Friday, 4 July 2008
Lindisfarne "Nicely Out Of Tune" (1970) ('Core' Review #37, Extended Version)
Lindisfarne are nicely out of tune with the times but nicely in tune with each other…
Track Listing: Lady Eleanor/ Road To Kingdom Come/ Winter Song/ Turn A Deaf Ear/ Clear White Light (Part 2)// We Can Swing Together/ Alan In The River With Flowers/ Down/ The Things I Should Have Said/ Jackhammer Blues/ Scarecrow Song (UK and US tracklisting)
“Float me down the river, tell me stories, dreams and nightmares”
If ever a band were in the gutter looking up at the stars it was Lindisfarne, a band who were among the more unlikely pop stars of the late 1960s having been knocking on the doors of success for years after The Beatles came along (much like half the population of England at the time) and coming from the 'least fashionable' East of the Northern British Invasion boom (most other bands from the region tried to gently hide their routes - Lindisfarne went and blooming named themselves after a local island sixty miles off the Newcastle coast). Unlike some bands who shot to fame overnight and didn't know quite what to make of it all, Lindisfarne was a long time coming and the culmination of many sleepless nights, best laid plans and abandoned careers (Alan Hull worked double shifts as a psychiatric nurse and window-cleaner while he was writing most of the songs on this album; Si Cowe worked as a builder and was still recuperating from an accident where he accidentally fused his hands together - luckily the compensation helped pay for a new guitar just in time for the recording sessions...) As a result the band never seemed to quite take their sudden acceleration to the first rung of the pop ladder seriously, with their self-deprecating Geordie humour and generally most un-starstruck demeanour plus a generous mixture of pure talent and professionalism on the one-hand and a nicely home-made feel on the other. The band had all tried hard to break through in a variety of different bands with just delightfully 1960s names as The Brethren. Downtown Faction, The Autumn States and The Druids who nearly all made it - and from the little evidence of what has survived the years intact deserved to. However it was only after a coming together between the 'final' line-up of the Faction and Alan Hull, lead singer and writer of The Brethren, that the clear white light of success came into formation and Lindisfarne were born. The match between the two was made in heaven: Alan Hull was a witty, subtle writer who was already pioneering his own blend of folky Beatles tunes and Dylan-inspired lyrics, while his new group backed him up superbly, embellishing his acoustic arrangements with some electric power and adept enough at different styles to give their new visionary the confidence to find his voice. Nominally Lindisfarne were a folk-rock band but with a sound that like all the best bands was always slipping into something else - blues, pop, psychedelia, gospel, music hall...
That eclecticism is especially apparent on this extraordinarily brave and impressive debut which Nicely sets the tone for the records that follow and isn't all that out of tune really - with each other (the band had only been performing with their final five-piece line-up a matter of months when they started making this record) and with the times (this record is very much in keeping with 1970's mixture of 'heavier folk' with the hippie philosophy of past years kept in check with a healthy dose of cynicism; 'Nicely Out Of Tune' is effectively CSNY's 'Deja Vu' without the gatefold sleeve or The Moody Blues' 'A Question Of Balance' on a smaller budget), even if Lindisfarne thought they were (the title was Ray 'Jacka' Jackson's, as was the olde worlde cover). For a record made in a relative hurry, by relative newcomers who'd barely had time to say 'hello' to each other, it's all remarkably impressive with a distinctive sound that's already quite unlike anything else out there and a band sound that's far more than the sum parts of the five individual members who all took their unique tones (Alan's Dylanesque folk protest, Jacka's soulful pop, Rod's country fiddles and blues overtones, Ray's straight forward rock drumming and Si's eccentric lead guitar that sounds like a heavy metal guitarist transplanted to the age of flower power). This division will ultimately be the band's undoing, when just three years, a trio of records and a tiring world tour later they fell apart at the barely stitched seams - but for now it's most definitely a plus: this is a band that can do anything and go anywhere, stretching in any direction. Later records will peg Lindisfarne as folk protestors, keeping the rage against injustice (mainly because those are the songs their second producer Bob Johnstone liked best) but for now that sound is just one of many bows in their quiver. The band can really play and how, with Lindisfarne keeping things simple by merely recording the best of their live show from across the past year at speed (with a couple of songs Alan Hull had already been performing solo), a nicely dry production (that's raw but still throws in a few oddities such as the backwards count-in on 'Down' and 'revolving leslie speaker cabinet' echo on 'Alan In The River With Flowers' - producer John Anthony came to the record wanting to do a 'Beatles' and gets pretty close considering the budget and time). Above it all sits those distinctive vocals from Jacka, Alan and Si, three very different vocalists who all have a very distinctive blend when combining their straight pop, aggressive folk and offbeat grit together - neatly mirroring the songs with their intermingled hope and despair. Lindisfans will come to call this their 'sweet and sour' sound, that's both healing on the ears and yet more ragged than their purer contemporaries. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall (a passing ghost?) the first time the band performed together and found their voices slotted together so well, as the vocals really lend a weight to the songs and impressively the sound is here ready-made from the first.
