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Off the Beaten Tracks: Lindisfarne through the fog

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THE last time I visited Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, I intended to show our son Jim what a lovely place it is. Unfortunately the fog was so thick that you could not see your hand in front of your face. This on a July day when we had left London basking in the mid-eighties and taken the train to Newcastle, where the mercury was struggling to reach the mid-fifties, before hiring a car to drive up the coast.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that when Lindisfarne perform Fog on the Tyne, those Geordie boys really know what they’re singing about.

It was at the end of the Sixties that a heavy blues band named Brethren were joined by singer, guitar and keyboards player Alan Hull, who ran a folk club in Whitley Bay and persuaded them to adopt a gentler, more bucolic approach. The rest of the line-up comprised Ray Jackson on vocals, harmonica and mandolin, Rod Clements on bass and violin, Simon Cowe on mandolin, guitar, banjo and keyboards, and drummer Ray Laidlaw. Their jangly sound proved popular and they were signed by entrepreneur Tony Stratton-Smith for his new Charisma label. He told them they needed a change of name because there was already an American band called Brethren. Jackson said: ‘We chose the name Lindisfarne after the small tidal island off Newcastle [actually it is 50 miles away] – it’s completely cut off at high tide and consequently the pubs stay open all day without fear of police action.’

Their debut album, Nicely Out of Tune, was released in late 1970 and initially failed to trouble the charts despite a strong selection of songs. Track one, Lady Eleanor, written by Hull, is a ghostly tale inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and introduces the world to the band’s slightly raucous harmonies, suggestive of Crosby Stills and Nash meeting the Copper Family.

This is followed by the Clements composition Road to Kingdom Come and third is Hull’s masterly Winter Song, allegedly described by Elvis Costello as ‘one of the greatest  ever’.

The creeping cold has fingers
That caress without permission
And mystic crystal snowdrops
Only aggravate the condition.
  

I can empathise with this having spent a winter in Newcastle as a budding journalist at the Thomson Regional Newspapers training centre in the Bigg Market. Two other teenagers and I shared a flat in Wallsend on a terrace street where the chill wind came screaming up from Siberia via the Tyne. The sole heating came from an electric fire in the living room which gobbled up shillings placed in the coin meter. My bedroom was so icy that I kept my beer in the wardrobe because it was colder than the fridge. I cannot think about that time of my life without shivering.

Back to the album and Clear White Light Pt 2 (there never was a Pt 1) is another excellent track. We Can Swing Together is an account of a police raid on a party and would become a staple of live performances.

As side two wends on, the heavy Beatles influence on the band becomes ever more apparent, most explicitly in Alan in the River With Flowers, a parody of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. The album was produced by John Anthony, a Charisma stalwart who also worked with Van Der Graaf Generator and Genesis. To promote it, the band worked their socks off, gigging constantly and building up a loyal live following.

The big breakthrough chartwise came with Fog on the Tyne, released in late 1971. American producer Bob Johnston (Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash) had asked to work with them and brought a new discipline to their studio work. The album soared to the top of the charts and was one of the ten best-sellers of 1972.  

It starts with Meet Me on the Corner, which reached No 5 in the singles charts and became one of the band’s anthems. Written by Rod Clements, it has strong parallels with Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man and not just the first two words. I have always taken it to refer to Amen Corner, which we would pass on our way to a quayside gem of a boozer named the Crown Posada. One of the oldest pubs in Newcastle, this long, narrow building was like a beautifully appointed railway carriage with its own house gramophone and was where I had my first taste of real ale after being weaned on fizzy pasteurised keg rubbish. It was love at first sup.

At the time of writing the Posada is closed because of The Virus. Let’s hope the ale is flowing there again soon.

Sorry, end of thirsty digression.

