Rosalind Russell traces the history of the band, through their schooldays, previous groups in which they played, and their emergence first as Newcastle's top outfit and then later as one of Britain's best-selling bands and almost legendary live performers.
The Boogie Merchants
Newcastle is a funny mixture of old and new. The High Level stands over the Tyne as if it was created in the first seven days, and the railway station creeps up out of the gloom as the Scotland-bound train pulls in at four in the morning for brief respite after hauling its weight through a dark and sleeping England.
A few hours later, as the rest of the city wakes, the gloom lifts very slightly to a uniform grey, and the brand new city centre stands out conspicuously in its brightness. The mist still hangs over the mud banks of the river, and you wonder how all of this could have provided such happy inspiration for the music of Lindisfarne.
The actual island of Lindisfarne, lying some miles away beside the coast and connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway, is somewhat more picturesque, but doesn't have as much to do with the music.They are an uncompromising lot, playing their music in the same straightforward way as Newcastle United football team approach their game.
Fiercely individual in outlook, they have always retained their style of entertainment although they have long since moved to the south, in body if not in spirit. When they hit us on their first tour of Britain, in a package with van Der Graaf Generator and Genesis in January last year, it became obvious that they were making an enormous impression. Audiences that had been coached in supercool by hip bands forgot all they'd been taught and remembered how to enjoy themselves. An amazing concert in the Lyceum in London brought scenes that must have been almost unprecedented in the place. The walls of the ancient theatre literally shook as the crowds whirled around dancing to the jigs and reels. If the building had come down around our ears, we would have all gone happily, at least.
So it was no great surprise when the group ran away with the Brightest Hope award in the Disc poll the following year. And so far, they have been living riotously up to expectation.
Lindisfarne began 10 years ago, when Ray Laidlaw's grandfather gave him a drum kit for his 13th birthday. A young lad called Simon Cowe, who played guitar, lived just down the road. They got together and formed a band called the Aristokats which lasted for about two years.
In 1966, they became the Downtown Faction Blues Band. The group expanded when Rod Clements, who knew Simon at school, joined to play bass and violin, and then Ray Jackson met Ray Laidlaw at art college.
Things were a bit difficult at that time, because when they finished at college there were the usual pressures to put the knowledge to good use. Ray Jackson struggled unsuccessfully to break into advertising in Newcastle. The openings were few, and those that did exist were very boring - not even as high as designing corn flake packet standard. He came south, but the situation was the same, so when he bumped into Ray Laidlaw back in Newcastle and found he was looking for a singer, it seemed the best road to take.
"The only alternative to that was earning £8.10 a week as that was the highest offer I'd had to date," said Jacka. Just to keep his hand in, he designed the sleeve for their first album a few years later, "Nicely Out Of Tune" and the Lindisfarne logo.
The band were now known as Brethren, doing gigs around the north, and, in particular, a club in Whitley Bay. They became very friendly with Rab Noakes there and eventually were to record Rab's song "Together Forever" (on "Fog On The Tyne") and invite him to join their most recent tour.
In 1969 their lead guitarist Jeff Sadler left, to be replaced by Alan Hull early in 1970. The same year they changed their name again, this time to Lindisfarne. They signed to Charisma records shortly afterwards and made their first album, "Nicely Out Of Tune.
Alan Hull proved to be a very useful man to have in the band as he wrote most of the compositions on the album, including "Clear White Light" and "Lady Eleanor" - their first two singles - the beautiful "Winter Song," and the first of the ravers, "We Can Swing Together."
In many ways, "Nicely Out Of Tune" is their best album, because it completely lacks sophistication. They didn't have any bread to speak of, so the pressures to write were a little keener, and at that stage it was probably still more fun than business. "Lady Eleanor" as a single only sold about 7,000 copies the first time around. It wasn't until DJs started to take more interest in the band - better late than never - this summer, that sales picked up dramatically enough to put the record in the chart.
After the release of the first album, Lindisfarne's following began to pick up, and at concerts, the best thing you could possibly be was a Geordie. The band has a natural aptitude for humour and reaching an audience without even having to try. They don't have to ask for a reaction, it comes spontaneously, even from those of us unlucky enough not to be born in Northumberland.
It must have been "Fog On The Tyne" that broke it for Lindisfarne. They could do no wrong form this point on, and the album was one of the most highly rated of the year. Once again, Alan Hull wrote many of the songs, including the title track and "All Right On The Night," but Rod Clements and Simon Cowe began to write too.
