They looked like a band of outlaws, the north eastern cousins of the Sherwood Forest mob. Some had bushy beards and droopy moustaches, and wild, unkempt hair that hid eager, weather-beaten faces. They were sturdy young comrades, fiercely proud of their roots, and they liked their ale, especially on Friday nights. Their leader in all but name believed robbing the rich to give to the poor was not just virtuous but a moral duty.
There were five of them in the group and they called themselves Lindisfarne after the Holy Island in the North Sea close to the border with Scotland. You could be forgiven for assuming they came south simply to pillage London and return with the spoils, which of course they did. Once they’d settled in, however, they rubbed shoulders on the charts with the elite of the rock world, John Lennon, Paul Simon and glam boys David, Elton and Marc among them. Their second LP became the best-selling album of 1972 in the UK.
Their speciality was playing festivals and big outdoor shows where they had audiences in the palms of their calloused hands, singing along to songs about sickly sausage rolls, a mysterious Lady Eleanor and swinging together for defying the law. And when it was all over they ran for home, their heads held high, the legend of Lindisfarne spoken of in awed tones by those fortunate enough to behold them in their heroic prime.
And what’s more they kept on filling the air with magic for five more decades in one form or another, local heroes to this day, genuine Geordie legends alongside Alan Shearer, Bobby Thompson and Dennis, Neville and Oz from Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
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In the beginning, in the mid-sixties, not long after the Fab Four incited Beatlemania, there was a Newcastle group called Downtown Faction. A distillation of teenage bands whose members eventually found one another, they were Yardbirds and electric Bob Dylan fans specialising in bluesy rock with a hint of trendy psychedelia, a bit of improvisation and even the odd original tune, often sweetened with strong harmony vocals.
They were formed by bass playing singer songwriter Rod Clements and drummer Ray Laidlaw, and subsequently joined by guitarist Simon Cowe and Jack-Of-All-Trades singer Ray ‘Jacka’ Jackson, a dab hand on mandolin and harmonica. By 1968 they were gigging beyond their home base and they even recorded some demos in London for Island Records where maverick producer Guy Stevens showed interest that went no further. Rarely out of work, they commanded £18 a night – over £300 in today’s money – and in early 1969 changed their name to Brethren.
Elsewhere on Tyneside a lanky singer songwriter called Alan Hull was turning heads in other local bands, among them one called The Chosen Few that won a talent contest sponsored by Radio Luxembourg. The prize was the chance to record a couple of singles but more importantly it introduced Alan to music publisher Barbara Hayes whose support was crucial to his future. After nothing happened with the singles, Alan went his own way, and in 1969 began hosting a folk club at the Rex Hotel up in Whitley Bay. When Brethren played the Rex that year there was an instant attraction. Alan needed a band and they needed a songwriter. Before long two became one.
“I was aware of him a long time before I met him,” says Rod. “We would back him at his gigs and we suddenly found we had this thing going.”
“He was fantastic,” says Ray. “I thought we’ve got to get him into our band.”
Alan was a couple of years older than the others and many of his songs, crafted on guitar or piano, were inspired by the austere life he had led. He was raised in a run-down block of flats in Benwell, where a rich community spirit somehow defused the hardship in one of Tyneside’s most deprived areas. In need of an income to support a wife and two young daughters, Alan worked for three years as a psychiatric nurse, and by the time he quit had written over 150 songs. “I was getting millions of ideas from schizophrenics and depressives and maniacs,” he said. “My head was bursting.” When Alan joined Brethren he was on the dole.
Brethren’s set soon featured Alan’s original songs, but it wasn’t until they signed with Charisma Records a year later that they became Lindisfarne, a name suggested by John Anthony, the label’s in-house producer, in order to avoid trouble from an American outfit with the same name. They were billed as Brethren as late as June, 1970, when they appeared at London’s Marquee a couple of nights after another as yet hitless hopeful who called himself Elton John.
There are conflicting accounts about how Lindisfarne came to sign with Charisma. “Tony [Stratton Smith] heard a tape that had been sent to him from Barbara Hayes, Alan’s music publisher,” says Ray. “He liked the sound of Jacka’s harmonica and John Anthony came up to Newcastle to see us.”
