Thursday, May 23, 2024

Where Were You? Independent Music from Leeds 1978-1989

Where Were You? Independent Music from Leeds 1978-1989 – Cherry Red Records

Name a famous band from Leeds? Half a point for Sisters of Mercy (too obvious) one point if you said The Wedding Present or Cud. It gets really tricky after that – I could manage four or five, but then, I am from Leeds. For a city of Leeds’ size, its contribution to popular music history is surprisingly slight. You could argue it helped to pioneer the DJ as a ‘thing’, though given that this claim would involve bringing Jimmy Savile into the picture, we now have to rather pass over that. You might think that gigs by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Queen and – legendarily – The Who would send at least some onlookers to run off, pick up a guitar and conquer the world, but no. It rained during the Summer of Love; sequins had sold out during Glam; music was cancelled during the reign of Peter Sutcliffe. The Mecca of music from the mid-80s was a pub – The Duchess of York on Vicar Lane, a stone’s throw from Kirkgate Market with its tripe-sellers and Evening Post barkers. The Duchess gave you a chance. If you’d learned a couple of chords (three would be extravagant) and had your own equipment, the four-foot high stage could be yours. This was the music of Leeds – DIY and then some.

Helping us with our collective poor memories and oversights is ‘Where Were You?’ a three-disc, 68-track set covering multiple genres and artists. Some went on to bigger and better things; others to smaller and worse. The Mekons, whose second single gives the compilation its title, were formed at Leeds University – geography police may well reduce their claimed impact due to the members hailing from elsewhere originally. The Mekons were very typical of Leeds bands, not only from this single’s era (1978) but well into the 1990s – all welcoming to anyone who wanted to join in; strong post-punk elements; a slightly cloying political stance. ‘Where Were You?’ is primitive in the extreme and quite remarkable in that it is a two-and-a-half-minute track with vocals which only come in after a minute. Peel loved them, and you can take that accolade any way you like.

Rouge has disappeared from sight, beyond the single featured here – ‘Have You Seen Gene’ – being a much-sought-after punk 7″ curio. An ode to Gene Vincent, it’s a surprisingly jolly bop, tinged with an oddly melancholic harmonica outro. Slightly more prolific (three singles!) were The Jerks, a politely snotty punk band with swirls of organ weaving through the zippy guitars and leader Simon Snakke’s confident vocals. ‘Cool’ is a great track, though a tip of the hat for one of their other tracks – ‘Get Your Woofing Dog Off Me’. Like many, they simply disbanded when the lack of interest became too deafening. Rats and Delicious were a female duo who were friends with Snakke. Having two female vocalists might draw some attention even today, but they were largely a live act with only one track being recorded – ‘No Time’, perhaps a little tame to stand out from the crowd.

Agony Column has more than a touch of Weller about them, enough to get them several plays on John Peel’s show and (I Had it) All Worked Out has some really interesting spikey guitar work. Far better are The Neat, a rather Squeeze-y Mod/Power Pop band who, frankly, were rather unlucky not to have at least the semblance of a hit with ‘Hormones in Action’. Hugely catchy and deftly played, it’s since garnered enough fans to warrant a limited re-release. The improbably-named guitarist, Ray Romance, went on to marry Coleen Nolan.

Gang of Four. Again, not born in Leeds, but rather attended uni at the same time as The Mekons. ‘Damaged Goods’ demonstrates why one of the two bands broke out of West Yorkshire rather more successfully. It sounds very accomplished even now, and screams, correctly, ART SCHOOL at every juncture. Clever but not especially loveable. With their first EP still over a year away from being released, there’s no doubting the impact Gang of Four would have. They’re still the easiest band to reference when trying to describe to someone what ‘post-punk’ sounds like. Also not from Leeds were Scritti Politti – Green Gartside studied art at Leeds Poly, back when if you were at uni or poly was significantly different in how you were perceived. Though ‘Messthetics’ hails from 1979, it still came a couple of years after the band shifted from Leeds to Camden. Poor show.

