The biggest band ever to come out of Leeds is probably Kaiser Chiefs, but it’s a long way down in both notoriety and history to the second biggest. You probably have to go back at least to the 1980s. Gang of Four? The Sisters of Mercy? Scritti Politti? The Mekons? Gang of Four weren’t even actually from Leeds.
Leeds was nothing like a musical powerhouse. It was always indie, and that’s precisely what makes Cherry Red’s new three-disc compilation, Where Were You? Independent Music From Leeds (1978-1989) so much fun. For all but a few aging Leedsians, the nearly 70 bands contained here, many of whom managed just a single release, aren’t going to bring back powerful memories. Nor has their stature grown over the years. The vast majority are virtually unknown today. Those that aren’t, like the acts named in the first paragraph, don’t seem much more important now than they did 30 years ago—with apologies to all four, who remain extant (at least technically) and have made plenty of wonderful music, from the Mekons’ Rock ‘n Roll, which came out in the final year surveyed by Where Were You?, to Scritti Politti’s extremely unlikely and almost entirely forgotten winner from a decade later, Anomie & Bonhomie (1999), whose pleasures no one has ever quite known what to do with.
The compilation’s title, Where Were You? is taken from the Mekons tune that leads off the first disc, and liner notes writer Andy Peterson’s answer to the titular question is simple: the place where they were, Leeds, was “a city that never wanted to do it anybody else’s way”. That’s not to say it doesn’t sound like the times—it most certainly does—but Leeds doesn’t quite sound like a particular place.
However, there’s a difference between a sound and a scene, and every city where music is happening has a scene. Musicians in Leeds lived on the same streets as other musicians, joined each other’s bands, and borrowed (or inherited) each other’s equipment. They went to the same schools and played at the same venues. In Leeds, those were primarily the polytechnic university and specifically its Fine Arts program, and a venue called the F-Club that eventually sprang from it—evidently after a dispute, which is appropriate for an indie city where no one wanted to be told to do things someone else’s way.
As a result, there’s some often arty, occasionally confrontational stuff here, especially on the first CD, which covers 1978-83 and is where most of Leeds’ first rank of musical acts can be found. Punk was still happening everywhere, and Leeds was no different, although the city’s brand of punk, at least as represented on Where Were You?, is pretty tuneful, cheerful, even hopeful stuff—there’s an almost touchingly humane little number called “Fight for Peace”, a naïve contradiction in terms that would require a band of much heavier weight than Icon A.D. to work out convincingly. Sure, “Let’s go unite against war”! Has that ever worked?
Punk’s transmutation into the lean early New Wave sound (before the 1980s got ahold of it) results in tunes like the Neat’s infectious “Hormones in Action”, a dead ringer for a B-side from Elvis Costello‘s This Year’s Model—a kind of cross between “No Action” and “The Beat”. There’s a general abundance of zippy, short, simple, singalong pop songs on Disc One, as though musicians in Leeds had been listening to the Knack but couldn’t play as well. Still, it’s worth tipping the cap to any number of quality bands who supplied these tunes, including Alwoodley Jets, Shake Appeal, and the Jerks, who sound exactly like you expect a band called the Jerks to sound—loud, attention-getting, and aggressive, but certainly not profane.
There’s also weirder stuff on disc one, like Scritti Politti‘s lurching, short, almost demo-like “Messthetic”, on which you can hear the post-pubescent voice of young Green Gartside before he started singing like Michael Jackson and hit the US charts with “Perfect Way” in 1985. Speaking of bands that made a 1980s move, is that…?—it sounds just like—yes!—it’s Soft Cell! Their 1981 debut single “A Man Can Get Lost” is by no means a contender for the worldwide smash hit that their cover of “Tainted Love” became instead, but you can definitely hear how “Tainted Love” is about to happen.
“A Man Can Get Lost” sets up what’s about to take over on the second CD (1983-87), which can almost be summed up in two words: drum machines! The first track, “Temple of Love”, is by the Sisters of Mercy, who were such avid early adopters of the drum machine that they gave theirs a name (Doktor Avalanche) as though it was a band member. Where Were You? is extremely valuable as a time capsule that marks the sea change from analog to digital. Although, a consequence of this change is that Leeds started turning into a city where everyone did things as most others did due to the equipment’s sonic and rhythmic limitations during the first half of the 1980s.
In the long run, it was probably a good thing that anyone who knew a few chords and stumbled on a couple of keyboards and a sequencer could make music: pop’s ideology has always been DIY, and there are some examples here, a fair number of them unfortunate, amateurish in the wrong way—stiff, unfeeling, tentative, and somehow primitive and clinical at the same time. Later, in the 1990s and beyond, savvy practitioners would exploit those very qualities to significant effect. Although, Leeds’ Vicious Pink was ahead of the game in 1984 with their cannily named “Cccan’t You See”, a title that prepares our ears for lead singer Josephine Warden’s vocals ca-ca-ca-captured by a digital sampler.
