Simon Jones casts an appreciative ear over the musical times of the late Alan Hull
On one occasion I met with James Alan Hull, keen to question him on the oblique and obscure lyrics of his most famed composition Lady Eleanor. "What were they all about?" I enquired. Without looking up from his coffee, Hull retorted "Death!". And that was that.
Ironically, I'm now sitting here pondering the death of James Alan Hull. He died of a heart attack yet wasn't aware of any heart trouble. His passing late last year was therefore unexpected, his work not as widely recognised as it should have been. For Alan Hull, let it be known, was one of the first and finest blokes to write rock 'n' roll with an obvious English bias. His songs were of a unique variety - you couldn't say anyone wrote in his style. If you listen carefully to a Hull number you can hear echoes of Bob Dylan or John Lennon, there but for a moment. Yet Alan Hull was very much his own man, as a composer he existed almost exclusively as an island, only latterly coming together with other musicians to exercise his craft.
His world was concerned, sociable, caring, environmental, proud, historic, incurably romantic. A place where having a drink meant party time, where the past was communal and you never locked the door, where authority was often ridiculous, where people came first, where honesty was celebrated, where magnanimous failure could be immortalised kindly and above all where hope and romance were never trivialised or forgotten.
Like Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on which and about which so much of his work was focused, Hull had a gritty determination and you could never keep him down.
"We can swing together 'cuz we feel we're doing it right! We can swing together, we can swing all through the night."
"When did I first come across Alan Hull?" responds Billy Mitchell, at one time down to replace Hull in Lindisfarne, but then that aggregation became Jack The Lad. "It must have been in the late '60s when I ran a folk club in Newcastle. He was the first singer that came along and played all his own songs. No covers - just his distinctive material. In those days he was loud, boisterous and vocal, but he had a great energy and enthusiasm which won you over. Alan could be awkward, but that always sprang from a deep belief in what he was doing or trying to say."
Alan Hull was born 20th February 1945 in Benwell, Newcastle, and played in lots of Tyneside rock 'n' roll bands, amateur and professional. To supplement his income he worked as a psychiatric nurse, This, allied to an abiding interest in people, philosophy and politics, meant that trying to make sense of everything rattling round inside his crammed and confused noddle was funnelled out into songs. Songs from an intense time, but songs that meant something, songs that at first perhaps bemusing, soon took root and blossomed. Not that they were fatalistic or nihilistic like the bleak writings of Peter Hammil, they were angular, never went into any easy pigeonhole, but they were always jolly, tuneful and had hope and heart.
Even at the nadir of We Can Swing Together - his eternal party anthem - when stoned revellers are about to be sent down, the judge - wig hat on his head - hums under his breath "we can swing together" proving a secret sympathy with the harmless drugged party animals. Who knows, perhaps even the beak took an illicit joint. If Hull was a cynic he always had a smile on his face.
A spell on the Social honed his writing further. It was during this period as a soloist that het met the proto-Lindisfarne, themselves thinking about doing something acoustic and folksy. They had been a blues band but were now rethinking. It was a union meant to happen. The group were smarting from the departure of guitarist Jeff Sadler, who'd retreated to the economic security of his dad's building firm and Hull doing was doing his folk singer bit, having just issued a singer-songwriter version of We Can Swing Together for Transatlantic's Big T offshoot. At this juncture his restless ambition had wondered about getting back with a band and trying some of his new songs.
As it fell out, Brethren, as they were then known, did more than merely flesh out his compositions; they took him on board full time. A couple of Alan Hull & Brethren tracks cropped up on a Newcastle sampler recorded at Hull's favourite folk club, but it wasn't until they came to the Big Smoke and met Tony Stratton-Smith from Charisma Records that they took the name Lindisfarne at his suggestion. Their sound meanwhile developed into a big, fat acoustic folk rock that quickly signalled potential.
Thus constituted, and after a stuttering start, Lindisfarne swept all before them with Hull's compositions to the fore both on albums and stage. Fog on the Tyne was such a commercial success that in 1972 only Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Waters sold more copies in Britain. They had hit singles too, nestling nicely in the Top 20, as composer Hull was on a high. Greater things were predicted. However, the arrival of their third offspring - Dingly Dell - saw things starting to go ever so wobbly. Squabbles with producer Bob Johnston resulted in them remixing it themselves. The general lack of the pluck and merry jugbandery of initial offerings, added to the fact that Hull had begun to dry up as a songwriter, and you can see they had trouble.
At the time he bluffed: "The only thing I wanna write about is getting drunk." And, to be fair, analysis now of Dingly Dell reveals that it isn't all that bad, just a bit of a sucker punch. Significantly though, throughout the period Hull and family were living down south, far from Tyneside inspiration.
