John at Marty's Farewell Concert, June 3rd, 2000
Interview with John Grenfell
by Michael Clayton
John 'who' ??? It is a legitimate question to ask this. Indeed John has never played in any famous band nor has he been a producer or played any other major role in the professional music business. So why is he featured here, you might ask. Well, his 'Lindisfarne' memories go back to the days of Downtown Faction whom he had booked at college. This is his Lindisfarne story presented to us by Michael Clayton. The interview was held in 2001 and was done in the classical "Question & Answer" style but we decided to leave out the questions and concetrate on John's answers.
It was really good to read the old reviews. The band was creating a stir every time they played. We had them at college in Dec '70 supporting the Strawbs at our Folk Club Christmas Concert. We paid £35.00 that night and they played two 45 min slots either side of the Strawbs who were showing off their new keyboard whizz kid - Rick Wakeman. In March the following year they cost us £110.00 (or 90% of the door) and were supported by a great band called Gringo who I never heard of again. The poster for the Dec gig was on the wall in my hallway until 1987. Now I've got the On Tap poster in that spot. We often featured bands being promoted by Paul Conroy including Capability Brown and, on one fabulous night, Queen - who cost £20.00. Stealers Wheel with Rab Noakes and Gerry Rafferty were £40.00. Great days eh! But I think itís better to start from the very beginning.
Back in the late sixties I was involved in the north-east with a couple of local bands of the second rank - I played the bass guitar very badly but I did own one. When we weren't playing we used to go to clubs or village halls to see other groups. Remember at this time there were over 200 bands in Newcastle alone who were gigging on a regular basis. I lived about thirty miles north of Newcastle, near Alnwick, and there were often bands just playing the youth centre for example on a midweek evening. My first outfit had a Thursday evening "residency" at the youth club in Amble. The best bands in the area were probably the Elcort, The Junco Partners or the Gamblers whose drummer I believe was Alan White who is still with Yes. Kenny Craddock featured on his solo album in the seventies. There was also the Burman Sound, fronted by Greg Burman who built LF's early PA system. Also there was the Kylestrons who I am sure became Skip Bifferty and then Bell 'n' Arc when signed to Charisma.
The most popular mainstream band of the time was the Shades of Blue who did turn professional and released a single. They were smart, played pop music and were adored by the lasses. Hence the likes of me hated them, not in a nasty way as their lead singer (Holly) was a friend of my brother. We preferred Downtown Faction who were clearly not in the same market as the Monkees. They were the lad band - as they always had great lead guitarists. I first remember Don as he was the first player we used to watch to pick up tips. I remember that we all thought he was destined for greatness. It wasn't until I read the LF biography that I found out his surname - Whittaker.
In September 1968 I went to Bath Lane FE college in Newcastle. One bloke in my A-level history group was Richard Squirrel who was lead singer in Downtown Faction at the time. What we were impressed with was that he had lived abroad, Canada I think, and that he sported a genuine moustache. Not a fluffy apology like the rest could manage. Although we were not buddies I did make sure that I went to see the band regularly at that time. Don had been replaced by Jeff Sadler, another superb craftsman on the lead guitar.
Although I saw the Chosen Few advertised and friends from the Toon recommended them it was before I or my peers could drive. My first Alan Hull gig was when a friend invited me to a gig at the Catholic College of Education on the outskirts of Newcastle. He was playing solo and had a great voice as well as a crop of excellent songs. I could be mistaken but I think he played some hits such as Games People Play.
I had moved into a flat in Jesmond: Victoria Square to be precise. Saturday was party night somewhere in the Square and it was at one such party that the infamous We Can Swing Together raid took place. I was in Amble that weekend. I was deciding at the time what to do about a future. For some inexplicable reason I began to apply to Colleges of Education to train as a primary school teacher. I guess I had realised that I had no future in music or had done enough work to pass A-levels and I already had the necessary qualifications for teacher training.
Moving to London in September 1969 was something of a culture shock and I was delighted to get a place at a college which backed onto Old Deer Park, the home of Richmond, London Scottish and London Welsh Rugby Clubs. It was also a 10 minute walk to Twickenham Rugby Ground and the Harlequins. London Welsh had Mervyn Davies, John Dawes and JPR Williams among others. I also visited football grounds on a regular basis.
Musically I tended to go to the college folk club and concerts. The college scene was vibrant at the time but mine was a small college and whilst the other local colleges had the likes of Pink Floyd and Fairport Convention, we had the Perishers or, at best, Cupid's Inspiration! Rather than complain I became Social Secretary and started to arrange the concerts. This was at the start of my second year and it was at the end of the first term that our folk club organiser arranged his annual Christmas Concert featuring the Strawbs. You couldn't go anywhere in college without hearing keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman on the Antiques and Curios album. The posters which were sent far and wide had the Dragonfly logo from a previous Strawbs album on a silver background.