Simon wrote "Uncle Sam" and Rod wrote "Meet Me On The Corner," one of their best-known numbers now. Jacka has only written one of their numbers because he feels that Alan and the others can say what he feels anyway and probably express it better. Ray wrote "Scotch Mist" one day while they were rehearsing and a particularly persistent Scotch mist was swirling around outside.
"Fog On The Tyne" was produced by Bob Johnston, the man who has produced Dylan and Leonard Cohen, to name but two, and that caused a fair bit of interest in itself.
A band with such apparent personal magnetism was an obvious choice for outdoor festivals, and they have shown that they are one of the very few bands that can lift one off the ground. At Lincoln, at Weeley and, later at this year's Grangemouth festival they have roused apathetic, damp and dispirited audiences to their feet, forgetting discomfort in the joys of Lindisfarne's sounds. The group always look so happy begin with, that it's almost impossible not to join in their good humour, and the songs are easily recognisable for rocking around to. Each appearance is like a personal triumph to them. They weren't brought up with silver spoons in their mouths, as Alan Hull once pointed out to Disc in an interview. They came up the hard way, without the benefit of big backing, so their success is well earned.
This year they made their first tour of the States, second on the bill to Fairport Convention who have had the benefit of a few tours there, in various forms. It was a good tour for Lindisfarne, despite the fact that much of their humour was lost on the American audiences who haven't yet got the hang of a Geordie accent, or of the humour that goes with it. But Ray Jackson felt that the tour had brought them closer together, and so had done them some good.
Their latest album, "Dingly Dell," was released a couple of months ago. And it's another good one, though perhaps not as "instant" as their first. The fans love it anyway, because on the tour they've had fantastic receptions, not the least of which in their home town where the scenes must have been gratifying for the local boys who have made more good than they probably imagined they ever would.
Story Behind The Name
Behind the name Lindisfarne lies a wealth of history. Way back, up until the 11th century, an island off the Northumberland coast, now known as Holy Island, was called Lindisfarne. At low tide it can be reached by a causeway, but if you don't want to get wet feet, it's best to be quick about it for it's a good three mile trek.
The "Lindis" part of the name refers to a small stream, which appeared at low tide, and could also possibly have something to do with the "Low" which has to be crossed to reach the island, and "Farne" is the name given to the neighbouring group of around 20 small islets - some of them just rocks, and it comes from the Celtic word meaning land.
The island boasts a village, castle, parish church and ruined priory, said to be most impressive with, we are told, "venerable walls of red sandstone rising above smooth green lawns." The castle, built around 1500, is perched on a small rock overlooking a tiny harbour. All these attractions are to be found at the southern end of the island. The northern part being composed mainly of sand dunes, which, weather permitting, are a goodly haunt for sunbathers. So much for the island's geography.
In ad 634, Oswald, who had just made himself King of Northumbria after successfully seeing off a Welsh prince Cadwaller and his cohorts, cordially invited St Aidan over from Iona to teach Christianity to the pagan Angles of Northumbria. Apparently Oswald sussed out St Aidan as "a man of outstanding gentleness, holiness and moderation" and as a token of his liking for this remarkable fellow gave him the island of Lindisfarne. Here the saintly person founded his Episcopal monastery, which became the religious capital Northern England and Southern Scotland. Christianity spread rapidly throughout the region and after the death of St Aidan all went well under a series of excellent bishops until 793 when the Danes arrived and disturbed the tranquility of the place in no small way by destroying the abbey and killing off such inmates as had not been forewarned of their arrival and left in good time. Among the island's chief prides and joys are the Lindisfarne Gospels, exquisitely illustrated and probably influenced by some Italian manuscript brought to the island. These are now to be found in the British Museum.
On and off the wagon
Andrew Tyler takes a behind the scenes look at Lindisfarne, travelling with them on the road, listening in on their post mortems after gigs, and of course, attending their incredible concerts.
There have been more dazzling, more debauched Rock n Roll roadshows. Some of the more spectacular have been known to cushion the strain of touring with sultry Burgandies, teams of Austin Princesses and the very finest home grown. Lindisfarne's approach to the business is more along the lines of a darts club's annual outing to Skegness. For thirty quid a night they can rent a sleekly-handsome coach with blue fun-fur interior and apple green plastic trim. For a few bob more it can be loaded with bottles of light ale, old Beatles tapes (Love Me Do, I'm A Loser) and - look out Cardiff or Brighton or wherever you are.
In Brighton there was a whole row of pretty young girls, maybe 14 or 15 years old, who bit their knuckles and tittered when the Lindisfarne coach docked outside the Top Rank. And when the group strode into the hall like a bunch of trail weary cowboys half a dozen of them tagged on the end of the line. Once inside, they fell into formation against a wall opposite the stage and watched a ball being kicked around.
