Monday, 30 January 2017
Lindisfarne "Dance Your Life Away" (1986)
Shine On/Love On The Run/Heroes/All In The Same Boat/Dance Your Life Away//Beautiful Day/Broken Doll/One Hundred Miles To Liverpool/Take Your Time/Song For A Stranger
'When the book has been finally written, the heroes always beat the villains in the end'
When people ask me what I want in the future, there are a few things that come to mind straight away: peace on Earth, especially the corners that have only known war; the chance to bring our fallen heroes back to us and show them that they were loved one last time before they go, a society that's built on fairness and democracy not exploitation and greed, a big wet fish to slap egotistical politicians and a lie detector that rings every time they open their mouths and break a promise and a big fat gun that wipes out The Spice Girls from all known time streams and parallel universes. That's usually the point at which most people back away, saying 'I only wanted to know what to get you for your birthday, geez what's wrong with you?!' and look at me strangely (well, stranger). The closest I can come in my long list to a practical thing we might actually get in the future, however, is a machine that deleted excessive 1980s noise on musical recordings. You know the sort of thing: big and booming yet tinny drum sounds, twinkling treacly synthesiser keyboards, a featheriness to the vocals that makes even wonderful singing groups sound robotic and silly and a general sense that the whole recording is taking place in a wind-tunnel filled with cotton-wool buds. We may even one day in the far out-of-copyright future (next year the way things are going...) get to make our own remixes of beloved AAA albums, with the chance to pare down promising albums down to their bare-bones and see what they ought to sound like had they been as timeless as the songs as opposed to being pinned to a certain week in the 1980s when every recording was made with the same technology and they all sounded like each other.
The first album in the queue for me will surely be Lindisfarne's 'Dance Your Life Away', an album full of promising songs whose lyrics I love and whose melodies I find myself whistling and which I simply can't sit through the way it was presented on record (and it sounds worse on CD). You see, I know there's a great album in here somewhere full of exactly the sort of things I look for in a Lindisfarne album: Alan Hull protest songs, Rod Clements character assassinations, songs that send out a message of love to the fans, lovely harmonies, pretty melodies and more hooks than a fisherman opening his Christmas stocking. Not co-incidentally, 'Dance Your Life Away' sounds like the sort of record I fall in love with because it ties in with my other hopes for the future - sadly this album was a bit too early for a song damning The Spice Girls (though Alan Hull would surely have written a hilarious song about grrrl power being created by middle aged white men to sell records had he lived), but it is one of those records about yearning for equality, damning those who lie and take things they don't deserve and hopes for better times on Earth. It's exactly the sort of spiritually uplifting album the mid-1980s needed as the cold war got hotter and the times of Thatcher got greedier, giving a voice to the 'little man' (or even the little girl still dreaming of being a ballerina on the 'Billy Elliott' style front cover, against an ugly industrial backdrop) against overwhelming odds (and overwhelmingly odd odds too). Though 'Sleepless Nights' probably has this album licked on a song-by-song basis there's a heart beating strongly in this album that had been missing for a long time in Lindisfarne's music and - a sojourn to Russia in the early 1990s aside - it won't ever be quite as central to their recordings again.
That's why we Lindisfans feel the frustration of how this album turned out so much and take it quite so badly. This may be the spiritually uplifting album the world needed in 1986, but it also sounds so exactly like every other album out in 1986 it's hard to sit through it in any other year and even at the time 'Dance Your Life Away' rather fell through the cracks by not standing out. Lindisfarne do occasionally try to address the music being around them - the first three albums have a nicely cosy early 1970s 'folk rock vibe' and the post-Hull albums have the same understated acoustic melancholy common to reflective albums made either side of the millennium. But no other Lindisfarne albums ever sounded quite as desperate to be a hit as this one, to the point where for much of the record you're struggling to believe that this really is Lindisfarne. Is that really the band sounding bored on the pop-synth fest harmonies of 'Shine On' (the closest they ever came to making generic elevator music, albeit in the kind of store that's actually quite upmarket?) Is that really Jacka trying to be Shakin' Stevens and Adam Ant's illegitimate love-child on 'Love On The Run', which sounds as if everything was recorded a postal code away from the recording equipment? (All except for the drums of course, for which you actually need to turn the general level of the album down). Have Lindisfarne really gone all Andrew Lloyd Webber on the chanted title track (which is a lot more 'stagey' than anything that actually was in the Billy Elliott musical). Why on earth do Lindisfarne take all the wonderful trademarks and hallmarks that made them one of the most distinctive bands of their era - and decide to sound like a second-rate U2 instead (on the so-1960s-it-hurts-so-let';s-make-it-the-most-1980s-moment-on-the-record 'Beautiful Day'). Why on earth did Alan Hull take a sweet ballad about fragility and desperation like 'Broken Doll' and decided that actually, yes, this would be the perfect song to give the Ian Dury and the Blockheads treatment. Why did Lindisfarne choose now to reach back to their 1950s childhood on 'Take Your Time' when we'd already sat through a whole album of the real thing (a double LP set no less!) on cheap and tacky covers album 'C'mon Everybody' (and why, listening back to that record, did Lindisfarne think the serious songs were the ones that worked best when they clearly don't?)