This time round, though, it's a very 'innocent' sound, partly from the songs themselves (which are playful compared to the deeper, angrier Lindisfarne recordings to come) but mainly from the texture of the recording. 'Nicely' sounds like a mid-60s recording, perhaps because it was recorded using an eight track machine (the sort of equipment obsolete around 1967) - all Charisma thought this untested band needed at the time. The band were frustrated with it at the time (Jacka recalls hearing George Harrison working upstairs on 'What Is Life' and being 'blown away' not just with the sing but the 32-track machine the Beatle was using) but it actually enhances the songs quite, well, nicely. The 'Clear White Light' for instance works primarily because there is no cynicism in this song whatsoever (despite it being a religious song written by a committed atheist), 'Turn A Deaf Ear' and 'Jackhammer Blues' are meant to be silly (that's about all they have going for them to be honest...), 'We Can Swing Together' is the youth of the world taking on the adult squares and 'Alan In The River With Flowers' is 'meant' to be a 'story' with flashes of reality in the same way 'Alice In Wonderland' is a book about real life, drawn in weirdly distorted ways. It is perhaps symbolic that the album ends with the only 'grown-up' track 'Scarecrow Song', the one track here that could have done with being beefed up a bit, where life is 'meaningless' and everything the narrator does is 'wrong', with consequences. Overall, though, this is a world full of childish longing and sudden violent moodswings, compared to the earthier more realistic Lindisfarne records to come.
However this album's lasting legacy is undoubtedly the songs. Until the sudden lapse at the end of side two, every single one is a gem. It's hard in retrospect to work out why the world hadn't started beating down the doors of both Alan Hull and Rod Clements (the band's only songwriters at this early stage) because both are clearly ready-formed voices of the future to be reckoned with. Hull's songs have long ago progressed from the Beatles re-writes he was trying to compose earlier in the decade, informed by his earthy position as a struggling young dad of two taking any job going ('We Can Swing Together' and 'Winter Song' are two very different songs that share the typical Hull character trait of the narrator having almost nothing and being afraid that that small something is still going to be taken away) but also Hull's intelligence and imagination, with a song like 'Clear White Light' informed by his long sessions working as a night porter in a psychiatric home, debating what came next for the patients in his care. Hull is already brave enough to be depressed in song in a realistic authentic way ('Scarecrow Song' ends the album on a very bleak note indeed, assuming that the hope and joy heard throughout the rest of the album is a mirage) and a jovial jokey way ('Down'), while Hull is still brave enough to break his songwriting formula for the sheer unbridled joy of 'Clear White Light' and the slightly daring Elizabethan love story 'Lady Eleanor' that's ambiguous enough to be real or just wishful thinking (later Hull songs will turn the ladies of the manor into 'villains' taking advantage of the working classes, but 'Eleanor' is a beauty full of the powers of the universe and even the narrator crumbles under her spell). Already Hull's words sting with the injustice of the oppressed, speaking out on behalf of others: the good time party-goers of 'Swing' arrested by the police for simply enjoying themselves and the tramp of 'Winter Song' whose passed by without a glance, a writing technique that will become Hull's strongest suit in time. However Rod Clements' pair of songs are also among the album highlights, with 'Road To Kingdom Come' a fantastic charging rocker that uses Rod's characteristic writing style of imagining life as a literal journey and one that makes full use of Lindisfarne's blues roots and 'The Things I Should Have Said' a gorgeous ballad about shyness, timidly peeking out from the cover of two of the most dementedly bonhomie-filled songs on the record. On this album only the cover songs really pall - Woody Guthrie's 'Jackhammer Blues' is too silly a song for a record this 'tough' and Rab Noakes' 'Turn A Deaf Ear' is too kind a gesture to an old friend for his support that's B-side not album material. Even so there's so much worth on 'Nicely Out Of Tune' - and all of it different - that the record remains the most consistently impressive of Lindisfarne's whole canon. Other records have more of a production sound, a few of them even have better performances but no other Lindisfarne record packs quite so much casual brilliance into half an hour.
