Friday 4 July 2008

Jack The Lad "It's Jack The Lad" (1974) ('Core' Review #60, Revised Review)

You can buy 'Passing Ghosts - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Lindisfarne' in e-book form by clicking here!


'From where we are sitting the Winter seems long...'

Hands up all those who’ve heard of Jack The Lad. What none of you?! Well I can’t say I’m that surprised really – short of being a passionate Lindisfarne fan with a lot of money to spare, a 1970s obscure festival-goer with a good memory or perhaps a band member, there’s very few reasons why you would ever come across this most sorely neglected of bands. Needless to say, given this album’s appearance in the original 'classic core albums' part of this list, that’s a shame. Effectively Lindisfarne with their roots showing, this is the 'Downtown Faction' half of the band before Jacka or Alan Hull joined the band and made them a ‘Brethren’, returning the band to their beginnings as a real folk-rock band rather than a rock-folk band formed in the final weeks of Lindisfarne. Old friend and fellow Geordie Billy Mitchell (who, perennially unlucky, once nearly joined the band himself before Hull came along and will join them full time properly in 1997 after Hully's death, not too long before the band called it a day) effectively fills both missing roles - and while no one can compete with the pop 'n' soul edge Jacka brought the band or the towering songwriting talents of Alan, Mitchell is perfect casting for the band in their folk-rock phase adding depth and a rootsiness to the band. His vocals are far closer to Peter, Paul and Mary than Jacka, Alan and Si and yet his folk roots are very suited to the band's sound, with the ability to turn on the power for the heavier material and the delicate touch needed for the ballads also making him perfect for the second band in this book that could go anywhere or do anything.

Which is just as well, because even fans weren't expecting much from Jack The Lad to be honest. After all the band was made up of a non-singing bassist, a back-up singing guitarist and a non-writing non-singing drummer and they’d taken a full eighteen months from Lindisfarne’s split to get their act together (by which time Hull had released two albums) - by contrast Lindisfarne Mark II had the guys known for the singing and the songs and they’d had the bigger headstart. However, good as that band were at their peak (on second album 'Happy Daze' especially) Jack The Lad always sounded as if they carried a bit more of Lindisfarne's natural inheritance somehow - the slightly wobbly but always sincere vocals, the sudden acceleration from laidback folk jig into full-throttle rock and roll and the very distinctive sound of the rhythm section. Above all else, though, this half of Lindisfarne inherited the band's glorious eclecticism with Jack The Lad equally at home with wordy folk, pretty pop and raucous rock - sometimes all in the same song (what other album starts with grungy guitar then swaps it for folk fiddle and then sticks a mandolin solo in too?) Just like Pentangle’s best albums, Jack The Lad mix their own distinctive songs with genuine traditional folk songs, jumbling the old and the contemporary so well together that it's hard to tell which is which at times. In this band’s hands the past and the present and the future all feel like part of one long song anyway, a rich tapestry of many colours. Most musicians fail to fulfil their potential with one ‘trademark’ sound, never mind two, and yet Jack The Lad instinctively play their cards completely right here, retaining just enough of the old parent group’s trademark sound to catch their old fans with something subtly different to attract new ones (you see Humble Pie/Godley and Creme/The Notting Hillbillies/Jefferson Starship - this is how you do a 'spin-off band' properly!) Throw in too the fact that at long last somebody seems to have worked out how to record this band - with the first three Jack The Lad albums all amongst the best sounding of the Lindisfarne canon and miles better than the slightly tinny sound of the trio of pre-split LPs - and you have plenty of reasons why 'It's' is more than just the hard-to-find largely-ignored spin-off curio many fans take it to be; in fact I’d be bold enough to put this debut amongst the best records of the era, second only to 'Nicely Out Of Tune' and possibly 'Pipedream' in the band's top tier.

The album's unsung hero though - and the reason why the other three Jack The Lad LPs are only sporadically rather than as consistently as good - is bassist Rod Clements. Rather overshadowed by the writing powerhouse that was Alan Hull in Lindisarne, here he's become the band's principal writer by default and is more than up to the task, with three songs that are the 'heart' of this album and continue the theme last heard on 'Dingly Dell' about the frustrations with the record business and trying to start all over again. The delicious 'Fast Line Driver' is a sarcastic folk song where the long and winding road is a metaphor for Rod's career and he knows he's blown it (it's a sequel of sorts to two earlier Rod songs - the 'we're never gonna make it' [35] 'Train In G Major' and the bitter dead-end of [14] 'The Road To Kingdom Come'). He tells us the hitch-hiking listener, via Billy's emotive vocals, that soon 'you'll see no more of me' as his dilapidated worn-out vehicle is passed by other smarter faster newer cars overtaking him. For all its attempts to re-boot the band sound as a folk one, though, there's too much anger with Si turning in his most expressive heaviest rock guitar, building up from a detached start to a screaming middle eight in true Lindisfarne style. 'Why Can't I Be Satisfied?', the Lindisfarne-and-co hit single that was first submitted for ‘Fog On The Tyne’ and which got away, is first-class and very 'Dingly Dell' too, a stomping song of depression about a perfectionist narrator who had the best life in the palm of his hand and threw it away, his destiny 'to be bored and discontented to his dying day'. The long-held notes that sound like desperate sobs are a neat sequel to the bitter tears of 'Don't Ask Me'. Finally, 'Plain Dealing' is Rod's one true folk song on the album (a style he's followed more and more on his recent folk lyrics) and is even more bitter, as he lays his cards on the table and says that without Hull and Jacka in the band it's not going to work - that Jack The Lad are dead, lying in the water as it were. Not for the first or last time though, the gentlemanly Rod was far too hard on himself - had the right people got behind it 'Satisfied' could have been as big as any of Lindisfarne's biggest sellers and Rod's pop instinct hadn't deserted him after the band split up. These three songs are amongst the powerful Jack The Lad ever recorded and add a rock brutality that somehow doesn’t undermine the fragility of the folk. It’s a hard brew to get right, but here Jack The Lad get it more right than most.

