Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Defending Vincent Black Lightning (1952)

While perusing Carrie Brownstein’s NPR music blog, Monitor Mix, the other day, I spotted a post in which guest-blogger Sean Wilsey categorizes Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lighting (1952)” as one of his “candidates for worst song ever to become a semi-classic.”

Mr. Wilsey was gushing over the band The Airborne Toxic Event and its song “Sometime Around Midnight,” describing it as “overblown and absurd, yet somehow irresistible.” He notes that its “strain of adolescent self-seriousness … is fun to listen to,” whereas “Thompson’s song makes me want to stop living.”

He goes on to illustrate the topic with a series of other over-the-top songs characterized by “self-centered romanticism.” He concludes the post writing, “This all seems like a genre to me. Not sure what to call it.

Of course I was shocked and offended! How dare he! I always thought “Vincent Black Lighting (1952)” (let’s call it “VBL52”) was a brilliant tune--the perfect melding of traditional structure and style with a contemporary story.

When I was a teenager, I was a big fan of Richard Thompson--more accurately, of Fairport Convention, the pioneering British folk-rock band of which he was a founding member. I must have listened to their “Liege and Lief” album for hundreds of hours in high school. So, as a big fan of of the folk-rock movement, when I hear VBL52, I can’t help but hear a traditional folk song. Mr. Wilsey, if you’re wondering what to call that genre, how about “ballad?”

Because I'm a fan, I’m willing to overlook many of Richard Thompson’s weaknesses—there are certainly duds to be found in his prolific output. There are also many gems, and Thompson puts on an incredible live show. I’ve seen him in Portland twice – once playing solo acoustic (at the Zoo) and once at the Aladdin (playing electric with a band). Both configurations are great as he’s an inspiring guitar player in any format. He tours through Portland quite often, usually in venues that aren’t too big.

Here’s Richard Thompson singing VBL52, which he first released on his “Rumor and Sigh” album in 1991:

Going back in time, and demonstrating some traditional folk roots, here’s Fairport Convention with “Sir Patrick Spens” from about 1970.

Just for the fun of it, here’s Thompson doing a cover of the Britney Spears hit, “Oops I did it again” (included on his “1,000 Years of Popular Music” album).

If you want more "VBL52," here's a cover by the band, Reckless Kelly. YouTube also has a bluegrassy version by the Del McCoury Band.

Note on the photo on top: The crazy guy on the motorcycle is Rollie Free riding a Vincent Black Lighting as he breaks the land speed record for motorcycles, hitting 150 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Apparently, Free adopted the prone position to minimize wind resistance and would wear protective gear under normal circumstances. On this attempt, his leathers were ripped and torn from earlier runs so he made the last attempt wearing a Speedo, a shower cap and a pair of borrowed sneakers.


glassmeow said...

Yeah, why izzit that everyone wants to hear VBL52? It's okay - but RTs done so many better songs (IMHO & I was at the last two shows he's done here - Portland - and many more before those) I've gotta wonder.

Was just making a mix cd for a friend with RTs take on Britney and found your blog while looking for others' opinions of it. Nice post.

That'd be some serious road rash if that guy fell off the bike.

MightyToyCannon said...

glassmeow, thanks for commenting. I'm glad you found your way here.

While I defend VBL52, I will agree that RT has many, much better songs. One of these days, I'll get back to Mr. Thompson in another post.

Guillermo said...

Wilsey's wording is pretty harsh. "Worst song?" I can think of much worse songs to become semi-classics, not to mention classics.
Not a bona fide Richard Thompson fan here (all I have is the greatest hits *gasp*), but I saw him from half a mile at last summer's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in SF. Ever think about coming down for that?

MightyToyCannon said...

Guillermo, I haven't been to the Hardly Strictly Fest, despite having been under pressure from relatives we share in common. One of these years, I will venture southward and brave the crowds, praying for a sunny day in glorious Golden Gate Park.