Warden is one of a refreshingly ample number of female presences throughout Where Were You? ‘s three discs (especially the first two). Leeds seems to have had plenty of room for women to join in not doing it like anybody else. There’s even a band called Girls at Our Best! whose exclamatory name gets at the woman-positive sensibility imparted by the compilation. That was another good thing the advent of digital did—music could be developed somewhere other than in live club venues at night, which could be fraught places for women to frequent, especially given what Andy Peterson’s liner notes call the “deeper, uglier subtext [of] Peter Sutcliffe’s [aka the Yorkshire Ripper] reign of violence against women” that terrorized West Yorkshire, not very far from Leeds, in the second half of the 1970s. “The media and authorities’ misogyny did nothing to halt this spree,” Peterson grimly notes.
Disc three (1987-89) gets off to an interesting start with a couple of kooky tracks (even for Leeds). The Rhythm Sisters’ “Saturday/Sunday Lazy Leeds Afternoons” is the DIY work of a duo of actual sisters who appear to be making music even today. Over a folkish (Irish?) 3/4-time backing track that sounds like nothing but a weird mandolin requisitioned for what is essentially a New Wave song idea, the sisters sing praises of the lazy Leeds weekend afternoons in question. Though “a dream can break so quickly”, the sisters warn, as if aware that Leeds, or in any case their dream of it, is about to end. “Saturday/Sunday Lazy Leeds Afternoons” is followed by an unexpected hootenanny called “Noodleman”, credited to an outfit we’re expected to believe is called Ritzun Ratzun Rotzer, which features kazoo and harmonica and who knows what other thrifty instruments. Interesting, and also terrible.
These two songs are followed a few perfectly ordinary tracks later by another song about Leeds, “Life in Leeds City” by Len Liggins, who raps badly. Given that the only other songs explicitly about Leeds on Where Were You? are a recorded-live free-jazz track called “Hurricane Damage in Leeds” by (ahem) Xero Slingsby and the Works and the throwback rockabilly tune “Boy from Leeds” by Pink Peg Slax, it seems quite safe to say that there was no “Leeds sound”. It was whatever sound Leedsians made.
About a third of the way in, the third disc gets attacked by Industrial, which was basically just electronic dance music made by unhappy punks. After a few tracks of this stuff, which is strictly for fans of the genre, along come Cud with “I’ve Had It with Blondes”, which might be the best song on the entire compilation for four reasons: 1) it’s funny, energetic, and just the right amount of sloppy; 2) it’s a plainly enjoyable melody over cool chords; 3) it sounds like nothing else on any of the three discs; 4) it contains an immortal line, “Don’t hold your breath, expectorate.” Cud are still together and a worthy survivor of the Leeds scene of the era.
“I’ve Had It with Blondes” is a tough act to follow, and the second half of Where Were You? ‘s third and final disc is mainly dominated by generic music that gets less and less pleasurable. The band Ghost Dance may have been an intriguing-sounding collaboration between the frontwoman of an act with the goth name Skeletal Family and an ex-Sisters of Mercy member, but their song “Celebrate” sounds like an English cross between Pat Benatar and Madonna. “Sight of You” by Pale Saints, who went on to find modest UK chart success in the 1990s, manages to anticipate the Cranberries, only with a man singing. There’s an assaultive tune by a band called Purple Eternal, followed by one so non-assaultive (by a band called Bridewell Taxis) that it almost isn’t even there.
That the third CD grows hard on the ears is less a judgment of quality than a description of aesthetic intent. In its way, Where Were You? gives us an exemplary final act in which Leeds sounds like itself and no one else. That’s in keeping with Anderson’s presiding idea of “a city that never wanted to do it anybody else’s way”. It’s also a reflection of what started happening worldwide in the late 1980s when the musical center stopped holding, and nobody seemed to know quite what to do for a few years. Punk was a relic by 1989; mope rock and goth were playing themselves out, everyone was getting tired of digital, and even the big-budget studio slickness that dominated MTV and the radio was starting to weaken. The Manchester sound hadn’t quite arrived, nor had the next big things from the US, grunge and hip-hop. The revivalist melodicism of Oasis and Coldplay was still further off.
In the meantime, music seemed to be biding its time, making its rounds, but growing increasingly agitated. By the time we get to Where Were You? ‘s penultimate track, the ugly 7/4-time “Character Assassinator” by a group called (ahem, again) Gold, Frankincense & Disk Drive—a song title and band name, that I’d have voted to reverse—something admirably not-anybody-else’s-way but also tiringly rebarbative seems to have taken hold.
Where Were You? Independent Music From Leeds 1978-1989‘s final song, from December 1989, is the Edsel Auctioneer’s appositely named “Our New Skin”, with its titular intimation that it’s time to shed the 1980s, regroup, and regrow. Both the band’s name and the song itself could have come out of Athens, Georgia, in 1982 or even from some one-off Uncle Tupelo session in 1992. “Our New Skin” is an energetic, unpolished, and pleasing piece of guitar-driven jangle-pop that reestablishes the DIY indie-rock basics Leeds (and most of England, it seems, at least from here in the US) had progressively abandoned during the decade surveyed by Where Were You?.
We’ll always have, and always need, bands like the Edsel Auctioneer to keep reassuring us of the rock verities of analog simplicity and promises of a new skin that feels comfortingly old, no matter what city or scene we’re in. But we’ll also always need restless, independent holdouts like Leeds to keep refusing to conform to those verities or get comfortable in that skin. This compilation is satisfying evidence of a place that didn’t hold its breath but expectorated.