Danny Thompson, part 5: 1980-1986

The first four articles in this series chronicled Danny Thompson’s recording career in the 1960s and 1970s. As expected a large portion of the recordings consisted of British folk music in all its varieties – traditional, rock, jazz, psychedelic and everything in between. In the next two articles we will look at the 1980s, with Danny extending his musical interests and collaborations to music from other parts of the world. In parallel he played on albums made by successful popular music acts, lending his unique acoustic sound to musicians who blended it with new recording technologies that became available in the 1980s.

Towards the end of the 1970s Danny Thompson found himself disillusioned with the music industry and tired of the wild life he was leading while on the road with John Martyn and other acts: “I got in a bit of a state. John was taken over by management, they were trying to make him into a new Bob Dylan. They did not understand the duo thing. They thought ‘These two bad boys together. If we get rid of one bad boy and we just have John then we can make him into a solo artist with a band.’ I was depressed and went through a dark period.”

What’s a man to do in that state? Naturally, buy three horses and start riding. In 1973, after Pentangle was no more, Danny purchased a 16th century Manor in Clopton, Suffolk with 27 acres of land. It served as a home-base retreat when he was not touring. He started a jazz series in one of the local pubs playing traditional jazz, all the while imbibing considerable amounts of alcohol. Horse riding was a new-found love: “I have never been into horses. You become addicted, they are so wonderful. I used to ride all day, learned how to ride, jump.” Living in Clopton and roaming the land on a horse put Danny in close proximity with high society and one Lord Tollemache of Helmingham. He remembers: “He owned pubs, breweries. He said to me ‘Any time you want to go riding, I built a cross country course on my grounds.’ I used to come to the gate, press the secret code and ride all day.”

Danny Thompson 1978

You will be hard pressed to find any recording with Danny Thompson after the beginning of 1978 and through the next 24 months, and a slow rise in recording output afterwards. Danny quit drinking in 1978 and found a different outlet for his creativity: Film making and scoring, also combining his love or all creatures great and small, wise and wonderful, bright and beautiful. A true lover of nature, Danny was an avid birdwatcher (hence the song titles on Bert Jansch’s album Avocet, which he produced). His next adventure added a complete zoo to the arsenal, in the form of a partnership with John Aspinall. The lifelong gambler who is said to have cleaned out the aristocracy in the 1960s by hosting gambling nights, was also a lover of animals. With his fortune he founded two non-traditional zoo parks, encouraging keepers to come into close contact with the animals. We are talking wild tigers here, mind you.

How did Danny Thompson get into a partnership with John Aspinall, you ask? This is the story in his own words: “There was a filmmaker called Roy Deverell. He made a film about a balloon (note: Flames over the Sahara, 1975). He wanted Harry McNair to go into the studio and play free to the music, which is something I really love. We had nothing written, we played how we felt the film. He loved it and he said ‘I’m working with this person making films for John Aspinall who got his own private wildlife collection – tigers, gorillas, leopards, wolves.’”

The offer combined the best of both worlds for Danny: music and the animal kingdom. Aspinall was an idol for him as a wildlife person. When Roy Deverell made a film with John Aspinall called “Passion to Protect”, Danny Thompson recorded the music for it. He went farther: “I also did the sound, Roy shooting and his son acting as assistant cameraman. We’d film the animals and I really loved it. I used to go in with the tigers and gorillas. They were used to me filming them.”

Danny Thompson with striped friends

At some point a business opportunity came about: “Roy said ‘Its ridiculous renting all these cameras. Why don’t we ask John Aspinall to finance it and we would film free?’ We spoke with John Aspinall and we said let us make 6 films. We’ll form a new company, call it Hero Production with John Aspinall, Roy Deverell and Danny Thompson. We will have access to the animals that no one else got. There is fantastic footage of him with a gorilla picking his eyebrows. At night I used to go sit in the woods with my tape and record wild sounds, howl of monkeys and things. When we made the film I could edit all these sounds in.”

Danny Thompson became an astute businessman, making offers to people with deep pockets: “I am talking to this serious financier and I said ‘If you stick a quarter of a million quid in, this will setup the company. We will get worldwide distribution for education, schools. I had all these ideas, you will be impressed. I said ‘Every video that we sell to schools, we put a piece of paper in that says ‘This allows one child free into your zoo.’ He said ‘Ok, I’ll put a quarter of a million dollars. The worst thing that can happen is it will be an expensive video.’”

Here is the film A Passion to Protect, filmed at John Aspinall’s estates. The music was composed and arranged by Danny Thompson who also plays the bass, with Tony Roberts on flute, saxophone and northumbrian pipes, and Stan Tracey on piano.

