After The Animals took the world by storm in 1964 it was a long time before another Newcastle band would make a sizable impression on the record buying public. It took until 1970 when Lindisfarne began its rise to fame that Newcastle upon Tyne would once again feature on the popular music map.
Of course between 1964 and 1970 many Newcastle bands had attempted to follow in the footsteps of The Animals by releasing singles or relocating to the capitol. Bands such as the Sect, the Elcort and Chosen Few had sizable followings in the northeast but none achieved national fame.
The Junco Partners should have made the big-time. They were incredibly talented and charismatic with a huge following in the Newcastle area, in particular at the Club a’Gogo, the club associated with The Animals. In terms of chart success things didn’t work out for the Juncos but as you will read later in this article they did have a part to play in the development of Lindisfarne.
Most people in the north east will know that in spite of several break-ups and changes in personnel, Lindisfarne has survived for over five decades. The band lives on today in one form or another. The main theme of Ready Steady Gone is the northeast music scene between 1965 and 1972. For that reason I’m going to concentrate on the musical careers of the original five Lindisfarne members through to the first years of the band’s life.
The choice of name for the band in 1970 was inspiring. Lindisfarne is a small island off the Northumberland coast accessible from the mainland by a causeway when the tide allows. Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island, has a rich history dating back to the 6th century and was the home of a priory until the 16th century. The name “Lindisfarne” left little doubt that the band members came from the northeast. Furthermore, the name hinted at the type of music one may have expected to hear from the band – traditional, folky, pure, perhaps with spiritual or religious undertones.
The religious theme also crops up in the name of the band that became Lindisfarne – “Brethren”.
So there you have it; a whimsical image of a troupe of minstrel monks who escaped the confines of their life on a secluded island in order to share their unique music with the rest of the world.
There were no actual siblings within Brethren, the forerunner of Lindisfarne, but the band members had been musical ‘brothers’ for many years in the sixties, predominantly in an outfit named Downtown Faction.
Downtown Faction did well locally in the late sixties. All it took for the group of four musicians to elevate themselves above other aspiring northeast bands and become international stars was a new musical direction, several changes of name and the addition of a fifth member – singer/songwriter Alan Hull.
Of course, that fifth member, wasn’t the only ingredient that shaped the band’s successful future. The other four members had been honing their skills as musicians and songwriters for many years by slogging away on the local northeast gig circuit.
A few months back when I started my research on Lindisfarne I thought I would gather as much information as I could about Downtown Faction. I was in three separate bands that were doing the rounds in the lifetime of Downtown Faction. We all shared the same booking agent. In spite of playing alongside them on at least two occasions at the Rex Ballroom at Whitley Bay I have no memory of actually seeing the band perform.
I decided to get in touch with one of my ex-band members who is better than me at remembering the finer details of past times. I asked him if he had any recollections of Downtown Faction; either performing or interacting with the band members at gigs. He responded by saying “They were just a bunch of ‘posh’ kids who kept to themselves.”
Some of the information I dug up for this article, including interviews with various Lindisfarne band members, suggest that the word “posh” is appropriate, at least as far as a couple of the band members are concerned. But unlike some bands, Genesis for instance, the “posh” image didn’t filter through and attach itself to Lindisfarne.
Posh kid Simon Cowe came from a well heeled family. As a youngster he attended a fee paying school in Tynemouth – The Kings School. For his secondary education he was sent by his parents to Fettes in Edinburgh. Fettes, reputed to be the best and most expensive boarding college in Scotland, was the educational institution attended by ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair in the late sixties.
Another Lindisfarne band member, Rod Clements also attended The Kings School in Tynemouth. Simon Cowe and Lindisfarne’s drummer, Ray Laidlaw knew each other through mutual friends in their neighbourhood. Both shared an interest in music with Simon learning to play guitar and Ray the drums. In the early sixties they formed their first band. The fact that Simon was away in Edinburgh during school terms limited the time he could devote to musical activities in the northeast. Eventually he and Ray drifted apart as far as the band was concerned. However, Simon took his passion for playing the guitar with him to his boarding school. There he would play in various school bands during term time. He even made his own guitar while he was there.
