Rod Clements has been a core member of Lindisfarne since the very beginning. He talked to me about life in one of Britain’s favourite folk-rock bands.
Lindisfarne has had many ups and downs over the years since they first got together in North Shields as The Downtown Faction in the late 1960s. They have found success on the national stage, in the charts, and on Tyneside and the wider North East. They even once succeeded in supporting the career of a certain Gateshead-born footballer, whose dreams of becoming a pop star were once so great and hopeful. But they have also been beset by break-ups, rivalries and long periods of inaction. In recent years, the Lindisfarne Christmas shows at Newcastle City Hall have returned to their rightful place in the winter calendar and the band is today touring regularly throughout the country.
Rod Clements, multi-instrumentalist and one of the band’s lead vocalists, has been with Lindisfarne since the beginning, and originally accompanied Alan Hull, who then did much of the writing and singing, on bass guitar and fiddle. He has remained a stable presence within the band and has come to embody the spirit of the original line-up through its many incarnations and associated acts.
And yet, navigating the band’s history can still cause some confusion. There was a Ray Jackson’s Lindisfarne, Lindisfarne Acoustic and The Lindisfarne Story each contending at different points for use of the name. But as Clements told me recently, “it was a big mistake to put an individual’s name at the front and call it ‘so and so’s Lindisfarne’. It was totally against everything that Lindisfarne has ever stood for”. Today, the band with its revamped line-up retains the democratic “Lindisfarne” with no member taking prize position in the running order.
Confusion still reigns over when exactly “Lindisfarne” became “Lindisfarne” however. “It’s very difficult to put a date on the beginning of Lindisfarne. In fact, strictly speaking it should be 1970 because that’s when we renamed ourselves Lindisfarne. But before that in the mid 1960s, it was The Downtown Faction which went through at least 1967-68. 1969 was when we renamed ourselves Brethren and started playing more acoustic stuff and going to folk clubs, met Alan Hull and joined forces with him. We were billed as either Brethren with Alan Hull or Alan Hull and Brethren, signed for Charisma under that entity and then – because there was another band called Brethren in the States – had to find a new name.”
The decision to choose the name Lindisfarne, with its connections to North East England, in retrospect seems like mere happenstance. “The name Lindisfarne was actually suggested by John Anthony, our producer, because he’d heard us talking about it – somebody had been up to Holy Island for the weekend, or something like that – and he said, ‘that’s the name’! And we replied, ‘All right then.’”
It was their 1971 album Fog on the Tyne that solidified their position in the national culture, but not just as some folk band from the North East. The album reached number one in the UK album charts and Clements’s composition Meet Me on the Corner won an Ivor Novello award. These very early days “were very creative and spontaneous”. Their move to experiment with folk instruments – mandolin, fiddle, harmonica and acoustic guitars – and a rock rhythm section was perceived as something new and exciting. “We weren’t setting out to be something totally different. But we were. And we were perceived and appreciated as that.”
Clements cites his and Ray Jackson’s love for The Rolling Stones and American blues music as opening the way into song-writing in a folk blues genre. This gave them access “to the folk clubs, the local, mostly traditional music clubs, around here where people were singing ‘finger in the ear’ mining songs and fishing songs. But because we played acoustically and played Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly-type songs we were accessible and appealing to them.”
While the Tyneside club and music scene immediately took to Lindisfarne’s juggling act, the rest of the country and the press found it difficult to interpret the band and place it in a satisfying narrative. “The early ‘70s was a time of glam, the early days of David Bowie and Marc Bolan. We obviously weren’t that. It was a time of post-blues, hardish rock like Led Zeppelin and Free. We weren’t that either. We were playing this hybrid of folk-blues and folk songs on rock instruments. The music was very different, and our appearance was very different because we were just a bunch of scruffy gets from up here.
“The London press, particularly, took to us because we were obviously so different, we looked different, we talked different. We had different attitudes, we weren’t on the make, or trying hard or dressing up fancy like David Bowie or Marc Bolan. We were perceived as having a strong regional identity, which we didn’t particularly play up to. We were just what we were. But people started making these parallels between us and the Beatles, because of their coming out from Liverpool and going down there and being something totally different. We’d come down from Newcastle and were also something totally different.”
The early 1970s was a Golden Age for Lindisfarne with widespread success, a growing national following and creativity flourishing in the studio and on this point Clements agrees. “The original five-piece line-up of Lindisfarne – Alan, Jacka, Si, Ray Laidlaw and myself – is still seen by a lot of people as the classic line-up. And in a sense, it was – it was like The Beatles – that was us. Anybody else, it would have been different. It was a Golden Age, although it all went horribly wrong and ended in tears. And then when we reformed for the 1976 Christmas shows, I remember a journalist commenting that ‘one of the biggest mistakes Lindisfarne ever made was to break up, the second biggest mistake was to get back together again.’ And I read that and I thought, ‘there’s a grain of truth there.’”
