We’re in Tyneside Cinema Café in Newcastle and Ray asks why I write the blog ’I put it together because we all like hearing musician’s stories’. Ray fires back ‘Do drummers count ?’
We both live on either side of the banks of the River Tyne, so does he think the river has an influence on who we are and what we do…
Oh yes, the river is a means of communication. Everything came in and out of the river. It is a barrier but also a conduit for ideas from other people from different parts of the UK and all over the world.
Geordies have always been receptive to new ideas……and if they really like them they pretend they were theirs (laughs).
Paul Irwin and I started Tyne Idols. We are big fans of the region and it’s creativity so we came up with an idea of a bus tour around Tyneside celebrating music, TV and visit film locations.
We often invite a guest on the bus, maybe an actor, comedian or musician. Last year we had Dick Clements and Ian Le Frenais, and went around locations of their show The Likely Lads. It’s a celebration of the area really.
Can you remember the music TV shows that came out of Tyne Tees studio in Newcastle ?
Yeah we played a few, Lindisfarne were on the Geordie Scene. We also had a half hour show to ourselves on Alright Now. That was around ’78/79 when we were making our comeback.
We came up with a few ideas, in the first half we did a few songs and links in various locations then the second half was all live. Loved it. That was with producers Geoff and Andrea Wonfor. But sadly Lindisfarne never appeared on The Tube. Ray Jackson had a song on where we all backed him but not as Lindisfarne.
The Tube was great. Not just music but comedy as well. Stephen Fry, Dawn French and many others all got their breaks at The Tube. It was influenced by the 1960’s TV show Ready, Steady, Go. I’ve been working on a programme about that with Geoff Wonfor.
It tells the story of the ground–breaking programme which was one of the first that had the cameras in view. The cameramen were brought in from the sports programmes because they were used to following action. That brought up the excitement when the bands were on stage. The documentary will be on BBC4 later this year.
Lindisfarne played Top of the Pops a few times, what did you think of the show ?
It was ok, you just mimed. But the best thing was meeting other musicians. Most of the time you are touring on your own. It was like the early 1970’s festivals. We loved doing festivals because of the other bands you could meet. Bands like The Faces, Medicine Head, The Beach Boys, Rory Gallagher, Humble Pie.
We played our first festival down in Devon in summer 1970 and on that occasion Free were top of the bill, they were just breaking then. They were supposed to close the show at 9pm with us playing just before them. At 10pm we hadn’t been on. Free had to be back in London for the next morning so they went on while we were backstage having a few drinks.
We finally got on at 11pm and opened with Lady Eleanor. It’s a song which creeps in. A guitar, mandolin bit, a bass bit, drums, then guitar harmonics at regular intervals. Waited for guitar part…. no guitar part. In those days Simon Cowe used to play sitting down so Hully had to go and kick him up the arse cos he’d fallen asleep (laughs).
Do bands have their time, maybe an album or two then come back in the spotlight years later ?
Yes there is a bit of that. But when we broke through it was the perfect time because we were so different from everybody else. Also having three great songwriters in the band, most have just one, we had three.
Lindisfarne had a number of members but when the band recorded the number one album ’Fog on the Tyne’ the personnel were the original five, Alan Hull (vocals, guitars, keyboards) Ray Jackson (vocals, mandolin, harmonica) Rod Clements (bass, violin) Simon Cowe (lead, acoustic, 12 string guitars, mandolin, vocals) and Ray Laidlaw (drums).
We had the biggest selling album of ’71 in Fog on the Tyne. Everyone had that record. We had lots of our own fans but we were also other music fans second favourite group, like Newcastle United in the Keegan era.
The Fog album was such a huge success that everything after that was going to be perceived as failure. So the third album only got to number six in the charts. Yes, only (laughs).
But we weren’t prepared for that. Management didn’t sit us down and say whatever happens it’s going to be a hard act to follow. Plus the record was put out too quick as we were the only band making money on the label. Maybe we should have taken six month off after Fog on the Tyne.
Who was your manager ?
Tony Stratton Smith who owned the record company, Charisma. It was a big mistake. Basically Tony was talking to himself (laughs). ‘Do you want an advance’…’No’ (laughs).
Charisma was a wacky label with Van Der Graf Generator, Monty Python, the poet Sir John Betjeman, us…where else would you get that ? Fantastically creative but had it’s drawbacks. So the band split in two because we couldn’t agree what to do after the third record.
The band with the same personnel, released the album ‘Dingly Dell’ and charted in the top 10. What recording studios did you use for the album ?
In the early days the majority of our records were done in Trident Studios off Wardour Street in London. We used that studio for Nicely Out of Tune and Fog on the Tyne.
We also recorded some stuff in Olympic and Island studios and then when we got back together again in 1978 we used residential studios like Gus Dudgeon’s place in Maidenhead, we also went to Rockfield, Chipping Norton and Ridge Farm.
By that time we all had young families so using residential studios worked out better as the wives and kids could visit.
