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The story of Renaissance's Northern Lights

“Just call me Auntie Annie,” laughs former Renaissance singer Annie Haslam, adding “it was our only hit actually!”

Prog has just revealed they were a mere 12 years old when the effervescent strains of Northern Lights reached Number 10 in the UK Top 40 on 16 July, 1978. The beautifully shimmering tune, from the band’s 1978 album A Song For All Seasons (itself the only Renaissance album to crack the Top 40, reaching Number 35), was written by Renaissance guitarist Michael Dunford about Haslam’s then relationship with Move/Wizzard man Roy Wood.

“I think A Song For All Seasons stands out as a fabulous album, featuring things, some poppier than I thought I’d do,” says Haslam. “One of the things they did was to get me to treble track my voice on the song, which is something that I didn’t normally do, but had done on my solo album, Annie In Wonderland (1977), which Roy
had produced.”

So with punk raging around them, the classically-inclined prog band from London found themselves riding high in the charts in a Top 10 line-up that also featured 10cc’s Dreadlock Holiday, Justin Hayward’s Forever Autumn, Boney M’s Rivers Of Babylon and topped by The Commodores Three Times A Lady.

“We were in America when we got the news, towards the end of the tour, and we discovered that Dave Lee Travis had made Northern Lights his record of the week [on Radio One] and we were going to be on Top of The Pops,” Haslam recalls. “We did Top of the Pops and The Kenny Everett Show. Roy and I would be out walking and kids would see us and they’d shout out one of his songs at him and then sing Northern Lights to me.

“I thought the whole thing was great. I really enjoyed it. But we followed that up with The Winter Tree which I thought could have done really well. But the label stalled over releasing it.”

Where did the inspiration for Northern Lights come from?

“Betty Thatcher, who lived in Cornwall, wrote all most of all the songs we ever recorded, and a lot of the songs were about me — Ocean Gypsy, Trip To The Fair, they were about my life. This particular one was about the northern lights of England, and me going away and leaving Roy at home — going off on the road for weeks at a time, which is what happened. A lot of people weren’t sure what it was about, and I always try to put people straight.

“When we recorded that, and when I did Annie In Wonderland, Roy really introduced me to all these different ways of using my voice. Treble tracking, slowing the tracks down, and so on, because you know what Roy’s like, he’s a great musical inventor. “Treble tracking my voice on the lead line was something I didn’t really like to do, but he said ‘Try it.’ So when we did Northern Lights, I suggested that I treble track my voice during the whole thing. You can hear it, and it just lifted the song and made it more commercial. It just changed it.”

What was the reaction?

“We were all ecstatic about Northern Lights being a top ten hit. It was an unexpected surprise for the record label as well as the fans. There’s no doubt the song has a magical feel and appeal to it, with an instant familiarity that made it so easy to sing along with.”

Did you feel like pop stars?

“Well, we got to do Top Of The Pops! I remember we were on tour in America, the single had come out and we were about to go home in the next few days. I think we were in Asbury Park or somewhere, for a big show we were doing.

“We got a message, somebody had called us to tell us that Dave Lee Travis had made it his record of the week, and they said ‘When you come back, you’ll be going on TOTP.’ God, that was an experience. It was in the miming years, but it was ok, I didn’t mind doing it, I think we did it pretty well. We did it with Tony Blackburn and… oh I can see him now, sandy coloured hair… Peter Powell. But what a great experience.”

Was having a hit a blessing or a curse?

“It wasn’t a curse at all, I don’t know why people would think like that. I love that song and we still play it today, I’m always proud of it. I never got a feeling from anyone that we had ‘sold out.’ it was a stop along the way in our careers, and I’m sure it gathered new fans for us.”

NORTHERN LIGHTS b/w OPENING OUT

(Warner Bros, 1978)

Highest UK Chart Position: No. 10

Paul Sexton
Paul Sexton

Prog Magazine contributor Paul Sexton is a London-based journalist, broadcaster and author who started writing for the national UK music press while still at school in 1977. He has written for all of the British quality press, most regularly for The Times and Sunday Times, as well as for Radio Times, Billboard, Music Week and many others. Sexton has made countless documentaries and shows for BBC Radio 2 and inflight programming for such airlines as Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific. He contributes to Universal's uDiscoverMusic site and has compiled numerous sleeve notes for the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and other major artists. He is the author of Prince: A Portrait of the Artist in Memories & Memorabilia and, in rare moments away from music, supports his local Sutton United FC and, inexplicably, Crewe Alexandra FC.