Oh, sorry — wasn’t trying to suck the most-recent generation into considering their musical favorites. But, hey, maybe I got their attention …
But seriously, alert readers (Dave Barry callback, there), how long do you think “pop music” has existed? Since the dawn of MTV? The Beatles? Elvis? Bill Hailey and the Comets? Sinatra?
Well, Richard Thompson has a different idea. And who is Richard? One of the best guitarists of the modern era, by many accounts, but also one of the founding members of Fairport Convention, a founding act in the genre of English folk-rock, but also a prolific songwriter. (One of his notable works being “Vincent Black Lightning 1952,” which I found much more convincing when performed bluegrass-style by the Del McCoury Band, but perhaps because I heard that version first.)
Anyway, long story short, Mr. Thompson (and let’s clear the air here by saying that my last name has been spelled the same as his, for no good reason … ah, let it go, Scott) had a different idea about “pop” music when Rolling Stone magazine, anticipating the oncoming Y2K thing 24 years ago, contacted a number of musicians and asked them what they thought was the best pop music of the Millennium.
The worthies at Rolling Stone, having been born the day before that yesterday, if not later, were thinking, “oh, the last few decades of the last millennium.” Richard Thompson, bless him, saw a much deeper and longer timescape: he sent what was, at some point in the past, the definitive pop music periodical, a list of what he thought were the greatest “pop” hits of the preceding millennium.
Rolling Stone, as was/is its wont, was looking for something else all together, most likely something politically-tinged, and making a statement. Richard Thompson, whom I suspect might hold some of the magazine’s political beliefs, ducked the easy option, God bless him, and instead submitted a list of what he considered to be the most popular songs dating back to the 13th century.
RS rejected his compendium, but — again, bless him — Thompson took the bull by the non-horns, and put together a concert series, and a CD and DVD of the same. I watched the DVD version on a streaming service a few weeks ago; your mileage may, and likely will, differ, but I found it to be an enormously enjoyable experience.
To embark upon that experience, one has to ask oneself, “what is popular music?” That is a fairly-debatable question, and the obvious answer is — well, music that people like. Thompson took that concept WAAY back, starting with a 13th century English folk song, “Sumer is icumen in.” Not going to keep me humming the verses, didn’t have a nice beat, wasn’t easy to dance to, didn’t give it a “7”.
But before I go into music-critic mode, we need to consider the act that Thompson — I think justifiably POed that Rolling Stone stiffed him — put together. His opening introduction to the show offered that the original plan was to use a much larger entourage, but that that had had to be downsized (I’m thinking practical — i.e., commercial — considerations came into play, here).
The bottom line ended up being Thompson and his guitar, a very adept backing vocalist who also played keyboards, and a percussionist (during the recorded show, a lady who was perhaps more demonstrative than technically accomplished — but what do I know?) who also sang some backup.
The end result is a tour through an amazing variety of musical styles, from a song about the tennis-obsessed English King Henry V, to a catchy and percussive Italian number from the late 16th century, to the Americana chestnut “Shenandoah” and along through the centuries, decades and years: Gilbert and Sullivan, Hoagy Carmichael, rockabilly, Lennon and McCartney, the Who, Prince, etc. Even Britney Spears!
Judith Owen, the keyboardist/backup vocalist, absolutely kills Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” Thompson, ditto with the Squeeze classic, “Tempted” — still can’t Get That Outta My Head …
That tour ends with us facing a dquestion: What is popular music? I’m a Boomer, and I and many of my generation consider that The Music is our “pop”: popular “rock and roll.” But so much of what I and my contemporaries consider to be “pop” is not always “popular,” particularly in the sense that Richard Thompson sees it.
Thompson, in addition to being a very accomplished guitarist — some consider him to be the best acoustic picker of the modern era — is a charming entertainer, the aforementioned emcee effort being interspersed with humorous digressions in his wonderful English accent. Including a self-admittedly chauvinistic, politically incorrect joke which, he assures us, the European Union no long endorses, or tolerates, because they now all get along so well …
That advisory aside, he shares that forbidden fruit with the viewers, thus: In Heaven, the English greet you at the Gate; the French do the cooking; the Italians provide the entertainment; and the Germans keep things organized. In Hell, the French greet you at the Gate; the English do the cooking; the Italians keep things organized; and the Germans provide the entertainment.
There you go, Richard Thompson: turn that joke into a song, and you will cement your position in the pantheon of popular music. At least for the next millennium …
Anyway, if you have access to streaming services, look for Richard Thompson’s “1000 Years of Popular Music.” Can’t guarantee that you will enjoy it as much as I did, but I assure that you will spend some time contemplating what is popular, and what was.