Folk on the Tyne - Ray Laidlaw on the 40th anniversary of cult North East band Lindisfarne
Posted: 23 Nov 2010
It's 40 years since Tyneside folk-rock legends Lindisfarne changed the face of music with their debut album Nicely Out of Tune.
The original band - dubbed the Seventies' Beatles - line-up was: Alan Hull singer and guitarist, Ray 'Jacka' Jackson on harmonica and mandolin, Rod Clements on bass, Si Cowe on guitar and Ray Laidlaw on drums.
They hit the big time with their No. 1 album Fog on the Tyne and Geordie yearning anthem Run for Home.
Founder member Ray Laidlaw takes a trip down memory lane with Michael Hamilton.
Pictures courtesy of Ray Laidlaw
MH: Tell me about the early days.
Ray: We go right back to schooldays really. Rod and Si met on their first day at Kings School in Tynemouth aged five – that would be about 1953. I met them when I was 13. We all lived in North Shields and you didn’t see many people carrying guitar cases around in those days or dressed like we were then!
We were into Cliff and the Shadows but more interested in the instrumentation than the singing so it was people like Lonnie Donnegan and Duane Eddy for us. Then we found blues music. We came to it through the Stones and Yardbirds – who had been influenced by black musicians and in turn we got interested in Chicago blues. We got into Bob Dylan and folk and realised it all came from the same origins really.
We had a band called Downtown Faction and our guitarist Jeff Sadler was mates with Mark Knopfler who would come along to rehearsals but didn’t play with us. He was a bit shy in those days.
Rod was a boarder at Durham school and Si was at Fettes College in Edinburgh – so they were only around during the holidays. I was at art college in Newcastle when I met Ray Jackson. I heard this amazing harmonica playing down the corridor. I just couldn’t believe a lad from Newcastle could play blues like that. We quickly became mates. He was in another band at the time and I poached him.
MH: What was the biggest musical influence and how did the new name come about?
Ray: We discovered Bob Dylan’s group The Band – it was the time of the Basement Tapes – and realised we had been barking up the wrong tree. We dropped the heavy approach and went back to basics. We found these folk clubs where you could play acoustic music and the scales fell from our eyes.
Meanwhile I was aware of Alan on the folk scene and I was invited to do a session for him. He was there with his mates and they were a couple of years older than me. I must admit I was a bit wary of them – they were strange. It was the marijuana and I wasn’t familiar with it then! But I loved Alan’s songs. He wanted me to join him but I still wanted to play with Rod, Si and Jacka.
It was only a matter of time before we got together as Alan Hull and Brethren. We realised we made a much better noise together than we did separately.
Then John Anthony, who produced our first album, came up with the name Lindisfarne to reflect our northern roots. We thought it sounded a bit daft at first but we tried it on a few people and they loved it, so it stuck.
We were delighted to be signed by Charisma Records. We loved the boutique, bohemian feel of it, and we recorded that first album in three days.
MH: Tell me about young Geordie lads let loose in London.
Ray: In the early days we had nowt. The record company would put us up in a cheap hotel and we’d get expenses and food but we never had any money. So we would get Strat (Tony Stratton Smith, Charisma Records chief executive) to sign us in at the Speakeasy Club (a notorious West End showbiz drinking den) and buy us a drink. Then we lived on our wits. It was full of drunken pop stars and when they pulled their hankies out loose fivers would drop on the floor. We cottoned on to this very quickly. And you’d see some pop star asleep over his dinner so we’d eat the bits around him!
We lived like that for about a year. We never felt part of it – we always felt like outsiders. We had a few mates with flats who would let us doss on the floor until they got fed up with us. Then we all got our own places for a few years in North London we were close to the A1. I enjoyed my time in London but I wouldn’t want to live there now.
Even when the band was at its peak we only got 50 quid a week. It was a lot of money in 1972 but even including royalties we weren’t multi-millionaires by any stretch of the imagination.
MH: You quickly became the darlings of the music press though.
Ray: The Beatles had just finished and the charts were full of glam rock and really awful pop groups and tacky cabaret bands. We thought we had some decent content – a bit of gravitas, without sounding too pretentious. Add to that we were cocky and arrogant and could have the audience eating out of our hands after three numbers. We had a momentum and it didn’t happen overnight. We had been playing since the mid-Sixties. But we were also pub people and the press lads were about our age so we would go drinking with them. They liked our humour and mickey-taking.
