Sunday, 16 November 2014

passing ghosts

back on the coach in the morning, head full of pain
sleepy-eyed still yawning, yes we're back on the road again
sometimes makes me wonder what we'll be like at the end

It's nineteen years to the day since Alan Hull died. I was 39 and had just started my first proper teaching job as a newly qualified English teacher at a very tough school in Ipswich. I knew I had to take possession of my teaching room and make it my own, so amongst the poems and the poster of Munch's Scream I put up the obituary from the Independent. I didn't think anyone would care as I also knew that nobody read anything put up in classrooms. Particularly kids.

What I hadn't appreciated was that the room I had been given was also the one used regularly for meetings by various departments as well as management. So it was pleasant to be asked by someone about the obituary. Tim, a history teacher at the time, said he was so bored in the meeting that he started to look around at the posters on the walls when he noticed this one and had been quite upset as he had always liked Lindisfarne.  He hadn't been aware that Hully had died. Well, nearly twenty years on and I still occasionally meet up and go to gigs with Tim. The headteacher of the school was a Richard Thompson fan - and of folk music generally - so I did feel at home at the school for a while.

Still, Alan Hull. At the tender age of fifty Alan died suddenly. Things were looking up at the time after a helter-skelter career in the music business. He was a keen supporter of the Labour Party and secretary of his local constituency. I'm not sure how true it is but there was talk of him standing for Parliament but, alas, it was never to be. What he would make of the state of the current version of the Party is anyone's guess. I can't imagine he would have been a Blairite either!

Politics aside, Hull's legacy is a fine body of songs - a very strong body of fine songs indeed. Whilst the general public at the time of his death probably couldn't care less, many could probably have looked back through their back pages and found singles, maybe an album and a memory of a great gig they'd witnessed. His legacy is of a sort of Northern Lennon but to be honest, Alan was a much more honest and intelligent man than the very emotionally screwed up Scouser.

For me, Alan had been an inspiration and I had seen him with Lindisfarne many times and managed, thankfully, to see him solo at Hitchin folk club - in the Nightingale years -  and had even got drunk with him a couple of times way back in the mid-1970s.

I guess a lot of people only think of the band as being a good time pop band. However, I think that during their heyday, the band were a very potent force. The first album Nicely Out of Tune was not only an incredibly apt title but also chock-full of great songs. The acoustic-driven sound of the album was certainly part of the early seventies Zeitgeist amongst such popular gems Bridge Over Troubled Waters and  Led Zeppelin III and After the Gold Rush. No one bought it at the time of course. But songs like Clear White Light - Part 2 and Lady Eleanor were haunting and very, very striking to a fourteen year old loner whose other favourite album at the time was Trespass by Genesis. Interestingly, the whole acoustic vibe has stayed with me since those halcyon days.

Just in case someone out there points out that I wasn't a huge fan of NOOT when it first came out - it was, after all, a bit too Beatle-y for me on first few hearings. You have to remember that the Fab Four were my (older) sister's band, I was into the emerging prog bands, the Moodies, Crimso and of course Genesis. Interestingly, my favourite songs of those bands were the acoustic ones*. Honest, M'lud. However, it didn't take long to become convinced. Seeing them live was what really did it.

Over those early years of the seventies Lindisfarne became ubiquitous - Rod Stewart even had Ray Jackson from the band playing mandolin on his biggest hit. Having the opportunity to see Lindisfarne at Reading and Weeley (June and August 1971) festivals as well as at the Lyceum on the "Six Bob Tour" in January 1971 I realise now was better than mis-spending my youth learning how to play snooker. I even took my parents (well, I guess they took me as I couldn't drive and had no income) to see them at Watford Top Rank on Wednesday 18th October 1972. By this time I was failing educationally but riding high on promoting well-attended gigs at Stevenage College.

The last point there brings us neatly to the aforementioned drinking episodes with AH. As Social Secretary of the College (a Union member even then) I booked the bands - the whole point of being Social Sec, of course. I became friendly with the Charisma promoters Paul Conroy and Nigel Kerr. Both seem to have done okay (well in Paul's case running Virgin Records was quite a high point for him, I guess) but in those days they were always trying to get little guys like me to book their mostly obscure or "bubbling under" bands. Most of these bands disappeared into running building firms or alcoholism of course. Still, because I used them a few times I was often able to blag free tickets into the Marquee in Wardour Street or even other bigger gigs. Consequently, I became a regular at the Nelly Dean pub in Dean Street. As regular readers may be aware, I still frequent Soho drinking establishments when I get the chance. The Nelly Dean was the Charisma Records watering hole of choice.

