Danny Thompson | On Playing Bass

Mark Cooper
Q #36
Danny Thompson
on playing bass
Danny Thompson and his double bass have been inseparable for 30 years. After playing with Tubby Hayes and Alexis Korner, he co-founded the electric folk-jazz group Pentangle in the late '60s. Later his emotive bass style made him an ideal partner for Nick Drake and then John Martyn. In the late '70s he returned to session work with the likes of Kate Bush and David Sylvian. He formed his own group, Whatever, in 1987 and also plays with Toumani Diabate and Ketana in Songhai. Here, he 'touches bass' with Mark Cooper.

I had to change my New York mohair suit to play with Pentangle in jeans. It was folkies and jazzers then and don't cross the fence. Anyway, I'd heard that Bert Jansch was an acceptable folkie because he was supposed to be a heroin addict. I thought he was probably cool because all I was doing in the jazz scene was playing with heroin addicts. In fact, Bert just likes a pint of bitter now and again but because of the way he slurs his words, the audiences used to think he was definitely on drugs. I met John Renbourn on a TV show with Alexis Korner and he invited me down to jam with him and Ben at the Horseshoe on Tottenham Court Road. Soon I had letters threatening me with death for getting Ben Jansch to play through an amp. I got my reputation as a hellraiser with John Martyn but Pentangle could really rave. We were this quiet, sounds of silence group onstage but we did shift some booze in our day; our love lives were amazing too. When we toured with Jethro Tull they used to get stick for damage to hotels but they were the quietest, meekest bunch of fellers you'd ever want to meet. The damage was done by Pentangle, the Sounds of Silence.

I was used to characters on the jazz side but the Incredible String Band did flip me a bit. When I met them, it was the full hippy bit, sitting on the floor with bits of carpet and tapping drums and finding out there's a spare track on the tape and going out to get a trombone to play on it. Mike Heron and Robin Williamson played me all these tunes and the experience of playing with blues guys like Josh White where there's no form definitely helped. But the songs were extraordinary and the first one I worked on, The First Girl I Loved, is one of the great love songs. But it was still like two different tribes meeting.

At the same time, I'd do straight sessions where you shut up and you're paid to do what you're told. Most session players wouldn't dream of getting involved with any work but I'm a musician, I love to play. I did Cliff Richard's Congratulations in EMI Studios and I keep getting repeats for it because it won the Eurovision Song Contest. I also played on Maggie May. Rod Stewart was a fan of the folk thing and called me up to replace the bass part. He still owes me £20.

A lot of people ask about Nick Drake after gigs, usually people like him - very sensitive, withdrawn, tortured souls. I tried everything with Nick: I was horrible to him, I was nice to him, I was patronising to him, anything to try and get something out of him. When I've been suicidal, thinking, 'What is this all about, sitting on this silly rock, plummeting through space?' I've understood him.

I'd do anything for John Martyn: if he phoned me up and said, 'I'm in the Pennines and my car's knackered,' I'd be on my way. It was a blessing from heaven that we were able to rave together so much in the '70s and live because we lost a lot of friends who raved only half as much. He's the biggest, softest teddy bear, a generous, warm, sensitive person and he spends a lot of time covering it up. He and I had a real double act with all that 'I'll see you, son, the last one in the boozer' nonsense but most of it is insecurity. The real stuff comes out in the music we make. Live At Leeds was the high point and it was done drunk. I don't believe you can play drunk but that night I went for everything and it worked. In the end, I'd lost my way with the drink so we had to part.

This Scottish interviewer recently asked me1 about this outrageous notoriety of mine, my legacy from the drinking days. I said, 'I'm sick to death of this poxy image of me, I've never been out of order, I've never gone round pushing blind people over or biting dogs' heads off.' He pointed out that he'd been at a John Martyn concert in Glasgow where I'd gone off the stage, into the balcony and ejected a heckler.2 l admitted that I did do that but that wasn't drink, the geezer was out of order. John and myself were improvising and this heckler was going on and on. If he was in my house and we were having a party, I'd chuck him out, so out he had to go. I've never been afraid to offend people when necessary and that hasn't changed.

Donovan was the high priest of Celtic rock with an image that was as foreign to me as that of the Incredibles. To be invited to lunch with the family and be picked up in a Mercedes Pullman limo with a chauffeur was freaky. I added playing with him around the time of A Gift From A Flower To A Garden and then he moved to America. After that I went through the slow dive with alcohol and the phone stopped ringing. When I finally quit the drink, I was in my Tudor house in the country wondering what to do and Donovan phoned, wanting to work with me again. A lot of folkies were snotty about him but he's the one who got my confidence back in the early '80s.

Now I've had a second chance and I've got to make my own records. I've done some great sessions with Kate Bush, Talk Talk and David Sylvan in the '80s. Sylvian is a wonderful bloke. He's a really strong person who knows what he wants musically and has great passion which is not outgoing whereas mine is right out there, in your face. His is stronger because he doesn't have to express it like that.

I did an interview with Swedish radio recently and the guy said that my music was soulful and melodic which he found strange coming from a guy like me. But all the chat and the jokes is a facade. I'm so grateful that I've been able to make my own albums and show that what I love is all beautiful, soppy tunes. Now it's this open sound that I'm after, no drums and more space to hear the harmonies and melodies that are mostly English without getting all nationalistic about it. Then there's Songhai (a collaboration with Toumani Diabate and Spanish duo Ketana) where the communication is totally musical because we can't talk to each other. People call it world music but it's simply music from the heart. I listen to Toumani play and it's instant. I understand it just like he was Bert Jansch or John Martyn.

The only time I ever played electric bass was with Roy Orbison when I came out of the army. I love the physical thing of holding a double bass and searching for the right note, to me it's almost an animal thing. But for those three tours with Roy in the early '60s, I got a sky blue imitation Fender and a Vox amp and backed Roy as one of The Piltdown Men (remember Brontosaurus Stomp?). On the coach were Freddie And The Dreamers, Gerry And The Pacemakers, The Fourmost, Brian Poole And The Tremeloes and Roy, who refused to go in the limo because he wanted to be with the chaps. We all played tricks on each other but the unwritten law was nobody does anything to the Big O. All his stuff was written so he could reach the highest note of his range at the end of the show. The last night of the tour we took it up a semi-tone. I said at the time, If we don't do a trick on him, he's going to be very upset. He loved it. Like when we stopped the coach in the middle of nowhere and said, 'Yeah, this is it, the Scottish border, got your passport, Roy?' He was an amazing geezer, one of the very best.

1 This was Kenny Mathieson, six months earlier, writing for The List.
2 I have two shows listed in Glasgow City Hall; 20 Jan 1975 and 30 Sep 1975. My best guess it was the January one because of the mentioned heckler.
This interview appeared in Q magazine number 36 of September 1989.
Picture: Adrian Boot