Monday, 28 May 2012
Lindisfarne “Dingly Dell” (1972)
All Fall Down/Plankton’s Lament/Bring Down The Government!/Poor Old Ireland/Don’t Ask Me/O No Not Again!//Dingle Regetta/Wake Up Little Sister/Go Back/Court In The Act/Mandolin King/Dingly Dell
If ever an album broke up a band it was ‘Dingly Dell’. Lindisfarne’s third album, it followed the critical success of ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ and the huge commercial success of ‘Fog On The Tyne’ (best-selling album of 1972 you know!) into a sea of radio bans, controversy, cardboard sleeves and band break-ups. We’ve talked about ‘difficult third album’ syndrome on this website before (Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’ being another good example) and ‘Dingly Dell’ is that problem personified – the first album is written and played in concert often by hungry unknowns the second made after encouraging noises about the first (and with leftovers from that album) and the third has to be started from scratch, written on the run during a gruelling tour with the eyes of the world staring back at you and the music press ready to write you off for any perceived arrogance or mistakes. Lindisfarne were a victim of their own success in their third year together and they fell into every hole going, releasing the ‘wrong’ song as a single, releasing a ‘pretentious’ album sleeve, making pretentious interview remarks that put too much pressure on the album (‘we’re going for perfection, like ‘Sgt Pepper’ or ‘Abbey Road’ Alan Hull said to the NME) and trying too hard to be different to how they were before. No album could have measured up to the sales of ‘Fog On The Tyne’ anyway – no other British album after The Beatles’ break up had ever achieved such sales – and for years ‘Dingly Dell’ has been dismissed as a mistake, a disappointment and a frustratingly average release at a time when, had they got it right, Lindisfarne would have been champions of the music world.
That said, sitting here in 2012 away from all that pressure and success, ‘Dingly Dell’ sounds like a pretty decent substitute for the mania of ‘Fog On The Tyne’. There are some pretty awful tracks here but they’re overshadowed by some of Lindisfarne’s most sophisticated, mature and heartfelt songs. In fact I’d go as for as to say this album’s excellent first side marks perhaps the highest point in the band’s career, ‘keeping the rage’ as one of their later songs had it without sacrificing the musical accessibility or lyrical empathy that made the first two albums so special. The one-two-three punch of the opening medley (All Fall Down/Plankton’s Lament/Bring Down The Government!) might well be the most thrilling moment in the band’s catalogue signalling everything Lindisfarne were about: shouting from the rooftops on behalf of the common man whose voice was being denied and whose feelings were being trampled on. ‘Poor Old Ireland’ too is a magnificent song, among my favourites of all Lindisfarne compositions, one designed to open eyes as well as please ears (it certainly opened mine). Not every fan like Lindisfarne at their most political, but for me Alan Hull was such an intuitive emotional writer that I like him best when he’s at his most angry and passionate and that happens quite a bit on this record, damning magistrates, politicians, town planners and British imperialism with some typically witty, spot-on comments. Even if you don’t like the band’s political side there’s much to enjoy. ‘O No Not Again’ is this album’s novelty song, not as original as ‘Fog On The Tyne’ but still clever in its own way; ‘Wake Up Little Sister’ is catchy pop at its best and ‘Court In The Act’ is a fun rocker with shades of ‘We Can Swing Together’. Things fall down a bit for side two (‘Mandolin King’ is truly atrocious and ‘Dingle Regetta’ an annoying bit of instrumental filler) but taken as a whole and viewed without such hoo-hah ‘Dingly Dell’ is a definite success, not a failure or a disappointment.
I was reading an interview with Ray Laidlaw on the excellent Lindisfarne forum ‘Lindisfarne Chat’ the other day where he reckoned ‘Dingly Dell’ to be their most under-rated album and raved on about how ‘together’ the album sounded, despite the fact that the band were all but breaking up during its recording. That’s very true – ‘Fog’ had seen plenty of ‘solo’ performances but not once on this album does any band member play on their own; this is a ‘band’ playing to cover their strengths and weaknesses and at times sounding like they’re having great fun. The cracks seem to be in just the packaging (where for the only time in their career the band are listed song by song for what parts they’re playing – never a good sign for an album as CSN watchers know having used that device on their most ‘fractious’ albums ‘Daylight Again’ ‘Live It Up’ and ‘Looking Forward’) and the lyrics to Rod Clements’ typically self-effacing song ‘Don’t Ask Me’. Like Rod’s songs on the first (excellent) jack The Lad album (review no 61) it’s a scathing look at the realities of the music business and – like The Moody Blues’ ‘I’m Just A Singer In A Rock ‘n’ Roll Band’ – tries to destroy our image of what its like to have all those people listening to your every word. Surprisingly for such a moody, band-stabbing song it was well received by all the band, especially Hull (who raved on about the song to the music press of the day). But breaking up they were, thanks to a gruelling American tour that came along at just the wrong time and made the band feel like ‘failures’ right at the time they were lord high princes at home (could it be that, like the early Kinks, the band were just too English to translate across? Well, for me personally, no – music transcends all national boundaries, although this week’s Eurovision entries are giving me pause for thought, especially ours).
