What: “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” Richard Thompson’s 1991 tale of young hoodlums in love. As it’s so hard to play, the studio version trumps any of his live versions, but you have to see him play it live to get just how intricate it is.
Why: The ’52 Vincent Black Lightning was the last of the greatest breed of British motorcycle. Faster than anything on two wheels in its day, the Vincent was favored by criminals and policemen alike across Britain. Richard Thompson, already a guitar legend for his work with Fairport Convention and later his wife Linda, cemented his reputation as a solo artist with the album Rumor and Sigh and this song about a young thug named James Agee and his sweetheart Red Molly. Knowing full well that there’s nothing in this world that beats a redhead on a motorbike, Thompson crafted a tragic love story around one of the most complex acoustic guitar lines in rock history. He cut it in the Hawaiian slack key of “C wahine,” one almost never heard on the mainland except in Fleetwood Mac’s stirring “Never Going Back Again”. Thompson seems to be playing two different instruments, the dominant one tuned at the highest end of the guitar’s range and the other seesawing back and forth on the bass end. Only when you see him perform it live do you realize one person can play both parts. Assuming that person is Richard Thompson, of course.
Impact: Rumor and Sigh became Thompson’s most popular solo album, though in Venn diagram of rock, the words “Richard Thompson” and “popular” have a minuscule intersection. It continued a long run of post-divorce songs where true love goes horribly wrong, but unlike “She Twists the Knife Again” and “Missie How You Let Me Down,” at least the female character (always Linda) didn’t betray the male (always Richard). Then again, James Agee ends up with a gaping hole where his heart should be, so you never know. Nonetheless, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” remains Thompson’s sweetest song, a love ballad to redheads and superbikes everywhere.
Personal Connection: I spent a little time riding my friend’s motorcycle in college, but never developed a knack for it. But from the instant I heard this song, I knew I wanted a Vincent Black Lightning. I seized my chance to ride one on the virtual level when plotting the Repo Men ARG for Universal Pictures. The director, Miguel Sapochnik, slipped the nonsense phrase “Fiona rides her bike now” in binary into the film, and I needed a character to deliver a package to Seattle’s Scarecrow Video in the ARG. So I gave Fiona the nickname “Red Molly,” and her theme song became this one. Like the characters in the song, things didn’t work out for her either. It wouldn’t have done the song justice if they did.
Other Contenders: surf-rock’s jangliest jangler, Dick Dale’s “Miserlou”; Link Wray’s three-note hellblast, “Rumble”; Nancy Wilson’s finger-breaking kickoff to Heart’s “Crazy On You”; the Allman Brothers’ byplay on “Jessica”, adapted as Top Gear‘s hard-driving theme; Joe Perry’s talk-box infusion on Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”; “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, Slash’s announcement that Guns ‘N Roses was now in charge; “Thunderstruck”, Angus Young’s announcement that AC/DC might nonetheless still be in charge; Tracy Chapman’s loping journey through the poverty-stricken “Fast Car”; Beck’s highly sampleable fuzzbomb “E-Pro”; The Slip’s cloudwalking guitar vocalization toward the end of “Even Rats”.