Nothing on this album sounds much like Lindisfarne as we've known and loved them down the years and only 'One Hundred Miles To Liverpool' and 'Heroes' do a little bit, with no mandolin, no folk-rock and not even much in the way of guitar or bass (though there's one hell of a lot of superfluous saxophone and the same crushing drum beat across nearly every song). This isn't just something small the album gets a little bit wrong either. The whole point of this album's set of songs is that you, the individual, have the right to be yourself and dream big dreams even when the world makes putting many of them into practice impossible - having Lindisfarne sound like they're part of the problem, not the solution, is the biggest and most woeful bit of mis-casting across the Lindisfarne back catalogue. It's not just the production too but the packing - I mean look at that back sleeve where the band all stand proudly trying so hard to look cool they're blatantly not cool while clutching their instruments like a cross between in-fashion band Madness and a Geordie version of The Godfather. Only Si Cowe, the most erm 'individual' member of a band of originals, refuses to play ball and dresses up in the aviation suit he once wore for 'Nicely Out Of Tune'. It speaks volumes both that he's a largely unheard presence on this album (which features little guitar and no Cowe songs) and that he looks less silly than all the others do in their lounge suits and jackets.
It would be easy to point blame at the one face on the back sleeve you might not recognise, producer Steve Daggett who just about gets away with counting himself a 'member' of the band given that the dominating instrument on the whole album is indeed his very mid-1980s keyboards. However, 'Dance' took two sides to tango and that would be a little unfair. Doggett didn't come to Lindisfarne kicking and screaming about being made to work with a bunch of forgotten middle-aged overgrown Geordie kids like some past producers with the band who barely knew their names once the sessions were over. A keen Lindisfan himself, he had a better knowledge of what the band had written and done than they did (proving particularly valuable during rehearsals for the next live tour) and genuinely worked hard to update the band's old sound into the new and went to great lengths to achieve that, adding guitar overdubs to the album and co-writing the opening song with Alan Hull as a real meeting of minds. What's more Daggett was a writer first, performer second and producer a distant third, which was roughly the order Lindisfarne appreciated. Daggett had first come to the band's attention as the main songwriter for the late 1970s new wave band Stiletto, one of the few of the era to have a female lead in Bren Laidler who had also sang backup on some Ray Jackson BBC recordings in 1980 after Stiletto got the 'boot' from their record company after a distribution 'mix-up' (think 'The Jam' if they'd grown up on Lindisfarne and Fairport Convention, not The Beatles and Small Faces, if Paul Weller had dressed like Debbie Harry), before forming his own studio for bands to use (nicknamed 'The Garage') which is where he first met Ian McCallum of Stiff Little Fingers, who in turn brought along his own 'hero' and mentor Alan Hull. Daggett was in heaven and naturally producing a Lindisfarne album by his heroes was the obvious next step - he was young and trendy, the band were people he wanted to work with, it should have worked so well. But something went wrong somewhere along the line. Usually in the past Lindisfarne had very hands-off producers who let the band get on with it, but Daggett was so enthusiastic (and the rest of the band comparatively bored and uninspired) that Steve ended up doing more and more. What could have been a grand old tug-of-war between the old ways and the new, with Hull and Clements setting the songwriting pace, the others developing arrangements and Daggett adding dashes of colour, became one producer trying to fill out songs that weren't quite ready yet with more and more of his own ideas. One relative newcomer versus five oldies should have been no contest, but instead Daggett's enthusiasm for new sounds seem to have cast a long hard shadow over the band's old ones.
Maybe that was because there was a sixth member for this album and yet another 'new' sound for Lindisfarne to incorporate in Marty Craggs. The sax player had been fleshing out the band's live sound for a while, adding harmonies and harmonica on songs where Jacka couldn't provide both. A fellow Geordie a few years younger than the rest of the band, he'd been knocking on the door of Lindisfarne's wider circle for a while: Lindisfarne were surprised when his own band nicked one of their old names 'The Chosen Few', which must have been a shock for those still living close to home when posters emblazoned with it started turning up everywhere around Newcastle. Craggs had also worked with Pacamax, the all-star Geordie charity band that had a revolving line-up depending who was available at any which time. Craggs quickly made friends with Ray and Rod and after a nervy meeting with Alan and Si one night found himself in the band after matching them drink for drink. At first Marty's presence in the band is tentative: wary that long-terms fans might not accept him as the first non-original member of the band in their then-sixteen year history, on this album he merely sings harmonies, plays a couple of sax solos and is easily the most 'natural looking' of the band on that back cover. By next album 'Amigoes' he's integrated into the Lindisfarne sound so well he's second fiddle only to Hully himself - even so, the presence of two younger members in this era may have evened up the score and even tipped the band more into this heavier period sound.