Gail Colson, General Manager of Charisma from 1969 to 1978, remembers things differently. “After The Nice split, Lee Jackson wanted to form a band with Charlie Harcourt on guitar and the guy who managed him also managed this band called Brethren,” she recalls. “We were ‘leant’ on to sign them. We actually liked them and some of their material. The rest is history.”
Another story has a Newcastle-based amplifier manufacturer recommending the group to emissaries from Charisma, but whatever the truth of the matter this small but ambitious independent label was the perfect home for the newly christened Lindisfarne. It was the brainchild of Tony Stratton Smith, a portly bon vivant and fearless risk-taker who’d burrowed his way into the music business through befriending Brian Epstein, the manager of The Beatles. A former sports writer, Strat – as he was universally known – launched Charisma in 1969 after becoming dissatisfied with the business practices of labels to which bands he managed were signed. More importantly, he was a generous patron of talented musicians whose work was not necessarily in line with commercial trends, though he had a knack of spotting the odd act that defied fashion but stood a chance of slipping in through the back door. Such was the case with Lindisfarne.
Ushered into the studio with John Anthony at the controls, Lindisfarne recorded Nicely Out Of Tune, their début LP, over five days in August of 1970. Released in November, it featured 11 songs, seven by Alan, among them the magnificent ‘Winter Song’, the first of many to ponder the human condition from the point of view of the disadvantaged. Lyrical, poignant, with an elegant melody sharpened by descending figures and an unexpected shift from minor to major, it was an early indication that Lindisfarne’s principal songwriter possessed not just an innovative musical mind and a warm way with words but a profound social conscience.
“It was the best song he ever wrote,” says his friend Rab Noakes, the Scottish musician whose song ‘Turn A Deaf Ear’ also appeared on Nicely Out Of Tune.
Elvis Costello agrees. “I thought he was up there with Richard Thompson and Ray Davies,” he says, “the really great English songwriters.”
While ‘Winter Song’ set the tone for the ethical integrity Alan would bring to Lindisfarne, other songs were notable for the blend of styles. “It wasn’t too folky, it wasn’t too rocky and it wasn’t too poppy,” says John Anthony. “It had elements of each and the whole was way bigger than the parts.”
In this respect, there were a couple of Alan’s sparkling, slightly mystical tunes in ‘Lady Eleanor’, based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and ‘Clear White Light’ with its shimmering a cappella fanfare. Ray Laidlaw believes an intense acid trip inspired Alan’s creative juices at the time he wrote them. “The experience unlocked something,” he says. “It took him a week or so to get back on an even keel and a flurry of new songs appeared over the following few weeks. As far as I know he wrote two songs in one session, ‘Winter Song’ and ‘Clear White Light’, both absolute belters.”
Alan also contributed the crowd favourite ‘We Can Swing Together’, based on an incident when police broke up a party Jacka attended, and the melancholy, introspective ‘Scarecrow Song’. There was a charming Beatles parody in ‘Alan In The River With Flowers’ and Rod offered up two songs, among them ‘The Road To Kingdom Come’, a sprightly, fiddle-led hoe-down with Biblical references that became another live favourite.
It is noteworthy that at least six of the 11 songs on Nicely… have found their way on to collections evaluated as the ‘Best Of’ Lindisfarne, giving credence to suggestions that the group found it hard to improve on their first album. “Practically every song they ever recorded had been written before we signed them,” says Gail Colson.
Despite favourable reviews in the music press, Nicely Out Of Tune failed to reach the LP charts on release, though it scrambled up to No. 8 a year later following the greater success of Lindisfarne’s second LP. Something similar happened with ‘Lady Eleanor’, fading initially as a single but reaching No.3 in the charts when it was re-issued in 1972.
But sales and chart statistics aren’t the only measure of an album’s success. This was an era long before the Internet, when the combined sales of five UK music papers exceeded half a million copies a week, exerting a powerful influence over the tastes of readers who took note of the positive reviews and turned out in droves to see Lindisfarne as they toured the UK. “We’d turn up at gigs in the Midlands and there were queues,” said Alan. “It was an underground thing. Every time we went back, you couldn’t get in for the queues.”
