From New Orleans to New York, Merseyside to Manchester, the Bay Area to Bristol, popular music developments on both sides of the Atlantic have frequently congregated around cities or localised communities. Without Chicago, it’s hard to see how electric blues would have spread like the wildfire it did; without Nashville the country would never have found its springboard; without Memphis, black and white styles would never have fertilised so richly and rampantly. And without the British city of Birmingham, could heavy rock have become such a global force?
Yet the English city of Leeds, where I work and teach, has been a somewhat lightweight contributor to the mythology of scenes. Okay, so in 1970 The Who recorded a seminal in-concert album there, Live at Leeds, in the University’s reflectory. At that time the same college spawned the potent new wavers Gang of Four, and the Fenton, the pub where they drank their pints of Tetley bitter before long late jams, is still venerated for its rock pedigree. Mention too, should go to Marc Almond who attended the city’s polytechnic before forging the soulful electro of Soft Cell. But for a place of Leeds’ size and status (it is the nation’s second financial centre today and home to a community of around 750,000) its musical threads have been, frankly, a little bare.
Until now, that is. For the last couple of years, Leeds has witnessed an extraordinary resurgence in the bars and basements of this northern stronghold, so much so that the national media has dubbed the creative upturn “New Yorkshire”, a nod naturally to the megalopolis that is Manhattan, but also a reflection that Leeds is, in essence, the cultural and economic capital of the large and proud county which surrounds it.
So who’s been rocking the aisles in a city bereft after its adored soccer term crashed out of the game’s top tier a little while back? Pride has been principally restored by the five-piece Kaiser Chiefs, named, it should be said, after the South African team that Leeds United’s latterday captain Lukas Radebe once played for. The band’s manic blend of post-punk vim and Madness-like mirth has already shaken ears and stirred souls on both sides of the Atlantic, most notably in their Live 8 stormer in Philadelphia.
But it hasn’t been just the Kaisers suggesting that famed Yorkshire grit, linked historically to mines and mutton, can actually be transformed into a flurry of rock diamonds. The Cribs, from close-by Wakefield, like Akron to Leeds’ Cleveland, are a three-piece act whose first singles have all seen chart success, while quirky trio the Research, spearheaded by the shrill and brittle tones of a Casio keyboard, have signed to a subsidiary of major label EMI, amid hints that these specialists in twee are only weeks away from almost mainstream acceptance with their naggingly addictive debut outing, Breaking Up.
Add to that list Corinne Bailey Rae’s extraordinary vocal stylings, as she draws comparisons with everyone from Billie Holiday to Norah Jones. Then throw in all-girl rockers the Ivories, !Forward Russia!, and the deliciously eccentric YSN, and the list of those waiting in the wings to take the next curtain call continues to swell almost every week. With the Vine and Faversham and the Wardrobe, among others, offering live opportunities and a fine magazine in Sandman covering the local twists and turns, something definitely appears to be simmering.
So, is New Yorkshire a figment of NME’s ever-fervent imagination, or is this movement truly ready to roll out its all-conquering battalions across the country and beyond? How far is this gathering of musical excellence and promise a curious accident, and how far is there a “scene”, in the recognised sense? Is this a beautifully balanced eco-system where established guitarists nurture new vocalists, talent spotters tenderly coax fresh talent, and fans follow without partisan prejudice for one group over another? In the Kaisers’ kingdom are the Marxist dreams of Gang of Four actually made flesh and a grass roots community of like-minded artists permitted to flourish, shoulder-to-shoulder, axe pick-to-drumstick?
I spoke to musicians on the edge of good and greater things about the Leeds scene and how much it meant to them, their artistic aims, and their professional intentions. Did it exist? And if so, was it a good thing? When I asked guitarist and vocalist Pete Wurlitzer and member of YSN, formerly Yellow Stripe Nine, who have just released “More”, their first single for city-based label Wrath Records, if media-generated hype was at the heart of this phenomenon, he believed there was more to it than fabricated headlines.
“There is definitely a huge amount of musical creativity going on in Yorkshire, particularly Leeds, which I suppose could be described as a scene,” says Wurlitzer. “We all know each other fairly well after having played shows together and chatted down the pub and so on. However, the term scene usually suggests some kind of musical or aesthetic similarity between artists, which is where the music and artists emerging from Yorkshire break with tradition.”
He continues, “The best and most significant thing about what’s happening is that every well-known artist from Yorkshire has their own identity. I think this explains the continued media fascination, as the music is hard to pigeon hole, thus every new band discovered adds yet another dimension and increases the media intrigue. The great music coming from this area does also seem completely disproportionate with the population, especially when you consider the relative dearth of talent attaining wide-spread recognition from bigger UK cities.”
But if he feels part of a scene, is it helpful? I wondered how it felt being linked to Kaiser Chiefs and the Cribs? Does a band’s identity tend to get submerged, or is being linked to a particular wave beneficial? “YSN are certainly part of what’s going on and I also feel personally involved because of collaborations with other local bands, iLiKETRAiNS, for instance.”
Says Wurlitzer, “Being associated with Leeds is also hugely beneficial because of media and public attention without negative preconceptions regarding musical style. I think anyone who saw a picture of YSN, or heard one of our records, would realise fairly quickly that we’re not much like the Cribs! As I’ve suggested, the most significant aspect of the Yorkshire scene is the importance of establishing a unique identity. Leeds and New Yorkshire seem to be seen as an indication of musical quality rather than any particular musical style. As long as the weird, wonderful, and unique acts keep coming from here, then the media attention will continue. And quite rightly so!”
Yet Julia Downes, once of Holy Terror and former collaborator with members of the Ivories, now bassist with Blacks Bats, takes something of a contrasting position. She feels that she approaches these matters from the position of a Leeds musician/promoter with a rather different perspective. Downes also runs events as part of a collective called Manifesta, with a strong feminist and queer agenda.
She comments, “In Leeds there’s loads of different scenes happening at the same time. When I was in the Holy Terror there was a feeling that there were a load of good bands coming up and it was quite exciting, so at one point it was happening. I think the media/music industry had a lot with coining it as New Yorkshire and hyping it up to assure that there would be a market for its product, but I also think some bands were into the recognition and saw it as a way to be a star and played up to it.”
But Downes has deep ideological qualms about these developments. “I don’t think Manifesta could ever truly embrace something that perpetuates queer/feminist subordination in local music scenes. New Yorkshire has had its part in venues charging more for space, closing spaces down, creating a lot of competition that local level cultural activism can’t compete with.”
She adds, “I think those bands have done really well for themselves and it’s really exciting for them and the people that gain something from their music. But considering all those bands are all white, all male, all heterosexual, I don’t really feel they are exciting or revolutionary, they’re not speaking to or for me. I would laugh if anyone associated me with those bands; the only thing we have in common is that we were at one time based in the same county.”
So Wurlitzer’s broad endorsement could hardly be less aligned with Downes’ deeply felt discomfort with the style and content of this musical earthquake. Yet the tremors are proving largely unstoppable as things stand. The Leeds eruption is not the only Yorkshire upsurge as Sheffield has, in recent months, also provided significant new players in the Arctic Monkeys and the Long Blondes, and at present, the rest of the UK is being left in the county’s guitar-fuelled slipstream.
New Yorkshire may never live up to the dizzy heights of Detroit and Liverpool in the ‘60s or Manchester in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but there is no question that the place to clock bands on the rise is currently well away from those traditional centres of rock’n'roll domination. Leeds, and the nearby cities of Sheffield and Wakefield, are part of a musical renaissance and it can hardly be long before many more American ears experience its diverse bounty.