OBITUARY: Alan Hull
Monday 20 November 1995
Hull's upbringing in the North-east and his work as a nurse among mental patients helped instil in him a sense of realism that eluded his more glamorous contemporaries. Hull was a champion of the people rather than a champion of rock-star values, and this was reflected in his work as a performer, writer and political activist.
Hull was born in 1945 in Newcastle upon Tyne. His musical career began with a local band, the Chosen Few. He left them to work for a while as a nurse at St Nicholas Hospital where he met his wife, Pat. At the same time Hull established himself as a folk singer and in 1967 formed the Downtown Faction. A year on they became Lindisfarne, taking the name from Holy Island nearby. The line-up included Hull on vocals, guitar and piano, with Simon Cowe (guitar), Ray Jackson (harmonica, mandolin), Rod Clements (bass and violin) and Ray Laidlaw (drums). The band were signed to Charisma Records, whose boss, Tony Stratton-Smith appreciated Hull's poetic lyrics and the band's uniquely British flavour. Their debut album, Nicely Out of Tune (1970) included one of Hull's most celebrated compositions, "Lady Eleanor". This was followed by the classic Fog on the Tyne (1971), a No 1 hit. The folksy title-track celebrating Newcastle life became a favourite with festival audiences.
Glen Colson, the former tour manager for Lindisfarne and assistant to Stratton-Smith understood the background to Hull's work and the band's approach:
Alan wrote most of his biggest songs all in one week while working at the hospital. Apparently they used to give LSD to the alcoholics there and he'd taken an acid trip himself. It was during that period that he wrote four or five great songs, including "Clear White Light", "We Can Swing Together", "Fog on the Tyne" and "Lady Eleanor".
On night shifts, Hull managed to fit in a lot of reading and he enjoyed the novels of Edgar Allan Poe as well as the works of Jung and Freud. Colson says:
Poe was one of his heroes and "Lady Eleanor" was written after a character from one of his stories.
Lindisfarne's good-time songs reached out to a hugely receptive audience at the great Seventies festivals. "Every time they played a festival they stole the show," Colson recalls:
Their big anthem was "We Can Swing Together", which was all about a drug bust. It was an anti-police song and audiences loved it. Only a couple of years ago they were still going down a storm everywhere they played because everyone knew their songs. They were the biggest-selling group in 1972. It was them and Slade.
The band did five albums for Charisma including Dingly Dell (1972), Lindisfarne Live (1973) and Roll On Ruby (1974). They made another 15 albums over a 20-year period, one of the most recent being Elvis Lives On The Moon. Hull wrote most of their main songs except "Meet Me On the Corner". "Everyone thinks Alan wrote it," Colson said, "but it was actually Rod Clements, and it was their biggest hit." It made the Top Five in 1972. But after their initial success the band's career began to slump and the album Dingly Dell was not so well received. They went to America in 1972 and toured for a year, struggling to make a living on a wage of a dollar a day. "That's what Stratton-Smith paid us," recalls Colson, "We were out there for six months while their album was No 1 in the UK. We thought we could break America but it didn't really work out".
Most Americans were stoned on pot in those days and Lindisfarne were a drinking band so people didn't really understand them. Alan wasn't shy of the odd drink, but he always had a bacon sandwich in the morning to restore his electrolyte balance. He said he had to get the salts back into this body that the beer had taken out.
The band were reduced to playing half-hour versions of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" to keep audiences happy who knew nothing about fog and cared less about the Tyne. Lindisfarne plugged on, supporting the Kinks at Carnegie Hall and such acts as Taj Mahal and Tim Buckley. At the tour's end, it transpired that Lindisfarne owed money. It was the last serious attempt to sell Hull's music to America.
At the end of the tour Laidlaw, Cowe and Clements left to form the new band Jack the Lad. Their replacements released the album Happy Daze but split in 1975. In the meantime Hull pursued a solo career, releasing his debut album, Pipe Dream, in 1973, with help from ex-Lindisfarne members. Many of the songs were concerned with his experience working in the mental hospital. He also wrote The Mocking Horse, a book of poetry on the subject, which became a best-seller. His later releases included Squire (1975), Phantoms (1979) and On the Other Side (1983). He formed a short-lived group called Radiator with the drummer Ray Laidlaw which released Isn't It Strange in 1977.
Lindisfarne re-formed for a Top Ten single, "Run For Home", in 1978. In 1990 the band recorded a version of "Fog on the Tyne" with the Geordie football star Paul Gascoigne which got to No 2. Lindisfarne, with Hull at the helm, remained a huge attraction in the North-east and only four months ago celebrated their 25th anniversary with a concert at Newcastle City Hall.
A keen supporter of the Labour Party, Hull was secretary of his constituency party. He took part in many events to support the 1984 miners' strike and also organised a concert to save Swan Hunter shipyard. In 1986 he wrote a show called Heads Held High to be performed on the route of the 50th-anniversary Jarrow to London hunger march.
Most recently Hull had planned a return trip to America, and a new solo album, and he had been looking for a deal with EMI Records.
"Alan was a people's poet who had the common touch," the rock critic Reg Hollingsworth says:
He had the ability to turn bitterness into sweetness with a sense of humour attached. He wrote in the Bardic tradition and he could see a future that he didn't particularly like. He certainly didn't like London. He felt they weren't taken seriously enough there: Lindisfarne were categorised as simple folk group but they wrote beautifully crafted songs and were even hailed as The New Beatles after 'Clear White Light' came out. He wasn't happy with the music business, but whatever he thought, he was extremely successful within it.
Alan Hull, composer, musician, poet: born Newcastle upon Tyne 20 February 1945; married (three daughters); died Newcastle upon Tyne 17 November 1995.
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