As a general rule, debut albums by bands are a mixed blessing: either bands are too nervy and ill-at-ease with what they want to say to put their point across or by some mini-miracle they come along in a band’s life at just the point where they are at their bravest and assured of what they are doing and never quite manage to repeat what they stumbled upon when trying to re-create it on future albums. Of all the AAA debut albums out there 'Nicely' is matched only by Pink Floyd's 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' for sheer brilliance from the first and the comparison isn't that unfounded; while both groups will go on to record several more records down the years that longevity comes from changing the style of the first record to something else. In Pink Floyd's case this was rather forced on them by Syd Barrett's mental disintegration - in Lindisfarne's case it will come from having to pick and choose between the elements of their sound rather than providing such a large grab-bag of styles as here. Time will prove that, commercially, the choice to move to folk ditty novelties and pop songs was a good one, with sequel 'Fog On The Tyne' blowing this album out the water sales-wise. However creatively and artistically, this was always the way to present Lindisfarne, as a band less easy to tie down to one particular sound. As early as this second record Lindisfarne will be played 'against' each other -what impresses here most is that more than anywhere else Lindisfarne are a 'band'. Every element of their sound is used and mixed together in different combinations to produce new and unique sounds that are never matched again by them or anyone else. Nobody performs solo, most of the vocalists take a verse each and every track features the complete band in all their glory (Jacka, Alan and Si all sing similar verses on 'Turn A Deaf Ear', for instance, but sing in wildly different ways). Lindisfarne – five people who had little enough in common bar their home-town before joining the band in various bits and pieces – never quite managed to sound this much of a 'group' again.
Anyone who has heard this album will know what I mean, particularly because here more than anywhere else Lindisfarne are a ‘band’, not just a backdrop for their frontman’s breath-taking new songs. Alan Hull’s material is already making it clear that an amazing new talent has arrived, with a depth and power not heard outside the writer’s two heroes John Lennon and Bob Dylan. Hully’s voice is also a canny mixture of wonder and awe on one hand and cynicism and anger on the other. When the two meet - such as in the middle of Winter Song where the two aspects of his character collide head on or Clear White Light which balances precariously between devout devotion and mocking laughter - Hully also shows himself to be a masterful interpretative singer, if not the technical expert that Lindisfarne’s ‘other’ frontman Ray Jackson is. Indeed whenever Jacka gets the opportunity to make his own stamp on the album, either through his own rich baritone or puffing harmonica, Hully’s ambiguous songwriting suddenly sounds clear-cut. Even on a song like Alan In The River With Flowers, a song which is all about the personal confusion and misunderstandings plaguing their author who gives the subject matter away by the name-check in the title, Jacka somehow makes the song his own, turning it into a straightforwardly immaculate pop recording, albeit one with plenty of harmonic and vocal bite. Jacka’s role in Lindisfarne has often been underestimated in recent years; overshadowed by Alan Hull in his early days and all but written out of the band after splitting his interests between many careers in later years, Lindisfarne would not have been anywhere near as successful a band were it not for their frontman. Both on stage – where he specialised in filling in time between sets with vocalised antics, sound effects and monologues and whose party trick was to try to get the whole of an audience to stand on one leg for an entire song – and in the studio, where he presented a much more accessible front for Hull’s songs than the writer would ever have got on his own. Jacka’s role on this first album is particularly strong, the groups’ arranger (possibly producer John Anthony or sometimes Hully himself) often using Jacka’s no-nonsense vocals to set the scene before Hulls’ less traditional (and Cowe’s decidedly untraditional) harmonies kick in.
