Winter Songs:
Christmas with Lindisfarne

My Dad used to always listen to Lindisfarne at Christmas. As a teenager from Sunderland, the band’s annual Christmas concerts at Newcastle City Hall were legendary and the central event of his holiday season. Since the first one (or, rather, three) in 1976, the band kept them up for over forty years. He told me we’d go to one together one day. (Although lead singer Alan Hull died in 1995, the band still does a hometown show every Christmas.) In the meantime, he’d regale me with stories about those boozy evenings as we careened along the M62 to Lindisfarne’s songs for all seasons.

Hull’s voice lingers in my ear to this day. A song like “Winter Song”, from Lindisfarne’s 1970 debut Nicely Out of Tune, is an exemplary Christmas number that encapsulates the band’s chilling delivery of stark political messages, albeit in pop form. But there’s something about the production on these songs, too, that has always held my ear — the way they flutter around the high end of the mix. Bass is present but only just, as if heard through the faint sonic fog of mandolin and vocal. The same sound can be found on “Lady Eleanor” or “Dingly Dell”. It haunts, but it also evokes the frost-bitten clarity of a brisk walk along the north-east coast, piercing sea mist blowing off the cobwebs of the working week. It is hardly surprising that a band named after a geographic location — the holy island of Lindisfarne — would so utterly embody its elemental wonder.

I’ve thought about Lindisfarne a lot in recent years, specifically after first reading Mark Fisher’s introduction to Acid Communism. His assertion that what the establishment feared most was the working class becoming hippies feels so possible when listening to early Lindisfarne, but in reality the band were processing a rapid retreat. Formed in 1969, their best albums instead soundtrack that initial half-decade after the summer of love when dreams were waning but problems remained unresolved.

1970’s Nicely Out of Tune, for instance, has a powerful yet light-hearted sense of defiance. A song like “Clear White Light” has a downright spiritual aura; an expression of belief in some overarching cause of great clarity to guide us on our way. Meanwhile, “We Can Swing Together” is like a proto-Pogues song, or something Linda and Richard Thompson might have written before they hit maturity — it boasts a somewhat naive lyricism, making it all the better to sing along to its story of hippies being persecuted without a care in the world, because all they need is their comradery. (Again, I can’t help but feel a certain Biblical spiritualism here, like disciples and spreaders of the Good News being sent down by the law — the weed-and-god complex like white-washed-up reactionary Rastafari.)

However, just a few years later, that care-free attitude is nowhere to be found. Instead, Lindisfarne’s back catalogue demonstrates an over-long commitment to certain political ideals at the very moment they were waning from the popular consciousness, capturing the precise moment that the consequences of their lackadaisical sensibilities hit them on the rebound.

Take Alan Hull’s 1973 debut solo album, Pipedream, as an example. It’s title, in many ways, says it all. It is a word caught between its own ambiguity, where psychedelia meets cynicism.

To me, Pipedream feels like an album-length sequel to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”. But this is not the meandering of a grey Englishman through purple haze; this is a purple Englishman on a comedown. It is an album of songs that are both fantastical and mundane, concerned and aloof, anxious and acquiescent. The songs alternate, ricocheting between echoes of a past life and the hard realities of a new one. It’s an album by an acid casualty still in touch with his political agency — one of the ’60s walking wounded.

Songs like “Money Game” and “Country Gentlemen’s Wife” have an air of the new pastoral. This is cheeky Chaucer folk with a sprinkling of the Lawrencian. Primitive daydreams of when money problems were simpler and a tad more feudal; when desires flowed less freely, making their unleashing all the more emancipatory. There’s something more powerful and primitive in seducing a country gentlemen’s wife, after all, than the amorphous apoliticism of a orgiastic bed-in.

However, this harking back to old power plays is underscored by a deep melancholy and contrarianism. “United States of Mind”, for instance, is a sort of stock rebuttal for when one’s reasoning is questioned. It is hard to tell, however, if this is defiance or denialism. “I’ll let it thunder, let it whistle / Let it blow like hell, I’m not really caring / And my state of mind needs no repairing.”

“Drug Song” takes a very different approach. It is the most profound song on this record for me, and a long-time favourite. It’s a mournful song about how those old pipedreams may have broken old habits only to implement new ones; a song about a freed mind that has only found new addictions. “I took a trip to find me a better self,” Hull sings, “But I only found I’d merely lost all common sense.”

As I listen to all of these songs and more, I can’t help but feel a certain affinity with Hull’s united states of mind. Although Lindisfarne have long been a Christmassy go-to — a seasonal favourite that has the blessed luck of not being torturously overplayed — they feel particularly resonant this year. Maybe it is just considering the 1970s for the first time with a new ear, after a year spent reconstructing the tensions with Fisher’s Acid Communism, but there’s something more here too, surely?

Like a long lost 1972, 2020 has felt innately psychedelic, as we’ve been swept up at the mercy of its time-dilation. And yet, whilst I still feel the glow of optimism in my belly, that the world won’t go back to how it did without a fight, after that summer of lockdown, I also feel like we are slipping deeper and deeper into a new era of incompetency.

There’s only one thing for it, but I don’t have Hull’s 1972 sense of frivolity, because 2020 has felt like 1969 to ’75 all rolled into one.

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