People wonder nowadays how Lindisfarne could come unscrewed after such a success the year before, especially as in their second career they lasted from 1978 to 1989 with no more line-up changes, but that’s to forget how ‘fragile’ Lindisfarne were in this period. Until 1969 the band were a four-piece called ‘The Brethren’ and Alan Hull was a solo singer (barring a short time in a band called ‘The Chosen Few’) until the two halves realised their best success might lie with each other. We’ve seen in other AAA bands how badly bands can suffer when one half is responsible for ‘performing’ and the other primarily for ‘writing’ – Buffalo Springfield broke up because neither Stills or Young could agree which was which and both The Kinks and Oasis took it hard because the singers/writers/guitarists just happened to be related to each other. In Lindisfarne this crack was there from the beginning, however well the band got along, with Hull the chief writer and chief earner in the band but one who’d been used to singing all of his own songs without passing them ‘over’ to Ray Jackson to sing. Two years of success and getting to know each other had turned the band into the best of friends – but a hard tour, in a foreign land, with the five stuck together on the same coach is probably the quickest way of disintegrating friendships known to man. The fact that the quintet all had different backgrounds, with their shared hunger and drive derived from different memories and circumstances, meant a split was pretty inevitable. When it did come, it came very suddenly – with personality opposites everyone’s friend Alan Hull and the band’s brilliantly oddball Simon Cowe clashing badly. The former wanted the latter out of the band for ‘tuning up on stage’ (probably just the tip of the iceberg), the other three – who’d been through thick and thin together – refused, Hull then refused to go out on tour again, the others disagreed and that pretty much was that. How Jacka ended up in Lindisfarne Mark II with Hull after that split is rather murkier, but for now it’s enough to say that, a few months down the line, all were pretty much friends again, with Laidlaw playing on Hull’s solo album ‘Pipedream’ and the ‘other’ great Lindisfarne band ‘Jack The Lad’ (with Rod Clements and Si Cowe). Hull was even said to be ‘devastated’ when Cowe finally left Lindisfarne for good in 1993 and to have missed him terribly right up until his death two years later.
While Jack The Lad grumbled about the split at first before slowly coming to realise what a great experience it had been (or at least that’s the mood of the songs on albums one to four), Hull was badly shaken by the split. He’s dreamed of stardom his whole life, writing songs while taking on odd jobs to support his young family (married and a father at 21 – his early jobs included window-cleaning and working in a mental home) and had spent so long having his songs ignored (his big break with Lindisfarne came at the comparatively late age of 25) that to turn his back on that adulation he’d worked so hard for really cost him dearly. You can hear the bitterness on Lindisfarne Mark II’s follow-up to this record, ‘Roll On Ruby’ where he compares the ‘music machine’ to a machine turning out sausages (some six years before Pink Floyd used the same image on ‘The Wall’). With all his early songs used up and a seemingly relentless tour of small concert halls up and down the UK when he got back from that difficult American tour away from his family (‘the tour of fishing villages’ he called it), all he needed was a rest and a chance to get his inspiration back. But the marvellous and awful thing about Lindisfarne was that they had no one i charge to tell them to take a rest – they’d grown close to the small Charisma record label and let them handle everything, even though – at that point – they’d never experienced success on such a large scale and didn’t know what to do with it. Instead of everyone around the band kept telling them to keep up the momentum, to keep playing, to keep touring, to keep recording – by 1973 music simply wasn’t fun for anyone any more. Jack The lad soon got the ‘fun’ element back into their music, via series of fun gigs and albums that went pretty much under the radar except for monkeynuts fans like me (and possibly you) – but for Hull and the others in Lindisfarne Mark II it would be a long hard slog trying to regain momentum and reputation that never quite arrived and it would be some years before music became ‘fun’ for Hull again. That’s an awful shame and we fans will long wonder what a fourth album by Lindisfarne proper would have been like (for me the reunion album ‘Back and Fourth’ is – great title and reunion single ‘Run For Home’ aside – the first bad Lindisfarne album).
