June 5, 2023

One thing which is very much brought to focus here is the enormous talent of Alan Hull, de facto band leader and composer of the vast majority of the material – prior to his untimely death in 1995, he was undoubtedly one of the finest songwriters and creative musicians these islands have ever produced, and it is a great shame that his name perhaps does not live on as it should outside of his native Tyneside.

Okay, so everyone (at least in the UK) knows Lindisfarne, right? Not necessarily in any depth, but you would need to have spent decades under a rock or else completely oblivious to popular music (and therefore unlikely to be reading this, one would imagine) to have never encountered Fog On The Tyne or Meet Me On The Corner at the very least – songs which have entered the public consciousness on these shores in much the same way as songs by The Band for example have done so in the US. In fact, that’s not a bad point of comparison from which to start, with Lindisfarne’s folky, rootsy, yet almost entirely original repertoire not a million miles removed from The Band’s own brand of down-home Americana, albeit through an English lens. Or, more specifically, a Geordie lens, since few bands outside, say, The Beatles or Black Sabbath exemplify or resonate more with their home town than do Lindisfarne with Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. The huge popularity of their annual Newcastle Christmas shows amply demonstrates their continuing status as Geordie Heroes who can do no wrong in that fiercely proud and partisan area of the country.

Anyhow, I digress. As established, everyone knows of Lindisfarne. This box, however, contains a LOT of Lindisfarne. Comprising every BBC recording still in existence spanning three decades, these eight CDs weigh in with an astonishing 149 tracks of BBC Lindisfarne, from sessions and live broadcasts. Okay, a few of them are actually separately indexed band or DJ introductions, but that still makes this such a lengthy journey that you feel at times like Captain Oates, announcing that you are heading to the CD player and ‘may be some time’. That’s not to say that the voyage through these decades is anything but entertaining – indeed, such is the band’s equally adept way with a breezily infectious tune or a fragile ballad that it almost never becomes a slog. Granted, nine renditions apiece of Meet Me On The Corner and the Edgar Allan Poe-influenced Lady Eleanor, seven of Fog On The Tyne and six of We Can Swing Together do occasionally wear thin, but that is for the most part more noticeable in the earlier BBC sessions on the first discs, when the performances scarcely vary – later live versions often put a very different spin on proceedings. And around 60% of this material is sourced from concert broadcasts, the arena in which Lindisfarne have always excelled.

The first disc opens in February 1971, the year after the debut album Nicely Out Of Tune was released, and contains five sessions from that year which do a nice job of introducing us to many of the band’s early highlights. The second disc is also from that same year, with two John Peel Sunday Concerts enlivened by Peel’s own dryly hilarious between-song banter. The performances are excellent, though the band have not yet begun to fully demonstrate their easy audience rapport and magnetism which has served them so well over the years. Also puzzling is the over-reliance on blues songs such as Train In G Major or Woody Guthrie’s Jackhammer Blues, at the expense of some standout original album tracks, but then again they were most likely audience favourites and thus regularly played. The third disc gives us more sessions covering 1971-73, drawn from sources such as Peel (again), Johnnie Walker and Alan Freeman. The highlight of the disc for the entertainment factor, however, must go to the three songs from the bizarrely conceived ‘Poetry Plus Lindisfarne’ event at the Festival Hall in 1972, with the band alternating stage time with poetry readings! The songs are introduced in unintentionally hilarious fashion by a poetry connoisseur who delivers his thoughts on the intellectual viability of these brilliant cutting edge wordsmiths sharing the stage with this popular folk group, in such earnestly analytical and humourless fashion that if you were told it was a parody on something such as The Fast Show, you would have no trouble believing it. He seems to like the performance of Meet Me On The Corner, with the audience enthusiastically clapping (‘although you can’t hear it so well on this recording’), but unfortunately he goes on to introduce the song as ‘a number entitled Hey Mr Dream Seller’. This is the sort of historical gem which makes the set worth the admission cost alone…

Disc Four contains another Peel Concert and two sessions from 1973-74, and is a real find for the fans, because it all features the ‘split’ version of the band, with Alan Hull and Ray Jackson assembling a new line-up while the other three founder members went off to form the excellent if unsuccessful Jack The Lad. Generally written off as a period in which the magic had disappeared, these recordings allow us to assess this anew with several songs from the two albums this line-up recorded, and while undeniably something is missing, the results show several rather overlooked songs and an unfairly dismissed incarnation of the group. Songs such as Roll On River and When The War Is Over stand proudly with the band’s best material, certainly. It also contains Peel’s surreal introduction in which he apologises that Lindisfarne have had to replace supposed ‘planned act’ The Osmonds, after the news that ‘last night while he slept, Little Jimmy was tragically turned into an attractive picnic set for all the family to enjoy’. The band play up to the gag, and apologise for not, in fact, being the Osmonds. It is impossible not to smile.

