Shoot Out the Lights

Another of the books we’ll be publishing in April (OK, this one will probably be May) is Hayden Childs’ analysis of Shoot Out the Lights. The book has a fictional narrator who’s convinced that he is Richard Thompson’s doppelganger – but despite (or perhaps because of) that, it’s still a remarkably in-depth, passionate reading of the album. Here’s an extract, and a little treat from youtube…


Where’s the justice and where’s the sense?
When all the pain is on my side of the fence
I’m walking on a wire, I’m walking on a wire
And I’m falling

This verse brings in a belated note of concern for her situation. She knows that she’s being abused. She knows that her relationship is one-sided. Linda’s voice carries a perfect note of weariness in these lines. Richard takes a short solo over a verse/refrain backing, and it’s one of the most expressive guitar solos ever recorded. It captures the singer’s inner life: the sadness, the growing sense of injustice, the pain of broken bonds, the sheer uncertainty about how to proceed.

He starts with some notes in the lowest register of his guitar. The sound is all Fender guitar through Fender amp, pure and tremulous and springy. He has deep reverb coating everything and what sounds like a Uni-Vibe pedal, which simulates an organ’s rotating speaker. Here, it acts as a phaser to give the sound the crests and valleys of a sine wave. A couple of phrases in the lowest register, then a quick virtuosic run up the neck to mid-high. Notice the sympathetic harmony notes he plays with less volume around his main melody. A lesser guitarist would play single notes here, but Thompson plays two, sometimes even adding that phantom third harmony note, with an ease that seems unpremeditated and unforced. Then he draws some quick bass notes into a quick rehash of his midrange phrasing, like a summary of what he’s already done, and uses that momentum to build to a choppy, knotty part that steps up and steps down simultaneously, a little riff most often found in Bakersfield-style chicken-pickin’, although here awash in rock guitar tone (the Uni-Vibe and reverb) and wholly in service to the song.

On the heels of the solo, the song repeats the bridge. Some background vocal “ooo-ooo”s are brought in to heighten the litany of sorrows.

Too many steps to take
Too many spells to break
Too many nights awake
And no one else
This grindstone’s wearing me
Your claws are tearing me
Don’t use me endlessly
It’s too long, it’s too long to myself

Wherever you turn from grief, you turn to grief again. Last verse. Linda sounds almost meek, but her words turn the tables on her other.

It scares you when you don’t know
Whichever way the wind might blow

Quiet now. Almost a whisper.

I’m walking on a wire, I’m walking on a wire
And I’m falling

They repeat those final words a couple of more times, Richard’s harmony vocal growing higher and both growing louder each time, until they’re both almost screaming on the last line. This is followed by a keening guitar lead like a rush of wind in freefall. The end winds down with another chop-chop stutter and a bent final note.

On RAFFERTY’S FOLLY, the song is not significantly different, but the differences are enough to demarcate the mediocre earlier version from the sublime later one. First, the RAFFERTY version has very little dynamic to the music. The LIGHTS version brings instruments in and out, but the RAFFERTY version more or less just cranks through the changes. Also, the RAFFERTY version further exacerbates the lack of subtlety by having a piano pound out whole-note chords through the bridge. The effect would not be out of place in a Journey power-ballad. Linda sings beautifully, but her vocal lacks the raw emotion of the LIGHTS version. She never sounds as if she is just about to crack, nor does she stretch around certain words. It’s simply too matter-of-fact for the song. Richard’s solos are okay, but fail to carry the true impact of the song. They also don’t really sound like Richard Thompson solos. His style usually involves bent notes, harmonies and overtones. The solos on the RAFFERTY version of “Walking on a Wire” are single-note wailers noticeably short on Thompson’s usual bag of tricks.

I freely admit to being a glutton myself for this song. I can rarely stand to listen to it only once. It has a rare combination of perfections in content, performance, emotion, sound, and tone that puts it into an elite rank of all-around perfect songs. I can think of very few other songs that I’d rank similarly. The Band’s “Whispering Pines.” The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Television’s “Marquee Moon.” The Mekons’ “Memphis, Egypt.”



3 thoughts on “Shoot Out the Lights”

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