It wasn’t just the live tours either – tempers making this album were pretty fractious too. It seems ridiculous now that a group as praised as Lindisfarne were could be ordered to follow up the best-selling album of 1972 with a record made in just three (consecutive) days in the studio, but that’s what happened. If ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ was a record perfected over a long period of time as unknowns and ‘Fog On The Tyne’ made over a long period with producer Bob Johnstone and given time to flourish, with plenty of leftover songs still waiting to see the light of the day, then ‘Dingly Dell’ was a rushed cash-in. Working at speed is only the way to make a great album if you’re young and hungry; two years into their road to kingdom come Lindisfarne were neither and should have been given more time and support. Johnstone was producer again but he was by most accounts a changed man, content to let the band pick their songs and work out the arrangements and making only a few small changes whilst recording. According to the excellent Lindisfarne book ‘Fog On The Tyne’ by Dave Ian Hill he was even sat at the mixing desk saying things like ‘hurry up, I’ve got better places to be – like the Caribbean’ and passed the big decisions over to the engineer Bob Potter, not something that helped the tension in the recording booth. As a result of this tiredness, apathy and time limits some of these songs, such as ‘Dingle Regetta’ ‘Court In The Act’ ‘Mandolin King’ and the title track sound unnecessarily anaemic, as if something is missing in the sound and the performance. It’s for this reason I think more than any other that fans never took ‘Dingly Dell’ to their hearts the same way they had the other two – even though song by song ‘Dingly Dell’s strike rate is probably better than even ‘Tyne’s. The wonder, really, is that parts of ‘Dingly Dell’ sounds as good as it does (Hull’s vocal on ‘Poor Old Ireland’ and ‘All Fall Down’ and Jacka’s on ‘Wake Up Little Sister’ being among both vocalist’s best work).
Mixing-wise, too, something’s missing in this album. There’s virtually no bass to any of the album – something helped but not corrected by the CD mixes – and this understandably mortified poor Rod Clements who plays some of his best bass work on the album, notably the title track’s elegiac bass whoops. The orchestral work was arranged by Paul Laidlaw (Ray’s brother) and although the arrangements and performances are great (again, especially on the title track) compared to the use of orchestra on the first two albums there’s something missing again here – with the classical players obviously laid on top of the band, rather than mixed in to sound all as one. Most of the reviews of the day called this album ‘limp’ – they meant the songs as well as the sound, but I can’t help but feel that it’s the slap-dash sound on this album that made it as unliked as it is. What ‘Dingly Dell’ does have going for it, though, is the sheer cornucopia of sounds. We’re used to Jacka’s mandolin and Rod’s fiddle playing giving Lindisfarne an unusual, half-exotic, half-traditional air, but they’re joined here by a brass section on track one, a string section on the final song and a harmonium part on most of the album’s songs that sounds wonderful here – part alien, part traditional, all Lindisfarne and a sort of match between 17th century church and 22nd century alien visitation (actually that’s not a bad match for Lindisfarne’s overall sound either).
Another reason ‘Dingly Dell’ got such short shrift from public and critics was the album packaging. Now I’ve heard of minimal sleeves before but this really was extreme: usually when a vinyl cardboard sleeve was made it was tainted, coloured and imprinted with whatever picture and graphics the record company wanted. For ‘Dingly Dell’ the sleeve was left as it was manufactured and being recycled they sleeve turned out an unappealing shade of browny-beige, with just a rather boring band logo stamped on the front. To the band this made sense: groups were spending too much on colourful packaging they didn’t need, the band were pretty early onto the environmental bandwagon, hoping their audience would follow them down the same recycling road, and they figured their public wanted to hear ‘their’ music whatever it looked like. All perfectly sound reasons, but to the average man in the street who didn’t know this and only owned ‘Fog On The Tyne’ because his mate told him it had a great song on it this all seemed pretentious and put them off buying it as they had the previous album. In case you’re wondering why the records label hadn’t stepped in, well actually Charisma did – only to be shouted down by the band, creating another untimely rift the band didn’t really need. For years fans have known this as the ‘cardboard’ album and the point has been so contentious down the years that Charisma repackaged it for both of the CD re-issues with an innocuous sepia-tinged shot of the band during their ‘hairy’ phase of 1971. That’s a shame because if ever there’s an album that shouldn’t be judged by its cover then it’s this one: starting in broad harsh monochrome before flowering into glorious technicolour, ‘Dingly Dell’ deserved a far better cover than its ever received so far.