Rod Clements, meanwhile, remains the epitome of the role of a bassist within the group. The largely sensible and level headed member who largely shunned the spotlight while leaving hints all the way through Lindisfarne’s career as to how he’d have actually done very well indeed in the spotlight had he been asked (his songwriting is at least as powerful as Hull’s and he is equally well respected in the music industry as a guitarist than as a bassist – a role which he fulfilled for the 1980s line-up of Pentangle among others). His playing on tracks like We Can Swing Together shows just how well he fits into a group rather than the individual dynamic however – his bass lines throughout the song run in parallel to what everybody else is playing and pretty much fills in the holes when not a lot is happening and you can easily imagine Clements listening back to the rest of the track and painstakingly working out what he could do to make the tune and the lyrics stand out. Drummer Ray Laidlaw, meanwhile, is more or less a Clements clone in character, enough of a level-headed character to become the band’s manager in later life (you can just imagine the mess Keith Moon would have made of the Who’s finances had he been asked!) and although technically his playing may lack the ability of Moon or the Hollies’ Bobby Eliott, he nevertheless shows himself to have a great feel for the story each song is trying to give.
Simon Cowe, meanwhile, is the band’s dark horse, a thrilling under-rated and rather under-used guitar player who brings a touch of rawness and unbridled emotion to songs that right otherwise have got a bit too clever for their own good. While comparatively little has been written about Lindisfarne over the years, especially about their painful and sudden 1972 split, some people often claim there to have been a growing animosity between Cowe and Hull. If so, it’s a shame that the two were so closely involved that they failed to see what important opposites each was bringing to the other’s work. While Hull would in truth have been far happier down the pub than writing songs, the best of his work nevertheless is perfectly placed, intellectual and unquestionably thought out and planned – when Hull tries to be a spontaneous joker, as he does on parts of this very album, he’s not quite as at home with this side of his character and doesn’t sound anywhere near as comfortable. Cowe, meanwhile, is his character’s polar opposite, sticking down a guitar phrase here, a harmony there and a completely off-the-wall this-sounds-good-so-I’ll-write-it-down-even-if-it-makes-no-sense composition everywhere when he gets writing properly. The action to Hull’s thought, Cowe did much more for this band—and successors Jack The Lad—than he’s ever given credit for. Lindisfarne in general are that rare thing for a band, a whole that is much greater than the sum of their parts, and - even though those differences ultimately tore them apart even before they got properly going – it also helped them write one hell of a debut album, one which comes complete with a good four or five songs that are still rated as being amongst Lindisfarne’s very best.
The album cover for 'Nicely', as designed by one time art student Jacka, presents this different-styles-within-the-same-band concept rather well, although the curiously Victoriana concept does seem at odds with the rather forward-looking music ('Lady Eleanor' perhaps aside, although she's really a timeless beauty from an actually undated song, albeit one with strong overtones of centuries gone by). The band are wearing flying gear (looking not unlike Jefferson Airplane on their debut record 'Takes Off!' from 1966, another oddly folk-driven record) but this is one of those aviatian training schemes where everyone is in competition with each other. Hull stands apart from the others (still the most recent member of the band), there's a peculiar mix of whose standing where (this isn't a band shot so much as a 'smile-into-the-camera-boys!) and everyone is dressed differently in a variety of coats, jackets, jeans and scarves. This is a group of 'new' friends, not a band who know each other inside out just yet. The back cover features shots of all the members separately As if to mirror their political leanings, the band are pictured outside the Houses of Parliament in London - a long way from home (most future Lindisfarne cover shots will feature either their holy island namesake or Newcastle). Note the credits too, in which Jacka is credited with playing the 'flatulette' which isn't an instrument I've come across (though presumably a member of the 'wind' family...)
It's all the more sad, then, that after hearing the drop-dead gorgeous promise on this album you know that there are only two other original albums to seek out. With their mix of classy singer-songwriter angst and boozy uptempo bonhomie, Lindisfarne were the perfect band for the day and if they had stayed together this list might have featured many more albums from the quintet than just two. However, the band’s fall from grace following their 1972 split was swift and more recently the band have been positively out-of-tune with the nation’s psyche, wiped from the rock history books after ruining their reputation with one tacky 50s hits cover album and a remake of Fog On The Tyne with vocals (of a sort) by Geordie footballer Paul Gascoigne. Ignore what you may have heard about this group in the years since, however – back in their hey day Lindisfarne were the most promising band in folk or rock, mixing classic singalong pop songs with the ability to reach down within your soul and connect with your brain at the same time as dazzling your ear-drums. Today Lindisfarne are always lumped together as one of those ‘nearly’ bands, with a strong and very vocal fan-base who rightly believe that these records are some of the best ever made, but not much national recognition outside the hit single the next year. 'Nicely' itself didn't quite set the world alight as hoped and turn the band into a household name (it was after all a barely publicised album that was impossible to describe by a group nobody outside Newcastle had heard of, released on a record label that had only started up in 1969) but it did at least sell well enough for the band to make their second album - which proved to have a monster hit alongside it. Curious fans who fell in love with 'Fog On The Tyne' worked backwards and bought this album too, enabling Lindisfarne to suddenly have a charting album and a top five single in 'Lady Eleanor' (this is why so many people get the Lindisfarne discography the 'wrong way round' - because the Guinness Hit Singles Books and so on have 'Fog' listed a few weeks before 'Nicely'!) Truth and quality will out, eventually - it just took the fashionably unfashionable Lindisfarne a bit longer than most and this nicely brave and inventive album isn't so much out of this tune as out of this world. Nice!