The City Limits sound a little like The Knack and The Only Ones but with a guitar made out of corrugated iron; The Expelaires 2-Tone rock-lite was so gruesomely ill-fitting in any scene that it took until 2016 for them to release their debut album, whilst Alwoodley Jets‘ ‘Crash n’ Burn’ shows far more vigour though needs a slightly bigger hook to turn it into a truly top track – despite the efforts of Steve James, son of Carry On’s Sid. Girls at Our Best!‘s attitude-filled clang-along isn’t half bad, but they, like so many, quit before they could be included in the wave of DIY female bands which emerged with the C86 movement. ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’ is a real grower, and certainly seemed to lodge in David Gedge‘s ears, as his band, The Wedding Present later covered it. Can you believe that’s the first time David Gedge has been name-checked?

Shake Appeal’s only single, ‘My Own Way’ is a slightly embarrassing Blondie rip-off with a horrendously annoying keyboard riff. Band members later played in The Parachute Men, a slightly less offensive band. I’m afraid I can’t recommend Delta 5’s ‘You’ either.  Political yelping was a popular trait amongst Leeds bands for decades, and Delta 5 were more than complicit, admirable in their intent but creating music which was too pious and self-important to be embraced by a mainstream audience. Ironically, having emerged from the same uni course as The Mekons and Gang of Four, history has been kind to them, with some now looking back on them as pioneers of sorts.

Many releases by indie artists from Leeds were token efforts, recording singles because they were asked or because the opportunity arose. Bands like Knife Edge, appearing here with the Cars-y ‘Favourite Girl’ were great favourites live but had no marketing behind them to transfer this to sales. On the other side of the coin were bands like Music for Pleasure, a band mentioned in the same breath as OMD and Depeche Mode by early UK electronic new wave aficionados, and who made a decent fist of a career, releasing an album for Polydor produced by Mike Hedges, and further releases independently. Upon disbanding in 1985, at least one member found their way into joining Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. If you were in a band in Leeds, there was a fair chance you’d either played with them or had been asked to join.

The Squares‘ ‘Buddy Holly’ could scarcely sound less like it came from Leeds, the sunshine, slightly ‘Oliver’s Army’ single finding them on, of all labels, Sire, alongside The Ramones and Patti Smith. They were rumbled pretty quickly, but any amazing thing to tell your grandkids. The Mirror Boys had the perfect start and played the second Futurama festival. playing alongside U2, Altered Images and Siouxsie & The Banshees. They were confident and accomplished but not quite weird enough to catch the imagination of the masses. ‘At Tiffany’s’ pays tribute to the nightclub in the city’s Merrion Centre, one of the few gathering points for music fans and oddballs. Futurama was the second festival put together by John Keenan, later to turn The Duchess of York into one of the must-play venues for any up-coming band from not just the UK but the US too. It wouldn’t be too big a stretch to say that without John, Leeds would have never seen any bands of note for at least 25 years. Starting at the Grand Theatre and moving on to Leeds Poly, his own F-Club, and then countless Northern venues, Keenan is one of the real heroes of British music, and should ideally be awarded a statue in City Square.

Dance Chapter was one of the first acts signed to the fledgling 4AD label, but regrettably forecast their own demise with their single, ‘Anonymity’. It’s actually quite good in a proto-goth kinda way, and would probably see them signed to 4AD today if they released the same track. Of all the bands featured so far, The Boys have had the roughest deal. Formed in Leeds in 1975, they were the first UK punk band to sign a record deal in 1977 (to NEMS Records, who were handling Black Sabbath‘s back catalogue at the time). Whilst the guitar riff to the track featured here, ‘Let it Rain’ has more than a passing resemblance to ‘God Save the Queen’, the vocals and melodies really set them apart, seemingly effortless and thoroughly addictive. A great track from a great band, and a crying shame they aren’t better known!

Soft Cell, of course, was from Leeds. My sister once served Marc Almond when she worked in a bank. No details on his spending habits, I’m afraid. ‘A Man Can Get Lost’, is their debut on and pre-dates ‘A Man Could Get Lost’, which appeared on the ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ re-working, ‘Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing’. It still sounds otherworldly, and frankly, exactly what you’d expect a band from Leeds to sound like. The lack of oddness in a lot of disc one is peculiar – Leeds is full of weirdos. Abrasive Wheels are the most straight-ahead punk band on this set and is no less worth a listen for the fact. They pestered the upper echelons of the indie charts in the early 80s and, after going through a veritable army of band members, they continue to play to this day.

