Monday 19 March 2018

Lindisfarne Essay: Keepin' The Rage On Behalf Of The Working Classes

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

Well done, you made it to the halfway part of the book (or halfway through our 'music' section at any rate!) We can't give you a prize to celebrate I'm afraid though you probably deserve one, but we can shake things up a bit by moving outside talking about our respective AAA bands' discography and moving on to what makes them stand out from their peers and offer something no other band can. In truth these essays kind of run across the whole book and you can read them in any order, but now we've reached the halfway point it's quite useful to take stock of where we've been and why before working out where we will go next. Which in Lindisfarne’s case is pretty much where they’d always been going – in a straight line, speaking up for the underprivileged and the oppressed, whatever their country, whatever their class, whatever the century. Like a Geordie CSNY, Lindisfarne made politics a natural part of their sound from day one and made a career out of lampooning authority figures who were so much more ignorant than the people they were trying to control. However it’s an under-rated facet of their work that often gets lost, drowned out by million-selling pop singles and cute novelty songs about fog and sickly sausage rolls…
Occasionally I forget, dear readers, that the rest of the world is not like us. At best the people around me think I’m a little bit eccentric for writing these books in such detail and at such length for so many years. At worst they think I’m insane. Very occasionally some misguided soul will ask me what I’m working on and then look confused by my horror that they’ve never heard what I’m working on. And even more when they try to patiently explain that it’s ‘only’ pop music. We know that isn’t true of course - music at its best is everything: it’s a way of explaining the world, of understanding it, of sympathising with those who would otherwise have no voice, of seeing how other people see the world, a way of feeling less alone and insane in a world that demands we be a certain way, a means of getting to grips with. But it’s hard to express that out loud.  ‘But…but…but, its important!’ I feebly squeak when people ask. The people around me just ask if it’s good to dance to. Sometimes I despair…
Sometimes I get lucky, well semi-lucky. Sometimes people have heard of a band I write about. Sometimes they’ll even be able to hum a few bars of their biggest hit singles. Which can be even more of a curse than when they know who the person I’m writing about it. Take Lindisfarne: everyone by default knows [36] ‘Fog On The Tyne’, even those who claim never to have heard of it or been thirty years too late; it’s just everywhere from radios to football stadiums (Paul Gascoigne has a lot to answer for!) And if by any small slight chance nobody knows that one they’ll almost certainly know the cheery [27] ‘Meet Me On The Corner’. Everything else, though, and they haven’t got a clue. ‘Oh’ they say, ‘You’re reviewing a pop band! Is the rest of their stuff as catchy?’
Err, no. Lindisfarne must be one of the most misunderstood bands there ever was as you’ll know by now if you’ve got this far through the book. ‘Fog’ was written deliberately, as a funny parody of their usual sombre style (it even starts with the same sad slow opening to [31] ‘January Song’). ‘Corner’ was written as a sad folk lament before becoming a bit more commercial. Neither is the true spirit of Lindisfarne great as they are – this is a band who belong on the ‘adult’ shelf, dealing with intricate politics, debate and difficult subject matters. Nobody else was as vocal about problems in British class warfare, the Irish struggles and what the collapse of communism meant to the working class Russians (as opposed to celebrating the victory of Western capitalism). This difference can be summed up in one single album cover, that to 1989’s ‘Amigos’. There the band are grinning inanely, their arms around each other, on an album cover and title that screams ‘1980s pop cheese’. But the album itself is an angry, desperate tirade against how the impoverished were being treated at the end of the Thatcher and Reagan years, when money was poured into ‘star wars’ missile systems during a credit crunch that left so many people out of work. The ‘real’ Lindisfarne can be seen in the subtitle and the working title for the album hidden away underneath: ‘Keepin’ The Beacon Burnin’, a diluted version of their original tagline ‘Keepin’ The Rage’. This is the ‘real’ Lindisfarne and it’s a task no British band ever did better.
Lindisfarne came from some pretty impoverished backgrounds, in a part of Newcastle where nobody was expected to come to anything very much. Alan Hull wrote about this in his song [121] ‘The Bad Side Of The Town’, along side his belief that impoverished communities had something the posher estates never had – a sense of brotherhood, of unity, of compassion as people helped each other out where they could. It’s a feeling that Lindisfarne always took with them across their career as they expanded that community out to their fanbase in a way that not many other bands achieved. It didn’t matter where round the world you lived, or what you did or didn’t do – if you were a Lindisfan, then you were ‘one of us’. And Alan Hull frequently got outraged on their behalf, especially when speaking up for communities that weren’t given a voice in the mainstream media.
