Song of the day: “Wall Of Death” by Richard and Linda Thompson (1982)

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This song has been on my mind lately. It’s the closing song from Richard and Linda Thompson’s 1982 album, “Shoot Out The Lights,” soon to be a Desert Island Disc.

Hailed as one of the best rock albums of the 80s, it’s a chronicle of the deterioration of the Thompsons’ relationship. Richard and Linda were still married when the songs were written and recorded, though with increasing discord, and by the time they toured to promote the album they had separated. Which makes the album more poignant, and renders “Wall Of Death” even more uplifting.

On the Wall Of Death all the world is far from me
On the Wall Of Death it’s the nearest to being free

Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
Oh let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death

Others, especially Richard himself, have explained this song better than I can.

“It was two different things, really. In the 1970s it was a motorcycle daredevil stunt where there was a bowl-shaped area, around which you would ride a motorcycle horizontally. You’d build up to speed around the bottom and then the faster you got, you’d keep going and actually be horizontal. A friend of mine claims to have done that. That’s one thing. But it’s also a kind of generic name for a certain kind of fairground ride. Where I grew up in London there’s a very old fair, the Hampshire fair, which had been running consecutively for hundreds of years. And they have a Wall of Death. It’s one of those things like a gyro thing where the floor drops away and you’re stuck to the wall by centrifugal force.” – Richard Thompson

“(‘Wall Of Death’) was this deceptively lighthearted tribute to a carnival ride that acts in the song as a metaphor for an entire approach to life. ‘You’re going nowhere when you ride on the carousel,’ they sing; ‘let me take my chances on the Wall of Death’…  All in all, what sounds at first like a simple and pretty pop confection ends up being much more complex and much more interesting than that.” – Rick Anderson

“‘Wall Of Death’ uses an amusement park analogy to emphasize the pleasures of those fast rides that scare the hell out of us, as opposed to the rides that just let us float along contentedly… Better to go out in a blaze of glory, the song suggests, than to sit around waiting for your heart to stop ticking. It seems like a morbid song, but it really isn’t. Richard Thompson… is not wishing for death; rather, he’s embracing the very life that has brought him both fame and failure, success and suffering. The message, in short, is simple: enjoy the ride.” – Michael Heumann

“The lyrics carry a perfect grim optimism well suited to making the best of the world as we face it. The music and wonderful harmonies are more buoyant, lending an added air of hope. While the song tells of oddities and off-beat opportunities — the bearded lady and the tunnel of love, for example — the carnival analogies are a fair match for everyday life. This is what a life well-lived is all about: taking good chances and finding ways to be alive.” – Robert Hulshof-Schmidt

“I think the song could be an affirmation of the importance to keep things going in an otherwise strong relationship, even though the going can be tough and scary at times.  The song could also be an affirmation of how many people still seem to look for love, even though it can be a scary ride: because, as the lyrics say, ‘it’s the nearest to being free’…  I’m happy to believe there’s possibly a more positive meaning to a great song I always thought was unbearably bleak.” – Dave’s Strange World

3 Comments on “Song of the day: “Wall Of Death” by Richard and Linda Thompson (1982)”

  1. AnnMcK says:

    I think “grim optimism” kinda sums up my whole approach. Or maybe “bitter optimism.” Love this song too. I like to listen to it alongside For Shame of Doing Wrong and Hand of Kindness.

    • scottmac56 says:

      This album and “Hand Of Kindness” were my introduction to RT. I’ve seen him in concert nearly a dozen times. I was blown away when Patty Loveless and Jo-El Sonnier each hit the country Top 40 with covers of “Tear-Stained Letter.” Jo-El’s version leaves Patty’s in the dust.

  2. […] Nice Girls?” Gregson went on to play with some of my other favorite musicians. He played in Richard Thompson’s band for much of the ’80s; collaborated with Henry Gross after that; and currently plays in […]

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