After finishing his education at Fettes, Simon Cowe bid his farewell to Edinburgh. His return to the northeast meant that he was able to renew a musical association with some of his old friends. In 1968 the opportunity arose for him to play alongside his former bandmate Ray Laidlaw and former school chum Rod Clements.
Brothers Ray and Rod
Ray Laidlaw (drums) and Rod Clements (bass), Lindisfarne’s impeccable rhythm section had been performing together as a unit since 1965. There is no doubt that Ray and Rod were influenced and spurred on by Newcastle’s favourite band in the sixties – the Junco Partners, in particular, by drummer John Woods and bassist Dave Sproat. Several years ago when I first added a page about the Junco Partners to Ready Steady Gone, Ray Laidlaw posted the following comment: –
“In 1966/7 the Juncos played regularly at the Vic in Whitley Bay. Me and my mate Rod Clements went to see them as many times as we could and marvelled at their power, authenticity and ability to play as a team. As drummer and bass player ourselves we were particularly impressed with the John Woods/Dave Sproat rhythm section. It was the Juncos who inspired us to keep searching till we found the right people to help us create the band we had been trying to put together. Eventually we found them and Lindisfarne was the result. Rod and I are part of a very small group of people who have had the opportunity to be replacement Junco Partners when one of the originals was indisposed, what a buzz that was.”
Ray Laidlaw was only fourteen when he formed his first group with school friend Simon Cowe in 1962. The group, which was based in Ray’s hometown of Tynemouth went on to be called the Aristokats. Although Simon Cowe was nominally part of the Aristokats, the fact that he attended a boarding school outside the region meant that he was only available as a band member during school holiday periods.
A year or so later Ray drifted away from the Aristokats and joined a band called the Druids, which included another old friend, Bob Sargeant. Some years later Bob joined the Junco Partners as a keyboard player.
Rod Clements’ first steps into the music scene were similar to those of Ray Laidlaw. Like Simon Cowe, Rod had attended boarding school in his teens. His school was the all-boys fee paying Durham School located in the city of Durham. There he had been in a band called the Cyclones, which played popular chart hits of the day. Later he played bass with an outfit from Newcastle called the Bert Brown Combo before starting his own Durham based band called Downtown Faction.
By the time Ray Laidlaw and Rod Clements met up and became friends in 1965 each of their respective bands had broken up. Both Ray and Rod had similar tastes in music and were keen to start something new together. The resulting band, which included Ray, Rod and other local musicians they knew, took its name from Rod’s erstwhile defunct Durham band – Downtown Faction.
When they were not rehearsing or performing with their new band, the pair spent a lot of their leisure time together watching live music at the many northeast venues that were thriving in the mid sixties; venues such as the Club a’Gogo, the Mayfair and Quay Club in Newcastle plus the Rex, Vic and 45 Club on the coast.
By 1967 Downtown Faction was becoming a fixture on the Newcastle gig scene with regular gigs at the Quay Club and the Blaydon Races Hotel. The band’s first booking at Newcastle’s acclaimed Club a’Gogo was in the autumn of 1967.
Downtown Faction also secured a handful of gigs in the first half of 1968 through the Ivan Birchall Agency at another prime Newcastle venue, the Mayfair Ballroom. They appeared on the same bill as Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera as well as some popular local bands
One of the Mayfair gigs on 4 October 1968 was supporting a band that was to become one of the biggest rock bands in the world – Led Zeppelin. The band was advertised as the Yardbirds (Jimmy Page’s band). But the Yardbirds had actually split up before the gig. In the meantime Page had formed Led Zeppelin with Robert Plant. The booking at the Mayfair turned out to be Led Zepellin’s debut gig.
The first few years of Downtown Faction saw several musicians come and go. John Spooner, Billy Mitchell and Jeff Sadler were all early members with Ray Laidlaw and Rod Clements being the core elements. In 1968 Rod Clements was forced to take a break from the band in order to continue his studies at Durham. By this time Si Cowe had left Fettes in Edinburgh and was available to step into the bassist’s slot left temporarily vacant by Rod. When Rod Clements was able to return to Downtown Faction as their bass player, Si switched to guitar. This led to Si Cowe becoming a permanent rhythm guitarist once Downtown Faction’s volatile line-up had settled down.
