After diverging from the chronological walk-through of Danny Thompson’s career to discuss his work with John Martyn on the previous article in this series, we return to the early 1970s and find ourselves in the year 1972. Pentangle is no more, and Danny is about to start touring and recording with John Martyn, but in parallel he found time to record with a diverse range of artists. Let us review some of the highlights on that list.
We start with an album featuring music we discussed in the second article. In 1972, after releasing the excellent album Earth Song / Ocean Song, the married team of Mary Hopkin and Tony Visconti prepared a one-off performance of songs from Hopkin’s first albums. The event took place at The Royal Festival Hall in London and included a string quartet arranged and conducted by Visconti, Brian Willoughby on guitar and of course, Danny Thompson.
Unfortunately this was one of Hopkin’s final performances in the 1970s, and the recording had to wait for more than thirty years before being released in a CD format. Here is Earth Song:
Team Hopkin+Visconti continued to collaborate with other artists, husband producing and wife singing background vocals. In 1972 American folk singer-songwriter Tom Paxton benefitted from this loving music combo on his album Peace Will Come. After spending his early career with the Greenwich Village folk crowd and appearing in the Newport Folk Festival, Paxton moved to England, writing songs such as The Last Thing on My Mind and Bottle of Wine in the late 1960s. His early 1970s albums barely made a dent in the charts, but they host a fine set of songs and feature excellent musicians.
The song You Should Have Seen Me Throw That Ball, from Peace Will Come, is a good example. On it we find drummer Dave Mattacks and Brian Gascoigne on Vibraphone. Many years later Gascoigne and Danny Thompson would collaborate on David Sylvian’s wonderful album Secrets of The Beehive, but you will have to wait for a future article in this series to read all about that.
As the 1970s progressed Danny Thompson’s wide connections in the music industry brought him into more recording sessions. One of these connections was Pentangle’s manager Jo Lustig. After the band ended Lustig kept Danny Thompson busy working with other artists on his roster. One of them was Julie Felix, the American-born folk singer who moved to the UK in 1964. She recorded a steady stream of albums to 1969 and then started working with producer Mickie Most, eyeing the singles charts. One single was her version of If I Could (El Condor Pasa). For her next solo album she returned to writing original songs, resulting in the 1972 album Clotho’s Web.
Here is a nice example of our favorite bass player playing on this album. Julie Felix writes in the sleeve notes: “On Lean Years that’s Danny Thompson on bass, you can hear his strong upright proud bowing.”
As usual Danny Thompson’s credits list for the period covered here is too long to feature in a single article so we will skip a number of 1972 recordings on albums by Jeremy Taylor, Harvey Andrews and Sarstedt Brothers. Instead we focus on a couple unique albums, both favorites of mine from that year.
The first is B.J. Cole, who that year released his debut solo album The New Hovering Dog. After releasing three albums with the band Cochise he decided to go for less obvious music, as he wrote on the liner notes: “I broke away from this format to create a more experimental album that combines poetic lyrics with orchestrations and electronics. On this unique occasion I provided most of the vocals, ably supported by the ‘New Hovering Dog Bark choir’. The album features a strong cast of the top musicians of the time, including Danny Thompson, Mike Giles (King Crimson), Francis Monkman (Curved Air), Robert Kirby (Nick Drake), Bill LeSage and Graham Preskett.”
A year earlier Cole played steel guitar on Elton John’s Tiny Dancer and continued a fabulous career of guest appearances on albums by Uriah Heep, Scott Walker, Humble Pie, T. Rex, Procol Harum, Joan Armatrading, Roy Harper and many more. Danny Thompson will collaborate with him again on his second album in 1989, after a very long gap of 17 years.
Here is The Regal Progression, the fantastic opening track from the album, including Danny Thompson and a great orchestration by Robert Kirby:
And since we are on the experimental side, what about weird folk music courtesy of C.O.B. (Clive’s Original Band), who in 1972 released the curiously named album “Moyshe McStiff And The Tartan Lancers Of The Sacred Heart”? This was yet another band managed by Jo Lustig and at times they opened for Pentangle. Led by The Incredible String Band’s founder Clive Palmer, who left that band after their 1966 debut, this album here continues with the same spirit. Palmer connected with John Bidwell and Mick Bennett to form this trio and the three moved to an abandoned caravan in the country. Ralph McTell, also managed by Jo Lustig, produced the album. He remembers: “They survived for months on potatoes and digestive biscuits. There was a cowshed nearby with running water. All around was music, though, and that was all they really wanted.”
