Monday, 2 November 2015
Lindisfarne "Back and Fourth" (1978)
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Lindisfarne "Back and Fourth" (1978)
Juke Box Gypsy/Warm Feeling/Woman/Only Alone/Run For Home//King's Cross Blues/Get Wise/You and Me/Marshall Riley's Army/Angels At Eleven/Make Me Want To Stay
In October '15 they marched for hours, demanding the Conservatives come out of power, searching for some kind of salvation, with heads held low 'cause no one wanted to know, still they tried to turn around the nation, those who went to work are still denied, while those who can't are being deprived and IDS goes after both like an overgrown bully, protected by his holiness David Cameron in his infinite Conservative wisdom, how it would have saddened and maddened our great leader Alan Hully, and the yes men and the press men came down to London town, with their scathing reports already pre-written to the letter, some forty years since Lindisfarne first march passed you're still down there if you're working class, will things ever really get better? March on Corbyn's army, marching for your rights you've surely earned them...
Though Lindisfarne tried hard to eradicate everything they had once stood for on their reunion album in favour of becoming a professional marketable album, 'Marshall Riley's Army' is proof that while you can take the band out of Tyneside you can't take the Tyneside out of the band. And why would you want to? 'Back and Fourth's most memorable image, one of the greatest songs in the great Alan Hull catalogue, is what Lindisfarne should have always been about, giving a voice to unemployed Northerners as the Thatcher years start in earnest. A history lesson in hopelessness, recounting the incredible effort of the 200 man who took part in the 'Jarrow Marches' of 1936 when a Tyneside shipbuilders was shut leading to the loss of thousands of jobs, it turns the apparent 'failure' of the men who couldn't even get Parliament to timetable a motion to discuss the closure into a glorious moment of triumph. Though the men of Jarrow might have failed in their short-term aims, public sympathy and pressure on the Governments of the day did lead to change - eventually, sort of - and remain a testament to the power of the people, even when nobody seems to be listening to them. The 200 men (and one woman, the town's female MP Ellen Wilkinson) live on as local folk-heroes, urging men like Alan Hull to believe they're better than the powers of the day allow them to be. Though the song was about an event that had happened forty-two years in the past and is now heard on a recorded thirty-seven years ago, it's a typical timeless Lindisfarne track that gets more and more prescient with every year of the modern age (the main complaint, along with the closure of key industries, was that employees were tied to employers under year contracts where they got paid by the amount of work they did - which was all very well when there was work - but more often than not after the Great Depression there wasn't; does this sound familiar as zero-hour contracts to you?!) Lindisfarne's first career had always been spent speaking their audience's language and this gorgeous under-rated triumph is proof of why Lindisfarne, more perhaps than any other group, are 'the people's band'. For a glorious three minutes, it's as if the six-year gap between Lindisfarne albums 'proper' had never taken place and that Lindisfarne are still the band they always were before fame and riches and tax and politics and back-breaking tours and musical differences and creative differences and personal differences and I-love-you-so-much-I-hate-you differences all got in the way and Lindisfarne's first career was cut short.
I mention all this here because the vast majority of 'Back and Fourth' isn't an album with much of a link to the past at all. It's as if Hull had already managed to capture so much of the Lindisfarne spirit and purpose in this one song that he felt that he didn't need to bother with the rest of this over-slick over-produced album of pop songs and ballads. Sadly thanks to the success of runaway single success 'Run For Home' (an admittedly truly gorgeous over-slick over-produced pop song that rightly became well-loved by fans without ever quite being 'Lindisfarny' enough) this band will be doing more dancing than marching in the years to come, politics taking second place to pop. Perhaps because of these two songs (and a couple of unsung Ray Jackson classics) 'Back and Fourth' has enjoyed a certain respect and admiration amongst the Lindisfarne community that I've never quite understood - especially compared to the muted response to superior sequels 'The News' (patchy but often powerful) and 'Sleepless Nights' (impressively eclectic and consistent) and what the band were doing in between (Hull's solo records, the 'Lindisfarne Mark II' albums with a new line-up and Jack The Lad are all ridiculously under-rated and deserve respect far more than this relative sell-out). It's as if the Lindisfanbase got together and said 'let's all like this record and buy it in case the band go again' and the sense of overwhelming joy at having the band back at all blinded people to the fact that, actually, this didn't sound much like Lindisfarne. For once I'm with the more scathing reviewers who wrote this off as a 'nothing' album - given the talent that went into making it (not just Hull but one of the world's best vocalists in Jacka, the ever under-rated guitarist Si, emotional heartbeat and drummer Ray and the ridiculously talented Rod, who doesn't even get a song on this album!) and the six long years of wondering what a Lindisfarne reunion might sound like, it is a bit of a nothing album. I fear that a lot of the Lindisfarne community won't go with me on this, but Hull always taught me to tell the truth and I respect him and his colleagues too much to lie, so here's the sorry truth: 'Back and Fourth' isn't actually much good. If you don't already own them buy 'Nicely Out Of Tune' or 'Fog On The Tyne' or 'Dingly Dell' or 'It's Jack The Lad' or 'Pipedream' or 'Happy Daze' or 'Sleepless Nights' or more or less any other Lindisfarne album before you get down to this one. And yet for three minutes I'm on the march from Jarrow with one of the most powerful voices in music alongside me (Hull's spirit rising from the dead twenty years on every time I hear him sing like he means it!) and it sounds so good I don't know how I can give this album anything less than five stars, while that run for home is a rather special journey however warm and cuddly and strangely un-Lindisfarne like it may sound. Can you love an album for two songs even if the rest is disaster? That's the dilemma I face in this review and a debate I keep returning to, back and forth as it were.