In the summer of 1969 Ray Laidlaw and Simon Cowe organised a festival at Leazes Park in Newcastle. The free festival was to take place on the Monday of the late August bank holiday weekend, which fell on the 1st September. Included in the array of artists appearing were Downtown Faction plus other local bands, popular local folk performers the Callies and the up-and-coming singer/songwriter Alan Hull.
In a pre-festival press interview, Downtown Faction’s line-up was announced as Ray Laidlaw, Rod Clements, Si Cowe and Jeff Sadler. In the newspaper article the band was reported to have moved away from blues and was heading in a new direction. Perhaps in an attempt to shake off the “posh” label, the band members described themselves as “young, talented, professional and poor!”.
Although the Leazes Park festival was not as well attended as a concert held in early August 1969 on Newcastle’s Town Moor, it was successful in two respects; Downtown Faction received a lot of exposure in the local press. It also made the band aware of the talents of Alan Hull and vice versa.
Brother Ray (Jacka)
Ray (Jacka) Jackson had been performing in local bands since leaving school. In his teens he learned to play the mandolin and harmonica. Jacka’s first band as a vocalist was the Zulus from Wallsend. The band played regularly at dances run by the St Lukes Youth Club in Wallsend. Later the band changed its name to Autumn States and in 1966 began to pick up regular gigs in Newcastle at the Blaydon Races Hotel. Other Autumn States gigs in 1967 and 1968 included the Quay Club, the 45 Club at Whitley Bay, the Mayfair Ballroom plus one gig at Newcastle’s Club a’Gogo on 15th March 1968.
Jacka knew Ray Laidlaw from their time as student at Newcastle upon Tyne College of Art & Industrial Design. More importantly they were aware of each other’s musical abilities through playing in their respective bands, Autumn States and Downtown Faction on the local gig circuit. Ray (Jacka) Jackson joined Downtown Faction as vocalist in the second half of 1968, eventually replacing Jeff Sadler.
Downtown Faction continued to do well into 1969 with Jacka as a permanent fixture in the band. The band played at Newcastle’s Quay Club and the Mayfair Ballroom, two of the best venues in the city – (by this time the Club a’Gogo had closed down). The band also secured gigs at the New Orleans Club, which for many years had been Newcastle’s prime jazz venue – not a place normally associated with blues or rock. Downtown Faction also appeared at the Rex Hotel in Whitley Bay, on one occasion as support for Chicken Shack featuring future Fleetwood Mac member Christine Perfect.
In 1969 changes were afoot in the world of popular music; changes that, amongst other things, would affect attitudes towards local bands. Throughout the early and mid sixties audiences would expect to hear a ‘live’ band play covers of familiar songs but more importantly music that they could dance to. From around 1965 the more popular local bands played covers of Soul and Motown tracks or danceable Rhythm & Blues standards. In 1969 radio DJs like John Peel were introducing a new type of “intelligent” music to radio listeners and the record buying public. This music was often described as “underground” or “progressive” and it began to filter down into the repertoires of some local bands. Bands became less inhibited about introducing self-written songs into their sets.
To an extent audiences adapted to the changes that were taking place. Some of the new “progressive” music wasn’t really suitable for dancing. It could be too slow, too fast, have an unusual time signature or include one or more changes in tempo. Instead of dancing to bands, people began to take more of an interest in their musicianship. I can remember a period in 1969 when it wasn’t unusual to see a dozen or so young men stood in front of a guitarist gazing at his fingers on the instrument’s fretboard.
This was a good time for Downtown Faction. The band members had a wealth of self-penned material, a strong belief in each other’s musical abilities and an overwhelming urge to create something different. The band’s music was beginning to take on a folksy feel with a blend of original material and covers of songs by folk singers such as Rab Noakes. Towards the end of 1969 a lot of other local bands had taken on a “heavy/progressive” mantle which was proving popular on the normal northeast gig circuit. Rather than compete with the heavy boys, Downtown Faction decided on a side-line of venturing into local folk clubs as an acoustic band.
Another musician performing at local folk clubs at this time was Alan Hull.