MH: Do you think the music stands the test of time?
Ray: Technologically it sounds a bit primitive – it was done on 8-track after all – but the freshness of the songs still shines through. The intro to Lady Eleanor still sounds great and Winter Song is quintessentially Alan’s writing with beautiful melodies and social commentary. I still maintain that Alan is one of the finest British songwriters ever. He never got due credit. There was some lovely stuff said about him as a songwriter when he died. I just wish they had said it when he was alive. Because he stayed in England and particularly Newcastle he was regarded as part of the furniture.
For our second album Fog on the Tyne we got Bob Dylan’s producer Bob Johnston, and he said there’s no switch on a recording desk called atmosphere. You create that yourself.
MH: What was it like working with him?
Ray: There was a lot of pressure on us to get a second album out quickly. The record company was living a hand-to-mouth existence. We had our songs written and everything rehearsed and then we met Bob who said play me everything you’ve got. But only four or five of our original choices ended up on there and he recorded it in a really stripped-down way. And he was bang on – he caught the moment.
And it caught people’s imagination. Everyone was walking around with a copy under their arm.
The irony was that the track Fog on the Tyne wasn’t intended for the album. We played it for a bit of fun at a Royal Festival Hall gig and it brought the house down. We weren’t even going to include it on the album, but Bob insisted we did!
We were gigging all the time and we were stealing the show wherever we went. We were a bit like Newcastle United – everyone’s favourite second team.
MH: Do you remember playing Top of the Pops and hitting your drum kit with a plastic fish?
Ray: It was really good fun doing Top of the Pops. More people remember me for hitting my drum kit with a rubber fish than anything else I’ve ever done. But it was actually inspired by the drum sound Levon Helm of The Band used to get. It was a flat, slappy sound like he was hitting it with a herring. So I said to our manager get me a rubber fish so I can get that sound too!
But Top of the Pops was a great shop front for us. Everybody watched that show in those days. And because you mimed, you could have a drink too and it didn’t matter if you got drunk.
MH: Did it seem like you were on a crazy rollercoaster at that time?
Ray: It was wonderful touring the States. We were provisionally booked to do 10 days and ended up staying eight weeks. It just snowballed. We played up and down the east coast and west coast with heroes of ours like The Kinks and The Beach Boys. We hung out at The Troubador in LA where Jackson Browne and The Eagles used to hang out and we supported Don McLean there. Then Fog on the Tyne hit number one when we were away. So we came back and had three weeks of being famous and not being able to walk the streets in Newcastle without being mobbed. We didn’t have minders or anything like that. It was all very good-natured but you still couldn’t escape from it. We loved every minute but then I went back to North Shields and no one took any notice of me there!
Then we did the third album Dingly Dell all the while touring Europe, plus another American tour and Australia and Japan. We thought the album was really good but the backlash started when it didn’t go straight to number one.
We weren’t prepared for the initial success – only Bridge Over Troubled Water sold more copies than Fog on the Tyne in 1971 – and we weren’t prepared to deal with it when the third album wasn’t an instant success.
MH: So tell me about the split in 1973.
Ray: Alan wanted more time to write – he couldn’t write to order. He started getting stroppy and made it plain he didn’t want to be there. So we had a plan to get Billy Mitchell (another North Shields pal and musician) to come and do the live shows and Alan could stay at home and write songs. That’s what the Beach Boys were doing to give Brian Wilson a break from being on the road.
It was all agreed, then I went off to the States to see some friends and when I came back it was all off. Alan and Jacka wanted to get rid of Si and blamed him for everything that had gone wrong.
We should have done what Genesis did at that time. They were bright boys and saw how our success pulled us apart. So they went in to the record company with their lawyer and said if you want our next album we will renegotiate our contract and we want a year off, and we want some money to fund it. And the record company said OK.
We didn’t have the wit, so in 1973 I formed Jack the Lad with Si and Rod and Alan and Jacka had Lindisfarne mark two, then after three years we got back together again. By that time we had a bit of distance and we could see where the mistakes had been made. Splitting up seemed quite natural to us. It seemed a much bigger deal to everybody else.