What caught my eye was the small print stating that they would be supported by Lindisfarne a name I knew well as an island 20 miles up the coast from my home. I still felt very nostalgic for the north-east at this time so I phoned a friend to enquire but he had never heard of the band. The folk club bloke only knew that the agent had hired them to us for £35 because they were going to do well and he was promoting them. When I wandered over to the main hall the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I walked past a transit van with Downtown Faction written in the dirt on the back door. The roadie was still setting up and we had a chat during which he revealed that members of the Faction had formed this new band and they had a great new album out. The roadie was Simon Cowe's brother Ian. I also remember there was a girl on the door rota for the early part of the evening when Rick Wakeman arrived. I heard her saying to poor old Rick, " Oh yeah! You're the fourth Rick Wakeman tonight that'll be five bob!"
Lindisfarne opened and closed the show with The Strawbs in between. I still remember the opening bars of Lady Eleanor, Winter Song and Jacka's solo slot in We can Swing Together as if it were yesterday. By the time the show ended with Clear White Light there were many Lindisfarnatics, not just the token Geordie. A highlight for many was Winter Song. I sat next to Pauline during the second half of the show and when they played at college again we were "together".
At this concert I came across merchandising for the first time. One Stop records in Richmond had sold tickets in return for the opportunity to sell a selection of Strawbs albums and Nicely Out of Tune. I believe they did quite well and I have a few friends who still have the copy bought that night in December 1970. I think an album cost about £1.25 then which could last me most of the weekend.
I decided that I wanted them for a concert as soon as possible so I got the number of the agency which was Terry King Associates and rang in January as soon as I returned from vacation. I was told to ask for Paul Conroy which I did. Paul suggested that I come and see them again at the Lyceum in the Strand later in the month and that he would leave my name on the door. I didn't have a clue what this meant but I turned up with three pals to find no name on the door. The girl in the box office said I could go in alone and find Paul. By one of those remarkable twists of fate the first person I asked was indeed the man himself. He had left the name Geordie** on the door which, of course, was how he knew me.
This was one of the first of the dates which became known to us all as the six bob tour with Van Der Graaf Generator and Genesis. We discussed another gig and agreed on £110 or 90% of the door. Talking to other social secs I found that this was a pretty standard agreement on the college circuit where gigs weren't arranged with a profit motive.
This next bit takes some thinking about as it was then that the Lads became more than just a band to us. The seeds of a 30 year devotion were sown that night in March 1971. I would never have guessed that all those years later I'd be seeing them at at Hove Town Hall. We (the Social Committee) spent the afternoon preparing for the gig - decorations, the disco equipment, bar etc.The equipment of the two bands - Gringo were supporting - arrived late in in the afternoon, then we could relax a bit knowing the acts would definitely turn up. When Lindisfarne arrived I had to show them to the dressing room and Alan sang the chorus of Turn a Deaf Ear as they went upstairs. I got a crate of Guinness to put in the dressing room - I thought they'd want Broon Ale. I met Jacka in the main bar but he was on antibiotics for a sinus problem so wasn't drinking and we chatted about the set and hoped we'd have a good night.We did! Of course, by now we all knew the songs and could join in on the choruses.
The opening set by Gringo was good. They were a very competent band who deserved more success than they achieved. They had a very attractive girl singer with a great funky voice and they got the evening off to a swing. The Lads were opening with Eleanor in those days and from the first chords I just knew we'd have a great night. Through Down, with Jacka on the Fartonium, Swing Together -( we did!) right up to the encore, which was Clear White Light played with the lads in front of the curtains with Alan's guitar the only instument, we had a humdinger of an evening. Sadly there was no Winter Song.
In "swing" instead of the line "roll your owns", Jacka was far more explicit. Allison, another friend, said that she had some stuff they might like. I can't imagine what she meant but when they were back in the dressing room and the formalities were over we asked them back. Rod and Ray went off but Si, Alan and Jacka came back with some other college friends and a lady called Barbara. Alan had a case with his plectrums etc and the last couple of bottles of Guinness as well as his guitar. There was alot of singing, a great deal of giggling, Jacka is a very funny man, Si played the violin using two Silk Cut. Alan gave a brilliant rendition of Winter Song - a truly unforgettable moment - for the few of us left at that time in the morning. He also played a song I hadn't heard before which I later realised was called January Song. We still sometimes talk about that evening when we had our own special concert.In the months that followed I was in regular contact with Paul Conroy who now started to come to college gigs and discos. Occasionally he brought friends - once it was Ray Laidlaw!
Lindisfarne were really taking off and had moved out of our price range but Paul had a seemingly endless stream of new talent that he liked to showcase at our college discos. It was on one such night that Queen did a set for £20. During the set they did a Lindisfarne song but I can't remember what it was - I do remember Freddie saying, "You've had Lindisfarne here recently and this is one of their songs." We had other gigs with the likes of Stealers Wheel and Capability Brown. We also started going to the Marquee Club to see up and coming groups.