Underground or not, Lindisfarne’s sudden acceptance by UK rock fans was nothing short of staggering, a word-of-mouth explosion and a shot in the arm for Charisma. In many ways they were an antidote to prog and glam, the contrasting rock genres that hogged the limelight, and the concurrent rise of heavier music epitomised by brand leaders Led Zeppelin. Some reviewers even compared Lindisfarne to The Band, the multi-talented quintet of seasoned musicians that backed Bob Dylan on the road, whose first two albums, Music From Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969), were acclaimed as a longed-for revival of more robust, back-to-the-roots musical values. In their own Geordie way, Lindisfarne were following a similar path.
Strat, an enlightened, visionary concert promoter as well as the boss of Lindisfarne’s record label, was quick to see an opportunity. In January of 1971 he staged the Six Bob Tour, in which three of his signings, Lindisfarne, Genesis and Van Der Graaf Generator, shared the stage at venues throughout the UK where admission was just six old shillings – 30p in today’s money. By common consent, Lindisfarne were the stars of the show, and when the Six Bob Tour reached Newcastle over 500 fans were left ticketless outside the City Hall.
“Without a doubt, they are the most refreshing group to have emerged in over 12 months,” wrote NME’s influential reviewer Roy Carr after the show in Manchester. “With a likeable, naïve stage presence, they have rediscovered the art of simplicity… My praise for Lindisfarne is without restraint.”
“Lindisfarne are the most complete band on the Charisma label,” added Michael Watts in Melody Maker, “with a flowing continuity of style and melodic strength that encompasses the best of pop and avoids its pretentiousness.”
These early months of 1971 saw Lindisfarne record BBC sessions that appear in this collection, with three appearances on Sounds Of The 70s, and sessions for Folk On One, the Mike Raven Show and John Peel’s Top Gear.
“We did loads of BBC radio sessions,” says Ray. “The pop, folk, blues and underground shows all liked us and it got to the point where we joked that we had our own coat-hooks in Maida Vale Studios. The deal was two hits and two less well-known songs. There was always some cheerful negotiations with the producer, particularly John Walters who we got on with really well. I think we snuck in a version of ‘Love Me Do’ on one session. The In Concert gigs were great, they had a live audience and we were usually paired with another group with a similar style. Stealers Wheel were one I remember.”
I was a staff writer on Melody Maker in those days and in February Strat invited me to join him and Lindisfarne on a visit to Northern Ireland, with college shows in both Belfast and Derry. “In the carnival atmosphere they created, it was easy to forget we were in the centre of a city on the brink of civil war,” I wrote in MM of the Belfast show. “The grim reality came back to us while listening to records in a student’s bedroom. Two explosions occurred within seconds of each other.” The next day, after a short drive north, we reached Derry for a show at Magee University where roadies had to form a barrier at the front to prevent an inebriated audience from joining the band on stage.
Spending 48 hours in the company of Lindisfarne offered an opportunity to assess the characters in the group. Alan was the extrovert, with a twinkle in his eye that suggested he might be a bit of a rogue, scornful of convention, maybe even dangerous to know. It was a trait he shared to only a slightly lesser extent with fellow front man Jacka, the handsome joker in the pack. Drummer Ray, big and sturdy, peering down through granny glasses, seemed to be the level-headed one, keeping a watchful eye on his mates, while Rod and Simon were the quiet pair, the studious musicians, wary of outsiders until their confidence had been gained. To a man, they were fun to be around, likeable, wisecracking and, above all, entirely without pretention.
In May Lindisfarne played their most prestigious concert to date, a one-off show at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Seated next to Strat was Bob Johnston, who for Columbia in New York had produced records by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Simon & Garfunkel. His next client was Lindisfarne.
“He was the strangest character I’ve ever met in my life,” said Simon. “It was difficult to understand what he was saying because he said things in such a peculiar way.” All believe Johnston, who died in 2015, was stoned on marijuana 24/7 during his stay in London.