You wonder, though, what must have been going on in their minds when Alan Hull lobbed a shot in their direction - first, a teaser at body height and not too fierce a kick. Then another and another until he was serving up thundering volleys at teeth level.
The girls kept right on biting their hands and giggling. Was it some sort of northern encounter game? Whatever it was, "that's Alan Hull out there aiming at me and wait till the girls hear about this."
One of the Rank's dapper, blazered officials had had enough.
"No football in 'ere. Them's the rules."
"Ah, c'mon mister."
Some of the things that really rattle Lindisfarne are dapper, blazered officials, late-night police prowlers and iron hearted meter ladies. They run foul of all three with wearying monotony.
There was this lady in Birmingham, for instance, who licked her pencil just as Mick The Coach was about to bring his mighty wagon to rest at a couple of parking meters. He'd driven around the domino-towered Royal Angus Hotel a couple of times before settling for the meters.
"There's only one place to park a coach in Birmingham," she said, "and it ain't here." Tour boss Fred Munt, a great lion of a man with a tangled head of hair, dark glasses and pinstripes, snarled his displeasure.
"All I can say is, that's bloody stupid. We're booked in at this hotel and you want us to park six bloody miles out of town. I mean, what sort of sense does that make, really?"
"I'm sorry but you're not to park here, it'll only be towed away." Folk, especially the size of the meter lady, usually hide themselves in dark corners when Fred wants something for his boys.
"I've never been done meself," confided Jacka. "I'm careful, you know. But Alan's always getting done for things like pissing up against a wall. Once he was nicked for stealing a sandwich from the Central Station buffet in Newcastle and when apprehended he was reported to have said 'that was a fair cop'. Alan definitely comes off the worst. He doesn't seem to like the law."
None of Lindisfarne likes the law very much, a state of affairs that comes about not unnaturally. Newcastle cops are reputedly the toughest in the land. The whole of Tyneside hums with brand new recruits, keen to earn the pleasure of their superiors.
One of the group's best songs, We Can Swing Together, is a living testament to an early scrape with the constabulary. Jacka was the only band member present at that Newcastle party five years ago but it was Alan Hull who got it down on paper.
"Some were smoking roll your owns
While others they had none
But everybody was holding hands
Singing this little song
We can swing together,
'Cause we feel we're doing it right..."
About four o' clock there was an almighty thumping on the doors and the sound of aching timber "They shoved everybody against the walls," remembers Jacka, "and kicked the host and a few people around, I mean everybody was drunk. There was loads of booze about but they found no drugs."
Things ran against form that night. The host - who was about to exit from the area - stuck around, sued the force and came up with damages. "Police in Newcastle are very good for getting people for being drunk and disorderly," says Jacka. "They've got the best record in the country. They've got the highest record in the world, in fact. Just because the local people are so keen."
Jacka likes his beer, mind you. He can sup and sup and not feel the pain until the next morning. He awoke in his sleeping bag a while back, feeling very low indeed, and did this passable impression of a snake shedding its skin and relieving itself in the toilet. Another time he threw up on a couple of mating butterflies.
"I suppose we do have this reputation for being perpetually drunk," said Ray Laidlaw, sucking on a bottle of lemonade. "I suppose it's fair to say we do like a drink and that we're above average drinkers. But we're not at the alcoholic stage yet."
Jacka and Ray, more than the others, come closest to resembling the Lindisfarne stereotype. They prefer things simple and unmolested. They despise sham and double-talk. They are the only unmarried members of the group and are currently staying with their families until they buy their own places.
Both were born to regular hard working parents who were driven to their knees by the demands of northern industry. Ray's dad's ambition was to be a joiner in the Tyneside shipyards, but a couple of years after serving his time as a riveter he was made redundant. Welding, and a whole new set of skills had arrived. He's been doing odd jobs ever since and now works in a builder's yard.
"Me mother used to tap dance, so she keeps telling me. I've never seen her tap dance. It's always been a family where there's been lots of music. But none of them ever played anything except me granddad. He used to play piano in a pub and sing. I think that's probably where it comes from. He's the sort of feller who could get a tune out of anything."
It was his grandad who bought him his first drum kit. It cost ten quid and was just about the finest birthday present any 13 year old could hope for. And it was Jacka's grandad who taught him how to play harmonica. "I've played harp since I was about ten or thereabouts. I used to play classical and traditional stuff at first 'cause me grandad taught me that lot. The first real blues harp I heard was Little Walter on Bo Diddley's 'Pretty Thing,' you know, doing a session. I thought 'I'll try and play like that.' So I got an Echo Super Vamper and started punkin' along with that. I used to have a chromatic before, but you can't play blues on a chromatic."
