Richard Thompson: “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”

See image credit below.

For Jim, in honor of his birthday

My husband, Jim, and I love this song by Richard Thompson and its signature line, “red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme.” In fact, the first concert we saw together was Thompson playing at the Boulder Theater, and of course, I sported a black leather motorcycle jacket. When Thompson sang the song, one of his most popular, and got to this particular line, Jim called out, “Me, too!” Thank goodness, Jim is not a heckler – and he didn’t disturb the concert – but I loved it! I’m guessing many red-headed women have gone to Richard Thompson concerts in black leather jackets.

Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is a perfect story song. It’s short – just a few stanzas – but it really tells a story and packs an emotional punch in that compact space. There are two, maybe three characters – the thief James Adie and Red Molly, of course, but James’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning is almost a character, too.

This “fine motorbike,” as Red Molly calls it, is legendary in the U.K. The Vincent motorcycle company – based in Great Britain – made motorcycles for only four years and made fewer than thirty of this particular bike in 1952. In an interview, Thompson describes the 1952 Vincent Black Lightning as “an object of myth, a rather wonderful, rare and beautiful beast.” Or as Red Molly says, “a girl could feel special on any such like.”

What I (and so many others!) love about this song is that Thompson has written it to sound like an old English ballad. It is the perfect ballad. It has a limited cast of characters whom we care about almost instantly. There is an object of beauty – or more accurately, two objects of beauty: Red Molly and the 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. There’s a romance, some crime, and an untimely death. But the fun twist is that the old-sounding ballad is about a man and his motorcycle – as if even the modern world can be the stuff of ballads. Or as Thompson said in one live performance, “It’s a simple boy-meets-girl story, complicated somewhat by the presence of a motorcycle.”

Thompson explains the origin of the song:

When I was a kid, that was always the exotic bike, that was always the one, the one that you went “ooh, wow.” I’d always been looking for English ideas that didn’t sound corny, that had some romance to them, and around which you could pin a song. And this song started with a motorcycle, it started with the Vincent. It was a good lodestone around which the song could revolve.

It’s not surprising that Richard Thompson would write an old-time ballad about a motorbike. After all, as a founding member of the Fairport Convention in the 1960s, he was at the forefront of the English folk rock movement. According to one source, Thompson’s early group brought “a distinctively English identity to rock music and helped awaken much wider interest in traditional music in general.” points out that in his songwriting, Thompson has “long displayed a flair for adapting the tenets of the [English folk] style to his own contemporary works.” This song, says, “takes a story old as the hills (good woman falls for noble criminal) and brings it into the present day without robbing it of a bit of its emotional power – and it has a killer guitar part to boot.” American Songwriter says of the ending, “Yes it’s a cliché, but Thompson imbues their last goodbye with such genuine emotion that it transcends all the times this story has been told before.”

The song, which has developed almost a cult-like following, was recorded as part of Thompson’s 1991 album, Rumor and Sigh. Time magazine included the song in its list of 100 songs since the magazine began publishing in 1923. Time says the song is “a glorious example of what one guy can accomplish with just a guitar, a voice, an imagination and a set of astonishingly nimble fingers.” The ballad, says Time, “takes you to the emotional edge of love and theft, then soars right over it.”

If you want to truly geek out on this amazing song, visit Sing Out! magazine for an incredibly thorough discussion of the way the song has evolved over years of performances, both by Thompson and by other musicians who have covered the song.

If you’re not familiar with Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” take a listen – and see if you don’t get a lump in your throat as James says goodbye to Red Molly and his fine motorbike. You can listen to the song online – but better yet, you might want to purchase Rumor and Sigh, the album on which he released “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” as there are lots of other great songs on the album as well.

If you fall in love with Richard Thompson’s music (and really, who wouldn’t?), you might want to add RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson, a five-CD box set that features classic, rare, and previously unreleased Thompson recordings. And if you want to learn to play like the fleet-fingered Thompson, check out his book Richard Thompson Teaches Traditional Guitar Instrumentals: Unique Arrangements of Irish, Scottish and English Tunes.

Watch:Watch as Richard Thompson performs one of his best-known songs, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”

Image Credit: Richard Thompson performing in 2007, photo by Anthony Pepitone, used with permission,