Gavin Butt is Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University, author of Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948–1963 and coeditor of Post-Punk Then and Now. His new book No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk tells the story of the post-punk scene in the northern English city of Leeds, showing how bands ranging from Gang of Four, Soft Cell, and Delta 5 to Mekons, Scritti Politti, and Fad Gadget drew on their university art school education to push the boundaries of pop music. Here he offers a playlist to accompany the book.
The Three Johns were one of my favorite bands in the mid-1980s. Hailing from Leeds, this late period post-punk outfit held my teenage imagination because they made beatbox-driven, Captain Beefheart-esque music with lyrics that as a burgeoning young Marxist I really got lost in. My head was full of the fictions etched in lead singer John Hyatt’s sometimes opaque and absurd, other times more directly political lyrics. “Oh the mob expects malnutrition,” Hyatt sings, “Robots are guarding that old ribcage fashion / Flamin’ torches, pick axe handles / Looking down the water-cannon of pop music,” before then going on to chorus “Rock and roll, rock and roll, rock n roll / is an ideological product” and – genius I thought – “Rock and roll is pop music / For the credit card hospital.” I really loved the irony of these lines. The Johnnies were holding up their sullied hands, signalling how the capitalist entertainment business could be treacherous and betray the intentions of even the most ardent Lefty rockers.
TRACK 1: The Three Johns, Sun of Mud, 1984
But I wasn’t drawn to The Three Johns solely because of their avowed political stance, nor even simply because I liked jumping around to their music, usually while drunk. They loomed large for me then because I also knew from reading the NME that two of the Three Johns went to art school. The art connection was unmistakably present on the band’s record covers which featured paintings by Hyatt, drawings by Jon Langford, and work by the post-conceptual British artist Terry Atkinson. Atkinson was then teaching in the Fine Art studios at the University of Leeds where Hyatt and Langford had been his students.
No Machos or Pop Stars explores the impact and significance of UK art education upon the course of popular music around the time of punk rock. Focusing upon the overlooked history of radical art school pedagogy and music in Leeds, the book shows how England’s state-funded education policy brought together art students from different social classes to create a fertile ground for musical experimentation. It delineates the conditions of possibility which birthed The Three Johns alongside Gang of Four, Delta 5, Soft Cell, Mekons, Scritti Politti, Fad Gadget and other post-punk, electro-pop and art-punk bands – and ultimately shows the subversive influence of art school in a regional music scene of lasting international significance.
Students at the University of Leeds in the mid-1970s found themselves in a visual art department with an unusually radical outlook. Spearheaded by department chair, and social historian of art, T.J. Clark alongside feminist scholar Griselda Pollock and post-conceptual artist Terry Atkinson, such students were steeped in forms of critical thinking about art that soon found unlikely expression in music. After seeing the Sex Pistols and other punk bands at Leeds Polytechnic in December 1976, soon-to-be-members of Gang of Four, Mekons and Delta 5 started to make music that showed a debt to its art school origins.
TRACK 2: Gang of Four, At Home He’s a Tourist, 1979
‘At Home He’s Tourist’ was conceived and recorded at the same time as guitarist Andy Gill and vocalist Jon King were completing their history of art dissertations on Manet and Carl Andre respectively at the Leeds department. The thematic preoccupations of the song with alienated pleasures (“At home he feels like a tourist / He fills his head with culture / He gives himself an ulcer”), alongside its “dislocated” musical composition, bears the imprint of social analyses by Marx and Simmel read by members of the band at the time. As Gill has said: “A lot of the ideas that we talked about, that TJ Clark was talking about […] informed the attitudes and words of Gang of Four.”
TRACK 3: Scritti Politti, Skank Block Bologna, 1978
Meanwhile, Green Gartside, then a student of visual art at nearby Leeds Polytechnic, took the link between critical theory and music production even further. Influenced by the conceptual art collective Art & Language, he took it upon himself to read the work of theorists and philosophers not included in the studio teaching of the university’s sister organisation. Staying away from his studio space for long periods of time, preferring instead the sanctuary of the library or his student flat, Gartside sought to inform himself of the intellectual resources to question the habitual beliefs that surrounded art-making in the mid-seventies. After punk, and joined by fellow art student Tom Morley and old friend Nial Jinks, he founded band Scritti Politti which soon took this theorising from art to music. The band’s first single, the dissonant Skank Bloc Bologna, can be heard as a musical expression straining to find the language to represent – and hold together – the tensions and contradictions of revolutionary agency as theorised in the writings of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. The song flirts with different musical genres, without committing wholeheartedly to any single one: there is a rudimentary dub feel to the rhythm, to the looping bass and rimshots, but the insistent use of the open “hi-hat” (actually empty metal film cans), the unruly almost maniacally untutored glockenspiel (or what sounds like a glockenspiel), even some anomalous rock fills, create the sense of a rhythm section at odds with itself. This is even before we consider the angular-sounding chords strummed on the guitar which, on beat one, all but obliterate any skanking stroke on beats two and four. This is confusing, our expectation frustrated. Skanking, at least, appears to be at the song’s titular heart.
