Danny Thompson, part 6: 1987-1989

This is the last article in a six-part series chronicling Danny Thompson’s career in the 1960s/70s/80s, and with it we close the 1980s. The gifted bass player kept increasing the output and variety of his recording dates through the decade and finished it with a frenzy of activity. There is no better way to open this article than in the year 1987 with his group Whatever, a fantastic acoustic outfit that included Danny Thompson on bass, Tony Roberts on reeds and Northumbrian pipes, and Bernie Holland on guitars. It took Danny over 20 years after his recording career started to release the first album under his own name: “I’ve nearly been killed in all sorts of naughty things in the past. I went charging about, suffered from stress and anxiety, smashed my hands up in a car accident. Then I realized that despite having survived all that, I still hadn’t got a piece of plastic with my own name on it. So I came up with this idea for an album that combined English music with improvisation.”

Whatever’s music is indeed British at its core, but you can easily hear influences from other regions of the world, no doubt the result of Danny’s exposure to the music of the Balkan through his collaboration with Mara! Some pieces on this album reminded me of recordings on the German ECM label, in particular an album with similar instrumentation called Folk Songs featuring another bass great, Charlie Haden, accompanied on guitar by Egberto Gismonti and saxophone by Jan Garbarek. Here is a fine example from Whatever’s album, Idle Monday:

You would expect from such a veteran musician to be pretty nonchalant about performing on stage, but the stakes for him were higher with his own band: “I’m sick with nervousness before a show – white with sheer terror and nearly ill – because I don’t want to let myself down. That’s especially so now that people pay a fiver to see me and my band, not me behind somebody else. Do you realize how tickled I am when people turn out to see Whatever? It may sound weird, but I saw someone buying an album in a shop, and I thought ‘Blimey! Someone’s buying my album!’”.

Also in 1987 we can hear Danny Thompson dipping his toes in South American music. The band Incantation was formed in 1981 by Mike Taylor and Tony Hinnigan and included three Chilean musicians. In 1986 they were invited to play on the score to Roland Joffe’s film The Mission, with music composed by Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. In 1987 they released the album The Meeting, with Danny Thompson playing on two of the tunes. Here is one, showing his versatility in playing authentic South American music, this piece composed by famed Chilean composed Violeta Parra:

In the previous article we covered Danny Thompson’s collaboration with David Sylvian on the singer’s debut solo album Brilliant Trees. It proved successful enough for Sylvian to invite the veteran bass player again to play on his 1987 album Secrets of the Beehive. This is one of my favorite albums from that decade, for which I dedicated an article:

Danny’s involvement in this album is more significant this time, with him contributing excellent bass parts to three tracks. One of them is perhaps the best known song from the album. Orpheus was released as a single in May 1988 and features a wonderful string arrangement by Brian Gascoigne. I love the break in the middle of the song, where it sounds as if it reached the end, but it starts again with a flugelhorn solo by Mark Isham and riffs on slide guitar by Phil Palmer.

This is what Danny said about working with David Sylvian: “Sylvian is a wonderful bloke. He’s a really strong person who knows what he wants musically and has great passion which is not outgoing whereas mine is right out there, in your face. His is stronger because he doesn’t have to express it like that.”

Working with Sylvian brought Danny Thompson to the attention of his former bandmates in the group Japan. Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen formed the band The Dolphin Brothers which released its sole album Catch the Fall in 1987. Stylistic comparisons to their alma mater are inevitable, and you can think of their music as a more upbeat version of the moody and atmospheric Japan. Steve Jansen’s voice also reminds one of brother David Sylvian. Danny Thompson guests on a number of tracks, here is one. This could have fooled many if it was included on one of David Sylvian’s solo albums:

One more from 1987, this a personal favorite and one I did not know much about before researching Danny Thompson’s discography. Caroline Crawley and Jemaur Tayle formed the band Shelleyan Orphan in the early 1980s, naming the group after their favorite poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Mary’s husband). They were signed to Geoff Travis’ Rough Trade label and in 1987 released their debut album Helleborine. It was produced by Haydn Bendall who worked extensively with Kate Bush, and it is not surprising to see many of Bush’s collaborators on this album including Stuart Elliot, brother Paddy Bush and… Danny Thompson.

