abu Darr) belonged to a Sufi Muslim sect. When Richard converted in 1973, the fledgling family gave away its possessions and moved into the sect’s commune, first in London and later in Norfolk. But while the men spent their days praying and studying, the women spent their days washing, cooking and taking care of the children in a separate part of the house.
“The women were expected to stay covered up and keep their eyes down, and for someone as gregarious as I, it was very hard and numbing,” Linda says. “It wasn’t entirely without value, because I’m not as impatient as I was, and I accept things with more equanimity than I might have otherwise. It was easier for Richard, perhaps, because he was quieter, more self-contained. But for me it was seven years of bloody hell.”
By 1980, the duo still hadn’t cracked the 20,000-sales barrier. So when Gerry Rafferty, fresh off his smash single “Baker Street”, offered to co-produce the Thompsons’ next album with Hugh Murphy (who produced Rafferty’s City To City album), Richard & Linda jumped at the chance. But Richard soon rebelled against Rafferty’s insistence on doing multiple takes and multiple overdubs to get the cleanest, fullest sound possible. The two weren’t speaking by the time the album was finished.