It must have been in mid-summer 1969 that I first became aware of Alan Hull as a songwriter. At that time I was playing saxophone in a seven-piece band called Sneeze. We would sometimes rehearse at a Wallsend studio called Impulse, which was run by Dave Wood (later to become the founder of the punk record label, Neat). One day Dave Wood asked me and our trumpet player, Jimmy Hall, if we could add some sax and trumpet parts to his recording of a local singer/songwriter that he was promoting. The person in question was Alan Hull. Before the session Dave told us about the songwriting skills of his protégé and played us some of the tracks he had recorded. I remember being impressed by the lyrical content of the songs, in particular one called “Breakfast”. Jimmy and I added trumpet and sax to a number of recordings that Dave thought would benefit from some extra instrumentation. A few weeks later Dave told us that Alan Hull hated the brass and it wouldn’t be used on any of the tracks. I can’t remember being particularly bothered at the time. We’d already been paid for the session and no one at that time apart from Dave Wood had any inkling as to how big Alan would become.
Alan Hull was born and brought up in the Benwell area of Newcastle. As a child he dabbled with the piano but it wasn’t until his discovery of Rock ‘n Roll in the mid fifties by way of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’ and Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog’ that music became the main focus in his life, prompting him to take up the guitar. In his teens, Alan was a member of several school bands. After he left full time education he played in a couple of local groups – the Klik and Dean Fold & The Crestas before joining a band that would achieve some degree of success – the Chosen Few.
The Chosen Few’s manager was Bill Keith, who at one time had been a manager at the Club a’Gogo. He also ran the Manhole Club at Wallsend and it was here that the Chosen Few built up a strong following.
In the spring of 1965 Radio Luxembourg was looking for talented undiscovered bands to promote on the their radio shows. In conjunction with the well-known bandleader, Cyril Stapleton, auditions were being arranged all over the UK. Bill Keith secured an audition for the Chosen Few at Newcastle’s West End Boys Club in May 1965. The Chosen Few were just one of many local bands that turned up at the audition that night. When it was their turn to play, Cyril Stapleton immediately recognised that they outshone the other bands by a mile. He was particularly impressed by the band’s original material, which had been penned by Alan Hull. The Chosen Few were asked to go to London the next day where a recording deal was signed with Pye records. A month later the band returned to London to start recording material for Radio Luxembourg shows on which they were guaranteed one appearance a month. The Chosen Few subsequently recorded two singles for Pye records – “So Much To Look Forward To” and “Today, Tonight And Tomorrow”.
Because of the association with Radio Luxembourg and Pye Records, the Chosen Few’s big break meant a lot of the band’s time would be spent in London. After the release of two singles on the Pye label, Alan Hull and Bumper Brown parted company with the Chosen Few and returned to Tyneside. The Chosen Few quickly found replacements for Alan and Bumper.
In the years that followed, Alan Hull tried various things including a band called Barrabas with his friend Bumper Brown. The band played locally in 1967 including a run of gigs at the Quay Club in the latter half of that year. However, Barrabas didn’t work out in the long run. According to Alan, the band were trying to do something different to other local bands but it wasn’t what he wanted – “I knew what I could do and what I wanted to do – and it wasn’t that.”
A few years earlier, at the time of Chosen Few’s audition at West End Boys Club, Alan Hull had come to the notice of a lady called Barbara Hayes who at the time was working as a press officer for Radio Luxembourg. Alan also became friends with Dave Wood of Impulse Studios. This three way liaison eventually led to Alan Hull, Dave Wood and Barbara Hayes setting up a publishing company called Hazy Music to support Alan’s writing skills and promote his songs.
As mentioned above, Dave Wood often used local musicians as session players for some of his recordings. In 1969 Downtown Faction regularly rehearsed at Dave Wood’s studio. On one occasion Dave asked the band’s drummer, Ray Laidlaw if he would provide his services on one of Alan Hull’s recordings. This was the start of the long standing association between Alan and Ray. At the end of 1969 Alan Hull recorded a track called “We Can Swing Together” at Trident Studios in London. The song, a jolly Geordie sing-along, was about a real life incident involving a police raid on a private party in Newcastle. Nationally, the song didn’t do that well. However, it became quite popular on Tyneside. By this time Alan was doing the rounds in the local folk clubs and the release of the record did a lot to raise Alan’s profile in the region and help him in his solo career.
