Monday, 24 January 2011
Lindisfarne "Fog On The Tyne" (1971) (Revised Review)
Lindisfarne “Fog On The Tyne” (1971)
Meet Me On The Corner/Alright On The Night/Uncle Sam/Together Forever/January Song//Peter Brophy Don’t Care/City Song/Passing Ghosts/Train In G Major/Fog On The Tyne
"It seems so very obvious that nothing at all can last...you need me, need him, need Lindisfarne"
Lindisfarne’s best-selling album by some margin, ‘Fog On The Tyne’ followed the record 'Paul Simon' to the coveted UK number one slot (that was a good Autumn for AAA bands!) and remains by far the best-selling record released by either the band or their label Charisma. In time the record clocked up so many copies that it became the best-selling UK album round the world in 1972 as more and more people latched onto the word-of-mouth following of Lindisfans - not bad for a still only mildly promoted second LP! In theory, then, everyone should own it or at least know of it. ‘Tyne’ should be exactly the sort of hip, hit album this site tries to avoid in our quest to direct you towards the nooks and crannies of music collecting life. After all, there are two top five hit singles on ‘Tyne’– famous songs that are still heard regularly on the radio today - and there aren’t actually that many AAA albums you can say that about (The Beach Boys’ ‘Summer Days’, The Beatles' 'Help!' and the first self-titled 10cc album are the only other competitors amongst the 500 odd albums we cover - I think). And yet today hardly anyone seems to remember this poor little album– and if you do own it, chances are it’ll be a battered hand-me-down vinyl that dates from the first or second pressing as the CD came and went from the shelves very quickly (editor's note 2015 - the nice new 'Charisma Years' set makes owning this record and Lindisfarne's other two early LPs much easier now, though even that set seems to be disappearing a rate of musical knots). Such is the fickle price of fame; with so many bands passing through it’s hard to reach the mainstream and much much harder to stay there, with public acclaim as misty and hard-to-fathom as the fog on the Tyne. So we’re going to buck the trend on this website and restore this album to its former glory. ‘Fog On The Tyne’ might not have the sheer brilliance and originality of ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ – the first port of call for anyone interested in checking out this band (see review no 37) – and it may not have the wow-I’ve-just-discovered-a-lost-classic status of 'Dingly Dell' or the Jack The Lad, Lindisfarne Mark II or Alan Hull spin-off solo albums, but ‘Fog On The Tyne’ is still very much deserving on a place of your favourite records list.
Perhaps the biggest change since the last record is that Lindisfarne have gone from being the jack the lads of all-trades and thrown their eggs into three or four baskets. Thankfully the band have kept some of their stronger sounds: Alan Hull's Dylanesque folk protest songs which are the highlights of side two in particular (and feature Hull performing solo for the first time, at the request of new producer Bob Johnstone who liked that sort of thing after years of working with Simon and Garfunkel), charming breathless pop (Rod Clements' catchy catch-all 'Meet Me On The Corner'), heavy-ish rock of the 'Road To Kingdom Come' style ('Alright On The Night') and bawdy music hall knees ups (chord-wise 'Fog On The Tyne' is a much more charming re-write of 'Down' from the first album, channelled through the moodier Hull sound of 'January Song'). Heading down these fewer roads means that audiences now have a much stronger idea about the identity of Lindisfarne - and the fact that most of these areas tended to be the more 'commercial' aspects of the band's debut sound didn't hurt one bit; certainly you can't fault what's here. It's a shame though that the band have thrown out so much of worth in their efforts to pare down their sound, losing the cosy psychedelia of 'Alan In The River With Flowers' and even the Elizabethan drama of 'Lady Eleanor' (which was becoming a hit for the first time right about now, as disc jockeys looked out for the predecessor to 'Fog On The Tyne' and 'Meet Me On The Corner'), although whatever the heck the style of 'Jackhammer Blues' is meant to be is less of a loss on the whole.