This album is, however, dominated even more than usual by Alan Hull. With Rod only getting one song on the album, that leaves nine that Hully has a hand in. While some of these songs stretch Alan's writing palette more than ever before - turning Jacka into an abandoned female 'in need of repair' on 'Broken Doll' and the overly dramatic 'Brothers In Arms' style closer 'Song For A Stranger' - most are a 24 carat gold haul of Hull. More than perhaps any previous album (except maybe his solo debut 'Pipedream') this is Alan using Lindisfarne as a platform for his own political concerns. As the 1980s grew tougher for many, his heart grew softer and many of these songs offer a concern and an anger never heard in quite such high volumes before. 'Dance Your Life Away' itself is a cynical song about how everybody in your life will tell you over and over again to give up on your dreams, to become just like the rest and how you have to 'toe the line' to get ahead, contrasted against a chorus of freedom and celebration as the character in the song learns to block out such societal thoughts and simply 'dances their life away' beautifully, driven by instinct and beauty instead of rules and discipline. 'Heroes' was written for the miner's strike and a benefit album Billy Bragg was putting together before being 'borrowed' back again for this album and to have maximum impact; though uncharacteristically vague it's clearly a celebration of the working class and the people who risk so much in terms of jobs and starvation but stand up for what's right anyway, a sort of modern Marshall Riley's Army. 'All In The Same Boat' 'doesn't hold with know-alls telling me what to do' and recalls 'Lazy' from the 'Lindisfarne Mark II' days as Hull says that he'd rather live happily and carefree even if it means he's viewed as workshy and even quotes from early classic 'Alan In The River With Flowers' just to make the point about how autobiographical this song is. 'Shine On' is a sad understated burst of optimism and encouragement in a noisy world that tried so hard to make us feel helpless and weak, an elder brother putting a comforting arm around the rest of the world. Liverpool comes to symbolise everywhere else on 'One Hundred Miles To...', a song that's really about Lindisfans all over full of pride, awe and grateful thanks. 'Take Your Time', meanwhile, sounds like an instruction manifesto for every junior Lindisfan out there, telling us that finding our niche in life may be hard but if we stay true to our inner selves we don't have to ruin our lives by turning out the way everyone else wants us to be.
Lyrically 'Dance Your Life Away' may be the brightest spot in the Lindisfarne canon for many a long year, full of songs that represent exactly the message an eccentric, oddball, individualistic group like Lindisfarne should have been offering in an era where being yourself was considered a weakness and being different to everyone else was a foolish thing to do. How great might this album have been if, as well as thinking it, this album had actually come out and sounded as if it was sticking two fingers up at a world of faceless 1980s anonymity? Instead it came out sounding unlistenable and samey, with bursts of optimism that sound boring rather than life-altering, messages of hope that come across as being distinctly depressing and songs that were written to bring us together make us feel alienated and distant. The result is a difficult album to judge: more than any other Lindisfarne reunion album it had the potential to be great but somehow it all comes over so bland and flat that it ends up being the hardest of them all to sit through, with the band not trying that hard to be heard beyond the sea of 1980s production mediocrity. Ironically, for an album that's all about dancing to your own beat, the rigidity of the backing tracks more or less all come out at the same walking-pace tempo makes it feel as if it's been stuck together with superglue, without the chance to dance. Even the few good bits where it does sound like the band are trying (Hully's vocals on 'Heroes' and 'One Hundred Miles To Liverpool' and Jacka's worthy stab at Rod's worthy attempt to do something really different on 'Love On The Run') are drowned out by synths and drums that sound about as much like Ray Laidlaw's past work as The Spice Girls' grrrrl power do to Janis Joplin. This album, which could go either way right up to its dying moments, even ends on a puzzling note as the electro-pop-funk-retro-country vibe of 'Song For A Stranger' goes for a big build-up ending - and then suddenly switches to a capella for a line and then switches off mid-song, the equivalent of cutting 'Hey Jude' off before the 'na na nas'. An album full of good songs marred by questionable decisions taken all the way through the recording process, 'Life Away' is too hard to listen to for a victory dance but it would be unfair to dismiss it - the album's heart is arguably in the right place, just not it's synthesisers. Like the cover the album was a nice idea with a lovely message that just didn't quite come off and ended up looking a little stupid (the photographer was hoping for a really moody and scary sky and kept bringing back the poor girl model back day after day - instead it's just kind of dull). That's 'Dance Your Life Away' in a nutshell, the best possible idea for the era that just happened to be executed at completely the wrong time.
'Shine On' is one of those Lindisfarne 'nearly' songs, with the kernel of something totally brilliant and Lindisfarny that isn't executed in the right way. The haunting catchy chorus, the increasingly rare Jacka-Hull vocal interplay and some very pretty synth work seem to be going somewhere, while the mood is very Christmassey with its sleigh bells and messages of brotherly love. However this is one part Lennon's 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' and another McCartney's 'Wonderful Xmas Time', with a nice idea that's under-written and takes the easy way out, with forgettable verses full of simple cosmic phrases that don't actually say anything ('The stars and the sun shine on everyone, they don't question why - they're just in the sky'). Co-written by Hull and Daggett, it's so close to being a traditional Lindisfarne number - a 'We Can Swing Together' for more new age hippies - but it's dressed up to sound like so much other pop fodder. The worst part is that nothing new happens - the opening burst of sweet 'n' sour harmonies catch your ear but there's nothing to keep you listening, while the lead singers sound unusually bored and fed-up. There is a good song fighting to be heard on this track though, which even on an album that does a lot of this sort of thing is the one that 'got away' - it has hit single written all over it had the band only gone for a re-make and given the song the slow build-up it's crying out for. Sadly, as heard on the album, 'Shine On' doesn't shine and just glimmers glibly, like a lightbulb in the wrong setting.