A divide in the band had opened over the question of art versus entertainment, a debate which would return in the 1990s during Gazzamania. “I did feel at one point in the early ‘70s, the peak of the band’s success, when possibly by the time we had left the actual creative success behind and were trading on it in terms of sell-out audiences and rapturous receptions, touring the world and all – which I sound very blasé about, they were great times – but I did feel as though there were elements of the band that were treading water and falling back on Geordie populism. I actually used the term Geordie chauvinism at one point. Geeing the audience up too much into part of being this Geordie, laddish, drinking culture at the expense of the music. And I wanted to progress the music and that was one of the seeds of destruction in the original band. It wasn’t the only one by any means but I felt as though we were banging the Geordie drum a bit too hard.”
But unlike some North-East artists such as Sting and Mark Knopfler, Lindisfarne has never forsaken Tyneside and its Geordie heritage. It was The Beatles who made it “not only OK to have regional accents but OK to look scruffy, OK to have an attitude, OK to upset the apple cart in so many ways. It gave permission to so many people to be what they were really like, rather than having to pretend to conform.”
And so, when Paul Gascoigne’s people approached Lindisfarne to ask permission for him to re-record Fog on the Tyne in 1990, Alan Hull had no qualms about rewriting and tailoring the song for Gazza. “And it actually went a bit further than that because we thought ‘here is a guy who can be a positive role model for the North-East, which we can get involved with’. We even had ideas about him being a cartoon character, being a hero that gets into scrapes but always comes out on top. Utilising his character, obviously if he was prepared to go along with it, as being a larger than life positive Geordie role model. A 1990s Andy Capp almost but a youthful version of it. It obviously didn’t go anywhere near that far. His people picked what they wanted out of our ideas and went with that. Our team played on and produced his single which went to number two. We benefited from a raised profile at the time and it’s not our fault that it all went horribly wrong after that.”
Clements says that he still stands by the Gazza episode, “I think people’s negative reaction at the time was out of snobbery more than anything else. But what people forget, and possibly need to be reminded of now, is that Gazza was perceived then as a much more positive media character than he is now. He was the golden boy of football, he had great talent, he had great wit and charm, albeit dog rough around the edges and he was a canny lad. He was seen as a positive figure. He was in the papers a lot, and it was often headline news, but it was all positive.
“Now, unfortunately, it’s all negative. It’s all about his latest drinking breakdown, fights or racism he’s been involved in, which is tragic. I think it says more about the people who are looking after him, or should be looking after him, or should have been looking after him, than it does about the lad himself. But back then it was all positive.”
Soon Lindisfarne themselves began to have a few problems. “We never actually came to blows. All the way through there might have been the odd smack or the odd drink poured over somebody’s head, but show me a band that hasn’t had that. And up to a point it’s all healthy and gets it out of your system and that’s that. But there was a bit of a crisis around the Gazza time which was coincidental really.
“One thing was that Ray Jackson had by now remarried and was living in London. And the band was going through one of its periods of less success and he basically wasn’t making enough money out of the band to live that style of life. Most of us had moved back up here. His wife worked in promotion for our record label, Phonogram, and she helped find him a similar job. He began helping with promoting Guinness and Pimms at big outdoor events which unfortunately clashed with some of our summer festival gigs. This resulted in a situation where Jacka wasn’t coming to all of the gigs.
“By this time, we had Marty Craggs in, originally on saxophone, but he could also sing a bit and do a bit of the front man thing. So he covered for Jacka, and eventually things came to a head between Alan and Jacka, and Alan basically said to him, ‘Are you in or are you out?’ But because he was full of drink at the time, he didn’t quite put it like that. He said things which led to Jacka leaving and there was no way back from that.”
With Lindisfarne’s rocky past it is perhaps no wonder that Clements has branched out and experimented with other ventures. “I’ve done some very interesting work outside of Lindisfarne and continue to do so. I play solo, I play with Ian and I play with other people sometimes as well. It’s a portmanteau career, bits of this, bits of that.” His 2014 album Rendezvous Café, recorded with Ian Thomson on double bass, revisited the Lindisfarne songbook, reimagining the original songs in an acoustic context. For Clements, all this experimentation and diversity has made “for a very satisfying musical existence.”
Lindisfarne is what Clements focuses most of his time on today, though. The band is currently touring up and down the country, performing at festivals, theatres and their beloved Newcastle City Hall while constantly working on new material. The main task is to “convince the world out there that Lindisfarne is back and in business because, believe it or not, there are people out there who either still confuse us with The Lindisfarne Story or are unaware that there is a current, functional Lindisfarne.” But even if they don’t manage to convince the world that they’re back in action, Clements remains level-headed: “in the end we’re just out to play the songs, that’s what it’s all about. We’re just out to play the songs and have a good time.”
Photographs used with the kind permission of Dave Hudspeth.