As early as his first single, before he ever joined Lindisfarne, Hull is singing about the divide of ‘us’ and them’ [11] ‘We Can Swing Together’ is a funny song if you take it that way, a ‘breakthrough’ song where the wannabe songwriter working as a window cleaner and psychiatric nurse paying for the upkeep of three small children was able to put into words how frustrated he was at being told what to do for a lifetime. A late baby boomer, he’d found that the world of peace and love and flowers hadn’t reached Newcastle, where he and his friends got booted out of a party and hauled up in a magistrate’s court for, shock horror, making tiny bit of noise on a Friday night. Hull never forgot the injustice, or the fact that posh men in wigs were judging his community for letting off steam after a hard week’s physical labour, something the judge and half the jury had never experienced. That ‘how dare they judge me!’ comes across in a lot of Hull’s work, long after every other band had caved in and started wearing suits or speaking in posh accents (Lindisfarne were always delightfully Geordie, right up to the very end). [48] ‘Court In The Act’ returns to the same scene with a series of false charges which didn’t happen but ‘sounded like fun!’ The judge, though, has a judge, man – against the person in the dock simply because of where he comes from and how he talks.
There were so many people in Lindisfarne’s sights over the years and what linked them all was that they saw the people they ‘controlled’ as statistics to be treated as cheaply as possible, rather than humans who were suffering. These include 1) town planners: architect [32] Peter Brophy was invited by Newcastle council member [115] Dan ‘The Plan’ T Smith to erect a new building to house as many dispossessed locals as possible for the cheapest possible price, The solution was a concrete monstrosity with few windows and no greenery which achieved its objective of being cheap but led to such ostracisation and ugliness that it made a bad situation worse. Many people ordered to move into the building claimed that they would rather have lived on the streets. I think it should be a law that every architect who designs a building has to live in it for a year to make it habitable and make sure that it is fit for human consumption! [39] ‘All Fall Down’ looks at the people who physically tore up Hull’s old Benwell estate, asking them to ‘tear down’ their prejudice along with the buildings and asking for some green to be set against the concrete.
2) People in charge of homelessness. There’s something of the vagabond gypsy in Lindisfarne’s nature as they lurch from one disaster to another. [15] ‘Winter Song’ imagines how life might have been for Hull had he not met his wife or his bandmates and had been stuck on the dole for eternity. Passing a tramp in the street just as his career is taking off during a harsh snow-filled Christmas Hull starts to think how easily his life could have been the same – and urges us to do the same.
3) Soldiers! It’s not just Hull. Si’s first song, written long before Lindisfarne were formed, is [29] ‘Uncle Sam’, where a Newcastle teen who would never have had a chance in the British army wonders what it might have been like had he been called up to serve in Vietnam or Korea, two spectacularly dunder-headed and un-necessary wars the Americans lost badly but still try to pretend they ‘won’. Si imagines someone just like him, weedy, short, poor of health and complexion, urged to ‘volunteer’ for a war that was itself voluntary and which only he can see through. Other Lindisfarne songs attack war in a more general sense: [72] ‘When War Is Over’ is about things returning to normal in peacetime, as if nothing had happened – which makes the war, whatever it is, utterly pointless for both sides. [171] ‘1983’, meanwhile, imagines the outbreak of World War Three ‘the biggest show I’ve ever seen’ – but that’s all it is, a show, as more innocent people suffer on both sides suffer because of the stupidity of war leaders.
4) Taxmen. Lindisfarne were hit by more management problems than most – but a majority of their problems came from finding accountants who ‘allowed’ them it use their money for charitable ends instead of squirreling it away. Hull described [206] ‘Ode To The Taxman’ as ‘about a sneaky, evil, horrible, slimy sort of a person…’ and sets off on a tirade that takes his vitriol to a whole new tax bracket. The thing is, you see, the taxman is getting away with fiddling his own taxed because he’s one of ‘theirs’ and will never be caught, even after he chases the poor for every last penny. Goodness knows what he would have made of the credit crunch and the bankers’ meanness in the modern age had he lived, never mind the hypocrisy of making out that a non-regulated banking error committed by posh big-headed twonks behind the scenes was all the thought o a few ‘scroungers’ trying to live hand-to-mouth off a few pence. If I know Hull, there would have been entire concept albums about the recklessness and greed of the Conservative Government and a blow-up Ian Duncan Smith doll everyone got to behead night after night.
5) Posh people in general. [55] ‘Country Gentleman’s Wife’ pointedly uses the names of Gentlemen and Ladies, but they’re behaving more like the stereotypical chav: he’s out with his mistresses even though he’s got a wife half his age at home; she’s lonely and sexually frustrated and randy enough to make a play for the passing lowlife she sees outside her door. Only he’s more noble than either of them, protesting at her moral scruples and refusing to take part – until she dangles enough money in front of him. Also [166] ‘Marshall Riley’s Army’ for instance recalls a people’s march from Jarrow in the days of the great depression by so many working class people desperate to work to feed their families – and the politicians in London wouldn’t even read their petition. Alan-Rod collaboration [224] ‘Working For The Man’ also has a poverty stricken person leaving their family and travelling the world in search of work, which no one has. He’s struck by how similar the scheming politicians are in every continent though, always finding work for themselves and not for him and his ilk. Right up until the very end Hull was attacking a system he thought was unfair: ‘Put on your uniform, your top hat and tails’ he mocks as he tries to overthrow the aristocracy from the inside, starting with a song about ‘ne’er do wells’ like many a ‘posh’ band before turning on ‘aristocrats and fat cats’ instead. Everyone in power is too busy singing about statues from the past or liberties that mean nothing – but they don’t know what it really means to suffer. He does. And he has to say something. All of these songs are a sorry mess of the rich’s creating but where it’s the poor who suffer because of it and there’s a sense of many of these Lindisfarne songs that the working classes would be much better off in charge of the world than the rich – it would be a lot fairer for one thing…