The others have to some extent joined in the vibe too, with 'It's Jack The Lad' surely one of the sourest debut albums by a new band to be released. Si, another much under-valued writer who for far too long had been under-used in Lindisfarne, comes up with his third and fourth ever published songs for this album. While 'Rosalee' is proof that the long Lindisfarne list of influences went deeper than most other bands, with a roaring twenties sound that would have been too out-there even for 'Nicely Out Of Tune', 'Song Without A Band' is his first real carat gold classic. This one is a song about being torn between relief at the end of a tiring and frustrating period in his life and wanting it to continue, with guest vocals from Maddy Prior back in the days when Steeleye Span were just another promising folk-rock act instead of global superstars. Si’s guitar is also the secret weapon of the band, the one last sound left over from the 'rock' end of the partnership, cutting through all the acoustic prettiness with a real gutterall squeal that makes this album much more than just another philosophical folk record, That leaves Billy with six songs to fill - which could easily have gone wrong. After all, Mitchell had had far less experience than his colleagues and had written most of these songs before the band were even formed, with most of them co-incidentally reflecting the Cowe and Clements ‘theme’ of having nothing after so many years of trying to break into the music business' upper echelons. In actual fact they're among the strongest on the album, with a Hull-like feel for expression and character (if not quite Hull's sense of underdog outrage) and a sense of frustration and melancholy that taps into the heart of Lindisfarne's madder, sadder sound. 'Boilermaker Blues' is a pulsating rocker about starting over again that makes the perfect overture for the record, fading up as if Jack The Lad are an inevitable continuation of what came before rather than a new band. 'Turning Into Winter' is an exquisite acoustic ballad about remembering good times to keep you going through the bad, ‘Promised Land' is a pretty folk lament about falling short of where you wanted to be that's very in keeping with the overall theme ('I'm just off the boat and I'm taking it hard') and better yet is 'Lying On The Water', a marvellous sneer/celebration of childhood dreams that didn't always turn out as planne8d. In context even the five-minute arrangement of Cornish, Geordie and Irish instrumental folk jigs (self-mockingly titled 'A Cornish Pastiche') is a lot better than it sounds on paper, a whistle-stop tour that has no time to get boring.

Indeed, this record is never boring – if it has a problem it’s that at times there’s a little much happening here for fans to keep up with it all. One other thing I love about this album is that it never sits still. All of these songs aren’t simple pop tunes but suites. Just when you think you have a song pegged down as a folk tune, suddenly in comes a roar of guitar. Every time you think a song is going to be simple, it throws in a middle eight that changes everything in an instant. A song like ‘Fast Lane Driver’ starts off as a grumpy Geordie growl, before a killer piano solo turns it into passionate prog. ‘Back On The Road Again’ is slow and sombre until a breathtaking middle eight that represents the band on stage giving their all. ‘Song Without A Band’ has the same vocalists singing throughout (Si, Billy and Maddy Pryor) but they keep us guessing which one is going to be the lead and which is the ‘harmony’, with the feel of a song that’s forever changing. ‘Lying On The Water’ meanwhile ends up switching ‘lead’ instruments every few bars, the tune passing hands like a baton as we go through guitarists and fiddle-players before coming out the other side in a noise of percussion. Even a supposedly straightforward song like ‘Why Can’t I Be Satisfied?’ suddenly and magnificently changes key out of nowhere towards the end, pushing what till now has been a full-on rock song into an a capella moment of sweetness. ‘It’s Jack The Lad’ feels like an album that’s always fluid, where there’s simply so much going on the musicians have to play it like this, as if several layers have been lain on top of each other.

There’s another half-theme of the album too: that the child idea of the adult world is effectively an illusion. It's worth remembering that not so many years ago Lindisfarne were still at school and college, always naturally assuming that their endeavours would end up in a successful music career at some point. Naturally their thoughts must have drifted back to the last time they had this much ‘freedom’ – and how their dreams of how a music career would turn out may have fallen short. There are many reports of how the band greeted the vague praise of 'Nicely Out Of Tune' and the rapturous enthusiasm of 'Fog On The Tyne' with a 'but of course - we were too good not to make it!' Even before first Jacka and then Hull joined the Downtown Faction this was a band that seemed to be going places, serious enough to 'weed' out the members who - shock horror - got proper jobs while waiting for the music Gods to shine on them; this was a band who never had any doubt they were going to make it if they tried. Fast-forward a few years and things look a bit differently. Everyone is aware that there is such bitter blood in Lindisfarne it doesn't ever look as if they will ever get back together again (in fact it took six long years between ‘Dingly Dell’ and ‘Back and Fourth’) and that lightning is unlikely to strike twice. There is no other opportunity, no second chance – Jack The Lad have to be big and with bills and mortgages and families the musicians can’t afford for it to be big later – they need to be big now. Suddenly this second band matters so much more than the first; Lindisfarne's success once seemed inevitable, but now suddenly so does failure. A band still all in their early or mid twenties, Jack The Lad have invested too much time and effort into this career to simply give up and do something else and suddenly those determined thoughts of just a few years before seem mocking and hollow.