'Love On The Run', on the other hand, tries a little bit too hard. The only Rod Clements song on the album, it's at one with the other stormy rhythmical songs the bass player had been providing to recent Lindisfarne albums and a step backwards to the young trendy teenage narrator trying to come to terms with the first flush of love and romance. In terms of the fat and chunky riff and the theme - his girl's dad thinks he's from the wrong side of town - it's very much a flash from the past, albeit at one with similar 1950s re-treads popular in 1986. The arrangement produced for the album, though, is almost space-age, keeping us at a distance from the action by having Jacka sing quietly and a step away from our ears behind what - if this was a Brian Eno/Paul Simon album - would be described as a 'soundscape', a collection of technological noise and effects. Over the top flies a bit of fiddle from the author himself, a brief guitar burst (which sounds more like Daggett than Cowe or Hull) and lashings of Marty's sax work. Like many a Clements song, this track second-guesses us all the way as it darts and dives down passages we aren't expecting at all, such as a minor key change on the middle eight ('run run runaway') and a synth-fiddle duet that manages to be both futuristic and traditional. A slow-burner, this song's low key groove is just about enough for the band to get away with this, while Jacka sounds a lot more committed than he has of late too. However for once on this album it's the performance that's a notch above average - as a song this is one of Rod's weakest as the lyrics come without any of his usual quirks or tricks, the song fading as they sneak out in her daddy's car to 'have some fun'. Suddenly the retro 1950s covers album 'C'mon Everybody' from the following year doesn't seem quite so much of a surprise...
Back in March 1984 Margaret Thatcher made several thousand miners redundant by closing a coal mine that was under-performing - there was no attempt at negotiation, no means to soften the blow and even the more right-wing members of her own cabinet told her it was a very stupid thing to do. But she did it anyway, expecting there to be little repercussion. Instead Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, started a national strike that would last an entire year and split the nation down the middle between those who viewed the miner's as workshy layabouts and those who fought the we've-just-increased-our-salaries-again-but-we're-all-in-this-together-honest MPs had a nerve. No prizes for guessing where Hull's labour leanings left him: anger, bitter and disillusioned once again by a world that had stopped caring about the common man. So when the 1980s version of Alan Hull (Billy Bragg) tentatively put forward the idea of an album to raise money for the mineworkers' families for Christmas (who had gone without pay) Hull was right there, turning in an angry and earthy version of a new song he'd just written named 'Heroes'. Yet another tale of the haves wrongly complaining about the have-nots, it inspired one of the best performances of the 1980s as Hull speaks up and says that far from being illegal disruptors the men brave enough to take a stand are 'heroes', refusing to bow down or go quietly. 'Don't let nobody tell you no different' Hull sneers, 'no newspaper phoney or friend' - to him these men are doing the human thing and 'no tin pot tyrant, no self made giant' can break through their bravery. Sadly by March 1985 the strike is all over - Thatcher has it declared 'illegal' in the courts (which is for some reason a far worse crime than immorally closing the pit down in the first place and destroying towns and livelihoods in the process) and without the NUM holding a ballot enough workers got hungry and were forced to return to work to make the strike meaningless. What was in 1984 a rallying cry and a message from the heart was sadly anachronistic by the time it was rather meekly re-recorded for 'Dance Your Life Away' in 1986. Hull sings with the air of a man who knew he was going to be defeated all along, while this album suffers from the same production mess as the rest of the album, replacing stinging guitar and simple drumming with machines and perky synths(sadly both versions include an off-putting saxophone solo). It's almost as if this was a subconscious take on the fact that workers were being replaced by faceless robots, turning a very human-celebrating cause into one that's filled with synthesised regimented sounds. 'Heroes' is a great song (if not quite as brilliant as 'Cruisin' To Disaster' or 'Malvinas Melody' in terms of mid-1980s Hull protest numbers) but this is a truly terrible recording of it, lacking any of the fire and passion that inspired it. Those who want to hear what this song should have sounded like might need to save a bit though: sadly the 'Heroes' various artists LP compiled by Bragg (and released on the 'rock and dole' label!) was a big flop and has never appeared on CD. Which is a shame because it's actually rather good, with Prelude and flavour of the month The Flying Pickets the other big names taking part (the Hull recording would have made a fine CD bonus track too). Do the heroes really beat the villains in the end? Not in this case, sadly.
The danger with making an album as sonically off-putting as 'Dance Your Life Away' is that your songs have to be beautiful to shine through and if you happen to write a song that's deliberately ugly and off-key to make a point then, well, it's going to sound horrible. 'All In The Same Boat' is a Jack-sung Hull composition that tries to make the point that we're all doomed so why not just lay back and be thankful for small mercies? As in the olden days, 'floating down the river' is a chance for communing with nature, thinking and meditating, something most onlookers would see as 'lazy', especially given the diatribes against lazy workers heard in the last song. However Hull sees this 'time off' as actually his biggest time on, understanding what life is really poor as opposed to what people fill their time with and integral to who he is and what he stands for. Once again, Hull takes a flawed democratic system and pokes holes in people's interpretation of it: why should the police get involved in the miner's strike on the Government's behalf - aren't they also hit by low pay and zero opportunities? The journalists talking about the strike - aren't they at risk of losing their livelihoods without human interest stories like the strikers? A last gasp plea to bring humanity (or at least the working class part of it) together, there's sadly again a sense in this song that Lindisfarne are talking to themselves and might as well make this song sound silly and childish rather than the actually very adult song they were trying to create. That's why we start with a silly opening verse about Hull 'not getting much exercise' and 'not thinking - I use my mind', a clever line about thinking for himself rather than what people want him to and a few user-friendly lines about love. The real heart of this song comes from the middle verse too, 'Don't hold with know-alls telling me what to do, I could call their bluff any time I wanted to!' and the kinder lines about how everyone should be kind and back off, because 'most folks are fragile, just like you and me'. A clever unifying lyric then, urging that peace and respect would help us all in the end result without humanity trying to divide and conquer the way out Governments and media want us to, but like much of the album it seems as if Lindisfarne are making this as difficult to listen to as they possibly can. This song is slow and lazy - fitting given the words, but this song needs a bit of oomph to get going, while the comedy synths and an almost yawned vocal from Jacka aren't helping the excitement levels. Only a Jacka harmonica part, unusual for 1980s Lindisfarne, has anything really going for it and by past standards even that is perfunctory, not a howled protest blues as in the past. Of all the songs on the album this might be the one that needs a remix the most: there's a great track in here, but not the way the band have done it.