What better start to an album or indeed a career can there be than Lady Eleanor? The band’s best known song after Fog On The Tyne, it was a big hit – twice – and remains one of those small handful of songs that is both easily recognizable and yet somehow changes in tone and character every time you hear it. To the best of my knowledge Hull has never revealed who he wrote the song for, if indeed he wrote it with anybody in mind at all, but it certainly sounds as if he did. From the long long growing instrumental opening which only gradually builds into a flowering beauty of a song to the equally long held notes and images of mostly unfulfilled romantic longing, this is emotionally a song that rings very true, even if it’s dressed in some wonderful pop trappings. The song appears at first listen to be a sort of mock-Tudor song, thanks to the slow and stately waltz of the tune, the mentions of magicians, banquets and lords and the interesting instrumental mix including bells and that Lindisfarne favourite, the mandolin. Yet study this song closely and there’s actually nothing specifically in the song to tie it to the past at all – we have lords, banquets and even TV magicians to this day – and Lady Eleanor herself is a very modern female figure, using her powers and her charms to seduce the narrator partly, if not fully, against his will. The music for Lady Eleanor very cleverly paints the character in such a way that we feel we know her even though she is only very vaguely sketched in the song. The long hypnotic trance of the opening section makes it clear what a spellbinding figure she casts, the very low and gentle mix (surely this is the only successful single to have such a long, quiet fade in?) shows us how unobtainable she is and the sudden belt of a chorus when she finally appears shows us just how powerful a figure she really is underneath all that bowing and scraping. Yet, even though the narrator sings her name several times, its clear he doesn’t know her that well – a chorus and a last vivid verse full of imagery of serpents and fire to express their burning love is all we get, the rest of the song is rather vaguer about what’s going on between the two, almost as if the song is taking place in a hazy dream-world. The mixing of social classes in the song (at least we assume the narrator is of lower classes, given how unobtainable this ’lady’ is for him) is also very Alan Hull-like, a theme that dominates his first solo album Pipedream, suggesting that like these other later songs Eleanor may be bored by others from her high station in life and after someone to give her what she cannot get from kings, princes and lords. The song is full of perfectly crafted moments, from its long hypnotic beginning, to the knock-out punch of the chorus to all of the many instrumental parts that really add to the general atmospheric aura of the whole. In short, Lady Eleanor sounds as beautiful as its chief character and is another of this website’s worthy winners from the ‘catchy but deep’ shortlist.
Road To Kingdom Come shows off the other, rockier side of Lindisfarne and seems rather deliberately placed here, as if to challenge the ‘folk tag’ that followed Lindisfarne around as early as their second-ever released track. Written by Clements rather than Hull, sung by Jacka rather than Hull and based on a rocking riff rather than atmospheric splendour, it’s hard to equate this song and the last as belonging to the same band, never mind appearing next to each other on a debut album. But this song, written by Clements during his time at Durham University long before Lindisfarne came into being, is another album highlight. The rough and choppy riff is every bit as clever as its predecessor’s, making us feel sea-sick at the rough stormy seas of life the narrator is travelling over and which is every bit as unending and relentless as the lyrics. The lyrics deal with tirelessly working your way up from the bottom only to find that everyone else has moved up as well and you’re still at the bottom – no matter how much skill and hard labour you have put into your efforts. For all of its complaining nature and its typically Clements-like painful hollered shout ‘somebody tell me what it is I’ve done’? in amongst the intellectual philosophising, the song ends with a conciliatory last verse. Realising that somebody has to be on the bottom and that everybody at a higher station than himself was probably born there and this ‘failure’ by the song’s character is through no fault of his own, the narrator manages to placate his uneasy feelings somewhat and the band’s play-out sounds almost jaunty as a result. Clements weights in heavily on this track, playing both the ominous walking-bass riff and the fiddle solo in the middle too, while Jacka’s double-duties on a rather gruff vocal and bustling harmonica serve the song’s propulsive metre well. The use of some fine Lindisfarne harmonies at key moments in this song take it further towards classic status, although like most of the album the whole thing is mixed curiously low, as if the band are playing down the end of a very long tunnel, however loud you turn up the volume.