Though Billy wasn't a part of Lindisfarne his 'Lying On The Water' sums up the mood in the Lindisfarne camp well (and would have fitted nicely onto the fame-isn't-all-it's cracked-up-to-be of 'Dingly Dell') with a flying charging hymn to youth that changes every time I hear it - sometimes it's desperate to cling on to past dreams, sometimes it's bitterly mocking, sometimes it's simply dazed and bewildered; every-time, though it sounds like a last throw of the dice - that this time when the narrators sail away on their pea-green boats they're sailing not for the lake they can visit again someday but for a waterfall of adulthood and responsibility, the song ending in a cacophony of noise and rattled childish percussion as the band end the medley that's been playing for pretty much the whole of the second side in a guttural cry of noise, mayhem and tension, vowing to grow up. It's a thrilling climax to an album that's been pointing in this direction since the first line of the first song ('I haven't got a reason to make you want to stay', perhaps Mitchell's message to the listeners at home and surely one of the most honest and self-deprecating lines to ever kick-start a career) - the moment when Lindisfarne lose the childishness of certainly their first album and parts of the next two. Even in a collection of AAA records that's full of coming-of-age epics (Pink Floyd's 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' is full of them, while Brian Wilson’s 'Smile' mourns the loss from the other side) ‘It’s Jack The Lad’ is a rite of passage that every record collector with an interest in this period deserves to know. It's also the only place that this 'story' can end, as a record effectively about 'failure' ends with a song where in effect nobody wins and everything that came before it - the hypnotic beauty of [13] Lady Eleanor, the [36] fog on the tyne on a beautiful day and the [17] clear white light that guides us on are all shown to be illusions in a world that's really real, dark and bitter. There’s no one pout to save us on this record, no fair maidens or divine intervention, just ourselves – and the album motto is that we have to make the most of our summers to keep us warm the whole winter through. It ‘s the ultimate ‘goodbye’ and from now on in the book every 'encore', even the good ones, don't quite have the same sighing finality and grudging acceptance, re-writing albums like this and 'Dingly Dell' so that this revelation never happened.

In effect it is the end, sort of. Rod has already guessed that Jack The Lad won’t have the audiences or appeal that Lindisfarne will have and is itching to play with other people who keep making him offers. As things turn out Clements won't play with his mates until the Lindisfarne Christmas reunion shows that run in 1976 and 1977 and will only become a full reunion in 1978. His loss to the band robs the band of their biggest. Most organised voice and his replacements - multi-instrumentalist Ian 'Walter' Fairburn and bassist Phil Murray, both local folk legends - will steer the band even further in a folk direction, away from the folk-rock hybrid that works so well here. Though all four Jack The Lad records will have their strong moments, the irony is that the band will never again have quite as much going for them as this clever concept album all about, umm, how much they haven't got going for them. Rod has since said that he regrets throwing in the towel with a band who promised so much but that he thought it only fair when he'd come to the realisation that the band were too out of synch with the times to have a future: actually that's the beauty of this hidden gem, made by a band who have seen the writing on the wall long before any critics have and decide to make what seems to be their last will and testament as good a one as they possibly can. Rod, canny as ever, was clearly right in purely commercial terms - no Jack The Lad release ever made the charts or came anywhere close to it and the band will end all too prematurely when even a switch from loyal Charisma to the clout of United Artists couldn't help them sell any extra copies in 1976 and you can sympathise with him for wondering whether this band of misfit musicians would ever get it together. However what a tragedy that he left the band when he did, irrepairably altering the chemistry that had created at least five of the best things that any members of Lindisfarne ever wrote (with the other six not a million miles behind either).

Well, it was a good plan and the world of folk-rock should have been there for this band’s taking. But a lack of hit singles, troubled times in the rock business that saw album sales slip worldwide and record companies more hesitant than usual to fund new-coming bands – not to mention  the bitterness still felt by Lindisfarne and fans alike over their hasty split - put paid to Jack The Lad’s future prematurely. The album cover didn't help either, with the four band members smiling toothy pop grins (top l-r Cowe, Mitchell, bottom l-r Laidlaw, Clements) while clutching country instruments and leading to the false impression that this would be a light Nashville style album of the 'Fog On The Tyne' mould - when in actual fact it's all about the interaction between the melancholia of the folk and the anger of the rock. The band hated it and had only had it taken under suffrage on the condition that it would only be on the back cover - the logo of 'Jack The Lad' (a smooth looking rat-like man in a suit) was meant to be the only thing on the front cover, which is better but still lags far behind representing how good the album is. Had this been Lindisfarne they might have stood a chance of changing it - but Jack The Lad were a new and untested band and Charisma were still smarting over the too-clever-by-nine-tenths cardboard sleeve for 'Dingly Dell' (which made 'The White Album' look over-drawn!)