Title track 'Dance Your Life Away' is the most experimental track on the album and deserves marks for having courage the other recordings lack, even if it's not any more listenable than anything else on the LP. Hull is at his sarcastic best on this operatic song as he sings over a bass 'n' sax duet and is joined at key moments of the song by a mass chanted vocal (the band making the most of having four singers in the band now, each one taking a 'dance' in turn). The 'Billy Elliot' musical/movie missed a trick by not having this song in the soundtrack somewhere as it's basically the entire plot in one go. As early as school mankind is being brainwashed, told to think in terms of 9-5 jobs and Hull is even more sarcastic as Roger Waters as he despairs 'you can't have no jam tomorrow you had some today' and 'buy some soap - and don't have hope!' By the second verse the narrator has worked hard and left school - but there are no jobs around, so he's told to work harder and aim higher, looking for a 'rabbit in the hat' that isn't there. 'Come back next week - or maybe next year!' his sarcastic would-be boss intones. Even the third verse, which takes place after work hours, isn't much better as the narrator feels the peer pressure deeply, desperate to impress but aware that he doesn't have what it takes to be 'number one'. Depressed he turns to a preacher who tells him work is the way out, the best way of passing through 'heaven's door'. Thank goodness then for the lovely simple chorus that links the verses, the one moment on this album where the band steps away from the regimented keyboards and, well, dances. The near-a capella burst of wobbly harmonies and the urge to 'dance your life away' when everyone else it trying to turn it into a regimented march is quite beautiful, the song stepping outside it's framework to simply enjoy living, without rules, responsibilities or regimentation. It's a great moment on one of the album's better tracks, but like much of this album the sound of the bulk of this song is so alien that even Hull at his most anarchic and ironic can't compete with the bleached feel of the production, which sucks all emotion dry. Ultimately there's too much 'trap' here and not enough freedom, though like much of the album the thought process behind the song is actually rather good.
'Beautiful Day' is the poppiest, catchiest Hull song in some time - 'Run For Home' perhaps? Unfortunately it's also his least original song since, well, maybe ev-uh. 'Beautiful Day' isn't so much 'beautiful' as 'average' - the U2 style slashed 80s pop opening, leads to Lou Reed's 'It's A Beautiful Day' and ends up in Stock-Aitken-Waterman territory. Admittedly this is a shade better than the Kylie and Jason nonsense of the era, but this is Lindisfarne we're talking about and even superior 80s pop fare pales against their worst 1970s excesses. At least this album fits the theme about not taking life for granted, the narrator suddenly realising how pretty his wife is, how much he loves her and how much he wants to tell the fact to the world - but being English, he keeps quiet and writes a song instead. In different verses Alan reaches out and touches, presumably, wife Pat's shoulders (with the comfort of her telling him 'there's no pain in growing older'), hair ('I feel a strange surprise to find you there') and her, erm, radio (I hope that's not a euphemism), full of talk of 'world war three in the skies'). This puts the song in danger of just being the hokey-cokey and unfortunately the song isn't a lot more substantial, tied together by repeated refrains about what a 'great day' it's going to be even though the rest of the world tries to make sure it isn't. This simple song could still have worked had the band performed it simply, but they don't, plastering it with icky synths that sound like a malfunctioning doorbell at the Addams Family residence and a general mood in the room that the band are waiting to have their teeth pulled rather than enjoying a 'beautiful day'. Sadly a bit of a mistake this one, the band either trying too hard to get a hit or not trying anywhere near enough depending on your take on things. Nice catchy tune, though.
'Broken Doll' defies description, starting out as a drunken night at the French Riveria complete with accordion and ending up somewhere between 'Madness' the band and 'madness' the mental condition. Rod's jumpy ska bass beat is by far the best thing about this song, which features Hull singing about feeling fragile and abandoned. This is a 'list' song, full of metaphors for how discarded the narrator feels, while I'd bet my mint only-played-once edition of 'C'mon Everybody' (seriously, I don't want it) that this song wasn't written for the band at all but some female singer. Hull feels like a 'second-hand Rosie', a 'broken doll' and 'Al Capone's moll' and 'searches round for tea and sympathy'. A shame, then, that such a 'feminine' song, unusual for Lindisfarne, is given such a macho treatment. Even the accordion is throttled as if it's a Pete Townshend solo rather than a moonlit night in Paris. Where this song succeeds is in the playful way the narrator tries to keep the fact they are falling apart hidden from view. By the time of the chorus 'no don't say it' suddenly the manic backing and the slightly histrionic Hull vocal makes sense: this is a song desperate to sound happy, bright and bouncy while feeling suicidal and depressed. In that sense it's the song that best suits this album's chirpy production values and glamorous pop despite the deeper feelings lying just under the surface. However even this recording seems to get more wrong than it does right, with a feeling of 'so what?' after three minutes of a track that won't stay still long enough to catch the ear.