At the beginning of 1970 things were starting to happen for the five musicians who were to become Lindisfarne. Alan Hull along with Dave Wood had set up the Folk & Arts Club at the Rex Hotel in January. The club did well and they began to book both local and national folk musicians for their Sunday sessions. In the early months of 1970 some of the artists to appear there were Ralph McTell, Al Stewart, Rab Noakes, the Callies with, of course, Alan Hull as the resident act.
In January or February Downtown Faction changed its name to Brethren and acquired a manager in the form of Joe Robertson. Joe Robertson was also managing the Junco Partners and a three piece Newcastle band called Gin House who were on the up in 1969 and 1970. Robertson actively sought record labels for the acts that he managed including Brethren. At the same time Dave Wood and Barbara Hayes were looking for a record deal for Alan Hull.
Along with Alan Hull, the acoustic version of Brethren became a regular feature at the Rex Hotel’s Folk & Arts Club. It wasn’t too long before Alan Hull and the members of Brethren decided to team up. In May 1970 Brethren became a five piece band although in the early days the unit was billed as ‘Alan Hull & Brethren’ or ‘Brethren & Alan Hull’. The following month a three-year record deal was signed with Charisma.
If Ray Jackson’s version of events is to be believed, Brethren owe a lot to the skills of the Junco Partner’s guitarist, Charlie Harcourt, for opening the door to the Charisma deal. At the time another Charisma artist, ex-Nice bass player Lee Jackson was keen to recruit Charlie for his newly formed band – Jackson Heights. The Junco’s manager Joe Robertson, who also managed Brethren, refused to release Charlie unless Charisma signed up Brethren. The outcome was that Jackson Heights recruited Charlie Harcourt and Brethren became Charisma recording artists. The following month Brethren’s first major Newcastle gig with Alan Hull as part of the band was at the City Hall on 2nd July supporting Jackson Heights.
Brethren began recording their first album “Nicely Out Of Tune” with producer John Anthony in August 1970 at Trident Studios, London. At this point in time Brethren was rebranded as Lindisfarne.
This was a busy time for the band who were required to travel back and forwards to London between gig commitments. As well as existing gigs in the northeast, the band had been assigned to the Terry King Agency, which was allied to Charisma. Bookings through the agency took Lindisfarne all over the country starting with a support gig for Yes at Barnstaple in Devon.
Recording of ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ was completed relatively quickly. It contained songs by Alan Hull and Rod Clements that were part of the band’s stage show. There were also two covers by Rab Noakes and Woody Guthrie.
Charisma’s chairman Tony Stratton-Smith arranged a series of gigs for Lindisfarne at the Marquee Club in London prior to the release of the band’s debut album. These sessions were successful in bringing people’s attention, in particular members of the musical press, to a different type of “underground” music.
In November 1970 a single from the album, “Clear White Light Pt II” was released followed by the album itself. In spite of positive reviews from the musical press – Sounds and Melody Maker neither the album nor the single did very well in the charts.
Lindisfarne continued to gig throughout the UK in November and December 1970. On 9th December the band performed at Charisma’s Christmas party at the Marquee. On the 14th, still in London, they recorded their very first session for the BBC, for Radio 2’s Nightride programme before returning to the northeast to appear at a Christmas party at Alan Hull’s old club at the Rex Hotel, Whitley Bay.
In spite of ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ not doing as well as expected, 1971 started well for Lindisfarne with a tour of Charisma artists, which included Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator. This was followed by sessions for John Peel’s Top Gear Radio 1 programme and ‘Sound Of The Seventies’.
As the year progressed Lindisfarne was gaining momentum. The band’s lively stage act was being enthusiastically received by audiences with their radio shows reaching a much wider public. Melody Maker reported that “Lindisfarne are the most complete band on the Charisma label, with a flowing continuity of style and melodic strength……”.
On 10th May Lindisfarne headlined at the Royal Festival Hall in London. In the audience with Charisma’s Tony Stratton-Smith that night was Texan Bob Johnston who had previously produced albums for Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel. Bob Johnson was very impressed with Lindisfarne and wanted to work with the band. Although not everyone in the band agreed, the decision was made that he should produce Lindisfarne’s next album.
