Awkward Bastardry: How The Music Of The North-East Hits Different

With his new book *The North Will Rise Again* published this week by Bloomsbury, author Alex Niven asks why the music of England's north-east is so often overlooked compared to its southern or western neighbours

There’s a surprisingly good 2021 BBC documentary about Lindisfarne lead singer Alan Hull, which ends with a moving summary by the modern Geordie divine Sam Fender:

Why was Alan not held in the same esteem as Dylan or another great writer of that time? I’ve always questioned whether it was the Geordie thing. Up in the North East we’re parodied on TV and presented as daft drinkers with silly accents, on everything from the Likely Lads to Geordie Shore. And I think mebbes that had something to do with it. But do you know what it is? I don’t actually care. Because he’s Dylan to us.

The comparison between Hull and Dylan here is slightly wide of the mark. Nonetheless, there’s a pithy, more general question underlying Fender’s comments – one that he doesn’t quite succeed in answering with his “we see things they’ll never see” parting shot.

Why – we might join Fender in asking – despite a rich, even frequently world-conquering tradition of musical creativity, does the North East of England occupy such an uncertain, ambiguous – some might say downright nebulous – place in the received narratives of British pop history?

It can’t – or can’t only – be a case of cultural marginalisation in a society radically centred on London. To be sure, musicians from the North East have always had to do battle with the effects of an unusually regionally unbalanced economy, in which their average life chances, living standards and career expectations are all statistically much poorer than those in the South East.

But while the North East regularly finishes bottom of the socio-economic league tables, other peripheral areas of these islands are similarly afflicted – and no one could argue that Manchester and Merseyside have under-regarded musical histories because they were on the wrong end of regional inequality. It’s true that the North East is further away from London than those places. But then Glasgow is yet more northerly, and its musical subcultures have often rivalled those in the North West for (inter)national attention and acclaim.

Whatever the cause, it’s clear that “Northumbria” (Tweed to Tees edition) is something of an anomaly in pop music lore – but also that this lack of a burdensome musical heritage is probably to its advantage. Music from the North East doesn’t quite fit with any of the established wisdoms about British pop. Partly as a result, if there is a single defining feature of music from the region, it’s surely a tendency towards extremity and eccentricity that resists simple definition, a sort of maverick doggedness and willingness to transgress the typologies of musical taste in ways that can be alternately awkward, annoying and visionary.

Put another way, because they have never been reduced to comfortable clichés by the music industry establishment, Northumbrian musicians have often been granted an unusual amount of freedom to experiment – or to vault brazenly into the commercial stratosphere, according to personal taste.

In the latter category are the corporate rock and pop superstars of the Long 1980s, when the North East suddenly became an unlikely epicentre of the MTV era due to the ascendancy of native sons Sting (Wallsend), Mark Knopfler (Newcastle), Trevor Horn (Durham City), Dave Stewart (Sunderland), Paddy McAloon (Witton Gilbert), Neil Tennant (also Newcastle) and Chris Rea (Middlesbrough). Whatever else they may have been, I think it’s fair to say that all of these artists were, shall we say, “special cases” of various kinds, none of whom the national music press quite knew what to do with.

Perhaps more to the point, these figures all went from zero to hero in a relatively short space of time – and it seems reasonable to suggest that this was due partly to the lack of a hard musical infrastructure in their home region. A lack of resources often necessitated an early move to London, and after that a form of global stardom unfettered by the parochial nuances of local British scenes. That, and – just possibly – a more deeply embedded instinct towards heroic, sometimes macho posturing and ambitiousness, which surely had something to do with the legacy of “heavy” industries like mining, steelmaking and shipbuilding (whereas the North West, for example, was historically more oriented around “lighter” industries like trade and textiles – and, so the theory goes, its musicians developed a subtler, more melodic, less-blues-and-hard-rock-focused sensibility as a result).

In recent years, it is the more experimental tradition in Northumbrian music that has come to the fore. Partly this is the consequence of a downturn in the national and global music economies, and a lack of social mobility in British society as a whole, which has made stratospheric success on the Sting/Knopfler/Stewart/Tennant model increasingly unlikely (though Sam Fender’s pared-down millennial Springsteen narrative is a partial exception to the rule). Against this backdrop, a small-scale DIY culture has flourished, bolstered by micro-institutions like the Lubber Fiend, Cobalt Studios, Star and Shadow, Slack’s Radio and Tusk Music.

Still, as avant-garde weirdness has come to predominate over egomaniacal pop and rock – and as artists like Me Lost Me, Mariam Rezaei, Hen Ogledd and Nathalie Stern have supplied a refreshing postscript to an older, macho, railroad-blues tradition – an essential impulse of maverick indeterminacy has remained at the heart of the Northumbrian musical genius loci. From the art-rockers who emerged in the 00s to a contemporary scene epitomised by the Geordie bizarrerie of Richard Dawson and Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, a commitment to what might be termed awkward bastardry has been the defining operative mode in England’s North East corner.

Indeed, if a single quality binds together the likes of Sting and the nonconformist Northumbrians of the present (not to mention more nuanced examples like Tennant and Horn) it is a certain headstrong, sometimes vexatious, always compelling yearning for self-determination. The desire to operate outside of establishment structures might have begun with an experience of regional neglect and infrastructural absence. But it has ultimately given rise to forms of music that are self-assertive, grandiose and wild in a way that recalls the pioneering, now-ruined but still-visible monoliths of the industrial period.

As in British politics as a whole, it remains to be seen whether this determination to build autonomous edifices amid the ruins of the crumbling United Kingdom and its cultural institutions will give rise to anything long-lasting (and the recent announcement of the fate of seminal Middlesbrough grassroots venue Westgarth Social Club is a reminder of what the North East music scene is up against in this regard). But if there are signs of hope in the popular culture of these islands, it seems reasonable to suggest that they are to be found in places like the North East of England, where musical stereotypes are still curiously and provocatively unformed.

The North Will Rise Again by Alex Niven is published by Bloomsbury

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