The sessions for Lindisfarne’s second album, Fog On The Tyne, took place in June and July, again at Trident Studios in London’s Soho, a stone’s throw from Charisma’s offices and the pubs and bars where everyone connected with the label socialised after, and sometimes during, working hours. Lindisfarne were no exception, the five lads from Newcastle endearing themselves to regulars at the Ship, the Nellie Dean and, most of all, La Chasse Club on Wardour Street, a private members bar catering to the music biz where Strat, ever avuncular, a large vodka to hand, liked to gather his staff and bands around him and come up with ideas like the Six Bob Tour, and scribble them down on the back of a cigarette packet lest he forget all about them in the morning. “The best Prime Minister we never had,” Alan would later write.
Accompanied by Strat and Gail Colson’s brother Glen, Charisma’s PR, I watched Lindisfarne massacre an audience at the Marquee, just down the street from La Chasse, but more significant was seeing them make magic at the Weeley Festival near Clacton-on-Sea over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Playing mid-afternoon on the Sunday, they faced the biggest crowd they’d ever seen, perhaps as many as 100,000. Providence was on their side. “It was raining when we arrived,” recalls Gail, “but it stopped and the sun came out when they went on.”
When it was over I judged Lindisfarne’s performance to be second only to Rod and his Faces on a bill of more than 40 acts. “Lindisfarne proved to be the stars of the afternoon,” I wrote in the following week’s MM. “Their brand of folk rock is ideally suited to a festival audience and, although they must have been an unknown quality to the majority, they earned a couple of encores. The word has obviously spread that Lindisfarne are one of Britain’s best up and coming groups and many of their songs were greeted with knowing cheers. Alan Hull’s ‘Fog On the Tyne’ – the title of their forthcoming album – brought the audience to its feet and there must have been 50,000 or so voices chanting along to their hymn-like ‘We Can Swing Together’. They came back to play Woody Guthrie’s ‘Jackhammer Blues’ to an outstanding ovation and finished with ‘Clear White Light’. Alan was visibly trembling after the set. It was their best ever reception by a mass audience and thoroughly deserved.”
“We started off being big in the North East, where we could do no wrong,” says Ray. “It took Weeley to establish ourselves in the rest of the country.”
In many ways the release of Fog On The Tyne in October was the icing on the cake to a wondrous year for Lindisfarne. It was another convincing collection, more stylistically unified that Nicely…, all excesses trimmed, perhaps due to Johnston’s input, with Alan contributing six of the LP’s ten songs, including the title track. Considered by its writer to be a throwaway, the song that soon became the Lindisfarne anthem was included at Johnston’s insistence only after he heard the group perform it live. “He brought Alan’s songs into really sharp focus,” says Ray.
The commercial clout, however, came from ‘Meet Me On The Corner’ – “about a man who sells dreams” – a jaunty tune written by Rod, its prominent walking bass line and Jacka’s cosy harmonica finding favour with singles’ buyers who took it to No. 5, sending Lindisfarne on to Top Of The Pops, BBC TV’s much-watched chart show. Its success no doubt helped the album stay on the charts for no fewer than 56 weeks, during which it held the top spot for four of them, Charisma’s first No. 1 album.
“We did our first Top Of The Pops to promote ‘Meet Me On The Corner’ on March 2, 1972,” recalls Ray. “We were thinking of ways to make us stand out from all the other groups which is where the idea of playing the bass drum with a fish came from. I still get people stopping me in the street and asking if I’m the bloke off the telly with the fish.”
Elsewhere on Fog On The Tyne was ‘All Right On The Night’, a boozy drinking song, appropriate insofar as Charisma had arranged a promotional deal for Lindisfarne with Scottish & Newcastle, the brewers of Newcastle Brown, an early example of corporate sponsorship. ‘Train In G Major’, an acoustic blues by Rod, was closely related to Bob Dylan’s ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh’ while ‘January Song’ was Alan’s companion piece to ‘Winter Song’, a paean to comradeship with the memorable, Lennon-like chorus: ‘You need me need you need him need everyone’.