In many ways 'Fog On The Tyne' did what you'd want a second album to do: it built on the success of the first, got a lot more attention and proved that the success wasn't going to be short-term or overnight. The record manages to sell more copies without selling out entirely and features several charming moments that no other band except Lindisfarne would consider: Hull's gorgeous tortured 'January Song' is 'Winter Song' moved a month or so on, while 'Peter Brophy Does Not Care' thumbs its nose at aristocratic architects too 'hip' to live in the chaotic creations they come up with and 'Passing Ghosts' is a comic song about the inevitability of death and growing older. 'City Song' too remains one of the band's great unsung classics, challenging the idea that progress in terms of technology and industry is any better for the people who have to march to the beat of a drum that bit faster and more relentless than the days of old. On the basis of these tracks and the two charming singalong singles 'Fog On The Tyne' deserves it's mega-success. However scratch under the surface and it's actually a far less consistent record than its predecessor. Many of these songs were rejected from 'Nicely Out Of Tune' for a reason and many (such as Si's 'Uncle Sam' and Rod's 'Train In G Major') pre-date Lindisfarne by many years. Hull too felt he was running out of songs and was faintly embarrassed when a lack of material meant he was forced to record everything he could find - including 'Fog On The Tyne' itself, only ever meant as a one-off joke for audiences expecting another earnest folk lament. In a way it's amazing the record works as well as it does given that a quarter of the album is really just an Alan Hull solo record and another quarter is full of songs discarded and abandoned years before.
However 'Fog On The Tyne' does have one thing going for it that the predecessor didn't have: a sense of unity, oddly so given that the band now have more writers and more years of writing to juggle with. We've commented quite a few times on this site about the inevitable cycle of bands: in a nutshell the first album is written while the band are 'failures', glowing with fire and rage at how real life is; the second takes what was learnt during the making of the first record and exaggerates it and the third leaves the artists struggling to remember what made the writer pick up his pen in the first place as they go further and further down the road towards comfort and security, the injustice that fuelled them now a bitter memory. Lindisfarne fit this formula better than almost any other band and their three albums will fit this pattern quite neatly. Every song on this second album comes with a feeling of 'relief', of finally being in a position where a long awaited dream is coming true with the glory of having escaped the rat-race hanging in the air. You can hear that best in the album's two singles , where dreams are available on every street corner and where the Tyne Bridge looks so perfect and brings so much cause for hope that the unemployed narrator does the most reckless, optimistic thing someone in his circumstances can do: 'think I'll sign off the dole!', full of the feeling that something good is about to happen. It's there in other songs though, even if its more couched in a sense of having overcome something worse: the narrator of 'Alright On The Night' has had a hard week full of being bullied and hen-pecked by society - but weekends are different and it's Friday night and the pubs are open so who cares?; Rab Noakes' song 'Together Forever' is about the joy of realising that a bit of casual dating has turned into something deeper and a bond that life can never split apart; 'January Song' returns to 'Winter Song's tale of poverty and homelessness but with one important difference - this time the hobo character is loved and love is all you need (well, actually it's people, 'need you need me need everyone' but that's effectively the message Beatle-fan Alan Hull is offering); 'Passing Ghosts' even laughs at death and the impermanence of everything mankind can accomplish, reckoning that even if the narrator is six feet under 'at least I won't have to mind about the weather!'. Even more recent Hull songs where he's clearly using his new-found voice and following to speak up over the sort of travesties that he and the people he loves have had to endure (poor town planning on 'Peter Brophy', modern living on 'City Songs') are treated with a certain feverish resentment that suggests that everything is going to be put right one day anyway. Only the two oldest songs don't really fit the album theme and sound like the saddened, poverty-stricken memories they are: Si's 'Uncle Sam' (which is a strangely American draft-dodging song for a Newcastle lad, but fits with the heavy American influence on Lindisfarne - you don't have to live in a country to be outraged by its actions after all or half the songs on this site would never have been written) and Rod's 'Train In G Major' (which is too tired to wave goodbye to another friendship, offering an easy way out for the next lover who comes along as long as they let him know why they want to leave). Overall, though, is a joyous album full of bonhomie and the feeling that at last dues have been paid and things are going in the right direction. It's about as unified as poor Lindisfarne will ever get to become.
