Leeds: A Musical History

Leeds has always been cursed with having very impressive musical neighbours and, to be fair, when pop music exploded into the public consciousness in the early sixties, our city didn’t really put up a good fight. In the 1960’s when The Beatles were flying the Liverpudlian flag all over the world, what musical goliath did Leeds have to proudly wave the white rose? The guitarist out of Herman’s Hermits.

Okay, so the 60’s weren’t Leeds’ decade but with the arrival of the seventies came the arrival of punk and that’s when Leeds started to come into its own. On the 6th December 1976 The Sex Pistols played Leeds Polytechnic (now Beckett) and Leeds took punk and ran with it. Our own university was birth place to three of the first post-punk groups, Scritti Polliti, The Mekons and Gang of Four, all of which are heralded as some of the most influential and experimental groups of all time. Punk was always more than Johnny Rotten’s gurning face and noses’ pierced with safety-pins, it was the ideological revolution of “Fuck what anyone else thinks I’m going to play and do what I want”. That’s exactly what the three Leeds bands did, taking the ferocity and courage of punk but moving it forward musically. Gang of Four combined punk with funk and dub, the Mekons would meld punk with country music, and Scritti Polliti would be at the forefront of the synth-revolution.

Soft Cell, students at Leeds Polytechnic, brought a breathy and sexual edge to synth pop covering a 1965 Northern Soul classic ‘Tainted Love’ which would soar to number 1 in the charts. Away from synth pop, John Peel favourites the Leeds based The Wedding Present helped start jangle pop but remain sinfully unappreciated to this day.

Away from pop music, Leeds’ early adoption of house music in the late eighties meant that for long periods of the 90’s it was the country’s clubbing capital with clubs Back to Basics and gay club Vague holding the title of best club in the country at different times. When house became a phenomenon it turned its attention elsewhere, with The Orbit club in Morley becoming an internationally recognised Techno mecca.

In more recent years, The Kaiser Chiefs, Pigeon Detectives, Corrine Bailey Rae have brought chart successes but selling records was never the aim of Leeds’ music and I don’t think they represent what’s at the heart of the city’s scene. Leeds throughout the years has been the meeting point of pop music and art, embracing something that perhaps wasn’t the flavour of the day at the time and then transforming it into something truly revolutionary.

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