Things came to a head. After a series of disastrous foreign tours it was announced in the Spring of '73 Lindisfarne were to part and Alan Hull begin a solo career. Their record company marked the sombre occasion by issuing an insulting live album which was so poor that the applause and hollering had to be created in the studio.
"Down, down, I'm feeling down. But for now I'll stick around."
True to his intention and spurred on by the fact that his solo album Pipedream had been cut by an all-Geordie crew, A.H. was restored to critical favour. The block surrounding his writing had seemingly shifted and, along with harmonica player Ray Jackson, he hung on to the name Lindisfarne. They launched a band not so much based on good-time traditions as straight-ahead rocking. Two albums down the line, however, it was 1975 and Lindisfarne decided to jack it in. There had been high spots on both records - Hull's keening Taking Care Of Business is still a neat summation of twisty pop business some thirteen years after its appearance - but matters just weren't right. "It got my goat," he confessed. "We had this new repertoire, songs we'd worked on, and people just kept on asking for Fog On The Tyne or Dingly Dell."
"Do you believe the clear white light will guide you on?"
Hull the soloist put out Squire under a new contract with Warner Brothers - based on a drama in which he'd made an acting debut. It was the usual mix of reflection, love, nostalgia, alcohol, nonsense and blokishness - good enough but not another Pipedream, which still stands as his finest work under his own name. The session men of Squire rapidly metamorphosed into a new band, a new start, Radiator. With a couple of old mates - Kenny Craddock and Ray Laidlaw - on board, Hull had every reason to be optimistic. One album on Elton John's Rocket Label, and it wasn't wonderful - farewell fresh beginning.
"So roll on my brothers, we can find out how, to walk hand in hand to the promised land, if we bring down the government now."
"Alan was in fact a very political animal. He had to say things and the best way he could do that was to put his feelings down in songs," Ray Laidlaw concludes.
"Alan always felt things deeply," longtime cohort Ray Jackson concurs.
In the mid-80s Alan Hull considered a request that he stand for Parliament. He would have been a solid Labour man - what he made of Tony Blair's rightist clean sweep you are left to guess for yourself. Chances are he wouldn't have minced his words. Even such a supposedly right-on political organ as the N.M.E. despatched a scribe to Newcastle to cover the home turf of the proto-candaidate. Hull took him on a tour of the hard, gritty streets he'd perhaps be representing. I don't know what became of Mr. Hull's political aspirations, since not long after he was back playing the clubs with his idiosyncratic repertoire. Wouldn't it have been fun though, watching The Six O'Clock News and seeing A.H. letting off salvos from the back benches.
Listen to his music though and his politics come through as down to earth, sharp, truthful, well-observed and laced with humour. His was the song of the underdog, often the voice of common decency, what many thought in private but would not dare whisper in public. Songs like Poor Old Ireland (Ulster), Day Of The Jackal (Lebanon and Israel), Mother Russia (life apres Gorbachev) and Malvinas Melody (Falkland's conflict) cast a world-weary eye over contemporary events he was moved by. In particular he seemed to mourn over the Russian people.
"Lindisfarne went on a trip to play in Moscow," Ray Laidlaw tells of an early '90s visit. "What we found there was very sobering indeed. You could not fail to be moved by what people had gone through and were going through. Here was a nation once so proud reduced to literally scraping a living. They'd won freedom but the structure of their society was crumbling. At least under the communists everyone was fed."
"Mother Russia, your sons have left you crying in the rain, your sadness tears my heart out, it isn't easy to explain…"
If Hull the politician came through in his music, so too did Hull the humanist. Whether it was the look in somebody's eye, the thoughts inside a person's head, the actions of an illicit affair, all were worthy of sympathy. Hey friend, look what you got - there's always a person worse off than you! For a lesson in humility it'd be worth reproducing the lyrics to Winter Song and sticking it under some middle-class noses when they start bleating your expense. A match for any writer of English melancholy, latterly the spirit hadn't deserted, Soho Square from Lindisfarne's Elvis Lives On The Moon was homelessness from the inside.
"I just come down from a northern town, another clown on your streets…"
Above all though, that man was a jobbing musician and his homages to life on the road represented maudlin reality, Numbers (Travellin' Band), One Hundred Miles To Liverpool put you there in tour bus - please God, not another game of dominoes, not more warm cans of desperate beer. Ironically, Run For Home - the one Hull track that is always turning up on acoustic rock samplers - is about too much road life, yet it remains a glimpse into the mind of a muso or is it Hull's own attitude and musings?