Shelleyan Orphan – Helleborine

Danny remembers these sessions fondly: “I really loved them. Geoff Travis owned Rough Trade. He and the band were Nick Drake fans. That was the connection. Geoff believed in that band so much that he gave them a large budget to add strings and guest musicians. It was an absolute delight working with them.”

Years later Jemaur Tayle talked about this album: “We had these wonderful people around us that really got what we were doing – Geoff Travis the head of Rough Trade loved us and there were people like Danny Thompson who played bass on Helleborine, our first album, and Stuart Elliot, the drummer from Cockney Rebel who we respected and really liked what we did.”

Here is a great track from the album, Jeremiah:

Skipping a few more recordings from 1987 (Paul Roberts, Jan Reimer, Vic Abram) and moving to 1988. It took about 20 years for Richard Thompson and Danny “no relation” Thompson to collaborate on one of the gifted guitarist’s albums. This was the start of an amazing working relationship for years to come. In 1988 Richard Thompson released the album Amnesia, the first with his then-new label Capitol. The album includes several songs that have become mainstays in his live performances, such as Turning of the Tide, I Still Dream, Can’t Win, Don’t Tempt Me and Pharaoh. Danny Thompson plays on one song, the lovely acoustic ballad and one of Thompson’s lost-love finest, Waltzing’s For Dreamers:

Perhaps what made this working relationship last so well after this collaboration is that the two are simply good friends, establishing that bond a long time before recording together. They have been orbiting in similar circles since the late 1960s. Richard Thompson: “I’ve known Danny slightly since the ‘60s, but we didn’t really start working together until the late ‘80s. We became friends first, and then we decided to go do a tour of Italy to see what it was like. We did that, and we found that the food was good, so we said, ‘Hey, this works!’”

The Thompson twins

The two musicians also share a love of everything nature. Here is RT reminiscing on their mutual interest: “Danny was a bird lover and we would spend New Year up in northeastern Scotland, watching for eiders, guillemots, razorbills and gannets. He took a couple of years off in the late 1970s to make wildlife documentaries with John Aspinall, who took the profits from his casinos to fund Howletts and Port Lympne zoos. Danny was famed for getting in the cage with tigers (hence ‘tiger’ Thompson), had a son working at London zoo, and loved all things to do with nature.” More about that episode in Danny’s life in the previous article here:

As you can expect there is no shortage of humor between these two fine musicians. This is what Richard Thompson had to say about Danny in an interview with David C. Gross and Tom Semioli: “He missed his career as a standup comedian. He is one of the funniest people on the planet. Absolutely hilarious, incredible stories. If you interview him ask him about throwing Roy Harper off the ferry.” Interviewer: “Does Roy Harper know how to swim? Well he must.” RT: “No, he didn’t. Pentangle was on tour in Scandinavia, where you have to take a lot of ferries, and Roy Harper was doing the same trip. Roy must have been pontificating about his own genius and Danny said ‘If you don’t shut up you are going over the side.’ Roy must have continued because Danny said ‘All right, that’s it’, and he chucked him off the ferry.” As of the writing of this article Roy Harper is still with us, God bless, so there must have been a happy end to that story.

In 1987 Margaret Thatcher won the election for a third term as UK prime minister. Billy Bragg, who was a vocal supporter of the Labor party, decided to turn his attention to personal matters instead of sulking in the disappointing political defeat: “I didn’t want to make another album full of ranting about Margaret Thatcher. I wanted to make an album that was a bit more personal, to reflect the fact that I felt I was getting a bit one dimensional, in England anyway, through all the political work.” The result was the endearing album Workers Playtime, released in 1988. Joe Boyd joined forces with Bragg, helping to enrich the instrumentation of the songs. As with many other Joe Boyd productions, we find Danny Thompson on board, playing on a number of tracks. The first two songs on the album were released as a single, with the B-side, Must I Paint You a Picture, featuring Danny’s acoustic bass and a great contribution by Cara Tivey on keyboards and vocals:

In 1991 Danny would participate again in another wonderful Billy Bragg album, Don’t Try This At Home. This one is outside the timeframe of this article, but there is a great Danny Thompson story here worth telling. On that album Billy Bragg covers a song performed by Tim Buckley in 1968 called Dolphins. The song was originally written and performed by Fred Neil in 1966. Bragg did not have the benefit of reading through this article series back in 1991 for the obvious reason that I started writing it only six months ago, hence this story he later told: “Dolphins features the wonderful Danny Thompson on double bass. Talking him through the song, I asked if he’d heard the Tim Buckley live in London version? ‘I played on it’ was his withering response.” Indeed, many of the folks inviting Danny Thompson to play on their albums probably did not know the full breadth and depth of his recording credits.