The Lindisfarne reunion had been on the cards for a couple of years. Everyone was a 'free agent' by 1976 except Ray Laidlaw (still a member of Jack The Lad) and the five original members had all crossed paths down the years - four of them in Jack The Lad and a fair bit of cross-pollination between the different bands on Hully's solo albums. The band first got together again for a one-off gig performed at the band's old stomping ground Newcastle City Hall on Christmas Eve 1976. The gig went surprisingly well so they tries it again, with a four night run of dates around Christmas 1977 and recorded for posterity as the live album 'Magic In The Air', a record which made it to the shops more or less concurrently with 'Back and Fourth', the backwards looking soulful and often messy ying to this album's over-polished yang. Talk naturally turned to making the reunion more permanent - but at first none of the band wanted to know, a sarcastic Alan Hull telling the press 'it would be like Ena Sharples returning to Coronation Street after five years in repertory'. Though the press didn't quite believe it, the reunion seemed to indeed be a one-off, with Hull going back to working with his all-too-short lived band Radiator and Jack signing up for a new one by becoming the vocalist in 'Harcourt's Heroes' with various members of the Mark II band. Tellingly, Jacka told reporters a reunion would be 'pointless' for more than a Christmas get-together because 'we're not able to produce the sort of things we used to do'. Jacka presumably meant that the rest of the band had moved on - that their five different and contrasting differences meant they could no longer be 'Lindisfarne' except in memory performing old songs. Putting their different experiences together and returning to the sound of their 'childhood' in their middle age was clearly a worry for them and as far as the fanbase was concerned there was nothing else to do except book early for the 1978 festive gigs to avoid the rush.
So what then changed in January 1978, when the band tentatively met up to record two new songs in absolute secret at 'Surrey Sound' to see what they sounded like? I'd like to think that it was the new found camaraderie found on stage at those sessions and the discovery that despite lengthy rehearsals and four lengthy concerts together the band had somehow managed to come out of the experience as friends still. I fear, too, that a sense of disappointment over where all five careers had started to go with fear of what might happen next (with no new Lindisfarne product out at all in 1977: Radiator's record was delayed until after this one was out in the shops, Harcourt's Heroes never really got going, Jack The Lad were still touring but without a record contract, Si's 7:84 Theatre Group were having a long holiday and even Rod's impressive run of session credits was drying up) and the lure of money played it's part. Whatever the cause, unlike the Corrie harridan in a hair-net Hull had once compared them to, the band really were back after six years away - but with the sort of makeover that was as unthinkable as it would have been to see Ena Sharples made to look young and sexy, her hairnets and curlers replaced by disco boots and mid-70s dry ice. At least Lindisfarne kept to their word about not being a nostalgia act, more keen about sounding like all the new kids on the block who'd arrived in the interim. The first two songs completed for the album, the anonymous ballad 'Woman' and the ridiculous partying song 'Juke Box Gypsy' (oddly both released as singles, despite the clumsy sexual imagery in the latter song that skirted with a radio ban) rather dictate where the rest of the album follows and instead of the imagery of Newcastle (Tyneside fogs and meet-ups on street corners) was now sung with the generic everyplace feel of The Bee Gees or The Eagles. Sensibly the band decided to avoid the mistakes made on difficult third album 'Dingly Dell' early on, bringing in an outside producer in Gus Dudgeon who had long admired the band (and was at the time best known for his work with Elton John) and choosing the cover image early - a simple shot of Scotland's Forth Bridge that looked strangely un-foggy, a statement to those who knew both areas well enough to know that the band had 'travelled down the road a bit since their last record (as well as offering a typical excruciating pun on this being the band's 'fourth/forth' record, a numbering system which for the first time suggested the 'Mark II' albums weren't considered 'proper').