The closest to an album triumph is the lovely 'One Hundred Miles To Liverpool'. Lindisfarne didn't often address their fanbase directly but it's lovely when they do and the affection between band and fan has never been rendered prettier than here. The 'Sue' and 'Annie' mentioned in the first verse were long-term Liverpudlian fans who wrote long letters to Hull every month come what may. Feeling that they were more like family than fans, Hull looks forward to 'seeing' them at the gig, even if he doesn't get to meet them, the long and tiring hours of being on the road suddenly worth it for that one brief moment of connection which all songwriters live for. After all, if there are two people Hull knows 'get' his work then why not more? The rest of the song verges between the real-life observation of what is going on as Hull writes his song ('Rod and Ray are talking, the radio is squawking...I'm cracking jokes with all the blokes') and the imaginary ('John and Paul are sleeping, a streetsweeper is cleaning' - note that Hull names his imaginary children after The Beatles!) Alan is tired, he's been on the road for too many years and knows the route from Newcastle to Liverpool well, having traced it in happy years and sad years, 'in sunshine and snow'. Suddenly, though, the lights of Liverpool are lit and call him ever onwards, 'the tug boat in the Mersey joining in the jamboree' as the sight of the venue the band will play in becomes a chance to make people happy and do what Lindisfarne were put on this earth to do all over again. While the production could be better and you yearn for the simplicity the band would have given this laidback lovely song in days of yore, it's better than most on this album with a haunting Jacka mouthorgan refrain and some simple la-la-la-ing that gives this song a nicely 1960s feel. The sense is that, even though Lindisfarne are trying to sound contemporary still, they're a band that carry a past with them and they realise what it really means to make a living out of travelling and being away from home for such long periods of time, not like the young whippersnapper bands they're trying to sound like. Lindisfarne have already won their original fanbase over already and this charming attempt to write a fan letter back that somehow turned into a song somewhere along the way is a lovely example of just how close the connection between band and fans really is, a hundred, a thousand, a million miles (or years) apart it doesn't matter because the affection is constant and band and fans are closer than they think.
An eerie synth links the song to 'Take Your Time', which is just daft because both songs are amongst the happiest on the album. This typically Hull song about picking yourself up and being true to your own values in a world that wants you to adapt and confine yourselves is even more early 1960s and sounds like a hippie folk-rock version of Motown. A very Buddy Hollyish chorus complete with 'hiccup' (and a title that Buddy had already used) sadly makes for a more derivative song than it needed to be, with some original lines about 'smiling at a world that spits in your face' undone by a singalong chorus done better so many hundreds of times before. It's easy to miss how great this song is underneath another rather tired performance and yet more plinkety-plink synths however. Unlike most songs using a 'take your time' chorus this isn't about a romance but about Hull's belief that there is the perfect job out there for everyone and that all we have to do to find our niche in life is keep searching for what it is. As an ex-window-cleaner and psychiatric nurse never given a hope of making music into a living, he knows full well how many dead-ends and disasters we might have along the way before we find what we were put on this earth to do. In this song even our failures are successes because they show us what we can't do: 'The moment you realise is the moment you understand' and that our worst moments (getting the sack, becoming unemployed, having to move district) can all be opportunities for the right thing to come along. It's a shame, then, that such a hopeful positive song is positively lost here with perhaps the single worst harmonies of Lindisfarne's career and a sense that the band are rehearsing this song and noodling at it, not living and breathing it the way it should be. Regrettably Lindisfarne don't seem to have done this song live at all, which is a shame because that's where it sounds as if it might have taken off - sadly here it's another track that doesn't quite make it.
The album then closes with 'Song For A Stranger', a mournful track that sounds musically the most like the past (a brief mandolin opening and more of a folk rock vibe than normal) while lyrically taking Lindisfarne even further from home. Over a cod-dramatic lyric celebrating brotherhood Hull tells us 'I have travelled over mountains, over sunsets, over sky, I've envisaged things before me and always tried to keep an open mind'. My guess is that Lindisfarne were trying to emulate the success of their fellow Geordies Dire Straits here, whose title track of record-breaking 1985 album 'Brothers In Arms' sounded exactly like this song - dramatic and just a little bit daft. There's a sense in both songs that Hull is celebrating a war platoon full of comrades as much as the friends he's made playing rock and roll and that simply belonging to the same 'unit' is enough to make a stranger a close friend. Lindisfarne were, of course, close to Dire Straits (they were named in Si's kitchen after all) and must have looked on enviously at their mainstream success, a status that Mark Knopfler for one seemed to despise yet a band like Lindisfarne would have sold their mandolins to taste a bit of. Sadly, however, Lindisfarne aren't that sort of a band and they prove it again here with a song and performance that try so hard to appeal to the everyman hat it loses the quirkiness and originality behind all of the band's best moments. The group have nothing to bite on here, just a general lyric about befriending someone against a backdrop of nature at it's most epic and despite the wide scope this song is far less 'human' than tales of the fog on the tyne and shops selling sausage rolls. Everyone here sounds lost, the track suddenly cutting off after an a capella line of 'am I only dreaming?' as if the narrator has just woken up and Lindisfarne have realised they're only play-acting, pretending to be something they're not. Like the rest of the album, it would have sounded better had we actually been able to hear everything properly without the production sheen - though Dire Straits arguably add more, the difference between the two recordings is that between night and day as everything in 'Brothers In Arms' is there to enhance the mood, tug at the heart-strings and make everything sound epic; on 'Song For A Stranger' everything sounds flat and lifeless and you have to work out what's going on despite the production not because of it.