By the end of 1971 Lindisfarne were unquestionably among the UK’s top bands, their lofty status reflected in both the album and singles charts during the early months of the following year. The group, meanwhile, were on an extended tour of America, their first, a three-week trip from coast to coast that turned into three months, supporting all and sundry, including The Kinks at New York’s Carnegie Hall. I happened to be in the Big Apple myself that week, on another assignment, but I managed to slip into the venerable 57th Street theatre where I was slightly stunned at how well they went down. “A milestone for both groups,” I reported confidently.
Lindisfarne were, in the parlance of the day, working their bollocks off, risking road weariness but gathering fans wherever they went. In April, I joined them for a trip to Swindon where they appeared in the stand at a football ground, not ideal, but any disillusionment with the venue, or their workload, was offset by refreshment stops at pubs along the way. Their reputation as drinking men travelled before them and no doubt led to the promoter supplying a crate of Newcastle Brown in the dressing room. “I used to be able to drink nine pints of this back home,” Jacka told me as he sucked at the clear bottle with its familiar yellow and blue label. “Now I can only manage five.”
There was another inspired festival appearance in May, this time at the Lincoln ‘Great Western Express’, that further confirmed their omnipresent status, as did a Melody Maker front-page headline in June. LINDISFARNTASTIC it read, followed by news that a new album would be recorded in July, with tours of Australia, Japan and Indonesia and a second US trip scheduled for later in the year. It was a far cry from the Rex Hotel in Whitley Bay.
Bob Johnston was back in the producer’s chair for the recording of Lindisfarne’s third album Dingly Dell, but all agree that his enthusiasm was lacking this time around. “He just laid down and let the engineer get on with it,” recalled Alan. “We weren’t getting an overview of what Lindisfarne’s future would be. We were left to our own devices.”
Dingly Dell was released in September. Alan was again the main writer, contributing eight of the 12 songs, among them ‘All Fall Down’, a distant cousin of Cat Stevens ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, prescient too insofar as it castigated property developers for profiteering at the expense of the environment. Chosen as the lead single, it fared badly, reaching no higher than No. 34 in the singles charts, and many felt Alan’s more cheerful ‘Wake Up Little Sister’ would have been a better pick.
Alan also wrote the orchestrated title track, an enigmatic, haunting epic with the memorable line, ‘There’s magic in the air’. It was the longest, most complex song that Lindisfarne had ever recorded, yet, conversely, it had the fewest words, and it split reviewers between those who wanted the accessible Lindisfarne of ‘Meet Me On The Corner’ and those, like me, who welcomed progress.
Alan’s other songs included the skiffle-punk ‘Bring Down The Government’, ‘Poor Old Ireland’, a lament for the country’s troubles that was banned by the BBC for no good reason, and the amusing ‘Court In The Act’, a witty follow up to ‘We Can Swing Together’ with an intro nicked from Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’. Simon Cowe contributed a couple of songs, with ‘Go Back’ the most memorable, and the traditional ‘Dingle Regatta’ was a souped-up sea shanty worthy of the Fairports.
Dingly Dell entered the LP charts at No. 5, never reaching higher, and spent only ten weeks in the listings. Compared to the two earlier albums, this was a disappointment. In October I watched them headline over Genesis and Rab Noakes at Dublin Stadium where they clambered into a boxing ring to perform almost all the songs from Dingly Dell to an audience that came alive only when they heard familiar favourites. It was a brave move, perhaps too brave, and though the group seemed a bit under-rehearsed I ended my MM report on an optimistic note. “After six gigs it’ll doubtless run like clockwork,” I wrote hopefully.
Nevertheless, for better or worse, Lindisfarne’s forward momentum was somehow lost in the aftermath of Dingly Dell. Their glorious upward trajectory had reached its apex. Though they continued to be popular – massively so on Tyneside – some of the wind had gone out of their sails, and like so many others in their line of work their future relied largely on their past.
In 1973 Lindisfarne released a boisterous live album then split into two, Alan realising his creativity was compromised by the workload, perhaps even by success. “I found it very difficult to write whilst touring,” he said. “There were so many things happening, it was so confusing. It’s upsetting to the nervous system.”
“He hated touring,” says Rod.
Gail Colson believes there was more than Alan’s dislike of touring that contributed to his writers’ block. “When Alan and [wife] Pat moved away from Tyneside to London, he simply dried up,” she says.