At first 'Back and Fourth' was a democratic process with lots of outside material: Si recorded two songs to go alongside the first published compositions by Jacka and his old/new writing partner Charlie Harcourt from the 'Mark II' line-up and a suddenly prolific Hull, quite likely chosen from a much larger pile of other songs by the pair vaguely intended for the 'Harcourt Heroes' album that never happened. Oddly Rod didn't provide any material for the album, despite the five year gap since his last record, one of the reasons this album sadly sounds as uneven as it does (thankfully Clements will be back writing for the next record and all the ones to follow). The recording sessions took much longer than the band had ever contemplated in the past - a combination of wanting to do things 'better' this time around and Dudgeon's belief in getting sonically perfect takes (Laidlaw remembers the sessions as lengthy days of tuning and testing drums, with the occasional performances slotted in between). Once again 'Back and Fourth' bucks expectations: hearing bits and pieces about this album I assumed it was full of tears and tantrums, especially when Si's songs 'mysteriously' ended up as B-sides or left in the vaults, Jacka's songs got cut right down and Hull suddenly ended up with more songs than he ever had on a Lindisfarne album tied with debut 'Nicely Out Of Tune'. However most of the band seem to look back on this record fondly, remembering a sense of solidarity and purpose that would have impressed even Marshall Riley and recorded in an air of politeness, consideration and friendship (the band will sadly fall into old ways during the making of the next two). Even the lengthy recording process seems to have been considered 'interesting' and the band seem more impressed with the fact they ended up sounding like another band entirely, rather than disappointed.
Lindisfarne continued to keep the sessions quiet though, only negotiating a record contract with new label Mercury when they were nearing completion and even the band's biggest fans knew nothing about the reunion until 'Run For Home' was in the shops in April (the first promotion literally plastered with the word 'out tomorrow'. A lot was riding on the single and you get the sense that had the release bombed the album might not have followed - that certainly seems to have been the plan at the start of the sessions when the band were nervous about how their new image might be taken. However the song itself was so strong that it survived all obstacles, including the lack of promotion and the fact that in the few months since the start of the sessions the music world had moved on, with punk and new wave acts making the professional prog-rock band Lindisfarne longed to be far more old hat than the amazing amateurs the band had once been. Ironically enough an album like 'Nicely Out Of Tune' (which manages to be one of the richest of albums, despite sometimes as if it was made for the shoe-string budget it was) or the playful working class of 'Fog On The Tyne' would have been perfect for the times: mature sophisticated and slightly-wet-behind-the-ears songs like 'Woman' and patronising songs like 'Juke Box Gypsy' clearly weren't. However 'Run For Home' is one of those timeless songs that sounds 'right' in any era and its success has much to answer for in how the finishing touches shaped the rest of the album, which suddenly became heavy on similar Hull ballads with similar melody lines (though neither of the closing songs, 'Angels At Eleven' and a re-recorded 'Make Me Want To Stay' from the Radiator album come close - Si's more playful acerbic songs being much more 'Lindisfarne'). Astonishingly Hull hadn't rated one of his most popular songs that highly at all; unlike most songwriters (certainly AAA ones) Hull was always keen to show off his works-in-progress and often had his notebook of works-in-progress with him at the studio. Dudgeon was flicking through it one day during a lull in sessions when he said the title sounded nice and asked how it went: Si and Jacka, arriving right on cue, came in in time to hear the first chorus and joined in the second time round, instantly turning the song from unfinished ditty into powerful musical statement. It is perhaps significant that, like Hull's 'other' instantly identifiable classic, 'Run For Home' had been written in a few minutes rather than several agonising weeks and had been instantly hailed as a classic even while its author considered it unfinished and average.