Truly, though, there is a great album going on deep within the grooves of 'Dance Your Life Away' somewhere but that's the problem: there is no groove. This is a more commercial record than usual in many ways, with a bigger sense of style and a lot more overdubs than any other Lindisfarne release and if you heard this album in 1986 rather than somewhere nearer today then this probably wouldn't have struck you as odd: all albums came like this at the time, whether they were by hungry new wannabes or acts like Lindisfarne with a near twenty year pedigree. However usually Lindisfarne can just about get away with sounding like everyone else around at the time without sacrificing what makes them special: 1982's 'Sleepless Nights' did it and 1989's 'Amigoes' will nearly do the same, while it remains up to the individual listener whether 'C'mon Everybody' was too 1950s, too 1980s or too Lindisfarne to work as the mass-market-appeal covers album the band were aiming for. Here they fail badly as even Hull's emotions get over-ruled by cold synths, Si and Rod are all but ignored and Jacka seems to be wondering why he's even bothering to turn up to work anymore (ir won't surprise anyone to learn that he's only on one more 'proper' band LP and doesn't even appear much on that). The trouble is, of all the albums Lindisfarne made when they reformed in 1978, this is the least identifit and the most 'Lindisfarny' of the lot in songwriting terms, with two-thirds of the record about the old themes of overcoming obstacles, dispensing with injustice and living life on your own terms. Had it been recorded the same way as the original 1970s trio this album may yet have been a worthy successor, speaking up for the English working man with enough love left over to heal the rest of the world too. Sadly that's not what we get on an album that tries so hard to be like everybody else, with what must be one of the biggest discrepancies between song themes and production on any AAA album. The result is, sadly, the nadir of Lindisfarne's back catalogue just because it's so hard to listen to in the modern age, with more period trappings than Madonna in shoulder pads waving a £5 note and moon-walking with ET. But this isn't one of those AAA nadirs where absolutely nothing about this album worked whatsoever - instead 'Dance Your Life Away' is one of those records that pains you precisely because you know, deep down, the material deserves so much more respect than it was ever given, synthing it's life away when it should have been dancing.
You can now buy 'Yesterday's Papers - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Rolling Stones' in e-book form by clicking here!
"The London Singles Collection"
(Abcko, August 1989)
CD One: C'Mon/I Want To Be Loved/I Wanna Be Your Man/Stoned/Not Fade Away/Little By Little/It's All Over Now/Good Times Bad Times/Tell Me/I Just Want To Make Love To You/Time Is On My Side/Congratulations/Little Red Rooster/Off The Hook/Heart Of Stone/What A Shame/The Last Time/Play With Fire/(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction/The Under Assistant West Coast Promotions Man/The Spider and The Fly/Get Off My Cloud/I'm Free/The Singer Not The Song/As Tears Go By
CD Two: Gotta Get Away/19th Nervous Breakdown/Sad Day/Paint It Black/Stupid Girl/Long Long While/Mother's Little Helper/Lady Jane/Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing In The Shadow?/Whose Driving Your Plane?/Let's Spend The Night Together/Ruby Tuesday/We Love You/Dandelion/She's A Rainbow/2000 Light Years From Home/In Another Land/The Lantern/Jumpin' Jack Flash/Child Of The Moon
CD Three: Street Fighting Man/No Expectations/Surprise Surprise/Honky Tonk Women/You Can't Always Get What You Want/Memo From Turner/Brown Sugar/Wild Horses/I Don't Know Why/Try A Little Harder/Out Of Time/Jiving Sister Fanny/Sympathy For The Devil
"I said yeah! yeah! yeah! Woooah!"
Released the same month as the big Stones comeback 'Steel Wheels', this three CD set is the single best Rolling Stones album you can buy and the perfect rejoinder to any weary music fan who wondered why a band a quarter century old were being given such fuss. In case you're wondering, 'London' is the Decca subsidiary the Stones were on in America before switching to Atlantic with their own Rolling Stones Records label in 1969 - though clearly aimed at the American market, it's always seemed strange that it wasn't called 'The Decca/London Years'. Though released with typical bandwagon-leaping timing by the Stones' old masters at Decca and without any Stones involvement, it shows a lot more love and care than any of their older sets, including every single A and B side released by the Stones on their label in the right order - even, oddly, the ones released by the label after the band left the label (so you get the outtakes from 'Metamorphosis' released as singles here too, with 'Surprise Surprise' uncomfortably filling the gap between 'No expectations' and 'Honky Tonk Woman', plus the inclusion of 'Sympathy For The Devil' because it once came out as a B-side in the 1980s; normally I'd be cross at such playing around with history but it's the single most important Stones song of the 1960s not already here so I'll let it pass). The result is an intense listening experience where you can hear the Stones grow month by month, as their focus shifts from R and B to blues to rock to psychedelia and through to the country-folk of the 'Beggar's Banquet' and 'Let It Bleed' era.
