Leeds, United! ‘Where Were You?’ reviewed

This brilliant compilation is a pivotal artefact of a city that changed the face of contemporary thinking, writes Stephen Porter.

“Cherry Red continue to do a sterling service in curating and helping to preserve a time capsule of a specific era and area which otherwise wouldc have floated off into the ether of forgotten memories.”

I’ve never really been able to get my head round the concept of Leeds. First off, it’s a rather silly name for a mighty conurbation. Secondly, although I seem to visit Leeds every other month, I still have very little concept of its geography or how to orient myself via a towering landmark or iconoclastic open space.

Leeds holds loads of bittersweet memories for me. Oceans of football violence (from its Leeds United-supporting denizens, to a massive crew of middle-aged Madness/American army nylon jacketed West Ham fatties trying to remove my head after an FA Cup semi-final in 1980) flow back in forth in my mind from the mid-seventies onwards. But I don’t hold that against Leeds (if a city can act as metonym for its inhabitants, because if I held a grudge against very burg whose young (and not so young) football faithful had tried to decapitate me in the name of provincial, parochial association footballing affiliations, I’d have a list of grudges as long as that of Humphrey Bogart’s Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.

Sal and I have crossed the Pennines on many occasions to see some of our favourite performers over the past few years, and Headrow House and the legendary Brudenell Club are both enshrined in our collective nice memory banks from now until oblivion. This year, we returned to the Leeds University campus for the first time in a very long time, both of us to exorcise the ghosts of the past. Father John Misty played a storming set back in April and I had visions of seeing the Cocteau Twins in ’84, Soft Cell in ’81 and the Gang of Four back in 1980. I think Sal is over her pining for the Leeds University place she wasn’t able to take up, but until he retires, I don’t think I’ll ever get over my dealings with one particular Leeds University academic who is genuinely the second biggest c**t I’ve ever met. Some ghosts just cannot be driven out by facing them head-on.

Enough Queeging and on to pop music. Where Were You? is another brilliant Cherry Red compilation of another era which is being held on a thread in the collective memories of an ever-shrinking cabal of horrid old people like me.

WWY? is a really important and pivotal artefact of a city (along with its music, its bohemians, its rockers and intellectuals) which changed the face of contemporary thinking. Andy Peterson’s excellent short essay in the box set’s accompanying booklet makes clear that it was two Liverpool-based Johns who helped to provide a musical spark and curate much of Leeds’s creativity in the post-punk world.

I learned of practically all the groups featured in this collection via John Peel. The backlash against Peel continues apace, but his importance in educating and enlightening different generations cannot be over-stressed. Along with NME, John Peel was my guide from ’77 – ’87. The other John, John Keenan, was Leeds’s own Tony Wilson, a former Yorkshire TV employee and the genius behind the 1979 Leeds Futurama Festival which helped to further Joy Division’s legendary status, and was also the primordial indie soup from which a host of nascent synth and overcoat bands emerged and cemented their reputations.

If you really want to immerse yourself in the simultaneously febrile and nightmarish world that was Leeds and West Yorkshire in the late nineteen seventies, I’d recommend Gavin Butt’s excellent No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk, an engrossing account of feminism, Marxism and the rejection of sexist rock values on the campus of Leeds University (along with Leeds Polytechnic and Leeds College of Art). Butt depicts a movement which ultimately spawned the heavily academicised visions of Scritti Politti, Gang of Four, Delta 5 and later, equally radical bands such as the March Violets. The influence of these bands on the political climate and the discourse it provoked within the music press of the late seventies and early eighties was subtle and yet profound, and helped to propel a more feminised, anti-‘rock’ agenda amongst the more enlightened youth of that era.

This was also a frightening time for the women of Yorkshire. Peter Sutcliffe’s ghastly reign of misogynist killings meant that most women feared ‘going out’ or merely going about their business once the evening darkness enveloped the cities and satellite towns of all areas of Yorkshire, and not just the deprived areas of Leeds. The all-women Reclaim the Night marches of 1977 were important statements of female dissatisfaction with a corrupt patriarchy, and their effect is still being felt to this day. David Peace’s Red Riding quadrilogy gives some indication of the rotten heart and core of West Yorkshire’s policing, its bureaucracy and its corrupt politicians, but if you ever want to go some way toward understanding the sheer wrongness of British society in the late 1970s (and West Yorkshire in particular), Lisa Wiliams’s BBC docuseries The Yorkshire Ripper Files; A Very British Crime Story will leave you appalled and aghast. If you think the Great Britain of today is a corrupt, mire of institutionalised depravity, Williams’s documentary will give you a good indication of how things were even worse in the 1970s.

And so to the music.

Disc One covers the Post Punk/burgeoning synth world of Leeds 1978 -81. The compilation takes its name form The Mekons’ single Where Were You?, a scratchy but seminal record evoking the similar aesthetic of Wire and with a vocal not a million miles from Phil Daniels’ Parklife and hundreds of other rubbish Splodgenessabounds/Russ Abbott Show punkalikes who would follow in their wake.