You can’t place all the album’s problems on the rushed sessions, the mixing or the packaging. But taken together – and with perhaps the release of the wrong song as the first single – ‘Dingly Dell’ does commit the sin of not sounding like a Lindisfarne album. Had the band released it in 1982 or 1992 chances are it would have been well received – its simply that, in the wake of the huge success of ‘Fog On The Tyne’ both the general public and fans thought they knew exactly what they’d be getting – and :Lindisfarne had already moved on. Even today, scrolling through the review on Amazon, fans seem split into two camps – those that love this album (like me) and those that hate it. As it happens the mix of political ranting, classy tunes and glorious sweet-and-sour harmonies means the recordings are a pretty good mix of classic Lindisfarne moments, but the difference between the overall sights and sounds of the past two Lindisfarne albums and this one means that the public had to re-adjust their ideas about the band at just the point when the band could have taken off into the big time. If I was around in 1972, having bought the first two albums (as I surely would have done) then I’d have been surprised by this album too. Political medleys, extended brass sections, tinny sound, a cardboard sleeve, is this really by the same band? But my real self in 2012 loves this album more than perhaps any other except ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ (and the soft-spot I have for ‘Sleepless Nights’, the best of the reunion albums) and I play it often, especially the glorious side one (which may not be what Lindisfarne sounded like then, but is very much the sound they ‘grow’ into on Hull’s solo albums/Jack The Lad/reunion albums etc). ‘Dingly Dell’ may have been hell to record, it may have split the band up so badly they won’t get together again properly for another six years and it may still be hated to the point where only one song (‘Wake Up Little Sister’) makes it onto Charisma’s various ‘best ofs’ (yep that’s right, even the 80 minute CDs taken from just three albums give this one short shrift and yet have ‘Nicely’ and ‘Fog’ pretty much complete). But for me ‘Dingly Dell’ is a special beautiful place where only the privileged few ever get to visit, where wrongs are righted, town planners have their monstrosities torn down and where mandolin kings are treated like the royalty they deserve. If you have any love for Lindisfarne then please take the journey and don’t let the album’s reputation put you off!
We start with one of my own personal favourite Lindisfarne compositions, ‘All Fall Down’. Like many of Alan Hull’s best songs, this one mixes an effortlessly beautiful melody-line with some truly damning lyrics, this time with the concrete monstrosities of the sixties in his sights (how strange that the world’s most colourful musical decade and the one arguably with the most lasting impact was the same one that saw such drab monolithic monstrosities popping up over the place that lasted in good health for a much shorter time than the buildings they replaced). Hull damns the planners and the politicians who passed their schemes for always looking for the easy, cheap way out when there are people’s environments to consider, using the faceless repetitive world of the block of flats as a metaphor for a much wider problem of the madness of the powers that be ‘making a machine of everyone’. Hull’s vocal is deliciously caustic, sarcastically asking ‘who needs the flowers and the trees to grow?’ before offering advice to those planners troubled by their own ideas (‘just count out your money, you’ll be alright!’) and finally urging the ‘machine’ of the working classes to ‘turn on’ and overthrow their leaders. A brave, almost brutish song then – and clearly completely the wrong choice for a single given that this song was never going to get the airplay of predecessors ‘Fog On The Tyne’ or ‘Meet Me On The Corner’, but this song’s success comes from the mix of such forward-looking ideas with such a traditional sounding tune, akin to an English folk song.
As ever with Lindisfarne there’s a mandolin solo, but even the opening acoustic guitar lines and quiet churchy-sounding harmonium sound more like something from the 17th century than a rock and folk song. Indeed, by the time the brass section kicks in near the end, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the score for striking miners film ‘Brassed Off’ and has the same message that new ways are needed to keep traditions flowering. The single fades here, but the album version just keeps on going, with Paul Laidlaw (Ray’s brother)’s brass part walking their way across the speakers to take centre stage and playing the song’s central riff which isn’t all that far away from ‘we shall overcome’. Most fans expecting the silliness of ‘Tyne’ were probably scratching their heads over this new and rather square mix of sounds but I think it’s fabulous, with Alan Hull using the weight of hundreds of years of Colliery Band tradition to ‘win’ his argument. When Hully calls on us all to ‘come on, tear it down!’ the result is so exciting that you want to join straight in with the revolution – a shame, then, that the battle for concrete buildings replacing slums instead of something better is one war that we all lost quite some time ago now. Still, this is a noble defeat and I for one am glad that Lindisfarne were brave enough to take up the call and risked everything to put this un-cool, unpopular and unlikely-to-succeed argument across.