The Stones crossed over into being an 'albums' rather than a 'singles' band relatively late on compared to their rivals - sometime around 'Beggars Banquet' in 1968. As a result a good two-thirds of the most vital work they made in the 1960s comes from the singles, which had never before been collected in such bulk and in the 'correct' chronological order. Tracks like 'Satisfaction' and 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' are, of course, some of the most famous songs of the decade but equally good - if less immediate - are some of the rarer singles that never seem to get the same kudos or airtime in our day and age: 'Little Red Rooster' (still the only blues song to ever get to #1 and curiously absent from most Stones compilations), the most inventive Stones recording 'Paint It, Black', the full on funk and fizzle of '19th Nervous Breakdown', the always overlooked 'Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby?' and the wicked sarcastic delight of 'We Love You'.
Better yet though is the inclusion of so many rare B-sides, many of which are the equal of the better known 'A' sides ('Spider and the Fly' 'Dandelion' 'Child Of The Moon'). Though a handful of the flipsides did make it onto album, most never had and it seems odd that in their desperation to rummage through the Stones' 'yesterday papers' that Decca had never hit upon a B-sides compilation. Oddly enough, some had only ever been released on one side of the Atlantic anyway, with some singles represented by three tracks not two: that's why 'Get Off My Cloud' is followed by four songs only fans know and in some cases features singles taken from albums only released in the States (such as 'Tears Go By' and 'Mother's Little Helper'). This means that we get both the Stones at their best and their most creative, as like so many other 1960s acts the Stones used their flipsides as a chance to stretch themselves without the need to worry about their audience or reputation, with some real hidden gems from the back catalogue allowed to sparkle all over again. Collectors also get the bonus of 'Memo From Turner', the song from the Mick Jagger film 'Performance' and technically credited to the singer alone and while no carat gold classic it makes sense nestled in between 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' and 'Brown Sugar'. Though the packaging could have been better (just a boring monochrome shot of the band's picture sleeves, which on the CD edition is so small you really can't see them at all and no real sleeve notes), this is a first class set that fills many missing holes and includes some of the best music ever made in the 1960s. If you don't have anything by the band at all then start here and you'll be a fan for life.
Continetal Drift (Intro)/Start Me Up/Sad Sad Sad/Miss You/Rock and A Hard Place/Ruby Tuesday/You Can't Always Get What You Want/Factory Girl/Can't Be Seen With You/Little Red Rooster/Paint It Black/Sympathy For The Devil/Brown Sugar/Jumpin' Jack Flash/(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction/Highwire/Sex Drive
"If you want to change your style and live a life more versatile, we could be a smash!"
The 'Steel Wheels' keep on turning, with yet more merchandise from the Stones' biggest attempt at a comeback album. This fifth live Stones record made sense when we feared it might well be the 'last time', but has become rather more redundant with each and every passing Stones tour since. The 'Urban Jungle' tour as it was nicknamed, with its steel grey hubcapped stage and massive big blowup tongues, was the biggest Stones spectacle yet and went toe to toe with Paul McCartney's touring band as the biggest earning tour the rock world had ever seen, playing to massive crowds in mammoth arenas. Unfortunately all this makes the Stones play big in response, which is great if you're there and the band only look like dots on the horizon a mile away, but doesn't make for easy listening. Though it's not particularly loud, there's so much going on in a messy mix and so much echo from the oversized halls that this album 'feels' loud, overpoweringly so at times. With this a concerted attempt to re-launch the Stones as the biggest band in the world there's an understandable reliance on their biggest hit songs, with very few tracks in this running order that hadn't already been heard on any of the previous four live LPs. If it's merely the hits you want, though, this seems like a good place to start with sloppy but always committed performances of more classics in one place than any of the other live LPs and barely a chance to draw breath before some other classic gets released from the cupboards. Nice to see relative obscurities like 'Little Red Rooster' (with a guesting Eric Clapton) and 'Ruby Tuesday' back in the setlist too, ballads that offer a nice balance to the up-tempo classics, though neither performance is exactly careful. The best song is an unexpected revival of 'Factory Girl' though, last heard back in 1968 and given the added push of a full live touring band. If you have to sit through performances of 'Satisfaction' and 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' again this is the way to hear them, although there are less surprises on this set than any of the others. Even the cover seems streamlined, looking like one of those health and safety notices you get on the back of fire extinguishers.
There are two new songs recorded in the studio stapled to the end here too which offer a sort of belated 'oh yeah and we're still going!' coda to the album. The music of 'Highwire' and especially 'Sex Drive' do the band no real flavours, adding to the bloatedness poured on top of Chuck Berry riffs that have already been assaulting your ears for over an hour, but lyrically 'Highwire' at least deserves more credit than it ever got at the time. Only perhaps the band's fourth or fifth political commentary, it features Jagger commenting on the Gulf war and how funding terrorists and getting a quick buck for cheap weapons is bound to backfire on us eventually. How right he was - and how tragic that it took a supposedly out of touch rock star to make the point over politicians who are paid to consider that sort of thing. Both tracks bode well, being up to the better half of the 'Steel Wheels' album, though they seem slim pickings as the only new songs released in the ever growing gap between albums - 'Voodoo Lounge' won't be along for another three. Not quite a 'flashpoint' then - more a 'waiting for the fuse to light' kind of a release - but this live set makes more sense than 'Still Life' ever did and kept the Stones in brown sugar long enough to come back for a stronger 1990s than many were predicting.