In June 1971, due to the growing interest in Lindisfarne, Charisma released a track from ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ as a single. The single was ‘Lady Eleanor’, which surprisingly was not a hit when first released. Lindisfarne continued to gain support throughout the country with their heavy gigging schedule but it was the Weeley Festival at Clacton on August bank holiday weekend that proved to be a big turning point in the band’s career. Up to that point it was the biggest crowd the band had performed to. They took the audience by storm. Weeley was followed by another successful concert at the Oval, London in September 1971.
In October 1971 Lindisfarne’s second album ‘Fog On The Tyne’ was released and received rave reviews in the music press. The album sold well, in particular on Tyneside. Sales also picked up for their debut album ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’. Lindisfarne ended the year with a Christmas party at Newcastle’s City Hall.
1972 turned out to be the year that Lindisfarne achieved their long awaited chart success when ‘Fog On The Tyne’ reached number 1 in the album charts that March. The band also did well in the singles chart that year with ‘Meet Me On The Corner’, a re-released ‘Lady Eleanor’ and ‘All Fall Down’. 1972 was also the year that Lindisfarne made the front page of the Melody Maker with the headline ‘LINDISFARNTASTIC!’.
But later in 1972 things would take a downward turn for Lindisfarne. Throughout 1971 and most of 1972 Lindisfarne received nothing but praise in the media. Signs that things weren’t going well emerged after the band had recorded their third album ‘Dingly Dell’ in July. The album, like ‘Fog On The Tyne’ was produced by Bob Johnson. The band members weren’t happy with the mix and made some adjustments before the album’s release in September 1972. Whether because of poor marketing or because the critical tide was turning against the band, ‘Dingly Dell’ didn’t do nearly as well as their previous album. Lindisfarne ended the year with a successful tour of the States but it wouldn’t be too long before the band splintered.
1972 was arguably the most successful year in Lindisfarne’s history but it also turned out to be the last full year that the five original members would be together as a band for at least another five years. In 1973 extensive touring proved too much for the band members and they decided to call it a day. The original Lindisfarne split into two with Simon Cowe, Rod Clements and Ray Laidlaw forming Jack The Lad. Ray Jackson and Alan Hull formed a new Lindisfarne featuring, amongst others, ex-Junco guitarist Charlie Harcourt.
If you were to ask people from the northeast to name just one Newcastle band I’m sure that most would plump for Lindisfarne. Pose the same question to the rest of the country and the answer would probably be the same. It’s not really surprising that the band is so well known. Although Lindisfarne developed, blossomed and achieved a degree of fame in the period covered by this website (1965 to 1972), the band continued to thrive for several more decades with some of the original members. Before Covid struck in 2020 Lindisfarne was still performing at sell-out concerts each year at Newcastle City Hall.
It’s true! Five decades after Lindisfarne first formed the name lives on in the hearts and minds of people from the northeast and beyond. Rod Clements fronts a touring version of Lindisfarne, which was active before the pandemic and will, no doubt, resume at some stage in the future.
Although the band’s personnel has changed over the years with at least fifteen different musicians passing through, the music and appeal of Lindisfarne still remains the same. It’s hard to put a finger on what transformed an average sixties local blues band into a Newcastle legend. Emerging as a band with original material and a different sound at the outset of the “progressive” scene was one factor. Also the deal struck by Joe Robertson involving Brethren and Charlie Harcourt certainly helped the band with their record deal. However, what carried the band through was their ability to come up catchy tunes with strong, meaningful lyrics, the way they engaged with their audiences by drawing them into the fun that was taking place on stage and the charisma of the band members and the chemistry between them.
This article covers the early years of Lindisfarne. If you want to find out more about the band the best place to go to is the Lindisfarne official website.
I’ll conclude the article with one of my favourite Lindisfarne songs, which always reminds me of the journeys I made back to the northeast after moving south in the seventies.
Acknowledgements: ‘Northstars’ by Chris Phipps, John Tobler and Sid Smith; ‘Fog On The Tyne’ by Dave Ian Hill; ‘We Can Swing Together’ by John Van Der Kiste; ‘It’s My Life’ by Tyne Bridge Publishing; Newcastle Evening Chronicle; Newcastle Journal and various internet sources.