‘All Fall Down’ then segues into the only instrumental the Alan Hull-era Lindisfarne ever made (apart from ‘Dingle Regetta’ below). Credited to guitarist Simon Cowe, it’s actually a band jam that features Lindisfarne at their loosest and rawest, in contrast to the very controlled sound of the last track. The curious name came from Cowe’s wife of the time who thought the lop-sided riff sounded like plankton dancing (!) You probably wouldn’t want to hear this track out of sequence too many times, but it works fine as a link between the two pieces either side of it, with calls and answers between Jacka’s harmonica and Rod’s unusually rough and ready fiddle playing. The band get quite passionately involved in the piece, reaching peaks and troughs throughout the song which is unusual for a band instrumental (which tend as a rule to stay at one dynamic level throughout) – and the links between the tracks works remarkably well (though you can hear the edit going into the next song). As a result, it sounds to me like the band might have played this as a jam originally and then re-worked it to ‘fit’ the record; if so then its very well done, losing nothing of the spontaneity or excitement of five musicians finally let loose into the unknown. That’s extra impressive given that the band only had three days to make this album – your average band in 1972 wouldn’t have got a single song made in that time.
‘Bring Down The Government!’ is another of my favourites and one that sounds ever more believable with every passing year of the Collapsible coalition. To put it in context, though, the year was 1972, the miner’s strike had just started and an air of us and them was in the air (just look at our review of ‘Us and Them’ on ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ last week, recorded this same year). Heath’s conservative Government was the one collapsing back then and I have to say that with Heath out of the way the avowedly working class Hull’s songs won’t get so political again until Thatcher starts in office in 1979. It’s a tongue in cheek folk song, this one, with a rare banjo backing from Cowe and more amazing harmonica from Jacka. It’s Hull’s lyrics and his passionate vocal on the first and third verses (Cowe sings the second) that you remember most though: ‘sure is a hoot when they prosecute you for doing what you feel!’ might well be the best revolutionary lyric on this site! That said, none of this is too serious (the second verse even spoofs the traditional fairytale backing with the line ‘bake their heads in gingerbread and eat them one by one’). Still, for the day this is a brave statement to make by a band following up a best-selling LP and there’s still enough passion and commitment in the playing to take it all semi-seriously, especially when Hull, sings of bringing the Government ‘down for love, your sister too and do it for God above’. The whole piece is deigned to sound overtly ‘traditional’ rather than revolutionary, but that said its actually quite a recent riff (Hull admitted later he’d ‘borrowed’ it from a Joe Brown record – and was deeply embarrassed when Joe himself turned up to the Charisma head office one day and heard a copy of the track!) Wherever it came from, the result is an enjoyable song that’s as jokey or as serious as you want to make and makes for a brave and enjoyable start to the album, with a one-two-three medley punch that few other Lindisfarne albums ever match.
Yet amazingly things go up another gear for the album’s highlight, Hull’s marvellous empathetic song of misery and amazement ‘Poor Old Ireland’. 1972 was also the year of ‘Bloody Sunday’, the day that more than any other forced both the Irish and the English to take sides. I studied Irish History for my degree and would have loved every minute of it had the subject matter been less abhorrent – all I could hear during my exams was Hull’s voice singing this song’s melancholy chorus: ‘Poor old Ireland, poor old planet, poor old universe’. I seem to rave about Hull’s vocals a lot on these Lindisfarne reviews but this truly is his best work: almost shivering with anger, disgust and pity, only just about holding on to the end of the song keeping things together. The song itself is wonderful too, one part history lesson to one part world-weary shrug over how one set of human beings could cause such injustices to another, mixing and matching philosophical question-seeking verses about with choruses of the individual suffering going on and Hull’s own shock at what’s he’s watching on the news. His target for this song is the church, asking how religions that are based on giving and healing could possibly inflict such pain on others, climaxing the first two verses with two absolutely wonderful lines of hurt, outrage and confusion: ‘He’s disguised himself well with his book and bell, but evil is still his name’ and ‘Ireland your people mean moiré than the idols they seek to set upon high’. The backing is marvellous too, like ‘All Fall Down’ traditional in nature and so making this sound like a lament that’s been heard down the years and so basic that you really hear every single note plucked out from the double church-organ sounding harmonium attack (Played by both Hull and Cowe, who are clearly working well together on this album whatever happened straight afterwards), Hull’s acoustic guitar, Rod’s autoharp (which gives the song its harp-like zings every few chords) and the saddest mandolin playing (by Jacka as ever) that you’ll ever hear. The result is a truly first-class achievement, a politically damning song that still manages to make a bigger point than just the troubles of that particular period (much of this song is about Ireland’s long troubled history) and one full of questions that will never be answered. Understandably, perhaps, this song was banned by the BBC for being ‘political’, but Hull’s response in the press that it’s a comment on a sad situation’ rather than a political statement is closer to the truth I think. This version is pretty stunning and near-perfect, but there’s a second even rawer live version on the Hull solo concert ‘Back To Basics’(1994), the last completed album before his death, that’s well worth looking out for, the pain in this song undimmed over 20 years later. One of the great Lindisfarne songs and one that deserves to be far better known.
