Behind the Album: Richard and Linda Thompson Chronicle the Dissolution of Their Marriage on ‘Shoot Out the Lights’

Shoot Out the Lights proved to be both a breakthrough and a farewell for Richard and Linda Thompson. The 1982 album chronicled the dissolution of their marriage. Once the record was released, the marriage was pretty much over.

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But what a musical document they left behind. Few breakup albums have dug as deep or hit as hard, and fewer still have been able to capture the whole gamut of emotions felt by the participants in such clear-eyed, evenhanded fashion. Here is how this one-of-a-kind album came to be.

An Album Without a Home

Considering the songs for Shoot Out the Lights were completed by Richard Thompson as early as 1980 (Linda received just one co-writing credit on the album for “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?”), it’s clear the Thompsons’ marriage was on shaky ground for some time. Initially, the pair recorded the songs with Gerry Rafferty (of “Baker Street” fame) as a producer.

Richard soon fell out with Rafferty over what he deemed to be the producer’s too-strict control over the direction of the songs. Rafferty tried to sell the album to labels but found no takers. Luckily, Joe Boyd, who worked with Richard Thompson in Fairport Convention, signed the duo and agreed to release the album as long as the songs were quickly rerecorded on a small budget. Two freshly written songs were added to the six from the previous sessions.

Shoot Out the Lights was released in March 1982 and won rave reviews. But it also soon became public the Thompsons had separated, with Richard already having taken up with Nancy Covey, who would become his next wife. Richard and Linda toured America to promote the record and then went their separate ways, both personally and professionally.

Lights and Action

Remember when we were hand in hand / Remember we sealed it with a golden band / Now your eyes don’t meet mine. So sings Richard Thompson on the twitchy opener “Don’t Renege on Our Love.” That begins a kind of dialogue between the two, as they mostly alternate lead vocals.

For example, she’s on lead on the second song “Walking on a Wire,” which seems to answer “Don’t Renege on Our Love”: I hand you my ball and chain / You just hand me that same old refrain. And so begins the back-and-forth, with the one constant being Richard’s lyrical guitar. Linda takes the somber ballads: “Walking on a Wire,” “Just the Motion,” and “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” The latter song is a particular marvel, with Linda telling a story of a tragedy without a clear-cut cause.

Richard sings lead on the more rocking numbers. “A Man in Need” takes aim at excessive self-pity, which could be seen as Richard criticizing his own behavior. That honesty comes to the fore in the brooding pronouncements of the title track, a song that also gives him the chance to cut loose on guitar with both thudding power chords and passionate soloing.

Shoot Out the Lights ends with one of the finest closing songs in rock history, as Richard and Linda sing in harmony about the “Wall of Death.” The amusement park ride serves as a metaphor for marriage itself, with the final verdict that the highs are worth the lows: You can waste your time on the other rides / But this is the nearest to being alive / Oh, let me take me chances on the Wall of Death.

The Legacy of Shoot Out the Lights

Richard and Linda Thompson recorded six albums together over nine years, and many of those LPs are brilliant in ways that most other music of that time couldn’t hope to match. Richard’s top-notch songwriting and guitar playing were complimented in peerless fashion by Linda’s soulful vocals. Shoot Out the Lights sent the partnership out on a staggeringly high note.

Like the passengers stepping off the Wall of Death at the end of the ride, Richard and Linda Thompson walked away from their marriage once the centrifugal force ceased to hold them. In Shoot Out the Lights, they provided a blow-by-blow of the wind-down, both harrowing and touching all at once.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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