Were some songs recorded just for the studio or all written to play live ?
I think everything we did we at least attempted to play live. We had a guide that if a song works with one man and a guitar or piano it’ll work with the band.
The song has to have a strength of it’s own first, almost with no supporting instrumentation. Live you try different arrangements, build it up or strip it back.
Some songs you would only do on one tour then put it back in the box. Some you have to play because the longer you survive the more material you have. It’s the early one’s that made your name. They have to be in the set list.
Do you come from a musical family ?
Me Grandad was a pub singer and could play piano. It was a good way of not buying his own beer. His daughter, my mam, was a good dancer but was a bit nervous to leave home so she never did it professionally. That’s the only bit of a showbiz background.
But it was me Granda that bought me my first drumkit. I just liked the look of drum sets, a bit like some folks like motorbikes. A couple of mates had guitars. I was getting interested in music about 1960 and it was a perfect time because there was so much great stuff about.
When I first started in a group, I was with Simon Cowe who was also in Lindisfarne with me. Our first group was a three piece, just instrumentals, we couldn’t afford a microphone. We were just learning, playing instrumentals.
We did a couple of gigs in social clubs, only during school holidays because Simon was at boarding school in Edinburgh.
Where did you rehearse ?
Simon’s family lived in a big old Georgian house, the poshest street in North Shields. His dad was an architect. There were loads of rooms and we set up in one of the spare rooms downstairs.
Music wasn’t the only thing we got up to. We also made homemade fireworks and stole fruit out of people’s gardens (laughs).
But yeah I was a bit of a show-off really but didn’t have the confidence to be a singer or guitar player. Just had an affinity with drums and was pretty good at it.
After that I was in a band called The Druids with Bob Sergeant who went on to be a producer on BBC radio for John Peel, The Clash, stuff like that. The Druids were playing all covers and gigged youth clubs for about a year.
Then I met Rod Clements who was another posh lad from North Shields. His band had just packed in and we got into the blues via the Stones and John Mayall. We loved the Yardbirds. All fast and furious – we decided to get a band together.
We used to watch The Junco Partners and they were the first band we had seen that listened to each other, didn’t all play at once, they realised they all had a part to play within the group.
We were inspired and looked for people who had to be as good as they were. It took four or five years to finally get our dream band together.
How much were Downtown Faction influenced by the folk scene on Tyneside ?
We weren’t at first, that all came later. We were into the blues, it wasn’t until we started writing our own songs that we developed that bluesy/folk and rootsy sound.
Simon was a great guitar player, finger picking style like Bert Jansch and we started listening to early Fairport Convention, Dylan, intelligent song writing.
We had a bit of arrogance about us, ambitious yes, and we looked down our noses at bands doing nothing but covers. We did play a few covers but we chose unusual tracks, Bob Dylan, Moby Grape, Frank Zappa tunes.
We were looking to be original, wanted to be better than everyone else, putting the band together was organic… we gradually found the right people, there was no speedy plan.
What year was this ?
Around ‘67/68. We were the support band on Led Zeppelins first ever UK gig at Newcastle Mayfair. They were still called The New Yardbirds then and had only been going two weeks.
Can you remember much about that time ?
Well we used to be on at the Mayfair a lot then, Tuesday would be a couple of local bands and other nights would be a big band who wanted local support. I used to see a lot of bands there, I was always in the Mayfair. I remember that Yardbirds gig but it didn’t make a massive mark.
How old were you then and did you have a proper job ?
20 year old and a window dresser at Shepherds department store in Gateshead. I’d dropped out of art college and needed a job. I got on well at the store so was able to juggle my time with gigs and work.
Simon was a photographer at Turners in Newcastle so that was great for arty publicity shots that we could put up in a shop window in the Haymarket. They became a bit of a talking point, we always tried to be creative with what we did.
What else was happening on the music scene ?
We did a gig New Year’s Day 1969 at Newcastle old town hall. Somebody had the brainwave of putting on a blues and poetry day. There was no heating in the place, so it was freezing. Two bands played, four or five poets were on and about 100 people there.
The street poetry was astonishing, I’d never heard anything like it. Poets like Tom Pickard and Tony Jackson, pre cursor to today’s Benjamin Zephaniah and people like that. Very working class, very political.
After that there was a few blues evenings, all very arty, hippy, sit on the floor pay what you can sort of deal.
Did the band have a manager or agent ?
Ivan Burchill was the main agent in Newcastle then, but we wouldn’t compromise about our music so didn’t get as many gigs as some bands. Plus at our gigs we never got the lasses you know, we’d get all the muso’s turning up.
A guy called Joe Robertson got us gigs when we changed our name from Downtown Faction to Brethren. That was when people were taking notice, we were headlining a few shows and Joe was also managing The Junco Partners.
That was when Alan Hull joined and his manager at the time Dave Woods from Impulse Studio came in on joint management with Joe. Inroads to record companies started to happen then.
Did you know Alan previously ?
