Alan Hull - interviewed by Jerry Gilbert
Copied from Sounds 27.5.1972 (provided by Derek Walmsley)
LINDISFARNE'S MERCURIAL rise to fame in the past year has done little to alter the outlook of their chief songwriter, James Alan Hull, Hully remains forever the man of conflicting personalities - the deep philosopher acutely aware of other people's reactions and the motives behind those reactions, but also a round the clock looner who revels in his own madness.
It's the latter mood that generally prevails over the former when Alan is in the public eye, but during an interview in which he talked of his early days as a nurse in a mental hospital, Alan provided moments of hilarity and moments of serious self-appraisal, offering brief glimpses of the mystical ways in which he turns amorphous, fragmented impressions into tightly structured songs.
Alan Hull's story is indeed an interesting one.
Had you been in any bands prior to joining Brethren or had you always worked in folk clubs ?
I'd been in about six rock bands and the biggest one was a Newcastle band called The Chosen Few because we made a couple of records. After that I got really pissed off with the whole business because I was young, so I just disappeared and went to work in a mental hospital and got married.
A mental hospital ?
Yeah a mental hospital in Newcastle - I worked there for three years and in that period of working I met a guy in Newcastle who run a studio and made demos, and we got on well and he let me do as many demos as I wanted for nothing; that was a really nice period and I was writing a lot.
So you never really gave up music ?
No never. I tried a lot of musicians in that period and I decided to forget about bands and I went on the road as a folk musician I can't really say I went 'on the road' as a folk musician, I played in a few folk clubs singing my own songs.
Was there any reason for you making the change to folk clubs other than to avoid the hassles of a band ?
I think it was purely by accident, I just couldn't work it out. You know at that time '67-'68 it was the Cream and things which I couldn't possibly relate to, and then later Led Zeppelin. But I just couldn't work out that thing, and most of the bands in Newcastle were playing heavy rock which I didn't understand so the only possible thing to do was get into folk clubs - and so I did with a little bit of success so that I got my own folk club, and that's how I met Brethren. They came along and said 'Can we play at your folk club ?' and I said 'Yeah, as long as you buy me a pint'. And so they played and they were great.
I assume that the earlier rock bands you'd been with hadn't offered much scope for your own songs ?
We were doing about sixty per cent of my songs, about twenty per cent weird Tamla Motown things and about twenty per cent Lovin' Spoonful things. We were an enigma at that time because we were playing music and songs rather than freaky guitar solos and that was in 1965.
Let me ask you about your work in the mental hospital. You can't make a statement like 'I worked in a mental hospital for three years' ' without some qualification.
It was after the Chosen Few broke up; and the off-shoot of the Chosen Few was a group called Skip Bifferty with Micky Gallagher, John Turnbull and Graham Bell. Micky was ex-Chosen Few, and Graham Bell and John Turnbull made it Skip Bifferty, and at that time I was knackered, I felt I was finished at about 20 and I thought that I'd done everything I wanted to do, and nothing had really worked. So I met this woman and got married her and fell in love with her and asked what I should do and she said 'Why don't you go and work in a mental hospital ?' So I said 'Right' and went and worked there for three years and it was beautiful. It was hard to do
Yeah but what was the motive behind this strange diversion ?
I've always thought about madness and the end product of human possibility; but madness had been a theme for me all the time because I probably am mad, and everybody else is, but they handle it very well. I think we're all in the same crowd.
Well how would you define madness then ?
I wouldn't - I think we're all mad, I think everybody that's born has got trouble to easy their minds. So at that time which was about 1966, it was before everything - before I'd taken anything apart from a bit of dope - but when I went to St. Nick's it's ironic that St. Nicholas was the name of the mental hospital when St. Nicholas is St. Claus I was just thinking about religion and madness and 'who am I ?' and 'what am I ?' and crises of identity and it comes out in the songs - like 'January Song' is about that all. And at the same time I was reading two things, one was Buddhism and the other was Edgar Allan Poe's 'Mystery And Imagination' because they seemed to be related to one another. So in that three-year period from '66 to '69 I was working in a mental hospital where I had the complete scope of human behaviour displayed by the patients without any inhibition. And at that time I was doing physically, and mentally I was reading Buddhism - Buddhism proper, nothing flash like Zen - and also Edgar Allan Poe. So I was able to work out three things 'Mystery And Imagination', religion and what was going on in front of my eyes in a mental hospital, and I wanted to find out my place within that. And at the same time I was newly married and trying to form my own carry-on.
