Roll Over Vaughn Williams: Henry the Human Fly at 50

Consider the solo debut of Richard Thompson a vital part of his template

Richard Thompson 1972 publicity photo (Image: Island Records)

It’s ironic that Richard Thompson’s debut album, Henry the Human Fly, the springboard to a prolific solo career that’s now in its 50th year, was deemed a miserable failure.

At the time, Thompson himself acknowledged it as the worst-selling album in the history of Warner Bros Records. The fact that it would be Thompson’s only effort on Warner Bros. Records could easily have been predicted.

Then again, Thompson has frequently been misunderstood. His songs are soaked in bitter irony, disillusionment and abject defeat. He surveys an array of human emotions, but rarely finds the reconciliation needed to resolve the tangled affairs of a human heart.

Not that Thompson wasn’t riding some momentum. His stint with Fairport Convention, a band he had helped cofound and bring to prominence, marked one of the most prodigious periods in the group’s history. The role he played on such seminal FC albums as What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, Liege & Lief, and Full House as guitarist, songwriter and co-vocalist helped establish a template for British folk rock that influenced numerous bands that were soon to follow. They remain essential offerings for anyone who wants to understand the transition traditional music made in the ‘60s, from its archival origins to a more contemporary context. 

Richard Thompson Henry The Human Fly, Island Records 1972

That’s one of many reasons why it’s so surprising that Henry the Human Fly didn’t fare better. Granted, Thompson’s decision to appear on the cover wearing a head piece with giant bug eyes — presumably as an attempt to represent the album’s title character — probably didn’t help further its commercial appeal. Yet, the songs remained well within the realms of the work he had accomplished with Fairport. The material is seeped in archival English norms, graced with a delicate and defined folk finesse that’s both reverent and reserved. 

That said, the subjects are often elusive, requiring one to delve deeply into Thompson’s scorched scenarios to uncover both the humor and hubris they entail. “The New St. George” and “The Old Changing Way” are solemn and somewhat stodgy, at least on the surface, while others — “Nobody’s Wedding,” “The Poor Ditching Boy” and “The Angels Took My Racehorse Away” in particular — are informed with tragedy and disappointment, yet remain whimsical in their own peculiar way. “Roll Over Vaughn Williams,” on the other hand, provides an astute example of Thompson’s ability to express absolute irrelevance while seemingly still staying true to his trademark.

Was Thompson ahead of his time? Most likely. Yet, at the same time, he was referencing his own past precepts, specifically the sound and style he had helped forward with Fairport. Not that the band had taken America by storm; that was hardly the case, considering their general lack of recognition with anyone other than Anglophiles. Their recognition would come later, as would Thompson’s, first in the company of his soon-to-be estranged wife Linda, and later on his own. 

Henry The Human Fly magazine advertisement (Image: eBay)

It’s also well worth noting that even though he had parted ways with Fairport, he was still able to enlist many of his former colleagues for his initial outing. FC’s original bassist Ashley Hutchings and recently departed vocalist, the late, great Sandy Denny, both took part, as did Richard’s soon- to-be wife, Linda Peters.

Folk traditionalists Sue Ann and Barry Dransfield, and an ever-reliable stable of session players, including bassist Pat Donaldson, drummer Timi Donald, and Andy Roberts on dulcimer, were also on hand. TAS a result, the arrangements were astute and articulate, giving the music an authentic feel well in keeping with the album’s traditional tapestry. 

Henry the Human Fly, is an album that in retrospect deserves far more appreciation than it initially received. Consider it a vital part of the Thompson template.


AUDIO: Richard Thompson “Roll Over Vaughn Williams”


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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