After all that angst Rod Clement’s angry ‘Don’t Ask Me’ sounds almost trivial, but this too is a masterclass in emotion. We’ve already reviewed Rod’s ‘successors’ to this song ‘Fast Lane Driver’ and ‘Back On The Road Again’ on ‘It’s Jack The Lad’ (see review no 61) – along with this song they make up a trilogy about a band being stuck together on a tour bus, their world getting smaller and their views narrower as their success supposedly grows ever bigger. The later two are slightly more elegiac, but this song is really raw, damning what Rod sees as the problems of the music business and the most uneasiest-about-fame AAA song since Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr Soul’. At one point Rod (via Jacka’s lead vocal) speaks directly telling to the ‘fans’, telling them to stop treating them as wonderful human beings and that Lindisfarne’s path to success is littered with mistakes, problems, obstacles and a whole lot of luck (‘you can come on up, you can see the show...but don’t ask me how to get here, ‘cause I don’t know!’) Along the way managers after money rather than passing on music get short shrift and even the band themselves get attacked, for turning on ‘long-term friends’ and hiding in blacked-out limousines. As ever with Rod’s songs there are two great lines that make all this self-angst great, announcing to fellow wanna-be musicians ‘you might make money but you’ll never quite make amends’ and watching the band drown in a crisis of confidence while surrounded by screaming fans, asking ‘is there anyone there but you who doesn’t know who you are?’ The best line, though, is the image of the band selling their soul for a TV appearance, ‘drowning in the vacuum of a one-eyed TV lens’, as if the camera is sucking out the band’s soul. Lindisfarne are clearly in trouble at this point and the recording of this song seconds that, with a strangely impersonal mix that literally puts distance between the members of the group in the mix, as if they’re playing in the four corners of your living room. Jacka’s soulful vocal is a delight, even if it’s hard for fans to hear his usual warm tones given such a cold, bare treatment, while the three guitar attack of Rod, Cowe and Hull is a rare treat for fans to hear, making this simple 4/4 rock song one of the most complicated on the album. For me the song doesn’t quite have the spark and wit of ‘Fast Lane Driver’ or the heart-breaking sadness of ‘Back On The Road Again’, but it’s still quite an impressive achievement and an obvious signpost as to why this is Lindisfarne’s last record before a massive six-year gap. See also Alan Hull’s ‘Taking Care Of Business’ on this album’s de facto follow-up ‘Roll On Ruby’ (with only Hull and Jacka still in the band from this line-up) – Hull raved about this song at the time and clearly wanted to write one of his own, though Hull’s is missing the humour of ‘Don’t Ask Me’ and doesn’t come off quite as well.
The last track on the brilliant opening side of ‘Dingly Dell’ is ‘O No Not Again’, a song that’s clearly meant to be the ‘Fog On The Tyne’ novelty song of the record. Unlike most fans I actually prefer it to its more famous cousin, with Hull effectively laughing at himself and his own melancholy (as does ‘Fog’, which deliberately starts in the same way as Hull’s most melancholy track ever ‘January Song’ before going in another direction entirely!) Hull’s narrator starts the song in a freezing cold station with a torn newspaper, unable to find train ticket or cheque book while the queue ‘glare and call me names’ (he must have gone to Ormskirk Station, where this sort of thing happens a lot!) Like many of Hull’s songs, this is the little man crying out against injustice and with the song imploring everyone to think about how they treat their fellow human beings, with a rousing chorus of the title phrase sung over and over. If ‘Fog’ is a sad song turned sunny (nothing’s working out for me but, hey, the Fog on the Tyne is mine all mine’) then this is the opposite, with the tune and feel of the recording upbeat. Lyrically the song tries hard top right itself too, with a sunny middle eight that comes out of nowhere ‘when it comes down to knowing who you are...’ but instead Hull spoofs his usual writing style of putting a positive slant of things, dismissing it with the next line ‘feels like a waste of time, you’ll be better off by far with a piss-up full of friends and beat up old guitar’. This is songwriting pictured as therapy, with Hull getting some whinging off his chest. It’s nowhere near as good or as original as the first five tracks of the album, but anyone whose ever had a similar run of bad luck and petty things going wrong will identify with this song, which recognises that you can’t even really enjoy moaning about it either because it all sounds so trivial. Listen out to the reference of a ‘James Bond’ poster that ‘fills you with fear’ – this was of course for ‘Live and Let Die’ back in 1972, the song that Paul McCartney and Wings did the music for; it’s tempting to see this, the first time Roger Moore starred instead of Sean Connery; like many of the songs on ‘Dingly Dell’ it could be about mistaken identity and someone else doing your job for you.