Already, you see, the cracks are showing, with this a fairly 'troubled' album to make - certainly compared to the ease of the predecessor. Producer Bob Johnstone seems to have been a most hands-off producer (to be fair it's probably the only way he coped with opinionated 'old hands' like Simon and Garfunkel) and left all key decisions up to the band - who aren't yet practised enough at this sort of thing to know what to do next. Johnstone asked to hear each of the potential songs for the album in rough demo form first and reckoned Hull's were already so strong they didn't need much doing to them (taking away the band unity that was already rather fragile - this five-piece line-up of Lindisfarne had only been together about eighteen months at the time of the first album recording sessions). All of Lindisfarne had shared similar backgrounds of dashed hopes, disappointments and hard hard work - but they hadn't necessarily shared it all together. Even best bosom buddies start to get twitchy when the pay cheques start coming in and seem so uneven (with the writers getting more than the others) - throw in the fact that the band still largely had two manages fighting Alan's and the band's corners and you can see where the problems come from. The band 'roles' were changing too, with Rod given his pair of songs on the first album largely as a 'favour' and for variety - with 'Meet Me On The Corner' Rod is now officially as successful a writer as Alan and even though Rod is the least person across all thirty of our bands to gloat about it his success would have niggled at someone like Hull, whose only just discovered this level of fame for himself. Lindisfarne were sold to him, rightly or wrongly, as 'junior partners' - now suddenly it's the bass player's songs that the world wants to hear and which are winning all the awards ('Meet Me On The Corner' is the only Lindisfarne song to win an Ivor Novello songwriting award - 'Fog On The Tyne' was even up for the same trophy the same year, putting Hull in direct competition; typically, though, Rod's next song for the band will be 'Don't Ask Me' about how he knows nothing and just got 'lucky' with that one particular song). It’s the old Buffalo Springfield syndrome – a band with so much talent they’re bursting at the seams and stepping on each other’s toes as new horizons occur; even best friends can't always navigate such changes in their lives and Lindisfarne don't yet have that much shared history. Chuck in an exhausting tour, where people who haven't spent all that much time together are now in each other's pockets - and it's clearly a recipe for disaster. 'Nicely Out Of Tune's trump card was that all the band appear on all tracks (the last time this will happen until the late 1970s reunion LPs) - too often across this record the composer is in charge, occasionally the lead singer in Jacka's case, with less input from everyone else to each arrangement. 'Fog On The Tyne' is not a bad album - it's another very good record, bordering on great on the second superior side - but even as the band are celebrating having reached this peak you can hear them audibly disappearing down the side of a hill in the other direction. Just an aside, it might be a mistake but the song-writing credits on the rear sleeve say it all: Hully’s song are listed simply under ‘Hull’ as if every fan already knows about his writing skills, yet Si’s songs are credited under his full name ('Simon Cowe') and Rod's are given the full name ‘Roderick Clements’ for the first and only time, almost as if a point is being made about the writing divisions within the band.
To be fair on Lindisfarne, no group was more of a unit during the making of their first album ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ and the differences between the five band members only really become apparent following the 1972 split after a long and gruelling tour. Arguably, though, the split begins here, in 1971, when the band looked to go into the studio – and couldn’t agree over which producer to go into the studio with. The one aspect of ‘Nicely’ that’s come in for a bit of criticism over the years is the sound quality – they’ve cleaned it up, well, nicely for the CD but it’s still a bit muffled at times and not up to the sound of the two successors. The reason was that first producer John Anthony was a much more hand-on bang-it-down type producer working on an album that had a much smaller budget given the band’s unknown status at the time. Given the circumstances he did a great job, handling a nervy inexperienced band well and quickly on an album that sounds as if it was the only truly enjoyable recording process Lindisfarne ever had. However for this record the band had the chance to work with a big name, the already semi-legendary Bob Johnstone who'd introduced himself to the band backstage at a triumphant gig at London's Festival Hall. Johnstone had just split from the record label CBS and was free to work with whichever group he chose, telling ‘Lindisfarne they had the ‘magic’ he’d felt with Bob Dylan and grew particularly close to songwriter Hull. However much of the band still wanted to work with Anthony, who was friendlier and 'one of us' - the band didn't take kindly to auditioning their songs in turn when Anthony was keener on Hull's anyway and the way he dismissed many of the band arrangements Lindisfarne had been planning for the album and sketched out on tour (their idea of the album had been to make it lusher and more harmony-drenched than the rather pure and simple folk-rock album it became apparently). Many of these songs feature things stripped back to the basics, with Hull and his guitar the dominant sound even over Jacka and harmonica. To some extent this worked - 'Fog On The Tyne' is at least mixed a lot better than 'Nicely Out Of Tune' whatever you think of the arrangements - but Johnstone over-steeped the mark one day, telling Hull he could become an even bigger star if he left the band, travelled to Nashville and recorded a solo album there. To his credit Hull – the man who had been unemployed for most of his 20s and with two young children to look after – stayed loyal to the band he’d only just met and said an emphatic ‘no!’ The matter is glossed over in the few Lindisfarne reports that are out there (it gets a single sentence in the otherwise excellent biography ‘Fog On The Tyne’ by Dave Ian Hill for instance) but it must have had a huge impact on the band and one wonders how Hull broke the news to his bandmates – with surprise, dejection, triumph or look-what-I-did-for-you-lads type bonhomie. Anthony may not have been the world’s best producer, but arguably he was the best producer for Lindisfarne – one of the gang who recorded their songs quickly and simply, rather than spending an hour focussing on each individual drum sound for instance. Johnstone was by his own admission somewhat distant, for the most part giving the now-struggling and self-conscious band little direction or making his ideas so obtuse they hardly knew what to do (guitarist Simon Cowe remembers being asked to play a solo ‘off the hook’ – not very helpful for a novice band trying to get their ideas down on tape!)Remember, too, the band are now recording with new arrangements quite unlike those they’d been practising and needed direction more than ever to make their album great.