The mandolin was the inspired choice of his parents who brought one back from a holiday in Italy. "It was one of the old bow types, the classical ones. It only cost about four quid. I just learned to play it 'cos it was a present. I never played seriously until about 2½ years ago when I joined the group." The Royal Angus lounge is a haughty sort of place with miles of deep pile carpets and row upon row of leatherette chairs. Some of the lads were biting into an immense plate of toast while, on the telly, Gerald Nabarro was brushing aside questions from the Press. The entire West Bromwich Albion football team - shiny cheeks and tight little suits - completed the landscape.
Alan's arrived by now. He's done the journey from his Barnet home by train having, that morning, what was thought to have been his first ever visit to the dentist. His mouth had been throbbing and festering all week and no one knew.
Over dinner Jacka says he once went to a slaughterhouse and watched a sheep being torn apart but he still had a stomach for meat. Rod Clements, in black Lee Van Cleef hat, Confederate socks and a long trailing beard, pokes around in a plate of vegetables.
A few hours later they make their way on foot to the gig, stopping people on the way and asking "'Scuse me is this the way to the Odeon?"
It was the last lap of a round the country gallop that included a couple of spectacular concerts in Newcastle and a not so spectacular confrontation with Liverpool's Top Rank at the half-way mark. It was an immense turn out and the Rank people kept wedging them in until the walls nearly bulged under the strain. After the show a group of people tumbled down the escalator and landed squarely on a young girl.
Simon Cowe remembers that night: "All her facial bones were broken, there were bruises, multiple injuries and she was covered in blood. This is the real drag of being on tour when things like that happen. I'd really have liked to have followed it up, to find out from the Liverpool Fire Brigade what the fire limit was and reported them for having, say, 2,500 people in a hall that should hold maybe 1,500 or 1,800. And something has to be done about that staircase, 'cos a staircase that is maybe three feet wide isn't big enough for 2,500 people."
Tonight's Birmingham audience are a formidable englaciated lot who observe the proceedings with mild approval. The show is very much a package arrangement featuring Genesis and Scottish player-composer Rab Noakes in support role.
Threading together these wildly contrasting factions is the masterly inane humour and MC skills of Andy Andrews, who also plays fair acoustic guitar and writes a smart song. Then there's Ray Laidlaw's kid brother, Paul, on pub piano to bridge another gap.
Roadies arrange the vast collection of instruments for the evening's main performance - two mandolins, a violin, two 12-string guitars, six electric guitars, two basses, an auto harp, harmonium and electric piano. The crowd remain strangely unmoved through a crisp and superbly synchronized set. Lindisfarne, more than most groups, rely on audience feedback to lift their own performance. They're unhappy with the type of detached hysteria that greeted them at Portsmouth but need at least a nominal sign of involvement before they can build an atmosphere.
In the face of the usual pressures to keep things as is, they've managed to update the set with most of the material from Dingly Dell, things like Wake Up Little Sister, Go Back and Caught In The Act, plus the new single All Fall Down. But there's no satisfying a Lindisfarne audience without Meet Me On The Corner, Lady Eleanor, Fog On The Tyne and We Can Swing Together. The early material is more to the point, more carefree coming as it did, in great bursts of inspiration. Lately, the band have been worried by their less than prolific output.
"We've found that having to come to London we can't write nearly as much," says Simon. "I mean Alan would sit in his Gateshead pad and sing five songs straight out of his head and we'd do them the next day and have five new songs. He's written about three songs since then and that's about 1½ years ago. We came to London and there's such a heavy blanket covering the place I don't think we've ever managed to settle in."
Simon, lead guitar, sometimes pianist, mandolin and bass player, is the son of a Tynemouth architect and grew up in an elegant cobbled street, lined with Georgian houses each with a garden the size of a football pitch. "The house was called Camp Terrace and was once lived in by Napoleon or maybe Wellington or one of that lot anyway. All his crew shacked up in our street. I think it was specially built for the purpose."
With Rod, whose father was a North Shields solicitor, he went to King's public school in Tynemouth. There was a great rivalry between the pair who usually finished first and second in their class. From King's Simon went on to a high class Edinburgh school called Fettes, and Rod rounded off his education with a BA in general arts from Durham University.
"I started playing piano when I was six or seven," says Simon, "and a couple of years later we moved to North Shields. That's where I met Ray and Rod lived just up the road. We all lived, literally, within three blocks of each other. I could play guitar, and the guy down the road could play guitar and Ray 'round the corner, had to play drums, 'cos that's all there was left. So he bought a kit and we made a little group called The Aristocats.