Billy Bragg with Danny Thompson

In the early 1980s Jakko Jakszyk tried to make it in the pop and mainstream music industry. After releasing a number of albums and singles, he got fed up with the star making machinery and decided to pursue more fulfilling musical projects. In 1988 he formed a group that combined popular music sensibilities with Indian influences, named Dizrhythmia. The band was eclectic in its musical styles and background of its members, consisting of Jakko Jakszyk, Gavin Harrison, Danny Thompson, Pandit Dinesh and a guest appearance by sarangi master Sultan Khan.

Dizrhythmia back cover

 Jakko recalls how Danny Thompson joined the group: “There was originally a track I wrote on piano for my solo album on Stiff and I wanted to use Danny Thompson, because he’s a legend and his double bass playing doesn’t sound like anyone else. I called the record company and said ‘Is there a way of tracking him down?’ Eventually the person at the label phoned me back and said, ‘I’ve got his phone number’ and she sent it to me. And I said, ‘Wait a minute. This can’t be his phone number. He’s got the same code as me.’ I thought he must live really nearby, and of course he did. He lived just up the road from me and I had no idea. And he was a little wary, and he said, ‘Well, drop some stuff off and I’ll see if I like it.’ And he really liked it. He agreed to play on it. We’ve become really good buddies ever since. He’s been a kind of mentor.”

Here is a beautiful track from the album:

Working with Jakko Jakszyk and Gavin Harrison led to various popular music gigs Danny Thompson was involved in. One of them was singer Sam Brown who in 1988 got the whole Dizrhythmia group to participate in her album Stop!, an album that featured a cast of a thousand, the cream of the crop of British studio musicians. The album produced the mega hit Stop! which our Danny does not play on, but he does play on one lovely track from that album, Piece of My Luck. No mistake from the opening of that song, it is Danny Thompson alright:

We mentioned the breadth of Danny Thompson’s recording career in the 1980s and his versatility, so what about flamenco fusion? In Spain the band Ketama took the flamenco tradition and mixed it up with salsa, rock and jazz, creating the “new flamenco” sound and becoming very popular in their country. In 1987 they performed in London and met kora player Toumani Diabate. They clicked immediately and after performing to a standing ovation decided to make an album. Producer Joe Boyd (who else?) came on board, bringing with him Danny Thompson (who else?), together creating a one of a kind music blend from Spain, Mali and the less exotic London. They named it Songhai. As unlikely as this collaboration was, it worked like a charm. Danny: “To me it doesn’t matter if Toumani Diabate comes from Wapping, but the press make a big deal out of the fact that he’s this Malian kora-player. I understand why; Southall meets Rickmansworth doesn’t sound quite the same, does it?”


Danny Thompson recalls his first meeting with the rest of the musicians on the album: “I walked in and they were all there playing this amazing music, unbelievably fast. They looked at me and it was like, play really, really good… or you’re dead. But we got along fantastically, both the Kora and Spanish guitar are a lot of wood and strings and I have a lot of wood and strings, so it worked… because we like each other. The communication is totally musical because we can’t talk to each other. People call it world music but it’s simply music from the heart. I listen to Toumani play and it’s instant. I understand it just like he was Bert Jansch or John Martyn. Music from the heart.”

Similar to the experience of playing Bulgarian music with Mara!, Danny had to learn the music of these regions: “They say ‘Fandango’. I said ‘I don’t know what fandango is.’ It was a learning experience for me. When I’m playing with Toumani I’m not playing music from the Niger. I can’t play African music, I’m just responding to Toumani. He is not playing cockney music. It’s a meeting of cultures.”