No wonder so many fans were put off at the, however, it's a very different story. The band’s records are all now finally available again on CD after one of the longest waits of any AAA albums and after decades of trying to track them all down and all were received with surprise and fawning from the limited group of critics and fans who'd heard them. For years Jack The Lad had been written for knowing they stood 'no chance' in the rock and roll scene in 1973. Here, forty-five years later or so, it’s what makes them special: very little has dated on any of these records and indeed this debut’s pic-and-mix collage of styles still feels a little bit futuristic. Out of place Jack The Lad may have been at the time, but the decades have been far kinder to this record and the three that follow than many others from the same period - heartfelt, honest, clever but not over-clever, well-made without being overproduced and made with skill, even on songs about never having any skill at all, 'It's Jack The Lad' sounds today like one of the best albums no one has ever heard. Just think how great Lindisfarne album number four might have been with the best of this album and Hull's solo effort 'Pipedream' from the same era thrown into the mix. Jacks of all trades? No, masters of all trades. In fact it's not 'jack' at all but very very good. This is a record with so much to offer and will be of some small comfort throughout the rest of this book as missed opportunities, boredom and yet more inter-band issues make the coming winter seem long...

The Songs:

[78] ‘Boilermaker Blues starts the band’s career as they mean to go on, indeed almost as if the band have always been doing this as it’s a very unusual way for a band to start a career with a song that couldn’t be less like [13] ‘Lady Eleanor’. Though we start with a similar fade-in, there’s a real sense of having too much thrown at us at once, along with a lyric that basically has the narrator admitting he doesn’t feel worthy enough for things as they were so he’s ‘starting again’, but not at all convinced he’s going to achieve anything. There’s a rip-roaring banjo part that would never have been a part of Lindisfarne’s sound ushering in a song that’s both less commercial and yet catchier than almost anything the parent band ever did. Written during the years when Billy was struggling to make a living as a musician and watching his old mates from the group that would go on to be Lindisfarne ride on to greater things, it’s lyrics about being replaced, picking yourself up and starting again. As such its a perfect parallel to Jack the Lads’ current situation as new boys on the block once more. The song starts with what sounded like a promising meeting – but the narrator and the girl he’s been chatting up leave for ‘separate rooms’ and he decides to put everything behind him and start again, declaring ‘I’ll soon forget your face’ in such a wistful way that it’s clear that he wouldn’t do anything of the sort.  The mix of this song is a little bit unclear – Billy’s vocal is rather hard to hear for instance – but it’s still easy to pick out the clever arrangement going on underneath, displaying all of Jack the Lad’s wares one after the other, from Rod’s busy bass and violin to Billy’s banjo and Si’s spiky electric guitar. The harmonies are also spot-on and the blend of folk and pop (and rock given Cowe’s electric guitar bite) already sounds as if we’ve been listening to this sort of thing for decades. As for the title, your guess is as good as mine, although its worth pointing out that it’s a suit associated with manual labouring and perhaps ‘starting again’ from the bottom.

[79] ‘Back On The Road Again is another of Billy’s introspective finding-your-way songs but taken at a slower lick this time, sporting some particularly fine Lindisfarnish harmonies. Written from the back of a tour bus, with the narrator observing all the mundane things going on around him, the song would have been quite dull and boring had Mitchell not written in some lines that are obviously his true feelings. The sound of a tired, bored musician questioning why he’s flogging his music for audiences that don’t seem to want to know, it sets the tone for much of the album to follow as the narrator’s slow mournful crawl is in complete contrast to the warm feelings for the family he has left behind. The track works well because of what it doesn’t say: ‘Don’t worry about what you’ve left at home’ cries Mitchell in such a mournful elongated wail that it’s apparent he’s not going to take his own advice. A sudden up-tempo electric flurry in the middle section, complete with car engine sound effects, represents the sudden adrenalin rush of a gig when everything is coming at the musicians really really fast and they feel like they really are in the right place (‘your heart beating like a drum!’) and that everything really is worthwhile. Si, who had long been looking for a chance to rock out on Lindisfarne’s magnum opuses, serves the new band well here, turning in a fiery solo that cuts through the song’s melancholy rather well and which is one of his very best, before it slowly segues into a folkier riff. Like the narrator, however, the listener is rather disappointed when the narrator comes off stage and back to the lazy sanguine of the opening verse and the tour bus, going back through the motions again while resting between gigs, with that one brief bit of excitement offset by the rather boring times surrounding it. We then get an almost straight repeat of the first verse, this time with the rejoinder that the band will get it right ‘next time’. Somehow, though, this sweet ballad overcomes its weary shrug to really pull at the heartstrings, mirroring the feeling on much of ‘Dingly Dell’ that the band have never been as inspired as when telling us that they’re tired.

[80] ‘Plain Dealing is a very characteristic Rod Clements pop song, with its half-spoken wordy narrative and gentle oompah backing. Deciding that rock star phoniness is not for him, the narrator decides to look for honesty from now on and be true to himself – although why this opening verse then leads into such a strange middle section is anybody’s guess. A brass band and a tack piano suddenly enter from nowhere, making the track feel like it’s wondered in from some Western saloon bar, adding to Jack the Lad’s pot pourri of styles without quite explaining why. The lyrics are rather good though, a philosophical debate about mankind’s need to lie to himself and to other people, with the resolution that the folk world is more ‘honest’ than that of rock and roll. ‘You don’t have to close my eyes’ urges Rod, perhaps to Hull over at the other side of the Lindisfarne debate, ‘you know that it’s wiser not to try’. As the songs on this album go, ‘Plain Dealing’ is perhaps a little too plain and lacks the multi-facetedness of much of the album, but it’s pleasant enough as filler songs go.