'Fog On The Tyne' is great, no question, but much of it isn't so great. At one point the record was set to be even better before Johnstone's sometimes questionable choice in material. While about 3/4s of this album is spectacular, it’s amazing how much filler material got through considering the sessions also saw the first recorded versions of some of Lindisfarne’s best work of the next few years (such as ‘Dingly Dell’ – the title track of the band’s third LP, ‘River’ - the highlight of the Lindisfarne Mark II album ‘Happy Daze’, ‘Money Game’ – a highlight of Hull’s solo LP ‘Pipedream’ and ‘Why Can’t I Be Satisfied?’, one of the greatest songs the under-rated Lindis-spin off group Jack The Lad ever recorded). At just thirty-five minutes this album could have been a lot longer as well as a lot more consistent, being perhaps two songs short of 'classic' status. To be fair, though, what Johnstone did give this album was a sound all of its own – a clear and simplified, catchy sound that no other Lindisfarne album quite pulls off, perfect for early 1970s radio if not always so successful hearing the album all in one go. To some extent, that’s because these are sometimes quite obviously a series of recordings waiting for overdubs that were taken out of the arrangement and never arrived, but it does give this album a unity and direction that few of the others have. It’s significant too that, despite Johnstone’s reservations, there are three writers working for the band for the first time and – partly because of the sound style and partly because Jacka gets to sing lead on most of the material – they integrate into the album far better than on other Lindisfarne LPs.
Lindisfarne sound like a more adult, grown-up band here with less emphasis on informal boozy revelries (the title track apart), less of the whimsy like 'Down' and 'Jackhammer Blues' from the previous record and, frustrating as that is when you know the other records and got used to the de facto band ‘sound’, had this album been the start of a new direction for the band rather than a one-off it would undoubtedly have been successful for the band. For a start, the songs are strong, with Hully’s contributions a typical blend of innocence, awe at being alive and already being an old man in a young man’s body with a series of his deepest and also his shallowest, wittiest songs. 'City Song' is worth the price of admission alone with several other under-rated Hull gems mainly on the second side. Cowe’s earliest song ‘Uncle Sam’ sounds an early version of the social commentary, quirky comedy and straightforward pop unique to his pen (and much under-rated by both Lindisfans and Jack The Ladders I Have to say). Clements’ songs, meanwhile, reach back to his past and to the band’s possible future, with a catchy doo-wop song dressed up in an early 1970s pop body. Noakes cover 'Together Forever', while not up to the band's own material, is a major improvement on 'Turn A Deaf Ear'. 'Fog On The Tyne' deserves it's hard-fought for success and should have been the second album in a wonderfully long career full of glories of which this was just the start. However it is perhaps notable that nothing on this album quite approaches the best of what had come before: the lush beauty of 'Lady Eleanor', the punchyness of 'The Road To Kingdom Come', the poignancy of 'Winter Song', the bonhomie of 'We Can Swing Together', the understated sadness of 'The Things We Should Have Said', the delightful trippiness of 'Alan In The River With Flowers' or the sheer joy that comes from the most religious atheist work ever written 'Clear White Light'. While I can understand why music-lovers in 1972 brought this album in droves (how can you not love this band near their best?) I can't help but feel that to some extent people fell in love with the 'wrong' record and that to some small extent part of what made Lindisfarne great had already gone.
Clements' ‘Meet Me On The Corner’ was chosen to start the album and its an intriguing choice in many ways, given the mind games of the sessions we’ve already discussed. However, perhaps there was just no other sensible option – this combination of chunky bass, twinkly guitar and puffing mouthorgan is infectious in the extreme and has a hook that you’re guaranteed to be singing at some point during the 24 hours following hearing the record. On the one hand it’s unusual for the band – it’s clearly by a different pen than the more thoughtful and show-offy Hull and it has a much simpler, retro sound than usual for Lindisfarne (who were as close to the cutting g edge as anyone on these first three albums, given what a directionless period the early 70s were). The song is a good showcase, though, for both lead singer Ray ‘Jacka’ Jackson and the band’s distinctive ‘sweet and sour’ harmonies, a very under-rated mix that somehow sounds warm and edgy all at once. Clements’ bass is, not for the first or last time, the star of the show, jauntily working it’s way up and down the keys (multi-instrumentalist as he was, it’s easy to imagine Rod coming up with this song with only his bass keeping him company – all the other instruments here merely add to the tune, but it’s the bass-line that creates it, something deeply unusual in pop-rock of any age).
