Monday, 8 December 2008
Lindisfarne "Magic In The Air" (1978) (News, Views and Music 15)
“Now’s the time to be kind to your fellow man, feel the sympathy starting out all over again, now’s the time to give love just one more go – because you never know what you may know!”
“Magic In The Air” (
In 1972, Lindisfarne had it all – the top selling album of the year (‘Fog On The Tyne’), one of the top five selling singles of the year (‘Fog On The Tyne’) and a re-released song that was quite a big hit anyway the first time round but became something of a monster on its second release (no, not ‘Fog On the Tyne’ strangely enough but ‘Lady Eleanor’). It had taken just two albums for Lindisfarne to get to the stage where their stuff was being bought in droves by fans and the general public and yet their music still warmed the hearts of pretty much every critic – the stage most bands never reach and those that do take half-a-dozen or so albums of hard grafting to achieve. But one lukewarm but-better-in-retrospect album (‘Dingly Dell’) and one back-biting disastrous tour later, however, and Lindisfarne were history (or at least, ‘our’ Lindisfarne – ie the popular one that had all the hits – were history, in truth Lindisfarne mark II limped on for longer than the original band had been together). The original quintet split sharply down the middle and the two sides vowed never to work with one another again. Interestingly, the band reformed for Christmas gigs in their beloved local Newcastle City Hall pretty much every year, a venue a mere rolling stones throw away from the pubs and clubs the band started playing in during their early days, but as far as any kind of permanent reunion went it seemed that the rift between the band members was just too strong to overcome. It took six years for the band to reform properly and suddenly, in 1978, it was as if the band had never been away – Lindisfarne scored their third-biggest hit with their very first re-union single ‘Run For Home’ (amazingly their last top 20 single of any kind despite the fact the band kept going right up until 2003) and even a quick perusal through the copious newspaper reviews of the band’s 1978 tour (included in the sleeves of the ‘Magic In The Air’ record) will tell you what a hit the reunion show was with critics and fans when it arrived. Yet while Lindisfarne concentrated all their efforts that year on their big return in the studio (the disappointing and Alan Hull dominated ‘Back and Fourth’), it’s this little gem of a live record that shows just how well the Lindisfarne sound had grown over the years - despite being in mothballs for much of the 70s - and how much better known this lovely little band could and should have been.
Live albums are a bit of a mixed bag to say the least. For every ‘Live At Leeds’ record there’s a ‘Who in
’ DVD – for every ‘Wings Over
America’ there’s a ‘Paul Is Live’. Well, Lindisfarne actually scored quite
highly on live releases – even the unsanctioned, unwanted, un-promoted and
downright unusual record ‘Lindisfarne Live’ (1973) is worth record collectors
giving it a home (especially now it’s been re-issued at CD length) and the two
‘Lindisfarntastic’ records (not available – at first anyway – in the shops, but
included with the ticket price of the band’s mid-80s tours) are great treasure
troves full of rare and unpublished songs nestling against radical
re-inventions of old friends. But it’s ‘Magic In The Air’ where, well, the
magic hangs most in the air, where the band sound genuinely thrilled to be
picking things back up where they left off and are equally adept at playing
compact little rockers and stretching songs out to infinity (‘We Can Swing
Together’, for instance, features a 10-minute mouthorgan solo!) The band are
bouncing off each other in a way that they hadn’t even managed in the early 70s
(after all – and this is a point often forgotten in the Lindisfarne story – the
band never spent years and years playing together like most groups, it was just
that a manager recommended to his promising Geordie singer-songwriter Alan Hull
and his promising Geordie folk-rock band The Brethren that they might want to
check each other out and luckily for us they did). Ray Jackson (known to one
and all as ‘Jacka’) is also one of those singers born for the stage – without
the opportunities for persuading a whole audience to stand on one leg (an
events that allegedly happened at one of the band’s shows of the period) his
studio singing simply can’t compete. Chief songwriter and second vocalist Alan
Hull is also having the time of his life at this show and if you keep an ear
out for his vocal it soon becomes clear that he never quite sits still
throughout the whole gig. Las Vegas
Strangely, though, there is nothing from the band’s latest album (that ‘Fourth’ album again, the one they’re meant to be plugging) among the track listing – had it not been written or recorded back then, even though the release date of that LP comes long before this live LP? What we do have is for the most part welcome however, a great mix of songs the band had always done live in their hour-long shows and some old songs re-visited in concert for the first time to extend the playing time by half an hour. The band kick off the concert with the first two tracks from their first album ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ (and see review no 37 for exactly why that was the best move possible), showcasing their softer, more atmospheric approach on the dreamlike ‘Lady Eleanor’, before cruising to a tight, disciplined run-through of blues-rock hybrid ‘The Road To Kingdom Come’. The audience already sound as if they’re giving a standing ovation (possibly on one leg) and don’t ever seem to sit down from this point on – things only get noisier from here on in! The most interesting track for collectors, however, is a performance of B-side ‘No Time To Lose’ a song submitted to but rejected from a film of the same name shortly before the band’s split. A typically Lindisfarnian mix of the deep and meaningful and the fun and partying sides of Alan Hull’s personality, it’s a great song to revive, full of the joys of escape and hints at the fears the narrator needs escaping from.