[81] ‘Fast Lane Driver is a rather better Rod Clements song touching on the themes heard earlier in the album and comparing the actual job of being a musician to being a driver out on the road, manoeuvring the twists and turns of artistic fashion along the way. We’ve been on this road before from Rod, with other songs about his musical career path equated to the path of a tour bus, but never has he been down a road quite as sad or lonely as this. Still smarting from Alan Hull’s refusal to tour with Lindisfarne towards the end of 1972 Rod complains that he’s been driven off the road by other cars, despite having places where he’s still got to go and things that he’s still got to say. The only trouble is that the narrator is no longer driving down the motorway but is now on a back ‘B’ road, desperately trying to hitch a lift from a passing band and has somehow ended up even further away from the destination he had in mind when he first set out on his long musical journey.  Furthermore, Rod now feels he’s getting ‘too old’ for a rock musician (little did he think most of the bands on this list would still be going in their 60s and 70s although, sadly, Lindisfarne called it quits in 2003), with brakes that no longer work and slow reaction times that put him in danger of a musical accident when set against the younger bands out there. To add to his misery, Rod’s narrator sees newer, younger, fresher cars overtaking him all the time, even ‘Sunday drivers’ who turn to music only as a last resort in comparison to the burning ‘sacrifice’ the narrator has given for his art. Nobly, though, Rod gets out the way of faster traffic and bids us at home to ‘say a prayer for the fast lane driver’ who is no longer able to drive at speed. Mournful and fed-up for most of the song, this track is a prime example of why Jack The Lad should have been kings of the road. Perfectly crafted, from Billy doing his old friend another great turn on the vocal of this song, to the twinkling keyboards and grouchy guitar-lines, the song builds in power from verse to verse as if changing gear every thirty seconds or so, but it’s the lengthy middle eight that stands out the most. Dropping their acoustic beginning, the band suddenly get noisy, full of burning anger and rising contempt as the wounded narrator begs for another chance after finding his star status is gone and finding he is wounded by it even though he accepts it, shocked to find he’s ‘flesh and blood like anyone’. Clements’ fiddle playing, a mournful brass riff and Cowe’s feedback-drenched slashing guitar chords is a sound to behold, especially appearing suddenly in the middle of this most gentle, acoustic of albums and the rise in power leading up to the last verse is enough to make you drive off the road yourself, with Billy reaching a screaming climax before the siong finally chills out on a rather funky jazz keyboard solo. Rod and his two fellow band-mates are now on their own, fighting for existence all over again after seemingly having the whole world at their feet just a couple of years before. Powerful stuff, even if we know with hindsight the band will be best of friends again come 1978, the drama represented by this gloomy song long forgotten.

[82] ‘Turning Into Winter is another exquisite ballad from Billy, similar in style and mood to Lindisfarne’s classic [15] ‘Winter Song’. Fragile and beautiful, it’s another very Lindisfarne tale of being careful when things go right because they can so easily go so wrong. Billy had an upbringing much like Alan’s, one where he grew up with nothing, but unlike his sometime competitor he’d never really enjoyed the taste of stardom. This song, first written back in the early 1960s, feels like the album’s warning – yet also its song of hope. Everything is seasonal and you have to remember how easily things can go wrong – and how quickly they can go right. On this song the coldness of life can always find a ‘way through’, no matter how thick your clothing and yet at times of ultimate despair you will also never lose your memories of hope. Marvellously nostalgic, Mitchell already sounding as if he is wearing pipe and slippers even though he was all of twenty-six at the time of recording (and barely twenty-one at the time he wrote the rough draft as heard on ‘The Callies’ album in 1971, which is much like the Jack The Lad arrangement barring the jolly ending). This song’s winning cosiness just oozes nights by the fire and snow falling on the window-panes, although it speaks too of Spring ‘waking the sunshine from its slumber’. In many ways it feels like a song from ‘Pipedream’, where karma will come back to bite you if you smoke yourself in your own pipe – here though it’s a less personal idea on the subject and more of a universal one – we’re all going to have fallow periods and successful ones. The performance of this song is really lovely, with Billy’s majestic vocal sounding at least a century older than his real age and the melody is a truly haunting, beautiful one, as great as any other in this book. The dreaded mandolin is back, too, but is far less obtrusive here than it is on latterday Lindisfarne albums and the presence of a barely audible string arrangement really does add an epic touch to this most delicate of songs. However, unlike the no-holds-barred emotion of Alan Hull at his best, Jack The Lad aren’t anything like as sure of their abilities to hold an audience’s attention. So, after five minutes of glorious balladeering, Jack The Lad tag a jolly jig on to the end of this song because, according to the album sleeve-notes, the song ‘was getting too nice’ – a shame, considering what a great recording the parent band would have made of this brilliant composition. Even so, most bands would give their high (false) teeth to record a song about aging as sensitive and powerful as ‘Turning Into Winter’ and Mitchell’s muted performance is another of this debut album’s masterpieces.