When you analyse it, there’s nothing much going in ‘Meet Me On the Corner’, though. A simple tale of a dream seller hawking his wares like a market trader and giving the rather shady offer of meeting the narrator ‘when the lights are coming on’, it seems more like a dodgy black market trade from World War II. It’s even been suggested in some quarters that this song is about a prostitute promising the earth after midnight with a storyline that’s been tidied up for FM radio, but I’d plump for the drugs theory instead – this is a pedlar selling his wares that act as ‘dreams’ in a communal, shared environment (although even then it’s a theme I’d accept unquestionably from the often mischievous pen of Alan Hull but seems somehow wrong for the gentlemanly Roderick Clements). Whatever the inspiration, however, the theme of the song doesn’t get in the way of the fine, impatient riff or the excellent band performance and it’s no wonder that this song was the hit it was. For me, though, it doesn’t have the depth of most of Clements’ finer songs for the band, from ‘The Things I Should Have Said’ up to ‘Can’t Do Right For Doing Wrong’.
‘Alright On The Night’ is another curious song, this time from Hull, almost as if the band are playing with us over what our expectations of a record should be. The band went on record during this time as saying that they wanted to add a heavier, rockier sound to their stage act and records and this song seems to be an early attempt at that sound. The band haven’t quite got it right yet – there’s a great rabble-rousing song in here somewhere, with typically Hully lines about getting out of your skull on booze to forget nasty times of recent past, but the recording sounds detached, as if the band are playing their parts individually without the interplay of their first album. They’ll pull this trick off much better with the B-side of ‘Corner’ ‘No Time To Lose’, a raw and ragged song about spontaneously escaping for a quick holiday which, thankfully, is added to the current CD and is much better than most of the other songs here. There’s really not much else to add – ‘Night’ is a filler of a song that’s better than most filler in material but not in performance or production. There is an early line with the narrator returning to the 1960s theme of being picked on for having long hair, being ‘unclean’ and unfairly picked on by elder generations which would have been a great theme to have heard about from the witty pen of the social crusader Hull – but that’s all it is a line. Perhaps Hull got drunk the night he was writing this song and deciding to write a happier one instead? (There’ll be plenty more boozy songs like this in Lindisfarne’s canon , starting with the Mark II album ‘Happy Daze’).
‘Uncle Sam’ is Cowe’s first ever published song and apparently dates long before the band started recording and touring under the Lindisfarne name. It’s an under-rated heartfelt song about that other key 1960s theme – the draft dodger – and is clearly about the Vietnam climate of the late 60s than the early 70s Nixon-era. Considering that he must have been a really young teenager when he wrote it, though, ‘Uncle Sam’ is impressive, mixing comedy and tragedy together like a Mash episode, starting off in the sympathetic third-person narrative before switching to an angry, strident first person at the end. Many fans have complained about this song’s supposed tweeness and some lines do cut quite close, but the delightful line ‘Don’t want you to die for me, why should I fool you? Hope you see it through’ makes up for all of this, cutting straight through decades of propaganda about the military services. (If you’ve ever seen Michael Moore’s ‘Farenheit 9/11 film’ and the military sign-up procedures you’ll know exactly what I mean by military propaganda). The one place the song does fall down is that it doesn’t know how to end – we have the opening folk, the middle blues and a resounding full harmony ending, only to go right back through the song again (it doesn’t help, too, that the lyrics clearly came first and dictate the often twitchy and uneven melody). Cowe will get better writing songs as he gets more practice – Jack The Lad’s ‘Song Without A Band’ and Lindisfarne’s B-side ‘Stick Together’ have a similar mix of the outraged and the hilarious, yet for a first attempt this is a strong song. Lindisfarne seem to give a strong band performance too but, yet again, it all sounds strangely detached on this album’s unique sonic sound and even the normally reliable Jacka doesn’t seem to have his heart in the song (if you get a chance, look out for the live version of this song on ‘Magic In The Air’ where the song has much more power and the band sound much more together).