Side two starts with the album’s lowpoint ‘Dingle Regetta’, a slow and not very interesting instrumental. Barely a minute in length, it’s a traditional piece more akin to the sort of things Jack The Lad will do on their albums rather better than here. Ray Laidlaw’s military drumming is poor, Rod’s bass is unusually simple, Jacka’s harmonica is boring and Lindisfarne’s harmonies – usually deliciously sweet and sour – just sound sour here. If only the band had been given more time to make this album they might have come up with better stuff than this, which should really have been kept for a B-side – and a poor one at that.
‘Wake Up Little Sister’ is by far the most traditional sounding Lindisfarne moment on the record, with a strong walking pace rhythm and Jacka’s double-tracked vocals tackling a Hull song, which is something rather rare on this record. Famously, fellow Charisma label-mates Genesis heard a preview copy of this record and actually delayed the release of their first single by a month, so sure were they that Lindisfarne was going to get a #1 with this record and overshadow their release. In the end this song was only ever an album track, perhaps because it does sound just a little too close to the archetypal Lindisfarne sound (with the rhythm of Lady Eleanor, the swing of Meet Me On The Corner and a large dollop of Fog On The Tyne mixed in), but it surely would have been a sizeable hit if released. Lyrically, though, this is another brave and unusual piece – it can pass you by for years but the song at least appears to be about incest. ‘Sister’ could just be a nickname of course, but the feel of frustrated sexual tension is everywhere in this song, especially the verse about the narrator frustratedly saying goodnight before she goes to sleep in a separate room. As if to emphasis the fact, that’s the bit that gets repeated instead of the more obvious chorus (‘wake up little dreamer, you’ve been dreaming too long...’) straight after the short instrumental. Listen out too for the chorus lines about ‘tell me what is and what is not’ – this is clearly a narrator waiting to see if his feelings are reciprocal before he gets himself into trouble. Most people just see these lyrics as more Lindisfarne upbeat prose, however, and there certainly are some sweet and memorable passages, such as the narrator’s beloved making him ‘both gentle and strong’ at the same time.
‘Go Back’ is Simon Cowe’s other song for the album – again sung by Jacka – and like ‘Uncle Same’ from ‘Fog On The Tyne’ (and a good deal of Hully’s songs) actually predates the band by some years. The biggest pointer yet to Cowe’s eccentric but brilliant songs for Jack The Lad, its a Dylanish tongue-twisting song that has the same return-to-roots message as The Beatles’ ‘Go Back’. A little too cute for its own good, especially with the brass section added later by Paul Laidlaw, the song is at its best when Lindisfarne settle down into their normal ways and Jacka’s stunning harmonica break is the highlight of the song. Cowe and Hull both sing harmonies on the song, incidentally, and Hull for one sounds like he’s having a whale of a time, without a hint of the bad blood that’s about to brew between the two guitarists. While not as good or as Lindisfarne-like as ‘Uncle Sam’, it is too good a song to have been left off two LPs and deserves to be better known. Incidentally, if you turn up the introduction to the song up really loud you can hear a false start and a bit of band chatter that has Simon speaking above Ray’s drum count-in: ‘Same count in...Get comfortable...Are you sitting comfortably Alan?’
‘Court In The Act’ is more sign that inspiration is lagging a bit. A pale re-write of Hull’s marvellous ‘We Can Swing Together’, this features the same characters up before a judge whose all but judged the same party animals already, even though they are innocent (‘couldn’t see much sense in the charges – though they sure sounded like fun!’) Again you have to really question why the band weren’t given longer to record this album because this might have been a fine track if less rushed, especially with Clement’s soulful groove bass playing turned up higher in the mix. The song also doesn’t know whether to take itself seriously or not, switching from comedy to seriousness line by line. Great as it is to hear Jacka and Hull trading lines like the days of ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’, the result is a little too ragged and hard to hear, while the backing is a good take or two short of ‘getting’ the song. That said, there’s several good lines here (‘the judge has a grudge, man’ is worthy of 10cc – incidentally their 1976 single ‘Good Morning Judge’ sounds like a sped up version of this song) and the bad pun on ‘getting court in the act’ deserves a better song to go with it, with an interesting point made here about how out of touches upper class judges are from real life. The line ‘the only crime I ever committed was being caught in the act’ is also one worthy of a more serious song than this (like ‘Swing Together’, the hint is that the party was broken up for soft drugs and making a racket rather than any major breach of the peace; the real incident both songs are based on are a rowdy night in Newcastle resulted in the party-goers suing the police for wrongful forced entry and arrest – and amazingly winning their case!)
