Richard Thompson’s music has been high on my playlist recently, after re-reading Joe Boyd’s memoir of the 60s for our Paperback Riders strand. Originally recorded for his album ‘Rumor and Sigh’. In the early 90s, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ has become a staple of his live shows.
For someone who has been described as “England’s finest electric guitarist”, by writer Nick Hornby, and has been associated with the bite of the Stratocaster since early in his career, the intricacy of his acoustic playing on this tune is a thing of beauty. ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ was featured in a list of “the most extraordinary English-language popular recordings since the beginning of TIME magazine in 1923,” praising it as “a glorious example of what one guy can accomplish with just a guitar, a voice, an imagination and a set of astonishingly nimble fingers”. While that rather underplays Thompson’s talent, the point is still well made.
We’ve shared the combination of Richard Thompson and Nanci Griffith before, with a live version of ‘Wall Of Death’, which she featured on her ‘Other Voices Too’ collection of covers. Here she adds some vocal effects to the song. While that may seem a little superfluous it does add an ethereal quality to the tune. It is after all a song which you can read as being about James passing his soul into the bike he leaves to his girlfriend Molly.
“Said James, In my opinion, there’s nothing in this world Beats a ’52 Vincent and a redheaded girl. Now Nortons and Indians and Greavses won’t do. Oh, they don’t have a soul like a Vincent ’52. Well he reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys. He said, “I’ve got no further use…for these. I see Angels on Ariels in leather and chrome, Swoopin’ down from eaven to carry me home.”
Any fan of old motorcycles will feel the little tingle of nostalgia in the namechecks for long gone bike makers, and in this version, Griffith’s breathy sighs are the angels. Even if the only thing that she contributes here is by being present to push Thompson to one of the best performances of one of his finest songs, then I think we can be glad she was on the stage that night.