Ray, Rod and Simon launched a new group called Jack The Lad, and Alan and Jacka formed Lindisfarne II with local musician pals Kenny Craddock, Charlie Harcourt, Tommy Duffy and Paul Nichols. They recorded one further album for Charisma, Roll On Ruby, which failed to chart. Alan seemed more energised by his solo LPs, the first of which, Pipedream, was an artistic triumph but commercial failure.
Of course, this was by no means the end of the Lindisfarne story, just my tiny part in it. At the tail end of 1977 the five originals came together again to play three sell-out concerts at Newcastle City Hall, instigating a Christmas tradition that continued for years. The following year they recorded a new album, Back And Fourth, that was moderately successful and included ‘Run For Home’, another outstanding song of Alan’s that became a Top 10 hit.
Thereafter Lindisfarne’s records would appear on their own LMP label. The group toured the UK intermittently – including a stadium gig at St James Park in Newcastle in 1984 when they gave headliner Bob Dylan a run for his money – and a 47-show outing in 1986 with an additional member, Marty Craggs, on saxophone. They even re-recorded ‘Fog On The Tyne’ with guest vocalist Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne, the Tyneside football hero.
The last time I saw the original Lindisfarne quintet was at the Half Moon in Putney in the early eighties, a sold-out five-night run, for which they were paid £5,000, which worked out at £1,000 per man or £200 each a night. The canny landlord paid them in cash after each show and, mindful of their reputation, kept the bar open after hours. Needless to say, much of that cash ended up where it came from.
Alan became a staunch Labour Party activist, always available for shows that benefited good causes. I last saw him playing a solo show at the Mean Fiddler at Harlesden in north London and after the gig he spent the night on the couch at the home of my old pal Glen Colson, Charisma’s former PR, who lived around the corner from me in Shepherds Bush. Alan travelled the country in an old Rover 2000, all his gear in the back, driving himself of course, and invariably crashed out at friends’ or fans’ gaffs in the many towns where he played, truly the people’s troubadour. We laughed long into the night, empty bottles piling up beside us. There was still a twinkle in his eye. He was still a rogue.
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Jacka left Lindisfarne in 1990 to work in sports marketing but still makes music with others. Fans and the music world in general were shaken to the core, inconsolable, by Alan’s sudden death on November 17, 1995, felled by a heart attack at the age of only 50. Simon retired from music to run a microbrewery in Toronto where he died in 2015.
For a while Ray managed a reconstituted Lindisfarne featuring Dave Denholm, who became Alan’s musical sidekick and, after his death, his son-in-law. David Hull-Denholm is now a member of the current Lindisfarne, led by Rod who spreads his wings in other musical directions, his playing skills much valued by the cream of the UK’s folk world. ‘The Ghost In Blue Suede Shoes’ was Rod’s last great Lindisfarne song.
The three remaining members of Lindisfarne still look like outlaws, the north eastern cousins of the Sherwood Forest mob. The bushy beards, droopy moustaches and wild, unkempt hair are gone now, and their faces are more weather-beaten than ever. All three are still fiercely proud of their roots, and they still like their ale, especially on Friday nights.
There is a plaque at the entrance to Newcastle City Hall in honour of their leader in all but name, the immensely gifted songwriter who believed that robbing the rich to give to the poor was not just virtuous but a moral duty. “The Fog on the Tyne was all his,” it reads.
Truly, there was magic in the air when Alan Hull led Lindisfarne.
Fog On The Tyne: The Official History of Lindisfarne by Dave Ian Hill (Northdown Publishing, 1998)
Lindisfarne’s Geordie Genius: The Alan Hull Story, BBC4 TV documentary (2022)
Strat: The Charismatic Life & Times of Tony Stratton Smith by Chris Groom (Wymer Publishing, 2021)
The Famous Charisma Box, 4-CD set booklet (Charisma Records, 1993)
Melody Maker, NME, Rock’s Back Pages
Thanks to Ray Laidlaw, Rod Clements, Ray Jackson, Gail Colson, Dave Hill and Colin Harper.