Bringing this loose band into the studio proved a difficult experience: “They were undisciplined, totally unaware of recording techniques. They never recorded bars or anything like that.” Danny Thompson recalls the experience many years later: “Ralph McTell asked me ‘Do you remember coming to the studio?’ I said ‘No’. He said ‘You came out to the studio and as you brushed past me you said ‘You’re mad!’ It was completely insane, the whole thing. Totally no direction. The album title is fantastic. “
Danny continues: “The album has become an unbelievable collector’s piece. Someone came to my house, he is a collector, he said ‘Do you mind if I have a look through your vinyl?’ I said ‘Sure, it is sitting there doing nothing.’ He goes ‘COB! This is worth 350 quid. I’ll give you 350 for it. I can sell it for 500.’ I said ‘Aye? If you haven’t said that I would have given it to you.”
When Ralph McTell talked to Danny Thompson about the album he picked the opening title as a favorite: Sheba’s Return – Lion of Judah:
Danny Thompson’s versatility also brought him into recording sessions for aspiring pop singers in 1973. Many of these sessions are buried deep in the far back of his memory, and he remembers close to nothing about them. As he said: “Can’t remember the session. Go in, do the stuff, leave.” Still, it is worth listening to some of these songs that carry his unique sound and style of playing.
Four years before scoring the hit Rock Bottom in the Eurovision Song Contest on a duet with Mike Moran, Lynsey De Paul released her debut album Surprise. Writing all the songs for the album and producing it, De Paul also got some fine musicians to play on that album, including drummer Barry De Souza, guitarist Gary Boyle and keyboardist Francis Monkman. While not the type of album usually covered on this blog, here is a fine song quite different from the usual fare, with great playing by Danny Thompson, and a string arrangement by Robert Kirby:
Another female singer to attempt a popular career around that time was Linda Lewis. A couple of years before going disco with her version of “Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)”, she recorded the album Fathoms Deep. Her unique high-pitched voice found her guesting on a number of high-profile albums such as David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and Cat Stevens’s Catch Bull at Four. Backed up by a major label, Lewis and co-producer Jim Cregan had no problem hiring the best studio musicians. On the album you will find keyboard player Max Middleton, bass player Phil Chen and of course, the ubiquitous Danny Thompson.
Jim Cregan writes: “He’s a great bloke and bass player. If you wanted a double bass player, Danny was the guy to use. We were in a nice position because there wasn’t any budget to worry about. We never had to think, well can we afford the best guy in town?”
Here is Red Light Ladies from that album:
We come back to folk music of the more progressive ilk and albums by artists Danny Thompson was well acquainted with. The first is fellow-Pentangle member Bert Jansch and his 1973 album Moonshine. Unlike the previous two albums in this review, this one is much more vivid in Danny Thompson’s memory: “This album meant so much to me. They ignored the fact that I produced the album. There was a financial problem, I was supposed to be paid production. Recently they said ‘Prove that you were the producer.’ I said ‘Who else could put that lineup together? Who could get Charlie Mingus’s drummer to play with Mary Hopkin, Ralph McTell and Aly Bain?’ I asked Tony Visconti to do the arrangements. I worked really hard on that album.”
The album was recorded during the last days of Pentangle with engineer John Wood. It is a wonderful set of songs crafted with the great musicians mentioned above plus drummers Dave Mattacks and Laurie Allen.
On the song The January Man Danny had an idea for a unique instrumentation: “I said wouldn’t it be great to have harp on that song? Because I was doing a lot of recordings and sessions, I knew of Skalia Kanga. In those days you’d get a song, you work out exactly how to go about it.” Skalia Kanga, a classically trained harpist who played with the BBC Concert Orchestra, was also a popular session musician whose playing graced the albums Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John, Faces by Shawn Phillips and albums by Caravan, Roy Harper and Rick Wakeman.
Danny continues: “I thought it would be great to get drummer Dannie Richmond to play with all these folkies. I asked him to do a day’s worth of work, not knowing these people. We were playing this tune in 5, Mary starts singing. Dannie puts the sticks down and says ‘Hey D., I knew you’re gonna throw some shit on me!’ He thought folk music was singing about Wales or something.”
