Classic Music Review: Pipedream by Alan Hull

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Every now and then my parents would play some records by the group Lindisfarne, a British folk-rock group very popular with the Brits in the early 1970’s. I found their sound a bit too cheerful for my tastes and thought their bright harmonies a bit over the top (one of the main reasons I don’t care much for Queen). However, there was one track on this album (Roll On, Ruby) that always grabbed my attention, a song called “When the War Is Over.”

When the war is over, we can be kind again,
You can be my lover, I will be your friend
And the drunkard in the gutter who’s laughing at the moon
Will have whiskey and dry ginger, served from a silver spoon.
And the phonies and the copouts, the lonelies and the weird
In one single moment will brush away their fears.

The song spoke to me because my life in San Francisco had put me in frequent contact with the homeless, many of whom were laughing at the moon, the stars or figments of their imaginations. More than any other social phenomenon, I found homelessness disturbing and inexplicable. I didn’t (and still don’t) understand how a society could allow homelessness to exist. Every day I bristled as the well-dressed commuters clung to their briefcases and stepped over the sleeping bodies of the homeless as if they were dog turds. The singer of “When the War Is Over” imagined a world where their wishes could be fulfilled, and though I wasn’t sure that more alcohol was the best solution, at least the guy recognized them as human beings.

I took note of the songwriter’s name (Alan Hull) and filed it away in my pre-adolescent brain.

Flash forward to my college years. One day I was off-campus, probably cutting Chemistry, browsing through stacks of recycled vinyl at the village music store. Vinyl was making a comeback at the time, so the owner had got his hungry little hands on every LP he could find. The result of his unfocused efforts was an inventory full of cutouts and artists best left forgotten. Only the most diligent music lover could have the stomach to weed through these massive mounds of crap.

That’s me!

I remember shivering with delight when, after an hour’s slog through the muck, I came across an album with a Rene Magritte cover. I didn’t even notice the artist at first, being captivated by finding one of my favorite painters in such an unlikely place. When I finally looked above the painting and saw Alan Hull’s name, I connected the visual stimuli with that memory buried deep in my brain, stuck Pipedream under my arm, marched back to the dorm room and only then remembered that I didn’t have a fucking turntable.

Blondes!

So I put Pipedream in my suitcase and waited for the holiday visit home to finally get a chance to hear it. I waited for an evening when my parents wouldn’t be around, and one evening when they went out caroling, I sat myself in front of the living stereo and finally heard Pipedream for the first time.

It was worth the wait. If I were to make a list of my favorite solo artist albums, Pipedream would be in the top ten.

I read later that early in his career, some members of the British music press proclaimed Alan Hull as Bob Dylan’s equal, the U. K.’s answer to the famous American troubadour. I think not. For one, Alan Hull can actually sing; he has a lovely voice with a distinct but not overwhelming Geordie accent. For another, though both wrote songs in protest of various social evils, they took entirely different approaches to their work. Dylan’s work springs more from the intellect; Alan Hull’s comes from what a psychic friend of mine calls “emotional centering.” Bob Dylan songs make you think; Alan Hull songs make you cry and laugh. It is clear from Alan Hull’s contribution that he was an extraordinarily compassionate and down-to-earth person, no doubt influenced by his experience working as a nurse in mental hospitals to earn money while he was building his musical credibility.

Apparently Lindisfarne had encountered some turbulence during the period in question, leaving Alan with some free time. He filled the empty hours with the publication of a volume of poetry and the recording of his first solo album, Pipedream. Though he had been considered Lindisfarne’s leader, you never were never quite able to appreciate the range of his talents when you listened to their early albums. Pipedream makes that possible.

The opening song, “Breakfast,” is about an illicit affair the narrator is having with a married woman. The song opens with Alan singing the first line a capella before the acoustic guitar comes in on line two; a counterpoint acoustic picking notes enters after line five. It seems at this point a quiet, wistful song:

In the morning you rise
Night is still in your eyes
Moving warm with content
Memory of your body scent
I watch you striptease in reverse
Dip my hand in your purse
Smiling softly you say
That I could not get much worse

But with the line, “Then . . . Scream,” heavy guitar, bass and drum take over, echoing the disturbing appearance of a whistling kettle, unwelcome motion and a hurried breakfast. The daily grind has thrust itself into the couple’s consciousness, shaking their memories clean of warmth and body scent, and allowing the underlying tension to rear its ugly head:

Talking gently and low
Ask you why you must go
Having asked it I know
Instead of yes, you’ll answer no.

Oh no, I’ve got to go back home
My child is all alone, don’t ring me on the phone
My husband will be there, it really isn’t fair
He still believes in trust, I’ve got to catch my bus.

In a few brief seconds, the idyllic post-romance scene is shattered, and we can empathize fully with the narrator’s closing line, “And I feel so empty that I must be dead.” The brilliance of the song lies in the lyrical economy and an arrangement that juxtaposes sweet calm with relentless rush and the omnipresence of social taboo. “Breakfast” is an absolute knockout of an opener on every possible level.