Quite often the bar at the Nelly Dean was full of members of various Charisma acts at lunch times and especially on Friday evenings. One particular evening I remember most of Genesis (sans Peter Gabriel), label boss Tony Stratton-Smith, various Lindisfarnes and I getting quite less than sober. Chris Welch, the Melody Maker journalist, was at a table with Viv Stanshall and they were definitely much less than sober than me. This is the time that Phil Collins bought me a pint. I mention that as most people say he's a very mean person. I won't have a word spoken against him. He bought me a pint**.

Alan was there too. I found him quite a private person. He was outwardly at times jolly and I guess because they were a drinking band rather than a stoner band Lindisfarne were seen as a good time band. Alan had a far away look in his eyes on the few times I met him. There was a lot going on behind those eyes. That night he was part of a large gathering of friends and work colleagues (and I was just a little oik who was no doubt intruding) and therefore seemed happy enough. I'd also seen him wander on stage and fall over obviously having enjoyed the refreshments backstage a few times. This was a man after my own heart - someone who enjoyed the craic enjoyed other people's company but was a deep thinker.

One day at one of those all-Sunday Roundhouse concerts (I went to so many I honestly can't remember who was on), which I think was about 1974, I bumped into Alan at the bar. He seemed dimly aware of the fact we'd met before. He'd met so many people over the years I'm sure he didn't even remember my name. Still, he seemed happy that he vaguely recognised me and that I seemed to know who he was without being starstruck that he wanted to sit in the corner of the bar and spend a few hours in each other's company. I must admit that he seemed distant and certainly didn't want to talk about the band or previous success. I respected that and we sat and just generally chatted. Occasionally he'd fade away and get lost in his thoughts and then snap back out of it and chat for a while. A cynic might assume that he was out of it but I think he was quite deeply affected by the rise and fall of the capriciousness of fame and was in the dark days after the disintegration of the band.

A few years later I travelled up to the notorious Chorley Festival, which I'll no doubt write about another time, and saw Alan's band Radiator. The band didn't last long but it was definitely AH and backing band. In the early 1980s he played the Hitchin Folk Club and the future Mrs Dave and I went along. Alan was superb and played a mixture of old and new songs. It was a glorious evening that seemed both hopeful for the future and elegiac for times past.

I love the first three Lindisfarne albums and his solo album Pipedream, which was one of my mother's favourites too. I haven't tried to write about how great many of his songs are as they stand up on their own merits. The man was one of those great Englishmen we've all met one or two of along the way. He was a deep thinker, a little eccentric maybe but overall, he was one of the great British songwriters.  I think he was one of those influences on my life that has kept me thinking about the three Ps: people, politics and pints. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm sure that the fact that a 12 string acoustic guitar and a mandolin hang on my wall with equal placing to my Strat is partly due to Alan Hull. The sound that the band pioneered with no attempt at flashy showmanship and pure song-craft has stayed with me for the last 44 years.

I haven't attempted here to write about the songs, which was my intention. I realised that whilst writing this I have dwelt on the man. That's interesting and makes me realise that he was inspirational in all sorts of ways. Maybe next year on the twentieth anniversary of his death I'll tackle the songs. In the meantime, I'll let the man himself tell you about it here.

In the meantime, I'm raising a glass or two to the spirit of one of the greats. Cheers, Alan.

One more bottle of wine.
opened up to the name of love in the nick of time,
drunk to the future of mankind
for in truth we are the blind leading the blind
let's have another drink for God's sake
though we're on the brink of a bad break
let's have another drink for God's sake.

Alan Hull (February 20th 1945 - November 17th 1995)

* Question by the Moodies & Cadence & Cascade by King Crimson always affected me more than their wilder moments. 

**It's a boring story but he had accidentally poked me in the ear with a bar billiard cue at Bletchley Youth Club a few years previously - I brought the subject up as I had little else to talk to him about! He felt he should buy me a pint to say sorry.


Mike C. said...

No, wait... You mean John Peel didn't really play mandolin on Maggie May?? I thought he looked he was struggling to hold it the right way up on TOTP...


Dave Leeke said...

Yeah, sorry about that Mike, another rock myth ruined.

Mr Stewart was so lazy he couldn't be bothered to find out the name of the poor bloke so it's credited on his album to something like "the bloke from Lindisfarne". Nowadays he could've Googled it.