Side two begins with a flourish and with possibly the best song Jack The Lad ever recorded. [83] ‘Why Can’t I Be Satisfied? has Rod’s fingers all over it, including an ear-catching opening riff, a great walking bass line, catchy chorus and head-hanging verses (it follows the same chord pattern and tempo as his more famous [27] ‘Meet Me On The Corner’, though the mood couldn’t be more different). A stomping singalong that’s catchy as the flu, with Ray Laidlaw beating the hell out of his tom-toms, it’s a near-perfect song about always falling short of perfection, sung with sullen sarcasm. The song returns to the theme of ‘Fast Line Driver’, but this time the narrator is telling us that he left fame and fortune of his own accord, dissatisfied with what they offered him and ‘spitting out my silver spoon’ while on the look out for greater fulfilment. Very noble you might think, but the narrator is actually quite angry with himself here, contrasting his former comfort with his current impoverished situation and lack of things to do. The narrator left (and is about to leave again)_ because he’s on the lookout for something better, but however well things go ‘they only keep me happy for a while’ and he fears that ‘my destiny is to be bored and discontented to my dying day’. The narrator is now rich, with ‘food upon the table and gold upon my teeth’ but he still feels unsatisfied, tired with the trinkets of fame and desperate for something deeper and more substantial. It’s a lyric that goes well with the head-hanging riff and constant stomping from the drums that turn what could have been a joyous dance into a pompous march. A winningly catchy song, displaying everything that’s great about Jack the Lad, how typical that it should be written by their soon-to-be-departed-writer, with its lyrics about never being able to get enough of something, full of exasperation about how everyone around the narrator seems to be happy with the same lot as he’s got. Just as catchy and twice as un-satisfyingly restless as the Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’, this is a strong song superbly arranged. The harmonies on this song are exquisite, with the higher-pitched tones of Si especially a star and there’s a stunning finale where, not satisfied with giving us everything we could have expected, the song throws us an extra bone in the form of a sudden key change where the band suddenly sing a capella. With its big wide drawn-out syllables this is a fabulous song to singalong to and perfect for anyone whose ever identified as a perfectionist. Released, perhaps inevitably, as the album’s only single, the song’s lack of interest, sales and airplay when released as a single seem somehow sadly fitting really given the subject matter about always falling short  (and this despite the fact that Jack The Lad were plugged on John Peels’ radio programme more than nearly any other band in the mid-1970s, with John Peel’s wife claiming the foursome were her ‘favourite’ group of the day according to books about the band. How I’d love to see a collected CD of Jack The Lad’s radio sessions one day…)

[84] ‘Song Without A Band’ is another career highlight, this time from Simon Cowe. The song cleverly mixes two very distinct styles in a typical Jack the Lad kind of way, but not by using the typical Jack The Lad genres. The countryish choruses are ostensibly about the narrator wondering what on earth is happening to his loved ones while he’s not there to keep an eye on them (presumably the narrator is back out on the road touring again, given one of this album’s running themes),while the rockier verses are about how lost and troubled he feels, out on the road, rootless. The whole song is heard between these two sections, which sound as though we are getting different camera angles of the same story, at ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ that’s most effective. his is another great track exploring Lindisfarne’s demise and the futility of plugging music nobody seems to want to hear, contrasted against the tempting soft bed at home and the sheer enticing-ness of the music. Billy sings the main part of the song with Si croaking a harmony vocal and given that this is the first time we’ve really heard what will become the defacto Jack The Lad sound they already sound great together. The song already breaks up the sound with an unexpected double-tracked cameo from Maddy Prior, mere months before that band hit the big time with ‘All Around My Hat’ (which could have easily been a Jack The Lad track with its sepia-tinged revival of age-old mating rituals, though they would probably have thrown a verse about drinking in there too). Using the memorable metaphor of the band members out on the road trapped in a tiny tour bus halfway round the world trying to pull together in unity one more time (had Jack The Lad been paying close attention to [56] ‘Numbers’ from Hull’s ‘Pipedream’, which is effectively the same idea?), the song tells us that the narrator is ‘a long lost soul, like a song without a band’, the perfect metaphor for a rock and roll musician feeling lost. As with many sulky touring lyrics you wonder why the band ever bother (‘Pack your bag, it’s a drag, you gotta fly through the storm – the stage it’s cage, it’s no wonder I’m so down and I wanna GO HOME!!!!’ sung with real venom and power). However the answer comes from the thrilling backing which is really, well, groovy – plucked strings bounce against Cowe’s sprawling lead and Mitchell’s stand-up acoustic, while Ray thrashes away in the middle.  There’s even a great jazz piano break that comes out of nowhere to add yet another element to the Jack The Lad sound. The result is a small triumph that changes again our idea of just what this band can do, before they’ve even had time to settle on a formula, while exploring further the themes of ‘Dingly Dell’ that show business isn’t all its cracked up to be. A thrilling under-rated track that’s a huge leap forward for Si’s writing, no longer the jokey novelty member of the band. 