It's a rare moment of looking back on an album that seems all too keen to run away, even if it trips over its feet on doing so. Lindisfarne were clearly anxious about sounding past-it and with a producer who for the first time was keen to work with the band and push them to the limits throw everything at this album. Sometimes that 'extra' sound, with a polish that would have sounded 'wrong' on any earlier Lindisfarne record, comes up trumps: though the bitter 'Get Wise' is a slight song by Hull's standards it does at least sound great and Jacka's two similarly cute-but-conservative songs (the lovely ballad 'Warm Feeling' and the fun congestion moan 'King's Cross Blues') come out sounding a lot better than they read as lyrics. The band also came up trumps with 'Marshall Riley's Army', one last great return to their signature sound which comes over like a cross between 'We Can Swing Together' and 'Meet Me On The Corner'. Alas the rest of the album isn't so lucky: by trying so hard to be something else Lindisfarne spend far too much of this record forgetting who they were, accidentally throwing out the bairns with the bathwater. At times it almost sounds as if the band are ashamed of who they were, toning down their Geordie accents for a more Transatlantic voice and turning that wonderfully ramshackle mule of a rhythm section, always trying to kick new life into the tracks, into a much safer but far duller ride. Only the band's distinctive sweet 'n' sour harmonies survive and even they 're only used sparingly (not entirely co-incidentally they're best heard on the album's three best songs: 'Riley' 'Run' and 'Warm Feeling', while the last two songs on the album sound suspiciously like solo Alan Hull recordings). Lindisfarne at their best were Marshall Riley's Army writ large, witty intelligent working class heroes fighting for their rights and refusing to dress up and play the games of their posher cousins, more than prepared to walk the 287 miles to freedom if the cause demanded it, urging the rest of the world to throw in their lot and come follow if they believed the same. This lot only sparingly sound like they believe in anything except getting 'hits' and though they talk about how 'maybe one day they'll build us a statue' in 'You and Me', significantly there's no reason given for why that might be; it's only through one great moment of inspiration that they got that 'hit' at all. Legend has it that Lindisfarne split in 1972 because they were five so very different people who hadn't even been in the same band that long before success came a-calling and who all had five different ways of trying to pull the band the way they wanted; 'Back and Fourth' sounds, not unexpectedly, like a school reunion - the sound of a band who love each other but are so busy being polite to each other so as not to press each other's buttons and set each other off that they've forgotten why they were friends in the first place. Much better is to follow in terms of the music, even if in sales terms this is, amazingly enough, the peak.
'Juke Box Gypsy' is a rather odd song. The original Lindisfarne had been many things but they had never been 'sexy' before (well, maybe 'Lady Eleanor' but that's a meeting of souls more than bodies). It's not really a sound that suits them. Alan Hull, who wrote the song, can't decide whether he wants to sing the song straight or deliver it as one of his sarcastic asides and alternates between the two extremes throughout the song. Thankfully the song gets better when Jacka and Si slide in alongside him, with as great a vocal sound as Lindisfarne have ever had and twin solos for Jacka's earthy harmonica and Si's earthier guitar are always good to hear. But what are those words? 'One injection and it feels alright - one more poke and you can do it all night...pull your dress up high!' Lindisfarne are getting a bit long in for tooth for such a childish, juvenile song and usually have more respect for their 'characters' than turning them into sex-objects (though the setting is never referred to, it's either a strip joint or a wilder party than any I was ever invited to and things get out of control, fast! It's the complete opposite of 'Lady Eleanor', for instance, where the female is most definitely in charge). The song would have been more palatable if Lindisfarne had never pretended the song was anything more and treated it as a rowdy chaotic rocker the way they had 'Jackhammer Blues' and 'Knacker's Yard Blues', so over-exaggerated we know its partly meant as a laff. But this one is built up with a very adult sounding backing track, where everything is organised and 'proper' and the production loses even the adrenalin rush of the words, the only thing really going for it. Had it not been for the vocals and a fair melody (nicely enhanced with a mandolin lick rare for this album) this could have been the worst Lindisfarne song of all - even so its not exactly a classic. Released as the album's second single after 'Run For Home', when just about anything would have sold well, it stumbled to #56 in the UK charts which kinds of says it all. The release also lead to one of the band's weirder TV appearances where they tried to keep a straight face singing this track on teatime family show Top Of The Pops and in which faced with a crowd of impressionable pre-teens they look as if they're wishing they'd released something, anything else as the single from the album (the track was apparently picked by default as the single choice the band objected to least - their other intentions 'Woman' and 'Warm Feeling' would have probably fared slightly better).
Talking of which, Jacka and Charlie's warm golden glow of a song 'Warm Feeling' is up next and sums up the new more-polished Eagles-style of Lindisfarne at their peak. Though in truth this isn't much of a song either (you could sum up the song with the line 'I've never met anyone like her before' and both verse and chorus seem to be repeated lots) Jacka conjures up such a convincing feeling of intimacy and love that this doesn't really matter. 'Warm Feeling' is a real Jacka tour de force, with one of his best vocals and some lovely harmonica and mandolin playing - in fact none of the rest of the band turns up at all for the opening minute or so. Thankfully the big 'push' when the band all fall in together is well handled and the harmonies are exquisite, perfectly judged on the lines about the couple 'feeling the harmony grow'. There's a nice middle eight too which drops a key but increases the intensity while a mock Beach Boys style backing both laugh and celebrate how 'easy' this relationship suddenly feels. Fittingly for a song about love that lasts even while out of sight, the tune is memorable enough to stay in the memory long too - until 'Run For Home' comes along to steal its thunder you probably won't notice the other, lesser melodies that come immediately afterwards. It's the song's lyrics that are the weak link: the opening verse alone rhymes 'glow 'show' 'grow' and 'ago' - not the most inspired of choices - before going back to 'glow' once more, while the chorus line 'feeling the harmony grow' doesn't actually rhyme with anything. However the song is still a good bordering on great one as the words still successfully convey the surprise and thrill of being in a love where things are 'easy' for once and Jacka's delivery extracts the maximum meaning from his words. If Hull wasn't worried about the new writing competition that had suddenly arrived, he should have been: it's a tragedy that such a talented writing partnership was rather snuffed out after this, with only three more songs ever credited to the pair. On the evidence of this track alone it was a writing team that could have run and run, adding a simplicity and romance to go alongside Rod and Alan's more complex works that could have made a lovely contrast.
