Man of many parts

Karl Dallas
Melody Maker
Man of many parts

THE news that Danny Thompson is getting back into jazz will please the many who have missed the big, fat tone of his bass during his protracted flirtations with other types of music.

But though Danny is excited at the prospect of playing with Annette Peacock and Tony Oxley, with arrangements possibly by Gil Evans, he is just as enthused by the fact that he's taken up trombone again, with the local Suffolk Military Band.

Or the bass playing he does with a country group, the Orwell String Band.

Or his recent tour with John Martyn. Or the fact that Ralph McTell has been in the country, and he's told Danny that he's back into writing songs again.

Or playing trad jazz at the Crown in Ipswich on Tuesday.

Danny, a man of many parts is now fully recovered from the debacle that was the break-up of Pentangle, still a dominating and intimidating force to those critics who incur his wrath, a voluble and exhausting talker, impatient as ever at the categorisations and divisions that split music lovers against each other, anxious only to make as much good music in as many different directions as possible.

The trombone, for instance. He played it in the army, but he hadn't touched it for 13 years until he heard that the local brass band was short of players.
"So I went down there and I thought, 'I dunno, I fancy this.' So I get meself a trombone and now I'm on bass trombone with them."

I asked Danny if he had thought of taking the instrument up seriously.
"Yeah," he said, "I've been thinking about it, because I've been really working on it. The good thing about it is that it's a hobby. It's taken me away from bass playing when it became just a sort of a job at certain times, just doing the nominal two hours a day practice to keep me fingers in."

"Now I manage to do three or four hours on trombone because I'm enjoying it so much and it's a different instrument. It's given me another outlet. So I hope to get good enough to be able to play in something like a local dance band. That would do me, I don't mind. I think it's all good, whatever it is."

More important than the playing, however, I get the feeling that what has really happened to Danny is that he has come to terms with himself, if not with the music business. And whether it's playing trombone or four-in-a-bar in the local pub trad band, or even cleaning out a pigsty, it all serves a purpose.

"I'm a manic depressive anyway," he said. "Doctors have tried giving me pills and it really boils down to the fact that it's my nature. No pills or anything can help, because when you're happy you're happy, and when you're down you're down and there's nothing you can do about it. No pills are going to change that."

'I mean, I'm thought of as a wild animal at the moment, but that's my nature, innit? So they wanted to calm me down and become an introvert, which would have fazed everybody, I think, it they'd seen me walking around like an introvert."

"But instead, I get up, have a run down the road, chuck crap about for the local pig-farmers. I've even taken up canoeing now, yachting."

"And when you've been touring with someone like John Martyn - he's not exactly the world's greatest introvert either. And nor am I, so you've got two wild animals on tour, fighting and raping and pillaging their way around the country, so after that you've got to do something to come down or you come out of it in a daze and you get depressed. You're sitting there roasting after the tour and that's when I get out the trombone or shovel some s--- or something like that."

Danny used to be one of the kings of the session bass-players, but he doesn't do as much as he used to. Why?
"I dunno," he said. "Maybe the phone doesn't know where I am, 'cos it don't ring. I think I upset a lot of people in the studio thing, like the fixers and that. I remember like in the days of the mohair suit I was the denim rebel, I used to get strange looks when I'd walk in to do a session for Cliff Richard or something. People would look at me astonished, amazed, and tell me it was incorrect dress to wear for doing a professional gig."

"At one time it was rumoured that I was blacklisted as a troublemaker because I used to dress funny on sessions. Well now it's different, of course. There's not a mohair suit to be seen, so perhaps I ought to wear one, just to upset 'em all again."

''Mind you, I wouldn't do all that Cliff Richard, Engelbert Humperdinck thing again. I used to do all that because they called me a session musician, which means you've got to go in and go bom bom bom bom like one note every 15 years. 'Cause it ain't music, is it, or at least it's not my music. I've got selfish in my old age inasmuch as I wanna play what I wanna play."

It came as a surprise to me that Danny was talking of getting involved in the musical side of his new local commercial radio station, putting down jingles, developing musical policy. It sounded a bit at odds with his image in the biz.
"Not really," he said. "I think I'm getting to that age now, I think I've done most of it. I don't mean that in a big-'eaded way, but I think I've fulfilled most of my ambitions. I don't think I shall ever play as well as I've always wanted to play, but then you never do, do you? I mean, if I practised eight hours a day from now until I died, I'd still die moanin'. But this is a part of the business that I've never done. I've done odd bits of production, obviously, but you know, dashing about raping and pillaging all over Britain and the world, I think I'm definitely getting past it. l think I would like to stop and settle down a bit, I really do."

I wonder. He claims to be disenchanted with the business of being a creative musician - and he has had more than his fair share of being worked over by fate and circumstance, though despite his hostility to critical 'parasites' he rarely gets what you would call a bad review, just occasional snide remarks from those whose nostrils he has got up.

But it was instructive that when he talked about the forthcoming Annette Peacock gig, his voice carried the same old animation. Or, despite the fact that he is contractually unable to record right now, the ideas he has for a solo album.

"There was a record out with my mate Bobby, who's a docker. Anyway the B-side was just me on bass, multitracked, and I was quite pleased with the way it worked out, so I want to get into that kind of experimenting, like using electronics on the double-bass."

"People are always asking me why I don't play bass guitar, but I don't play guitar, for the same reason I don't play French horn, but as far as electronics is concerned I'd still be playing double bass and getting all these fantastic sounds. Most of the sounds that come out may not sound like double bass but another instrument couldn't do it."

"So really I've gotta work on this electronic side as well as the melodies I'm gonna use, which'll all be English. I'm fed up with all this Welsh and Scottish nationalism, so I might be English nationalist and use only English tunes, perhaps a few good old London ones jazzed up, like North And South and On Monday I Never Go To Work, things like that."


This interview was published in Melody Maker of 21 February 1976.