Here we go, Bert Jansch’s cover of Ewan McColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”:
Another artist with whom Danny Thompson worked often is Donovan, who in 1973 released a fine album, although not very successful commercially. After releasing the glam-influenced Cosmic Wheels, produced by Mickie Most, and singing on Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies earlier that year, Donovan returned to acoustic music with the album Essence to Essence. The album is full of spiritual lyrics, accompanied by a front cover that shows Donovan kneeling in a meditation position with white clothes.
Here is a great song from that album, There Is an Ocean, with Danny Thompson bowing on bass.
Many years later the song was picked for the soundtrack of the action thriller movie Children of Men, alongside other great pieces of music including King Crimson’s The Court of the Crimson King and Deep Purple’s Hush.
Still in 1973 and another favorite album coming from a British folk tradition, albeit leaning towards the progressive side as was popular in the early 1970s. Back in 1969 Danny Thompson played on Magna Carta’ self-titled debut album and again in 1971 on their album Songs from Wasties. In 1973 the trio released their ambitious album Lord of the Ages.
The crown achievement of the album is the title-track, a prog-folk epic, half acoustic and atmospheric, half a rocking piece of music. Guitarist and song writer Chris Simpson talked about this track: “‘Lord of the Ages was originally a poem written for Glen Stuart to recite at the end of an album. I demo’d it at a friend’s house who at the time lived next door to John Lennon. I go him to recite the words and as he did, the tune came to me. I had it done in half an hour. I don’t know where it came from, all I know is that it was given to me.”
Danny Thompson’s bass and an excellent orchestral arrangement by Tony Cox work wonders here:
One of Danny Thompson’s most frequent musical collaborators was Ralph McTell, the two remaining good friends to this day. In 1974 McTell released the album Easy, co-produced by himself, Tony Visconti and… Danny Thompson. McTell: “I always try to work with people like Tony Visconti and Danny Thompson because I know them as friends as well as professionals.”
Danny Thompson talked about his friendship with Ralph McTell: “Terrific songwriter. All I did was serve the songs the best I could. He came to the horseshoe in 1968. That’s when I first met him and we have been friends ever since. He is a genuine bloke. There are no sides to Ralph. What you see is what you get.”
On the track Stuff No More we find Danny Thompson adding more instruments to his arsenal. McTell: “It features the amazing Mr. Thompson on Hi Hat and Bass Drum … in fact you can hear him complaining about the extra work over the intro.”
This was the year McTell released his best known song Streets of London as a single and won the 1974 Ivor Novello Award for Best Song.
A favorite song on this album is one dedicated to Maddy Prior, wonderful lead singer of Steeleye Span. Danny: “We all knew Maddy and the other bands. She used to do those wonderful dances on stage.” Here is a duo performance of “When Maddy Dances” at the BBC Old Grey Whistle Test in 1974:
The closeness between Danny Thompson and Ralph McTell led to songs that meant a lot for Danny: “He wrote some stuff that was very personal to me as well. ‘Weather the storm’, ‘Don’t go round butting doors or punching walls.’ That was the kind of person I was. My wife, I used to call my little mystery. He wrote the song ‘Sweet Mystery’.”
And since we are getting personal, this brings us to the next album, also released in 1974. We are coming to one more British folk royalty and a true legend who somehow eluded Danny Thompson’s rich discography up to that point. We are talking of course, of Sandy Denny and her album Like an Old Fashioned Waltz. Danny explained the reason for that elusion: “We were very close. It is not a well-known fact but we were together for about 18 months. People have written books and phoned me up and said ‘I want to talk to you about your relationship…’ I said ‘No no’ so I’ve never discussed it. If I would have been a person that would take advantage of that relationship, I would have done a lot more recordings with her, but I wanted to protect that. A friendship and a relationship is more important than business. May her resting place be forever perfumed with love, light, song and laughter.”
It was their mutual love of old jazz songs that finally brought the two together to a recording studio. Denny wrote in the album sleeve notes: “I like romantic songs. I am a romantic at heart…These are times when a touch of the romantic may be just what we need.” A couple of songs from her father’s record collection found their way to the album: ‘Whispering Grass’ and ‘Until the Real Thing Comes Along’. Danny Thompson plays on both of them: “She used to come on tour with me and come to my jazz gigs and I would go to her gigs. She said we should record together and I did not think it was a great idea. I did a gig with Humphrey Lyttelton who was a well know jazz trumpet player. She said she wanted to do a couple of tracks with these jazz musicians on it.”