Though Jacka gets to sing it, 'Woman' is a Hull song that suggests the competition may have been getting to him a bit. A curiously lifeless song, quite any of Hull's usually complex romantic works it comes over as a cross between The Eagles again and Bread, born for top forty radio but disposable and forgettable - offensive in its very inoffensiveness given what Lindisfarne usually stood for. At least the melody is a good one, with a laidback groove that suddenly shifts into a new gear on the chorus and with lots of space for Jacka's typically spot-on harmonica and a less-typically overblown string arrangement. The lyrics are more of a list, really, with Hull marvelling at how females can be everything in turn: 'so strong, so weak...so terrifyingly unique'. The problem is whether Hull is addressing a whole gender or someone specific and the lyrics keep switching between the two: it is, for example, daft to sing about 51% of the world's population as 'terrifyingly unique'. Things make more sense by the last verse when Hull writes from a more personal angle, marvelling again that a 'waster like me' ended up with 'a woman like you', which is surely reference to his marriage to first wife Pat, still going strong over a decade after the pair's wedding, back at a time when Hull had no money and little prospects. Had Hull concentrated more on this angle 'Woman' could have been a charming little song, but the track seems too nervous to explore the idea of a particular 'woman', singular, in favour of the more marketable 'women', plural, and the song just turns into the dreks of so many insincere late 70s prog songs punk was put on the Earth to destroy. The song isn't helped by a Jacka performance that's professional but lifeless, the greatest Geordie vocalist alongside Mark Knopfler and Eric Burdon sounding distinctly American in parts of his delivery and a lack of those jaw-dropping harmonies. Funnily enough Hull's hero John Lennon wrote his own song titled 'Woman' very soon after this album's release, with a similar mood and feel all round. Though it seems unlikely he'd have heard this record (which flopped badly in the States) 'Run For Home' was a big hit and may have piques his interest (Lennon remained a big music fan even in his house-husband years and got his assistants to buy heaps of records from shops across New York, including one of the biggest collection of Beatle bootlegs in the business, so it's not impossible; the two bands never crossed paths as such, although George Harrison was working on 'All Things Must Pass' in the next door studio to Lindisfarne when they were making their debut record 'Nicely Out Of Tune' and, ever competitive, Lennon would have been keenly aware of the 1971 publicity campaign calling Lindisfarne 'The New Beatles').
Jacka and Hully overlap vocals son the Beatley 'Only Alone', which comes across as one of those retro songs Hull wrote within the space of about five minutes for the 'Mark II' albums, lighter and simpler than normal and seemingly padding things out the simplest way between the moment when inspiration struck (the chorus is strong, the middle eight interesting, the verse less so). Re-reading the lyrics I can't tell if this song about isolation is a celebration or a denial: the narrator refuses to believe that he's lonely when there's so much to do - friends on the telephone to ring, radio programmes to listen to, books to read; there's a whole world at the narrator's fingertips and he's going to use his 'alone' time to good measure, with Hull sounding as if he's over-enjoyed at the thought. Except the never does a thing except tell us what he might do: the whole song is an exercise in procrastination which sounds like the narrator door-stopping a friend who came round or perhaps an exiting girlfriend 'no I'm fine there's so much to do honest..I'm going to have such a good time the minute you go out that door just you watch me...you can stay a bit longer though, right?' There's also the line that 'in a week or two things are going to turn out fine', which without actually saying so suggests they aren't right now (has the narrator just split up with a long term partner? Is that why the person he's talking to has called round, to check he's alright?) The song even ends with three straight repeats of the chorus and as so often happens in AAA songs the more you repeat something with conviction, the less sure you actually sound. There's no hint of anything untoward in Jacka or Hully's delivery, though, which is smiley and upbeat and the 'cowbell' which is such a Beatles short-hand (despite the fabs only using it three or four times on record) recalls happy days of Merseybeat and 'yeah yeah yeahs'. An odd song, with a melody line that seems to run out of steam at the end of each verse ('In the end...friend...we're all on our own') and which might have benefitted from more Lindisfarne harmonies instead of featuring so many Hulls and Jackas at once (and when the harmonies sweep in are they celebrating or mocking the narrator's isolation?)
