Everyone knows the story: the Sex Pistols played Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall and future members of the Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Fall (as well as TV presenter and soon-to-become Factory Records boss Tony Wilson) have their minds blown and set out changing the musical landscape. Manchester’s self-promotion and self-aggrandising has been shameless ever since.
Just 40 miles away, on the other side of the Yorkshire Moors, another musical awakening, arguably as influential, was taking place. The Sex Pistols played Leeds Poly in late 1976 and, as in Manchester, some of the audience went on to form influential bands like Gang Of Four and Delta 5.
But the story isn’t as neat as that. The Leeds scene was inspired by punk but moved quickly beyond it to post-punk, goth, pop, shoegaze, industrial, second-wave street punk, rockabilly, jangling indie, pub rock, noise rock, grebo and electronic dance music. The music of Leeds might not have dominated the mainstream, but it did help define the independent music of the 80s and beyond.
It’s a story captured in a new boxset on Cherry Red: Where Were You?: Independent Music from Leeds 1978-89. Vivid and rightly incoherent, Where Were You? is the fetid essence of Dirty Old Leeds sprayed over 3 CDs and nearly 70 tracks. From the Mekons to Edsel Auctioneer, Soft Cell to Cud, Gang of Four to the Bridewell Taxis, The Sisters of Mercy to the Pale Saints, Scritti Politti to The Mission, Delta 5 to the Wedding Present and dozens of points in between, this compilation gives equal space to Leeds’ national treasures and its local heroes and also-rans.
If there’s an argument to be made for the city’s world-shaking importance it’s in Leeds’ numerous post-Suicide adventures with drum machines. The bands that mashed their machines up with distorted guitars have perhaps had the greatest influence. It’s been said before: no Leeds, no Trent Reznor.
We asked Where Were You?'s chief compiler Benoît Farvak – the long-serving guitarist in Salvation – and his right-hand man and éminence grise, Richard Rouska, maverick historian of Leeds music, about the boxset and the lasting impact of the Leeds scene.
Mark Andrews is the author of Paint My Name In Black And Gold: The Rise Of The Sisters Of Mercy, the definitive account of the early years of one of Leeds' most original and influential bands. Mark has also previously written for Louder about the Sisters, The Mission and Gang Of Four (with one of the last ever interviews with Andy Gill).
In the histories of punk and post-punk, Leeds rarely gets a seat at the top table with Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow, even Coventry. Is this compilation definitive proof that the city has been short-changed?
Benoit Farvak: Totally! Musically, the city was always vastly underrated by the press. Leeds was often derided as ‘Goth City’ and by the mid-80’s ‘goth’ had become a swear word. But you only have to listen to a handful of tracks from the compilation to realise how diverse the musical landscape really was. This compilation should prompt a reappraisal of the musical heritage of the city.
Richard Rouska: Culturally, yes. Musically, probably not, to be fair. It was simply a problem of having arsey buggers who wouldn’t compromise in the name of a hit record and, thereby, national acclaim. Few would play the game! To be fair, Smash Hits were all over Soft Cell and Fad Gadget – who we couldn’t get on the comp – so we can’t complain. Whilst God created Manchester, according to Sarah Champion and John Robb, it was God’s wilful, troubled, feisty and wanton youngest daughter Fanny – all splendid in black – that created Leeds!
There does seem to be an increased interest in this era of the city and its music: two books on early Sisters of Mercy – one of them mine; Gavin Butt’s No Machos Or Pop Stars and accompanying CD The Art School Dance Goes On. Were you conscious of this pro-Leeds upsurge when assembling this collection?
BF: No, it came as a surprise. You wait for years, then three Leeds compilations come along at once. But to be fair, I think they complement each other quite well. There’s room for everyone and we hope there will be many more records and books about Leeds music.
RR: Ahem, you missed one. For once in my life I was ahead of the curve. A couple of years ago I published a book covering Leeds music scene 1977-87 (‘It Ain't Peters & Lee’). It was the reason I was dragged in screaming to help with the track listing.
The Mekons – not one of them from Leeds – kick off this compilation. They are such a key band in the history of the Leeds music scene. Can you explain?
BF: They were more like a ‘collective’ and didn’t define themselves as a ‘band’ in the traditional sense. They contended that ‘anyone can do it’. And people did! They inspired a whole generation of Leeds musicians.
