The Infinite Jukebox: Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘Pavanne’

A long time ago, almost forty years, late one night on BBC2, I found myself watching a television performance of Richard and Linda Thompson. Other than idle curiosity, I don’t know what motivated me to put the programme on: I believe it had already started. No doubt I was just putting off going to bed.
I knew very little of the Thompsons, though in a few years I would know much more. I knew of them mostly from the New Musical Express, my weekly music bible from 1972 to 1987, where Richard remained very much a favourite. And I definitely heard ‘I want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’, an unusual choice to be favoured by Piccadilly Radio 261, when commercial radio reached Manchester. If I knew any other songs even fleetingly, I can’t remember: my friends were all into prog and I didn’t develop friendships with those who were Richard Thompson fans until later that decade.
It might have been a Jake Thackeray programme on which they guested. I’d have watched that. The point was that I came into this cold, in silence and solitude, and the first song that hit me was ‘Pavanne’
Hit me was right. It stunned me into total fascination. Then, before and since I rarely gave a brand new song, by brand new artists, such undivided attention. For five minutes, as it unwound itself simply, an acoustic guitar and that amazing voice of Linda Thompson, slowly drawing out the image of a female assassin, a cold steel woman, infallible and implacable held me rigid, intent only on what this amazing song would do, where it would go to next.
Enigma, impossible to feel as a corporeal woman, lethal in effect yet curiously neutral in impact, neither to be despised nor idolised, Pavanne was a woman whose name was taken from an old, slow, courtly dance, as referenced in the song’s lyrics. I was familiar with the term from my comics reading, for Pavanne was an assassin elsewhere, a foe of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu.
It was an astonishing experience. By the time the song was over, I wanted it. In contrast, the other song they played that night (which was ‘Just a Motion’ if it was indeed that Jake Thackeray Show) didn’t affect me remotely as much.
The track appeared on the Thompson’s album First Light. Good though it was, it was lacking. The intensity of the performance, the stripped down force, the aura around Linda’s voice just wasn’t there to be heard on vinyl. Other songs, yes. The title track, for example, was wonderful. And in time I would discover the full I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight which is awesome, and the alternate, electric version of ‘A Heart Needs A Home’, which always makes me wonder why on earth they released the original, acoustic version, on Hokey Pokey.
Truth to tell, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight is the only wholly satisfying, front to back Richard and Linda album for me, though for near forty years the alternate ‘Heart’ has fought it out with ‘Pavanne’ for exclusive rights to be called the favourite. ‘Heart’ has an edge in that I know it only as the recorded track, and ‘Pavanne’s most pure and affecting form is locked in a memory from so far back.
There are different versions of the song on YouTube. The one I’ve chosen to highlight comes from the Thompsons’ last tour in 1981, which makes it contemporaneous with that five stunned and yearning minutes that television night. In some ways it’s almost better. Richard plays guitar, Linda sings, but from the moment she starts she is scary cold, ice and steel. She isn’t singing this song, she is inhabiting it. Every inflexion in her voice is simultaneously intimate and distant. She might be Pavanne herself. Eyes cold as the barrel of her gun. The woman who has never missed her mark.
And this performance was part of the farewell tour in which the Thompsons’ marriage was a hollow thing of hatred on both sides but his guitar and her voice are meshed together without a gap between them that you could fit the blade of a knife into.
Sometimes what art demands of us is scary beyond belief.

2 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘Pavanne’

  1. There’s a website called the BBC Genome Project where you can look up virtually anything ever broadcast by the BBC.

    I did a search for Richard And Linda Thompson and got this

    As you said, The Jake Thackeray Show, 10.15pm Tue 6th Jan 1981 on BBC Two.
    The first of six programmes
    ‘ On again ‘, ‘ The Widow of Bridlington ‘ and ‘ Jake’s Family tree ‘ were among the songs and stories presented to an audience at The Watermill Theatre, Newbury. Sharing the bill were
    Richard and Linda Thompson with music that has taken them to join the best of British singersongwriters.

    1. Thanks David. I’ve used the Genome Project a number of times, mostly in connection with a series of novels where I’ve been checking what television programmes a person would be watching at a certain time on a certain date. It’s nice to have confirmation that my memory was accurate. The song was utterly compelling, and on further reflection I think it very likely that the performance led me to borrowing ‘I want to see the bright lights tonight’ off my mate John M, and ultimately to another Richard and Linda song that will appear on this blog in about 15 months time (yes, I am *that* far ahead on this series!)

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