As with his music, Danny was a professional to the utmost with film making: “We were really serious. Sometimes when it snowed heavily and the roads were blocked, I would call Roy and say ‘We got to get down there so we can film the snow leopards in the snow and we can sell it as library pictures. When the BBC will do a documentary about snow leopards they will use these pictures and bang! – money.’” Unfortunately the partnership did not last and ended in the early 1980s.

This was a long introduction to this article, and we can now start looking at Danny Thompson’s musical journey through that decade. Danny kept getting offers to record and tour with musicians during his absence from the music scene, but for a number of years he declined them: “People would call and say they have gigs. I said ‘No, no I’m really busy.’” Starting in 1980, he inched his way back into music, with a trickle of recordings early in the decade that kept increasing year over year.

The first recording I found after Danny Thompson’s hiatus is with German singer-songwriter Hannes Wader, who was a member of the German Communist Party with a repertoire based on workers’ songs and socialist hymns. Wader contacted Danny and asked him to play on his album Es Ist An Der Zeit (English: Time Has Come).

The title song is Wader’s cover of No Man’s Land, a song by Scottish-born Australian folk singer-songwriter Eric Bogle, also known as “The Green Fields of France”. An anti-war song set in the battlefields of World War I, Wader’s version became one of the anthems of the German peace movement in the 1980s. It is still played often to this day and has been covered by many other German artists. A mostly unknown fact in Danny Thompson’s discography, it is probably one of the most popular songs he plays on:

Recording in Germany got other musicians there interested in Danny Thompson. One of them was Vic Abram, an Englishman who moved to Germany and had a guitar shop in Hamburg. He was a big fan of the British folk scene, and asked Danny to play on a number of his albums. In 1981 he released the album Welcome Joy, Welcome Sorrow on pläne, a small German record label specializing in left-wing political songs. Here is a fine example of Danny’s playing on the song Whichever Way the Wind Blows:

Vic Abram would connect again with Danny Thompson in 1994, producing and playing on “An Album of English Christmas Carols”, featuring Jacqui McShee, Danny Thompson, Vic Abram and Tony Roberts.

One of the first to call Danny Thompson when his adventures in wildlife filming came to an end was a familiar collaborator. At the end of the 1970s Donovan’s popularity declined with the rise of punk, and kids with mohawks saw him as an irrelevant hippie. In 1981 he had a respite with a guest appearance at the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. This was the fourth time the event, sponsored by Amnesty International, was staged and the second time with the Secret Policeman’s title. This time it featured high-profile performers including Eric Clapton, Sting, Phil Collins and others. Accompanied by Danny Thompson, Donovan performed some of his well-known songs including Colors, Sunshine Superman and Catch the Wind. Billy Connolly joins the first song on Banjo. Notice an audience member yelling at him “I thought you were dead!” and Donovan answering “Not yet.”

Two months after that performance, Donovan played a concert in Glasgow that was filmed for Scottish TV with a band that included Danny Thompson, drummer John Stevens and reed player Tony Roberts. That lineup recorded the album Love Is Only Feeling in 1981 on the RCA German label, which was released in the UK two years later. Here is another great footage of Danny Thompson with that wonderful group of musicians playing a mix of Donovan’s old favorites and new songs.

A day earlier Donovan played at the annual Royal Variety Performance, attended by Queen Elizabeth II. Other performers included The Shadows, Cliff Richard, Lulu, the Searchers and many others. Danny Thompson remembers: “One year they had the hit people of the 60s. There is a film of Donovan singing Mellow Yellow. It starts off with John Stevens. He had a few drinks.”

1982 comes along and brings with it the first appearance of Danny Thompson on a Kate Bush album. That year Bush released her album The Dreaming and Danny plays on one song, Pull Out the Pin. For most music lovers who know of Danny Thompson, he is the bass player on many great British folk albums. With this song here, and for the rest of the 1980s, Danny proves that he is a very versatile musician who can play any genre of music. Pull Out the Pin is as far from folk music as it gets.

Danny’s memory of working with Kate Bush: “She used to come and see me with John Martyn. She is a wonderful lady, fantastic. On Pull Out the Pin they put the bass through a sampler. Instead of having a pure acoustic sound they did their own thing. They asked ‘Is that ok?’ I said ‘I’m just the server. You paid me to work for you, do what you like.’ I am not going to get precious, ‘Don’t mess with my bass sound.’”

