There was a moment there… just a moment, but we loved it while it lingered… when it seriously looked like Lindisfarne were about to become the biggest band in the land. And another moment, and we loved that too, when it was hard to think of a more deserving candidate.
Forty-plus years on, two separate stories take the legend around the UK. As we speak, the Lindisfarne Story, featuring Ray Laidlaw and Billy Mitchell are midway through their fabulously entertaining song-and-(indeed) story-telling show. Then, when they come off the road, Ray Jackson’s Lindisfarne will be gearing up for the band’s traditional burst of UK live shows, running up to the Christmas homecoming party at the City Hall, Newcastle… an event that is as firmly engrained, and as deliciously crucial in the British rock calendar as any of the summertime festivals, and which was preserved on what likewise remains one of the greatest live albums ever as far back as 1973.
Lindisfarne Live – whether the original seven song budget LP, or the fourteen track expanded version that is now out on CD – sums up everything that Lindisfarne meant at the time, which in turn encapsulates most of what they still mean today.
Recorded in December 1972, it captured Lindisfarne in the heart of that aforementioned moment, celebrating a year that had given them a major hit single, a monster hit album, a United States debut… the lot. And, just as valuably, it caught a voluble, volatile audience that knew every word, every syllable, every breath the band would take, and roars lustily along with even the instrumental passages. If, as is so often not the case, a live album should capture the true performance, Lindisfarne Live is as close to perfection as it’s possible to get.
And so it should be. Even before the hits, Lindisfarne’s live show was a creature of legend. Touring with Genesis and Van Der Graaf Generator, on a cheap ticket tour designed brilliantly by their shared label, Charisma, Lindisfarne were winning over even the most sour-pussed serious prog obsessive. True, the image of half a dozen drunk David Jaxon devotees rolling down the road singing “We Can Swing Together” to the tune of “Pioneers Over C” is not an easy one to conjure. But it happened.
Lindisfarne’s debut album, Nicely Out of Tune, established them easily among the sharpest performers on the poppier edge of the folk-rock movement, and their first two singles, “Clear White Light” and “Lady Eleanor,” pointed songwriter Alan Hull in the same direction of genuine genius that, indeed, Van Der Graaf’s Peter Hammill already inhabited. A status that the rest of the album was happy to back up, and which early airings for the songs that would become Lindisfarne’s second album were intent on confirming.
Fog on the Tyne remains one of the quintessential LPs of the early British 70s, and that’s despite the now-emergent likes of Bowie, Bolan, Elton and the glam pack doing their level best to send Lindisfarne back to the folk clubs… from which, it must be admitted, they never looked like they’d escaped. While the rest of the scene colored their faces and spray-painted their sideburns, and even the Strawbs glittered up for the right TV shows, Lindisfarne may have changed a T-shirt once or twice, but the clothes they wore the first time you saw them were essentially the same ones they were wearing the last.
But they were unstoppable all the same. Penned by Rod Clements, “Meet Me On The Corner” became one of the deathless singles of 1972, and earned its composer both an Ivor Novello award and a cover by Melanie.
“Fog on the Tyne” packed the most-singable fourth verse of the age (and still does, to be truthful. Go give it a listen, and do your damnedest not to serenade your workmates for the rest of the week); even the b-sides of the single, “No Time to Lose” and “Scotch Mist,” slapped ’em down and slavered on their smalls. “Lady Eleanor” was reactivated to become a magnificent hit follow-up.
What went wrong? Delightful though it is (and blessed with a title track that is worth most of the year’s other music in its own right), Dingly Dell emerged the archetypal third album that didn’t quite live up to its predecessors. “Court in the Act” and “All Fall Down” were odd choices for follow-up 45s, and compounded their unsuitability by taking way too long to materialize. Word of dissent racked the rumor mill. There would be departures from the ranks. In spring 1972, Lindisfarne could do nothing wrong. By the time of the genuinely disappointing Roll On Ruby in spring 1973, they could do nothing right and, if we’re really forensic about it, the momentum had shifted even before then.
They left Charisma and that may not have been their smartest ever move. More singles flopped. Another album, Happy Daze, sank. Alan Hull went solo, but the band really broke up long before it split. The spin-off Jack the Lad wandered away in one direction that wasn’t that far removed from the main attraction, and Hull put out a couple of lovely LPs of his own before eventually forming Radiator, and going off in another.
Then 1977 brought the reunion, and “Run For Home” became the comeback hit that placed the band back at the top of the chart.
Their live shows, always wild, drunken celebrations of northern English working class haute-couture, became choreographed chaos with extra-added legend. Magic in the Air was their second live album, inevitably recorded in Newcastle at Christmas ’77, and even if you hate reunions, there’s something about this set that raises it high above the run of the mill. Esoteric reissued it a couple of years back and it still sounds sharp.
Something had indisputably changed in the interim, of course. First, a shift from underground folkies made-good to something approaching AOR slickness; and later, during the eighties, a move into that warm-and-fuzzy area where the finest family entertainers go, a place where the show and even the songs remain the same, no matter who is singing and playing.
Nevertheless, if you loved Lindisfarne the first time around, you still felt something for them later.
Close to forty-five years separate us now from Nicely Out of Tune, and the storms and stirrings that seemed so crucial in the past are revealed now to have simply been bumps in the road. Bumps that the band simply crested, rumbling on as years became decades, and not breaking up until 2004. Then reforming in 2013 in twi separate guises.
Laidlaw and Mitchell’s Lindisfarne Story is an acoustic two man show, and delightful for it. Jackson’s outfit offers the full band experience and he is the solo surviving original member… one reason why the current line-up appends his name to the band’s. But guitarist Charlie Harcourt first played in the 1973 line-up; other players came in in the 1990s; and the most recent recruit is a local legend in his own right, former Roxy Music drummer Paul Thompson.
Absent from it all, sadly, is Alan Hull; he passed away in 1995, following the Elvis Lives on the Moon LP, but of course his songs and spirit still power the band and, as you read through the group’s so magnificent authorized biography, Dave Hill’s 1998 Fog on the Tyne, it’s clear that Hull’s influence and impact on the UK folk scene in general remains incalculable even today.
The book itself is as much a thing of beauty as the best of Lindisfarne’s music. Stuffed with pictures that had, up to that point, never seen the light of day before, and with the entire band throwing their thoughts into the pot, even the records that seemed somewhat less than they ought to have been were… rejuvenated? Reprieved? Reinvented? Your choice. But the Lindisfarne discography that sprawls gloriously across the end of the book is there for you to delve happily into, and if you weave your own dreams out of it, nobody will blame you in the slightest.
Ten Lindisfarne Songs You Should Download Immediately
“Clear White Light” (from the LP Nicely Out of Tune)
“Bring Down The Government” (from the LP Dingly Dell)
“Dance Your Life Away” (from the LP Dance Your Life Away)
“Day of the Jackal” (from the LP Elvis Lives on the Moon)
“Dingly Dell” (from the LP Dingly Dell)
“Fog On The Tyne” (from the LP Fog on the Tyne)
“Lady Eleanor” (from the LP Nicely Out of Tune)
“Meet Me On The Corner” (from the LP Fog on the Tyne)
“We Can Swing Together” (from the LP Lindisfarne Live)