Well, not until the next track anyway. Cowe’s other song [85] ‘Rosalee is less successful, partly because this is genre hopping taken just one stage too far and partly because Si’s vocals aren’t up to Billy Mitchell’s, sweet as they are. Why, with so many genres to choose from, are Jack The Lad so intent on re-creating the roaring twenties? The lyrics don’t particularly feel as if they belong there as this is a very forward thinking relationship really. The Dixieland band arrangement on the 1920s-type verses is an interesting touch, though, especially in the middle when the guest musicians finally get a chance to breathe within the song’s stifling atmosphere and the track’s delightful chorus with Cowe and Mitchell singing in harmony just about rescues this song’s gaucheness. Rosalee the gypsy queen remains a hard character to love, though, as she offers to tell us our horoscope in front of an oompah-band and Cowe tells her story in all its gruesome detail including the ‘hairy greasy ringlets hanging down your back so free’. There’s a half-theme of wanting to go back to the past to put something right, which would suit this album’s theme of missed opportunities, but alas we don’t get that potentially beautiful song – we get this decidedly ugly one instead. To go with the lyrics this song sports a rather angular, unwieldy tune that somehow still catches the ear and might have done better had the band not put words to it, which is the opposite of what we usually say in these books (the lovely scat-sung but otherwise breezy instrumental in the middle is by far the most impressive passage in this piece). You don’t need to be a fortune-teller, though, to know that messing around with the formula quite this much is an unhappy omen.

[86] ‘Promised Land is a return to Mitchell’s seemingly never-ending list of head-hanging narrators, one who is seemingly getting drunker and even more morose as the song progresses. The narrator is afraid to admit defeat on a relationship when there are ‘so many good things left to do’ and seems to be keeping the song going simply so he doesn’t have to go home and face his problems for real, leading it through another twist or turn whenever the song seems to be heading to a full stop, which it naturally does every few seconds or so. Accompanied by a real bar-room atmosphere, this is another of those drinking songs that work by proving once and for all that liquor is not the answer, it only makes things worse: the joke being on the narrator who is too blind drunk to notice or care that he might be getting things wrong all over again simply by carrying on swigging from the bottle of booze in his hands. The ‘promised land’ of the title is, of course, a mirage that came a cropper once cold hard reality hit so no wonder Billy is feeling quite so down – and sounding so drunk! Sadly the song never really moves on from its promising opening verse and lacks the variety of the other songs on the album, although it does at least fit the ‘missed opportunities’ theme rather well. Once  again strong harmonies and an interesting fiddle-meets-mandolin arrangement salvage material that has been better done across the other Jack The Lad albums.

It seems odd to say that Jack The Lad have to go back to the past to find their future, but they so with [87] ‘A Corny Pastiche, a medley of centuries-old traditional English instrumentals strung together seemingly at random, which sees them heading even further down the long and winding folky road they’ll mine on their next album. I can’t see many rock and roll or even Lindisfarne fans giving this medley more than a cursory glance, but study hard and you’ll be rewarded, by the band’s performances at least which are very much the tightest Jack The Lad will ever be. Many of these pieces come from the ‘Northumbrian Minstrelly’ published in 1882 on behalf of the ‘Society of Antiquaries in Newcastle-upon-Tyne’ who wanted to write down oral folk songs from the North East before they were lost for good. Many of Jack The Lad’s traditional songs start life here suggesting at least one of them owned it (my guess is Billy) and it’s a key Lindisfarnian gospel, as it were, given that it’s basically a collection of songs by the working class of Newcastle which they sang or played to get them through long working hours. There are five pieces in this medley in total: ‘The Black Cock of Whickham’ is suitably proud and strutting-like. Knowing Jack The Lad they chose it for the innuendo-laden title alone, although the original is of course about a cockerel and most likely is a tribute to a bird that did particularly well during ‘cock fights’; ‘Chief O Neil’s Favourite’ is a merry hornpipe that was also given words to become the hymn ‘The Rights Of Man’. Bouncy and well-played, it indicates  that whoever O Neil may be he had good taste in favourites (he may well be the same ‘O Neil’ as a young Irish boy allegedly captured by the Sioux Indians during his parents’ progression to the USA who charmed them with his photographic memory and instant recall of the songs from his Irish youth); ‘The Golden Rivet’ is, err, a sea shanty played on a mandolin and as wacky and wonderful as that makes it sound. It probably gets its title from a typical Jack The Lad ‘prank’ played on new sailors that they would get special luck if they could locate the golden rivet hidden on every ship – of course, there never was one, gold being the wrong consistency for being welded into shape; ‘Staten Island’ is an Irish-sounding hornpipe and an uneasy mix of electric guitar and fiddle presumably named for the New York venue that was a key place for Irish immigrants to land in the ‘new world’, the instrumental being full of hope and happiness; finally, the brief ‘Cook In The Kitchen’ is a final Irish tune, a bouncy but rather drunk sounding lopsided jig, suggesting that the chef’s special is going to give you a headache by the time you wake up in the morning. You’re glad the whole LP doesn’t sound like this (it would just be another of those so-so Fairport Convention or even latter-day Pentangle albums if it did), but it’s a merry way to pass five minutes and the mix of electric and acoustic instruments, all being played at a ridiculously fast speed in places, shows just how talented this band were. The self-deprecating title is fun too!