Icon AD again bring far too much political griping to the party; The Expelled has a great low-end bass throbbing throughout ‘Government Policy’ but left everyone wanting in terms of a strong song to attach to it. The Underdogs are far better, lurching off like Dead Kennedys, then adding some Motorhead sandpaper to the mix. Their first EP was called ‘Riot in Rothwell’, either the most or least punk name for any release, I really can’t decide. The follow-ups lead track, ‘East of Dachau’, concluding disc one, is excellent.

Disc 2 kicks off with Sisters of Mercy and ‘Temple of Love’. Inextricably linked with Leeds, they will, for many, be the first band they associate with the city, a crying shame in my opinion. It’s dated horribly, though that suggests it didn’t sound ridiculous in the first place. Borrowing their Fisher-Price drum machine is The March Violets, whose ‘Religious as Hell’ is the worst thing I’ve heard all year. Goth claptrap, it’s the kind of anaemic dross which passed quality control by posturing as DIY when in fact it was pure laziness and ineptitude. Completing this goth barrage is Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, whom any discussion on Leeds music would be remiss in omitting, but they at least have a peculiarly endearing quality – you’d quite like to pat them on the head, if not let them sleep in your kitchen.

One of several goth hang-out spots in Leeds, The Phono in the Merrion Centre

In 1983, Anabas toiled hard but could muster up only two singles, the first of which, ‘Barricades’ sounds like a band trying very hard to be The Cult – ironically, they had yet to even decide on their name down the road in Bradford. The Three Johns, a Mekons side-project featuring Jon Langford, is rockier and gothier than their parent band and, inexcusably uses the same appalling drum machine which the Leeds music scene saw as akin to the obilisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Vicious Pink‘s ‘Cccan’t You See’ is equally synthetic but is at least a bit cheerier. Soft Cell’s former backing singers were briefly signed to Parlophone, fortunately not long enough for them to be sued – the track sounds uncomfortably like The Temptations‘ ‘My Girl’.

A traumatic start to the disc but salvation comes in the form of Brisbane native, Tom Fazzini, whose ’16 Vessels’ sounds like Leeds’ response to Wild Man Fischer. Unexpected and a much-needed palate cleanser. Equally arresting is Annie Hogan‘s ‘Executioner’s Song’. Hogan has worked on and off with Marc Almond since their earliest days, as well as forging a collaborative relationship with Barry Adamson, but her own work is plaintive and distinctive (if a little over-long). Deja-Vu is another band with just one release to their name and barely a smudge made on the musical map. Flowers for Agatha are exactly as pretentious as they sound, as you might expect coming from posh Horsforth. The singer sounds like he’s scaring horses for a bet, though the incessant bass thud is a nice distraction. Drummer, Jonny Cragg, went on to join the briefly enormous Spacehog, whilst guitarist Jeremy Dyson went on to join League of Gentleman on radio and TV.

It’s nice to see Xero Slingsby featured. His sax skronk wasn’t always what your day needed as he busked around Leeds, but recorded, it’s clear to see what a talent he was. The NME was rather spreading its bets when it tipped The Hollowmen for greatness, and though their only release on Arista proved an indie fave, it was not enough to survive the musical bearpit of the early 90s. The Rose of Avalanche still exist today, a testament to their Stoogian soup of guitars and drawled vocals. ‘Goddess’ doesn’t evoke visions of Leeds, but it’s a welcome respite from Goth drum machines. The Cassandra Complex’s ‘Moscow Idaho’ is hectic and passionate and a bit Ministry-lite, but the vocals are somewhere between Jello Biafra and Geoffrey Boycott, which should be the best recommendation of all-time, but sadly isn’t. Surfin’ Dave & The Absent Legends’ ‘Stateside Centre’ is pretty lacking in surf but has a strange, yearning quality that makes it endearing, if fundamentally being pretty basic. Remarkably, guitarist Chris Haskell, who only came to Leeds to finish his uni degree, returned to the US to form Rollins Band with school friend, Henry.

