From Liverpool’s beat-pop to Bristol’s trip-hop, Irish writer Karl Whitney explains the distinctive musical output of individual cities in the UK, writes.
When Irish writer Whitney moved to the English city of Sunderland in 2013, it was music that provided an imaginary map of a place which he knew very little about.
“I had never been to the north-east of England before. All I knew was that the bands Kenickie and The Future heads were from Sunderland, and Maximo Park from Middlesborough and Teeside. So I had a musical map in my head, but I had no idea of the actual place,” he says.
In his acclaimed first book, Hidden City, Whitney had explored locations in his native Dublin often overlooked by residents and visitors, writing about how they had been affected by the Celtic Tiger and its collapse. The book was influenced by the field of psychogeography: perhaps most simply explained as the psychological effect of a place on an individual.
Whitney wanted to take a similar approach to his next project but didn’t know quite where to start.Inspiration struck when he discovered that near where he lived in Sunderland was the derelict site of an RCA vinyl-pressing plant.
“I talked to some people who had worked there. They described how one day David Bowie had suddenly appeared in the canteen and cut a cake for them. It was the collision of these two worlds that interested me — the image of pop music and its actual manufacturing base.
I work in Newcastle and I live in Sunderland and you see second-hand RCA records all around and most of them were pressed in the plant. There was a sleeve manufacturer printing the sleeves just across the road. So it was this little industry that was employing hundreds of people.
The resulting book Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop is a fascinating weaving of Britain’s musical past and its wider cultural and economic history, informed by Whitney’s own working-class background and his interest in British music and culture.
“It is about the English working class but also about how industry drew in immigrants from the Commonwealth and Ireland as well. My grandfather, who was from Drogheda, used to work in the car factories in England. I grew up in Tallaght and my parents were both from working-class backgrounds, in Tullamore and Drogheda.
“British culture was accessible through buying records, listening to the radio, buying the NME every week. I was thinking about all of that, and then there was Brexit, of course.”
In Hit Factories, Whitney focuses on 11 British cities, and the iconic and influential acts and genres they produced, from the 1960s onwards. Liverpool produced beat pop and The Beatles, Sheffield was a synth-pop stronghold, Bristol gave us trip-hop, etc. The book also looks at venues such as the legendary Hacienda, which had a regenerative effect on Manchester, even though as a business, it was a complete failure.
“It’s interesting how the Hacienda was a disaster economically for Factory Records, and New Order who were pumping huge money into it for very poor returns. Because of the advent of ecstasy, they weren’t making any money [in terms of selling alcohol].
"Eventually, gangsters were on the door to keep other gangsters out. In the early days, it was very sparsely attended… the footballer Pat Nevin told me he went along after playing a game for Chelsea, that was broadcast live on television.
"He went to the Hacienda because he was such a music fan and he had read about it in the NME. But there was no-one there. He spent the whole night there until 2am or 3am and then he walked to the station, slept on a bench and got the first train home to London the following morning. It was this place of pilgrimage for him.”
What about Irish equivalents to the Hacienda — small venues that had an impact on the culture of their city?
“My reference points would be very much Dublin but I’m aware of Sir Henry’s in Cork, and the GPO in Galway, these places where touring bands would play. In Dublin,downstairs in the Tivoli Theatre was where I saw Oasis literally a few days after Definitely Maybe was released.
"That was one of my earliest gigs. I was suddenly able to see this band I had been reading about for a few months in the NME. There were gigs happening there every week. You were just blown away by being able to see these bands. These places were really important to me growing up.”
The dismantling of such cultural infrastructure can be tied to many factors, including the decline of manufacturing, technological innovation and the precarious nature of employment.
There is still a music scene in all these cities now but it has become much harder to survive.
"There have been changes in benefits and all of that, that people in the 1980s didn’t have to worry about. If you can’t look forward and know that you are going to have the same amount of money coming in next year, you are not going to spend it in the here and now.
“I think the larger context is having an effect on culture… There is still a circuit over here but I don’t know how economically viable it is for people in bands. If you are a really small band starting out, where do people read about you?
“The days of getting all your information from the NME are gone — the media environment is so fragmented that it can be hard to get your message out. The benefits are very much to the heritage bands, those who benefited from the era when record companies had promotional budgets. They were able to benefit from the cultural infrastructure — people like John Peel, he was a hugely important figure, an enthusiast and a fan.”
However, while British indie music has perhaps had its time in the sun, Whitney says the rise of urban music is a cause for optimism, even if the driving factor is disenfranchisement and austerity.
“With the likes of Stormzy, and Dave with his album Psychodrama — a really good, sort of West Coast-sounding British rap — you have these quite grand artistic statements from young artists who are ambitious, have a serious political message, and have a mainstream audience.
“But you also have to look at what it says about society at large. We are still in the era of Brexit and policy under the Conservatives and previously Conservative-Lib Dem, were pretty far-right to me, targeting immigrants, limiting citizenship, all of these things.
“So you have this really positive cultural level to society, and British pop being incredibly multi-cultural but then you have the larger society, a good proportion of which is wishing for a white, mono-cultural past and future. It is interesting but scary as well.”