Winter Song is a third straight stunner on the album and is back to being prime Alan Hull. Beautiful, simple, with a strong anti-poverty message, it’s a wonder this song hadn’t been written by somebody before. The song’s strong social protest, speaking up on behalf of the downtrodden and homeless who are forgotten the minute their richer kinsfolk turn up the central heating or light fires in their warm houses, brings out the best in Hull, whose carefully balanced vocal makes it sound like a personal affront that these people are being forgotten. With icicles hanging from its every guitar pluck, the stark beauty of the melody is a perfect fit for the song’s lyrics about the coldness of winter mirroring the coldness of human kindness for those unlucky enough to be left without it. Hull sounds less convincing when widening the song to take in religion and politics (Jesus got ‘busted just for talking and befriending the wrong sort’, in a line that probably wasn’t taken directly from the bible!) but most of his lyrics in this song are exemplary and really set the scene well. The narrator’s boots that ‘no longer lie about the cold around your feet’, the homeless stranger’s dreams of ‘summer time’ and the ‘rain-splattered windows’ that are enough to make the village residents shut their poor neighbour out and go back to bed without even looking out of them first are all classic images that linger in the mind long after the song has ended. Goodness knows Hull knew a thing or two about social outcasts – on the dole for much of his 20s, he wrote most of these songs while working as a nurse at a mental health clinic, a personally shattering experience that was the best thing he could have done in terms of writing songs about human nature and empathising with the lonely and neglected. Hull’s quiet anger is often the element of Lindisfarne’s unique sound that comes across most loudly and clearly and it’s heard at its best here on this delicate song which asks everyone everywhere to spare a thought for someone worse off than them. Clements’ sympathetic bass rumble may well mean that Rod is the only band member on this track, although unlike later solo and rather undeveloped Hull performances on Lindisfarne albums the bare-bones accompaniment really suits this song’s stark subject matter.
Turn A Deaf Ear is a cover song that’s only really here to lighten the load, an old Rab Noakes track played with gusto by the band and with all three of the band’s singers (Jackson, Cowe, Hull and Jackson again in that order) swapping verses. All three show off their three very different styles: Jacka makes the song sound life perfect pop, Cowe like a demented folk-rocker and Hull like indignant protest! As a performance this song is a killer – especially Clements’ swooping bass lines - but as song it’s not up to the band’s own fine material and even the variation of vocalists can’t disguise the fact that it is a very repetitive song which seems to come back to the chorus many more times than the four occasions it actually does.
In a different stratosphere to the last track, Clear White Light is a gorgeous song to end side one on, a spiritual song with a hymn-like a capella opening that never quite ties its colours to the mast. ‘Do you believe in the clear white light?’ is the true message of the song, unsure whether the white light exists or not but agreeing that all humans of every religious denomination and unbelievers alike need some belief in something that’s more important than they are, just so they can feel their lives haven’t been empty and wasted without purpose. Hull’s vocals is another of this album’s balancing acts between naïve unquestioning belief and mocking cynical sneering, although this song’s key line – ‘you never know what you may find’ – makes it clear that the narrator is keeping an open mind as best he can. Ultimately, Hull’s answer to his unanswerable question seems to be yes, though: bubbly and optimistic for the most part, the listener is urged to give love ‘one more go’ just in case the sentiments of the song are true and that there really is a white light out there to take us to heaven or some other indescribable utopia. The song is cute, but gently uplifting and edgy enough to work, not to mention ingeniously arranged – just listen for the way the ghostly bass-and-drums battle contrasts against the unchanging one-note church organ and some gorgeous three-part angelic Lindisfarne harmonies. Simon Cowe’s closing guitar solo, spiralling up to the heavens as it gets more and more wrapped up in the divinity of the song at the end, also adds much to this song, starting off by sounding as tired and cynical as some of the lyrics before spiralling up into ecstasy. Although lyrically this song is probably atheist if anything at all, Clear White Light still ends up being so brilliantly uplifting and joyous that it’s hard not to regard it as one of rock’s greatest spirituals, as well as a strong candidate for not only the highlight of this album but also Lindisfarne’s career as a whole. Incidentally, the song was always referred to as ‘part two’ on early pressings of the album – part one, an earlier Hull song that’s really more of a poem, was never recorded by the group and still has yet to be released in any form.