TRACK 4: The Mekons, Never Been in a Riot, 1979
The Mekons and Delta 5 took the art school preoccupation with formal experimentation in a slightly different direction – to the social form of the band itself. In a bid to eschew the single white male authorial voice, the Mekons decided to sport two vocalists rather than one; on the understanding, presumably, that more than one singer (or leader) secured a greater likelihood of remaining open to dissent and difference, even though effectively resulting in more white frontmen. Similarly, Delta 5 attempted to de-emphasise singular band members and the hero-worship which could follow from it by habitually swapping roles in live performances of songs like Triangle, where Julz Sale and Ros Allen would often switch places between vocals and bass playing. This was also a feature of early Gang of Four performances of tracks like ‘It’s Her Factory’.
TRACK 5, Delta 5, Triangle (John Peel session)
Destroying traditional rock band formats was an important feminist priority in the Leeds milieu. Allen has said: “Bethan (Peters) and I noted that most women who were involved [in rock bands], if they weren’t the singer, they were the bass player. We wanted to play on that by having two basses: Ros was a bass player, and Bethan was a bass player […] We wanted to take the piss out of the fact that nearly every punk band, or band around, that had a female in it, always played the bass.” Allen wanted her bass so deep that “it made you fart” when it came out of the amplifier she further recalls. Playing off a “toppy” bass against a “bottom-y” one became trademark Delta 5 sound.
TRACK 6: Delta 5, Alone, 1980
‘Alone’ was a live favourite and never released as a studio recording. The insistent assertion of a female need to be alone resonated darkly in the context of the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror in West Yorkshire in the 1970s. The late Jules Sale recalled that “the first time that we played it, Andy Gill (of Gang of Four) said afterwards to change it, because it initially ended up on a hysterical note. He said you’ve got to bring it down. So that you’re not this hysterical woman. And that’s one of the best things that Gill said.” This is a recording of a performance at Hurrah in New York in 1980.
TRACK 7: Fad Gadget, Diminished Responsibility, 1981
The pedagogy of the Fine Art Department at Leeds Polytechnic drew more heavily upon European models of early-twentieth century avant-gardism than that at the university. Students who studied there were encouraged to explore the aesthetics of shock and surrealist collage, especially through forms of intermedia or performance art. To aid students in this, Polytechnic facilities included a small sound studio and performance area – somewhat unusual for a 1970s UK art college. Students that used these resources included Frank Tovey, later to become known as electro-industrial music pioneer Fad Gadget, and Dave Ball and Marc Almond who formed pop duo Soft Cell at the Fine Art Christmas Party in December 1979. ‘Diminished Responsibility’, released sometime after Tovey graduated from Leeds on 1981 album Incontinent, continues the ethos of Tovey’s experiments with unsettling drone-based sound continua whilst making performance art at the Polytechnic. Tovey was interested in the power of music and performance to shock and unsettle, and the pulsing sense of electronic unease evident here is enhanced by mechanised and whispering voices, sudden canon and gunshot sounds, and the calls to action of militaristic music and a sergeant major. The horror of diminished military responsibility?
TRACK 8: Soft Cell, The Girl with the Patent Leather Face, 1981
An early demo version of this Soft Cell track was recorded in the Leeds Polytechnic sound studio and engineered in their tutor John Darling’s home studio in Yorkshire. The song lyrically luxuriates in empathic ventriloquy of the song’s mutant heroine: “You can laugh, point at me / They do it all the time / But how would you like it if you had / A face like mine” sings Marc Almond, from the “Girl’s” point of view. The song starts with a note of sci-fi horror but it soon becomes apparent that the true horror here is the treatment the song’s protagonist receives from the normals (“A target for the freaks and creeps / A reject of the human race”). Almond’s vocals are accompanied by Dave Ball’s buzzing electronics and manipulated sounds.
TRACK 9: Graeme Miller & Steve Shill (aka The Commies From Mars)
In the 1981 BBC television documentary A Town Like New Orleans? Miller and Shill appear as The Commies From Mars, driving around post-industrial Leeds in their Morris Minor Traveller. They seem like spirit-guides for that time and place, providing its soundscape in oddball, Casio-inflected DIY electronica. Shill was a fine art student at the university, one-time bass player for art school outfit Sheeny and the Goys, and Miller studied Spanish. They made music together as the Commies but also for the theatrical productions of Impact Theatre Cooperative, of which they were members. This recording comes from the soundtrack recorded by the duo for children’s TV programme The Moomins, first screened in the UK in 1983. The track was released on vinyl by Finders Keepers in 2016.
TRACK 10: Ron Crowcroft, Gogo dancer, 1981
Crowcroft was influenced by Fluxus artists whilst an art student at Leeds and this continued to be evident in the electronic music he began to make after graduating in the early 1980s. ‘Gogo Dancer’’s charm lies in its repetitive, almost roboticized simplicity – all achieved through DIY use of cheaply available electronic instruments and pre-set drumlines. Originally released on a cassette compilation Overarm Delivery, VEC Audio Editions No. 10, 1981, it found distribution through the sharing possibilities of early eighties cassette culture, thereby by-passing the need for record companies to achieve a “release.”