Side one ends with by far the album's best known track 'Run For Home'. On the one hand it's easy to see why this song became such a success - it's a beautiful song with a gorgeous melody that's fragile and poignant, slowly unfolding like a flower as the narrator takes in the sheer beauty of being back in the neighbourhood of home again. A re-write of Simon and Garfunkel's 'Homeward Bound' of sorts, it's a theme most of the band's audience would have identified with and it's easy to picture Hull arriving home in Newcastle from a busy tour scribbling these words in the back of a plane/train/automobile as the distance between him and his family gets shorter. Though the song could have become another 'Woman' style song so universal it has nothing to say, Hull cleverly injects some real feeling into his words, replaying in his head all the things that have happened since last time he was in town, good and bad. Though the song wasn't written for the Lindisfarne reunion, it also makes for a rather neat commentary on it: since 'Dingly Dell' the band too have 'made some mistakes, had their share of their breaks' with Hull breaking off from his own little to world to comment 'see the boys on the make - and on the bum!' Throw in a few lyrics to going mad on a full moon and 'behaving like a buffoon' and it almost sounds like an apology for what happened back in the day, and yet despite the song's humility and sighing melody, the gloriousness of the song is that there's no apology about any of it: life is what happened. It could have gone a different way, but the narrator is who he is and is proud of it, with the hint that the listener should be proud of who they are too. Wrapped in some gorgeous Lindisfarne harmonies, especially strong on the a capella section when the rest of the song drops out and the band just revel in the golden chorus for a wee while longer before the horrors of the real world kick in, 'Run For Home' was a more or less guaranteed seller from the day it was recorded and enough reason alone for doing the Lindisfarne reunion, a song where bygones are bygones and the band are back on track yet somehow updated too. Clearly it's a great song - and yet I'm not sure if I agree with most reviewers that it's the 'finest' thing Hully ever made. Though there's an element of autobiography in the song's tale of things going wrong and right there's never a sense that the band are 'living' this song and can take it on and off like a coat, the way they do with 'Fog On The Tyne' and 'Meet Me On The Corner'. Even the Elizabethan 'Lady Eleanor' is an acting job that sounds more 'real' than this one. The band have spent so long worrying about appealing to everybody that they've forgotten the elements that already made Lindisfarne appeal to everyone back in the day. An over-busy string arrangement doesn't help, distracting rather than enhancing as it merrily dances in the background, while if I'd been producing I'd have got Hull to go for just one more vocal take - he's playing with this song, not living it. Though I'm glad that a good song got the sales it deserved and I can understand why this track became a special song for so many, it will never have the same intense feelings for me that the other earlier Lindisfarne classics did. There are, you see, other songs that do what 'Run For Home' does (though few do it with quite so much class) - there is no other song in the universe that does what 'Lady Eleanor' 'Meet Me On The Corner' 'Fog On The Tyne' or dozens of others Lindisfarne classics do.
One of the album's most overlooked songs is Jacka and Charlie's second appearance on 'King's Cross Blues'. More 'alive' and immediate than the rest of the album, with less of a cluttered production, it's another simple average song made great thanks to the best performance on the album. In a more earthy retort to 'Run For Home', Jacka is trying to head out on a long commute South, a new dad 'trying to find work to feed the extra mouth' and finding himself in a bit of a culture shock, suddenly realising what a long way away from home he is. However it's not just a geographical thing: sitting back to back with well-dressed 9-5 commuters who've been doing this sort of thing all their lives, Jacka's narrator is struck by how different his wayward rock and roll lifestyle is (they're all wide awake - but 'I don't even function till at least a quarter to three'). Though exact dates are unknown, it's possible that Jacka started his long association with the Guinness company around this time, a secondary interest than earned more money than he ever got from Lindisfarne and eventually took priority - leading to his 'ousting' from the band around 1990. Jacka certainly sounds as if he's trying to find an alternate way of living and till the Lindisfarne reunion was finding it particularly hard to make a living (with an intended solo album aborted by the record label before a note was made - Jacka later took them to court - and joining Jack The Lad just as they were imploding, Jacka's luck just wasn't in since the 'Mark II' band had split up). Though much of the song basically adds up to moaning about a long commute, there is a clever metaphor here, with the closer the narrator gets to his destination the more he realises just how far away from his goals he is and getting more and more lost the closer he gets to King's Cross. Part nightmare, part party, the urgent beat of 'King's Cross Blues' relentlessly drives the song forward out of control with Jacka's harmonica, Si's grungy guitar, Rod's busy bass and Ray's clattering drums making a good double of train noises. There are better 'train' songs out there, but not many: this is a fine, fun song that's well performed with the band sounding as if they're all in the same room for a change and is easily the best rocker on an album dominated by ballads.