Sadly side two can’t quite match the high standard of the album’s other side. We Can Swing Together is another firm fan favourite, however, a largely slow and broodingly angry song about the law and how it seems to have one rule for some and not for others. Using Deaf Ear’s trick of splitting up a repetitive track between more than one singer to make it sound more varied, this one finds Jacka’s surprisingly soulful bellows contrasting greatly against Hull’s more wayward emotional vocal. The song is one of Hull’s earliest pieces and was indeed recorded by the writer for a ridiculously hard-to-find single which was one of his few pre-Lindisfarne releases. It was inspired by a true incident, when a Newcastle party got a bit out of hand and the police were called in by the neighbours – breaking into the house without a warrant or any real evidence of foul deeds, the law enforcers got into a bit of trouble with the law themselves for the incident later on. A rousing we’re-all-in-it-together-in-the-face-of-adversity song, it sounds better in its live form than its rather laboured version here, but Jacka captures the song’s quietly anthemic spirit perfectly in the first verse (Hull sings all the other verses). Again, its Clements’ powerful bass lines – seemingly at odds with everything else the band is playing – and the band’s counterpoint harmonies that stands out most on the track. Jacka’s harmonica playing ought to be a highlight too, but sadly the confusing stereo panning during his solo rather ruins his big moment and the epic ending – featuring a choir of dozens of Lindisfarne friends and early band-mates, all gathered together in the studio for one last party – falls flat because someone is doodling a synthesiser rather aimlessly over the top of it. Ah well, it was 1970!
Alan In The River With Flowers is confusingly sung by Jacka again rather than Hully, despite the seemingly autobiographical title. Like much of this album, it derives its atmosphere by contrasting peaceful, reflective verses about idling away hours in the sunshine with a paranoid chorus full of ghostly sound effects (possibly Hull’s vocals put through a Leslie speaker a la The Beatles) which suggests that rather than tranquillity the narrator is tormented by the idea that he is not experiencing life to the full like his peers. Quite possibly written by the newly-wed Hull while unemployed in the years just before Lindisfarne, it finds him stuck between enjoying himself because he has nothing to do and worrying how he will make ends meet for his family. Having no duties to uphold or deadlines suddenly turns from being thrilling to being frightening in the space of a few seconds, forming the basis of a rather unsettling track which is improved by the lovely flowing melody which sounds so well crafted it might have been around for decades and a gorgeous, largely acoustic arrangement. The title was an affectionate parody of one of Alan Hull's favourite Beatle songs 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds', reflecting his own rather down-and-out status at the time!
Down rather ruins the effect, however, being a silly barbershop spoof version of the word ‘down’ rather than the nightmarish and very real ‘down’ of the last track. As discussed, Hull never sounds to these ears as if he quite believes his own comedy songs and this one is no exception, sending up his own pessimistic feelings by stringing lots of melancholy images together and attaching them to a rather over-jolly tune. The band’s harmonies are more out of tune than nice for once and the kazoo solo, of all things, if anything sounds even more irritating here than on its other appearances on this list. This sort of thing, contrasting pain with joviality, is done much better by the likes of Paul Simon and Brian Wilson – Hully is just too personal a songwriter to hide behind a façade; writing clever but inconsequential ditties like this he could be anyone. Don’t worry if the song sounds a little funny at the beginning by the way – producer John Anthony added the peculiar distorted effect at the beginning of this track to make it sound like an old crackling 1920s record for period effect, emulating the period when Barbershop quartets ruled the airwaves (confusingly, the effect has been cleaned up ten-fold for the CD release, which is taking re-mastering a bit too far!)