RR: How many artists on this comp can you name having been born in Leeds? It’s the same if you do a London compilation, which would probably feature 20% born in the city. Leeds was the home of these bands. It was where they formed, germinated and made merry.
Leeds seemed to skip orthodox punk and go straight into new wave and postpunk. That’s the impression the compilation gives: the first track is from late ’78.
BF: Historically it has often been said that the seminal moment was when the Sex Pistols played Leeds Poly in late 1976. Many who attended went on to form bands such as Delta 5 and Gang of Four. But this happened organically and very much in ‘DIY’ fashion. There was no financial backing or corporate structure at the time to help the nascent scene so no surprise it took a little while to develop.
RR: Insidious. Like primordial slime it took time to grow legs, eyes and a gob.
Why end in 1989?
BF: End of the decade and the start of the club/dance/DJ culture - which in itself could probably constitute a ‘Volume 2’!
RR: Utah Saints and beyond.
Looming in the background of this compilation is the monumental figure of promoter John Keenan. Can you explain the importance of Keenan to the Leeds music scene of this era?
BF: John Keenan was a visionary and well ahead of his time. As a promoter, he championed the early Leeds bands by giving them support slots on the bigger gigs that he was putting on at the Poly, the F-Club and later on at The Duchess of York. And of course, he was also the man behind the legendary Futurama Festivals.
RR: A scene needs infrastructure. Bands need gigs. JFK solved that.
Leeds never developed enough infrastructure, especially record labels, to become a musical powerhouse though.
RR: Plenty of bigmouths and bigshots but not enough hits. The money would’ve come and infrastructure with it but Leeds was a student city and most of its band members had been to the Uni and Poly so we’re not talking the kind of intellects who would stoop to making ice cream toons. Money didn’t call the shots in Leeds then.
All music scenes throw up various instances of ‘How the hell did they not make it big?!’ I vote for Music For Pleasure. They should have been Leeds’ Simple Minds! What are your picks?
BF: I’m fascinated by the early days of the scene. In my view, obscure bands such as The Neat, Shake Appeal and City Limits compare favourably with the likes of Buzzcocks or Altered Images and could easily have joined the ‘big league’. Why they didn’t is a mystery. Often it’s about that initial push, the promotion… And luck.
So much of this music seems to be from the Burley and Headingley areas of the city – then a very tightly packed mix of students and ‘bohemian’ locals?
BF: There must have been something in the water. There was indeed a very high density of musicians in those areas with bands rehearsing in cellars on virtually every street.
RR: There was cheap student accommodation and most of the band members were students. A lot of music did come from these areas but it was rampant in most parts and suburbs.
There was a tight network of pubs and clubs and venues that sustained the Leeds music scene during this decade. What are the key ones for you?
RR: Haddon Hall. Poly & Uni. Astoria. Irish Centre.
BF: In terms of pubs, it was the Fenton pub in the early days, then the Faversham became the central hub and meeting place for punks, weirdos and alternative types – with the place divided into territories according to your musical allegiance… or your hairstyle! Club-wise, it was the Warehouse and the Phono that led the way with legendary nights and cutting-edge playlists.
Putting together a compilation like this can be legally and financially complicated. What slipped through the cracks; the tracks and artists that got away?
BF: We got pretty much everyone we wanted with only a few exceptions mainly due to labels refusing to license the material for some reason. So no major disappointments for me.
RR: Regrettably yes, he says unwisely. Chumbawamba, Fad Gadget, Parachute Men. Revolution by Chumbawamba kind of sums up the undercurrent of hostility towards a society, recognised clearly in Leeds, as failing the young, old and all in between. It was Thatcher’s Britain at the time, lest we not forget. The 80’s for Leeds was very much a ‘fuck you’ moment.
And Lo! On Disc 2, Leeds becomes Goth City. Three drum machine bands in a row at the start: The Sisters of Mercy, The March Violets and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. That sequencing proves that (so-called) goth could be brilliant.
BF: It was! Despite the stereotyping of goth bands as miserable, all sounding the same, singing about bats and coffins, it was anything but. The track by Red Lorry Yellow Lorry features an exquisite saxophone part. How goth is that? Goth was a natural progression from glam, punk, Nico, Joy Division. And it has proven durable with three major new books on the market by respected authors such as John Robb and Cathi Unsworth celebrating the scene.