I can answer another question from this time. There was a watering hole nearby called the Chasse. From time to time if a band was in one of the studios in that area and needed a few extra voices for a chorus they'd grab a few drinkers from the Chasse for the price of a pint. Hence the Chasse Electric Choir in that early NME piece.
In the Easter break I was with relatives in Essex when I read about the Festival Hall gig scheduled for May 10th. I rang Paul to see if I could get a ticket. He sent me 15 so the crowd from the earlier impromptu gig plus a few other mates went to see them in posh surroundings. This was the first time I heard January Song on stage along with City Song and Fog on The Tyne which we all sang on the train back to college that night. We went to see them at Shoreditch College in June - the last gig before the Colisseum which was your debut Mike. I was aware at that show that some of the serious musos were seeing Lindisfarne as a good time band where the likes of Genesis were the real mccoy. A couple of plonkers sat nearby left after the Genesis set mumbling about not wanting to sing along. I think this has dogged their career which is unfair because they are every bit as proficient musically as any of their contemporaries. I heard a similar thing said at Hammersmith Odeon in Jan 1987 when Jacka was encouraging audience participation for Do It Like This during the Dance Your Life Away tour. The Colisseum was a great gig especially the Battle Of New Orleans at the end with the lads, Genesis and Rab all joining in having raided the props department. I seem to remember Alan in a viking helmet!
Between those two last gigs Fog on The Tyne came out and Lindisfarne were big, really big. I loved the album on first hearing and still do. I won't vote in the album poll as my favourite Lindisfarne album is always the most recent release or something older that I have now got on CD. I bought the Back And Fourth CD at Hove and am delighted to revisit it whenever I can. Funnily my favourite tracks now are not the same as in '78. Talking to friends when we listened to Fog back at college there was a concensus that it was too short - only 30 mins of music, 10 songs. This was at a time when Floyd and Yes albums lasted all day but cost the same. When I listen to the Buried Treasure albums there are references to great songs that "didn't make" certain albums. I believe that Dingly Dell would have sold more if Fog had been longer. It makes no odds to me - I'm happy to buy the BBC albums where the boxed set included 5 or 6 versions of Eleanor but I think many potential long term Farnatics were lost. I also thought that DD was a super album. Several of the tracks are regulars in the set still and Alan always included O No Not Again in his solo shows. The last time I saw a solo show he did O No beginning with his impression of Leonard Cohen.
After the break up I didn't see the band until the Back And Fourth tour in 1978. Friends who saw Mark 2 were very complimentary and I bought both of their albums which I do enjoy. I remember the critics panning Happy Daze and Alan being quite upset - but River is one track that I love. Pauline and I went to see Radiator at Brunel University in 76/77 and we had a great time. They were a very lively band with two drummers, Ray and Terry Popple. The Back And Fourth gig was also at Brunel in Uxbridge and was really memorable, especially because it was ages since I'd heard Meet Me on The Corner.
We went to Hammersmith Odeon for the News gig. Beforehand we went to the Brittannia pub under Hammersmith flyover where we bumped into Alan having his regular pre-show libation. We chatted about Radiator and he said that it hadn't been very good for the wallet. He was sitting with the aforementioned Terry Popple. It was at Hammersmith again in January 1987 when I saw the band for the last time in a major venue. They did John Lennon's Happy Xmas War is Over and it was brilliant. Earlier they had performed When the War is over with Alan high up accompanying himself on piano. It was one of those unforgettable moments, as was Marty's sax solo in Winter Song.I have never been to a Lindisfarne gig that I didn't enjoy. For sheer energy one of the best moments was at Worthing on what proved to be the last time I saw Alan with the band when they were joined on stage by Ian McCallum for We Can Make It.
In the early nineties we went to several of Alan's solo gigs. One at the Black Horse in Battle was a great afternoon. There was also a beer festival and by the time Alan, Kenny Craddock and Steve the fiddler came on stage we were waving our arms in the air- much to the digust of my boys who were 11 and 6 at the time and disowned us. I always think of Alan now if ever I have a pint of Spitfire. I had one on Saturday and raised my glass to the great man. November 17th is also my younger son's birthday.In June 2000 we had to go up to Northumberland so we went to see Marty's farewell concert - the first time we have seen the band on home territory. It was a great gig but the audience at Blackheath is nearly as responsive. We went again to see them on Tyneside this Summer and also went to see the Happy Cats. On the way up MMOTC was played on Radio 2 so we heard the song sung by three different people in one weekend. I loved every one!There are many other memorable moments and many theories as to why Lindisfarne fell from grace in such spectacular fashion. But they have survived whatever has been dealt to them and continue to produce great music at great shows where we all have a damn good time. Here's to the new, and soon to be my favourite, album - PROMENADE.
yours John Grenfell