Alright on the Night is one of many Lindisfarne drinking songs while with Uncle Sam Simon Cowe makes his songwriting debut. Together Forever was written by the talented Scottish folksmith Rab Noakes. January Songby Alan Hull, is a musical companion to Winter Song, from Nicely. Hull excels himself with the anguished City Song, an excellent band performance. According to a contemporary piece in Melody Maker by Roy Hollingworth, Johnston was so excited by the track that he ‘jumped up and down on his seat in the control room shouting that it was the best thing he’d ever heard’ – praise indeed given his previous production jobs. Hull follows this with another little gem, Passing Ghosts

Finally we have the title track, Fog on the Tyne, yet another Hull classic which begins, unforgettably, ‘Sittin’ in a sleazy snack bar sucking sickly sausage rolls.

This jolly singalong confirmed Lindisfarne as Geordie icons and would be reprised in 1990 in a version with footballer Paul Gascoigne on vocals which went to No 2 in the singles charts and earned him a gold disc. The success of Fog on the Tyne led to renewed interest in its predecessor and Lady Eleanor was re-released as a single, reaching No 3.

Johnston remained on board for 1972’s Dingly Dell but the band were unhappy with his contribution and remixed it themselves. Whether that was a good idea is open to conjecture. It was in the UK album charts for only ten weeks, compared with Fog on the Tyne’s 56. The first and best track All Fall Down, written by Hull and released as a single, reached only No 34. Hull’s Poor Old Ireland  is fairly typical Lindisfarne fare but Don’t Ask Me, written by Clements, is something of a departure with its straightahead rock rhythms more redolent of the Mississippi than the Tyne.

The Beatlesish Wake Up Little Sister restores the balance before three indifferent and very poppy songs. Then comes the final, six-minute title track, an odd mixture of Indian-influenced reflections with tempo-changing choruses that wreck the mood. Dingly Dell left the critics underwhelmed and even the band’s official website acknowledges that it is ‘disappointing’.

Owing partly to the album’s lack of success, plus tensions within the band which came out on an Australian tour, they broke apart with Hull and Jackson keeping the Lindisfarne name. A live album, recorded at Newcastle City Hall in 1971, was rushed out but had a slightly muddy sound with its versions of old favourites seen as suffering in comparison with the originals. In 1973 Hull released a solo album, Pipedream, with a remarkable cover based on a painting by Rene Magritte. The longest track, at just over five minutes, is Blue Murder

Meanwhile Clements, Laidlaw and Cowe formed a more traditionally based folk band, Jack the Lad, with singer Billy Mitchell. They were later joined by Phil Murray and Walter Fairbairn from another North Eastern band, Hedgehog Pie, with Clements departing. I was lucky enough to see one of Jack the Lad’s first gigs, in Heaton, Newcastle, in 1974. One of their routines involved mining tunes and saw the band stamping around the stage with pit shovels over their shoulders. When some time later they played the Imperial Ballroom in my home town of Nelson, I was invited backstage to share a pint or six with the boys. Mitchell, I recall through a drunken haze, was a master joke teller and it was a brilliant evening. One of Walter Fairbairn’s most memorable contributions was to burp on cue during the song The Third Millennium. 

As for Lindisfarne, in 1973 they released the studio album Roll On Ruby. Bassist Tommy Duffy assumes some of the songwriting duties, to best effect on North Country Boy, but much of the record suffers from a musical lack of originality and today it sounds terribly dated. After another unsuccessful LP, Happy Daze, the band broke up again.

In 1976, Jack the Lad having also disbanded, the original Lindisfarne line-up were reunited for a supposed one-off gig at Newcastle City Hall. It proved such a hit that they repeated it the following year and then decided to get back together permanently. This produced a major hit single, 1978’s Run For Home, an Alan Hull song about the relief of returning to the North East after a disastrous gig in the South.

Many more records and changes of personnel ensued, with Billy Mitchell taking over vocals after the death of Hull from a heart attack in 1995. He was 50. His ashes were scattered, appropriately, at the mouth of the Tyne. I can’t discover what the weather was like at the time, but I bet it was foggy.

In 2012 a memorial plaque to Hull was unveiled at Newcastle City Hall. Lindisfarne continues to this day, with Rod Clements the only founder member still playing. He and his erstwhile colleagues deserve their place in the hearts of Geordies and would-be Geordies everywhere.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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