Here is Whispering Grass, with a fine brass arrangement by Bob Leaper, together with Diz Disley on acoustic guitar, Ian Armit on piano and, of course, Dave Mattacks on drums:
We are not done with Maddy Prior, for in 1976 she released the album Silly Sisters with June Tabor. While for Prior this came shortly after her huge success with Steeleye Span and their 1975 hit All Around My Hat, for Tabor it was her first professional experience in a recording studio and her breakthrough album. Consisting almost solely of traditional songs, this is a beautiful album full of excellent harmonies you can expect from these two ladies of British folk.
Here is a fine example, the sad ballad Lass of Loch Royal, the tale of a pregnant woman rejected by the mother of her lover. In addition to Danny Thompson, who also participated in a tour that followed the album, we can find Nic Jones on guitar and Gabriel McKeon on Uilleann Pipes:
We shall skip a few recordings with Steve Swindells and Steve Ashley in 1974 and come to something completely different, in the form of the album Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow by T.Rex. Danny Thompson guested on T. Rex’s 1968 debut album “My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows” and on the request of producer Tony Visconti came to overdub acoustic bass parts. While for the producer this was not a gratifying experience due to drug-induced erratic behavior by the glam star, Danny has a funny story to tell about his session:
“Tony Visconti called me, ‘Can you come and replace the electric bass on one of Marc’s albums? I would love to hear you and Victoria.’ I went to the studio, put the headphones on and said ‘Don’t say anything until I had a listen and I am ready to record.’ I start listening to the track and I look into the control room and I see a lot of heated discussion going on. I said ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ Tony said, kind of quietly ‘Danny, I think you should come in.’ I’m thinking ‘Oh no.’ I go in there and Tony looks at the engineer and says ‘Tell Danny.’ The engineer, with a long hair that he kept flicking, turns around and says ‘I just can’t get a good bass sound, the bass sounds terrible.’ I went ‘Eh? That is the bass. There are no knobs on it, nothing.’ He said ‘Well I’ve tried everything, I done this and I done that and it just sounds terrible.’ They are all looking at me.”
Disclaimer: this photo has nothing to do with the session discussed here. It was taken a few years earlier.
But our favorite bass player was in luck, and his vast recording experience by that point paid dividends. He continues the story: “The interesting thing is, JBL speakers and Warner Bros. put an album out of instruments – trumpet, trombone, guitar, drums – that shows how an instrument should sound. The engineer says ‘The bass on this is unbelievable, fantastic. To me that’s how a bass should be.’ So Tony said ‘If you got the album, put it out and we will try to match it somehow.’ I’m thinking ‘If it’s Ray Brown or whoever it is, it’s got nothing to do with me.’ I am in a terrible position. So the guy finds this record and puts it on. Doom doo doom doo doo doo doom, and he says ‘See?’ and everyone goes ‘Wow!’ and I said ‘That is a great bass sound and it’s not Los Angeles, it’s a south Londoner – ME – playing THAT bass.’ It was the bass solo from Pentangling. If I had to make a deal with God – one day I’ll need you.”
Danny was never able to find out who the engineer was. I looked at the usual resources and could not find a credit myself. Maybe better so.
Here is a good example of Danny’s playing on this album, on the track Interstellar Soul:
A couple more albums of the folk flavor before we head once more to something completely different. We are in 1977 and Danny Thompson’s recording career is now much sparser. He focuses on live performances and throughout the period we are discussing here plays many live gigs with British and visiting American jazz musicians, unfortunately unrecorded.
After releasing a couple of very fine albums in the early 1970s, Dando Shaft went on hiatus due to lack of commercial success, and returned in 1977 with the album Kingdom. Not remembered today as one of the group’s prime recordings, it led to Danny Thompson who played on the album, meeting mandocello, violin and flute player Martin Jenkins. Both of them would be critical parts of Bert Jansch’s next album, Avocet. The album was recorded in 1978 and released a year later, a great album for Jansch to close the decade. It features wonderful arrangements and the interplay between the three musicians is fantastic.