By 1978 the original line-up had reconvened, and seen chart action with the comeback album Back And Fourth (the title showing how the ‘fourth and fifth’ albums released during the schism had been written out of the band’s history), and even another top ten single with the excellent Run For Home, which would sadly be the last hit single the band would have. Disc Five here represents this reunion with the full 17 tracks of a BBC Sight And Sound broadcast recorded at Essex University in November 1978, and it is excellent, providing a strong mix of older and newer material by a band clearly very happy to be back together. A standout from this performance is Marshall Riley’s Army, written about the Jarrow March – very welcome as it is the only appearance of the song in this set. Disc Six moves on to 1981-82, and contains the only really sonically poor material here in the shape of a Richard Skinner broadcast of a live show, but since the original tapes of this are lost and it was saved only by Ray Jackson himself recording it from the radio, we can forgive the bootleg quality for the sake of at least having the material. Much better sounding is a selection from the Cambridge Folk festival in 1982, which oddly starts with two distinctly non-folky tracks in Start Again and the curious ’50s doo-wop pastiche I Remember The Nights, but is very good overall and sees the band going down a storm.

Speaking of going down a storm, Disc Seven contains what might be the best performance of the whole set, with one of the band’s legendary Newcastle City Hall Christmas Shows, from 1984, showcasing their ‘local hero’ status so completely that just listening to it you feel like an honorary ‘Geordie for a day’. The roof almost comes off with the rousing opening of Stormy Weather, and the band can do absolutely no wrong. I Remember The Nights is done better than ever, reinvented as an a capella rendition backed by what we are introduced to as ‘some extinguished gentlemen, the Geordie-naires’, I Must Stop Going To Parties is enormous fun, while Fog On The Tyne is brilliantly rejuvenated in the form of a Bo Diddley shuffle. The closing We Can Swing Together is the perfect closer, and when the Christmas songs start appearing on the harmonica, with Auld Lang Syne being belted out reworded as a chorus of ‘Haway The Lads’, the party is complete. As if to remind us of the other side of Lindisfarne, meanwhile, Alan Hull contributes a shimmeringly delicate rendition of Winter Song mid-set, unaccompanied except for his own guitar, and the crowd are so respectfully quiet you can hear a pin drop until the explosive ovation at the end. What a show that must have been, and we are privileged to have it here. This marvellous disc is not finished yet, however, with another Cambridge Folk Festival selection, this time from 1986. The big bonus here is the only appearance in the set (surprisingly) of the early single and Nicely Out Of Tune highlight Clear White Light. It’s worth the wait, however, as it is a brilliant rendition, perhaps the best I have heard it performed. The set is much more rock than folk again, but nobody seems to mind! By this time the band have been augmented by saxophone, which works for most of this set, but at times is a little jarring, as they morph further and further from their folky roots.

Finally we come to Disc Eight, as the end of this weighty collection hoves into view. Again it’s a Christmas show, this time from 1990, and it’s another good one. Once again the recording is saved by some judicious recording in real time from the broadcast, as only five previously released tracks have the original masters available, but in this case the quality is perfectly acceptable. If not quite as strong a show as the previous disc, once again the atmosphere is palpable, and you can almost taste the Newcastle Brown Ale as the band have the audience right with them in one enormous Geordie party. Finishing things up are three tracks recorded in 1987 by the four originals apart from Alan Hull, billed as Downtown Faction, which was their original name before they transitioned into Lindisfarne on Hull’s arrival. They may not be the most essential tracks here, but it’s a perfect way to close the set and bring things full circle.

There are omissions here, as the notes in the excellent booklet make no bones about. As we all know, the BBC’s attitude to radio sessions back in the 1960s and 1970s in particular was bordering on criminal vandalism, routinely wiping would-be historic performances simply to be able to re-use the tape. As a result, a lot of sessions are lost, and many songs such as Uncle Sam, the epic Dingly Dell, and three non-album tracks Positive Earth, A Dream Within A Dream and Psalm To A Secret go unheard, but despite the frustration of missing out on those discoveries, we can be thankful that the diligence which has resulted here in several presumed lost recordings being unearthed means that 14 of 23 sessions are represented. In short, this is as comprehensive as you’re going to get, and it’s an absolute treasure trove for Lindisfarne lovers.

If there is a complaint here, it would only be in the packaging – the eight discs here (covers and CDs), and also the box front and the booklet, all have exactly the same photo and typography. As a cover for the box it’s certainly fine, but it would have been nice to have a different photo matching the chronology for each disc. Other than that, this set can’t really be faulted. The booklet is well illustrated and a mine of information including input from surviving band members, and full details of every single track on here, broadcast dates, line-ups, timings etc, are all present and correct. One thing which is very much brought to focus here is the enormous talent of Alan Hull, de facto band leader and composer of the vast majority of the material – prior to his untimely death in 1995, he was undoubtedly one of the finest songwriters and creative musicians these islands have ever produced, and it is a great shame that his name perhaps does not live on as it should outside of his native Tyneside. This review very much acknowledges his talent and his loss. The Fog on the Tyne, at least, is now his.