Hull starts a new trend of songwriting with this album. 'Get Wise' is the first of a run of ugly and bitter songs that are aimed at some unknown person who could well be Hull himself ('This song is for you - but it's also for me!'). Instrumentally Jacka's harmonica adds a nice mournful bluesy edge to the song which softens the stings of Si's guitar and Rod's bass part is the epitome of disappointment, pulling itself up several notes with hope that's dashed by a sudden sinking-in-the-shoes note that plunges two octaves in one go. Once again the performance is rather stronger than the song, which starts off promisingly as Hull dismisses his enemy as someone they're not: someone who thinks they're outrageous but who is 'talking too loud', a loner whose 'one of the crowd' and a flyer whose 'never been off the ground', but soon gets stuck as just a list of insults. 'Forgiving is free' Hully snarls at the end of the song, despite never sounding less forgiving in his life, rather confusing the moral of the song - while it makes sense that we should all 'get wise' to our faults, the sub-plot message is unclear: what's the significance of the line 'you might own the living but you don't own the life'?. With some songwriters I'd simply assume it was a line that rhymed and sounded good, but Hull was always a more careful writer than most and usually meant something with all the words he wrote. In truth this song sounds more like a Ray Davies 'am I really special?' rant than the usually positive Hull (who generally see the best in everyone except politicians), but it is a strand of his art that will grow in years to come. Though this song wins brownie points for coming first, it's not as memorable or as outrageously OTT as 'About You' on 'Sleepless Nights' and doesn't have enough of interest to sustain it even across a comparatively short three minute playing time.
Next up is the glorious spectacle of Marshall Riley's Army marching proudly on their way to London in protest at working conditions and unemployment. Unlike 'King's Cross Blues' they know they're going to fail and are entering alien territory, but get braver and braver with every step, so sure they have might and right on their side. They're certainly far more dignified than their scheming Southern political enemies who patted them on the head and sent them back up North again, without ever quite realising how much the public would latch on the to the march of Jarrow. In our modern world where the unemployed are demonised despite there being no jobs left for them to take up, it's a salutary message: no one could put these brave men down as shirkers as they walked hundreds of miles to make their point, funded for by the local area who provided food along the way. 'Marshal Riley' is everything that Lindisfarne can offer that other bands cannot: singalong politics, played on traditional instruments but in one of the most contemporary sounds on the album and with Hull's vocal rising with every verse into such wrath and indignation history has never seemed so real. Though Hull wrote several terrific political songs down the years and even this great song can't quite match the power of 'Poor Old Ireland' or 'All Fall Down', these lyrics still rank amongst his best: the workers complaining 'did God give me these hands to be idle?', the workers described as 'soldiers in the front line' as they march not for king or country but the right to work just twenty years after fighting in WWI, the London Bishop looking on smugly even though the Bible would have been on the marcher's side and the 'welcoming committee' of sarcastic rich newspaper reporters and Government lackeys out to stop the march. Though the march achieved little concrete, the feeling lingers in the air that the working (or non-working) men have proved a point against the ignorance and denial of the Government. Hull then wraps things up with a neat final verse, expressing not just the changes that came about because of the march but also the slow progress of change: that 'though forty years have since gone past you're still down there if you're working class!' It's not too far removed from Tommy Duffy's song 'The Man Down There' from the Mark II album 'Happy Daze', pointing out the divisions between the haves and have-nots of the world. Born on the wrong side of the tracks, brought up in one of Newcastle's biggest slums and written off for much of his life, it's clear where Hull's heart lies and his admiration for 'ordinary people' of forty years ago who tried so hard to make their voices heard and continued to inspire him all those years later. It remains one of Lindisfarne's greatest songs, well made and well played - if only the rest of the album had been made just that little bit more like it.
Alas Hully ends the album with two solo songs that are some of his worst. You can see why producer Gus Dudgeon would have been keen to record 'Angels At Eleven' - it's very similar to the sort of things he'd been making with Elton John, a breathy piano ballad with a lyric that might say much or might simply be gibberish. The young Hull wishes on a star for his dreams to come true but they never do. When that fails he tries to imagine all he ever wanted for himself, but the dreams fall when established in reality, a 'truth' that 'couldn't stand up to cross-examination'. Sighing, he agrees to no longer 'have thoughts above my station' - and yet he still believes in the powers of the universe after meeting the girl who gives him everything he dreamed of and more. A sort of love song shoe-horned into a track about humility, 'Angels At Eleven' never quite comes together. The tune is ugly, more like a jingle or advertisement than Hully's usual style, with clumsy-footed rhymes scattered throughout ('Way beyond your station, your situation'). It's also unclear what relevance the angels have - the chorus claims they 'guide' the narrator, even though the lyrics make it clear the narrator hadn't got anywhere in life - its love that inspired him, not angels. There's also no reason given for why they come at 'eleven' - does Hull mean the eleventh hour when all hope seems lost? Played to a simple piano part, with a cracking vocal and an overdubbed orchestra (with no other Lindisfarne involvement at all) the song comes across as a demo for a half-finished song that hasn't quite thought things through yet.