“Just Another Sad Song” follows, a bouncy number with piano and harmonica with the message that even though things have gone bad, you’re not the center of the frigging universe—and while I sympathize, it’s just another case of human misunderstanding, so welcome to the club. While “Just Another Sand Song” retains allegiance to traditional song structure, “Money Game” takes another direction entirely with its pizzicato-like vocal on the verse contrasting nicely with the sweeping beauty of the chorus. That chorus is remarkable in itself, as the chord structure glides through a fairly common G/A/Bm pattern but ends with the unusual collision of an F#m7 followed by C7, not at all what the ear is trained to expect. Instead of sounding odd, the combination adds richness to the music without interrupting the beauty of the flow.

By the way, kudos to the people at the Lindisfarne Official Website for posting both chords and lyrics to 267 songs by Lindisfarne, band member Rod Clemens and Alan Hull. This is truly a gift to the listening public.

Next up is the instrumental “Std 0632,” a very pleasant musical arrangement with some particularly lovely bass and guitar work. What follows is another melodic gem, “United States of Mind,” a subdued folk-rock number with gorgeous acoustic guitar work, superb touches of background vocal and a compelling lead vocal. The lyrics make a beautiful contrast between the simple enjoyment of simple things and the unnecessary complications of modern life:

I’m wandering through a fairy story
Lost in love and seeking glory
Listening to the music
Children smile
While others with more complex claims
Protect themselves against the rain
I’ll let it thunder
Let it whistle
Let it blow like hell.

“Country Gentleman’s Wife” is a humorous tale told by a simple man whose field-work-strengthened body has drawn the attention of the young wife of a wealthy landowner who is getting on in his years. Alan does a fabulous job playing the role, infusing the performance with occasional braggadocio and the delight of the poor man who has put one over on his uppers. A rough acoustic guitar background provides the perfect backdrop for the tale; it feels like you’re hearing the story over an open fire on the heath as the men pass the jug around. Each of the first three verses focus on the lady’s attempts at seduction; the workingman ends each verse with a line boasting of his imperviousness to her charms (my favorite is “But oh no country gentleman’s wife is gonna get me in the nude”). Before the last verse, the volume softens to indicate our hero is about to give his response:

I said I was a man with principles and respected the marriage vows
But if she really wanted to, she might persuade me somehow
For one square meal of every day, an unlimited supply of booze
And any old country gentleman’s wife can do anything they choose
Any old country gentleman’s wife can do anything they choose

I find it amazing that the opportunity to do the deed with an attractive young woman is ranks third on the man’s priority list, but I still love the song.

Next we get the mid-tempo pop-rock song, “Numbers (Traveling Band),” featuring a very catchy melody obviously accompanied by the spirit of Guinness (listed as an instrument in the album credits). “For the Bairns” follows with a sweet piano opening that opens up to a more rollicking beat punctuated falsetto background vocals supporting the lyrics describing the end of a child’s day. “Drug Song” follows, probably the least interesting song on the album, as the “dangers of drugs” message is a bit too obvious.

Things pick up a bit with “Song for a Windmill,” a lament for the loss of the independent miller, now condemned to the bleak impersonal reality of the factory. More interesting still is “Blue Murder,” with its unexpected musical flow and slight jazz influence. The original version of the album ends with “I Hate to See You Cry,” a strong piano number in the style of the verses of “When the War is Over.” Alan’s vocal here is both dynamic and sincere, breaking on the high notes without excess sentimentality. The chorus is a simply beautiful and vivid expression of the fervent wish for another person’s happiness when one is motivated purely by unconditional love:

I hate to see you cry
Makes the sun desert the sky
Makes my dreams all run dry
Can’t tell you why.

Alan Hull passed away unexpectedly in 1995, at the too-young age of fifty. The obituary in the Independent touchingly described him as follows: “Alan Hull . . . was essentially a humanist, whose wryly observant lyrics came from heartfelt concern for the under-privileged and the misunderstood.” Americans have pretty much ignored his body of work despite his lyrical excellence, his gift for melody and his deep concern for the human race. His vision, expressed in “When the War is Over,” is a clearer and more accessible message than John Lennon’s “Imagine,” as it is uncontaminated by any egoistic request to “join us.” Instead, he encouraged each of us to find ourselves. The war he describes is not the physical war, but the constant, petty war of competition and distrust we wage with each other in our daily lives; his hope is that those silly battles will become distant memories, and people will begin to truly engage each other, openly and honestly:

And the children will be the teachers, their lessons will be so clear
To see with open eyes, to hear with open ears
And you will understand me, it’s easy you will find
To reach with open arms, to speak with open minds.
When the war is over, no battles to be won or lost,
No one to claim the victory, no one cares to count the cost.

5 responses

  1. Pipedream is indeed a wonderful album, and Alan Hull is still sorely missed. Alan’s solo work is indeed underappreciated, and Pipedream should have been far more successful. Unfortunately I think timing played a part, as it was released at a time when the public was still waiting for the next great Lindisfarne album. Alas, it never came. Thanks for posting such an in-depth review, it is great to see the Alan is still loved and appreciated.

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    1. Thank you for the comment! I was happy to contribute in a small way to keeping his memory alive.

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  2. […] Alan Hull, Pipedream […]

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  3. […] Pipedream by Alan Hull […]

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  4. Mick Harrow hard core | Reply

    What a great post! Back to Basics on my CD player at the moment…..Remember seeing the great man solo at the Mean Fiddler one night….awesome

    Like

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