MH: Tell me about the reunion and Run for Home.
Ray: We initially got back together for a Newcastle City Hall Christmas gig. Both Jack the Lad and Lindisfarne mark two had struggled because they didn’t have the chemistry of the original band. It was the first time all five of us had been in the same room and it seemed so easy and natural.
So in the spring of 1978 we sneaked off to a studio and we liked what we produced. We got Gus Dudgeon on board as producer because we admired him.
I remember Alan was messing around on the piano with his old battered exercise book with his song titles in it. I found this thing called Run for Home and I asked him what it was. He said: “It’s sh... - a whingeing song about wanting to be in Newcastle.”
But I nagged him to play it and when he did all the lads instinctively joined in with those wonderful sweet and sour harmonies and it sounded fantastic.
At that point Gus walked in and said: “That’s the single.” We fell about laughing but we realised we were sitting on a monster hit. It actually sold more copies than any single we ever did and bear in mind this was at the height of punk.
It’s probably my favourite Lindisfarne song. It was us sticking two fingers up at the music establishment and it was one hell of a comeback. It’s become an anthem. I love hearing it at the match and Alan always loved it when it was played at St. James’ Park.
MH: What was it like playing with Dylan at St. James’ Park in 1984?
Ray: That was absolutely brilliant. We were fans of his anyway. But we wangled ourselves on the bill because we had heard tickets weren’t selling very well. And we contacted the promoter and said we’ll guarantee you another 10,000 ticket sales if you put us on. And we did!
MH: Alan’s death must have hit the band hard in 1995.
Ray: We had just done a 25th anniversary special for Tyne Tees and within a few months Alan was dead. It was surreal. For a day I couldn’t believe it had happened.
I knew he wasn’t well. He didn’t look after himself. But Alan lived his life the way he liked to and he wouldn’t have coped well with changing his diet or going to the gym.
If someone had said to him when he was 25 you can live until you’re 50 doing anything you want or live to 75 and make compromises, I know which one he would have picked.
MH: Was there any doubt about continuing after his death?
Ray: We got together within about three days of his death at Rod’s house in Rothbury. There were lots of cups of tea and not knowing what to say. But we all thought what would be the point of stopping. Alan was a huge part of the band but if we could find someone to sing and play we had to go on. So Billy Mitchell came in.
It was certainly therapy for me. It helped the grieving process. I got through losing Alan by continuing to perform his songs.
MH: How special were the Christmas shows at Newcastle City Hall?
Ray: I’ve played there 132 times and it feels like my home. I get a feeling of huge exaltation when I play there. I loved doing all the Christmas shows. There was no show like it. We did it because we wanted to be at home in Newcastle – we just stumbled across it. I guess the Sunday for Sammy shows now (the biennial concerts in memory of the actor Sammy Johnson) are the natural successor to it. That’s what Tim Healy says.
MH: What have you got coming up?
Ray: Well I work on production with Geoff Wonfor now – I’m not a professional musician any more. I managed the band for about 20 years so it seemed a natural progression to move behind the scenes. I started working with Geoff about 1976 when he was at the BBC before he moved to Tyne Tees and was a director for the Channel 4 music show The Tube. I still love playing though. It was great to play on Sunday for Sammy this year because I got the chance to play with Mark Knopfler. That was brilliant. He’s not shy any more!
The iconic Fog on the Tyne album - the inside sleeve features the lads pictured at the Britannia B&B on Holy Island - the other Lindisfarne!
The lads on Holy Island for the famous Fog on the Tyne album photo shoot.
The band at a 1971 pop festival
Lindisfarne at the 1976 Newcastle City Hall reunion gig
Downtown Faction from the mid Sixties featuring left to right Richard Squirrel on vocals and harmonica, Rod Clements on bass, Ray Laidlaw on drums and Don Whittaker on guitar
Brethren in 1969 with Ray Laidlaw at the back, Jacka, Rod Clements and Si Cowe at the front
* To coincide with the band's 40th anniversary EMI release a 4-disc CD set on January 17 called The Charisma Years 1970-1973 with all the early recordings
For more information and great archive footage of the band