In 1989, following a long gap after his debut album, pedal steel guitar player BJ Cole released his second album Transparent Music on Joe Boyd’s Hannibal Records. Danny Thompson played on his excellent 1972 album The New Hovering Dog and was invited again to participate. BJ Cole created an atmospheric album that focused on his interpretations of pieces from the French impressionism classical repertoire, covering compositions by Debussy, Ravel and Satie. Brian Eno’s music was a major influence on Cole at the time: “The record that most influenced me was Apollo featuring the pedal steel work of Daniel Lanois. It changed the context of the use of pedal steel in music, and inspired me to come up with a new ‘ambient’ approach to playing the instrument.”

Here is Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No 3:

Another repeat collaboration for Danny Thompson was in 1988 with the band Talk Talk. After playing on Happiness is Easy, the opening song from their album The Colour of Spring in 1986, he was invited to play on their milestone album Spirit of Eden. I dedicated a full article to this album:

Tales from the recording sessions for that album abound, chronicling the process of obsessive recording and editing. Engineer Phill Brown: “Meticulous care was given to each part, and almost all parts were recorded individually, one at a time. Over 90% of the recorded material was not used. In the editing process many recorded parts were placed in places different than the ones they were recorded to. Amazingly the songs all sound very intimate as if a band is playing together.”

Luckily Danny Thompson’s parts, at least some of them, survived and avoided the cutting floor. He remembers: “They were completely shut in that Wessex studio for a year. I would turn out and it will be just me for a whole day just playing. It was really good work. Mark (Hollis) used to come down from the control room and put my hand on the finger board and say ‘play that. tik tik tik. Can we record that?’ And he would find somewhere to put that in. To me it was like ‘Eh?’ but it works. The direction was not musical. ‘Can you play more like (makes a square with his hands)?’”

Another album with high production value that Danny Thompson played on, and also involving a meticulous studio musician, was The The’s 1989 album Mind Bomb. Compared to Matt Johnson’s previous albums Soul Mining and Infected, this album sounds more like a real band, benefiting greatly from recruiting guitarist Johnny Marr to the lineup. Two years after The Smiths were no more, Marr was expanding his sound palette to complement the vast range of moods and feelings in Matt Johnson’s songs. But in an album that consists mainly of overtly religious and political topics, Danny Thompson was invited to play on a song dealing with lost love, the wonderful acoustic ballad August and September:

Time for one more in this article, and no better way to end it than another album by Danny Thompson’s band Whatever. Touring with the group for their debut album, he found time to record and release a follow up record, calling it Whatever Next. New member Paul Dunmall on reeds was added to the mix.

As he often said about his favorite situation of playing music, performing in front of a live audience is the most fullfilling: “We’re not here to play to a load of microphones; we want to be able to reproduce a Whatever album on stage. I also want to do small clubs, because people playing to people is where it is. Alas, that’s something that’s becoming less and less possible with modern music. I’ve done albums where I’m the only human element, and it really saddens me that these things can’t be taken out on the road.”

As with the group’s debut album, the music selections are very eclectic and mix together English music with jazz, ethnic music from around the world and everything in between. Speaking about the decline of traditional English music at the time of the album release, Danny said: “The neglect of our music is typical of the English — there are no statues to Elgar or Delius. Politically, l’m against nationalism of any kind, because it leads to too many punch-ups and people getting killed, but in musical terms I think there are particular melodies and harmonies that are very English, and l don’t think they have been properly exploited. Things like Basket of Eggs or Hop Dance on the new record reflect that music, and that is the music I grew up with. Music doesn’t come from academics, it comes from peasants, from ordinary people.”

Here is a fine track from the album, another journey into Bulgarian music with the tune Sandansko Oro (Bulgarian Dance):

How do I wrap up this six-part article series? I have been writing about Danny Thompson for the past six months and only covered about half of his recording career. One thing stood up very clearly during our discussions: Danny’s love of music. He truly loves everything he ever recorded and his anecdotes bring out the humor and fun he had while making that magnificent music. I consider myself lucky and privileged to have had the opportunity to discuss that amazing body of work with the man who made it.

Thank you Danny.

Read the previous articles in this series:

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1 reply »

  1. Many thanks for your tribute to Danzer, well worthy of the man and his work, we are very lucky to know such a giant of a human being, Great work

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