Chris Groom & Julia Revell trace the 25-year career of Tyneside's favourite sons
First published in Record Collector issue No. 198, from February 1996
The recent death of founder member Alan Hull has cast a dark shadow across the future of one of Britain's most underrated bands. The chart statistics might suggest that Lindisfarne effectively vanished after their early 70s heyday, save for a brief revival with the beautiful "Run For Home" in 1978. But right up until Hull's death in November, the band had continued to issue new albums and maintained a steady touring schedule. In fact, they'd just celebrated their 25th anniversary with a concert at Newcastle City Hall, and were all ready to hit the road for a lengthy end-of-year tour.
Their brief run of hit singles - the most recent being their collaboration with Paul 'Gazza' Gascoigne in 1990 - scarcely does Lindisfarne's legacy justice, however. From sensitive folk-rock to party rock'n'roll, their back catalogue is as wide-ranging as any of their original contemporaries. And in Alan Hull, they boasted an unsung giant of British songwriting, who may now belatedly be about to receive his fair dues in terms of critical reappraisal.
The Animals first alerted the world to the presence of a 60s R&B scene in Newcastle, but Lindisfarne were the group who finally pinned the city to the rock'n'roll map. All five original members played in local Tyneside bands, the most important of which was probably blues outfit Downtown Faction. Rod Clements and Simon Cowe had been friends since their first day at primary school, while Ray Laidlaw had grown up just around the corner from Simon, and first met Rod in a local chip shop.
Their roots of the band lay in a combo called the Aristokats, which Si and Ray formed in 1964. After several line-up and name changes, the band was joined by Rod, who shared their passion for the local R&B scene. Around this time, guitarist Jeff Sadler was recruited. "He had about four guitars and a van, so he got the job straight away," recalled Ray, an old schoolfriend of Mark Knopfler [Dire Straits]. "Luckily, as it turned out, Jeff was extremely good."
With the arrival of harmonica player Ray 'Jacka' Jackson (ex-Autumn States), whom Laidlaw had met at college, and the return of Simon Cowe from school in Edinburgh, the group became Downtown Faction - a name chosen because the lads thought it sounded "hip and black". Later, when they began playing more folk clubs, as opposed to the local working men's clubs, they changed their name again, to the Brethren.
Meanwhile Alan Hull had started up a folk club at the Rex Hotel, Whitley Bay, having been through much the same process of singing with local groups. The most significant was the Chosen Few, with Mickey Gallagher - later of Bell & Arc and Ian Dury & the Blockheads fame - on keyboards. In 1965, they issued two fairly typical British Beat singles on Pye, "I Won't Be Round You Anymore" and "Today, Tonight And Tomorrow", both of which featured Hull comositions.
Downtown Faction became regulars at Hull's club, befriending the lyricist when they doubled up on local gigs. Eventually the arrangement was cemented, under the billing 'Brethren With Alan Hull' - or vice versa, depending on the venue.By 1969, the group had completed their transformation from R&B band into an acoustic folk act, in time to record a demo album for Island. Legendary producer Guy Stevens, who'd launched the Sue label and been responsible for suggesting obscure R&B items which could be incorporated into the repertoire of many top mid-60s bands, handled the sessions, but the end result was never released. Disappointed, the band returned home, and soon revised their line-up, shedding Jeff Sadler. "He was an artist, musician, mechanic," Alan Hull remembered years later. "He was good in so many ways. But he couldn't make up his mind what he wanted to do."
In the absence of even a sniff of an Island acetate, the Brethren's earliest known recordings can be found on a compilation on the local Rubber Records label, distributed around the country by folk specialists Transatlantic. The album, recorded in 1969 but not apparently issued until some months later, featured two tracks credited to Alan Hull & Brethren: "Positive Earth", written by Si Cowe, and a strange live section of a Hull song that was already an anthem: "We Can Swing Together". Also included was a solo Hull number called "Where Is My Sixpence ?".
The Transatlantic connection brought Hull some benefit, when his solo rendition of "We Can Swing Together" was issued as a single on the label's Big T subsidiary in 1970. More impotantly, that year the Brethren had another shot at conquering London. At the Marquee Club, they attracted the attention of Charisma boss Tony Stratton-Smith; rumour has it that they were actually signed on the strength of Jackson's harmonica playing !
By mid-1970, producer John Anthony was brought to help Brethren record their first album. The group were told that a change of name was necessary to avoid conflict with an American group, and while they were discussing the matter between rehearsals, someone mentioned the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast. John Anthony picked up on it, and the group's new identity was decided. The resulting tracks emerged as "Nicely Out Of Tune", which was issued on 1st November 1970, and met with unanimous approval from fans and critics alike. It provided the first taste of their now-familioar blend of gritty harmonies, folk, rock and blues, layered with harmonica and mandolin, and featured classics like "Lady Eleanor", "Clear White Light Part 2" and "We Can Swing Together" - still stage favourites today, as is the thoughtful "Winter Song". "Clear White Light Part 2" and "Lady Eleanor" were released as singles, but failed to chart.
In January 1971, Charisma sent Lindisfarne out on tour with stablemates Genesis and Van Der Graaf Generator, as part of a brilliant 'Six Bob Tour' package whereby the ticket price was kept to a mere six shillings (or 30p in the then-new decimal currency). The band regularly garnered the best reviews of the three bands, while their popularity was also enhanced by appearances at open-air festivals in Lincoln, Weeley and Reading.
Around this time, Ray Jackson was recruited to play mandolin on Rod Stewart's "Every Picture Tells A Story", including the catchy break towards the end of "Maggie May", a No. 1 single in September 1971. For his efforts, he receives a £15 session fee and an album credit which read: "The mandolin was played by the mandolin player from Lindisfarne - I forget the name".
Dylan producer Bob Johnston was flown in from the States to work on the group's second album ."Fog On The Tyne", which was released in October 1971. It eventually reached the No. 1 spot several months later, helped by the success of a single, Rod Clements' "Meet Me On The Corner", which made the Top 5 in March 1972. The follow-up was a reissue of "Lady Eleanor", which climbed to No. 5 on May 1972. In turn, the LP's success improved sales of their debut album, which eventually peaked at No. 5.
A chart-topping album is always hard to follow, and their next offering "Dingly Dell", struggled to compete with its predecessors. Hampered (in Britain, at least) by a dull sleeve, which featured a failed attempt at a minimalist design, the record still reached No. 11, thanks to strong Hull compositions like "Wake Up Little Sister", "Court In The Act" and "Poor Old Ireland, plus, of course, the title track. But both singles from the album, "All Fall Down" and "Court In The Act", failed to reach the Top 30.
Alan Hull's debut solo album from 1973, "Pipedream", is now regarded as a minor classic, but on its release, excellent tracks like "Money Game" and "United States Of Mind" received little exposure or recognition. The album saw Hull working with some of the musicians who would later emerge in the second Lindisfarne line-up. That same year, Charisma published a book of Alan's poetry, entitled "The Mocking Horse" - much of it written, like "Pipedream", during his spell as a psychiatric nurse.