Besides having one of the greatest band names ever, The Mekons’ single brings back so many memories of that particular Peel era, when the late-night DJ had almost ditched his hippy Dandelion roots and embraced the new. The Mekons emerged from Leeds University’s Fine Art Department (along with the more lauded Gang of Four, and the less lauded – but my favourite Art Departmenters – Delta 5). Though I’ve never really got The Mekons, entrepreneur Bob Last (Fast Records/Human League/Fire Engines) took take a shine to them and signed them up.  The Mekons remained Peel favourites for a very long time.

Moving onwards, the stripped-down jerky punk of Rouge’s Have You Seen Gene? (another splendid Gene Vincent tribute) and Cool by The, er, Jerks, firmly put this listener back in his freezing bedroom during the cold winters of 78 and 79, listening to Peel while the telly blared from downstairs.

Great days.


Both songs have that unmistakable DIY flavour to them, and were such an antidote to the rockist, bluesy cack my familiars had tried to force feed me into liking during the early and mid eras of that decade.

The first flowering of all-woman pop comes from the dreadfullynamed Rats and Delicious. Their No Time is a tremendous, joyous slice of power pop and was, unfortunately, their only recorded output. A pity. Have a listen to Ukip/Brexit-y former DJ Mike Reid’s punk pastiche High Rise and tell me he didn’t hear it.

The wonderfully titled Hormones in Action by (the not wonderfully titled) The Neat is one of those likeable songs by a band who would have been happier if punk hadn’t happened, and is reminiscent of many of the early Beatles-influenced power-popping bands of that time such as The Pleasers -who’d been frightened by all the spitting, pissing and torn trousers of the ‘punk rockers’.

There are numerous big hitters on Disc One brilliant artists who went on to world fame and also became part of rock’s rich tapestry (an ironic term coined by the almost supernaturally appalling Julie Burchill). Gang of Four’s Damaged Goods sounds (almost) as good today as when I first heard it (back when Mario Kempes was in his ‘pomp’ during Argentina ’78).

Green Gartside was always the cleverest of the bunch, although the one minute and fourteen nine seconds of Scritti Politti’s Messthetics doesn’t give too much of an indication of the 1980s blue-eyed soul superstar he’d later become. Soft Cell – the real success story of Leeds’s legendary Warehouse Club – are represented by the minimalist dance of A Man Could Get Lost, a track which would eventually turn up on 1982’s mini album Non Stop Exotic Dancing.

There are also great tracks from some familiar Peel alumni (The Expelled, Abrasive Wheels etc), but if push came to shove (whatever that may mean) my two favourite tracks on the disc just picked themselves.

Girls at Our Best! (what a great name for a band!) occasionally get a play on 6 Music with the fabulous, strident pop of Getting Nowhere Fast, and the brilliant Delta 5 released one of my favourite singles of the eighties, the double A-sided Anticipation/You.

It’s You that is represented here, a clever young woman’s tale of being disillusioned with the basic shiteyness of her partner:

Who was seen with somebody else?
You, You, You!

Who took me to the Wimpy for a big night out?
You, You! You!

Who likes sex only on Sundays?
You, You, You!

Who likes home brew (lots of sediment)?
You, You, You!

It’s hard to describe the aural version of this – a twangy, repeated guitar riff and a driving bass sound are accompanied by the almost yelps of much-missed singer Julz Sale until the exasperation of the narrator reaches its climax with:

I found out about YOU!

Never was radical feminism so much fun!

Disc 2’s early to mid-eighties fashioning sees the Leeds sound move to a rockier, more elegiac and (there’s no avoiding this) gothic sound. The Sister of Mercy’s Temple of Love reflects this shift and is easily the most recognisable track on this disc. It’s not my thing, I must admit, but memories of Andrew Eldritch’s stentorian tones DID bring on a minor Proustian rush and I recalled a short-lived Wakefield born girlfriend asking me if I liked “T’Sisters”.

it wasn’t a relationship that was likely to last.

The March Violets are still going strong after numerous line-up changes and hiatii. Religious as Hell (from the EP of the same name) is a claustrophobic dark anthem much in keeping with the band’s (then) austere sound. Lead singer and founder member Rosie Garland is a brilliant poet, cabaret artist and writer and a huge favourite mine. It’s odd to think of the band’s Turn to the Sky featuring in John Hughes’s (rather excellent) teen romance Some Kind of Wonderful, but it’s a much more preferable placement than that afforded Delta 5, whose splendid Mind Your Own Business somehow found itself featured the dubious, grubby, grot-fest that is/was Netflix series Sex Education.

Peel favourites The Three Johns are represented here with the single version of Do the Square Thing, but it’s ultra, mega Peel favourites The Wedding Present who represent the return-to-basics indie rock of the near-C86, short hair, Levis and Docs ‘Morrissey’ look of a thousand tedious bands of that 85-87 mini-era. I think I must have been so disillusioned with music to have bought into The Weddoes, and I remember going from being a massive fan to lashing their album out of the window in the twinkling of a very tiny eye. (Much like Rosalind Cash’s transformation from beautiful Harlem street tough Lisa, to the blanched out mutant psychopath in the ace pulp movie The Omega Man – only this time with ‘indie guitars’.)

