This is a 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.  Once only in my life have I ridden a motorbike and it wasn’t a Vincent, and it scared the shit out of me.  But I can see that it is an object of great beauty.  In her BBC Radio 4 series, More Guitar Favourites, Joan Armatrading talked with Richard Thompson about his song that has one of these machines in the starring role.

Thompson’s song ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ first appeared on his 1991 album Rumour and Sigh, and it’s been a favourite of mine ever since – I’ve seen him perform it live a few times. I’ve admired it for its clever musicality, set to the melody and structure of a traditional English ballad (think ‘Lord Randall’, ‘Matty Groves’ or ‘The Famous Flower of Serving-Men’), with its tale of star-crossed lovers and the bike that brings them together being a superb piece of songwriting and story-telling in that tradition of the damsel borne away on the mount of gypsy outlaw:

Says Red Molly to James “That’s a fine motorbike. 
A girl could feel special on any such like” 
Says James to Red Molly “My hat’s off to you 
It’s a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952. 
And I’ve seen you at the corners and cafes it seems 
Red hair and black leather, my favourite colour scheme” 
And he pulled her on behind and down to Box Hill they did ride
Oh says James to Red Molly “Here’s a ring for your right hand 
But I’ll tell you in earnest I’m a dangerous man. 
For I’ve fought with the law since I was seventeen, 
I robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine. 
Now I’m 21 years, I might make 22 
And I don’t mind dying, but for the love of you. 
And if fate should break my stride 
Then I’ll give you my Vincent to ride”

“Come down, come down, Red Molly” called Sergeant McRae 
“For they’ve taken young James Adie for armed robbery. 
Shotgun blast hit his chest, left nothing inside. 
Oh come down, Red Molly to his dying bedside” 
When she came to the hospital, there wasn’t much left 
He was running out of road, he was running out of breath 
But he smiled to see her cry 
He said “I’ll give you my Vincent to ride”

Says James “In my opinion, there’s nothing in this world 
Beats a 52 Vincent and a red headed girl. 
Now Nortons and Indians and Greeves won’t do, 
Ah, they don’t have a soul like a Vincent 52″ 
Oh he reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys 
Said “I’ve got no further use for these. 
I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome, 
Swooping down from heaven to carry me home” 
And he gave her one last kiss and died 
And he gave her his Vincent to ride.

Such great lines there:

When she came to the hospital, there wasn’t much left 
He was running out of road, he was running out of breath

and

Oh he reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys 
Said “I’ve got no further use for these. 
I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome, 
Swooping down from heaven to carry me home”

Speaking to Joan Armatrading, Richard Thompson explained his intentions when writing the song:

I was looking for some equivalent to a Chuck Berry song about a car. Song mythology was imported from America pretty much with the gramophone.  So what I was trying to do with the Vincent song was to find British objects that had some romance to them, that I could use as mythological objects in themselves. I thought the Vincent motorcycle – it’s very rare, it had the land speed record, it’s very beautiful, it’s a sort of fetishistic object – if I put this at the centre of the song, it can act as a lodestone to build the story around.

Two fine versions of the song exist on YouTube:

11 thoughts on “Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning: mythic tale

  1. I’ve been getting more into folksey music recently and what’s more I love Vincent motorcycles. My grandad had one back in the 50’s, I think he had a Comet or a Shadow. I’m so glad you’ve posted this song because there’s not enough songs about motorcycles in the world! Thank you.

    1. The ones there are are good though: Leader of the Pack (Shangri-La’s), Born to Be Wild, Leiber & Stoller’s Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots (The Cheers, amazingly covered in a French version by Edith Piaf), and Neil Young’s incomparable Unknown Legend. Oh, and check out Brigitte Bardot singing Serge Gainsbourg’s Harley Davidson on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ai2As4XFZDY

  2. What a coincidence, Gerry. We are off to see RT live and solo tomorrow night in Petaluma. We are driving about 8 hours from our base in Mammoth Lakes, hopefully through Yosemite if one of the passes is still open. I adore RT and the whole dang family of Thompsons and the late great Sandy Denny and the old Fairport Convention music. Thanks for this. I shall save and cherish a copy!

  3. That is a coincidence – and I do envy you seeing him live. I have seen him in several memorable shows, in solo, acoustic, electric and group contexts. His performances are always superb, and he affable – a great guy to spend an evening with. Have a great evening, yell for the Vincent, and drop a line here to let us know what he’s up to at the moment.

    1. Thanks for your interest, Gerry. We got there really early and rushed in to get middle of the front row seats! Age range was much smaller than other rock concerts – fifties to seventies I would say. He played Vincent, Beeswing and Dimming of the Day plus newer material like Stumble On from new album. Said he was going to do a FC song and my husband asked me which I would like so I said Genesis Hall and a split second later he announced it to my delight and a big cry of “YESSSS” on my part! He did a 3 song encore. Altogether a brilliant showman. I wished I were staying for his second night at Mystic Theatre, Petaluma – tiny art nouveau gem. Ticks were only $31 but petrol to get there and back – about 6 hours each way! – expensive but not as expensive as England! Keep all the great writings, clips and quotations coming. I follow your TV and film reviews and whenever possible rent them from Netflix. Have a wonderful holiday season whatever your spiritual stance may be! It all boils down to loving ourselves and one another and I can tell you are healthy in that respect.
      Tess from the US but proudly British

  4. Your post is very insightful. I am inspired by Richard Thompson’s song writing and your post helps me understand better how he wrote the son. I wish I could learn more about his process, but it seems that RT is more concerned about the guitar-playing. Makes sense.

  5. Piece of trivia: Vincent Black Lightning 1952 does not have keys! (Don’t ask how you start it though.) The song Beeswing was apparently about Anne Briggs, largely unpublished folk singer/songrwiter but covered a lot..
    Songs about motor bikes – indirectly Bob Seger’s Turn the Page about him riding from gig to gig. Great song, a favourite of mine.

  6. Here’s a very nice cover of Mr. Thompson’s masterpiece by Austin Texas’s Reckless Kelly. This band has brought the legend to a whole new group of people throughout the Western U.S. Nice Blog btw.

  7. I had a 1952 Vincent Comet and later a 1949 Vincent Rapide with high lift cams (“White Shadow”)
    The Black Lightning not only had no key, it had no battery or kickstart. Racing practice was to push the bike, run alongside, drop it into first gear and then hang on for dear life.
    For a visual check out “Rollie Free” breaking the land speed record on a tuned Black Shadow (which was the prototype Black Lightning)
    As Hunter S.Thompson says, ” I still feel a shudder in my spine every time I see a picture of a Vincent Black Shadow…
    Great song!
    Paddy Swanson

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