Originally written as one of the four 'new' songs for Hull's solo album 'Phantoms' in 1979, 'Make Me Want To Stay' is re-recorded as close as possible to the original, although the 'band' version is better solely for the sudden injection of Lindisfarne harmonies late on in the song. It's not the song I'd have re-recorded from that album ('Walk In The Sea' is that troubled record's one true classic) and seems a bit pointless given how little the band have to do on it. Like much of 'Back and Fourth' it's an odd song that doesn't do what you expect at all. Presumably chosen because the verse mirrors 'Run For Home' so closely ('I've lived my life like a railroad - I've been here there and everywhere...done some right and some wrong things'), the wandering narrator has also returned home. However rather than running through the door and shouting 'honey I'm home' he's stand-offish, challenging his partner to 'make me want to stay'. That's clearly not her place - its him whose been away and by rights she should be challenging him with 'why would I want you to stay after living for so long without you?' The narrator backtracks, offers to 'cook breakfast for two' and says that her face 'opening the door' is a sight that's kept him going all that time. And yet he still doesn't show it, challenging her a second time to 'make me want to stay'. Like the opening song on the album, it's a curiously loveless romantic song, 'apparently' sounding sexy and incurably romantic until you realise just how many things in the lyrics don't add up and what a pratt the narrator actually is. Again it's curiously unlike Hull's traditional style - was he trying to impress Gus Dudgeon by 'writing an Elton'? (In Bernie Taupin's hands he doesn't always come off too well either). Hull's vocal adds to the confusion: where the 'Phantoms' version sis sung straight, this re-make is sung in his best sneered vocal, clearly mocking someone but whether it's the buffoon of a lead character, his missus for putting up with it all or the listener for not realising this is a 'game' the two people who know each other well are playing is unclear. Together with the stop-start melody, which comes to a full-stop completely until the last harmony-drenched coda kicks in, 'Make Me Want To Stay' is a curious way of ending an LP and doesn't exactly want to make the listener hang around for a sequel.
Overall, then, 'Back and Fourth' is a real curio. Parts of it work so well - and yet other parts miss by miles. Given that none of Lindisfarne had released anything you could buy in the shops for a couple of years (unless you were very very lucky at picking up the 'Radiator' album or '(Phantoms') you'd expect them to have a large pile of quality songs to chose from. The reunion - one forged genuinely out of friendship and shared goals - was a 'genuine' one rather than a 'circumstances one', quite unlike some AAA reunions made for money and down to record company pressure. So why isn't there more 'Lindisfarne' actually on it? Divided in thirds between a band on fire and enjoying making music together live, an overdub fest with a glossy production that makes everything sound artificial and false and a third an Alan Hull solo album, 'Back and Fourth' is an odd combination indeed. Had the band spent more time together and returned to their old sound (the way they do on 'Marshall Riley' and 'King's Cross Blues', as well as Si's period B-side 'Stuck Together') with the addition of the better polished songs like 'Warm Feeling' and 'Run For Home' and this album could have been a cracker. Instead it's nowhere near as good as 'Dingly Dell', the pre-split album that everyone, band included, appeared to hate, the sort of record that any half-talented band with a budget could have made. 'Back and Fourth' sold lots of copies and naturally set the tone for most of the albums to follow, but record sales just mean more of the general public was persuaded to buy a product - it doesn't mean that an album is necessarily any better and it isn't to any of the band's fans who'd been around the first time round. We should be grateful to this little record for giving the band another couple of decades and for extending the fanbase that bit further, to the point where many new fans thought 'Run For Home' was the sound and wondered why the earlier records sounded so amateurish by comparison. But I'll take songs and performances and honesty and autobiography over universal songs with mega-productions anyday and 'Back and Fourth' remains one of my least favourite albums in the Lindisfarne canon, despite the march of Marshall Riley's Army that remains so powerful and relevant. The fact that the vastly superior sequel albums 'The News' and 'Sleepless Nights' failed to sell as well has more to do with clever marketing and the occasional stupidity of record buyers as much as anything else. Run away, run as fast as you can, Lindisfan...