"I also formed a group when I was at school in Edinburgh and played guitar. We played this concert before the whole school one night and the headmaster came over afterwards and said 'I thought it was a little bit loud, but Johnny enjoyed it' - Johnny was his son and we were really knocked out."
After Fettes Simon wasn't sure what was to come next. He spent a lot of time racing between London and Newcastle. "I bummed around for a while, worked in the RAC Club in Pall Mall as a commis chef and went to gambling clubs to try 'n' make some money."
He eventually landed in a Newcastle photographic company called Turners.
Eighteen months later, on the back of a number 11 bus, he spotted his old friend Ray Laidlaw, drummer with Downtown Faction. Here was the beginning of Lindisfarne.
Lindisfarne were expecting a bad time in Cardiff, another Top rank venue. In Birmingham they'd lost themselves and the audience but Cardiff... Cardiff was going to be OK.
There was no way Lindisfarne could miss, From the opening bars of meet Me On The Corner to the insane finale where everybody remotely connected with the show crowded the stage for Battle of New Orleans the audience roared and roared. And they sang in beautiful four part harmony too.
Next morning the Westgate is buzzing with scores of middle aged women in cotton hats and pale raincoats and in the music room the local blast furnace association is in earnest debate.
In Newport a tarnished past can overtake a rock 'n' roll roadshow. The Birmingham cops were interested in whoever smashed up a room in the Royal Angus, stole a painting and heaved a lampstand out the window.
"There's no way it could be our roadies," Phil Collins, Genesis' drummer tells Fred Munt. "They're just not like that. They're all public school boys. They just don't get into that sort of thing." "C'mon," says Fred, "some of those girls are the worst of the lot once they get away from the nuns."
A week's wages rests on it and a few minutes later, when a couple of Genesis roadies own up, Phil's jaw nearly falls in his lap. If that wasn't enough, they learn that a free outdoor concert, scheduled for the following Saturday at Friern Barnet mental hospital, has been cancelled.
It was to have been a quiet gathering for both patients and outsiders. Radio plugs and a couple of newspaper stories had beefed up interest and now, not 500, but 10,000 kids were expected. It was just too much for the hospital authorities and they backed out.
"I'm more than disappointed," says Alan, "I'm a little bit annoyed." Hull in his own erratic, disorganised way, is the creative force behind Lindisfarne. In the last 15 years he's written more than 350 songs, among them Clear White Light, We Can Swing Together, Fog On The Tyne and City Song. Hull was probably happiest running the Rex Club in Whitley Bay and playing alongside people like Rab, Ralph McTell, Bridget St John and Amazing Blondel.
"Folk clubs are pure camaradarie - the best underground in the world. When you talk in terms of commerciality it's nowhere. It's just a nice thing to do instead of being on a bus, going all round the world, and playing to thousands of people. You just say 'I'm starving for me gravy' and you're in a folk club with lots of people and that's where it's at."
He is a determined, aggressive character who has never found it easy working with other musicians. A spell with The Chosen Few during '65 and '66 left him so discouraged that he quit the music scene to work for three years in St Nicholas' Mental Hospital as a student nurse and it was during this period that he wrote many of his finest songs.
"Everybody is in some way mentally ill, you know. There's no such thing as a normal man so the whole idea is to get hospitals integrated with the community and the community integrated with the hospitals and I saw the Barnet gig as a big step in that direction."
Bob Johnston's flirtation with Lindisfarne probably had a lot to do with what he saw in Alan. Each of the band has a version of what took place on the Fog On The Tyne and Dingly Dell sessions and Rod Clements' is probably the least inhibited.
"He used to take Alan off into the corner and have lengthy discussions with him about the future and things like that and what a brilliant album Alan could make in Nashville with all these session men who'd played on Bob Dylan albums. But Alan just sort of told him 'it's the band, you know,' which says a lot for Alan. I mean, that's what happened with Bell & Arc. He gave then same line to Graham Bell and Graham Bell swallowed it."
Hull does plan a solo album: "I'll be using orchestras and lots of things and it'll be totally different from Lindisfarne. They'll be Alan Hull songs, sung by Alan Hull, produced by Alan Hull and recorded by Alan Hull... it's gonna be, that thing, you know."
Meanwhile all five are playing their second American tour, to be chased up next year with trips to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and another US visit. Like the Lindisfarne missionaries, who spread the Christian gospel in the Dark ages, there seems to be no holding the Newcastle revolution.