The trio played live before recording the album, and on one occasion music journalist Karl Dallas reported the experience of seeing them live at Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1977: “It was a bit like a throwback to the days when we used to sit in the Horseshoe, amazed and bemused at the magic being made by the five individuals who fused and became Pentangle, and saw history being made. Except that there was no sense at all of deja-vu: this was quite obviously 1977, and the music being made was as different from the music of Pentangle as their music was from everything that has gone before.”
Danny Thompson co-produced the album, although his involvement to that level was ignored for a while. He says: “I’m a bird watcher. Bert had never heard of an avocet. He wouldn’t know what an avocet is, he would probably think it is a missile. I came up with the idea for the album, all the titles to do with birds. That would give it some identity. That was the only way I could convince the business people that I had some involvement. Who else was a bird watcher on that recording?”
The album was recorded in Copenhagen, Denmark. Danny remembers: “I was staying in a brothel, it was really embarrassing. Coming through the doorway with all these dirty old men to go up to my room.”
In a way this album symbolizes for me the end of the great folk revival of the British Isles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The genre ran out of steam a few years earlier, but this album and the significance of the people who made it, definitely marks an end of an era.
Here is an interesting tune from the album, a melody in 5/8 meter:
As promised, we now turn to something completely different. Danny Thompson’s less publicized music passion has always been jazz and blues. In his career he played with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Red Rodney and Art Farmer as well as Little Walter, Josh White, Joe Williams, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and John Lee Hooker. Even less known is his playing with free jazz musicians. Here is a case in point, a rare footage from a gig in Glasgow with saxophone player John Tchicai and drummer John Stevens from 1976. Tchicai had an impressive record of playing with the likes of John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler in the 1960s.
This brings us to the last piece of music in this article, and the last recorded evidence I found of Danny Thompson in the 1970s. It begins with a story from Danny: “I used to do an introduction support thing with John Martyn. There was a big concert at the Rainbow. John said ‘Can you do 45 minutes solo?’ I Said ‘Yeh ok, tell a few jokes, a few stories, play a bit.’ Chris Blackwell was there and live recorded it.”
The event Danny is referring to took place at the Rainbow Theatre, London on Sunday 16 March 1975. This was the last show before closing the venue for several months for a series of renovation and maintenance work. The night featured the likes of Richard and Linda Thompson playing Hokey Pokey, Procol Harum playing Grand Hotel, the wonderfully Canterbury music of Hatfield And The North. It was recorded and released as ‘Over the Rainbow: The Last Concert’ in April 1975 by Chrysalis Records. On it John Martyn plays the song You Can Discover with Danny Thompson and John Stevens.
What you will not find on that album is the bit Danny played before this esteemed crowd took the stage. Prior to the Rainbow performance Danny tried to interest Chris Blackwell in a solo studio album but got nowhere. Danny continues the story: “Island Records recorded the show but they basically wanted to record John Martyn. They also recorded my spot. So after the concert Chris Blackwell came backstage and he was going ‘That’s it! Unbelievable. I am with my mother and she thought you were amazing. That’s the album! We need a B-side.’”
And this brings us to the closing piece of music: “I said ‘let me get in a studio and record something.’ I got Allan Holdsworth and John Stevens. We go in there and we record that stuff. Totally free. We were doing a few gigs like that, as a trio. Then I got a message from Island that they screwed up the live recording. They gave up on the whole thing. They said ‘The advance we gave you keep it, don’t worry about it.’ When they heard the stuff I did with Allan Holdsworth and John Stevens they said ‘This is not what we wanted you to do’.
No wonder. Years later the tape of that recording, which took place on September 4th & 5th, 1978, was found. Danny: “I sent it to a studio to get it mixed and nothing happened. I phoned them up and I said ‘What’s happening with that tape?’ and they said ‘We still can’t find it, all we got is the sound check.’ I said ‘THAT is the gig.’ They were not used to hearing that stuff.”
The album was finally released in 2009 under the name Propensity. It includes two tracks, both featuring excellent musicianship by a trio of superb artists. Here is one:
In the next article we will reach the 1980s with a very eclectic mix of musical recordings in which Danny Thompson was involved with.
Read the previous articles in the Danny Thompson series:
Thanks so much for this series on Danny. First heard him on Moonshine, which I bought my freshman year at university in ’73. Desert Island disc for me. Later I saw him many times with Richard Thompson in both acoustic and electric settings. What a chap.
Your article truly demonstrates the breadth and versatility of Danny Thompson’s career. Fabulous. And I really love that COB story.