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Lindisfarne barely command more than a footnote in most rock reference books. During the early '70s, however, Lindisfarne were one of the hottest folk-based rock bands in England, with chart placements on two of their albums that rivaled Jethro Tull, and had them proclaimed one of the most important groups of the decade. With a sound that mixed plaintive folk-like melodies, earthy but well-sung harmonies, and acoustic and electric textures, the group seemed poised for international success, when a series of unfortunate artistic decisions, followed by a split in their lineup, left them bereft of audience and success.
Singer/guitarist Alan Hull (b. Feb. 20, 1945), guitarist Simon Cowe (b. Apr. 1, 1948), mandolin player Ray Jackson (b. Dec. 12, 1948), bassist/violinist Rod Clements (b. Nov. 17, 1947), and drummer Ray Laidlaw (b. May 28, 1948) all hailed from Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, and the surrounding area. At some point, they were known as Downtown Faction, but they took their familiar musical form under the name Brethren. The band became a very popular act on the college circuit, playing what was known as "good-time" music, singalong numbers resembling (or directly derived from) pub songs in which audiences could luxuriate, usually with Jackson's harmonica honking along. Alan Hull had a background in folk music that enabled him to freely incorporate that influence, and he was the major songwriter and singer in the band.
In 1968, they discovered that an American group was already using the name Brethren, and the Newcastle group rechristened itself Lindisfarne, taken from the name of an island off the coast of Northumberland in Northern England — the island Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island) is most famous for its early medieval monastery and castle and the ancient "Lindisfarne Gospels" medieval manuscript. The new name fit the times and the group's sound, which was evolving in the direction of folk-style music. The group was signed to Tony Stratton-Smith's Charisma Records, England's premiere progressive rock label, in 1970.
They released their first (and best) album, Nicely Out of Tune, that same year. Their debut album captured the group's best attributes, a rollicking, upbeat, optimistic collection of hippie/folk music, somewhere midway between Fairport Convention and the early Grateful Dead, with a peculiarly urban, English working-class ambience. Their "Englishness," coupled with the occasionally uneven quality of their songwriting, may explain one major reason why Lindisfarne never achieved more than a tiny cult following in the United States. Nicely Out of Tune contained one wistfully romantic number, "Lady Eleanor," which became a favorite number in the band's concert repertoire, and seemed destined to find an audience. The album and the "Lady Eleanor" single failed to chart, but Lindisfarne's live shows only grew in popularity — by the end of 1970, they were able to ask for £1500 a night from promoters, a far cry from the £300 they had been getting on the college circuit.
Their second album, Fog on the Tyne, released in 1971, marked their commercial breakthrough — a collection of earthy, folk-type pub songs, Fog on the Tyne entered the British charts in October of that year and began a slow climb into the middle reaches. In February of 1972, however, the group's label belated issued a single from the album, "Meet Me on the Corner." That record was number five on the charts the following month, while Fog on the Tyne suddenly rose to the number one spot. Within a matter of weeks, Nicely Out of Tune entered the charts for the first time and eventually hit number eight; "Lady Eleanor," reissued in June of 1972, made it to number three.
That was when the media hype kicked in, raising expectations and aspirations for a group that, until four months earlier, had been a pleasant folk-rock outfit with a solid cult following. Alan Hull was referred to in the press as the most important new songwriter since Bob Dylan, and Lindisfarne were saddled with the designation as "the 1970s Beatles." Up to this time, the group had played in England and Wales, but, apart from one show in Scotland and individual forays to Paris and Holland, its members hadn't even pondered the notion or implications of an international career. It all seemed too good to last, and it was.
Later in 1972, after a frantic period capitalizing on one massive success after another, the band released its third album, Dingly Dell. The album was troubled from the start. The record's producer was Bob Johnston, the American who had worked on Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding, among many other records, and who had also produced Fog on the Tyne. The bandmembers had a falling out with Johnston over Dingly Dell, and remixed the album themselves immediately prior to release. The resulting record had a very crisp sound, very up-front, and more of a mainstream hard rock sound than their previous two long-players. Unfortunately, this was not the move that the critics had wanted or expected of the band — they wanted a richer, more progressive folk-type sound, in some ways closer to Fairport Convention, not the harder, more basic sound that they found here. Additionally, the songwriting didn't match the prior two albums, and nobody was drawing comparisons between Alan Hull and Dylan over the songs on Dingly Dell.
Ironically, this album came out at just about the time Lindisfarne were in the process of gaining a small following in America, although they never really had much chance of succeeding. Their association with Charisma Records meant that they were afforded a listen by the American progressive rock audience, and to some limited extent their mixture of folk and rock was "progressive." In reality, Lindisfarne were closer in spirit and music to such hard-rocking bands as Brinsley Schwarz, Bees Make Honey, and Eggs Over Easy, utterly lacking the pretensions needed for a prog rock band.
Under other circumstances, the album would have been passed over by most critics as nothing more than a slightly disappointing lapse, but reviewers and journalists seemed bent on revenge for Lindisfarne's failure to rise to the praise and hype lavished on them over the previous year. The record and the group were universally savaged, although Dingly Dell still got to number five on the charts and yielded one modest hit, "All Fall Down." They toured America, but discovered that American listeners and critics found their sound too peculiarly English — in the wrong ways — to really accept Lindisfarne. The group was never remotely as popular as its Charisma labelmates Genesis, who were eagerly snapped up by Atlantic Records once their Charisma contract was up.
Cowe, Laidlaw, and Clements exited the band in early 1973 and formed a new group called Jack the Lad, which specialized in a harder, more basic pub rock sound, and went on to release three albums on Charisma. A live Lindisfarne album, featuring the original lineup and songs mostly from the first three albums, was issued by Charisma in 1973, but it was at best a holding action. Later that year, Alan Hull and Ray Jackson were back leading a new Lindisfarne lineup, featuring Ken Craddock on guitar, keyboards, and vocals; Charlie Harcourt on guitars; Tommy Duffy on bass and vocals; and Paul Nichols on drums. Their first album, Roll on Ruby, was a critical and commercial failure. Hull embarked on a solo recording career at around this same time, which seemed to draw away still more of the band's original audience. As the principal songwriter and voice of the group, and one of two original members, he held Lindisfarne's public better than the new Lindisfarne did.
The band switched to Warner Bros. for its next album, Happy Daze, which fared no better. By 1977, Jack the Lad had called it quits and Cowe, Clements, and Laidlaw were back with Lindisfarne. Hull also recorded with Laidlaw and Craddock under the group name Radiator on the Rocket label, releasing a single album, entitled Isn't It Strange. Lindisfarne switched labels again to Mercury and debuted with a double live album, Magic in the Air, with songs drawn from the group's first three albums. The band remained intact and on Mercury for two more long-players, released to little lasting commercial avail: Back and Fourth (1978), which yielded a pair of modest hits in Alan Hull's "Run for Home," a song that sounds more like Springsteen than Springsteen does, and "Warm Feeling"; and The News (1979). They remained a reasonably popular concert attraction — especially in Newcastle and the surrounding area — into the early '80s, and have continued to record and reunite for concerts periodically in the years since. During the early '80s, they organized Lindisfarne Musical Productions and began releasing their work on the LMP label, including a live album cut in 1983. Their live recordings, featuring new renditions of their classic early-'70s material, seem to draw the greatest enthusiasm. Hull also maintained a separate solo career until his 1995 passing. Fans of the group should definitely own his Back to Basics CD, featuring live acoustic versions of his best songs dating back to 1970.