The fiery final album from Richard & Linda Thompson set a new standard for the quintessential breakup LP
A little over five years after Fleetwood Mac released the classic Rumours, another album came out that became another classic LP of drama and recrimination — Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights.
The album, released 40 years ago this month, is one of a long line of breakup albums in the history in music. In this case, though, both sides of the breakup get their say. That’s even though Linda only has one writing credit on it — co-writing the harrowing “Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?”
Although, in retrospect, decades after the end of the personal artistic partnership, it’s not as blatantly he said/she said as it appeared in 1982. But more on that as we go along.
The relationship between the two had been tumultuous for some time, but that wasn’t the only issue. Chrysalis Records had dropped the pair after two commercially underperforming albums — 1978’s First Light and 1979’s Sunnyvista.
The then-commercially successful Gerry Rafferty offered financial assistance to the pair to record an album he’d produce. Rafferty and Richard Thompson fell out during recording, with Richard chafing at Rafferty’s perfectionism and controlling manner.
Although Rafferty was replaced, he did shop what had been recorded, but didn’t find a taker.
To the rescue came Joe Boyd, who had been Fairport Convention’s producer back when Richard served as a member over a decade earlier. Boyd signed Richard and Linda to his new label– Hannibal — and sat in the producer’s chair for new sessions. Richard and Linda recorded Shoot Out the Lights over the course of a few days, mostly re-recording material from their 1980 sessions, along with two new songs.
The two wanted to keep the sessions short in order to preserve money for a tour.
Even though the album came together quickly, it wasn’t easy. Linda was pregnant by the time of the Boyd sessions. This aggravated her spasmodic dysphonia, a condition that would later keep her from recording for 15 years. At this point, she could still sing, but was having problems breathing and singing at the same time, which cut back on what would have been her lead vocal performances on the album.
The first words on the album, sung by Richard, are “Remember when we were hand in hand. Remember we sealed it with a golden band/Now your eyes don’t meet mine/You’ve got a pulse like fever/Do I take you for a lover/Or just a deceiver?”
Linda’s first lead vocals start with the words, “I hand you my ball and chain/You just hand me that same old refrain/I’m walking on a wire/I’m walking on a wire/And I’m falling”
This could have all been so much rubbernecking, like at a couple one can’t help but noticing arguing loudly in a public place, if not for the quality of the songs. The Thompsons hadn’t made a bad album together. In the case of 1974’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, they’d made a brilliant one.
Take those first two songs. “Don’t Renege On Our Love” has an understated gallop matching the resolve and pain in the lyrics.
The second, “Walking on a Wire” is even more exposed nerve. Whether it’s a sense of fairness, a realization that the album would be better if it didn’t play as one-sided in Richard’s favor or both, Richard lets Linda take center stage in her lead performances.
The words may have come from Richard’s pen here, but the emotion is all Linda’s, to the point where it feels like she’d just finished writing them herself. The emotion builds as the two belt out the chorus together before a brief, fiery solo that offers yet a reminder of why Richard is one of the more well-regarded guitarists of his generation.
Unlike that aforementioned Fleetwood Mac album, there is no equivalent to the pop balm of Christine McVie here. It’s mostly anguish and sad inevitability laid bare, permeating each of the album’s eight songs. The album is rife with often-unreleased tension under the surface, tension that fuels the amazing performances from both.
Shoot Out The Lights doesn’t strictly follow a Richard-Linda point/counterpoint formula, but spaces the Linda-led songs out to keep things balanced.
Case in point, the deceptively upbeat “Man In Need” (upbeat as long as you’re not following along with the lyrics in the insert) is followed by the gorgeous Linda ballad “Just the Motion.” She commands the song through understatement. Other singers might come out belting on it, but that’s never who Thompson was as a singer. Here, she envelops the song in a needed salve for the exposed wounds elsewhere in the first side of the album and even the song itself.
Lyrics like “Blown by a hundred winds, knocked down a hundred times / Rescued and carried along. Beaten and half-dead and gone / And it’s only the pain that’s keeping you sane / And gives you a mind to travel on,” have more of a comforting warmth than they ought to.
Richard gets his one back-to-back treatment to kick off the second side. There’s the dark title track, Richard’s biggest showcase as he delivers blistering solos. It’s also a testimony to quality of the musicians they were working with — Drummer Dave Mattacks and bassist Pete Zorn (who split bass duties with Dave Pegg equally — four songs each) give it the underpinning it needs, accented by Simon Nicol’s rhythm guitar. The backing is never less than stellar throughout.