He was in a band The Chosen Few who along with The Junco Partners were the big bands in Newcastle. After his band crashed and burned, he took a break then began song writing again.
He used to play in the folk clubs where the tradition was they’d let newcomers play three songs early in the night. He used to try his stuff out there and so did we because you didn’t want to try new stuff in front of a blues/rock audience.
Beginning as Downtown Faction, the band changed their name again from Brethren to Lindisfarne and were signed to Charisma records in 1970.
Was it an emerging scene then…
Yeah it was a bit of an underground song-writing scene on Tyneside that was parallel to the more pop based groups. Bit underground because there were musos coming down from Scotland – Rab Noakes and the JSD Band, there was Prelude from Low Fell, Milesy (John Miles) and his group The Influence from South Shields, many others.
Folk guys were influencing the rock guys and vice versa. We were listening to Music from Big Pink by the Band (Bob Dylan’s backing band). They were doing stuff from American roots music with a rock rhythm section and that’s what we wanted to do.
Fairport Convention were another band playing rock’n’roll versions of English folk tunes. Now here was music with a bit more history and depth, more gravitas. This is more like it. We loved that.
Our group all had different tastes but agreed on one thing. We loved The Beatles and we loved the way they treated every song as an individual piece of work. It wasn’t a problem for us to leave a guitar or drums off a track. It was all about the song.
We were a song-writing band and we had to treat each individual song right.
We could write something and if it was alright for Top of the Pops we were ok with that. We didn’t have a problem about being commercial. Some of the songs we had were great pop songs but we never set out to write singles.
Same with an album, every song had to count…no fillers. If there was a single in there, great, if not, no worries.
Have you got any road stories ?
Lindisfarne had a break from 1973-76, we had a few successful one-off gigs then made a new album in ’78. The opening night on the tour was Leeds University were The Who recorded their album Live at Leeds.
We broke their attendance record that night. Two weeks later the fire brigade came in and told the University ‘With the number of fire escapes you’ve got, you got to cut the capacity by 400’. So our record will never be beaten (laughs).
Anyway the opening night we had some pyrotechnics, we went a bit showbiz like, and they would go off at the end of the show. Balloons and confetti cannons. The big ending you know. At that point the soundman was to mute every channel – and he forgot.
So it went down every microphone, the monitors were like tissue paper, the speakers blew out as did the windows behind the stage. We weren’t invited back (laughs).
Did you play any gigs that turned out to be a nightmare ?
Some of the usual rock ‘n’ roll stories where the promoter won’t pay you. And you’ve already played the gig. One time we had to get our crew to park our truck across the path of the headliners truck so they couldn’t shift it. Then the word would go out about dodgy promoters so you would ask for half the money up front.
Some tours were great fun with other bands. Genesis were on the same label as us in the early days so we used to be on the same bill along with Van Der Graaf Generator. Depending on what city we were in and who had the biggest following we would take turns headlining. But we used to finish the gig doing a song together.
We’d play The Battle of New Orleans a Lonnie Donegan song, with Alan Hull, Ray Jackson, Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel singing a verse each. All the bands singing together. And nobody recorded it!
What does music mean to you ?
It’s given me my life. If I hadn’t been enthusiastic about music and taken the plunge, I probably would have ended up being a not very good teacher. I’ve had a really exciting life and it still is, you never know what the next phone call is gonna be.
I’m still a music fan and that’s how I maintain my enthusiasm. So many good times with music. I’m just glad me Granda got us me first set of drums.
What are you doing now ?
We’ve been putting together Sunday for Sammy concerts. Our dear friend the actor, Sammy Johnson died in 1998 and we didn’t just want a plaque for him, we wanted to do more so we came up with a concert idea.
I’ve been involved with Sammy since the beginning in 2000 with Lindisfarne, then drummer for the house-band and from 2006 producing the show. The proceeds of the show are put towards the start of creative careers for young people. To date we’ve raised around half a million pound.
It’s fun to do and the audience laugh along with it. We had Mark Knopfler on one year and the running gag was he never got to do his song.
He comes on stage playing the opening bars of Money for Nothing and Tim Healy runs on shouting ‘No, not yet’. After repeating the gag Mark comes on later and this time Alan Shearer shouts ’Knopfler, play yer hit man’ (laughs). So, he never got to sing but eventually played ‘Local Hero’.
Yeah, we have great fun and so do the crowd seeing some well-known faces doing things they don’t normally do on stage – singers in sketches, Brian Johnson played an angel once, actors singing and TV presenters accidently swearing.
It’s a family show but we recommend 14 years plus because sometimes people forget their lines and you never know what they’re going to say.
Who scripts the shows ?
We have a few people. Dick Clements and Ian Le Frenais who wrote The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedersehen Pet, they write us a new sketch every time. Geordie comedian Jason Cook, Ed Waugh from South Shields. We also have a sketch writing competition for new writers, A Sketch for Sammy, we used two winners on the 2018 show.
Are you looking forward to the 20th Anniversary show ?
To be honest I’m terrified and excited in equal measures.
Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2019.