Then, perched on the end of the track as if it’s another folk tale, comes Billy Mitchell with one last slab of rocking self-pity on [88] ‘Lying On The Water’, another of his earliest songs from ‘The Callies’ days. This one has been altered quite radically though and is perhaps my favourite Jack The Lad song, showing off so many of their different facets all at once, jumping from folk to rock to, well, everything. Usually when bands do that I get dizzy, but the whole point of the song is that it’s unsettling and about making the transition from childhood to adulthood, none of which comes in a straight line. Perhaps hearing Lindisfarne Mark II’s [75] ‘Roll On River’ (or was it the other way around given the early draft?) here Billy comes up with a very similar song about how life is a journey across water. Here, though, he’s more concerned with childhood, with ‘water’ his symbol for childhood and the water that’s the source of life which we all grow further from in old age. Why, having been shown how happy life can be, do we then swim against the currents in adulthood? Even though I’ve only ever heard one recording of this song (did Jack The Lad ever do it live? It sounds like they should have done, but it doesn’t appear on any of their bootlegs!) its one of those magical songs that seems to be different every time I hear it, there’s so much packed into it. Sometimes that piercing Si Cowe guitar lead sounds threatening, angry, wild and Billy’s vocal is deliciously mocking, taunting all those who haven’t grown up yet – and who still think that they can stay in their childhood state for the rest of their life (‘Remember what good times you had when you were just a boy of nine…’) At other times it’s joyous, it’s gruff angry stance actually shaking the adult despondency from the narrator’s eyes and reminding him that life doesn’t have to be like this, that he should go back to being a child. Realising that he’s lost his way he calls out to the children he sees around them to ‘fill up your mind with many, many things – because these many things are yours!’ At other times this song is unbearably poignant and sad, a requiem for all the lost dreams that never happened, complete with a massive Jack The Lad vocal chorus that sounds positively chilling, with Si’s guitar wonderfully out of tune as it desperately struggles to catch up with the bounce of Billy’s rhythm. The surprises aren’t over there either because suddenly, after the first verse and chorus, we hear the ‘old’ self calling to Billy, his guitar pinging in the breeze like an echo before Rod’s fiddle arrives to take us back to the ‘source’, a reminder of life was going in a straight line and made sense. It’s a glorious moment as the band pile in behind the riff one by one, turning it into a shared celebration before the me;lancholy riff suddenly takes hold and forces a second verse and chorus. You think the song is going to pull the samew trick but no, we’re left in a merry dance that keeps going and going, the guitar of adulthood chasing the folk fiddle of childhood (or something like that) until finally the two sides collide in one of the most thrilling finales to any album. Suddenly, as the instruments rock and folk all fade, all of Jack The Lad pick up a piece of percussion and bang the hell out of it, all of them adding to the pulsating rhythm which grows louder and louder until, on cue, they all hurl their instruments to the floor at once. Is this death? That would certainly fit the album theme of missed opportunities. Whatever the meaning, it sounds terrific, as tambourine maracas and shakers all reverberate through the speakers, taking what started as a pure piece of beauty into sheer noise. This clever song never sits still for a second – and is utterly magnificent.

Overall, then, ‘Nicely’ might suffer from the usual Lindisfarne problems of inconsistency but it is a pretty darn smashing debut, ever so nearly up there with ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’. This is a band that should have gone on to so many totally brilliant things – in many ways Jack The Lad do in the future, though with Rod always out the door to these ears they lose something of their ambition, scope and drama after releasing this album, however good they remain. This debut is, though, surely one of the great undiscovered masterpieces of the 1970s, with a band who can go anywhere or do anything that are making so many serious points but having great fun while they do so. Folk-rock at its best in other words, lovingly re-issued on CD at a budget price by the band’s old label Charisma in 2005 and finally restored to the collector’s market that should have embraced this band long ago. If only the label could find a live album in its vaults somewhere too (live reviews of Jack The Lad always seem to be glowing, with tales of the band’s mischief and witty patter rife), I’m sure I could find a home for that on my list somewhere too! (No a late-period 1976 gig and a 1993 reunion both recorded when the band were past their best don’t count!) In the meantime, look out for this classic if you have any pop, folk or even country leanings within you (and if you don’t, what the hell are you doing reading this list?!) as this band were masters of all three, plus plenty of other things as well. Jack was no lad’s band but a mature, poetic group every bit the equal of their parent group at their most inventive and this first album is surely Jack The Lad at their best. From where I am sitting the music lives long.


'Nicely Out Of Tune' (L) (1970)

'Fog On The Tyne' (L) (1971)

'Dingly Dell' (L) (1972)

'Roll ON Ruby' (L) (1973) 

'The Squire' (AH) (1975)

'The Old Straight Track' (JTL) (1975)

‘Jackpot’ (JTL) (1976)

'Magic In The Air' (L) (1978)

'Back and Fourth' (L) (1978)

‘The News’(L) (1979)

'Sleepless Nights' (L) (1982)

'Dance Your Life Away' (L) (1986)

‘Amigos’ (1989)

'Elvis Lives On The Moon' (L) (1993)

'Here Comes The Neighbourhood' (1998)

'Promenade' (2002)

Si Cowe Obituary and Tribute (2015)

Surviving TV Clips

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part One 1970-1987

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Two 1988-2015

Essay: Keepin’ The Rage On Behalf Of The Working Classes


  1. Thanks Alan for your diligent and insightful reviews of the 4 Jack the Lad albums. Like you, I am a fan, though I never saw the band live and only ever experienced them through their albums. Even that was an incomplete experience as, despite my best efforts at the time, I never acquired a copy of "Rough Diamonds". I've been able to access all of their albums again through Apple Music except for said elusive "Rough Diamonds". I am a big fan of Billy's singing and am in accord of your description of the band as "Lindisfarne with their roots showing". Their music continues to inspire me in my own musical endeavours. Best wishes from Brisbane, Australia, Mark Cryle

  2. Thankyou kindly Mark, Jack The Lad are a very under-rated band. Good luck tracking down 'Rough Diamonds'!