Elsewhere we get more of those evergreen Hully protest songs that ought to sound drab and dreary on paper but don’t on record (‘January Song’, a pompous but heartfelt ballad about the inevitability of things falling apart and, typically, the track that the band chose to spoof with ‘Fog On the Tyne’; compare the introductions and see if you can tell the two songs apart) or merely superfluous but don’t, thanks to the energetic band performances (‘Court In The Act’ should be a re-write of the classic ‘We Can Swing Together’, with the narrator about to locked up for sins he never committed; ‘didn’t seem much sense in the charges, but they sure sounded like fun!’; instead the song is a riot, err quite literally if you believe the words). We even get a rare but welcome Simon Cowe blues outing, crying out against the Vietnam draft (‘Uncle Sam’ – what a shame none of his ‘Jack The Lad’ tracks were revisited here) and a very early Rod Clements song dusted down for Lindisfarne (‘Train In G Major’), both of which have far more fire and verve than they had on the band’s ‘Fog On The Tyne’ LP. We also catch the under-rated and rarely performed ‘Dingly Dell’ on a good night, lurching from delicate away-with-the-fairies ballad verses played by Hull alone on acoustic to paranoid, frustrated rocker choruses played by the whole band at the peak of their rocking powers (this live version also beats its studio parent – on the ‘Dingly Dell’ album this time – hands down).
Best of all, ‘Clear White Light’ – one of Alan Hull’s (or anyone’s for that matter) most gorgeous spiritual songs - gets a complete re-birth from the delightful but poorly recorded studio version (from ‘Nicely’ again), becoming a powerful singalong rocker, exactly the sort of encore you need to make your audience bounce out of the auditorium with a light step and a song in their hearts. This song, written during Hull’s pre-Lindisfarne spell working as a mental health nurse, never quite ties its sails to its mast about why the narrator is happy – like Lennon’s ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’, this is a song celebrating the different beliefs we all have to pick ourselves up off the floor to fight another day – but is heart-warming in a way that only the ramshackle but accomplished, heavy but featherweight, philosophical but cheeky Lindisfarne can manage.
However the album also has its share of misfires – you have to be a pretty committed fan to put with the rowdy cover of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ for instance and it’s hard to sit through the elongated ‘We Can Swing Together’ more than once in a row, despite Jacka’s best attempts to thrill us with his various mouthorgan impersonations and snatches of old folk songs. Most worryingly, evergreen tracks like ‘Meet Me On The Corner’ and ‘Winter Song’ seems to have lost their sparkle somewhat, with the band sounding slightly under-rehearsed here in contrast to the professionalism of most of the rest of the gig. There’s also a couple of debatable songs among the track listing – throwaway B-side instrumental ‘Scotch Mist’ for instance, which sounds even more pointless among it’s more heavyweight cousins than it did on the back of ‘Meet Me On The Corner’ and ‘Turn A Deaf Ear’, a weak cover of a weak Rabby Noakes songs which is almost the only thing from the ‘Nicely Out Of tune’ album that didn’t deserve a revival. There’s also a handful of passages that sound like they’ve followed the 1970s live album craze for studio doctoring (surely even Lindisfarne can’t hit harmonies this perfect most of the time live?), although I may be following the heinous crime of most post-1970s critics here and under-rating what actually were a supremely talented and subtle band. Much loved by fans and long ignored by the general public in the middle of new wave and the dying days of punk, the rumour has it this live album might be seeing the light of day back on CD sometime soon. Let’s hope so, as this is one of those you-should-a-been-there-nights thankfully recorded for posterity in pristine sound. There was magic in the air that night alright.