6) Mostly though Hull saves his anger for politicians around the world. Hull looks on aghast as he watches the orders given during the ‘Bloody Sunday’ uprisings in Ireland in 1972, as innocent people are beaten up and killed for standing up for their rights. There are many AAA songs about the Irish troubles in this period – including three by ex-Beatles, no less – but Hull’s weary sad song [42] ‘Poor Old Ireland’ has it the best. ‘Imagine if this was you!’ he says to his English listeners, as he ‘sees through the lies’ and argues that no belief or cause is ever enough reason to make ‘blind children bleed’. Over in Russia, too, Hull is quick to point out amongst the gung-ho we-won spirit of the collapse of the Berlin Wall that the Russian people have been left with nothing. ‘Your sadness tears my heart out’ he sighs on [241 ‘Mother Russia’, seeing the atrocities first hand as he empties his pockets during a Russian Lindisfarne tour, ‘But it ain’t easy to explain’. Lindisfarne are the people’s band, no matter where around the world they are, ganging up on the politicians for hurting ‘his’ people. You can hear that wrath on other songs: ‘President Reagan ain’t thinking when he says he wants to teach the Russians good!’ he scowls on [188] ‘Cruisin’ To Disaster’ before turning on Thatcher as a ‘lunatic running the show’ on his angriest song [197] ‘Stormy Waters’. ‘Come on boys…come on girls…it’s time that we all stick together!’ urges Hull, desperate to see the unity in hardship he used to see on his estate, instead of being divided by politicians for their own evil ends. No wonder Hull also writes a song titled [41] ‘Bring The Government’ where ‘if you want your rights you’re gonna have to fight, so bring down the Government please!’
Throughout these songs is the growing gnawing feeling of injustice. Why should Lindisfarne pretend to be anything other than a Geordie band just to sell records – [36] ‘Fog On The Tyne’ is as ‘local’ as a song can be and it still became a best-seller everywhere. Why shouldn’t they be proud of their working class roots – it’s not as if the rich people have anything to be proud about! Why should Lindisfarne let the powers that be go by unquestioned when their policies on war, homelessness, town planning and poverty create so much unnecessary evil in a world already full of it? Lindisfarne all turned to music as an ‘escape’ from their bleak surroundings – the difference to many bands is that they carried on and on and on demanding it. Long after the point where it was fashionable, or they became ‘rich’, or the first objects of their anger faded away from power. Instead Lindisfarne made it their life’s work to speak up for those who had no voice, to represent the grass-roots of what their fans were thinking, even and perhaps especially the people who could never actually afford their music (the problem that many political bands for the working classes have, as they are writing for the smallest possible income group). Yes [36] ‘Fog On The Tyne’ is cute and [30] ‘Meet Me On The Corner’ is pretty and [156] ‘Run For Home’ is sweet and there’s a place for all three of those songs in every self=-respecting catalogue of music. But it’s the politics and anger and the battle against prejudice of all kinds that’s the heartbeat of this band’s legacy, sometimes covered up and gentrified, often raw and sarcastic, that makes them an Alan’s Album Archives band with a catalogue to match any other group out there.
That’s why I’m proud to be a Lindisfan – and a good example of why I sigh everyone tells me that I am wasting my time writing about mere ‘pop’ music. Sometimes this stuff matters and everyone needs to see that there is more to life than what they tell you on the news or in the political party broadcasts. If people suffer, then their voices need to be heard, whether those people are speaking from a ne’er do well council estate in Newcastle’s poorest slum, are speaking on behalf of Russian and Irish citizens or were speaking from several decades ago and are all dead. It all matters, so very very very very much. Without bands like Lindisfarne to fight their corner and to shine a light in the darkness at times the world would be a very lonely place indeed. Instead they give us courage: if this band can come from nowhere to say something, if they can beat the class prejudice and get somewhere through talent, if they can then remember where they came from and help out where they can – well, that makes a difference, however small. ‘They’ say that politics doesn’t belong in music, that it puts off people who might listen to it and that music should ‘only’ be about escapism and dancing and ‘girl power’. ‘They’ are ‘wrong’. Instead music belongs in politics – it levels the playing fields, it encourages debate, it allows you to see things from someone else’s point of view you might never ever have understood in your own life and it really warms your heart when someone speaks up and says something you’re thinking, but nobody around you seems to agree with. As one of Britain’s most working class bands, from one of the most working class areas, who were all educated and intelligent and erudite, Lindisfarne (and CSNY) are often my first port of call when someone then asks me ‘so why is writing about music important exactly?...’ Sadly they never seem to ‘get’ it. But we do, dear reader. And sometimes that’s enough.


'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

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