RR: Andrew Eldritch discounts the notion that The Sisters were in fact a goth band. I think he has a point. Leeds was not Gotham city. We all just liked to wear black.
Even the later goth bands like Rose of Avalanche made good records – and were not at all po-faced. In fact, they were outrageously funny when I saw them live in Northampton in 1987.
BF: Exactly! Rose of Avalanche were more like a classic rock band and displayed a keen sense of humour. Had they been from another town, they would never have been tagged with the ‘goth’ label.
The history of Leeds music in this era could almost be told as a history of the drum machine: Pop, rock, industrial, dance…
RR: Yes and there’s so much evidence of it. Generally, a lot of leading lights on the scene liked control and drum machines and synths gave them that. And there was a plethora of bands including Coil, Possession, Sirius B and Andrew Hulme, who didn’t make it on here that were at the cutting edge of industrial. Although, The Cassandra Complex probably got there before anyone, including Nine Inch Nails.
Andrew Eldritch and the Sisters are obviously important in Leeds and wider musical history. Them and Gang of Four are the two Colossi on this compilation in my opinion.
RR: You could argue Soft Cell and Anni Hogan, if we’re talking number of hits and quantity of releases. Sisters did how many albums? Gang Of Four did how many good ones?
Towards the end of the compilation you can hear Leeds getting into samplers, sequencers and ecstasy – and keeping the guitars. That stuff has worn very well: Bazooka Joe and MDMA.
RR: Which is good to hear. And the other bands peppered all around them? Having turned down both bands (for the Rouska label) and much as I love Jez Willis and Paul Fryer, I have absolutely no regrets. Both went on to much better things. Both deserve to be on here but there are other excellent bands you need to try out.
The proto-electronic dance tracks seem to have worn better than a lot of Leeds’ late 80s guitar rock. Honourable exceptions being the Pale Saints and Edsel Auctioneer. And Wasteland by The Mission! That sounds colossal and reeks of ambition...
BF: A huge band which alongside Soft Cell, Scritti Politti and others went mainstream with chart hits all over the world. Again, this is evidence of the appeal that many Leeds bands had and still have on the international scene.
Is this a ‘warts and all’ compilation? Some bands aren’t captured at their peak. Ghost Dance had a run of early great EPs, but are represented by their Chrysalis dog days…
BF: Regrettably, Ghost Dance’s back catalogue has been somewhat neglected over the years with the rights to early material now difficult to obtain. We hope this is rectified soon, as we know many fans have been waiting for a definitive compilation of the early days.
RR: We got what we could get: you should’ve seen the draft list! But to be fair it’s as good as it gets and without pulling any punches. I’d give it 9/10 for content and as for being representative: 9.5/10.
Certain characters seem to run through this compilation cropping up in various guises: Craig Adams, Brian Moss and Jose Warden, Len Liggins, Paul Dillon and Jez Willis, Jon Langford – not to mention Rouska. Who are the Leeds faces that stand out for you?
BF: Richard Rouska is a key figure here! A recognized authority on the Leeds musical movement with incredible knowledge of the origins of the scene. A promoter, musician, record label owner, he has since documented the scene in several books.
RR: I talk a good game, put my neck on the line and have remained faithful to the cause even though I had a rough ride during this period, but I’m not up there with many of the following who I do rate: Jon Langford, Keenan, Eldritch, Si Denbigh, Jez Willis, Rodney Orpheus, John Boocock, Chris Bishop, Kevin Lycett, Anni Hogan, Ian Cheek and James Brown, who put out the Leeds fanzine ‘Attack On Bzag’ and who later founded Loaded.
Pick your hidden gem track from the compilation. Mine is ‘Trip#67’ by Purple Eternal: fantastic noise rock that could have been recorded by Steve Albini and come out on Amphetamine Reptile.
BF: I’ll go with the sublime ‘Have You Seen Gene’ by Rouge.
RR: ‘Moscow Idaho’ by The Cassandra Complex and ‘Seeds In The Spoil’ by the Dustdevils.
Where Were You? is out now on Cherry Red Records.