Talking of together, next track ‘Together Forever’ is this album’s lone cover song – something the band will do on all their original trio of albums but rarely on their reunions – and yet again it’s a song by fellow Geordie Rab Noakes. I’m not that keen on any of the band’s Noakes covers but this one is about the best, thanks to a better performance than average for this album, with Jacka’s strident powerful lead a delight amongst the chaotic backing and Hully’s nagging backing vocals too are a treat. Together with their new-found feeling for playing off each other for this recording, it sounds like ‘Together Forever’ may be a deliberate choice, with this pop song of solidarity between a boy and girl trying to hitch-hike home from a holiday and past caring how they travel – as long as they stay together. In all, this is quite a fun and innocent song that sounds more like Brain Wilson’s Beach Boys songs about doing nothing and enjoying making it last the whole day than the usual Lindisfarne song, but it’s not up to the band’s own material throughout this album – the awfully cheesy 1930s in Pan Alley –style ending to this song says it all (just picture this ending tacked onto ‘Lady Eleanor’ or even ‘Fog On The Tyne’ – absolutely no way that would work and yet it seems to fit here). Still, at least it’s fun to hear Lindisfarne sing about Midland town Leicester in Geordie accents!
At last, the album moves up a gear for ‘January Song’, one of Hully’s best and deepest songs of the era. If the opening sounds familiar, that’s because the band will recycle it for the song’s polar opposite ‘Fog On The Tyne’ later on. ‘January Song’ is, though, more of a sister to ‘Winter Song’ from the first album, an observational piece about the less fortunate homeless people Hull saw all around him – and no doubt identified with after several years struggling for success. I can just picture him coming up with this song after finally making it with Lindisfarne, already aware that success is a flimsy, transitory passing thing, flitting through his life ‘like the colours in a January sky’. That title phrase is one of Hully’s career best images, summing up time passing in an easily recognisable idea that can be understood by all and the fact that the cold, wintry present can always make way for better times ahead (a thought that may well have been inspired by the freezing cold photo-shoot on the Holy island of Lindisfarne for the cover shoot!) In fact many of Hull’s best and most sympathetic lines are here, from the man whose ‘life is passing by behind his tired eyes’ and the classic line that ‘love is such a small word for something that is so vast – but in it lies the future, the present and the past’. Some fans don’t like this track – allegedly there used to be a bit of a sigh going up when the band struck up this mournful song’s opening riff, which is why Lindisfarne chose to tease the band by tacking it onto the superficial and silly ‘Fog On The Tyne’ – but like Hull’s beloved late-period Beatles albums, the album wouldn’t work anything like as well without this ‘conscience’ track to put the others into context.
The one fault with this recording is that, even more than the others on this album, the arrangement the band give seems to be lacking something. While Hull’s lead is sumptuous and a near career best– a magnificent mixture of pride, pain, empathy and optimism, switching gears line by lien throughout – the rest of the band don’t follow his lead and there’s a great big hole in the middle of the sound they can’t fill no matter how hard they try. More than any other song on this album, I so wish Lindisfarne had gone back to working with John Anthony, whose ragged but tight and busy approach would have suited this song down to the ground. After so many lines of isolation and misery, this song needs a big bravado ending – a common Hull writing trick best heard on ‘Nicely’s ‘We Can Swing Together’ – but here, the ending lines ‘you need me need you need him need everyone’ sound more like a threat than a validification of brotherly love. For the second time in a row, dig out the ‘Magic In The air’ live version if you want to hear this song at it’s best, where it all but brings the house down. Full marks for effort, though – this is a sterling, important song full of wonderful imagery and tells a huge story in just a few simple lines without ever talking down to its audience.
