Fledg’ling records have reissued Henry the Human Fly, which is great news. Richard Thompson’s debut solo album from 1972 had been kinda-sorta available since 1991, but I for one had never seen it in the shops before. I had a copy burned for me from vinyl by an acquaintance, but it’s just not the same. The remastered edition is a huge improvement on that copy, with Thompson’s acoustic guitar and the other instruments coming through with great detail and presence.
It’s one of the best Thompson has made in a long and illustrious career. In every decade since the 1960s, Thompson has come out with at least one album that ranks among the best made that decade, and occasionally with more. Henry the Human Fly is a bit difficult to get into but once you get past the sound of Thompson’s voice on this first attempt, you will hear great songwriting with the deceptively simple tunes and gut-wrenching lyrics that have been his trademark ever since.
The guitar playing is also beautiful, effective and mature. Mojo listed the record as one of the 20 greatest guitar albums ever, but don’t expect a record driven by guitar pyrotechnics. Thompson’s guitar playing, even then, served the songs, and not the other way around.
The album opens with “Roll Over Vaughn Williams”, which has a dense, dark guitar sound, Meg White-style tic-toc drumming and what sounds like a heavily processed accordion backing the vocal line. It’s moody and eccentric. The drums, at first, sound like they were played by someone indifferent to the expressive possibilities of the instrument, but after a few playings, it becomes impossible to imagine them sounding any other way in the context of this song. The accordion (if that what it is) sounds more like a medieval crumhorn – it’s not conventionally good accordion playing but, along with Thompson’s heavy (if undistorted) rhythm guitar, it adds to the scary effect of the song.
“Nobody’s Wedding” is more typical of Thompson’s early output. It’s a slow, tuneful piece interrupted by slow reels played (excellently) by John Kirkpatrick on the accordion. The lyrics tell of a party that went on for sixteen days and sixteen nights “and it weren’t even nobody’s wedding”. With the protagonist oblivious to the goings-on, the party spins out of control. Thompson’s singing is a bit hesitant on this one, with some of the notes cut off abruptly. With his limited range and speech impediment, Thompson was never a natural singer. Over time, he would become very good, but on this record, his voice is still a weak point. This doesn’t stop “Nobody’s Wedding” from etching its tune into the brain permanently though.
“The Poor Ditching Boy” is a classic Thompson rejection ballad and a much requested (but seldom played) song at concerts even now.
“Shaky Nancy”, by contrast, is the one track on the album that has aged very poorly. “Here she comes, and there she goes, nothing on her fingers, nothing on her toes” comes across as pointless hippy-dippyness now, and the tune is a bit ponderous. Even Sandy Denny on backing vocals and piano can’t rescue it.
“The Angels Took My Race-Horse Away” is more up-tempo and rocky. Thompson’s voice doesn’t quite carry it, but the song itself works. It’s one of a handful of horse-racing songs Thompson has written over the years (“Both Ends Burning” from 1983’s Hands of Kindness is another great example) and a good early attempt at creating a uniquely English form of Rock & Roll.
“Wheely Down” and “The Old Changing Ways” on the other hand, could both pass for Irish traditionals – one a dirge, the other a ballad. “The Old Changing Ways” is the better of the two, with a slightly faster pace and lovely guitar/harp interplay. The lyrics, told through the persona of a wayward tinker driven from his brother by his unwillingness to share, get some explicit moralising in, which is rare for Thompson.
“The Old St. George” takes the form of a protest song, with its strident 3/4 tempo, snare-heavy drums and sneering vocals inciting the workers to “Leave the factory, leave the forge, and dance with the new st. George”. It brings dire environmental warnings, set to yet another catchy tune.
“Painted Ladies” is Thompson’s paean to prostitutes! Or at least, it features a protagonist who wants them but can’t afford them. One of Thompson’s strength as a lyricist is his ability to take on a persona, and give an inside view of what makes a certain kind of person tick. Like all such songs by him, this one comes out disturbing and funny at the same time. Thompson’s voice is an asset in songs like this one.
“Cold Feet” combines slow verses with risky chord combinations with a more rocky choruses. It’s one of the more complex songs on the album, and one of the least catchy ones. Not bad, just not up to the standards of the rest of the record.
“Mary and Joseph” is even weirder: a slow song with slightly off-pitch horns and rudimentary beats. It sounds like a Tom Waits song, including Thompson’s vocal delivery, which sounds slightly drunk.
After all those songs about wild parties, drinking, whoring, greed and gambling, “Twisted” is a fitting album closer. “People are looking hazy and people are looking dim. I would go for help if I could find the way I came in…. sitting at the bar with my face in the jar, and something tells me I’m twisted.” The music nails the tiredness and anger of the last person at the bar perfectly.
Buy this record if it’s the only one you get this year.
(note: I usually link to Amazon.com when discussing records, but because this one is released by a small British record label, and is sold through Amazon.com as a rather pricy import, the link to Henry the Human Fly goes to Amazon.co.uk. This will make quite a difference to buyers in continental Europe who don’t want to have to pay extra for a British record that makes a detour through the US. However, Americans can probably safely order it through Amazon.com: Henry the Human Fly)