Do you think that period in your life will have a lasting effect on your own mental stability ?
I think it has got a lasting effect and I think it'll have an effect until I die and I'm glad of it.
Would you go back and work in a mental hospital again or do you see it as a period in your life which it was necessary to pass through ?
No I would go back gladly. In fact if I can get it together to make more bread than I need I would like to look at the possibilities of starting a clinic of my own with some good psychiatrists.
What was your job ?
I was a nurse - a student psyciatric nurse but I left just before I finished the final exams because the thing I was doing with music was getting too heavy and I was taking far too much time off; it wasn't fair to the hospital and it wasn't fair to me because there was a conflict between my music and my job. Also because it was a hospital run by the national health and I had my own ideas through reading Buddhism and things I was trying to introduce dídeas like that, and being a terribly minor student nurse. I wasn't liked by the staff and I wasn't really tolerated by the patients because they thought like they have have a career of being a mental patient and the staff of having a career of being a mental looker after and the staff couldn't accept this for obvious reasons and the patients found it difficult - they thought I was more of a patient thatn I was a nurse and so it came to the crunch I wasn't actually sacked, I was asked to leave.
It must have been a difficult choice if you regard both music and working in a mental hospital as somehow vocational.
Yeah in that mental hospital I met about three extraordinary poets and they were locked up in that place just because they saw too much and it scared me a little bit.
Yeah there's that song of Ralph McTell's
"Michael In The Garden", yeah I like "Michael In The Garden".
So did this period in your life have a strong influence on your writing, either at the time or retrospectively ?
Oh, very definitely. I wrote about twenty songs to do specifically with "Michael In The Garden", it's just that I had a different way of saying it. There was one called "I Kill You Spider Man" which I didn't dare to play anywhere, and there was another called "Schiziod Revolution"; but they were too freaky, too personally really.
You didn't get into the madness of the music to illustrate your themes ?
Well actually I tried to do that but I found that I was limited in my knowledge of music - I couldn't really be a valid muscial freak because I'm not a valid musician; I'd rather think of myself as a poet than a muscian. I got into poetry and wrote a lot of really strange poems and that's all. That period ended when I left St. Nick's and started to bring my music to people. The songs changed, actually, because I started writing songs like "We Can Swing Together" for a folk club atmosphere; I started to write about real things rather than madness which that's real enough but people don't want to know. So when I started going into folk clubs I started writing more on an audience basis and things like "Fog On The Tyne" and "We Can Swing Together" came out - but they still had that overhang of song like "Lady Eleanor" which is "Mystery And Imagination" again.
You don't think that the good-time feel that your songs have always had in any way conflicts with some of the harsher themes ?
I think rather than conflict it enhances the feel of Lindisfarne because we can do songs like "Lady Eleanor" and then the next song we can do "Fog On The Tyne" and people listen to "Lady Eleanor" which is wonderful.
Looking at the songs you were writing, your first meeting with Brethren must have been a strange one in view of the fact that they were more or less a straight blues band.
Well they'd just passed out of the blues phase and they were coming into the folk clubs and concentrating more on songs and they were writing songs - Rod was writing and Si was writing - and when they played their first song in my club at the time I thought nobody writes songs in the north-east like I do, and then I saw these dirty freaks and thought 'wow' they can write songs not just as good but better than me'. They were doing exactly the same things as I was and so we had to get together.
And you asked to join them ?
Well it was just like a natural thing and has been ever since . They came along and did some demos with me on my songs, and then I did a couple of gigs with them as their guest artist although they weren't big at all and there was nothing important in it. And so it went on and eventually they turned round and said 'it's about time you came into Brethren now'. And I said 'Yeah it is, I'm sick of singing on my own, it's dead lonely'. And we did a few gigs as Brethren, got signed up Charisma and decided we'd better change our name as there was an American group called Brethren, and we talked about a few names and somebody said Lindisfarne and John Anthony who was our producer said 'That's lovely, they'll love it down in London'; but it didn't mean much to us, you know it was just a nice place where we've always gone. So we said 'Will they really ?' and it's been like that ever since.
