Where Were You – Independent Music From Leeds (1978–1989)

Various Artists

A new compilation of tracks by The Mekons, The Mission, Scritti Politti and The Wedding Present squarely cements the place of Leeds on the UK’s musical map, finds Hayley Scott

Often overshadowed by Manchester and Liverpool, usual discourse dictates that Leeds’s musical heritage isn’t worth documenting. After all, there was no catalytic place or event to shape its cultural landscape: no Free Trade Hall, no Cavern Club, no life-defining gig where everyone in the room went on to form a band. Instead, Leeds is characterized by DIY defiance, confidently detached from its Northern counterparts, and seemingly unbothered by notability. Those that were, of course, moved to London.

From the sticky, carpeted days of the eleven years spanning this compilation, to the modern metropolis it’s become, Leeds’s music scene thrives in close-knit communities where not only instruments are borrowed, but ideas and people too. Where Were You – Independent Music From Leeds (1978–1989) is the first anthology that archives the radical music made in the city during a particularly fertile period. The title is borrowed from a song by The Mekons, who set the iconoclastic tone, and the cover, adorned with a striking image of Leeds university’s Roger Stevens Building – in all its concrete, brutalist glory – elicits the grey gloom of a post-industrial city affected by the NF and the Yorkshire Ripper.

Co-compiled by Benoit Farvak (Salvation) and Richard Rouska (Rouska Records), Where Were You boasts myriad obscurities which make their debut on CD, with inclusions of early gems from The Mission, Scritti Politti and The Wedding Present. From drum machines to new wave, synth pop, indie pop, jazz and industrial noise, many of the names will be less familiar: Knife Edge, The Prowlers, Pink Peg Slax and Bridewell Taxis – Leeds’s answer to Baggy – reveal how multifaceted the Leeds music scene really was at the time, even if it did become synonymous with all things gothic. Still infallible, it’s always a real thrill hearing Gang Of Four’s ‘Damaged Goods’ and Delta 5’s ‘You’, both sounding spectacularly ahead of their time, even in a contemporary setting, up against modern production. Pale Saints’ ‘Sight Of You’, with its saccharine C86 influences, airy textures and subdued vocals, is a dream-pop pinnacle. Perhaps one of Leeds’s most uncharted success stories, Pale Saints went on to release their debut album, shoegaze masterpiece The Comforts of Madness, on the eminent 4AD in 1990.

While there’s sufficient representation on the compilation itself, with the inclusion of Girls At Our Best!, Delta 5, The Rhythm Sisters, Age Of Chance and more, with the exception of F Club DJ Claire Shearsby, the liner notes fail to recognise the many women involved behind the scenes. What about the women promoters? Stage crew and writers? What about Karren Ablaze, pioneer of the fanzine and riot grrrl movement? Jumbo Records’s Lornette Smith, gig promoters Karen Emanuel and Becky Worton, band/touring manager Miranda McMullen, or photographer Jane Houghton?

It may seem pedantic, but it’s a requisite to point this out so this story doesn’t suffer the same fate as Manchester’s Factory Records: skewed by male-centric narratives – told by men, for men. Until Audrey Golden’s reevaluation via interviews in her recent book, I Thought I Heard You Speak: Women At Factory Records, it was assumed that Factory was predominantly a lads’ club. Here, Andy Peterson provides socio-political context in his writing on the feminist movement accelerated by the spectre of the Yorkshire Ripper, but it feels counterintuitive without acknowledging the roles of women. Even the founder of the famously misogynistic magazine Loaded gets a name-check.

Despite this wasted opportunity, the music across Where Were You is testament to the radical resilience of music made on its own terms and in its own world. We live in an era where streaming stats and social media likes are the priority for many young bands, a stale contrast to the attitudes of the many artists featured across this compilation: for them, being in a band was an act of resistance, commercial success wasn’t the objective. The result? a comprehensive artefact of Leeds DIY dissent. What’s not to love?

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