‘Peter Brophy Don’t Care’ is the other side of Alan Hull’s writing style. The confused, scattered storytelling in this song is clearly inspired by Hull’s favourite painter, the surrealist Magritte (the song’s chorus line ‘your nose is in your pipe and you don’t care’ is a direct steal from the painter’s ‘La Lampe Philosophique’, a painting Hull will use for the cover of his first solo album ‘Pipedream’) and mixes various seemingly unconnected lines with a repeated adamant chorus of ‘you don’t care!’ Like many a Hull song, ‘Peter Brophy’ is the little man taking on the big man, despairing at the long list of rules and regulations written to benefit the rich and squash the poor who ‘prance and dance and sing’ about helping but at the end of the day does not care for anything but their bank balance and uses its list of strange, obscure lines in the song because they make just about as much sense as the arguments from the rich and greedy. There’s some debate about who Peter Brophy is, but I think he’s the same town and city development planner we hear in the next song, the man who helped tear down all the old and important buildings in Newcastle to make way for some modern concrete monstrosity. Hull’s scathing lyric is made all the harsher for the stark, stream-of-consciousness lyric, with the narrator turning the villain into a Dickensian miser, walking round in tattered tweeds as a petty sop to how the poor think and with a ‘monocled eye’ watching everything – but not understanding because he has no need to care what his ‘people’ think. Hull ends up drifting away from his original game-plan for the last verse which is a shame – the lines about ‘the vicar’s hair falling out’ and ‘buns...having fun with the sausage rolls’ is a surrealist image too far, but he excels himself with the pained conclusion, which drops all pretence at fun in the song and simply snarls ‘You don’t care! You Don’t Care!!’ YOU DON’T CARE!!!’ over and over. One of the most startling endings to any song in the Lindisfarne canon, this is Hull at his best, attacking his prey in the same obtuse, convoluted way they attack people like him and those around him. I don’t know if the band ever actually came up with a full band arrangement for this song, but the use of just Hull and his acoustic guitar for this track is spot on and one of producer Bob Johnstone’s best decisions for this album. Brave, bold and as deep as you want to make it, Peter Brophy might not care but Alan Hull proves once and for all that he is the voice of the people and that he does nothing else but care. An extraordinary track.
‘City Songs’ is something of a one-two punch at the start of the album’s second side. This track does have a full band accompaniment, but I have to say it sounds better as another stark acoustic ballad (as best heard on the posthumous Hull release of BBC sessions ‘When The War Is Over’) The lines are classic Hull, though, beginning with the classic ‘city streets I see your lies, I will not play your game’ which is one of the writer’s biggest calls to arms that all of us who’ve ever wished for a quieter, less stressful way of life at any time will relate to. The rest of a song is a fill-in for that line but still hits home more often than not, with a tale about how our old ‘ghosts’ from our past scratch their heads over why anyone would want to live in the industrialised age which seems far more complex and difficult than anything they experienced. It also seems less ‘real’ to the narrator, telling us that city lights don’t shine like country ones – they ‘glare’ and in a classic rhyming couplet that the city music doesn’t speak ‘it swears’.
Hull, of course, spent most of his early life in the very urban city of Newcastle, but his childhood holidays in rural Ireland – surrounded by nothing but fields and cows – had a big effect on him and his songwriting (he’ll go on to be Ireland’s greatest musician champion come the troubles of 1972). I suspect, though, that this song is also partly an early grumpy song about the quite ridiculous Lindisfarne touring schedule that saw the band playing all round the country non-stop for a period of months – just listen to the heartfelt way a weary Hull sings the line ‘I’ve spent too long travelling on your train!’ You could also see this song as an early ecological protest song – one of several in 1971 when the genre seemed to grow suddenly – telling us how we’ve lost our way and become too obsessed with the minutiae and detail and lost sight of humanity. In Hull’s own words the band ‘with pickaxes not silver spoons in our mouths – and we took great delight in spitting them out at all the London bands’. This song’s lyrics are classic Hull, but the tune isn’t as strong as on the last track and again the band’s performance is lacking something. Once more, full marks for trying, however.
‘Passing Ghosts’ is nothing like as famous as the last two tracks among Lindisfans – its the only track from this album not to make any of the various Lindisfarne compilations or live albums over the years – but its one of my favourites on the album. Nowhere, for example, is there a better display of Lindisfarne’s famous sweet-and-sour harmonies, with Cowe’s, Hull’s and Jacka’s vocals blowing hot and cold throughout this cold of the passing of time and inevitability of death. Not that this is a dark song, despite the rather solemn tune, because Hull’s latest list of lyrics are decidedly playful, telling us a soap-like tale of ‘him sleeping with her sleeping with you’ and people needlessly discussing the weather, when all the time the narrator knows all this worrying its futile and pointless when human beings spend such a short time on this planet. Even when the song tries to get dark and dangerous with a mention of the narrator’s coffin, Hull turns the suddenly dark sounding track around and comments how his death will mean he doesn’t have to listen to talk about the weather anymore! Dark and light, simple and complex, this song is another one that really benefits from the simple performance its given here which can be taken whichever way the listener wishes. Like many a song on this album, this track is a close cousin of ‘Alan Down The River With Flowers’ , a track that’s delightful and hopeful when the narrator is amongst nature and following ‘the plane’ he feels he’s meant to – and rapidly becomes a nightmare scenario when other humans break into this thoughts. A pretty song with a lovely, lilting tune ‘Passing Ghosts’ should be better remembered than it is.