That sampler was the Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument), a digital music workstation made famous by early adopter Peter Gabriel, who introduced it to Kate Bush. Always on the look for new sounds that spark her creativity, the Fairlight was a perfect match for Bush: “It introduced a whole new library of sounds that I was able to access. And the Fairlight had a very specific quality to its sound which I really liked, so it was very much a sort of atmospheric tool for me.” Here is the song, also featuring Preston Heyman on drums. Notice one Dave Gilmour singing backing vocals.

In 1983 Danny Thompson can be found on an album by new wave band Blue Zoo. The album was produced by Tim Friese-Greene just before he became producer of Talk Talk and close collaborator of Mark Hollis. The song Danny plays on in Blue Zoo’s album, Love Moves In Strange Ways, sounds like a precursor to the sound Talk Talk became famous for. Andy Overall from Blue Zoo, who had one hit with Cry Boy Cry that year, talked about the band’s connection with the great producer: “I loved Talk Talk and I think they liked what Tim was doing with us and that was where they entered the fray with Tim. I’d have loved to have taken that direction with Tim, that would have been fantastic.” Blue Zoo disappeared from the scene by the mid-1980s, but here is a fine song with Danny Thompson on bass. It failed to chart, but was a single of the week in NME:

We enter 1984 and come to one of my favorite artists, who released his debut solo album that year. Less than two years after the band Japan was no more, David Sylvian released the fantastic album Brilliant Trees. The list of guest appearances on the album is as impressive, including Jon Hassell, Mark Isham, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Holger Czukay and fellow members in Japan Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen.

Sylvian talked about his method of working with musicians in the studio: “With the majority of people I collaborate with, there is a mutual respect of some kind established. There is very rarely a problem involved with creating the music. When I’m arranging a piece of music, it’s the composition or arrangement itself that is crying out for a certain voice. So, it’s a matter of inviting a musician in to see if they can make that link. More often than not, there is a need for a dialogue of some kind to establish the common ground. The common ground already exists in my mind and I’m hoping that the musician coming in to work with me can recognize that. I have to say that nine times out of ten it works extremely well.”

Like many other musicians who called on Danny Thompson’s services, Sylvian was aware of the bass player through his work with Nick Drake and John Martyn. Both of them have been early influences on Sylvian: “Drake and Martyn have both been part of my music regimen for decades. Of Martyn, however, I only listened to his acoustic discs. It may not be so obvious, but I often felt a deep kinship with Drake.”

Danny Thompson plays on one track, The Ink in the Well, which was released as the second single from the album. He is very prominent in the mix, with the bass driving this wonderful song forward. You will also notice a flugelhorn solo at 2:50. Trumpeter Kenny Wheeler goes a long way back with Danny since they were both active in the British jazz scene of the 1960s. Danny remembers: “They said ‘We fancy a trumpet on that song, do you know anybody?’ I said ‘I know just the man’ and I brought Kenny Wheeler. He had not done that kind of music. He phoned me and asked ‘What do I have to do?’ and I said ‘You’ll hear it, just play. That’s what I did.’ What he played was just fantastic.”

One more anecdote from Danny about that session, this one involving drummer Steve Jansen: “I was in the control room and they were recording the drums. I heard this young drummer Steve. I said to them in the studio ‘Wow, that’s fantastic, to hear a young drummer play brushes so well.’ They said ‘That’s his brother.’ Good thing I did not say ‘What a crap drummer.’ But he is a very musical drummer.”

1984 also saw Danny Thompson expanding his musical horizons and taking part in an album of ethnic music, a trend that will continue through the rest of his career. In 1983 he accompanied Donovan on a tour of Australia and got exposed to music originating from the other side of the world. Donovan’s opening act was Mara!, a group led by vocalist and percussionist Mara Kiek. An expert in the Bulgarian vocal tradition, her group played Middle Eastern, Balkan and Mediterranean music. Danny remembers: “I thought ‘They are fantastic, I have to play with them.’ They wanted me to play with them on their opening spot. I said ‘I can’t, I’m playing with Donovan right after. It will look bad.’ When they came to England they said ‘Can you do an album?’ I said ‘Yeh!’ They eventually asked me to go to Australia and tour with them.”

Mara Keik and Danny Thompson, 1986. Photo by Anthony Lewis/Fairfax Media via Getty Images.

Balkan music was not a familiar musical style for Danny Thompson but he fell in love with it. For folks used to playing English folk music, jazz and blues, it takes a mental transition to play that music. Rhythmically it is based on odd meters that are second nature to those who grew up on it, but foreign to audiences used to accents of 2 and 4 as most popular western music is. Danny remembers the challenge: “They thought me Bulgarian music. It was great for me to learn authentic Bulgarian traditional tunes. When I did my own albums, I used some of that, all these rhythms in 5, 7, 9. I said ‘Look, I can’t play music thinking 1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2-3. Just sing me the song and I’ll learn it. Teach me the dance and I’ll understand the rhythm more.’”