Age of Chance was neither fish nor foul, though were loved by some of the cooler-than-school DJs and enough hipsters to provide indie chart success and a deal with Virgin, but ultimately, their hybrid dance/new wave/alt-noise schtick couldn’t find a strong enough identity. Alas, Third Circle’s indie drive is wayward of James’ polish and even Jesus Jones’ catchiness but then they do precede the Gods of indie…The Wedding Present. The Wedding Present is the Leeds music scene in an eternal bubble of not-quiteness. Once you had seen David Gedge wandering around Leeds once, you would find you couldn’t escape him. Even when the band was on tour in America, you would swear he’d just walked past you near the Odeon cinema. Gedge is a beacon of hope in Leeds music lore – the eternal trooper, never giving up; never taking the end of a record contract to be anything other than the starting pistol to write a new album. Their debut album, ‘George Best’, was Leeds’ ‘Sgt Pepper’; its ‘Astral Weeks’; its ‘Velvet Underground & Nico’. Included here is ‘You Should Always Keep in Touch with Your Friends’, an early effort but flooded with pinwheeling guitar and earnest barking.

Though featuring wayward members of Sisters of Mercy, Mekons and Gang on Four, Pink Peg Slax had a sense of irony and an attitude which their rockabilly sound belies. With their disdain for the rest of the music world (in response to The Smiths, they released ‘Eat More Meat’) and even their own audience (baiting a disinterested Dusseldorf crowd to ‘go away and make some chemicals), they were a breath of fresh air but in an increasingly pigeonholed industry. They couldn’t survive the brave new world of the 90s, but ‘Boy From Leeds’ is excellent. Dustdevils are forgettable indie clanging, stalling the arrival of The Mission, a band whose albums, singles and T-shirts it was (and is) impossible to escape in the city. It’s easy to forget just how huge they became (and for how long) and listening to ‘Wasteland’ from their debut album, it’s clear to see why. Piercing goth with the same kind of clarion call anthemic arm-spreading as The Cult, they were a ‘proper’ band with a commercial sound, a massive and applause-worthy “fuck off” to Andrew Eldrich. Talking of whom, Eldrich was sometime producer of Salvation, a goth band like so many others, which still roams the Earth, unaware of what year it’s in.

The final disc of the set kicks off with Rhythm Sisters, not the greatest of welcomes – think of ‘Battle of Evermore’ being played on cutlery. Ritzun Ratzun Rotzer should be better known by lovers of Budget Rock and Trash Beat, their one and only EP being a tremendously daft mix of kitchen sink skiffle and punk vomit. ‘Noodleman’ is here for the uneducated to enrich their lives. Guitarist, Gordon White, spoke to The Yorkshire Post in 2013:

“…Although White doesn’t believe his band was destined for greatness, it was cut short after the accordion player was involved in an accident – the drainpipe he was climbing under the influence gave way and he fell, causing terrible injuries and putting an end to the band’s dreams”.

White has since become a guitar tech for everyone from Nick Cave to Richard HawleyThe Sinister Cleaners occupy a pigeonhole I’d completely forgotten existed – Glum Indie. Yes, The Smiths spawned countless copycat bands but Being-A-Bit-Sad-Core was largely what indie music sounded like to me for years, until, I suppose, Brit Pop erased the memories. Quaint, competent but uninspiring. The Prowlers have a promising band name, but their plodding rock could be any band in any town in any country. More interesting in Son of Sam’s ‘Goodbye Junkie Jim’, a sort of budget Iggy Pop croon backed by Utah Saints’ drum machine (the last bit is fact). Strange a city terrorised by one of the UK’s most notorious serial killers should name itself after one from abroad, but there you go.

Len Liggins is certainly a local hero, having briefly been in many bands on this compilation, he is best known for his work with The Wedding Present off-shoot, The Ukrainians. Described by John Peel as ‘legendary’, a term he only gave to around 50% of the artists he played, Len released (and continues to release) solo EPS crammed with visions of Leeds as if it were New York or LA, perhaps the most overt city-championing on any of the three discs. His cheap synth and songs about sandwiches are 80s West Yorkshire in a nutshell. This release’s compilers really did some digging to unearth The Good Shepherds, a quartet who are goth-ish, a little Depeche Mode-y who make a decent fist of using the same shitty synth everyone in Leeds seemed to be using.  They in turn spawned WMTID, a stroppy Pet Shop Boys clashing with PiL. ‘Go Big Red’ from 1989 is a real grower and appeared on  Richard Rouska’s Rouska label (also the name of his fanzine). The band name is an acronym for “Well Martin This Is Different”.