‘Train In G Major’ sounds like its going to be another one of these surreal songs on the album’s second side, but its actually quite a simple blues from Rod Clements looking for an interesting title to give it. This is the second of three songs to date back long before the band was formed and is quite affecting, even though it covers pretty much the same ground as most other blues songs. The song is lifted here by the best group performance on the record, though, especially Jacka’s gravelly lead and impressive harmonica playing, matched against some bluesy piano from Cowe and some more great band harmonies. The song appears to be a simple love song until you scratch a bit closer and realised this is the narrator gazing at the woman opposite him in the carriage, plotting out an affair and a secret life for the two of them before he’s even said hello. This sort of song has been done many times – 10cc even spoof the genre with their song ‘Shock On The Tube’ from ‘Bloody Tourists’ – but it works well here, mainly because the narrator is nicer than the usual class of blustering macho men, ending the song with the affecting line ‘you can leave me when you want to, if you just let men know what for!’ Not the greatest song Clements ever wrote – and its obvious compared to his others that it’s an early song – but nevertheless the strong performance here transcends any faults in the composition. Had the rest of the album sounded like this track, ‘Fog On The Tyne’ could have been a masterpiece.
‘Fog On The Tyne’ itself is a curious song, a one off novelty that was a big and welcome hit for them at the time and yet, sadly, seems to have overshadowed every other great song they’ve written. Unbelievably, the band’s biggest ever song was written several years before the album and was a ‘joke’ song Hull used to end his sets with during his solo days when he feared his songs were getting too ‘heavy’. The band revived it during the incident with ‘January Song’ when the band feared they too were getting too heavy – even giving it the same intro so they could have a laugh at themselves and their audience’s expectations. Neither Hull nor the rest of the band ever thought this song would become the one to make it truly big and its nothing like any other Lindisfarne track. The nadir of the band’s career will come when they try to re-record a Geordie rap version with footballer Paul Gascoigne (!), but heard here, fresh, for the first time in a while it works quite well. The song never pretends its anything but a comedy record, with some typically witty Hull wordplay about getting together with friends and enjoying each other’s company, so over-the-top but still like his normal style most lines are genuinely funny, but there’s some depth here too - ullHuHull Hull really had been unemployed for years when he wrote this song and you can hear his obvious delight in simply being in Newcastle on a foggy day, with nothing else to keep him going but his optimism. Where this song works is by giving us all hope that our futures will improve – and even if they don’t we’ll still get to enjoy what we have left, sleazy sausage rolls and all. The band perform this song well, too; straight for the most part until the obvious chuckle in Hull’s voice during the last verse and it’s nice to see Cowe getting his turn in the spotlight alongside Jacka and Hull. A fine song for a one-off – but ‘Fog On the Tyne’ is still quite an oddity when compared to Lindisfarne’s other songs and is one of those songs you’re always being told you either love or hate (not for the first time on this list, my feelings are somewhere in the middle!)
‘Fog On The Tyne’ the album is a bit like ‘Fog On The Tyne’ the record – a big hit and million seller that’s still nothing like as loved as its lesser-selling predecessor ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ and for the most part with sonics and arrangements as murky as the foggiest day in Newcastle. By rights, this album should simply have been a stepping stone for the big time, with the band gaining a bigger following and two more successful singles under their belts ready for a much more band-led third record that would have taken the world by storm. Alas it never quite happened that way, in part thanks to the trials and tribulations and divisions in making this record and the cost in the long-run rather outdid any gain the band made in the short-term. And yet it was a big album at the time (the band were even mobbed – twice according to drummer Ray Laidlaw, although ‘the second time we got mobbed it was by mistake – they thought we were somebody else...’; very Lindisfarne that) and Lindisfarne really do deserve their place amongst the biggest sellers of the early 70s. Not all of ‘Fog On The Tyne’ is top-notch and only that glorious run of songs from ‘January Song’ through to ‘Passing Ghosts’ is up to the ridiculously high standards set by ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ – but ‘Fog On The Tyne’ is still an excellent album and its easy to see why it was the well loved, highly regarded and best-selling album it was in 1971. Now if only it could become one of the best loved, highest regarded and best-selling albums of 2011, I’ll be happy, because we still desperately need bands like this one, full of cracking songs full of brotherly love that still it like it is. Or as the band once put it on a live album, you need me need you need him need Lindisfarne.