How Gang of Four, The Mekons and other post-punk bands used Leeds’ arts education to change music


Gang of Four frontman Jon King remembers the Leeds landscape of the 1970s as looking like a “bomb site”. But it was perfect. “I wanted to get away from the south,” he says, recalling his move from Kent to West Yorkshire, where he co-founded the quartet that had an invaluable influence on music during and beyond the post-punk era. .

“I didn’t want to be in some kind of cozy place anymore, and I wanted to be in a place that had some authenticity.

“Leeds was like a bomb site. Photographs of Leeds from this time look very similar to Coventry after the bombing. I mean, there were acres and acres of abandoned streets with houses to demolish, holes in the road,” he adds.

“Our rehearsal room was in this abandoned house in rows and rows of abandoned houses, so we could make as much noise as we wanted.”

Professor Gavin Butt. Photo by Michelle Henning.

As an art student at the University of Leeds alongside bandmate, the late guitarist Andy Gill, and members of other bands such as The Mekons, King found a happy home in which to pursue his creative ambitions.

Now an academic, Gavin Butt, Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University, has published No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk. It not only provides a comprehensive history of this period of music, but places it in the context of state-funded arts education that enabled people from working-class backgrounds to attend college. However, he sees the book as a “handbook” for today’s younger generations.

Although he studied in London, Professor Butt longed for Leeds because one of his favorite bands was The Three Johns, along with fellow original member of The Mekons, Jon Langford. Later he was a professor at Goldsmiths when the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government raised tuition fees and he questioned whether working-class scholars in the arts and humanities were a ‘disappearing breed’ “. It got him thinking about the music scene in Leeds in the 1970s and 80s and how arts education was a “really important part of cultural ecology”, but whose influence had not been “substantially” related to popular music in other writings on the subject. . Over years of research, he spoke to people involved in the scene.

King was the son of an electrician but got a scholarship to Sevenoaks School in Kent, which he attended with future bandmate Gill, and Mark White, Tom Greenhalgh and Kevin Lycett, who went on to form The Mekons.

Gang of Four in Leeds, 1981. Left to right: Dave Allen, Jon King, Hugo Burnham and Andy Gill. Credit: Adrian Boot.

King was not just drawn to the ‘authenticity’ of Leeds, but to scholars such as Professor Sir Lawrence Gowing, who he said was ‘the world authority on Cézanne and Vermeer’, two of his favorite artists .

He and Lycett arrived in 1974 and “got it all figured out”, he says, before Gill, White and Greenhalgh joined them later.

King then lived in a flat in Cromer Terrace near campus with White and Andy Corrigan – another member of The Mekons – and Lycett took over the film company as they became “a really tight bunch of buddies doing stuff”.

In 1976, former Situationist International (SI) member TJ Clark was appointed professor at the university and, with staff including art historians such as Griselda Pollock and Fred Orton, the Fine Arts Department arts “began to draw on Marxist, feminist and structuralist theory”. on the agenda,” writes Professor Butt.

Such concepts later found their way into the lyrics and record art of Gang of Four, which played their first gig at the Cellar Bar at the Corn Exchange in Leeds in May 1977.

At that time, the student populations of the university and what was still the Polytechnic tended not to mix, King says. But one place offered “neutral ground” – the Fenton pub. They were “lucky – and I still don’t know why there is no blue plaque in the Fenton – to have a pub exactly halfway between the two (campus) where we could all sit, and it became the center of progressive, leftist, arty-farty musicians,” King says.

Bands such as Delta 5, Scritti Politti and Soft Cell formed in this environment alongside Gang of Four, whose funk-leaning, Dr. Feelgood-influenced post-punk contained subversive IS-inspired ideas. Their 1979 debut album Entertainment! – with a line-up completed by Dave Allen on bass and drummer Hugo Burnham – became one of the most important of the era.

“What I was trying to do was be interesting. I’m not sure I was trying to be influential,” King says, adding, “I guess one of the reasons for we still talk about what we did back then is that he sounded like no one else. And that’s not commercial at all. I mean, that’s outside of the music. He It’s very hard to think of, you know, a Taylor Swift song sitting alongside Natural’s Not In It on the radio I love Taylor Swift, I’m not criticizing that stuff, but it’s not in the same world. And it never was.

King adds that “the big advantage of being in Yorkshire at the time was that the London reporters ignored you because they thought nothing had happened north of Watford.”

Therefore, when they, along with bands like The Human League, “crashed into London” to perform, it was like a “reverse attack”. He says: “Leeds couldn’t have been a better place for all sorts of reasons, and that made us who we were.”

Speaking of the book, Professor Butt, who eventually arrived in Leeds when he started his Masters in Social History of Art at university in 1989, said: “I’ve written it for now – it’s really important to me. While this is a detailed account of what happened in Leeds at the time, it is about what could still be happening in places like Leeds today.


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