"Run for home, run as fast as I can, runnin' man, runnin' for home…"
In more ways than one, Alan Hull came home during his career. In 1978 the original quintet Lindisfarne came back. They did a couple of festival reunion gigs in Newcastle and after thinking it over decided to have another stab. Hull gave them Run For Home and the public gave them another hit. He'd remained with them ever since as the band contracted and expanded around him, as their profile leapt alarmingly in latter years from the undoubted high of mature singer-writers on Amigos - Kathryn Tickell turned up piping on that one - to the dubious C'mon Everybody (TV rock 'n' roll recuts).
Hull was always there playing beery jester at public court, exchanging quips between the studied sensitivity and louder guitars. It became something of a tradition. Just like mince pies and Saint Nick, Christmas just wasn't as merry without going to see the annual Lindisfarne hooley and raising the rafters of your local concert hall. It was the very situation and atmosphere that so excited and exasperated Hull.
Whether he played to a theatreful or a handful Alan Hull would always say, "We're here for a good time, so let's have one." So we did. I've lost count of times I've gone to see him, gangly on stage with his acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, and seen him laconic, almost slumped over a keyboard, yet on each occasion we had not just a good time, but a bloody good time.
"As long as people go home happy then I do…" he offered when I asked about his motivation.
Latterly he'd hit stride, once more constantly active, not only with Lindisfarne but also in solo capacity - which through the '80s had produced less in the way of new material but an almighty assessment of his back catalogue, so that his shows were economical but effective. Touring alone, in the select company of guitarist Pete Kirtley or with the piano of Kenny Craddock, the thoroughly excellent Back To Basics saw both Craddock and the Gaffer skipping round the folk clubs with a minimal but worthy 'best of' set. His writing was once more brimming with confidence.
"Alan had hit a really purple patch," Ray Laidlaw remembers. "It began around Amigos - he seemed to find form again. I don't think people ever really appreciated him for the fine songwriter he was. He wrote some unique songs; they were northern in message. There's been nobody like him, very few people understood him as a writer or even came close to writing his way. His music should have delivered more for him than it ever did." The chief of Lindisfarne Musical Productions shakes his head. Laidlaw worked hand in hand with Hull down the years.
And if later output didn't have the commercial impact of his earlier works, then I leave you to ponder on the fickle attitude of the British public. Fickle enough to make cults from Ralph McTell, Al Stewart and Roy Harper, yet neglect with a staggering ignorance the honest canon of a bloke who always went for broke. Singular material, stage persona, and a weatherbeaten face which probably told you more about him than any interview.
"I've lived my life like a railroad, I've been here, I've been there, been everywhere. Well I've done some right things, done some wrong things, done some weird, some weak and some string things. The cards I played were always jacks or aces, so much easier to deal to different faces."
So what's left? There is a new album in the can, completed just before he passed away, and all involved are determined to see it issued. Lindisfarne are about to release a live album on Grapevine which will feature your man, maybe a video to go. And Lindisfarne - at present on hold - will continue, though what form the band will take without him is open to debate.
So much of the man's work now gathers dust out of reach to a CD generation. Yet on each crackly slice of vinyl listened to whilst piecing together this appreciation, there is something of worth. Surely here is a case for a proper CD retrospective. Though I fear many fine songs will remain unheard, from his early beat group 45s to his simple but effective anthem for the miners' struggle of the 1980s.
In the few tributes the rock press granted, some prosaically expounded how his writing was to Tyneside what Lennon & McCartney's was to Liverpool: high praise indeed, though to these ears at least splendidly misplaced. Alan Hull's evocative writings belong to the same slipstream as Ray Davies, a sense of place far stronger than The Beatles, whose Merseyside beginnings became increasingly irrelevant in a whirl of Black R&B, Hamburg, commerciality and druggy, hippy experiment. I'd like to think A.H. was more rooted than that!
Though he sang about it, used it and played it, Hull never suited rock 'n' roll, and his least satisfactory recordings came from struggling with the beast. By the time Billy Bragg broke the mould, Alan Hull had been in the business 20 years, probably given up on it too and decided like a sane chap to do things his way.
So how to remember him, indeed celebrate him as he would want you to?
Readers, I ask you to think briefly on James Alan Hull and to play his music often.
10 enduring Alan Hull compositions guaranteed not to lose their lustre:
- Winter Song (Nicely Out Of Tune, 1970)
- We Can Swing Together (Nicely Out Of Tune, 1970)
- Poor Old Ireland (Dingly Dell, 1972)
- Taking Care Of Business (Roll On, Ruby, 1973)
- Bad Side Of Town (Squire, 1975)
- Marshall Riley's Army (Back and Fourth, 1978)
- Malvinas Melody (On The Other Side, 1983)
- One Hundred Miles To Liverpool (Dance Your Life Away, 1986)
- Soho Square (Elvis Lives On The Moon, 1993)
- This Heart Of Mine (Back To Basics, 1994)