For those of you unfamiliar with the name Alan Hull, you might recognise him as a member of the legendary Newcastle band, Lindisfarne. The group experienced significant commercial and critical success for a few years in the early Seventies, after which they recorded occasionally while maintaining a consistent presence as one of the best live bands in the country. Hull sang lead on many of their songs and was the band’s principal songwriter. He wrote such standards as Lady Eleanor, We Can Swing Together and their paean to their home town of Newcastle, Fog on the Tyne.
From 1973 until his death in 1995, Hull recorded several solo albums. The first of these was called “Pipedream” and was released in 1973, at a time when Lindisfarne’s future was far from certain.
Although Hull had Lindisfarne colleagues Ray Laidlaw and Ray Jackson on board to help record the album, the sound of Pipedream is slightly removed from that of a typical Lindisfarne record. It is typical of Hull, however, with plenty of humour, pathos and sharp social commentary.
There are several standout tracks, but I want to focus on the album’s final song, the elegiac “I Hate to See You Cry”.
Alan Hull always had a tremendous spirit of empathy – witness one of his best Lindisfarne songs, “Winter Song” – and on this song, it is full to overflowing.
Songs like this are often labelled spare, with few lyrics and minimal instrumentation. This is somewhat of a disservice to Hull, as there is a depth and fullness here that is striking to say the least, and for me it is utterly compelling.
There is no real chorus, but the same key lines run through the song, expressing a growing sense of helplessness. At the same time, the repetition almost acts as a mantra, as if in repeating these lines the writer might see the answer hidden within them:
“I hate to see you cry, makes the sun desert the sky
Makes my dreams all run dry, can’t tell you why.”
It would be easy to interpret the song as the tale of a fragile relationship, or of one in decline.
To me however, it is simply someone offering a hand or heart to another in desperate need. It doesn’t really matter who that is, or why, only that we hear the cry for help and the genuinely human, compassionate response.
At times the lyrics are truly heartbreaking:
“Lying still and white, your face illuminates the night
Your tears are crying out for light
Everything will be, everything will be alright.”
Hull worked for a time as a nurse in a mental hospital, and although it was never confirmed by Hull, one could easily see a reference here to an anguished soul being comforted and reassured of an end to their pain.
Hull sings the song simply and with minimal accompaniment, the piano sounding like something played in some long forgotten parlour or corner pub. Alan Hull had one of those imperfect voices that could make you laugh one moment and break your heart the next. He never had the range of a Richard Manuel, but like Manuel he seemed almost to pour his heart and soul into every note. Nothing was left in reserve. When Hull’s voice breaks singing the word “sun” one can almost imagine him sitting there playing and singing directly to his subject. There is a touch of grace and humanity in his voice that is truly uplifting, and moving beyond words.
Hull was a truly gifted musician and he deserves wider recognition for his immense talent. I hope that if, like me, you make a connection with this song, then you’ll be tempted to explore his music a little further. Trust me – you won’t be disappointed.