But prior to that you'd recorded alone for Transatlantic.
Ah, that was just before I met Brethren actually. I'd just come down to London to try my songs and Nat Joseph at Transatlantic liked "We Can Swing Together" and we recorded it though it was a pretty bad recording because it was done with session men and wasn't very inspired. So it came out and didn't do much, but now "We Can Swing Together" is one of the biggest things Lindisfarne do.
Which other songs got carried over from the folky period into Lindisfarne ?
"Winter Song" - I used to do that on my own and it was one of the best things I'd done; I did it with Lindisfarne with just Rod playing bass and Si playing twelve string - just a tiny little bit of instrumentation.
After you got together with Brethren was there ever a point where you could see the band in terms of success potential rather than they were just a band you got a lot of satisfaction working with ?
Personally I didn't at all - I've never thought in terms of success. It never really entered my head until now when it's been forced on us with people saying 'You must do this, you must do that'. But at that time I just thought of it as being a complete and obvious outlet to my daft songs. It was a band that could make my songs more streamlined, and the first time it really happened we played at my club the Rex and we did "Layd Eleanor" - we'd just arranged it and had a rehearsal a couple of days before and I've never had such a tremendous feeling. There were only about a hundred people there but they were friends and it really happened. And afterwards I came off feeling great and Ray Laidlaw came up and said "Heeeey, Alan" with a big smile on his face, and big glass of whatever it was, and he said "I think we've got it". And I knew what he meant. That was two and a half years ago and "Lady Eleanor" has just got into the charts now. I always think of "Lady Eleanor" as Lindisfarne and sometimes I say "Where's Lady Eleanor playing tonight ?" and "What number's Lindisfarne in the charts ?".
It's ironical that it's only recently made it.
I don't really understand it. I only understand what happened that night but I don't understand what's happened subsequently.
Was the decision to leave Newcastle for London a difficult one to make in view of domestic commitments and the fact that you didn't have much going for you ?
The whole band wanted to move to London and at that time is was very frustrating in Newcastle for them because they were so talented and they got an awful recording deal, and they used to come to Dave's studio and I used to be there making frustrated little demos and not really bothering and they used to come in and phone London and ask when their album was coming out, and they always got bullshit replies. So we came together through frustration and through love, and after we came together it was obvious we'd better get down to London. But they'd always thought that, so eventually we arrived in London though it was hard at first being separated from our families.
How did you see yourself fitting into London ? By this time could you see that the band was one that was different and could find a lot of success ?
I think everybody in Lindisfarne at that time had an inner feeling, avery quiet confidence that it would be all right one day, sooner or later. And the hassles didn't bother us, we used to go and sleep on friends' floors and lots of good people used to put us up, and we just kept on doing it with this same quit confidence; I can't really express the feeling, but we just knew it and the money then didn't matter much and it doesn't matter much now. You know Rod had a wife and two kids to support and I had a wife and three kids to support and we used to send them fivers, but somehow managed. There's always hard times in any case, and I don't believe that things got easier with money, it's not true - things don't get easier until they get easier in your head, it's a spiritual thing.
In that case was it difficult to cope with the change of life-style brought about by your recent success - the fact that you're working perpetually now ?
No, well we've ignored it. The only thing that's troubling me now is the songs, you know the material that's coming out now because it's only reflecting something that isn't really real. But the thing is, Rod's just written a song and I think it's one of the best songs I've ever heard - it's the song I've been trying to write for the past two years since the whole thing with Lindisfarne happened. It just gives the low-down on what it's like to go through all that, but it's not down or up, he just says it, like "Don't ask me 'cos I don't know, still come up to my house and we'll have a blow". But it's much more intricate than that and simply put and I think we're all really looking forward to doing that because it's the one song. I've heard that I really want to do apart from my own songs. I think it's going to be the best sing that we'll ever do - the Lindisfarne song.
You say you're worried about some of the other material that's coming out
Mine really, I'm still getting the tunes together and the chord changes, but the only things I want to say are what Rod's just said, the swine, and the inly thing apart from that is very religious and I don't think people wanna hear that - they find their own religion down their throats. And the only other thing I wanna write about is getting drunk.
Do you think your present worries about material is related directly to your complete change of existence ?