I hasten to point out that while it is a breakup album, not every song is necessarily about the ending of their relationship. The title track is, at the least, inspired by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Being a convert to Islam years prior, it’s understandable that Thompson (who remains a Sufi Muslim to this day) would have had an emotional reaction to that, although the lyrics are kept vague enough that they could easily be about a crumbling relationship.
Richard, who was getting his creative spark back for the first time since his spiritual journey had taken him on a self-imposed exile from the music business, does that more than once here.
Where the aforementioned Fleetwood Mac turned cocaine-fueled melodrama into pop gold, the emotions in Shoot Out the Lights, while never hidden, are more repressed.
One’s left with the feeling that the Thompsons at this point were more capable of expressing to each other how they felt through song than any other way.
To be sure, “A Man in Need”, especially coming where it does in the running order, can be read as a relationship song, but its lyrics are about the loneliness and desperation of an itinerant traveler.
“Back Street Slide,” the meanest song here, is definitely not a breakup song in the slightest. Richard saves his biggest anger for loud gossipy women who have nothing better to do with their lives. Although as social media has shown many years later, the prurient gossip is not exactly the province of women standing at their fences.
Even, the point/counterpoint feel was somewhat accidental. Linda Thompson has said, for example, that she was originally supposed to sing the lead on “Don’t Renege On Our Love.”
“Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” is Linda’s highlight. On its face, it’s a tale of a murdered woman and commentary on how women aren’t believed, even in death. But its mood and feel certainly are not out of line with the crumbling relationship feel (not to mention relevant in the “Me Too” era). Regardless of interpretation, the circumstance is dark and dire.
Rather than continue with that mood to end the album, the Thompsons went in a different direction.
“Wall of Death” uses one of most dangerous, hair-raising carnival sideshow attraction (the one with stunt motorcyclists going around inside a small circle, held to the sides by centrifugal force) as metaphor. In this case, the dangerous ride is love itself.
“You can waste your time on the other rides/But this is the nearest to being alive/Oh let me take my chances on the wall of death,” the two sing.
It’s a closing bit of joy and, dare I say it, hope in the face of even the bitterest defeat, played at a slower tempo than you’d think with yet another recognizable Richard Thompson solo for good measure.
By the time the two toured behind Shoot Out the Lights six months after recording it, the cracks in the relationship had turned into irreparable fissures. The tour of just over a month became known for its often terrific, though fiery, performances onstage and its drama off.
Linda told the Guardian in 2019, “I was living on booze and antidepressants. I was so angry I was kicking and hitting Richard on stage. I trashed a dressing room, stole a car and got arrested. But it was good for my voice. I guess because I was so heartbroken it freed me up. The dysphonia wasn’t too bad in those days. At the end of the tour Richard rang and said: ‘Bruce Springsteen is male singer of the year and you are female singer of the year.’ Was it in Time or Rolling Stone? I think both. Like everything, good comes out of bad.”
That was basically it for the two professionally and personally (both would get on their own personal Walls of Death into new long-term relationships quickly).
Richard would release Human Kindness the following year, restarting a solo career that continues to be both prolific and deservedly respected to this day (highlighted by 1991’s Rumor and Sigh).
Linda’s spasmodic dysphonia worsened. The condition, which results in spasms of the vocal chords, left her literally unable to sing (it makes it difficult even to speak). She’d open her mouth and no sounds would come out.
She was able to record her first solo album, 1985’s One Clear Moment, but the condition basically knocked her out of the music business for years. New treatments eventually helped and she recorded three albums, starting with 2002’s Fashionably Late.
There was even a bit of full circle with the enjoyable 2014 album Family by Thompson. It was a project put together by Richard and Linda’s son Teddy after he’d been dropped by a label. Teddy took the opportunity to put together an album with all the various musical members of his family contributing their own material– siblings, nephew, in-laws and, of course, Richard and Linda (who had two songs each).
Shoot Out the Lights remains one of the high marks in their respective careers. It’s a fitting and terrific bookend with I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight. Decades later, it’s a shining testimony to Richard Thompson’s songwriting and to an artistic chemistry that remained as strong on the way out of the relationship as it was going in.
AUDIO: Richard & Linda Thompson “Wall of Death”