Danny plays on Mara!’s debut album Images, released in 1984. Here is a traditional Greek song, this one in a meter of 7/8.

Also in 1984 we have an album that was a result of an almost original-Pentangle reunion. Four of the fab five members came together to tour and record an album. John Renbourn opted to focus on music studies, replaced by violin and guitar player Mike Piggott. The result was Open the Door, a very fine album even if not well known compared with their output during their heyday. It features excellent playing by our favorite bass player. Here is the album closer, with a great bass solo at 2:30:

In 1985 Kate Bush released the album Hounds of Love, considered by many the peak of her career. I dedicated a full article to this album, so you can read all about it here:

Danny Thompson contributes his versatile bass playing to one song on the album, Watching You Without Me. This is one segment in the song cycle The Ninth Wave which tells the story of a person drifting in the sea at night. In this song imagination takes the drifting person into their beloved ones’ home, watching them worried about their loved-one whereabouts.

Danny Thompson has nothing but compliments when talking about Kate Bush as a person and a musician: “She is a dream person to work with. People assume that these iconic people are beyond touch. You pull out to her house and she says ‘Hello Danny, want a cup of tea?’ Then you go in the studio and it is the other person that is serious about the music. It is a great profession to be in when you work with great artists who are also really fine people.”

In 1985 and 1986 Danny Thompson played on two albums by Loudon Wainwright III, both of them produced by Richard Thompson. Loudon writes in his book Liner Notes: “The mighty Richard Thompson had played on my 1982 record, Fame and Wealth, back in New York, and when I got over to London I enlisted him as my producer on I’m Alright (1985), and again as a co-producer (with Chaim Tannenbaum) on More Love Songs (1986). Both those albums were nominated for Grammys.”

Both albums also feature great supporting musicians. The 1986 album More Love Songs  includes Dave Mattacks on drums, Martin Carthy on guitar, John Kirkpatrick on accordion and of course, Richard Thompson on guitar and mandolin.

Here is the album opener Hard Day on the Planet, a great song with a fantastic bass accompaniment by Danny Thompson:

Two more from 1986, both among my favorite albums from that year. The first shows yet again Danny Thompson’s ability to adapt to any music style you throw at him. German singer Dagmar Krause was active in art rock and avant-garde bands since 1972, including Slapp Happy, Henry Cow and Art Bears. Her love of cabaret music brought her naturally to Weimar-era music and the collaborations between playwright Bertolt Brecht and composers Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. In 1985 she performed the song Surabaya Johnny on the Hal Willner production Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill. In 1986 she dedicated a full album to these musical collaborations, named Supply and Demand. It was released on Joe Boyd’s label Hannibal, a label that will keep Danny Thompson busy in the next few years. Richard Thompson is also on board and here is a well-known tune from the album, Moritat (Ballade von Mackie Messer), or Mack the Knife to English speaking audiences:

Time for one more. Remember Tim Friese-Greene who produced the Blue Zoo album? In 1984 he started working with Talk Talk as a producer, but truly acting as the fifth Beatle with the band. His close song writing and arranging collaboration with Mark Hollis generated a number of hits for the band in 1984, including Such a Shame and It’s My Life. In 1986 they took their music to the next level with The Colour of Spring, a meticulously crafted album with a host of fantastic guest musicians.

Interesting to read where Mark Hollis’ mind was at the time. Talking to Record Mirror in 1986 he said: “I think that there’s an area of classical music which I have an affinity for. The impressionist period, around the turn of the century is something I love very much. I love the textural quality that it has. But equally, there’s a hardness to soul music, and gospel music that I like.” When asked what the last album he bought was: “It was a Delius thing, with ‘The First Cuckoo of Spring’ on it, and ‘In the Summer Garden’. The one person I like more than any out of that lot is Bartok. He did six string quartets which are all good.” Not your usual synth pop interview fluff.

Danny Thompson plays on the opening track Happiness is Easy, a sonic masterpiece from the first introduction of the drum beat, the vocals by Mark Hollis, the children choir and the mixing of various acoustic and amplified instruments. Danny’s acoustic bass alone is a good reason to listen to this track. And if that is not enough, add Steve Winwood on organ and Morris Pert on percussion. This is miles away from Talk Talk’s beginnings only a few years past.


Read about Danny Thompson’s recordings in the 1970s:

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  1. Superb – I’ve really enjoyed this trip through DT’s life and music. You keep opening windows to music I’d missed – thank you!

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