‘Mandolin King’ is also a bad excuse for a song, a kind of singalong empty nothing song that might have been written for Jacka to sing (its certainly in his style) but is instead sung by lots of Hulls multi-tracked. Clearly based on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (the two songs share a similar musician-offering-hope lyric and a similar stumbling walking pace riff), again there’s something a bit peculiar about this song. For the most part the song is in a major key and doesn’t have a care in the world – but in a couple of places Hull sticks to a phrase and sings it in a minor key way despite the fact the band have moved on to something else, like a dog with a bone that won’t let go despite the fact that the song would work just as well without those lines there (‘He can make come real – according to how you feel – according to what you do – because in the end the result is up to you’). The way Hull sings ‘stringing his strings, singing his songs’ also sounds deliberately bad, as if this song is really a spoof of the music scene circa 1972. A little too unlikable for its own good, the recording is also a bit messy, with the band trampling over each other’s feet – although that said Lindisfarne’s distinctive three-part harmonies are at their best here, sounding both beautiful and menacing at the same time. Listen out for the lyric ‘magic in the air’, a line also sung in the next track and the title of the band’s 1978 ‘reunion’ live LP.
‘Dingly Dell’ is a fascinating track and one that’s divided fans right down the middle ever since its release. A very early song of Hull’s – probably his earliest to make it to a record until the demos that crept out as bonus tracks on albums two-five in the 21st century – its a love song about a special place that only the couple in the song know about. The song is structured to be like ‘A Day In The Life’, with the same mix of dreamy world-wearyness in the verses and a positive upbeat burst in the chorus. The first verse has Dingly Dell as the place where the couple meet and then the second verse then plans a future for the couple, sweetly wondering whether the couple’s children ‘will touch the sun and always be completely free’. Yet the chorus, repeated after each verse ends on an uncomfortable note with the anguished liner ‘you’re not there and never will you be’ which comes out of nowhere and the two parts play cat-and-mouse throughout the song, chasing each other in some gargantuan Gordian Knot. Quite unlike any other piece of music ever made, this song is handled with just the three vocalists, Hull’s acoustic and some marvellous bass whoops from Rod which desperately need to be turned up higher in the mix. Full marks too for Paul Laidlaw’s, whose eerie string arrangement really enhances the mood of the song, especially the held minor key chord at the end of each chorus. However, like many songs built in contrasts between moods, its not very easy going on the ear this song and the sheer complexity of some of the notes means that Hull’s voice all too often cracks under the strain. Some of the rhymes are a bit pedestrian too (‘I may break, evapo-rare, into the air’), with some fans actively hating the song. Give it time, though, because this song does grow on you and the sudden switch from elation to melancholy is superbly handled, stopping the song in its tracks each time round.
Dingly Dell the album is like Dingly Dell the title track – sometimes naive, sometimes clumsy and very unlike anything that’s come before - and you can understand why so many of the people who loved ‘Fog On The Tyne’ scratched their heads over this. But I love this album even more than ‘Fog’ for its sheer bravery and refusal to take the easy route during what were a pretty difficult bunch of circumstances. The second side of the original record is no match for the first, but several tracks from ‘Dingly Dell’ are as magical, moving and as poignant as anything else Lindisfarne ever made and the steps forward with the band’s songwriting, especially Hull’s, should be applauded not condemned. We can only wonder what the fourth ‘proper’ Lindisfarne album might have sounded like (take the best bits from ‘Roll On Ruby’ ‘Happy Daze’ ‘Pipedream’ and ‘It’s Jack The Lad’, all written before or during 1973, and you have the potential for the best Lindisfarne record of the lot) – but if it had been half as amazing as this record’s first side it still would have been quite something. Sure there’s no hit singles, no real crowd pleasers and the best songs here are pretty much all designed to piss somebody off, but you’d be hard pressed to hear social protest that’s prettier or more heartfelt than ‘All Fall Down’ or ‘Poor Old Ireland’. The cardboard album? Forget the packaging – few Lindisfarne albums are as colourful or as pioneering as this one.