The Things I Should Have Said is much better, definitely the best song on this second side, although for some reason its one of the most obscure tracks on the record (tellingly, every other song except this and the next track have been on a Lindisfarne compilation at least once and usually more). A slow and at first un-involving but ultimately rewarding song, it finds writer Clements and vocalist Jacka again on top form, making the most out of this simple ballad about two people in love who never quite get it together because both of them are too shy to tell the other how they feel. Staring at the fireside, with thoughts of love pounding inside their heads, the whole piece sounds like some Shakespearean tragedy given how close these two characters come to finding their soul-mates before saying goodbye to each other and the wonderful, elongated couplets and double rhyming scheme of its tongue-twisting lyrics (Or perhaps I should say Christopher Marlowe—it was only when Shakespeare died and his works were collected together that his reputation eclipsed the bard’s better-loved and better-known period playwrights. If someone had put together, say, the ‘Marlowe Chronicles’ or old Christopher hadn’t died in a drunken brawl at the height of his fame that historians don’t really understand even now, it might have changed the face of our education system forever and I’d be using the adjective ‘Marlowian’ for people to know what on earth I’m talking about here). The gentle tune to this song fits the words like a glove, however, and the arrangement which ranges from the quite intimate beginning to the full rock onslaught raging inside the narrator’s head, is also impressive. A forgotten gem of a song.
Things go downhill again, though, with the last two tracks. First up is a rowdy unfocussed cover of one of Woody Guthroe’s least inspiring songs Jackhammer Blues. Opening with a confusing backwards count-in, included for no other reason than to sound really wacky, this song does its best to undo all of the chorus harmony’s depth and hard work with its sheer pointlessness. Jacka’s narrator might have arrived from a jackhammer town and be working very hard to make it big as a jackhammer outsides his homeland – but we do not get to know him as more than a one-dimensional joke so we do not sympathise much as a result. Lindisfarne’s ‘jokes’ often wear a bit thin—Fog On The Tyne being the obvious exception, although even that song pales after several hearings—but so lame in places is Jackhammer Blues that the final result is no joke. We know Lindisfarne should be able to do better than this in their sleep—just listen to pretty much any of the last dazzling 10 tracks—and with two fine unreleased songs and two nice B-sides recorded at the same sessions that could have gone onto the album instead, the question must surely be ’why?!?’ The performance of this song is pretty poor too, with Lindisfarne for once all over the place and sounding completely out of their depth on a song that – unlike most of their own work – doesn’t have any ‘depth’ to it anyway.
A depressing last Hull song, Scarecrow Blues, then ends the song on a second fake blues outing and it’s very strange to hear this largely optimistic and hopeful album end in a sea of self-pity. Again, we don’t have much to go on in our search to sympathise with Hull’s latest narrator; we are told his ‘lucky days are over’ and - in the most memorable couplet of the song - ‘your Saturdays are sober and your Sundays are too long’ – but the narrator never gets to the bottom of what is puzzling him. This song could be another of Hull’s pre-Lindisfarne what-future-have-I-got? songs, especially the title image of him standing in a field with no other function to perform than just stand there, but unlike its predecessors this album has no strong tune, clever twist or band harmonies to go with it. The tune is especially sombre, although it actually fits the lyric in a peculiar way by never quite finding a melody, despite looking up and down every scale it can find in search of inspiration. With so much good material still waiting to be used in Hull’s pockets (his other pre-Lindisfarne songs reportedly make up a good deal of the next two original Lindisfarne albums, the two ‘second line-up’ albums and Hully’s first solo album Pipedream), it’s a mystery why these two songs ever made it on the album at all. Even the period B-sides Knackers Yard Blues and Everything But The Marvellous Is Beautiful make a much better stab at the novelty and deep but depressing sides of the band’s talent respectively – thank goodness both are included on the CD re-issue, as they make a far better end for what is in truth a great little album.
Recorded by a band who didn’t really know each other that well yet, balancing some highly disparate influences from soul to folk to pop to blues and featuring mood swings from towering pessimism to brightly burning optimism, Nicely Out Of Tune could have been a mess. Instead it’s a charming record, full of subtleties in both composition and performance that other bands have spent decades trying to perfect – that Lindisfarne did all this after just five months of performances as a quintet is quite staggering. With two songwriters at the peak of their powers and three singers at the crest of theirs, Nicely Out Of Tune is a master-class in a band finding a new, important voice and making that voice so special it simply shines out from your speakers, even 40-odd years on.