I don’t know if was that repetitive tinny fucking whine that finally got to me, or it might have been Mr Gedge kicking off Partridge-style to a group of lads who had playfully pointed out that he had acquired some unwanted timber about his frame since the band’s last tour (this was some time in the early 2000s) that tipped me over the edge. Anyway, You Should Always Keep in Touch With Your Friends was the sort of stuff I used to fool myself into liking sometime pre-Madchester (another smoke and mirrors British male-dominated triumph of duplicity) when I should have been listening to some decent politicised hip-hop.

Age of Chance’s star shone brightly but briefly following their appearance on NME’s ‘legendary’ C86 compilation. Although they were a smallish world away from the indie boys and their melodic chiming guitars and their identikit Morrissey outfits (I always loved AOC’s cycling shirts), their From Now on This Will Be Your God was a great addition to the sampler cassette that I (once again) eventually lashed in another fit of pique (again, no idea). Age of Chance almost had a hit with their ace version of Prince’s Kiss (just listen to Sir [fuck’s sake] Tom Jones’s ghastly version if you’re ever in need of quickfire emetic), but it was not to be. Much of their output sounds samey, and I Don’t Know and I Don’t Care is not perhaps their finest moment.

There are excellent contributions from the likes of Vicious Pink, Annie Hogan, Anabas and the admirably monikered Pink Peg Slax but the most famous and (perhaps) standout track from the final section of Disc 2 is The Mission’s Wasteland.

If you like pantomime – we didn’t go to drama school, but we could have – brooding, gothic rock, then Wasteland is for you. But don’t forget your leather cowboy hat before you get off the bus.

The Peel connection continues on Disc 3 (basically ’87 – ’89); although there are very few big hitters on this disc, there is much to admire, and Cherry Red continue to do a sterling service in curating and helping to preserve a time capsule of a specific era and area which otherwise would have floated off into the ether of forgotten memories.

Disc Three opens with The Rhythm Sisters’ Saturday/Sunday Lazy Leeds. I first saw the sisters (not T’Sisters” – a different, other band) supporting Frank Sidebottom at Liverpool Poly in the late eighties. Amazingly, Bruce Foxton was on bass that night. It was such an odd combination for a gig, but it worked so well and I remember the The Rhythm Sisters with such affection. Saturday/Sunday is a lovely track, celebrating the joys of youth and life in late eighties Leeds.

If you could imagine a track created as a psychological torture weapon, designed to kill the listener after two consecutive listens, then Ritzun Ratzun Rotzer’s (a clear example of nominative determinism) Noodleman is that song. Imagine someone had set fire to the Pogues while they were performing – and yet they continued to perform – the result would not be too dissimilar to Noodleman.

There are a number of really lovely ‘indie ‘ tracks from The Sinister Cleaners (Longing For Next Year is particularly beautiful), The Prowlers and Son of Sam before the MDMA finally reaches West Yorkshire and the dance ethic kicks in with excellent tracks from Bazooka Joe, Drug Free America, WMTID and (indeed) MDMA with the brilliant Evidence.

The Vaynes’ fabulous Lick the Dirt owes a debt to their hero Iggy Pop whilst Bazooka Joe’s superb Hometown manages to splice the new electronica of late 80s Leeds with the brooding, portentous goth of The Mission et al.

Despite possessing the third worst band name in the collection, Cud’s I’ve Had It With Blondes is (IMNVHO) the standout track on Disc 3. It’s an oddly anthemic, urgent track filled with the mordant wit of frontman Carl Puttnam:

I was a teenage stamp collector
I’d lay back on my back
And you’d stamp on my face

And my absolute favourite:

I never said your dress was saggy,
That I thought your tights were baggy;
But these thoughts I kept in mind –
Your intellect I felt in kind

I’m pretty sure that I’ll be able to do without the C86 sound for the rest of my natural, so I’ll delicately skip across a few songs and alight at Groovin With Lucy’s proto-grungy (and excellent) Lenny’s Lament and the Pete Wylie-esque vocals of Bridewell Taxis’ (another fabulous name) Wild Boar. Both tracks illustrate that there never really was a ‘Leeds Sound’ – in much the same way that there was never really any sort of generic city sound anywhere – some bands emulate each others’ sounds and lazy journos and a public in need of pre-internet clickbait do the rest.

Of the final, final selection of this collection, The Edsel Auctioneer (bad band name) is perhaps the most recognisable, but the moderately big hitters are Pale Saints (good name) whose beautiful Sight of You was a fixture of my turntable (I love a bit of Shoegaze/Dreampop, me) in the final months of the most bittersweet decade of my life.

Where Were You? is another triumph for Cherry Red. The three CD box set is at turns a beautiful artefact, an ever-changing sonic museum and best of all it’s a fabulous time capsule of how the people of one urban, northern city can rise above its grim facades and brutalist architecture to produce something that bears testament to the transcendental and often glorious nature of the human spirit.

Where Were You: Independent Music From Leeds (1978-1989) Various Artists 3CD Boxset (CRCDBOX149) released by Cherry Red Group, RRP £23.99. Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

 Stephen Porter is a poet and spoken word artist who performs as Saint Vespaluus.

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