The heady days of 1989 brought us MDMA, both the drug and the band on their marks for the warehouse rave scene. ‘Evidence’ sounds oddly like the theme tune to ‘Miami Vice in places but the band is historically better known for band member Jez Willis, shortly to found Utah Saints – borrowing the title of an MDMA song title on the way. Drug Free America seemed to be around forever but only started in 1987. Their dog-on-a-string dance/rock clash will not be to everyone’s taste (definitely not mine), indeed, by the time they reappeared after a short hiatus, even they seemed to have changed their minds, ditching the guitars and going full-on rave.

The Vaynes offer a merciful change of pace, a guillotine guitar assault with an air of chipped fingernails and probing tongues. Disciples of Johnny Thunders and The Dead Boys, they certainly share the same postcode in terms of sound, but only have a handful of singles and one album to their name. ‘Lick the Dirt’ is one of the real gems of this compilation. ‘Hometown’ by Bazooka Joe is a really quite frenzied pop song which creeps up on you, masquerading as everyman ‘meh rock’. Paul Fryer went on to be head honcho club night, Vague, held at Leeds’ 90s temple of E-taking, The Warehouse. Cud! I know that Cud was definitely from Leeds as singer, Carl, used to leave his bicycle in my record shop. Cud’s time on A&M led to them being treated like the kings of the world by the Leeds indie fraternity. Like The Wedding Present before them, they achieved success outside of their home city without compromising and with no attempt at distancing themselves from their humble beginnings. Appearing a few years too early to be classed as Brit Pop, one wonders how the band would have fared against their better-known Anglo-janglers. Pretty well, I reckon.

The Snapdragons didn’t sound like they were from Leeds. They were too ethereal; too spiritual; too drippy. Groovin’ With Lucy DID sound like they were from Leeds. Narked; chiming guitar; only released one single (‘Lenny’s Lament’ featured here). Purple Eternal are one of the few featured bands that feature anything like a psychedelic influence, a super-charged Calico Wall or early Dwarves swirl of guitars and teeth-shuddering drums, ‘Trip #67′ is Leeds’ answer to a request for a band to appear on a Pebbles compilation. Alas, Bridewell Taxis is as forgettable as you’d expect an attempt to bring ska and indie dance together to be. Ghost Dance is also perplexing – almost like a goth band playing an early slot at Womad.

Pale Saints might be the unluckiest of all the Leeds bands. It’s not that they weren’t successful – snapped up by 4AD, they toured regularly, were critic-friendly and saw their debut album go top 40. However, Gil Norton and John Fryer’s production left them too pastel-shaded and thin – without the thunder of, say, My Bloody Valentine, they weren’t fully shoegaze, fundamentally a Paisley-influenced Psych-Pop band who weren’t allowed to have fun. ‘Sight of You’ is nice – but only nice. They sound like the echo of a really good band, hobbled by THE MAN. We conclude with Gold, Frankincense  & Disk Drive, a name which has not improved with time, but whose music remains well worth investigating – an avant-garde alt-rock squall, with ‘Character Assassinator’, from one of their two LPS, being – dare I say it – several years ahead of its time. Last – and nearly least – is Edsel Auctioneer, a band with nearly as much jingle jangle as that other bloke from Leeds.

What do we learn about the Leeds indie scene from this release? Well, despite the sleeve note’s protestations, I’d say that goth loomed large for longer than it ever should have. Eldritch has a lot to answer for, the cursed drum machine sound holding back real musicianship and the whole schtick being so estranged from actual entertainment that it tainted a lot of those bands who really deserved more attention. Leeds had the characters, the venues and the inventiveness to really become a powerhouse for music, something which it inarguably isn’t, for all goth’s dyed bluster. Politics have dated many attempts to make a mark and others seemed just a little too late joining the bandwagon they were stretching for. That said, it’s fascinating and punctuated by the occasional hidden treasure. And there’s no Chumbawamba.

Daz Lawrence 

You can buy Where Were You? Independent Music from Leeds 1978-1989 here

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