I think it's partly that. I was talking to Rab Noakes the other night and he said that certain houses you live in have an atmosphere to work in - like you can be in a house and not feel like picking a guitar up and writing, and I think that's true. My main worry is that I've changed so much physically qnd environmentally in the past two years that I haven't had a settled place to sit down and write, but when I lived in Gateshead I was on the dole for a year and I wrote fifty songs, including "Lady Eleanor" and "Winter Song" and "Fog On The Tyne": they were all written during that period and it seemed to be a very atmospheric house, but when I do, I hope to recapture that thing where I can sit down and relax and write.
Looking at the band's two albums, the first one was left fairly rough and represented the raw, live qualities of Lindisfarne, whereas the second was more a production job with adornment. How do you see the next one from th point of view of production ?I think it'll be neither of those things. The first album was an attempt to be more dressed up than the second one, the second one was much clearer and direct but my personal favourite is "Nicely Out Of Tune" and John Anthony did a very honest job. It was weird that "Fog On The Tyne" got top and "Nicely Out Of Tune" is just starting now. But I think that's a fine album, I'm more oriented towards songs and just doing them well rather than a production thing, and I just think that the poetry on "Nicely" is stronger than the poetry on "Fog". But both the albums have been a good exercise for us and we want to make the third Lindisfarne album a combination of the two, directness, engineering, quality and the poetry of the first album.
In view of what you said, what can Bob Johnson offer the group as a producer in the studios ?
A great atmosphere to work in, intelligence on the control and selection of the material.
Is he doing the next album, and have you given the next album much thought yet ?
Of course he is. We've been pressurised with gigs up to now but we've now eased off the gigs and at this very time we're at the end of a rest period and a thinking period. So from my point of view it's been good because I've got about six new songs, and Si wants to do another one called "Go Back" that he did a long time ago. And we're now coming into a rehearsal period which for us is like a luxury - and then after the rehearsal period we'll be able to see much better how things are gonna go.
What are your musical priorities when you're playing live ? For instance does the attempt to communicate with an audience take priority over just laying back and having a good time, objectively rather than subjectively ?
On stage it's the best feeling in the world to know you're communicating with the majority of the audience and it's the biggest motive for being in a band - it's the biggest thing to do to go on stage and be the audience, where there's no them and us, it's just one thing, a happening.
Do you find that the lyrics of your songs do provoke a reaction ? For example with the less self-explanatory songs like "Lady Eleanor" do people tend to ask you about the songs and therefore get off on the band at that level ?
Well "Lady Eleanor" I don't really understand. I wrote it almost in a trance and I know it means something, personal to me, and it would take a long time to explain - I know it's about death anyway, and I'm very worried about it being a so-called hit because I'm worried about the 17 and 16-year-old girls and boys who buy it I mean it's not a pop song and I don't understand what they think about it. But other things like "Meet Me On The Corner" which is an obvious lovely message in it would be alright - I can understand that. But I think the kids just take the songs as they find them, maybe it's just the sound that they like.
With "Lady Eleanor" I'm worried in the sense that I don't understand, and I'm always worried about things that I don't understand - I just wanna know what they get out of it. I mean I can understand what they get out of T. Rex, because it's sex, and that's fine, and I can understand what they get out of a good pop song; but I put "Lady Eleanor" in the same category as "Whiter Shade Of Pale" [Procol Harum] - I don't know why people bought that in their thousands because it's a very mystical song the same as "Lady Eleanor".
How did you find the States ?
Turn left at Greenland. No, seriously though when we got to the States it was like starting again but it was happy for us because we were with the Kinks and Fairport Convention and so we had no worries. But the same thing happened in America as it had in London - an unknown band getting encores and making a lot of friends and people in the business talking about us. It was a heavy experience altogether but we came together as people and we learned a lot. The tour was well organised and it was plain sailing; even the Troubadour was fun and it was the best gig musically, because we had an intelligent audience, good drinkers and nice people, and Don McLean who we played with is one of the best people ever.
America obviously brought the group closer together, but looking into the future is it conceivable to you at the moment that Lindisfarne will outgrow its purpose or that you'll individually grow out of the relationship ?
I think Lindisfarne's relationship will grow - never out, it'll just sprout.
[It was only about ten months later that Lindisfarne split. (R.Groll)]